Slippage

SLIPPAGE
Aaron Miller

They made their way, by train, up the coast, to the old town center, to the museum on the hill. Its massive dome was made of many triangles of glass. In front of it was an open tower, its diameter almost as large as the dome. The courtyard contained various odd sculptures, including a black 1950s-era sedan with a broken window and a mannequin at the wheel. There were things sticking into or out of the car as if they’d simply appeared from a wormhole to occupy the same space. Up on the walls of the courtyard there were many more sculptures, either growing from the bricks or climbing them.

He and his wife entered, coincidentally with troops of school-children, paid their admission, and made their way across the courtyard.

It was a majestic, Atlantis-inspired place, with an underwater mystique, a brackish cistern where things had accreted on the surfaces of other things over many decades. As he jotted some notes on his pad, gaggles of adolescent bodies drifted past. Soon they entered the first encircling passage. Bodies passed pen-and-ink drawings without a dot of interest. The walls of the first hall featured a segment of the well-known artist’s oeuvre surely unfamiliar to most casual art patrons, lesser-known drawings and sketches. The man’s art was known for depicting real-world objects and figures in impossible or otherworldly contexts, but this collection of sketches had little grounding in realism–it began and ended outside of reality. And it was very tricky to describe these. How did you talk about a bird/man standing on one absurdly large foot and inserting his curling dick-tongue into his own anus?

Well–that sentence, that was one way.

In his adult life he’d had little to no experience with children of any age. The children seemed both not to care about the drawings or even notice that some people were looking at them. They circulated through the hall, first in one direction, then the other. And he couldn’t understand a single word of anything they were saying. It was French and/or Catalán, and he couldn’t figure out how they could understand each other, since they all seemed to be speaking at once even when speaking to one another. There was no way they could be both talking that fast and also processing what the others were saying. Perhaps it was only parallel speech, not actual conversation, and only the need to expel words was being satisfied. A kind of verbal sloughing-off. Their voices were guttural, almost ridiculously Gallic-sounding to his ignorant ear. Mawkish clusters of girls gripped each other by the arms or held hands. Some were very tall, even in their flat shoes, while others were short and rather pixie-like. The boys jostled and clashed at the elbows, no hand-holding there, although their physiques did not seem much different from those of the girls. There was some kind of mutual androgyny going on. The boys were girlish and the girls were boyish. Some of the girls were less boyish than others, in a bothersome way. The children were all about the age he’d been when he began to be interested in the erotically absurd, concepts such as dick-tongues and self-fellatio. He’d once aspired to be a great surrealist artist himself, although he would never, ever, ever, voice that to anyone, not in a lifetime. Although he’d been known to talk around it a bit, hint at it, obliquely, or cryptically, or non-representationally, by expressing in an offhand manner his affinity for drawing and painting “absurd little things at a young age.”

Let’s put it this way: while he was now an occasional cartoonist and essayist for a century-old, family-friendly periodical, he’d done his share of lurid, prurient drawings on vellum in India ink. Cocks and tits and such, rendered with a quill stroke. One had depicted a man, woman, and infant, rendered in exuberant lines and wild crosshatching, all completely nude and simultaneously masturbating themselves. He’d called it Portrait of the American Family and was later glad to have never shown it to a soul. Facile, he thought, comparing it to these. The drawings in front of him now–these things slid far beyond his own imaginings.

Minnows diverted around him, flitting past artworks like they were windows through which something watched them avidly. They glanced here and there. Their mouths delivered streams of babble regardless of the positioning of their limbs and overall arrangement of their bodies. There were many different groups of them. He had the impression that packs of them were circling each level of the museum over and over. One group would pass through, followed by another. They all seemed to be on some other plane of reality in which he and the works of art did not exist at all. They were ghostly in that way–or, rather–he was. Their bodies floated around him and almost through him. They moved out of his way, only when they had to, and without showing awareness of an obstacle. It was as if he was an unseen force of subliminal pressure, a pocket of air instinctively avoided.

A trio of them surrounded him closely as he stood reading a placard. They stood around him as if he wasn’t standing in the midst of them. The placard referenced a painting called Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity. Their clothing was loose. On the wall next to the placard was a sketch study of the great work being referenced. Some of them chewed gum. It depicted a particularly young set of buttocks being penetrated by what looked like a fairly large rhino horn. A few had some sort of fruit-scented candy, or the smell of it on them.

He shifted anxiously, they scattered.

Much later on, when they were flying home, his wife remarked that she’d caught whiffs of something putrid from the girls–it was shit, she speculated, some of them smelled like shit, like maybe they didn’t wipe their asses very well.

Out the window of the wide stairway to the second level, the weather outside had gone from worse to bad. It was at first a heavy rainstorm with some hail, and then thunder, and lightning shining the vines crawling down the inner walls of the courtyard, glinting off chrome and glass, flashing white against the black paint of the old sedan. Then gouts of water came sailing off the dome, into the center of the courtyard, drumming steadily on the car’s roof. The courtyard, once full of patrons, was now vacant.

On a wing of the second tier, two girls in skirts had lain down in the middle of the floor to have their picture taken. Their eyes gazed up at the painted ceiling, which was a parody of the Sistine Chapel. The sound of the rain turned solid. He was sitting on a bench waiting for his wife to return, and watching
the girls lying there, like two starfish on the cold slab. He stood and walked to the windows and peeked through a lacy curtain. Hailstones were collecting on the ledge. Even the unversed traveller on the Costa Brava knew that hail was uncommon.

As they began circling the third tier, the hail intensified. It made a thrumming sound in the courtyard and dinged against the hull of the car. It was dime-sized, gathering in the wells of the tall narrow windows that looked into the cylindrical atrium. The stones below were being covered with patches of white, the ramplittered with ice pebbles. Lightning flashed off the newly-formed, icy textures. Suddenly, a slushy, crackling explosion sounded. Compressed sheets of hail were sliding over the panes of the dome, collecting at the edge into calves that arced down to explode on the surface below. This happened with regularity as the weather stayed steady, and soon almost everything outside was covered in a pebbled white blanket.

The hail continued collecting heavily against the lip of the dome. In the surrounding windows across the courtyard, they could see dim faces held so near the glass that small ovals of condensation dotted the panes. Cameras flashed in pale mockery of the blinding flickers of lightning.

In her youth, his wife was an actress. She’d had some child roles and her own paparazzi moments on red carpets. It had ruined her, in a way, he knew. And it had eventually, somehow, ruined something between the two of them.

In the great foyer under the dome, several leaks had sprung. One provoked a barrage of cell-phone photography. Clusters of people stood looking wordlessly as if no one had seen a leak before. European tourists often did this, he’d noticed. Stared at uncommon things wordlessly, as if too fascinated to express
any thoughts.

New leaks occurred near the gift shop and the exit, in a connecting vestibule. The low-ceilinged room was not very large but it had three doorways. Two groups of children were assembled against one wall of the room, girls to one side of a doorway and boys to the other. A tall man with a smallish head and short
wet hair was laconically setting up a plastic yellow caution board while another leaned on a mop staring at a puddle just small enough to easily step over. The shape of the puddle was splatter-like, somewhat like the shape of Europe, except its border was more stellated all the way around. When new drips fell from the stained ceiling into it, new stellations appeared.

A drop hit his cheek. With the thirty or forty children also packed into it, and the puddle now diverting the regular museum foot traffic, it seemed quite crowded and difficult to pass through. The crouching children, possibly in shock because of the strange weather and protocol, gave off a refugee-like vibe, and had all somehow absorbed some level of moisture in their hair and clothes, some of them looking completely soaked. All were extremely fidgety and chatty but also attentive to an authority figure who seemed to be waiting or watching for some cue from another authority figure, who may not have been around.

The impulse of almost anyone entering this room was to get out of it as quickly as possible, but it was not so easy to do. The ceiling leak, from a darkened patch that had taken on a boot-like shape, continued, every few seconds, to disrupt the reflective surface of the puddle, emitting radial spritz as it did. The continual thrumming of the hail outside was not so audible in this room, but the size of the room and density of bodies gave that distant sound an enclosing quality, an insulating ambient drone. The very tall man with the tiny head had dark black hair that stood away from his scalp in tiny spikes. The other man still hadn’t done anything with the mop. He pressed himself against the wall and held the mop upright in front of his body. People continued streaming into the room, where they would see the water, stop short, and slowly navigate around it. The tiles were a burnt orange color. The children watched everyone coming into the room.

The gift shop was crowded but the main hallway between the gift shop and the museum exit was thronged with people moving inches at a time, pressed close to each other, as well as some people standing stock still in everyone’s way.

They had gotten briefly separated, but now together they joined the slow-moving flow of bodies and exited on a ramp covered in hail. The cobblestones and courtyards were blanketed with it. People held shoulders, walked in pairs or trios. Old ones had to be supported by younger ones. Some of the children were already out and they ran carelessly, slipping badly but not falling down.

The precipitation was no longer frozen. But now the light rain had slicked everything, made walking treacherous. They decided to wait it out at the closest café they found; it was a narrow slot in a building just off the courtyard, fronting the sloping path back to the Rambla that connected this part of town with the less touristy part of town.

The café had laminated menus and a waiter who claimed to be from Morocco. They ordered cervezas and sat just inside the front watching people walk carefully past. A restless man, also sheltering, stood next to a nearby table, smoking. Behind them, the television was on, and they could hear news personalities speculating about the color of smoke in Vatican City.

The passers-by huddled under umbrellas, supporting each other as they slipped, slid and stepped gingerly along. The passage was a kind of elongated courtyard, sloping and narrow, but not nearly as narrow as the two openings at its lower end, the two callejones between which people had to choose to get back to the Rambla. The ones who chose the near one did fairly well, but the ones on the far side of the passage were finding it very slippery. One, walking alone, went down completely, and others had near falls, catching themselves on a companion’s arm or shoulder just in time to recover.

They speculated about who might make it through, who would avoid that spot entirely, and who would walk right through it and fall. Many people, either from watching others or through intuition, exercised great caution as they approached that one area.

A woman was walking toward the hazardous area. She held a large blue bag on one hand and her umbrella listed back and forth above her head, which was covered in a shawl. She wore a large loose-fitting tan coat, and plain olive-green loafers, the slip-on kind that seemed popular with older Spanish women.

She headed one step at a time down the slope, to the mounds of white slush near the passageway, hesitated, started to turn, thought better of it, and stepped again toward the crooked, melting, middle track.

He stood up; but just as he did, someone emerged from a doorway on the opposite side. The person was a woman without coat or umbrella, in a red sweater and blue pants, who began talking rapidly at the woman and pointing at the hazard. The woman listened without moving. She appeared to be either indecisive or hard of hearing. Then she took a few shuffling steps. Then just one. Then just another single step. As she headed for the spot, her steps grew smaller and smaller, until she was barely stepping at all. She nudged her feet forward, one toe-length at a time, at the icy passage, expecting the best.

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