Ars longa, vita brevis est
by David Finkle
[ fiction - october 09 ]
(The following account was logged into an iPhone found not long ago in a large east-coast city refuse bin.)
Those of us in our little clique were so eager to see the much-touted exhibit that we agreed to meet up early - rather uncharacteristically, I might add. We wanted to be first on line. Or as close to first as possible. There was some initial chat about whether to send a designated ticket buyer to avoid the need for all of us getting up at the crack of dawn. But in the end we worried that tickets might be limited to four or even two per purchaser. Even though advertisements for the one-day event did not include such a stipulation, we reckoned it was not worth taking the chance.
The group decision - arrived at after not a few phone calls and much urgent e-mailing - prompted a new and improved attitude among us. We would all be together. It would be great fun. We would make a proper outing of it. Pack snacks, bring thermoses of coffee and tea, whatever little culinary specialties we wanted to tote. We would bring collapsible chairs, board games, cards. We would bring whatever books we wanted to swap, photocopies of magazine articles we deemed worthy of passing around, snapshots of previous get-togethers, any sort of bumf we had chosen not to send each other from iPhones and BlackBerrys.
And so come exhibit day it was off to the museum. And a stunning museum it is, constructed of a particularly brilliant white granite and featuring rows of imposing columns. The museum is shaped like a squared-off U and embraces a large, landscaped plaza with a glittering fountain at its center. The museum entrance is just inside the far end of one arm; the exit faces it at the far end of the other.
We agreed to meet by the fountain. But what were we thinking? When we arrived - long before the doors were to open - the line commencing at the entrance was already snaking around the museum's periphery. Four abreast, no less, for what must have been a quarter of a mile. At the very least. The fountain, in which jets of water were splashing and plashing, was ringed with people milling about in search of their friends.
(Later we amused ourselves for several minutes discussing the difference between "splashing" and "plashing" and whether using the latter rather than the former marked the user as pretentious.)
It took us as much as twenty minutes to locate everyone and join the line, which had only gotten that much longer. Why it had not occurred to any of us that one of our party might get in line and hold a place for the others is something for which there is no explanation.
Once in place, however, we quickly accustomed ourselves to the circumstances. There was plenty to eat and drink and much to mull over. So we seemed to be making the most of the situation. The situation being that the doors were not scheduled to open for another two hours or so. It promised to be tedious, but there was some comfort to be taken from the fact that the number of people behind us was soon much greater than the number of people in front of us. The dollop of schadenfreude was reassuring - as it always is.
It would not be accurate to say the time passed quickly, but the wait was less oppressive than any of us would have imagined. There was the added gaiety of the conversation and the word games we played. There was the enjoyment derived from observing everyone else waiting to get in - what they were wearing, what music they were listening to. We could only guess about the ones listening on iPods (just about everyone moving their heads to an unheard beat), but the speculating was even more of a hoot.
As the appointed hour approached, expectation intensified, as is usually the way on these sorts of occasions. The people towards the front of the line began clearing up the areas around them and drawing themselves to full heights. Although the line had become somewhat amorphous, within minutes it looked sharp-ish once again. Our bunch fell silent - or as silent as we ever get, which is when I decided to take these notes on one of my iPhone apps - the idea being that later I could send them around as a memento of yet another rewarding shared experience.
In our silence, what we did hear just before the doors were set to open was a sudden, then sustained hum as if a giant machine had been turned on. It was murmurous, lulling - and when people began to be aware of it, they giggled and laughed and exchanged pleased looks. How musical the sound was, how soothing. None of us actually mentioned it, but we all seemed reassured. As if even though we had not gotten inside as yet, the promise held out over the course of the previous few months by the very idea of the exhibit was already being fulfilled.
A minute or two before the hour struck, the doors at the entrance opened. Though there was no fanfare, it seemed as if there had been. A platoon of uniformed guards came out and stood at attention. Another platoon issued from the exit doors. The men and women in this group stood around more informally. Some of them were smoking. Many of them wore their caps at a devil-may-care angle. One of our number remarked waggishly that they looked like chorus members in a low-budget production of "Carmen."
There wasn't much time to look them over closely, however, because almost immediately the clock in the tower at the center of the building plangently struck ten, and the guards at the entrance let in the first group of attendees. Almost instantaneously an anxious babble commenced and spread along the line. The reason was clear. There were not that many patrons included in the first group - maybe fifteen, maybe twenty. The rest of us were estimating how long at that rate it would take before we'd be at the door. We were concluding we would not be able to say for sure until we saw how long it would be before the second group was passed through.
Ten minutes later, the second group was ushered inside. It was approximately the same size as the previous group. Once again there was the muttering of people multiplying ten by fifteen, ten by twenty. Then the muttering died away as singly and in groups everyone figured out his or her estimated time of arrival. Then another buzz developed when people, now more or less accepting this was not going to be a fast process, resumed their discrete conversations.
Our gang re-animated in seconds flat. No surprise there. The unspoken assumption was that if we were in this for the long haul, we would be good sports about it. If anything, our camaraderie increased. It was as if we had determined that the more we waited, the better the tale to tell those of our acquaintance who had not had our adventurous spirit. In green-apple-quick-time we were gabbing and singing old and new songs and doing impersonations of each other and of others along the line whom we found risibly imitable.
In short, we were having a whale of an outing. So much so that it took me some time to realize - as the hours passed and the sun rose to its zenith and then fell somewhat - that something was on my mind. Something tugging at me I could not pinpoint. For minutes on end an unconscious thought pecked at me with the persistence of a chick hatching. Whenever there was the slightest pause in our banter, there the disturbance was again and again. So tenaciously that I began to enter it as part of these notes.
I thought, I have forgotten something I was supposed to do before I reached the museum - turn off the oven, make a deposit at the bank. I wonder if this is the day my rent was due. One by one, I decided that nothing I had considered was a cause for concern: I had turned off the oven, I did not have to make a deposit at the bank, my rent was already paid for the month.
Repeatedly, I dismissed the discomfort rippling through me. Or tried to. I was intermittently effective at forgetting whatever was bothering me. It was probably nothing, probably impatience. It was probably having to cool my heels such a long time in spite of the party atmosphere we had fostered. Perhaps it was scraping our chairs after us foot by foot, inch by inch, shifting about in weather not exactly inclement but not exactly clement.
But it returns. The internal gnawing, the infernal gnawing. A couple of times someone or other asks why I have fallen silent and stare blankly at the sky or emptily at the tiled pavement or vacantly at the other side of the building where the guards posted there remain at ease. Each time I slough off the query - insist that nothing in particular is on my mind. I make another effort to think of nothing but whatever frivolous topic is on the figurative table at the moment.
And so it goes as one hour and then another ticks by and our crowd slowly but inexorably edges closer and closer to the entrance. Closer and closer still. Until the doors open and the guards count us off one by one. Until I hear the door close metallically behind us and see the gaping mirrors and the grinding gears and the conflagration before us.
Then the penny drops. I recognize the thought I have been attempting to grasp for the past however-many hours. It's this: All the while those in the line were feeding through the entrance - fifteen to twenty, then again fifteen to twenty, then again fifteen to twenty - across the plaza where the relaxed guards were stationed, no one had come out.