Fiction and Drama
The trapezoid room is vast, a loft with no furniture except for a chair, standing three or four steps from the entrance with its back to it. To the convex wall opposite the entrance, at the height of seven feet from the floor (approximately at midpoint between the floor and the ceiling), a washstand is attached. Water runs constantly but unevenly from the faucet. Half the time it gushes forth, accompanied by frightful screeching that seems to rise from beneath the floor. The rest of the time, the water comes down in a soothing trickle.
A man and a woman inhabit the room. For the most part, because there is only one chair, only one of them sits. Sometimes both of them stand. Occasionally, when the man occupies the chair for too long, and the woman tires of standing, she sits down on the floor, her back against the concave wall. The man is tall, birdlike, his hair black, brushed back, shiny. He wears a dark blue suit and light glasses. The woman is large, her face round, froglike, and kindly. She wears a long, colorful skirt, white sneakers, and a loose white shirt untucked. Sometimes, a dun bandanna covers her head; when it is off, visitors can see that her cropped hair is silver with gray.
The man occupies himself with the help of a hand-held computer game. Both standing and sitting (though to those who frequent the room it becomes clear that he is mainly sitting), he is almost always pressing the buttons. Though he often presses quite frantically, his face never loses its lofty, birdlike expression. Sometimes he pauses, looks up and around him, nods to the woman, stretches and yawns. Then he reaches for the inside pocket of his jacket, takes out another game, replaces the old one in the box, and plays on.
Perhaps because the woman has no similar means of entertaining herself, she is preoccupied with the washstand. The art critic Oliver Lieber notes that the woman’s preferred place for sitting against the concave wall by the entrance is not fortuitously chosen, since it is the only place in the room from which the faucet is visible for someone of the woman’s height who is sitting on the floor. Even if she is not looking, her attention is always on the washstand. When the water gushes forth, rumbling and screeching, her face reddens and her eyes widen with terror. When it quiets down, her attention relaxes without letting go. Very rarely, perhaps once every two weeks, while the water trickles, the noises that rise from under the floor are loud and terrifying. At such moments, the woman squats in the middle of the room, covers her head with her arms, buries it in her lap, and rocks back and forth. The man does not stop playing, but glances up at her now and then and occasionally, with the intention of calming her down, mumbles: “Hey, hey . . . don’t . . . .”
Every day, at ten in the morning and at four in the afternoon, the man and the woman speak. During these conversations, the room becomes crowded with visitors. But for the most part, they walk out unrewarded. The conversations tend to be trivial. For example, the woman might ask the man which game he is playing. Or the man might ask the woman how she is feeling. While talking, the man doesn’t look up from the game, and the woman keeps monitoring the water. They reply to each other and then stay silent for minutes, until one of them raises another question or, looking around absently, comments on the weather.
Concerning this last topic of conversation, the question has arisen as to how it might be possible for them to know what the weather is like, given that the room has no windows. The administration claims that their judgments are absolutely random. Oliver Lieber’s hypothesis, supported by a number of regular visitors, is that they are based on the subtleties of water flow in the washstand.
Every Friday, sometime around noon, the room is filled to capacity. Visitors stand everywhere, whispering to each other, waiting. Soon enough, the guard closes the door from the outside and the installation appears to the viewers in its most exciting aspect. The man utters a high-pitched cry, rises from the chair and dashes about the room, stamping and shouting. He hurls the hand-held computer against the wall, kicks it, shouts and flails his arms. Often, his glasses fall off and he steps on them and breaks them. The woman hesitates for a moment, then walks up to him and gently takes him in her arms. He grows quiet, uttering soft moans now and then as she rocks him softly in her arms whispering something into his ear. Yet all along it is possible to tell that her innermost attention is still on the water. And if, while she is comforting him, the water happens to be pouring, accompanied by the usual noises, then, though she still whispers to him and pats him gently on the back, her face reddens and her eyes widen with terror.
The room is flooded with bright mist and appears to stretch out indefinitely. Visitors are not allowed to proceed past the white line painted on the floor about two feet from the entrance. In this way, no more than one person at a time can come in. Chances are that any given visitor would see very little in the mist, start squinting, and, urged on by the knowledge that others are waiting to enter, step back out. This makes it difficult to establish what exactly takes place in the room during the day.
According to the data collected by the museum administration, an average visitor spends eighteen seconds in the room. Out of approximately 1,600 daily visitors, only an average of 100 report having seen a little girl dressed in black walking toward them out of the mist or away, back into it. The girl’s progress is reported to be slow. Apparently, she stops at even intervals (every five or six steps), turns to her left (i.e., to the visitor’s left when she is walking away and to the visitor’s right as she is approaching) and stands facing the wall. From visitor reports, it is difficult to determine exactly how long she stands in this manner, since not a single visitor has ever stayed in the room for the entire duration of her standing. One reasonable estimate, reached on the basis of reports from thirty groups of four consecutive visitors, is that she stands for about one minute.
An overwhelming majority of those who happen to enter the room at the time when the girl cannot be seen believe it to be completely empty, except of course for the mist. But most of those whose stay coincides with the girl’s visible movement through the room notice also the existence of several objects positioned along the walls. It is precisely in front of them that the girl pauses every five or six steps and toward them that she turns.
Now, with regard to precisely what these objects are, the greatest confusion reigns. The data list “an oval mirror for the girl to see herself” as the highest-rated object, listed by fifty-two visitors. Next comes “a TV set playing the girl’s favorite cartoon,” at forty-five. Then “a note written to the girl by her mother” (thirty), “a framed photograph of the girl as a baby” (twenty-five), “an old tape recorder with the girl’s favorite music” (twenty-one), and “a little bookcase, filled with shiny volumes of a children’s encyclopedia” (twenty). The remaining objects—such as a window, a bucket, a milk carton, a thermos, a little boy or a wax figure thereof, and a pile of colorful wooden letters of the alphabet for children—are all listed at very low frequencies.
Lastly, with regard to what happens to the girl when she is out of sight of visitors, it is of course difficult to tell. When asked their opinion, the majority of visitors believe that she walks to the end of the room, wherever it may be, and returns. Those who have noticed objects along the walls believe them to be similarly distributed along the invisible portions of the walls (i.e., at a distance of the girl’s five or six steps). The art critic Oliver Lieber famously disagrees with this view. Opinions also vary as to the size and shape of the room itself.
On the door to the room, a sign is hanging. It reads: OPEN. But the room remains locked at all times, except for about a minute once a day. No one has been able to predict when it will happen, but every day, a man comes up to the door, keys jangle, the door opens, and those who stand outside it can see a small room, trapezoid in shape, with the two parallel walls curved. The room is unfurnished and empty, except for a narrow archway at the center. The archway is plaster-white, its haunches resolving smoothly into the ceiling. For a minute, perhaps for ninety seconds, the door stays open or rather ajar.
The man who comes every day to open the door is short, sturdy. His face is the color of the room he unlocks—white, with a thick layer of dampened white powder covering little abrasions and scratches on his forehead and cheeks. The whiteness is emphasized by long, thin red hair on top and by a yellowish suit below. Having opened the door, the man turns his wide back sharply to it and strikes up a conversation with the visitors. He talks of the weather, of celebrities, of sports. He looks everyone in the eye, tries to involve as many people as possible in the conversation. He has nothing interesting to say about any of the subjects he raises, and the questions he asks have none but trivial replies. Who won last night? And hasn’t it been cold for this time of year? And who left whom? And where can one get the best steak around here? Yet for as long as the door stays open, he manages to keep the audience’s attention.
Throughout his stay by the door, he is visibly nervous, rocks slightly from side to side, wipes sweat off his forehead. Sweat comes off, darkening the handkerchief, but plaintive wrinkles remain, grow deeper as time passes. When the handkerchief is back in his pocket, his fingers run through a heavy bunch of keys like a rosary. Now and then he glances at his watch, slightly bends his knees, bobs. He looks like a little boy who needs to go to the bathroom, but, unable to tear himself off from an interesting game, won’t admit it even to himself. When time is almost up, his keys jangle more resolutely. He averts his eyes from his interlocutors, nods, incongruously says: “I see, I see.” Then, after one last glance at his watch, he turns to the door and hastily shuts and locks it.
Every time the doorman unlocks the door, the crowd starts for the entrance. But for the most part, the doorman proves to be a greater attraction than the room itself. In any case, what the visitors can glimpse of the room doesn’t tempt them. The archway looks perfectly plain, with no hint of antiquity, and there is apparently nothing else inside. Occasionally, however, one of the visitors makes an attempt to enter the room.
Most recently, it was a lanky young man with a ponytail and a pimply forehead, wearing torn blue jeans and flip-flops. He attracted the doorman’s attention from the very beginning with his fidgety movements and a determined gaze. Several times, with а complaisant smile on his face, the doorman tried to address him directly. But the young man pretended he didn’t hear, kept his eyes fixed on the entrance, and at last started making his way through the crowd, mumbling “What kind of bullshit is this?” and heading for the door.
What happened next was no different from what always happens on such rare occasions.
The doorman utters a piercing shriek, collapses on his knees and, still shrieking, begins to strike himself on the face with the large bunch of keys. People crowd around him, murmuring, gazing, reluctantly calling out for help. The culprit (most recently, the young man) turns from person to person in panic. “What does this mean?” this one keeps asking. “What did I do?” But soon the doorman stops screaming and rises from his knees. He takes out his handkerchief and wipes blood (if there is any) off his face. Then he glances at his watch, walks up to the door, and locks it.
Whether or not things go smoothly, once the door is locked, the man is utterly transformed. “He is no longer a bungling, pathetic master of ceremonies,” writes Oliver Lieber, “but a wooden idol, wearily stepping down from his high place.”
The room is furnished like a child’s bedroom. Immediately to the right of the entrance is a little bed, its slight curvature following precisely that of the wall against which it stands. A large map of the world hangs on the wall over the bed. Those with a good eye for such things appreciate how nicely the colorful bedding harmonizes with the colors of the map. A small desk stands along the adjacent wall, cleared of everything but a well-sharpened pencil, pointing left, its trajectory blocked two to three inches beyond its tip by an oblong blue eraser. The chair does not stand at the desk, but next to it, further along the wall, facing the room. Flush against the wall opposite the entrance stands a chest. Like the bed, it is slightly curved to fit the shape of the wall. Most visitors infer that the chest holds toys from the fact that on top of it sits a teddy bear, holding between his paws a little red heart. The bear sits very still, gazing across the room at the bed. The left side of the room is oddly empty, formerly occupied by a stereo stand or some such thing.
Approximately two thirds of the visitors will know that the room is occupied by Oliver Lieber. Even they, however, not to mention those who come altogether unprepared, aren’t immediately aware of his presence. Only having made a few steps into the room, having met and followed the teddy bear’s blank gaze to the bed, do they find him. It is at this point that the prepared can be distinguished from the unprepared. The loud exclamations of the latter are frowned upon as tasteless and provincial by the better-informed majority, who, because they knew what to expect, manage to suppress all expressions of surprise and simply nod or fold their arms knowingly. In fact these too later tend to admit that they were shocked by what they saw. Oliver’s thin face with light blue eyes and greenish skin is lost in the play between the blue of the pillow and the identical blue of the seas and oceans on the map. As for the rest of him, his body has been rendered so slight by his illness that it could be mistaken for folds in the blanket.
The room is open to visitors for only a limited time each day. The reasons for this are obscure. Perhaps the administration is unwilling to expose visitors to the frightful exhibit for too long for fear of being sued for psychological damages. But surely, also, the dying man himself must find it difficult to have too many people around at all times. Whatever the reasons may be, it remains the case that the installation is open for only a limited amount of time each day, on some days for two hours, on others for three.
The manner in which visitors use the time lends itself to the following tripartite classification. One group of visitors, after the first signs of surprise, stays as far as possible from Oliver Lieber. Though perhaps they would have liked to, they don’t leave immediately, out of a vague fear of offending the dying man. They while away their time, pacing back and forth with downcast eyes, gazing at walls, stopping in front of the teddy bear—pretending, in short, that they haven’t noticed Oliver Lieber at all. Yet it very well may be that, of all visitors, it is they who notice him the most profoundly. Many of them later report being shocked at the thought of a death so inhumane (for lack of medical care and religious consolation) and so demeaning (in a child’s room, exposed to the gazes of strangers).
The second group of visitors is also ashamed to show too lively an interest in the sufferer. They, too, tend to stay away from the deathbed. This group can be distinguished from the first, however, by the lively interest they pretend to take in the pencil-and-eraser configuration on the desk as well as by the fact that, hoping to take as full advantage of the exhibition as possible, they again and again cast curious glances at the bed and strain to overhear a sigh or a whisper. For the most part, they see and hear very little, however, because the third group of visitors, immediately upon detecting Oliver Lieber on the bed, approaches and forms a semi-circle around him. Many of these are probably long-time admirers of the critic. They want to ask him one last question or overhear a word of his moribund wisdom.
The most faithful of these have recently set up a website, where people can post the master’s dying words. Quite a list of his final utterances has been compiled, and the administration has been compelled to appoint a commission of seven curators to sort out authentic from invented and misheard statements. So far, only one has been authenticated:
“. . . The notion that everything ‘there, in the mist’ is ‘pretty much the same’ as it is in the realm of the visible is of course an age-old view, supported by numberless vulgar superstitions and metaphysical assumptions. This is not of course the place to counter them in their entirety. What must be pointed out resolutely, however, is the extent to which, in our particular case, such a conjecture concerning the state of affairs in the realm of the invisible remains blind to what is surely the most important fact of all, the fact of this little girl’s life. How, one might want to ask—thus reminding us how often the profound ends up on the side of common sense—how is the little girl sustained through the day? Would it not be both more humane and more insightful to suspect that ‘out there in the mist’ a little kitchen is hidden, and perhaps even a cook or the girl’s mother, who feeds her to make sure that the child goes through the day without collapsing and cheers her up with a supportive word or a kindly smile so that the child does not break out in tears from loneliness and lack of human warmth? Would this suggestion not lead us toward what is both a more supple aesthetics and a more humanly palatable ontology? Would it not promote a view of art so much more, shall we say, nurturing, and at the same time so much more open-ended?”