“Let me get this straight,” Darius Mingus says. “You are firing me.”
“Well,” says Sue Baker, the head of human resources at the Contemporary Art Repository of Philadelphia, “we just need to sever ties, Darius. You did violate policy. CARP doesn’t do something like this … like this…” she glances down at her hands folded on her desk, “let people go, I mean. We don’t do that sort of thing lightly.”
“Firing me, Mrs. Baker,” Darius says. “Not ‘let people go.’ Firing. Me. Darius Mingus. That is what you are doing.”
He glances at the doorway where Julius, the head of security, waits to escort Darius off of CARP’s premises. Julius shrugs as if to say, “Ain’t nothing I can do about this.”
Darius says, “Violating company policy?”
Baker wipes her brow. She’s dressed in a black suit, white shirt buttoned up to the hollow of her neck. Waves of blond hair part at her shoulders and go their own way — front and back — for a few more inches. Reading glasses hang by a chain resting on her chest. Her gaze doesn’t quite meet Dari-us’s. She seems to address something floating just to the right of him.
She says: “Company policy. Yes.”
They sit in her office in the dungeon, as CARP employees call it. The museum’s basement which, aside from administrative offices, also houses the employee lounge and cafeteria and — most importantly — the receiving center where the artworks come in and out. Valuable creative achievements. Millions of dollars worth of cargo that must be handled with the same delicacy as one might handle a shipment of LEGO constructions. (In fact, on at least two occasions, the works had actually been rendered in the LEGO medium.) Chips, nicks, scuffs: Anything that can injure a piece must be avoided. All objects — either self-contained onesies, or parts that need to be assembled at CARP — arrive in climate controlled receptacles with FRAGILE stamped upon them.
The logistics can be daunting and curators and other personnel check and recheck metrics — such as airflow, water quality, humidity, electrical circuitry, backup generators — in an effort to keep the receiving center as sterile as a NASA decontamination chamber. Even noise must be modulated. Hushed exchanges among CARP’s employees barely work up an echo. Outside the receiving center, people in the basement can talk in regular tones but an overriding silence carries on nonetheless and rises to the higher levels that display the exhibits. Only children with parents or on school field trips will sometimes let out squeals and giggles — sounds approximating an uncensored interaction of humans with what’s on display.
Baker says: “Darius, believe it or not, this has happened before. Sometimes somebody viewing exhibits will accidentally knock something over. Usually visitors, but not always. We did have an incident a few years back when one of our workers … well, it was an incident.”
“I can’t tell you.”
Darius glances at Julius who hangs his head like a dog who’s left a package on the carpet.
That’s who. Julius had once been on the maintenance crew.
“What did this” — using air quotes here — “mystery man do?”
“I didn’t say it was a man.”
“Right,” says Darius. “But what did he do?”
Baker sighs. “He found a bucket painted so as to suggest it overflowed with blood. Bright red streaks on the outside. He picked it up. Took it to the washing area. Scrubbed it good. Put a little finish on it. Made it shine like new. Then threw it into the supply closet.”
Darius’s chuckle suggests that he’d thought he’d heard it all, but apparently not. That’s probably why Julius had been transferred to security.
“We let that particular employee stay on because accidents do happen,” Baker says. “We understand that.”
Darius splays his hands in a what-the-hell gesture.
“Except in that person’s case, the artist laughed about it,” Baker adds. “She thought it was a hoot. And the publicity…. She’s still making money off of that incident.”
“It quadrupled the value of her work, once word got out. Art valuation’s a strange game.”
Darius says: “So that person” a sideways glance at Julius who now gazes intently at the office wall as if that can make him invisible “gets off and I don’t.”
“I wrote you a letter of recommendation. I will help you find a job.”
“What do I do in the meantime?”
“We are giving you a severance — which we usually don’t do for fired employees because, for one thing, we’re a non-profit — and you can apply for unemployment benefits.”
Baker raises her hand, glances at Julius, who stands straighter, beefy arms folded across his chest stretching the fabric of his security guard shirt.
“I am saying that I will help you. CARP will help you.”
Darius says: “So this artist — what’s the name? Pissy? — wants my head.”
“PissAunt,” Baker responds, with an edge that not only underscores the correction, but also indicates that she’s quite capable of firing someone in righteous anger if need be, “is struggling at the moment. She barely made this show. Really, we included her as a return for a favor she once did for CARP years ago. But you don’t want to hear about this, do you?”
“Says who?” Darius says.
Darius worked as a steamfitter before he’d retired about two years ago, he told Baker when he applied for the job at CARP. “I’m too young to just sit around,” he’d pointed out.
Baker noted that his application showed that he’d gone to college, graduating magnum cum laude from Temple University in business.
“But then you never really used that degree,” Baker had said.
Darius explained that he had learned far too late in his undergraduate climb the most important lesson of all: He didn’t want to be a businessman. That’s not him. So, he became a steamfitter instead, and the competition to be accepted into a trade union in Philadelphia proved more challenging than anything higher education had thrown at him. He got in, though, and a good thing, too, he’d told Baker. Darius needed to work with his hands. He needs to throw his body into a job. When his steamfitter workmates found out about his degree they dubbed him “the Fixer” not because of the dexterity he’d displayed on the job, but because they’d come to him for help with their taxes or real estate transactions or any of the other myriad of puzzles that modern bureaucracies burden working people with.
This personal history was probably too much information to unload in a job interview but Baker hired him anyway. As one of CARP’s maintenance crew he does (or did) some of the custodial work but the job also includes some basic construction and carpentry, as well as tackling minor repair jobs on things like the ventilator system and lighting. He also helped set up for special events; showings or fundraisers, for instance.
In other words, Darius did a little of everything. He’s still “the Fixer.” (Or was.)
“You will certainly be missed, Darius,” Baker says. “It’s hard to believe that you’ve only been here a couple of months. I feel like we’re losing a long-term member of the CARP family.”
Baker slides a manilla envelope toward him. Darius eyes it, doesn’t move.
“That’s your severance check and a few letters of recommendation, including the one from me that I mentioned.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Again, I am so sorry but, Darius, you are supposed to read the instructional memos about exhibits. You know that.”
“I do read them.”
“And you’re encouraged to come to me or any of the CARP administrators if anything at all confuses you about those instructions.”
“I do that.”
“Obviously, you didn’t do that this time.”
Baker searches her desk, grabs a paper, dons her glasses, begins reading.
“The PissAunt collection includes: half-filled coffee cups, ashtrays, cigarette packages, a lighter, newspapers, what look like used condoms, and empty or partly finished bottles of beer. They will be exhibited in front of the center wall on the second floor under a bright neon sign flashing T_ASH. (Pronounce Tee-Ash.)”
Baker slaps the printed out email down, taps on it with her well-manicured index finger painted in muted red.
“It’s all right here, Darius.”
“I can apologize to her.”
“PissAunt insists that you be fired. CARP cannot afford a lengthy, legal altercation with an artist. The publicity itself has been….”
“Has been what?”
Baker inhales deeply.
“The enemies of contemporary art are having a fine old time with this. It’s become an art world gag and even the newspapers and cable programs — the mainstream media and not just something like Artforum International — have run some stories on their websites.”
“Oh they have, have they?”
“I think we need to wrap this up, Darius.”
“Mrs. Baker. Sue. Please. If I can get the artist, this PissAunt, to take it back, to let me keep my job, you’d be OK with that, wouldn’t you?”
“You can try, Darius, but you’ll be wasting your time. Nobody but nobody knows who PissAunt is. Her real identity. Not even her agent. They communicate…. Well, I don’t know how those two communicate. But that’s part of her mystique. The whole reclusive artist persona.”
Julius steps into the office. “Come on, my man. I’ll walk you out.”
Darius grabs the manilla envelope and rises. Julius gives him a friendly pat on the shoulder as they head for the door. Darius glances back once to see Baker hunched over another folder. Already on to the next task.
Julius and Darius chat as they enter the elevator and get off at the first floor. CARP opens in about an hour and their footsteps echo in the void of the empty building. They exchange cell phone numbers.
“We’ll get together,” Julius says. “Chug a few down at the Lockheed. I told my wife what they’re doing to you. She is pissed off. Tells me, ‘That sort of shit would never happen if you had a union there.’ She’s a teacher. Big on unions. How about you?”
At first the question throws Darius. How about him what? How about him and unions? How about him and being pissed off? How about him and meeting for a few beers at the Lockheed? He looks up as Julius — who’s about 6 foot 5 inches — winces down at him, seemingly embarrassed by his question.
Darius says: “I was married 26 years before she died.”
“I am sorry.”
“Yeah, so am I. Still.”
“Yeah, two kids. They’re grown with their own kids. I’m Pop-Pop four times over. Out on the West Coast. Oregon and California. I see them maybe for two weeks a year. Maybe.”
Julius nods at the floor, as if contemplating some deep revelation.
As they approach the front doors, Darius sees the steady rain that’s come in since he’d arrived a little after noon.
“My man, don’t say I never gave you anything,” says Julius.
He steps to the entranceway wall, reaches up, grabs a fold-out umbrella that’s sitting out of view on top of what’s supposed to be a sensor box with a read light always on. It doesn’t function, or more precisely, it functions as does one of those signs saying “Beware of Dog” or “This House Protected By Brand X Security,” that people put on their lawns to scare away possible intruders even though there may not be a dog or a security hookup. CARP’s actual state-of-the-art protection system stays out of sight.
“You need money?” Julius asks.
Darius waves him off. “How about you buying the lunch or the dinner at Lockheed when we get together,” he says.
Something that will never happen, Darius knows.
Julius must sense this as well.
“Sure,” he says in a just-humor-the-guy way. “We will do that, my man.”
When Darius gets outside and opens the umbrella on CARP’s front steps, he realizes that he’s hungry. Must be from all the drama. That or the fact that he hadn’t eaten since the night before. He walks past his car, heads down Benjamin Franklin Parkway toward Lockheed. It’s a steady rain; a romantic rain. The kind of rain you’d see in paintings of late 19th century Paris. The umbrella Julius gave him protects him fine. He has to duck under an awning, though, when his secret cell phone — the one he calls the Bat Phone — sounds.
Darius looks around, makes sure he’s alone.
“Hello, Mitch,” says Darius.
The app alters his voice, making Darius sound like a middle-aged woman from the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky.
“Checking in like I said I would,” says Mitch. “You OK?”
“Well, that’s just great. Goody-goody gumdrops. You know, at some point you’re going to get bored with all this cloak-and-dagger bullshit and tell me your real name.”
“I am PissAunt.”
“And I am your agent. I should know who you are. Really. And that voice-disguising thing that you’re using? That fools no one.”
“It fools people who aren’t ex-cops.”
“Yeah. That’s what I told you I was. An ex-cop.”
“Well, aren’t you?”
“I am PissAunt.”
“You know I can find out easy enough if I thought it was worth my time.”
“Not good for client-agent trust.”
Mitch clears his throat. He says, “Right. Anyway, I called CARP and they got rid of the klutz who ruined Tee-Ash. I told them that they might want to try improving how they screen potential employees.”
“But it was a gentle firing, just as you asked. Severance and benefits and the works. They’ve got insurance, obviously, and you’ll be getting a check for $20,000 for Tee-Ash. Over-night. You can send me my 20 percent the same way.”
“Three thousand dollars on the way.”
“Well Mitch, it’s been real, as always.”
“I am not finished.”
“You know that I’ve been fighting like crazy to have your works valuated in what the numbers crunchers call an equitable manner. We both could use the money. I’ve been telling the galleries that you deserve the sort of compensation you got when you first crashed the party.”
“I reminded them of your track record on the contemporary art scene. You know. How you’re a legend and all that shit.”
“You’re embarrassing me.”
“Anyway, I’ve gotten three calls just today from appraisers and they’ve already up the price on your other pieces at CARP. ‘MacNCheese.’ ‘Puppy Piddle.’ ‘Spring Break.’ How in hell do you come up with these names?”
“These appraisers say your work is worth way more than it was just a few days ago. You’re a regular bull market.”
“How much more?”
“Well, let’s see, if Tee-Ash were still with us, it would not be valued at $20,000. It would be valued at $80,000.”
“Sounds fair,” says Darius.
The sky opens, and the rain suddenly throws off romance and begins drumming on the awning like a jilted lover.
“I’m outside,” Darius says. “It’s raining.”
“My, my, my. We wouldn’t want you to melt now would we” — this last spiced with sarcasm — “PissAunt?”
“That’s my brand.”
“Anyway, you struck gold all because of some stupid mistake by some stupid janitor who mistook great art for trash.”
“Maintenance man,” says Darius. “He painted and repaired machines and did a little carpentry….”
“Right. Right. OK. A real artist.”
“In his own way,” says Darius.
“You say so. Anyway, congratulations. This could not have worked out any better if you had planned it.”
Frank Diamond’s poem, “Labor Day,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize Award. His short stories have appeared in RavensPerch, The Examined Life Journal, Nzuri Journal of Coastline College, and Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review, among many other publications. He has had poetry published in many publications. He lives in Langhorne, Pa.