The Writers Voice
Favourite Literary Website
The Girl in the Green Shawl
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
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
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
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
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"
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
"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
Critique this work
Click on the book to leave a comment about this work