Skip to content

001 Chapter 1

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his later self. “It isn’t that, Spirit.  He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.  Say that this power lie in words and look; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up; what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it costs a fortune.” –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

It was the Wednesday after Thanksgiving.  Curator Joe Cocktail was unexpectedly in the holiday spirit, but not in a good way. I’m a modern day Bob Cratchit. Joe Cocktail warmed his hands and feet in front of the small space heater hidden beneath his desk.  Cold, underpaid, over-worked–he ticked off the list of adjectives in his mind.  Bob Cratchit could have piled more coal onto the fire.  There’s not much I can do to change the amount of heat radiating from this postage-stamp-sized space heater.  Hands slightly warmer Joe pondered the glass half full.  I do have a heater, and a space, no matter how small, and a job.  Joe loved his job in the European curatorial department at the museum.   He looked around the converted storage room.  The museum facilities staff had somehow managed to wedge a desk, a chair, and a small bookcase into a corner for him. The rest of the space was dedicated to two massive wooden file cabinets and rack storage for some of the paintings in the museum’s education collection.

He brought his hands to his mouth and tried blowing on them.  That didn’t help much either.  He shrugged, pulled a folder from the top of the pile on his desk and opened it.  Another day, another seemingly endless pile of object folders to look through.  Each of the folders on his desk contained the documentation associated with one of the works in the museum. His current task was to compare the information in a folder to the associated data in the museum’s collections database.  If both folder and database were in agreement, he validated the record.  If not, he made a note of needed changes and moved on.

Joe allowed himself a sigh.  It wasn’t that the work wasn’t useful and important.  The museum needed accurate and up-to-date information about the works in the collection.  As Associate Curator of European Art, Joe had finished the process for the works in his own care weeks ago.  A victim of my own success, Joe thought and turned his head and looked accusingly at the pile of folders on his desk.  The Chief Curator had been both pleased and annoyed with her junior associate’s efficiency and had promptly handed him the task of attending to her collections as well.

He bent down once again to try to warm his hands at the space heater; the cold was distracting him from his work.  He thought about his boss,  Prudence Fenn-Martin.  He grimaced.  He’d been a curator here less than a year and he truly liked most of his colleagues, but it hadn’t taken long to become weary of his immediate supervisor, the chief curator.  “Prudence Fenn-Martin,” Joe spoke name out loud.  When he said her full name he inevitably heard her voice as she introduced herself to people she didn’t know. “That’s Fenn-Martin with a hy-fenn.” She would heavily accent both the “fenns” when speaking and then finish with her horrible braying laugh.  Close friends and colleagues called her Prudence or Pru.  Staff beneath her on the career ladder were instructed to refer to her as Dr. Fenn-Martin, or by her initials PFM, both options she considered as appropriate for use by subordinates.

A sharp knock on the door at the end of the storage room resulted in a sharp rap on his skull as he raised his head forgetting he was positioned underneath his desk.  And as if he had summoned her with his thoughts he heard PFM’s voice.  “Cocky, Cocky, are you in here?” PFM called him Cocky.  It wasn’t easy growing up with Cocktail for a last name–but as a guy you learned to deal with it, first in grade school, then in high school, and later in college when the jackasses who just wanted to fight decided your name might be good for a round or two.   Joe had learned a lot about choosing which battles to fight and fighting with PFM over a nickname wasn’t worth the effort…yet.

“Here PFM,” he called out as he came up from under his desk, rubbing the back of his head.  “What can I do for you?”  She was a majestic woman–tall and solid with a magnificently shaped head.  Her hair was always perfect, a deep chestnut brown cut and styled in an immaculate older-woman bob.  She strode up to his desk and looked pointedly at the pile of folders.

“Aren’t you finished with those folders yet?”  Her tone was reminiscent Cinderella’s petulant wicked step-mother enquiring about the housework.  I told the director I’d have the 16th and 17th-century collections completed by the end of the year and we’ve barely made a dent.”  Not waiting for a reply, or even worrying about how she conflated his work with her accomplishments, she blithely switched topics.

PFM always spoke a mile a minute.  “Before the end of the day I need to talk to you about that we brought in last week–the Pseudo Pierfrancesco Fiorentino Madonna and Child.  We’ve decided to purchase it this week.  I need to seal the deal tomorrow morning at the latest so the director can officially present it to the guests and the board of trustees at the gala on Saturday evening.”

“You can’t be serious, PFM?” Though absolutely blindsided by her announcement, he was quick to register the annoyance that suddenly crossed her face. She stared at him icily.

“I am always serious about the collections.  Surely you know that- If I learned anything at…” PFM continued her dressing-down of her junior colleague.  She reminded him of her important degree from an Ivy-league university and a respected elderly art historian who had retired from teaching a generation before Joe had been born.  Joe was all too familiar with her spiel.  She always described her relationship with her famous mentor as “sitting at the great man’s knee.” Joe strongly suspected, given that gentleman’s reputation, that knees somehow entered into the picture but refused to allow his imagination to go any further along that path.

He quickly snapped back to the present when he heard the question addressed to him.  “When are you going to be finished with these?” She was pointing again at the pile of folders, having returned to her original topic.  “I have a meeting with the director now and I need to give him a status update.  He wants everything complete for the gala.  So just when will this work be done?”

Joe struggled to keep his frustration in check. First, PFM had directed him to drop his other work reconcile the data for her collections he had hoped to have the monumental task completed by December 31.  It was just doable, if he put all his own work on a back burner.  The second, and infinitely more disturbing issue, was PFM’s rush to purchase a painting in time for the museum’s 100th Anniversary, just a few short days away.

“Cocky! Are you listening to me?  I asked you a question.”

Again he was startled out of his thoughts.  The cold is clearly making my brain sluggish.

“PFM, last week was a short week due to Thanksgiving.  I need a good two to three solid weeks to complete the work.  The project should be completed by mid-December, December 31 at the latest.  There isn’t time between now and the gala to get it all done.”

“Weeks?  It can’t take weeks. I’m going to tell him it will be finished by the celebration and we’ll just have to get it done.”

She’s still using the term we but she’s not offering her own help with the project.   She looked narrowly at him as if she could hear his thoughts.  “I’m not having your collections finished and mine still incomplete, is that understood? Get a couple of interns in from the university to help you this week, but get the work done.”

Joe didn’t bother replying to her last suggestion.  His graduate students were in the final frenzied weeks of the semester.  With papers to be written and exams to be studied for, they were unlikely to have the time to drop everything else they were doing and give their full attention to the job on Joe’s desk.  He made a mental note to talk to a couple of the students who lived in town and might be available during the holidays.

PFM glanced suddenly at her watch and gave a small squeak.  “I’ll be late for the meeting,” she wailed, spun on her heels, and headed for the door.  She turned before leaving and gave her final orders “Be ready to talk about that painting this afternoon.”

She moved swiftly out of the office and failed to shut the door.  Joe was too cold and too worried to get up and close it himself.  The painting, she wants to talk about that painting.


Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: