Isthmus

Claire Hopple

We played the tape and immediately noticed an obnoxious employee had laid out the museum’s brochures in the shape of a fan on the table near the entrance. We flipped to another camera.

            “Who decides for themselves when to use initials as their first name? Do these people really hate their names that much? Or are they trying to sound as arrogant as possible?” said Gibbs.

            He was referring to the artist featured in the museum’s main exhibition. The artist’s name was C.B. Lenox. This museum was burgled a few days ago and we were watching the security tapes.

            C.B. Lenox painted scenes of adults in business attire using playground equipment. They were portrayed on monkey bars, swings, et cetera, like kids would be, but they looked rather forlorn about the whole thing.

            We had been watching footage for about an hour when I started to lose focus. No one was lurking in the shadows of the museum’s grand halls. My mind shifted back to the guy who had spit in my face earlier this afternoon.

            He smelled like onion grass.

            It went like this: we sat outside his place for a bit, waiting to witness him dealing. His front yard had a chain link fence facing the street with one sign that said “Fresh Strawberries” and another sign that said “Beware of Dog,” so it was unclear whether he wanted people in his yard or far away from it.

            He eventually got tired of us watching him and came out of the house. That’s when his mucus attached itself to my cheek. It was both frothy from bubbles and chunked with green and I thought I should refer him to my allergist but then thought maybe that wasn’t a good idea.

            So we headed back to the station and hunkered down to watch these tapes. The door alert on the cruiser was broken so the dinging noise kept going off even when all the car doors were closed. It infuriated us but gave us the sense of urgency we needed. That, and the station’s drip coffee. We liked how the second cup instantly mutated our thoughts into grandiose brain nuggets.

            We flipped to a camera that displayed the back office. It showed a woman working at a desk, the rest of the desks empty. This woman was supposedly Monica Baltimore, age 36.

Monica Baltimore liked working when others had left for the day. She did this to keep her mornings free. She thought not-working was best when others were working. For her, it was better than the couch, the sitcoms. It was better to watch others resolutely enter buildings with too many windows that were supposed to simulate the outdoors while she did nothing. Plus, she didn’t like the clots of humans in her path to the bathroom or the microwave.

            Monica was not the art burglar they were looking for but she was a gambler. She was what they call an “escape gambler,” only playing games based on luck rather than skill. Based on distraction. Based on wanting to avoid the seemingly dissonant particles of an unsheltered existence.

            Monica was also guilty of naming things incorrectly. She took pleasure in naming her new baby Doris, her frazzled canine Robert.

            As she sat at her desk, completely unaware of the fact that she was being filmed, or the fact that two policemen would be watching this film a few days later, she was asking herself questions.

            They say you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than winning the lottery, but if you’ve already been struck by lightning, does that mean you have a better chance of winning the lottery?

            She had been struck several years ago while attempting to open her garage door after weeding the garden. The strike had left her with a pounding headache and a ruptured eardrum, but a working heart and a body that was alive.

            Monica thought about the lottery as she watched a bird outside the window near her desk. The bird was pacing, or maybe hopping, beneath a tree. It had three juicy worms in its beak but it didn’t swallow or even nibble on them, if birds can even nibble. To her it seemed like an overly ambitious, almost haughty bird because of this.

            She attempted to get back to her work email but had a hard time focusing. In school, she had always struggled.

            In her ninth grade International Studies class, each student had to write a paper about a major conflict. She had chosen the Hutu-Tutsi genocide, not because she was particularly concerned about those involved in the Rwandan Civil War, but because she liked the sound of the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi.” Her best friend Charlotte had chosen the Serbian War. Charlotte’s old neighbors were refugees from Sarajevo and they used to invite her over for dinner, which was especially important to someone like Charlotte, who Monica’s mother referred to as a “latchkey kid.”

            Monica checked her spelling on the email draft in front of her and quickly jettisoned the message into Trash.

Watching Monica, you could tell that talking to her about what happened that night would be like trying to unscrew a cap while your hands were wet. She was all over the place. Looking out the window, picking at dirt beneath her fingernails.

            “A real snoozer,” said Gibbs.

            I nodded in agreement. This was especially true for me because I hadn’t been sleeping well lately. I wake up from these intense, vivid dreams with just glimpses; amorphous plots with adamant emotions behind them. And these dreams dissolve immediately as if to say, “You weren’t supposed to see that.”

            It’s not good to be a sleep deprived officer for many reasons, one minor reason being that Gibbs was really starting to get on my nerves. The rakish pose of his thumbs running along the top of his belt when he was about to nail a perp was difficult to watch.

            Gibbs clearly didn’t “get” these paintings by C.B. Lenox, either. He doesn’t know it, but I was an art history major. I would spend hours in the college’s tiny art museum, but I would be following the one tour guide around the whole time. I wanted this person to be a tour guide for everything, not just art.

            “Tell me about my future.”

            “Tell me what to do.”

            “Will I have my own Renaissance?”

            “I feel as if the chiaroscuro of my decisions is always on display.”

            All these things I had wanted to say.

            Gibbs is a twin. I have always wanted to be a twin because I thought it meant I would never feel alone. This was something else I’ll never admit to Gibbs.

            Despite my degree, I felt prepared to become a policeman because of my mother. She was a geologist. She taught me about earthquakes, shifting plates, how the ground below us is not really as permanent as it seems. I still clearly recall attempting to say “isthmus” with a full set of braces on my teeth.

            We watched Monica shut down her computer and turn off the lights. We switched to another camera that showed a dark hallway.

Monica locked up and thought about going home to make a large salad from the lettuce in her garden. How she was going to clean the lettuce with her salad spinner. How after dinner she would wash the dishes more diligently than she needed to, and how she would dry the basket part of the salad spinner by beating the bottom of it with the heel of her palm. How it would sting her hand to do so but how she would do it anyway. How if someone were watching her from the dimly lit street it would look as if she were playing the tamborine, not knocking the excess water out of the salad spinner and onto the floor

Claire Hopple is the author of TOO MUCH OF THE WRONG THING (Truth Serum Press, 2017). Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Bluestem, X-R-A-Y, Timber, Heavy Feather Review, and others. More at clairehopple.com.

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