“Matilda and Mickey Sizemore”
“Better mix up some more plaster, Eddie,” Matilda Sizemore said as she measured the scrotal sac of a naked Greek warrior from the Minoan period.
“Gees, Tillie, these ten tonight are taking twice the time those ten we did two nights ago.”
“Those were sixth-century Doric, Eddie,” Tillie shouted back to her partner, “More advanced culture. Had more up here,” she said pointing to her head.
“You mean, they didn’t care as much for what’s down there,” Eddie shouted back, laughing as he pointed to the large penis and balls around which Matilda Sizemore was gently forming a plaster shield.
“Right. Bigger the package, smaller the brain,” Matilda joked in return.
As Eddie brought over a bucket of freshly made plaster, Matilda observed, “The trick is to make the covering as small as possible and yet–”
“Cover the whole package,” Eddie added with glee.
“Right. Now the idea, as I see it, is crazy enough to begin with, so the least I can do is try not to call too much attention to the shield.”
Matilda Sizemore, who had retired twenty years ago as an art and literature teacher at Brooklyn High School, had been hired to cover up all the genitalia of male and female statues in the Greek and Roman exhibit on the third floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A new, highly conservative Director had been appointed six months ago. Formerly a professor at a prestigious eastern college, an art historian who, by his own admission, had “no taste for the creative act,” he had convinced his equally conservative Board of Directors that to exhibit genitalia, especially of “such obvious size” as on Greek and Roman statuary, was an act of public indecency, an affront to the “families who come to our museum.” Matilda had been hired to cover the offending organs, her work, for obvious reasons, done at night when the museum was closed. Eddie Gilber, a museum maintenance worker during the day, got overtime assisting her two nights a week.
They were an odd pair. In seventies, Matilda was barely five feet tall, thin, though not frail, sparkling blue eyes, a ready smile, with the energy of someone half her age. After getting her doctorate in Classics from an obscure Midwestern college, she and her husband had returned to her native New York thirty-five years ago, but, unable to find a position at a city college, found, instead, a satisfying career in the public schools. A widow now for fifteen years, Matilda was glad to supplement her pension with work at the museum, however bizarre the present job might seem.
Ten years younger than Tillie and facing mandatory retirement, Eddie was a large, lumbering fellow, not well educated, yet with a quick wit, solid, dependable, and skilled in all things mechanical. The overtime as Tillie’s assistant helped him save up money before, as he would say, he was “put out to pasture.”
No longer embarrassed by the absurdity of the director’s campaign against nudity, both had developed a lively sense of humor when it came to their assignment.
Eddie had calculated that covering what Tillie called “the nether region” of the female statues took roughly one-fifth the time necessary for their male counterparts. “Let’s me put it this way, Tillie. The woman are more accommodating.”
“Thank God that idiot Keating didn’t insist we cover their breasts, Eddie.”
“All depends, Tillie. If it were the whole breast, and let’s say it took us ten minutes a breast, that’s twenty minutes per statue. But maybe he’d want only the nipples.”
“Hell, Eddie, we could knock off one of those little things in a few minutes each.”
“Knock off, Tillie? Maybe that’s not the best word.”
“Beautiful work,” Eddie said, as Tillie put the finishing touches on a cover.
“We’re done here. Got about an hour to go. Let’s try some of the males in the Sixth Century Archaic section.
“Naturalistic. Large-scale. Free-standing, the kouras or standing nude youth—they served as dedications to the gods or as grave markers.”
“You’re sounding like a museum guide, Tillie.”
“Oh, Eddie, I can’t help it. It’s just that these statues are so magnificent. I mean, they come from maybe the finest civilization ever–”
“Better than ours?”
“No, not necessarily better, but still, what an achievement! And here we are–”
“Here we are covering up male packages.”
“And female nether regions.”
“For an idiot like Keating.”
“But it pays well, Eddie.”
After a long pause, Matilda added, “Hey, is Keating married?”
“Have any kids?”
“That I don’t know.”
“Bet he doesn’t.”
“I’d like to cover his package in plaster of Paris.”
“Probably wouldn’t take much.”
“No. Way I figure, if the average statue takes two quarts, he’d probably take—what?–a pint?”
“He’s more like a half-pint,” Eddie added gaily, as they moved towards the rear of the gallery, past three fifth-century statues of the victors in the Pan-Hellenic games, soldiers from the Persian wars sculpted during what was known as the Classical Period, the great figures of artists like Myron and Polykleitos who worked in bronze, the striking heroes from the Mucenaean period, where Tillie told Eddie of Homer’s account in the Iliad of “Mucenae rich in gold.”
“Great art and a little man running the show.”
“Yeah, real little,” Eddie added as he poured a sack of plaster into a huge garbage can on wheels, until the mixture filled half the container. Then he added five gallons of water and began stirring . Tillie meanwhile was busy using plaster left over from the Minoan section for the first of the three statues they would finish that evening.
An hour later, surveying what they had accomplished, Eddie cracked the same line he did every night they worked together.
“Well, Tillie, I guess we’ve got things covered for now.”
Laughing, they left the museum and hopped the subway. Fortunately, they got off at the same stop; Eddie, always the gentleman, would walk Tillie to the door of her apartment building before saying goodbye.
Tillie was a woman at peace with herself and with the world. Her husband had died of Alzheimer’s and for ten years she had had to divide her time between teaching students and caring for him. Going to classes after being up most of the night, feeding, cleaning up after him, listening to the poor soul babble on in his dementia, enduring his uncontrollable anger and insults, she somehow managed to hide from her students whatever exhaustion or sadness she felt. They saw only a lively teacher who took a personal interest in each of them, at a school in disrepair, with indifferent parents, unruly students only fifty percent of whom would graduate. Tillie, however, never had discipline problems in her classes. The kids loved her, loved her for the genuine concern she had for them, not just in class but in their lives outside of school. It was Tillie who came to the police station to bail them out, Tillie who saw to it that the drug-addicted father went to rehab, Tillie who slipped the student an extra few dollars so that there would be groceries until the single mother’s next pay day. She was even positive about her husband’s illness. As Tillie once remarked to Ethel at Joe’s Place, “You know, Ethel, he was always a disagreeable man, not given to a kind word, quick to blame me, sharp tongued, and now with the Alzheimer’s he’s deaf and dumb as well. Like a statue. So, while I’m taking care of him, even washing up his backside, I curse him out, call him all sorts of names, tell him the things I should have told him years ago. He can’t hear me, can’t answer me back. It’s refreshing. Helps me through the day.”
“You know, Tillie, you’re the type who would find a piece of gold in a pile of cow manure.”
“Tillie laughed, “Well, you know my motto, Ethel.”
Not only Ethel at the restaurant, but every student of Tillie’s knew her motto. She had it on a banner at the front of her classroom, the very class where years earlier Ethel herself had been one of Tillie’s students. This Wednesday, Ethel reminded Tillie of her favorite lines from Tennessee Williams’s Night of the Iguana—“Nothing human disgusts me—unless it be unkindness.”
That motto allowed Tillie, who had taught art, who cherished the grandeur of Greek statuary, to endure the pathetic little museum director, to persevere in what she secretly called “the nightly obscenity at the Metropolitan.”
“He’s not unkind, Eddie,” she told her co-worker one evening. “Just stupid, small-minded. And maybe he won’t be here forever.”
The next day at Joe’s Place, as Ethel served Tillie her usual “3” for lunch, she asked, “And what will it be for tonight’s dinner?” Since Tillie worked at the museum on the five week nights, Ethel always prepared a brown bag meal for her to take to work.
“Oh, no need tonight, Ethel.”
“But you always–”
“I’ve been excused for a funeral—my brother Melvin.”
“Dear, I’m so sorry to hear he died. You never told me.”
“I’m not sorry, Ethel—he was a mean son-of-a-bitch.”
“You never talked much about him.”
“That’s why. But I’m going—owe it to the family. Besides, Marie will have her hands full with my brother Mickey.”
Ethel understood just what Tillie meant by hands-full. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Mickey Sizemore. Mickey was a heavy drinker. “The Black Sheep”—that’s what his own wife called him.
Mickey ran a barbershop down the street, a man’s hangout, located in the living room of their house. Marie never set foot in there. Mickey’s customers, all old friends, thought of the shop as their private club. Each man had his own shaving mug on the wall. There was a dart board in the corner. You could step into a little side room and “draw a brew,” as Mickey would say. There were also porn magazines on a table. Mickey’s regulars came not only for a haircut but to talk and visit, and just enjoy each other’s company. They stayed for hours, and left only after Marie shooed them out when they got in the way of her dinner, which she always served at seven, an hour after the shop was supposed to close.
The “good side” of the black sheep was that in a racially segregated neighborhood Mickey was a man with no prejudices, no biases, giving haircuts to white and black alike, and on more than one occasion kicking a customer out of his shop who objected to his policy. “A head is a head” was his motto; in fact, that motto was right there behind the barber chair, on a little hand-made sign dangling from the nose of a moose a taxidermist had given him as a Christmas present. Though Mickey lived in a rough section of Brooklyn where the stores around him were frequently robbed, no one ever broke into Mickey’s. Partly because, whatever their color, everyone in the neighborhood liked him, and partly because Mickey was known to carry a gun. On the wall was a plaque announcing that he had won the Rotary Marksmanship Trophy for the last nine years.
A big man, with a beer belly and arms like a wrestler’s, his face flushed, Mickey always had a drink in his hand. This was his bad or black side. An alcoholic, his behavior when drunk was wild and unpredictable. His crimes were not serious, but petty and at times vulgar: public urination, screaming obscenities and throwing excrement at a contingent of PETA supporters objecting to Mickey’s annual backyard barbecue which he dubbed “Man and Beef,” or Mickey’s disrupting a Political Science class at Columbia whose students had mocked his letter to the Brooklyn Evening Standard calling for public whipping of war protestors.
“I know Marie’ll be glad you’re going with her and Mickey. I just hope he’s fairly sober,” Ethel said in sympathy.
When Tillie got to her brother’s house, she discovered Marie in tears.
“He started drinking early in the day.”
“As usual. Said he was upset about Melvin’s death.”
“Well, Mickey was probably the only person in the world who liked Melvin. No one else in the family did.”
“That’s what I said to him, a half hour ago.”
“He got mad at me, especially after I told him ‘it takes one to know one.’”
“Maybe that was not the best thing to say, Marie.”
“I know, I know. But he got mad, charging out of the house, screaming that he’d get to the funeral on his own.”
“Well, the wake starts in a half hour. We better leave now and try to make the best of it.”
“What’s a body to do, Tillie?”
Tillie drew Marie to her breast, no mean feat since Marie was a large woman, a perfect physical match for Mickey, if in no other way.
The women were greeted in the lobby by the funeral director’s receptionist who sported long fake eyelashes and a bouffant that rose a full foot over her head.
“You’re here to say hello to Melvin Sizemore?”
“Hello?” Marie questioned.
“Yes, he’s expecting you in the Strauss Ballroom, third door to the left.”
As they made their down a long hallway, Tillie noticed that each room, its doors open, had a descriptive name just above the entryway–“Peace, Perfect Peace,” “Home, Sweet Home,” “The Little Kirk on the Heather,” and “Starting Over.” Sappy music, the generic kind played in elevators or a dentist’s office, drifted from each. The tacky receptionist had been a harbinger for the décor of the various rooms. Stepping into “Starting Over” while Marie checked her make-up, Tillie saw the ballroom of a high-school prom—the walls festooned with grotesque red hearts, balloons of various hues clinging to the ceilings, in the center an empty casket resting on an ornate refreshment table and lit by a strobe light. A slow 1950s ballad of undetermined origin playing in the background. Everything about the room screamed that this was not a resting place for the dead, that death itself was–well–just “starting over.” Tillie was forced to take comfort in her mantra, “Nothing human disgusts me.”
There in the Strauss Ballroom were assembled the ten or so reluctant mourners, several of them relatives. The conversation was hushed and, given the degree of the family’s contempt for Melvin, redolent with insincere clichés. “He’s gone to a finer place, he has” and “The man had his faults, but who doesn’t? And now he’s gone. He’s gone! I miss him already,” or “Melvin would have loved this. He always liked to dance.”
Tillie and Marie were greeted at the entryway with “You’ve come to say hello to Melvin Sizemore” from Endicott Ball, the greasy funeral director, wearing an off-pink suit, his wife Brenda clinging to him, a woman half his age, in a low bodice, clutching a martini in her free hand. “Go. Go say hello to Melvin—he’s been expecting you.”
There on the far side of the room, beneath the bandstand, was the casket, the top propped up so that everyone could take one last look. Actually, this dead Melvin didn’t look much like his real-life self. His once bushy eyebrows had been waxed, his hair parted down the middle–Melvin never combed his hair when he was alive–and there was rouge on his cheeks that, as one of the guests was overheard to say, made him look a bit like a harlot.
“I’m Endicott Ball, your Grief Director,” the man in the pink suit said, coming up to them.
“You’re the Undertaker?” Marie interjected.
Wincing at the word, Mr. Ball quickly corrected her, “We prefer not to use the term, madam. It’s so . . . so–”
“Negative? Graphic?” Tillie volunteered.
“Took the words right out of my mouth,” said Mr. Ball. When Marie commented that the man before them didn’t look at all like Melvin, the Grief Director lectured them in a soft but insistent voice on the art of “funereal cosmetics” and how it was so important to “present the loved ones in death not as they were in life but as we would have wished them to be if they yet lived.” He spoke in whispers, so as not—in his words—“to disturb those who have found that perfect peace.” Tillie contemplated for a second asking him if he knew Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken, but then thought better of it.
One of Melvin’s three friends, a mafia type, constantly dabbed a little blue hanky to his right eye. Melvin’s aunt yawned conspicuously by the punch bowl. Every few minutes someone would walk over to the casket, let out a deep sigh, loud enough so that the people talking would turn in their direction, nod with approval, and then fall to murmuring again. Mr. Ball had retreated to the far corner, pleased with himself. Meanwhile, his wife Brenda made the rounds of the guests with a little silver tray overflowing with heart-shaped pieces of cheese and watercress sandwiches.
Suddenly Mickey showed up. Dead drunk. Supporting himself by wedging his long arms against either side of the entryway, he looked like some martyr strung up on an invisible cross. His face was very red. “Oh, no, he’s been drinking!” someone whispered. Another confirmed the judgment with an “again”; a third added, “Imagine, at his own brother’s funeral!”
Spotting the casket at the far end, Mickey bawled “Melvin!” and started to cross the room. As he weaved among them, people parted as if he had some contagious disease. Even the mafia type turned very pale and began frantically wiping his forehead with that blue hanky. A thin man, already anemic, grasped the replica of the Waltz King for support. Marie made a loud “Ahem” in her throat, to send her husband a fruitless sign she disapproved.
The room fell silent; Mr. Ball had wisely turned off “The Blue Danube.” Mickey was now halfway towards the casket, walking in a wobbly fashion, as if his feet weren’t sure the floor was there to support him. Marie cried out, “The damn fool’s gonna fall!” Then Mickey stopped, searched through the small crowd and, spotting his sister, bellowed, “Give me a hand, Tillie!” Too late Marie hissed a “No” at her sister-in-law as Mickey reached out with his big hand and wrapped it around Tillie’s shoulder, using her as a crutch. “Help me get to Melvin, Tillie?” he crooned in a sad half-whisper, the words all slurred. The incongruous couple, the brother twice his sister’s size, made their way toward the departed.
As everyone else looked on in horror, Mickey begged her, “Pray with me?” Brother and sister knelt down together beside the casket. Tillie couldn’t make out what Mickey was saying, but she noticed that big tears were falling down his cheeks, followed by deep sobs. Soon, his whole chest was pumping up and down; the sobbing pervaded the room. Some mourners gasped, a few others laughed. Mickey must have heard this because he suddenly bolted up, turned toward the crowd, and in his big, bass voice screamed, “I loved him. I loved him, you bunch of dried-up old maggots!”
“Well of all the–” someone said, but never finished the sentence.
Mickey was now looking down at his brother, gesturing with his hands towards the dead man, as if he were trying to communicate with him in sign language. Words would start to form but then were choked off.
Suddenly, he put his big arm on the far side of the coffin and, in an instant, pole-vaulted himself right into the box, so that he was now lying face to face with Melvin. Beside a dead man!
“Melvin, oh, Melvin, it’s me, Mickey! Melvin, I love you so much!”
Behind her Tillie heard people say things like “Disgusting!” and “Has he no sense of decency?” and “What an asshole!” There was a noise from the side, and Tillie turned to see people gathering around Marie: she had fainted. Enraged loved ones stormed from the viewing room. Mr. Ball and two of the men came over and, with a little resistance from Mickey–in fact, with a lot of resistance–pulled him out of the casket.
Tillie took one last look at Melvin, and when she turned around the room was empty, save for Mr. Ball. Even Marie had left.
“What a shambles! What a shambles! Imagine! In the Strauss Ballroom!”
Tillie made halfhearted apologies for her brother’s behavior.
“You’ve got to get him out of here,” Mr. Ball insisted. “We have another party–”
“You mean ‘viewing’?”
“We find the word ‘viewing’ too cold. Anyway, we have another party in a half hour. My wife and I need to get the ballroom ready.”
Tillie knew that Mickey would not be welcome at his home this evening—Marie usually took two days to recover from one of his drunken outbursts. Deciding to take him back to her apartment for the night, she called Eddie, asking him if he would come over and help her.
“Eddie, I’m sorry but I don’t think I can manage him on the subway by myself.”
“Tillie, no need to give me a reason. I’ll be right over.”
When they were sure Mickey was asleep in the spare bedroom, Tillie and Eddie sat down over a cup of coffee and some freshly baked chocolate squares.
“I don’t know how to thank you, Eddie.”
“Tillie, we’re partners. You’d do the same for me.”
“Still, it’s good to have a friend like you.”
“Are you going to be OK?”
“I’ll be fine, Eddie. I always try to make the best of a bad situation.”
“The way you did with your husband, when he was deaf? Cursing at him, telling him how you really felt, and all that. You remember telling me about it, Tillie?”
“I do, Eddie, I do,” she said with a smile, and then added, “Look, I know Mickey’s behavior was disgraceful. But he was also just–well–Mickey. What I think I’ll remember about the whole crazy evening are those big tears I saw fall from his eyes. And that deep sobbing. And how he called the mourners ‘dried-up old maggots.’ I had a good laugh at that.”
“I think that was funny as hell myself,” Eddie chimed in.
Then Tillie added, “Now, I know you’re supposed to be quiet and dignified at funerals, paying your respects to the dead—and all that. Still, Mickey did love our brother, loved him so much that he leaped right into the casket. Right beside a dead man! In a way, what Mickey did seems beautiful. Beautiful. That’s the only word that comes to me.”
“You know, Tillie, you and I are both up in years. I just hope at our funerals there’ll be some excitement.”
“And a few good laughs.”
As she refilled Eddie’s cup, he said, “By the way, Tillie, some good news today. Saw it in the evening paper.”
“What’s that, Eddie?”
“Keating’s been dismissed as museum director.”
“Yep, that’s what it said.”
“For making us cover up the statues?”
“No, there was nothing about that. He was fired for–what did the paper call it? Oh, yeah ‘gross misappropriation of funds.’ Seems he was using museum money to furnish his new home in Scarsdale.”
“Who would have thought?”
“Actually, I wouldn’t put anything past a guy who would cover up great art like that.”
“You’re right there, Eddie.”
“And the paper also quoted the new interim director as saying that he wanted to make several immediate changes in the museum, including–now get this, Tillie, and I’m almost quoting him here–‘Taking those ridiculous plaster covers off all the statues on the third floor’.”
“Maybe he’ll hire us to do that, Eddie.”
“Maybe so. After all, who knows more about covering and uncovering than you and me?”
They sat without talking for a few minutes, savoring the news about Keating, and just enjoying being with each other somewhere besides the museum’s third floor.
Tillie broke the silence with, “You know Eddie, I’m always amazed how in life the oddest things are thrown together.”
“Like what, Tillie?”
“Oh, like a museum director who hates beautiful statues of naked men and women. Or a black sheep like Mickey still able to show such love for someone no one else loved. Or that funeral director pretending that the dead were still alive.”
“Odd things thrown together. Like you and me, Tillie? A PhD and a guy who never graduated from high school.”
“We are an odd pair, Eddie.”
“An old odd pair, you mean?”
“Old? Eddie, you’re ten years younger than me!”
“Yeah, I’m sixty-five and you’re seventy-five—big difference, huh, Tillie?”
As she showed Eddie to the door, he stopped and asked, “Say would you like to take a walk in Central Park this Saturday, maybe have lunch at one of those nice little restaurants on Central Park West?”
“Eddie, I’d love to. And maybe after lunch, we can visit the museum—as normal people.”
“But let’s not look at those Greek and Roman statues.”
“Let’s not, Eddie. At least, not yet. Not until those damn covers are taken off.”
Just before going to sleep, Tillie tiptoed into the spare room where they had taken Mickey. He was sound asleep, curled up like a little baby, an empty bottle in his big hand. The air was getting cold, so Tillie pulled the blanket up and around her brother, just the way she used to do for her husband. Mickey stirred slightly, tried to lift his head, mumbled something, and fell back to sleep. Whatever he had done or hadn’t done, the black sheep was at peace in his world.
As she made her way slowly to her bedroom at the far end of the hall, Tillie thought to herself. “Saturday in the park will be nice. And I know just the perfect little restaurant. And the new Monet exhibit on the second floor should be hung by then.” As she opened her bedroom door, she added, “It won’t be like a date. No, not at our age.”