The captain of the Premier Challenge League looks at me and back at the statue and then again at me. He makes a clicking with his throat that tells me this is not part of the show. The captain is the sort of man who enjoys being in control. He likes to think of himself as a master of ceremonies, but really he is more of a stage manager in the foreground. He would be mortified to know how much he gave away in terms of his own need for control.
“This is…” the captain struggles to regain words in the hope of regaining a script. A guard, two guards rush in, gripping their belts, which have no guns, assuming the posture of armed officers of the law without any real firepower. They have radios in their ears that can call more guards with no firepower. It is not clear to me what is going on, why there are guards or why the captain has stopped speaking, except that I see it is there, still looking, still at me, and the slow dawning that this is not supposed to happen.
“I thought it was supposed to be yelling!” said the outraged woman from before who was angry, loudly in the cafeteria, that the bathroom did not have toilet seat protectors.
“It is,” the captain coughs, and makes faces to say more but fails to produce any more than that.
The staring is becoming too much and I decide to leave, but the skull, I believe inanimate, as far as I can tell not moving at all, somehow stares harder, and in such a way that communicates that I better not go anywhere. I don’t know how this is communicated to me, but the message is unambiguous. My place is here, in this room. There is no intimation of a conspiracy between me and the skull. It offers nothing but this one insistence, which makes me more eager to leave and less able to.
“Better leave,” I find myself saying, “me and the skull alone.”
Now the captain begins really clicking. The glass, he had been saying, what had he been saying, the glass is specially designed to protect the sculpture while maintaining, what had he called it?… sonic fidelity.
My suggestion makes the room tense, and I am sorry that I said it, even if I had no intention of saying anything. My pants feel wet and I think for a second that I’ve pissed myself, and I get a second wave of terrible embarrassment, but I notice it’s sweat, that it’s not just my pants but all over. It’s either 100 degrees or its freezing and I’ve caught hypothermia. My cheeks are throbbing like little hearts.
It says nothing. I’m waiting for it to tell me anything. It says nothing.
Somehow I am implicated. There are more guards now, all of them grabbing their bare belts. They are vaguely circling me now, not exactly circling, they are beginning to form the beginning of a circle. It is perceived, somehow, that I have done something.
“This gallery is now closed,” announces one of the guards. He is wearing a lapel badge and an attitude that suggests he is lead guard, or lead guard of this wing, or lead something of somewhere. The other guards assume a formation, with an air of military rehearsal but the sloppiness of a third-, fourth-, or maybe fifth-rate military power. A kind of Latvian formation, maybe.
The rest of the tour complies immediately, though the bathroom woman again asserts that it was supposed to be a yelling statue, forcefully implying that someone owed her something.
The skull continued, conspicuously, not to yell. It is an under-appreciated fact that the cessation of a miracle can be as extraordinary as its original existence. One day the sun will blot out, which makes more sense. It makes more sense for there not to be a sun.
There is a weight on my shoulder. Not a policeman’s grab but a masseur’s squeeze. I look over my shoulder. This gives me a fright too: the large hand belongs to a woman.
She begins speaking to me in French and I say nothing.
“Has this statue spoken to you?” she says in perfect English.
“No,” I say, and I can’t tell if I’m lying.
She ushers me from behind, half a police action, half in consolation. I am being led somewhere. I can feel the skull’s eyes, or its lack of eyes, its cavities, staring. I know it is telling me to better not go.
“It’s better I don’t go,” I say.
She looks at me, she is older than I originally thought, and she says, “why is it better you don’t go?”
There is nothing I can say to this because I don’t know. So I gesture as best as I can with my lips, but no meaning is produced, and so we keep walking. As we approach the threshold of the gallery, I look back around at the skull. It has not moved, but it still appears, harder than ever, to be looking right at me. How had I and how had everyone determined it was looking at me.
When we turn the corner, into the gallery with large wooden boats and old masks, I can hear the screaming start again, the same as before.
My mouth opens. I know what I should have said. But her movement forward, toward wherever we are going, is more compelling than my idea of what the skull wanted to hear, maybe. It is only a germ of a sense of an idea, a notion of a notion, and her arms are so strong and knowing.