I was twenty-seven, working in the warehouse of the art storage operation. This was not an ordinary warehouse: it was a five-star resort for art, climate controlled, cameras every ten yards, plastic surgery available on the premises. We workers were not lowly vassals; we were custodians of the sacred treasures of the race, scraps of cloth and resin and wood oozing market value. We had monthly drug tests. We were provided uniforms, laundered daily. The starch in the white shirts chafed my neck.
As in every earthly paradise, things were sketchier behind the scenes. I was put on forklift because the last guy stuck a prong through a Richter. Maybe it was some other gaseous German. He was terminated, and he sued, claiming the lift was defective, which it was and is. One of its gears, in extreme situations, slips; you have to be prepared for it. That guy wasn’t because he was stoned half the time. I don’t know how he got away with it so long. It came up in the trial. Lawyers got richer.
I didn’t hate the job, but it could have been more interesting. We never saw the art since it was always swaddled in tape and bubble-wrap. And because a truckload of it arrived twice a day, mystique was another popped bubble. So much crap. Channels embedded in the ceiling facilitated sliding 24-rung ladders from one end of the warehouse to the other. Only in the gloomy recesses was there empty space, in the cubicles of levels three, four and five.
Even with the steady deluge of arrivals, I had lag time on most days. The upmost level of the cubicles was out of range of the cameras, except for the one at the ceiling’s apex. That one was on the blink. The fifth level generally features Minor Collections of the Obscure, practitioners whose artistic talent may have surpassed their promotional abilities and/or work ethic. That’s where I’d go to hide out. C5a7 was my oasis. I’d move a few boxes and take a nap. A little refreshing nap.
C5a7 contained twelve stiff paper boxes with reinforced corners. The boxes were separately wrapped in transparent plastic held in place by the blue tape used for so many arty tasks, tape that is easily lifted without damage. Lift it I did one slow day in October when the Giants were in the World Series. I unwrapped the plastic casing and coaxed the tight lid off the first box. It let go with a sigh.
Inside were matted paintings, the uppermost covered by a sheet of acid-free paper. I lifted the sheet. Colors flashed into fullness, a meadow with a jungle at the margins. In the flower-flecked meadow were three giraffes and an angel, a scenario that appeared to be part of a tale. I removed the remaining two illustrations. One depicted an ocean-side cave with an overturned rowboat and the other a view out of a window onto a snowy garden.
I didn’t have the nerve to look in the other boxes that day but over the next few months I pieced the story together, the gist. A boy and a girl shipwrecked on an island like Crusoe. Their adventures may have been imaginary, conjured from a hospital bed in winter.
I didn’t mind the story was unoriginal. I had a visceral reaction to the illustrations, my heart beating faster, trying to batter its way into a deeper place. The sensation was primed, I am sure, by the risk involved. Somebody was going to notice my ass regularly disappearing into C5a7 sooner or later. Fishiness is quickly sniffed out in the warehouse.
I cooled it. For a month. When I thought enough time had passed, that is, when I thought that the attention span of the human monitor had petered out, I returned to my oasis. I was aware of the risk. My fascination fixated on one painting, the first I’d seen, the one with the giraffes and the angel. The giraffes didn’t make much sense but there was magic to them. Maybe that was the point. I kept the painting out of the box for easy access. I was careful, making sure the acid free paper was in place. I covered the painting with the plastic originally surrounding the box.
A seed grew, a persistent weed, a need to know more. One day my supervisor left a printout on a pallet and, doing a diligent perusal to return the document to its rightful place, I discovered the last name of the artist of C5a7. Harris. A common name, probably an Ellis Island bequest to an ancestor.
Thus it was no simple task to identify which Harris was my artist. A lucky accident enabled it. I followed a link in an article about neglected illustrators of the twentieth century and came upon the volcano on the island where the children are shipwrecked. My heart did its drumming.
There isn’t much about her in the public record. She died from pancreatic cancer in the 1970’s. She had several moderately successful books. One about crossing the plains in a covered wagon reeled in some prizes.
A half-century later she was not just neglected but erased, a whisper from oblivion. And yet somebody cared enough to pay the inflated fees of the warehouse. Or else the cash came from a periodic flushing of a bank vault. In perpetuity.
My birthday came and went. Twenty-eight. I decided it was time to start looking for a different job. There was no urgency except one. The office was starting to trust me. It’s probably something about me. As soon as something settles I start pushing against it, testing the limits and my luck.
One day I was ordered to retrieve a four-by-four canvas from C5b7, a shall hop from C5a7. If I had premeditated, I would not have had the nerve. I slipped the three-giraffe illustration into the loose paper wrapping the canvas. Slick. On the ground floor I stood the canvas next to three others near the freight elevator. My skin prickled from the stares of the cameras. The service elevator opened, I loaded the canvases, dramatically arranging a quilted fabric over each to prevent abrasion. On the way upstairs I sequestered the illustration into one of the quilts.
Downstairs again, overplaying the drama, I returned the quilts to the pile in the corner of the warehouse. No alarms went off.
Progress ensued, from the quilts to the lavatory stall to the cardboard carried to the recycling bin and finally to the space behind the seat of my pickup. And finally finally, to the wall of my bedroom where I see it every morning, convinced it will charm my life in ways I can’t foresee.
I told my girlfriend a friend had painted it, and she, naturally incurious, believed me. Nobody else goes into my bedroom so I’m not worried about getting busted. Who was going to miss it? The bank vault? In the unlikely event someone decided to publish the series, no one would ever know it was missing. It was better on my wall than in a musty attic, mildewed and riddled with greyfish.
Not feeling remorse about swiping it didn’t mean things felt the same in the warehouse. It used to be that I could breeze through the workday, turn off the mind and sail, but now I was obsessed by theft. I didn’t intend to take anything else but I kept having fantasies of perfect heists. This swaddled statue, that fat gaudily framed thing said to be a Caravaggio. Or a disciple. It wasn’t just latent anger toward the over-indulged. It was the paradox that no collection can be complete without a missing, untraceable item.
Often my fantasies went to a darker place, a cubicle in which I was imprisoned, regretting my impulsive behavior.
I might have returned the picture, gotten back to former times, but I couldn’t. I can’t. The painting has changed. The colors have faded, some disappearing so that all that remains are vestigial brushstrokes. The giraffes are legless.
I figured out what happened. For a half hour each day sunlight comes into my bedroom and bleaches out the pigments. This is what happens with gouache. The colors are fugitive.