The Scarf Dancers

Monday, July 5, 2010

When I was a girl I collected Hummel figurines, troll dolls, and the Madame Alexander dolls, a hobby with a significant sticker price range. At every major holiday a relative could take her pick, buy something low end or go berserk, depending on her circumstances—my gift to them, the easy child to shop for. No judgment from me. I loved the Spanish doll with the black lace fan, the gold hoop earrings, and the ruby silk dress as much as I loved the butt-naked grinning troll with the tufty green hair. My father built me a cabinet that went the length of my bedroom wall: five shelves with two sets of glass doors, a piece of furniture I still own and which continues to house my girlhood treasures. To this day my husband and I live in that same old neighborhood, the southerly end of a solid suburb, not far from Chicago, our location reserved for the suburban poor and the rag-tag Mafiosi. I had one much older brother, many aunts and uncles, several boy cousins, and so I, the only girl in the crowd, was fawned over—all a happiness until I turned thirteen.

I developed an enormous bosom. In the space of eighteen months I went from ordinary girl to freak. The boy cousins became afraid to look at me, and the uncles in the perpetual presence of their wives always made a point to gape unblinkingly into my large brown eyes when they spoke to me, as if one little glance south and they’d get eaten alive. My own father seemed to have this trouble, too. My name is Violet June and you can imagine how many times “June is busting out all over” was sung in my honor, supposedly out of earshot, the singer thinking he was original. You may not be able to picture the magnitude of this problem. I didn’t just have big knockers. They were like national monuments, like something the earth had heaved into being out of her molten self on a turbulent day of the creation. Standing straight, I couldn’t see my feet. I couldn’t run quickly, never went swimming, and sometimes wished to cripple myself so I could ride around in a wheelchair, done with the effort of hauling the bazookas everywhere I went. They had surpassed their function, larger than a full term baby, each one, so that an infant trying to latch on might assume that he was number three of triplets, his siblings capable of providing him with food.

The training bra that my mother had carefully purchased lasted for about two weeks. No one else on either side had ever had such a pair and, although she tried to be cheerful, I think she believed that I had cooked up this mischief to dash her own glee at having the only girl in the extended family. We were forever chasing back to the store until I stabilized at 34 L. This size does exist in our galaxy, a special model my mother had to get from a mail-order company in South Dakota, a state that had nothing better to do than outfit girls of monstrous proportions. How much better to have grown up now, in the new century, so that I could have shared my grief in chat rooms with my sisters in freakdom across the globe.

As it was, I was alone; the girl with the outrageous kettledrums, unique in a high school of nearly four thousand students. Because of the strain on my back, I always wore The Contraption, which is what I called the bra, my poor tatas night and day in bondage. My aunt, trying to give comfort, assured me that it, the chest, they, “the . . . the . . . the . . . the capacious satchels,” she finally burst out, would surely someday be useful in some other part of the world, as if in Brazil I could—what? Roll tortillas in my cleavage? Or in China steam wontons in the same place? My bosom had affected her brain. I don’t think she was clairvoyant, don’t think she imagined what use I would make of them, and even if she were still living I suppose I couldn’t to this day tell her.

After high school I took a job as a guard at the art museum. We were to wear navy blue pants, a pinstriped shirt, and a navy blazer. Sensible shoes. I had been to the museum on field trips but the place wasn’t in any way my cup of tea. I liked playing cards for cash, and I had allowed myself to enjoy the attentions of the boys who were transfixed by my figure. They considered themselves brave, heroic. My uncle got me the job at the museum through a neighbor of his, as if he thought that being on display would be a kick for me, and the patrons. Or that standing around all day long in front of pictures of proportional nudes, and Jesus in torment, and flowers in vases, and French persons on slick wet streets in Paris would somehow bring me up in the world.

At first I entertained myself by imagining the lives of the patrons as they walked reverently through the galleries. Those two ugly women, leaning into each other, discussing the mother bathing her child, were about to fall in love, a last resort. Those two little girls despised their grandmother, the powdery woman with the wattly throat, and would forever hate the Impressionists because of this very day. That husband with the sunken chest and sketchy moustache was going to go home and chop up his wife with a steak knife. The daydreams got progressively darker until even the murderous dramas were no fun. For a while I enjoyed my authority: Back off from the painting, sir. Miss, your nose is about to touch the frame. Through the double doors to the Picassos, turn left, bathroom on your right.

I did look at the paintings quite a bit, knowing that I was supposed to consider them friends. That’s what some of the old ladies would say to one another, “Here we are at my great friend, Two Cows and a Young Bull beside a Fence in a Meadow.” I felt sorry for the visitors, I really did. The brush strokes on canvas were not friends. I would have liked the paintings to be television, so there could be a progression. As it was, the same woman always had to be in the rain in the same dark dress in Paris, the same pearl drop at her ear. The train was always arriving from Normandy, the little circus girls forever holding the oranges. The abstract art, the absolute worst, always three awful colors by what’s his name, Rothko: purple, white, red—get me out of here!

A few weeks into that job I began seeing a fellow guard, a man named Calvin. He was not only black, he was married. This was in the late 1970s, so to begin with, I could hardly bring home an ethnic type even if he had been free. During lunch, Calvin and I used to go to the Fine Arts Building down the avenue. All of the ten floors had dark, dusty hallways, and in the little rooms on either side of the corridor students were having their piano lessons, their violin lessons, their singing lessons. We’d lock ourselves into a single-stall bathroom and tear into each other, sometimes doing impressions of the lunatic old docents while we whammed and bammed. “What is the purpose of Art, boys and girls!” Mrs. Canelli always shrieked, frightening the children sitting on the midget-sized canvas camp stools. All the while Calvin and I were at it, great music of Western Civilization, the whole spread all at once, pounded around us. Between the art and the music I was exposed to, and Calvin’s lectures on a variety of topics on our way to and from the restroom, you’d think I could now be a professor at Harvard.

I knew Calvin was married, and I understood that I should not have expectations. He was kind to me and unusual: he never mentioned my endowments, as if there were nothing out of whack about a girl with a thirty-inch waist, thirty-eight-inch hips, and breasts past the point of measurement. I liked him for pretending not to notice, for honoring them with just enough kisses as they sprang from The Contraption. Even though I didn’t plan ever to marry him, I was still unprepared for his breaking it off, something that happened when we’d been going along nicely for about a year. The fact that his wife was soon to have a child I guess made him sober up, but their family planning had not been my plan, and the rupture came to me out of the blue.

I was convinced that I actually loved Calvin, that I could never love anyone else, and furthermore, I was sure that he loved me. For many days both at the museum and at home I was inconsolable. Then for weeks I was morose, and I began to think that after all Calvin was going to get a baby out of the deal, a reward for the breakup, whereas I had nothing. It began to seem to me that I should have a memento, too. As I said, I had always loved figurines and had my own collectables, and so it’s probably not surprising that one day when I was with the French porcelain collection it occurred to me that I would very much enjoy having a few of them in my cabinet at home. There were these six ladies in their own free-standing case, eight or so perfectly white inches in height, all of them in long dresses with such full sleeves they looked like angel wings. One of them was examining her ankle, another had a pair of trumpets, which she was just about to put up to her nose rather than to her lips. A miscalculation on the part of the artist. There was the figure with the scarf, another with a book, one of them had two percussion instruments, and the last was bossing the group around, telling them how the scarf dance was done. I liked them, liked the sisterhood, no men present, and yet even though they were together, supposedly about to do their dance, it wasn’t absolutely clear that they need each other. The bossy girl required the others, it’s true, but they were going to be fine without her.

I had heard from one of the guards that the scarf dance ladies were to be removed from their case because they were going out on loan to a museum in France. It was probably reasonable that they make a visit to the country of their origin, but this journey seemed monumentally unfair—the first pieces of art that I related to in the entire museum were now going to leave me.

Every morning the cafeteria opened thirty minutes before the museum did, only for employees, and most all the hired hands would have coffee and sour milk biscuits, which the kitchen cook made from scratch. Without Calvin I’d eat quickly and then I’d go to my position of the day and stand. It was the same to me, patrons in the gallery, patrons not in the gallery, because I’d learned that after all a guard is invisible, the single lesson my uncle probably thought would be useful to me. I had become like a horse, sleeping with my eyes open while standing, but I certainly did perk up when an assistant curator, Amanda Gridley, came to open the case and pack up the women. She had a cart, and in it a long wooden box with soft shavings inside, as if the porcelain were guinea pigs.

“What are you doing up here so early?” she said.

I was going to make some crack about preparing for my part but instead I shrugged and said I’d finished breakfast and had nothing better to do. I’d like to say that I planned every next step with the greatest of care and foresight, but that would not be the truth. Instead, it was as if the doors for the project opened naturally to me, as if I had been made for this one enterprise. At 9:45 my boss, Mr. Innis, appeared in order to tell me to disregard my schedule and change positions, to go down to Indian Art on the lower level. Fine, I’d stop by the cafeteria for one more biscuit as a prize for being moved. It was downstairs by the bathrooms, in the alcove there, that the curator’s cart was parked. I later imagined Amanda Gridley suddenly having an emergency, a menstrual experience, her pale yellow skirt an unfortunate choice for that particular day. Why did she take the cart down to the lower level if she wasn’t desperate for a biscuit before the museum opened? That seemed the only explanation. I glanced along the hall. We were supposed to be in place by 9:50 and already the employees seemed to have scattered to their stations. I don’t think my heart did a thing: no speeding up, no volume. First, I unfastened several buttons of my pinstriped shirt. Next, I lifted the lid of the box, instantly assessing among the shavings that I could take three of them, and in three deft motions inserted those I loved best, you and you and you, into the depths of my cleavage. The worn fabric of The Contraption had some give, but it was tight for all concerned. Even so, at my break, I returned to the bathroom to pad the dancers a little with toilet tissue. “If you ever have to cross the ocean in steerage,” I said to the ladies, “this is what it will be like.”

All morning I stood in Indian Art with the famous Frenchies as close to me as they would ever be. At lunch I took a leisurely walk to the Fine Arts Building, the scene of so much happiness. In the bank of lockers on the seventh floor I deposited a dollar’s worth of quarters into the slot of locker number five, twenty-four hours of safe keeping for my new friends. I went down to the café on the ground floor, had a good lunch, and was back in time for my afternoon shift.

Amanda Gridley, once she had cleaned herself up in the bathroom and gotten the cart back to her work space, didn’t look into the box, not until two days later, which made the scope of the investigation broad, another bit of luck for me. The other serendipitous detail was the fact that I had a mysterious skin ailment, the flesh of my fingers cracked and peeling. The doctor had prescribed a cream that was to be thickly applied, and I was to wear gloves to keep the ointment from rubbing off and also to protect objects from the greasy smear. So, in that period I was always wearing white brushed cotton gloves. After the heist I was interrogated, as were all the personnel. When the detectives questioned me about the gloves, and when I pulled them off and showed the men the deep fissures in the pads of my fingers, they clearly regretted asking.

In my mind I didn’t feel as if I’d done it. The girl who had robbed the museum in daylight was in no way related to the downcast employee who was sorry the pieces were gone. Yes, I had seen them loaded up by the curator into the box and the cart. Yes, I had been in the gallery at 9:45. No particular reason. Yes, I had been surprised to see the cart by the bathroom on the lower level, and I’d even wondered if I should pop my head in and ask if Amanda Gridley was all right because it was bizarre—I knew that—for the priceless load to be in such a vulnerable location. But it wasn’t my place, I explained. I’d gone right on to gallery 50B to begin my day. It was after the incident that very strict guidelines for transport within the museum were drawn up; a brand new policy, a total crackdown.  Amanda Gridley, for her love of biscuits, was fired.

I continued to plug the locker for a few days following the questioning, until it occurred to me that that activity might seem strange, if anyone was paying attention: a lone girl going into the Fine Arts Building every twenty-three hours, without carrying an instrument or a folder of music, to put four quarters in a locker. During those days I began to be a little bit afraid of the ladies, as if now that they were wanted they’d not only grown in value but the very porcelain they’d been made from had become more fragile. I was far more worried about the simple act of taking them from the locker than being found out.

At that point I was still living with my parents, and when I did get the dancers safely home, I of course put them in the cabinet my father had built with his own hands. I separated them: fifth shelf, second shelf, first shelf. The robbery was reported on the news and in the paper, but my parents had other worries and didn’t pay any attention. My uncle noticed and did express shock that three statuettes could be worth so much. As for the ladies, they were glad to be with the Spanish doll and the little Easter Hummel girls patting the rabbit, the cute Swiss boy with his goats, the Japanese geisha in her emerald Kimono. They thought the big oafy trolls were hysterical. It was a cultural experience for those sheltered French girls who had had nothing to do for centuries but their scarf dance. Thank god, the horn player said. To be free of what’s her name, that bossy bitch. To play music for the family of raccoons, the mama and four babies among the flowers! It was this way of thinking that made it possible for me to get over being greedy. My girls were thrilled in my cabinet; they did not want the others; the museum could have the rest of them, fair was fair.

You might think that there was a life of crime for me after that, petty shoplifting, grand larceny, anything that would fit in my blouse. But no—and not simply because I had the reduction surgery to ease my back pain, not simply because the satchels weren’t now as capacious. A year after I acquired the porcelain ladies, I married a former high school boyfriend, a man who’d grown up as much as he could, joined his father in the Home and Business Alarm System Company, an adequate person to marry. I work in the office, in reception. Where was I, Miss Alarm System, when the museum needed me? is my private joke with myself.

In all the years we have been together there have only been a few times that I’ve drawn a quick breath, when a guest has looked overly long into the cabinet, fifth shelf by the china mushroom and the cactus; bottom shelf far left; second shelf, rear center. The cabinet is now in our living room, home to over three thousand pieces. I have gone on to other collectables: vintage toasters, snowing dishes, aprons, teakettles, and for the children, anything relating to The Simpsons. We have two grown sons—a relief, boys—the oldest a computer genius who is always yelling at us for being stupid with our files, our software, our hardware, our backup systems. The baby lives in the basement and stays up all night in front of his monitor doing whatever boys like him do.

“What’s the key to success in marriage?” my niece asked me recently, at her rehearsal dinner. She said, “You and Uncle Greg go so good together, working in each other’s company all day long, sleeping in the same bed all night long.” She leaned into me, giggling. “I like the way you two always call each other babe.”

There would be a safe way to sell my scarf dancers, the three of them—contacts I could make, I’m sure of it, a secure path to reap the rewards. There has not been a morning or an evening in my happy marriage when I haven’t—just for an instant—considered cashing in and running away to any place else, it wouldn’t matter where.

“Success in marriage?” I said to my niece. “Always—every day, do you hear me?—like a prayer, like a door open just a crack, every single day have an escape plan.”

“Auntie Violet, no!” she cried, clutching my arm—out of alarm, yes, because she had been around enough in the world to instantly grasp the clear sense of my wisdom. We both began to laugh so hard we had to remove ourselves to the lobby, weeping on the sofa there. When we were done we patted our faces dry, put on our respectable expressions, and returned arm in arm to the joyful party.

Read an interview with Jane Hamilton here at TriQuarterly Online.

Thursday, July 1, 2010