Edgar Makes a Discovery and Gets Fired.
I was on my way to report the extraordinary X-ray finding to the chief conservator when I encountered her in the hallway waddling like a penguin toward me in her daily dress of black pants, white blouse, black vest. Stella said, "Ah, Edgar, we need to talk."
I could have told her about the discovery as we walked back to the windowless bowels of the art museum where 93 percent of the collection was stored, a vast majority of which would never been seen by any visitor. I wondered what we NEEDED to talk about. I haven't done anything wrong. I'm polite to the curators. I get on well with them, even Beatrice. Just saying her name is like pulling a pin from a grenade and looking at the thing in your hand. And I get along well with my fellow conservators, except for Nina, that little bitch in the painting department. I glanced sideways at my boss, but her face showed only the slight smile she always wore that kept you guessing. Is she pleased or deeply upset? Her hair, probably dyed black, hung straight to the top of her shoulders and always looked as if grease needed to be shampooed vigorously from its sticky strands.
I kept quiet, sitting in front of her desk as she settled into her own chair adjusting the multiple knobs it offered to ergonomically match her short, dough-girl frame.
"We're going to have to let you go," Stella said, the slight smile showing no uneasiness with having to impart this piece of news. "The cutbacks, you know. Layoffs affecting all departments even, I hear, one of the curators. Full month's notice. Irma in HR will give you the details on your severance package, how to file for unemployment, COBRA insurance and all that. With your credentials, I'm sure you'll find something else soon. You're young. How's the Gould coming along?"
"Fine, fine. X-rays almost all done. Well, thanks."
And I left asking myself: Why me? I'm the only furniture conservator they have. And having just turned thirty-five I didn't feel young. Dejection started to slump my shoulders, but remembering what waited for me back in the lab made my step more brisk. I retrieved the one X-ray that had so excited me, putting it in my briefcase before anyone else could see it.
At 5 o'clock I walked to security where I opened the briefcase for the guard to peer inside. The X-ray elicited no interest. Work being taken home. At my apartment in the old brownstone near the museum, I stuck the film under the light table to examine the anomaly again.
A year ago, the Museum had acquired a Nathaniel Gould chest-on-chest. The massive, though elegant, wooden thing now sat in the lab for examination, cleaning, and, if needed, restoration. The 91-inch tall piece—when the top part was put on the bottom part—now sat in its two separate sections. I had started my work by X-raying the piece so I might see any hidden cracks, inspect joints, and espy the presence of nails.
Its top featured three finials—knob-like extension spires that began as rectangles of wood sitting on which was a round piece that became a kind of upside down toy top. The X-ray of the right finial seemed to show a box-like object within its rectangular base. Some kind of metal was blocking the view so I had headed to tell the news to Stella.
Now, I'll find out for myself—and alone—what's inside that cube of wood.