—So, did you finally get your money?
—Yes, thank you. The best part was when you showed up again today, just like I predicted. That gave those jerks the creeps. I feel like I should split the proceeds with you.
—No need. I was more than happy to help.
—It must have been strange skipping a visit after so many months.
—It was, but it was good for me. I depend a little too much on my routines. I should break them more often than I do.
—You’ll get another chance next week. And the week after that.
—What do you mean?
—Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The museum will be closed.
—Oh. I hadn’t considered that. I would have shown up as usual and found locked doors. Thanks for reminding me.
—It’s my job. Public service, you know.
—And you’re very good at it. I’ve certainly felt well served.
—You’re welcome. So what did you do last week?
—Just went home. Read some books.
—Well . . . yes, actually. I found I couldn’t go completely cold turkey. Now I know what Duchamp meant when he said that art is a habit-forming drug.
—Hey, I understand. It’s good to have a hobby.
—True, but you know what they say: there’s a very thin line between a hobby and mental illness.
—And your personal diagnosis of your current situation?
—I think I’m still on the hobby side of the line. I hope.
—So do I.
—Margaret, I’ve been wondering . . . and I wasn’t going to bring it up, but since you mentioned Duchamp . . .
—What do you want to know?
—Have you ever shaken With Hidden Noise? Or have you seen anyone shake it?
—No to both. I never even thought about it really, until I talked to you. And I haven’t seen anyone try. There’s a video tape of an interview with Duchamp that the museum has played on occasion, where Marcel is wandering around the gallery right around the time it was first established. He’s with some news guy and they stop in front of With Hidden Noise and Duchamp picks it up and shakes it and explains he doesn’t know what’s inside. I can’t be sure, but it looks as though it wasn’t going to be displayed in a box, and if so, I suppose there were opportunities to shake it that don’t exist today. Even now, galleries have to be cleaned from time to time, so maybe some cleaning person has had the chance to shake it, if only inadvertently. Maybe you should get a job as a museum custodian?
—Thanks, but I think I’ll keep the job I have.
—What do you do?
—I work in a bookstore. In the returns department.
—Publishing is a funny business. Bookstores are encouraged to order far more books than they could ever sell, but they do it with the understanding that the publishers will let them return unsold copies for refunds. So my job is to keep track of returns deadlines, and to pack up all the books that haven’t sold, and send them back.
—It’s not really. A lot of paperwork to keep track of, but I’m good at that type of thing. I’m also a whiz with a packing tape dispenser. The best part is that I mostly work alone in the back of the store so there’s no dress code and I don’t have to deal with the public and their idiotic requests.
—Well, my co-workers out front always complain about the customers that come in and ask for “The book with the red cover” that they saw three weeks ago. As if we shelve books by color. Things like that.
—Ah, the public, God bless their empty little heads.
—You must have a lot of good stories about museum visitors.
—You mean, aside from the occasional Duchamp fanatic?
—Sorry. Not really. Fewer than you’d think. I’m sure the guides get asked all sorts of dumb questions, but people stay away from us guards pretty much. Uniform scares them, I guess, plus our no-nonsense expressions. Mostly we’re there to keep people’s dirty mitts off our precious cultural legacies, to prevent the very shaking you’re so interested in pursuing.
—We’re the thin olive-green line between the oil paint and the destructive oils of the human body. We’re really hygiene police. Puritan defenders of that most fundamental of dictums: Don’t touch!
—A noble calling.
—Look, I hate to gulp and run, but I’m going to the opera tonight, and I’ve got to get ready. Shall we schedule another get-together after the holidays? To make up for this abbreviated meeting?
—Sure, that would be nice. Are you really going to the opera?
—What, I don’t look like the opera type?
—I don’t know. I’m pretty ignorant about opera.
—Well, you don’t know what you’re missing. See you in a couple of weeks, O.K.? Have a happy holidays.
—Thanks. You, too.