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The Girl in the Green Shawl


Harry Buschman

Tom Ferguson was a senior guard in the French Impressionist wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although he earned his job by right of seniority, he considered it an honor to be given such a trust. The wing contained some of the most valuable paintings in the Metropolitan's collection. No visitor to the museum left without visiting the world famous collection of late 19th century art.

For fifteen years Tom Ferguson watched over these paintings, ignoring the ache in his back -- bending his knees from time to time to keep them from locking. He often envied the visitors who sat on the benches and enjoyed the valuable collection in comfort. Tom watched over these paintings far longer than the artists spent painting them. He thought of them as his children, and he guarded them like a father. He knew them well -- the Renoirs, the Monets and the Cezannes -- but like a doting father he didn't understand them. He couldn't tell you why they were beautiful or why they were valued so highly. He couldn't tell you anything about the men who painted them. He had never been to Paris, or Arles or Avignon; but then, a museum guard is not expected to be a connoisseur, instead, he is expected to know the shortest route to the rest rooms and the elevator.

During these fifteen years Tom Ferguson developed a special affection for one small painting, "The Girl in the Green Shawl," an informal portrait done in a bold impressionist style. The artist had painted the girl full face. Her soft brown eyes stared out frankly and openly at anyone who looked at her -- that's what attracted Tom in the beginning. Wherever he stood, her eyes seemed to follow him and watch him as he moved. He grew used to it in time and he was careful to keep out of her sight when he had to do things he didn't want her to see. He would mumble an excuse meant only for her. Then, when he returned; even if from a different direction, she would be waiting, looking for him -- she seemed to know where he was even when he wasn't there. Even when the gallery was crowded with people she only had eyes for Tom Ferguson.

The "Girl in the Green Shawl" was the only woman in Tom's life, and he fell hopelessly in love with her. When he was at home in the evening he would close his eyes and think of her -- think of her hanging alone on the wall in the dark gallery of the museum and wonder if she missed him. What did she do there alone in the dark? Did she wait impatiently, as he did, for the gallery to open again in the morning? He kept a framed reproduction of the painting on the wall of his bedroom, but It wasn't the same -- it was like keeping a picture of your wife in your wallet. A reminder of someone you love, but nothing more.

As the years passed, the painting grew more precious and mysterious to him. Why did the artist paint her and not someone else? Was he drawn to her eyes as Tom was? What secrets did they share? Were they lovers? He was jealous of anyone who looked at her and even though her eyes never left his, he silently resented the visitors in the gallery who gaped at her. He often wished he could take her home with him so they could be alone together.

If he were an artist would he have painted her just that way? What must it have been like to live in those days -- to be young and gifted? Maybe some of his pictures would have found their way to the French Impressionist gallery too. When he was alone, he studied every brush stroke in the painting of "The Girl in the Green Shawl." He would remind himself that she was there with the artist when his brush made those strokes.

Before the museum opened for visitors in the morning he would stand in front of the painting and talk to her. It was the only time they had to themselves. She would listen, and they would have an understanding that would last the whole day. He named her Colette. A nice French name he thought, and one that suited her well. At ten in the morning the museum would open its doors and the elevator would start to hum, then the murmur of voices would bring him back to reality. It would be another day of standing in the background -- sharing Colette with the crowd.

In the spring of the sixteenth year of Tom's stewardship of the French Impressionist wing, he found himself at a quarter to ten on a Tuesday morning talking to "The Girl in the Green Shawl." It promised to be a busy day. Three classes of liberal arts majors from NYU were scheduled to arrive at ten o'clock. Tom didn't welcome the competition. Most of them would be young and he was sure they would crowd around her, flatter her, and monopolize her attention. It would be another long and painful day for him.

While they were still alone he made it a point to tell her he loved her and to pay no attention to the young students who would soon be gathered around her. As he did ... quite suddenly, as though someone had opened a window, a chill wind blew through the gallery.

He stared at the painting and it seemed to grow clearer -- more like an open window through which he could see her in sharp detail, not as a painting but as the girl herself. The room was suddenly filled with sounds and smells. They were in a restaurant, and he found himself sitting across a table from her. He noticed her green shawl was not new nor was it as bright as it was in the picture -- the air was smoky and there was the smell of onions, sausage and tobacco. There were rude sounds of laughter and argument in the background. Strange -- was she painted in this noisy bistro? He always pictured her in a summer garden with soft music playing in the background.

Suddenly, she spoke to him and her voice was nasal, shrill and complaining.

"What will you do without me in Provence, Thomas -- take up with some local milkmaid I suppose? Why must you go to Provence to paint in the first place?" She pouted and went on, "You can paint here, Paris is full of artists." She made a gesture of exasperation, "I don't know why you have to be an artist anyway, why can't you be a painter of ceilings and walls instead of an 'artiste,' -- walls and ceilings Thomas -- that's where the money is, you could buy me things -- you'd be a richer man!"

This could not be the Colette he loved for fifteen years? No! It was some strange woman -- someone who wanted him to stay here in Paris when everyone knew all the really great painters were in the south of France. He had to go!

"When I'm settled I'll send for you, you'll love Provence, Colette, The air is clean and the light is marvelous. I leave tomorrow, let's not spend our last night fighting." He wanted to get out of this foul smelling restaurant and into the night air.

"So then, what? What do we do then, Thomas? You want a good time -- no? Another night with Colette so you can take the memory of that with you to Provence! .... another notch in your precious palette."

Did she have to shout so? People were looking at her. To think he could have loved her all these years -- where was that magic part of her he loved so long? Yet .... maybe she had a point. Maybe she had the answer, maybe he didn't want her to come to Provence with him after all.

They suddenly stood up facing each other across the table like antagonists. Her shawl parted slightly and he could see the soiled strap of her slip as she shrugged into a cheap cloth coat and tied the shawl tightly under her chin. She was shorter than he thought she'd be. The waiter came over and tried to talk them into dessert, but the thought of eating something sweet in this sausage and onion filled air turned his stomach.

"Three hundred francs monsieur, come again soon." Three hundred francs, my God -- he could have bought a half a dozen tubes of paint for that. Together they hurried from the restaurant and out into the street.

"Your room, I suppose" she said loudly over her shoulder. Thomas didn't answer. They walked to his small apartment without haste or anticipation.

Thomas had never seen his room before. It was dark and smelled of oil and turpentine. Paper was stuffed in the window frames to keep out the draft. There were pictures on the walls, his pictures -- some finished and others in various stages of completion. They were awful! He couldn't imagine painting anything as bad as that. No wonder he wanted to leave for the south of France! No wonder Colette had no faith in him as a painter! He would be better off painting ceilings and walls in Paris than painting pictures like these. He was a fraud, a carnival painter, painting pictures of pictures -- pictures he'd seen before. It was a rude awakening to Thomas.

As she approached the wrinkled unmade bed, Colette removed her threadbare coat and her shawl. Thomas could not bear the thought of making love to her.

"Make it a good one Thomas .... you're not going to find anything like this in Provence." She stretched out on the bed, crossing her legs. He could see bruises on her thighs and stretch marks on her hips. She clasped her hands behind her head and revealed hairy underarms. He had never made love to a woman in his life and during the lonely nights in his apartment he often fantasized how wonderful the act of love would be with Colette. Now he was appalled with the reality of it. He couldn't -- his fifteen year old memory was too precious to waste on this woman.

She stared impatiently at him -- her eyes were harder and colder than those of the girl in the picture. She uncrossed her arms from behind her head and said "what's the matter 'artiste' -- you going to make love with your clothes on?" He closed his eyes in anguish and when he opened them he found himself in front of the picture again.

A group of a dozen or so noisy art students had just stepped out of the elevator accompanied by a loud elderly gentleman who was obviously their teacher.

"Stay with me -- stay with me students, I want you to see the French Impressionist exhibit under strict supervision. You must see it in its proper perspective, it will be a hopeless jumble if you don't." They surrounded him noisily and started off for the Cezannes. "He was the beginning you see, he started it all. He is the bridge between the Romantics and the Impressionists. You will note his outlining of his compositions in blue -- he sketched the basic outline of his subject in this way."

Tom backed off placing one foot behind the other. He was shaken. He was aware that he had just been transported into the past and back again. What he had seen there was disturbing and alien -- unfriendly, and not like he thought it would be. The teacher's voice droned on through the Monets and the Seurats until the group finally crowded around "The Girl in the Green Shawl."

"This is a Dufy" the teacher said, "a minor impressionist, but note his treatment of the woman's eyes. He has painted the pupils in such a way as to make the eyes focus on anyone who looks at the picture. It is a technique discovered by painters of the Renaissance. Wherever you stand, the eyes will follow you." He walked up and stood between the picture and his students and smiled. "Just think, I can only look at one of you at a time -- but 'The Girl In the Green Shawl' can look at all of you at once. This effect cannot be achieved in sculpture -- in sculpture the subject, carved in stone, is three dimensional, as you and I, and it will focus its attention wherever the sculptor wishes."

Tom knew very little about such fine points of art. But he knew he loved Colette faithfully and truly for fifteen years and thought she loved him. In all that time he thought they had eyes only for each other. Now he knew she wasn't at all what she seemed to be, and that if the teacher was right, her eyes had looked just as lovingly at every casual visitor to the French Impressionist gallery.

He waited until the group had finished their tour of the gallery, and as they drifted off to the Post Impressionist wing "The Girl in the Green Shawl" still hung there looking at him, but with eyes that seemed to hold a hint of fear.

"You bitch!" he whispered, "You little bitch, all these years -- all the things you meant to me. I was just another face in the crowd, wasn't I?" He approached her in the nearly deserted gallery and clenching his fists he muttered, "I was nothing to you -- nothing -- little innocent eyed Colette. Butter wouldn't melt in your mouth, would it?" He reached up and lifted the picture from the hooks on the wall, and holding it at arm's length he looked at it one last time, then he turned it over and slammed it to the floor face down and drove his foot through the back of it. The taut canvas burst open with an audible pop and his foot went through to the floor.

He stood and looked around at the other paintings around him, he began to shout -- "What are you looking at? You're all alike. Liars! all of you!" He limped clumsily like a man with a foot in a block of cement. He had one hand on Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters," when Earnest, the guard in the Renaissance Wing came in to investigate the noise. "My God, Tom what are you doing!" He wrestled Tom to the floor and in doing so the two of them damaged "The Girl in the Green Shawl" even further.

Tom slowly regained his senses and with horror he realized what he had done. Colette's portrait was ruined. He had driven his foot through her face. "I wanted to go to Provence, Earnest. She wouldn't let me go. I think she must have driven me mad. I loved her, Earnest -- I trusted her and she was a whore -- I could tell you such things .... his voice trailed off and they slowly got to their feet.

"She's been looking at you, right?" Earnest said. "Straight in the eye, right? It's a trick they have Tom, the women in these paintings -- I wouldn't want to work in this wing -- too many of them -- too real. But over there, on my side, I've got them too, I've got Madonnas staring at me all day long. Blessed Virgins and God Almighty knows what else. Sometimes they try to drag me back with them into their time, then I find they're not the blessed virgins I thought they were. They're hookers the painters picked up in the street to pose for them."

Tom picked up the picture and turned it over. "Funny," he said -- "she's not looking at me now." The eyes no longer looked at him. The damage seemed to have changed her focus. Indeed, she seemed to turn her full attention to Earnest.

"Gosh, she is a pretty little thing, isn't she," Earnest said. "Those eyes -- you'd swear she was looking directly at you."

©Harry Buschman 1996

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