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Jeff, the museum preparator, is twenty feet up on a scissor lift with a brush in hand. He’s painting the last unreachable corners in a clean-smelling gallery lit only by two halogen worklights. Mark Durant: A Profile in Darkness opens in a week. He has chosen different several different shades for the gallery: Onyx, Licorice, Outer Space, Charcoal and a custom blend of his own invention. His Own Personal Black—he calls it OPB in his head and on the strip of masking tape peeling away from the lid—is a mix of phthalo green, gobs of ebony, and generous quantities of chalkboard paint.
Each wall of the pentagonal pavilion is different. He’s done the final wall, the highest one, in OPB. The soft sable of the brush he uses gleams brown above the paint’s surface like his wife’s hair above the bathwater. She’ll be discharged from the hospital soon, they’ve told him, maybe as soon as next week. Just in time for the opening of Mark Durant: A Profile in Darkness. They’ll both skip it. It’s been a long month. Better to stay home with a beer than flit around with the cheese-and-crackers set and their wine-stained teeth.
He angles the brush and gives a finishing lick of paint into the corner. Not a single splotch mars the white ceiling. Mark Durant’s artwork will start to go up tomorrow. His color palette is garish, all callow greens and sickly purples. The works include large scale portraits of sideshow freaks and paintings of amputees in large gilt frames. Their faces twist into sour, resentful looks, as if they, too, perceive the artist’s ironic detachment and false grandeur. His distaste for the work notwithstanding, Jeff has, per the curator’s vision, designed the exhibition to lead the viewer in stages from birth to death, from Durant’s deformed fetuses to the monumental oil paintings of battlefield corpses, from dark to darkest. The exhibition begins with a mixed-media depiction of a stillborn baby with a curiously stunted head: anencephaly. In the painting, it has the look of an ancient statue, but in person Jeff knows it would be as tender as a skinned plum.
He surveys the gallery from his wobbly height. It is redolent in five separate shades of black, each blacker than the wedge of sky above. Their child is gone. He wonders what became of it—surely they don’t bury the stillborn. His concern now is only for Lillian, her body healing around the space left by what they created.
Years ago, they visited a cavern in Pennsylvania. The tour guide in her crisp khakis looked at everyone in the group of would-be spelunkers and said, “Imagine being encased in total darkness. That’s what would happen if we were to have a power failure. Everyone ready?” Her hand rested on a blue electrical panel on the wall. Amid nervous whispers, she slammed down the lever that controlled the lights. It was a darkness you could hear. Jeff’s confused eyes filled the space with sparkles and sequins. A man next to Jeff checked his watch and it cast a weak teal glow onto Lillian’s face. Jeff kissed her. She was beautiful even in the dark. And then the guide turned the lights back on and they blinked, back in the cavern with its stalagmites like tree stumps, its low, dusty ceiling.
The thin moon hovers within the skylight’s frame. Jeff pounds the lid onto the bucket of paint before pressing the button that will take him back down to the floor.
COLIN WILLIAMS (he/they) holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Florida. He covers music and culture for outlets including Bandcamp Daily, Hearst Television, and Revolver, and his stories and poetry have appeared in Hobart, Medicine & Meaning, the Northern Appalachia Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Pittsburgh with his partner and two bad cats.
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