Terence Kuch

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

The Gifts

 

Only two people are in Gallery 35 this Wednesday afternoon, a man and a woman. Both appear to be in their mid-thirties; both are well-dressed. They are circling the room in opposite directions, and at differing velocities (she, slower; he, faster). Each stops in front of each painting. Nod. Step forward. Tilt head. Step back. Proceed. Their hesitant ballet draws them nearer each other with each canvas.

           

This calm and silent scene, worthy of a Degas, is interrupted when a young man steps brusquely through the doorway. “This is Gallery 35,” he announces over his shoulder to the varied group straggling behind him.

           

He notices the man and the woman, seems relieved that they aren’t in the way of his next brief lecture (which he enjoys giving) and the Q&A to follow (which he doesn’t).

           

The docent pauses to let his dawdling sheep catch up. He gives them a sharp look: only so many minutes here, so many there. Keep up now, move along. No dallying at Dürer, even he, a far superior artist: that will be on tomorrow’s tour. The docent clears his throat. The group shuffles and backs and fills.

           

Near the far wall of Gallery 35, the man and the woman, soon to be not unknown to each other, glance up with amusement.

           

“The next piece on today’s tour is Edvard Munch’s too-famous work ‘The Scream,’” the docent says, “on loan from the National Gallery of Norway. It was painted, oddly enough you might think, not on canvas but on cardboard.” Astonished eyes, closer looks.

           

“Maybe he was hard-up,” an old man in a plaid shirt offers. An old woman nearby, possibly related to him by marriage or otherwise, flinches slightly.

           

The docent shows a thin-lipped smile. “Perhaps, perhaps,” he says drily, and turns to his notes. “Aside from the obvious figure,” he reads, “there is much going on in this piece: the harbor, the mountains behind it – the two roads that diverge – no influence from Frost, I’m sure! And both roads have vanishing points: the sides of the roads draw closer. The road on the left has two undefined figures in the distance, slim and compressed as if being squeezed by the sides of the road they meet at infinity.

           

“Munch executed four versions of this work,” he continues, “of which this is the most well-known.” He describes Munch’s career briefly, points out the compositional strengths and weaknesses of the piece, and tingles his audience by itemizing, finger by finger, the times this painting has been stolen and recovered.

           

A hand rises in back. The docent nods in its direction, and an earnest voice asks “But what does it mean?” The docent relaxes slightly, gains a fraction of an inch in height and chest-girth. “I’m glad you asked me that,” he says. “Actually, everyone does. Most observers have concluded that Munch wanted to portray the terrors of modern life; but the terrors of the art world are reason enough!” He looks around. A few pencils and pens wag or waver. No one laughs at his little joke. Frown. Swallow.

           

“More questions? – No? Then let us proceed to Gallery 42, where we shall see the first great portrayal of a battle at sea. Trafalgar, in fact.”

           

The flock shuffles off after its leader.

           

The man and the woman smile at each other, experimentally. “Well,” says the man, “wasn’t that a ‘Scream’?”

           

The woman laughs. “What are you doing here?” she asks, “waiting for the sound effects?”

           

“Possibly,” he answers, approaching her. “Shall we take a closer look?”

           

They move toward the painting. “Those two vague figures on the left,” the woman says, “I wonder what they’re doing.”

           

“Providing compositional balance, likely,” the man says, remembering the docent. “I doubt if they know that’s all they’re good for.”

           

They speak idly of the painting, wonder why the subject is screaming, what its message might be. And is the road on the left a continuation of the road on the right? And is anyone aboard those boats in the harbor? And what are they doing?

           

The two make up an “imagine” game: imagine I am one of those figures on the left; imagine we are on that boat – that one; imagine you are the strange figure who’s screaming – at something.

           

The woman laughs. “Yes,” she says, “of course one wonders what it’s screaming at.”

           

“Or who. – Or is that ‘whom’?”

           

“I’m not sure,” says the woman. “I studied music, not grammar. How about you?”

           

“Me?” says the man, “MBA. Dull, but it ‘manages’ to pay well. – Do you play?”

           

The woman blushes.

           

“Ah, I meant ‘play an instrument,’” he says.

 

“Oh. Piano, not very well I’m afraid, and viola. I’m better on the viola.”

           

“Harold in Italy?”

           

She looks up in surprise. “So you know something about music?”

           

“Not much, I’m afraid. I’m better at managing things.”

           

They look at the painting, then, in silence. Each is preoccupied with thoughts of the other, his likely promise, hers. He catches her glance.                

           

“My name is Henrik, by the way.”

           

“Anna,” she says.

           

They shake hands, both embarrassed by the need to seem so formal, this mutual touching of the part one permits all to touch. A brief silence, then she withdraws her hand, says something he doesn’t catch.

           

After a few minutes of desultory talk about the painting, and the museum, and the weather, he finally says “Look, I’d like to ...” just as she begins to speak.

           

“Think of the hands,” she says. “Over the ears. Not to avoid hearing his own scream, surely? – if we can call it a ‘him.’ – I think there’s something in front of him that’s making him scream. Something that’s making its own loud, horrifying sounds. And who could that be except the artist himself?”

           

“Munch?”

           

“Why not? He was a little unbalanced, wasn’t he? He’s making the subject scream – one more ‘compositional element.’ And no,” anticipating the remainder of the man’s question, “it’s too early in the day for a drink, and I’m not interested in coffee. But we could go somewhere and relax...?”

           

“Without screams?”

           

“Possibly.”

 

 

           

The desk clerk nods to Henrik, takes his cash. Idly, the clerk wonders who this man will call himself today. But the clerk is preoccupied with desk-work and doesn’t bother looking at the registration card. Carefully, he avoids nodding to the woman. After the two have compassed themselves in an elevator and its door has silently closed, the clerk is pleasantly distracted by thoughts of what may soon occur in room 807.

 

 

 

           

Sighs, short and frequent, are exhaled. As expected, there is an afterwards. The man and the woman manage it creditably. The person each has just performed with was wonderful, just wonderful, with several synonyms as well. Both think to remark on this. They concur in wanting to meet again. Soon, in fact. I can’t wait! But now I need to get back to the office. Yes, and I need to get back home. I have someone coming for a viola lesson. A real snot. He just hates it and never practices; I can tell. The thought of little Danny Gordon makes her flush with annoyance.

           

“When can I see you again?” he asks.

           

“Sometime,” she says.

           

“A week from today?”

           

“Ah –” not wanting to agree to his first suggestion but having no feasible alternative, she says “That should be fine.”

           

“Then Wednesday it is. Let’s meet in Gallery 35 again.”

           

“In front of ‘The Scream?’” she says with slight surprise.

           

“Yes.”

           

“That doesn’t seem very conducive to ...”

           

“Perhaps we’ll have some thoughts on what it means.”

           

“Imagining?”

           

“If you like! We have quite a bit to imagine now.”

           

“And less.”

           

He is not sure what she means, merely says “All right. I’ll see you next Wednesday.”

           

She thinks a moment, says “Yes.”

           

With further expressions of courtliness on his part, and appreciation on hers, they leave the hotel through different doors.

 

 

 

           

Each thinks the other might not appear in Gallery 35 that next Wednesday, but both do.

           

They meet, each holding a small package. Each acts surprised at the other’s thoughtfulness. She gives him something small, oblong, nicely wrapped. Should he open it now? he wonders. He opens it. It is a “Scream” necktie. He considers this considerate but useless: the perfect definition of “witty.” He thanks her very much. Then he gives her a gift, in a plain shop bag. She observes that it is a set of “Scream” drink-coasters. How wonderful of you; however did you find this? He says something that doesn’t, quite, correspond to reality.

           

Then each week: Wednesdays in front of “The Scream.” They play the imagine-game each time before leaving for the hotel. And he each time brings her a small gift, and she, him. An 18-inch inflatable “Scream” for her; A 54-inch inflatable “Scream” for him, both of course collapsed into their packaging; a “Scream” mouse pad; a “Scream” ice cube tray; a “Scream” switch plate (with rectangular hole); a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in a box that will never be opened.

           

Their talk is suffused with banter of “Scream” themes. They pretend to meet for the first time and play the same imagine-game. It becomes more difficult to think up different things to imagine, different gifts to bring, different features of the painting to inhabit: the figure; the sunset; a boat; an ear. Each event resembles the one before. Having been surprised and even thrilled that first time, she now knows what to expect, the exact sequence; as does he.

           

Their imagine-game, by then having exhausted the painting, turns to the toys. He is the 54-inch inflatable doll; she, the 18-inch. She, winking, is the switch plate (with rectangular hole). No one claims to be the puzzle.

           

“Tell me about your wife,” the woman doesn’t say. It doesn’t occur to the man to say “Tell me about your husband.” The weather has certainly been remarkable, and did you see the lead editorial in today’s Times?

           

Each time, they go to the same small, Euro-style hotel they had patronized that first time, when both were edgy. By this time, the desk clerk knows that he will be able to rent their room later that day to someone else. Perhaps to a couple enthusiastic enough to stay all night. His mind wanders.

           

At their fifth meeting, the imagine-game is briefer, more obvious. The gifts are dutifully exchanged. They hurry through the routine, go off to bed.

           

They skip a sixth meeting. The time of Danny Gordon’s viola lesson has changed. The man has a very important meeting to attend regarding the management of money.

           

They hear nothing from each other for some time.

           

Finally, absence having performed its proverbial stratagem, he sends her a completely innocent email, but she knows what it means. Maybe. No. Yes.

           

This time they meet at the hotel, pretend to be fancied by seeing each other there. He has already taken a room, and they ascend. Neither has brought a gift. He suggests that they pretend they are inside the painting. They are the two vague figures to the left. Or on the mountain behind the harbor. Or below decks on one of the boats, doing what they are in fact doing.

           

Both realize how tedious the imagine-game has become. Yet both keep it up, not quite knowing how to quit, or what could take its place. Each fantasizes that he or she is the one screaming, at an unseen figure that could be the other.

           

Before parting that day, they agree to meet at the museum just once more, the following Wednesday, “for old time’s sake,” to imagine once again the way it was.

 

 

 

           

They encounter each other on the second floor, on the way to Gallery 35. They hear a clackety-click of shoes on the corridor parquet. The docent rounds a corner toward them. The people behind him are speaking of home, children, quiet adventures. They pass without recognition and the sound effects soon fade.

           

The man and the woman enter Gallery 35 and turn toward the painting, but it is no longer on the wall. In its place is a terse notice: “‘The Scream,’ by Edvard Munch, has been removed for packaging and return to the National Gallery of Norway.”

           

Each stares at the blank wall, trying to imagine the harbor, the boats, the vague figures, the red sky; and then at each other, their discarded gifts.

           

There are no screams, only hollow embarrassed laughs.

 


Terence Kuch’s literary and speculative fiction has been published in the U.S., U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, India, and Thailand, including Commonweal, Diagram, Dissent, Stray Branch, New Scientist, New York magazine, Thema, North American Review, Slow Trains, Thema, Timber Creek Review, Washington Post Book World, Washington Post Magazine, and others. His work has been praised in the New York Times and by Kirkus Reviews. He studied at the Writers Center, Bethesda, Maryland, and participated in the Mid-American Review Summer Fiction Workshop. He lives in Pimmit Hills, Virginia, with his wife and several opinionated cats.