by O. D. Hegre
“We’re all in this together, folks.” The transient’s voice competes effectively with the myriad of clatter and clamor that surrounds us on this cold fall evening. He is right beside me now. “You need to walk in our shoes, man.” His words emerge in puffs of condensation, disappearing as rapidly as they appear.
The lights of the four-star restaurant beckon, and we pick up our pace. He’s holding up a large white sign: NO GIFT TOO SMALL, it reads. Ron escapes first, holding the door for Janet. The warmth embraces me and I turn for one last look. The man’s hat is pulled down against the chill but even in the dim light, I can see the sunken jowls, the weathered face, the broken teeth and — the clouded green eyes. Asshole, I think.
* * *
“Panhandling in this neighborhood? We should have called a cop,” I say.
Janet and Ron agree.
“The whole ‘thing’ took less than a minute but could have ruined our evening.” Still a bit shaken by the encounter, I sip my second glass of the ’55 Mouton Rothschild. Our waiter arrives and the chateaubriand (à point) eases all remaining stress, but the incident remains the focus of conversation during the meal. Then the crème brûlée arrives, and we switch to more mundane things, like business.
At the end of the evening, we all agree: we’re dyed in the wool Social Darwinists. It’s such a compelling philosophy when you’re at the top of the heap.
“Each of us gets exactly what we deserve,” Janet offers.
“Those bleeding-heart liberals on the Upper East Side,” Ron chimes in, “assuage their guilt by pleading for the poor with their progressive agenda.”
“The so-called ‘ninety-nine percent’ have the attention span of a goldfish,” I add. “Then back to their miserable little lives. And that transient? Telling us to walk in their shoes? Those shoes are too small because their goals are too limited.”
“Their initiative lacks breadth,” and Janet raises her glass.
“Because their work ethic is too meager,” Ron finishes the thought and holds his glass high.
“To say nothing of their diminished intellectual capability.” And my glass joins theirs.
“Here! Here!’ we all cry out in unison; our glasses clink together and the last of the wine disappears.
* * *
I’m twenty minutes late. Janet is going to be really ticked.
The banner reads Gallery Romani. I pull my collar up against the cold. Ron saw the advertisement in the Voice yesterday. He told Janet, and she told me, knowing I needed something au courant for next week’s column.
Immersion Art the ad read. It sounded eccentric enough to interest the haughty crowd I write for, otherwise you would never find me in this kind of neighborhood. It’s twilight, and I scan the street. Shadows clothe every storefront entrance — hiding what, I wonder.
The gentle ringing of chimes welcomes me as I gladly enter the gallery. Pretty stark. All the walls are painted flat white. And they are empty.
There’s a distinct echo. The ad said 1:00 to 7:00 p.m. It’s only half past six.
I pass into the next room. Small. Cramped, actually.
Again, the echo. A pedestal dominates the middle of the room. It just sits there, like the walls: empty.
“Janet? You here, Janet?”
There’s a hint of something in the air. Can’t make it out.
The next room mirrors the last two except the walls are painted gray. Accent lights mark where all this immersion art should be, but again, just empty spaces. Janet, obviously, is not here. Got pissed and left, no doubt. I pull out my cell and look down. No bars. Damn AT&T. I’ll try one more room and then I’m gone.
The passageway is dark. Really dark. I can see a green glow spilling out at the far end.
This room is larger than the others. The illumination comes from two spotlights, halfway down the expanse, focused on the front wall. Something down there shimmers in the light.
That odor... stronger now.
I am standing in front of the only piece of art in this whole bloody gallery. It’s a 6- by 12-inch framed holographic picture. Above it hangs a golden placard. The words shine in the light: Madame Romani’s Immersion Art: Join us.
I am thinking, No professional gallery would display a work of this size in this manner. I can just make out the face of a figure in the foreground. The rest is a blur. I step in closer. That odor is intense now... pungent... familiar. The face in the hologram is that of an older man. Somehow familiar, I think, as I tilt my head from side to side.
I see the intended movement. He’s holding up one hand, the fingers move back and forth pointing to the background. His green eyes shift as well, to look in the direction of the pointing fingers. The man’s smile reveals a definite need for some restorative dentistry. His hat is pushed back on his forehead; a few wisps of hair escape from beneath; age spots dot the gaunt face.
I stop my movement and stare directly into his eyes. They seem to widen. He is looking at me. Have I seen those eyes before? They move and I follow their gaze... It’s too blurry. I’ll have to put on my reading glasses.
Much better. Ahhh. Now it is clear, what he wants me to see. It’s the back end of an alley. There’s a rusted 55-gallon drum; a large white placard rests against it and smoke floats above it. That’s it, I realize, the odor: it’s the smell of burning trash.
And then I see them -- the man and the woman. Their clothes are tattered and they’re... they’re hopping up and down. On bare feet! My God, they have no shoes!
They look out towards me, motioning frantically, waving their arms in front of their bodies, as if they are shoving something away. Is it the smoke that’s bothering them? It... it looks like...
For a moment I cannot move. Then I push my face to within inches of the hologram. In the verdant light I recognize the face of the woman.
“Janet?” The name escapes my lips in disbelief. “Janet!”
The man moves forward now, more animated than ever, shifting his weight from one bare foot to the other on the icy asphalt. It’s... For God’s sake, it’s Ron!
I stare at his moving lips; he’s yelling something, his mouth agape. Then I realize he’s not pushing the smoke away from him; he’s frantically motioning for me to get back, to back away from the picture. I know what he’s screaming now: Run! Run! I try but I cannot move.
I am only inches away from the shimmering green light, and my eyes find those of the man. I recognize him now: the transient with his gaunt features and damaged teeth. It’s his sign up against the trash barrel. I see his other hand now; he’s holding something in the darkness. Slowly he pulls it forward. A pair of shoes dangles from tied laces across his palm. He pushes his head back into view. The pupils of his eyes are huge pools. My eyes close. I am falling... falling... falling into those dark-green pools.
Copyright © 2014 by O. D. Hegre