THE DARKEST PART OF THE NIGHT
Title: One Forgotten Night
Artist: Samantha Benning
Medium: Acrylic on canvas over wood
Location: On loan from the Lisette Price Gallery, NYC
Description: A largely monochromatic piece, paint layered into a topography of black, charcoals, and grays. Seven small white dots stand out against the backdrop.
Background: Known largely on its own, this painting also serves as the frontispiece for an ongoing series titled I Look Up to You, in which Benning imagines family, friends, and lovers as different iterations of the sky.
Estimated Value: $11,500
New York City
March 12, 2014
Henry Strauss heads back into the shop.
Bea’s taken up residence again in the battered leather chair, the glossy art book open in her lap. “Where did you go?”
He looks back through the open door and frowns. “Nowhere.”
She shrugs, turning through the pages, a guide to neoclassical art that she has no intention of buying.
Not a library. Henry sighs, returning to the till.
“Sorry,” he says to the girl by the counter. “Where were we?”
She bites her lip. Her name is Emily, he thinks. “I was about to ask if you wanted to grab a drink.”
He laughs, a little nervously—a habit he’s beginning to think he’ll never shake. She’s pretty, she really is, but there’s the troublesome shine in her eyes, a familiar milky light, and he’s relieved he doesn’t have to lie about having plans tonight.
“Another time,” she says with a smile.
“Another time,” he echoes as the girl takes her book and goes. The door has barely closed when Bea clears her throat.
“What?” he asks without turning.
“You could have gotten her number.”
“We have plans,” he says, tapping the tickets on the counter.
He hears the soft stretch of leather as she rises from the chair. “You know,” she says, swinging an arm around his shoulder, “the great thing about plans is that you can make them for other days, too.”
He turns, hands rising to her waist, and now they’re locked like kids in the throes of a school dance, limbs making wide circles like nets, or chains.
“Beatrice Helen,” he scolds.
They stand there, in the middle of the store, two twenty-somethings in a preteen embrace. And maybe once upon a time Bea would have leaned a little harder, made some speech about finding someone (new), about deserving to be happy (again). But they have a deal: she doesn’t mention Tabitha, and Henry doesn’t mention the Professor. Everyone has their fallen foes, their battle scars.
“Excuse me,” says an older man, sounding genuinely sorry to interrupt. He holds up a book, and Henry smiles and breaks the chain, ducking back behind the counter to ring him up. Bea swipes her ticket from the table and says she’ll meet him at the show, and Henry nods her off and the old man goes on his way, and the rest of the afternoon is a quiet blur of pleasant strangers.
He turns the sign over at five to six, and goes through the motions of closing up the shop. The Last Word isn’t his, but it might as well be. It’s been weeks since he saw the actual owner, Meredith, who’s spending her golden years traveling the world on her late husband’s life insurance. A fall woman indulging in a second spring.
Henry scoops a handful of kibble into the small red dish behind the counter for Book, the shop’s ancient cat, and a moment later, a ratty orange head pokes up over the chapbooks in POETRY. The cat likes to climb behind a stack and sleep for days, his presence marked only by the emptying dish and the occasional gasp of a customer when they come across a pair of unblinking yellow eyes at the back of the shelves.
Book is the only one who’s been at the bookstore longer than Henry.
He’s worked there for the last five years, having started back when he was still a grad student in theology. At first it was just a part-time gig, a way to supplement the university stipend, but then school went away, and the store stayed. Henry knows he should probably get another job, because the pay is shit and he has twenty-one years of expensive formal education, and then of course there’s his brother David’s voice, which sounds exactly like their father’s voice, calmly asking where this job leads, if this is really how he plans to spend his life. But Henry doesn’t know what else to do, and he can’t bring himself to leave; it’s the only thing he hasn’t failed out of yet.
And the truth is, Henry loves the store. Loves the smell of books, and the steady weight of them on shelves, the presence of old titles and the arrival of new ones and the fact that in a city like New York, there will always be readers.
Bea insists that everyone who works in a bookstore wants to be a writer, but Henry’s never fancied himself a novelist. Sure, he’s tried putting pen to paper, but it never really works. He can’t find the words, the story, the voice. Can’t figure out what he could possibly add to so many shelves.
Henry would rather be a storykeeper than a storyteller.
He turns off the lights and grabs the ticket and his coat, and heads over to Robbie’s show.
* * *
Henry didn’t have time to change.
The show starts at seven, and The Last Word closed at six, and anyways he isn’t sure what the dress code is for an off-off-Broadway show about faeries in the Bowery, so he’s still in dark jeans and a tattered sweater. It’s what Bea likes to call Librarian Chic, even though he doesn’t work in a library, a fact she cannot seem to grasp. Bea, on the other hand, looks painfully fashionable, as she always does, with a white blazer rolled up to her elbows, thin silver bands wrapped around her fingers and shining in her ears, thick dreads coiled in a crown atop her head. Henry wonders, as they wait in the queue, if some people have natural style, or if they simply have the discipline to curate themselves every day.
They shuffle forward, presenting their tickets at the door.
The play is one of those strange medleys of theater and modern dance that only exist in a place like New York. According to Robbie, it’s loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, if someone had filed Shakespeare’s cadence smooth, and cranked up the saturation.
Bea knocks him in the ribs.
“Did you see the way she looked at you?”
He blinks. “What? Who?”
Bea rolls her eyes. “You are entirely hopeless.”
The lobby bustles around them, and they’re wading through the crowd when another person catches Henry’s arm. A girl, wrapped in a tattered bohemian dress, green paint flourishes like abstract vines on her temples and cheeks, marking her as one of the actors of the show. He’s seen the remnants on Robbie’s skin a dozen times in the last few weeks.
She holds up a paintbrush and a bowl of gold. “You’re not adorned,” she says with sober sincerity, and before he can think to stop her, she paints gold dust on his cheeks, the brush’s touch feather-light. This close, he can see that faint shimmer in the girl’s eyes.
Henry tips his chin.