Just Another Art Critic

“So, you think it’s linked to this picture somehow?” Lt. Benson Davis cocked his graying head to one side, thoughtfully pursing his lips.

“Well, the painting caused quite a stir in its day,” the docent replied. “The subject, the mixed media approach of acrylics and etching. It drew large crowds of people from all over, which, of course, attracted other people looking to . . . how shall we say this? Make a profit off of the exhibition attendees. Yes, common enough.”

Jo fidgeted next to Benson, impatiently tapping her foot.  “Well,” she said, “is it at least a starting place?”

“Hmmm?” Benson, startled, blinked his eyes at Jo.

Funny how time changed some people in very remarkable ways, but didn’t touch other people. Jo didn’t look a whit different from the day he first met her ten years ago when he was newly assigned to the missing person’s investigations. Jo was the god-mother of the latest 14-year old girl gone astray, and fiercely protective of both the girl’s mother and the girl.

At the time, Benson was new to missing person cases, and had yet to learn how many of them were never solved. Like most of his colleagues, he had a file of cases he continued to follow up on at intervals, despite the Chief telling him it was case closed. Some more regularly than others, to be sure, but all to Benson’s mind very much still alive and crying out for answers.

Jo had been a thorn in his side ten years ago, questioning him and challenging every assumption, every decision each step of the way. It looked as though the thorn was just as pointed and ready to draw blood as a decade ago.

Prickly thorns aside, Jo still sported a slender, fit body that wore her sloppy second hand clothes and mussed hair with the aplomb of a great queen of old.

Make no mistake, Benson, he warned himself. This woman will not take off-putting commentary or soothing noises. She’s all about action and results.

Jo’s arms were crossed over her chest, her face a study in forced attentiveness and patience. Sardonically, Benson tipped his forehead to his fingers, wondering if she would get the implied comment when he tugged on his forelock.

Jo’s eyes narrowed and Benson decided the point had not been lost on her.

A grin quirking at the corner of his mouth, Benson turned back to the waiting docent, who had apparently missed the entire exchange. He supposed most artists and the critics that shepherded their work through the hallowed exhibition halls were oblivious to non-verbal communication.

Narcissism, alive and well.

The docent looked as though he was still reliving that night years ago, and Benson knew better than to demand the attention of someone who might remember something critically important. Instead, he took the time to really study the picture closely. Painting, he reminded himself. Mixed media. Crowd pleaser. Or at least crowd gatherer. A crowd ripe for the picking, he scowled to himself.

Apart from the missing persons cases which sprang up with regularity for the next two weeks after the opening night, there had been the usual run of complaints about car jackings, stolen wallets, missing purses . . . the list went on.

Someone had quite the little crime ring going, and enough smarts to know how to avoid the authorities, disappearing back into whatever portion of the underworld they had come from. The only question was, were the illegal activities all part of the same ring, or were there competing gangs operating on the same turf, with a diversified portfolio of criminal activities?

Benson narrowed his eyes at the painting, still unsure of what all the fuss had been about. He was not attuned to artistic endeavors, and gathered Jo wasn’t either when she gave a slight sigh and huffed away to a garish orange chair sitting by a window and flung herself into it.

Benson decided to ignore her, and leaned closer to the picture. Why the red sandals on the young girl and the brown clod-hoppers on the older woman? he wondered. They totally disturbed the dream-like quality of the rest of the painting.

“Ahhh!” the docent turned back around to Benson, his eyes glinting with excitement. “I only caught a glimpse of Maerin and her daughter Brea when they were both here for the opening night of the exhibition. But she was most memorable. Brea, that would be . . . and of course, her mother in her own way, but the beauty of young girls blossoming into womanhood, even when they try to cover it up . . .”

The docent’s voice trailed off awkwardly, and Benson raised a single eyebrow and looked with greater interest at the man.

“And,” Benson prompted, ignoring the snort behind him. That woman had eagle ears, Benson decided. The docent was not speaking at all loudly.

“And . . . oh!” The docent shook his head, coming out of his reverie again. He seemed to go there a lot, Benson reflected, wondering if the man was naturally absent-minded, or if some of it was chemically induced.  “Note to self, Officer,” he said silently, “set up some discreet surveillance.”

“I do remember she and her mother had some words and she left. Didn’t go far – just to the next hall, and sat in a chair near the window facing out on Main Street. A man sat down next to her and chatted with her.”

Benson nodded wearily. This was all in the records already. He was just about to point that out, when the docent went on. “I’ve seen that man in here again recently, several times actually, in the last few months. I didn’t see him after Brea disappeared.”

No one saw him after Brea disappeared, Benson thought to himself. A prime suspect, apparently disappeared off the face of the earth.

Interesting that he had been seen lurking around the Gallery again. Looking for new wares, Benson figured, and smart enough to not come back to the same place without a significant gap in time separating hits.

“How do you know it’s the same man?” Benson idly started paring his fingernails with his pocket knife.

“Oh, he had a most remarkable birthmark on his face,” the docent babbled, trying to describe it with words and gestures. This too was noted in Benson’s copious case notes, carefully described. An artist’s rendering of the several different verbal descriptions was also in the case file.

“When was the last time you saw him,” Benson asked, preparing for a disappointing answer that would lead to another dead end.

“Just yesterday,” the docent replied, surprised. “That’s why I thought you were here – I called the station and told them I saw the same man that you were looking for after the girl’s disappearance.”

The docent looked perplexed, and Benson groaned inwardly.

He had been out on another case all day yesterday, and had avoided stopping by the office when he got off shift simply because he didn’t think he could stomach the ever growing mounds of paperwork.

“And you know,” the docent continued, chewing thoughtfully on his lower lip, “he wasn’t really looking at artwork again. He just sits in the other hall chatting with people – well, really, only with women and girls – but not really viewing the art. I always find it odd when people come to an art show and don’t really look at the exhibition, don’t you?”

The docent continued to ramble on about people’s viewing habits, and Benson turned to Jo.

“Like art much?”

Jo sprang to her feet. “No,” she replied, “but I’ll learn to love it if that’s what it takes.”

“Excellent,” Benson replied. “Let’s get tickets to this evening’s showing.”


National Novel Writing Month 2012: A Brief Taste of the Month’s Output

     Jo headed into the kitchen to brew fresh coffee and wash the few dishes littering the sink. She was a perpetual neat freak, anal by nature and, as she liked to tell people, OCD by choice. Life was harried enough – there was absolutely no reason to have a home that was in chaos, as well. 

     That was probably one of the reasons she and Maerin had been such close friends for many years now – they both had very definite ideas about what constituted clean, comfortable and proper when it came to housekeeping . . . and — be honest, Jo, she said to herself – just about every other area in life. 

     While it left both Jo and Maerin with pristine homes, balanced checkbooks, and spotless cars . . . it also made them exceedingly difficult to live with – or at least so they had both been told by a string of lovers. Although neither of them cared sufficiently to relax their standards, so the men came and went. 

     Perhaps that was the problem, Jo thought. She and Maerin had never transferred their fastidiousness into their relationships, therefore they continued to fall for men that were the exact opposite of them. Which of course never worked out by any stretch of imagination. 

     Jo opened a cupboard and took out blueberry muffin mix. She figured Lad would be hungry when he woke up from his nap. Benson would be arriving to get case notes in fifteen minutes, and she had yet to meet a man who passed up goodies when offered.

     She mixed batter and dug out some extra frozen blueberries to add to the mix, shaking cinnamon and nutmeg into the batter for good measure. The coffee stopped percolating, and she poured herself another cup before filling the muffin tins and sliding the pan into the oven, setting the timer for 20 minutes She eyed the bowl with its remnants of batter and decided she could scrape it clean with no regrets whatsoever. 

     Jo closed her eyes in delight as the batter hit her tongue, and she attentively scraped up every last bit of the batter before finally washing the bowl in hot, sudsy water.She wiped the counters and the table one last time before setting out an additional coffee mug, creamer, sugar, spoons and plates.

     “Butter!” she reminded herself, finding a stick of butter to add to the table setting. The muffins were nearly done and Jo lined a basket a large napkin, ready to hold the muffins once they came out of the oven. Then she went down the hall to check on Lad. He was still asleep in front of the TV and she covered him with an extra blanket and quietly closed the door behind her, just as the doorbell rang. 

     “About time,” she muttered, heading down the hall to answer the door. 

     Benson was standing at the door, rather like a soldier at attention Jo decided, as she peered through the peep hole to make sure it was who she was expecting. He looked a little older, with a few streaks of grey showing at his temples, and his face had a day’s worth of stubble sprouting on his chin.  Jo unlocked the door, and opened it, gesturing Benson inside. 

     “Thank you for coming so quickly,” Jo said, holding out her right hand to Benson. He carefully took her hand in his and gave it a polite squeeze, and then wiped his feet on her mat. 

     “Shoes on or off?” he asked. 

     “On is fine,” she replied. “I am assuming you have not been trekking through mud or piles of puppy poo on your way here?” 

     A lazy smile spread across his face, and Benson’s eyes sparkled, as he shrugged off his coat and hung it neatly by the door on the coat tree.

Excerpt: A Pirate’s Life for Me

“Where on earth did you get this, Dana?” April pulled a crumpled tee shirt out of Dana’s laundry basket, wrinkling her nose slightly.

Dana’s laundry basket was filled to overflowing with wadded up socks, sports bras, gym shorts, stained button down shirts and the hated plaid must-be-one-inch-below-the-knee school uniform skirt.

April and Dana both went to a private school and the required uniform was a sore point for both of them. However, it gave them something to gripe about, when there was nothing else.

According to both their families, high school students were expected to gripe, and the uniforms guaranteed an easy target – hopefully diverting their attention from other potentially gripeable items — such as no make-up until their junior year, no jeans worn to school ever, even on snowy and cold, freezing days, and the stupid flat loafers they had to wear with the uniform.

Dana sighed with a long-suffering perplexity, as she shook out the shirt and squinted at it. She had misplaced her glasses and was quite near-sighted. She also had braces and a face covered with liberal splotches of acne. Her hair was her best feature, she thought. Long, glossy, perfectly straight and a perfect golden color.  If the rest of her would just catch up, she thought morosely.

“Here,” April rummaged around on Dana’s desk, which was a frightening mish-mash of school books, half-completed assignments, crumpled papers and dirty dishes, and handed Dana a pair of glasses which were slightly warped from being caught between the heavy history of the saints book and the geography text.

Dana breathed on the glasses and smudged them further as she wiped them on her pajamas — which had streaks of syrup from the pancake breakfast the girls had just eaten — down the front of them. She sighed again, and put the sticky, bent glasses on her nose and arranged the ear pieces behind her ears, tugging wisps if hair free. The tee shirt came into focus and she grinned.

“Oh, that one!” she looked up at her best friend, April.

She and April had been friends ever since their first day of kindergarten when they joined forces to keep a very obnoxious and persistent third-grader from teasing them. Justin had been a beast, twice the size of the girls, and thought it quite clever to chase them until they were breathless and then corner them and try to put snakes or ants down their shirts.

Justin didn’t realize that both girls came from large families and were the little sisters with many older brothers and sisters. The look on his face when they attacked him together, leaving him muddy and with a bloody nose was quite memorable.

The scene in the principal’s office later was not so memorable, as  everyone’s parent’s had been called into the office for a stern scolding and punishment. Justin received the paddle, and his howls of outrage had followed them down the halls as they went to their punishment.

The girls washed all the blackboards in every classroom, and then had to take the erasers outdoors and beat them clean. Justin stayed studiously away from them after that, however.

“The tee shirt?” April repeated. She was used to Dana’s reveries, and was patiently waiting for an answer to her question.

“Oh!” Dana said. “From my aunt – you know . . . Aunt Patty . . .”

Aunt Patty was the black sheep of Dana’s mother’s family – a  characterization that Dana was never sure she quite understood since she thought Aunt Patty was really cool.

Aunt Patty had stayed single, and took part in “liberal” political events that made both her parent’s eyes widen in dismay whenever Aunt Patty came over for family get-togethers. She wore the most fascinating clothes, and bangles and beads liberally adorned her arms and neck.

She had the most interesting friends, too. She had even been in jail for “war protests” which Dana had only a fuzzy grasp on what that meant, as her family either sent her from the room or turned the TV off when war footage from Viet Nam was played on the evening news. They said they were concerned that the violent images would give her nightmares.

As she still had bad dreams from the time she and April snuck into the theater to see “Eye of the Cat” a year-and-a-half ago, she supposed they might be right.

The tee shirt was a birthday present from Aunt Patty. Dana had just turned fourteen year’s old last month. Each person’s birthday was celebrated joyously in her family, with all the relatives close and distant invited for day-long functions replete with potluck items, games, gifts and cake and ice cream.

The tee shirt had a picture of a girl with a baseball cap on backwards, a baseball bat in her hands, and she was covered in bruises and dirt. She was tossing a ball in the air and the caption read, “I am a women’s libber.” Dana’s parents hated the tee shirt. Not that they said that in so many words, but Dana could tell by the look on their faces. Consequently, she wore it, but did not put it in the laundry for fear it would mysteriously disappear.

“It smells,” April pointed out. April was about six inches shorter than Dana’s five feet six inches, and despaired of ever growing taller. She was convinced that if she could only grow another foot, the current chunkiness of her body would magically disappear.

April was fastidious, and never had a hair out of place, or a wrinkle in her shirts, or a sock that sagged. She brushed and flossed her teeth three times each and every day without fail, and washed her face twice each day with a special acne prevention formula. Consequently, she had sparkling, naturally straight teeth, and very clear skin. She did not need to wear glasses, and her jet-black hair was cut in an appealing bob that curled under and brushed her jawbone.

April was trying to look like her favorite ice skater, Dorothy Hamill, currently in Sapporo, Japan competing in an International Sports Week event. April tentatively skated, with a  great many attendant falls and bruises, but privately dreamed of being as glamorous as this public figure her age whom she had never met.

Dana ignored the comment and tossed the shirt back into the laundry basket. “Aunt Patty said to tell you hi,” Dana offered. April was a bit uncomfortable around April’s Aunt Patty – not because she did not like her, but because she always felt like Aunt Patty was secretly judging her and finding her lacking when it came to Aunt Patty’s idea of what made up the modern day girl, self-assured and confident. April shrugged and half-smiled, “Tell her hi back when you see her again.”

“Tell her yourself. She is coming over this afternoon to introduce mom and dad to her new friend.”

April fidgeted uncomfortably and said, “What time is she coming over? I have to get my homework and chores done.”

Dana looked askance at her friend who was blushing a delicate pink and studying her fingernails.

“Aunt Patty does like you, you know,” Dana said. “She just isn’t sure if you really like you. I am pretty sure neither mom or dad will like her new friend, at all. They could not wait to get them both out of the house the last time Aunt Patty brought a boyfriend home to meet them.”

Dana grinned thinking about the day Aunt Patty showed up with a man whose hair was shoulder-length and as dirty as Dana had ever seen hair outside of a Gunsmoke show. He smelled horribly, but had a great laugh and perfectly straight teeth, Dana remembered. She could not wait to get the braces off her teeth, but that was years into her future.

“What did he do?” April wondered. She was used to hearing about Aunt Patty’s antics, but her numerous boyfriends were never mentioned.

“You mean apart from being greasy and smelling?” Dana grinned conspiratorially. April nodded her head.

Dana shrugged and went on, “First he rolled a cigarette after dinner which turned out to be . . . well, you know, not a cigarette . . . and then he started talking about this LoveFest he had attended and how he was going to take Aunty Patty to the next one. He was really describing it, in a lot of great detail. Our required “biology” class on women’s growth and development might be a bit more interesting if they let him come and talk to us,” Dana laughed, and then sighed, “I was sent from the room. I never got to hear the last of it. But this is the first boyfriend allowed to visit with her in over a year. Should be fun. You’d better stick around. Who knows what we’ll hear.”

Dana’s older siblings were all boys, so she had no misconceptions about what boys were like or interested in when it came to girls. April had only the one brother who was in college by the time she was born. Her other siblings were all girls, and she was consequently not as comfortable as Dana with life of growing boys and young men.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said hastily, “I expect my mom has some stuff she needs help with, too . . . “

“Oh, April,” Dana said, “c’mon. Stick around. Besides, you promised to help me clean my room so I can go to the football game with you tonight.”

An awkward silence descended momentarily on the room, as April contemplated the relative merits of potential embarrassment weighed against the certain responsibility of helping her friend, as promised.

Dana leaned over the pile of clothes and extracted her cassette player from underneath the mess. It was the newest thing, and she had begged for one.

All her brothers and sisters had records that were scratched and the turn table was always being fought over. Her parents had stood firm against her entreaties since she first saw one but when she pointed out to her parents that the cassette player could stay in her room where only she would hear the music she wanted to play, especially if the cassette player came with headphones, they gave her one for her birthday, plus headphones.

Dana owned exactly two cassette tapes, currently buried beneath a pile somewhere in her room, which she and April would hopefully unearth, but the jewel of a birthday present also had radio reception. She turned on the radio, and the Osmonds entered the room. “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch girl  . . . “

“Alright,” April sighed. “Where’s the garbage sack?” She smiled impishly. “That might be easiest,” she continued, surveying the room with fond dismay.

Monthly seemed to be the routine for digging out of Dana’s haphazard care of her room and belongings. Sometimes, it was sort of fun, like a treasure hunt. Other times, it could be a frightening proposition. Last summer, they had pulled a dirty dish from under Dana’s bed that actually had maggots. April had run screaming from the room, while Dana calmly took the plate to the kitchen.

That had prompted Dana’s mother to run screaming for Dana’s father and one of her brothers to haul the mattress out of the room, and the whole house was enlisted in cleaning out the room, and scrubbing down the floors and walls.