The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht – Chapters 1-2

1

Had Adonis Licht known that the moonlit tumult outside his apartment window presaged a warping of the universe that would animate his fantasies beyond the extent of his imagination, he would have buried his head under his pillow. Instead, he rose in his bed, stilled his breathing and listened. The uproar evoked the digital carnage of a video game—the whap-whap-whap of rotors on helicopter gunships accompanied by commandos shrieking for blood. Adonis rummaged among his synapses for a peace-inducing remedy, one of the chants offered to the gods long ago by his mother. Finding the storerooms of his memory vacant, he gulped air until his lungs threatened to shatter his breastbone. Upon release he believed, a cry, a shout, a roar would put the unseen invaders to flight. A still, small voice nudged aside his resolve, cautioning What about the hour? Much as he might have wished to, he could not dismiss it. Adonis Licht was a reasonable man, a sensible, judicious man, a man who, with some years to go before being tethered to the numbing habits of middle age, dutifully accepted the responsibilities of adulthood. For five years, he had been a good neighbor. A quiet man. A man seldom noticed. Softly, he exhaled.

The ruckus grew louder.

Adonis sat up and reached towards his nightstand for his glasses. He dismissed any thought of turning on his lamp, fearing that this would lead sleep to elude him for the night’s duration. Unless he was asleep.

He threw off his blanket and sprang to his feet. His hand found the cord to the window blinds and pulled. Glancing across the street, he found the apartment buildings opposite all shrouded in darkness. He drew his gaze closer and looked down.

A dozen or so pigeons, unmindful of the late-winter chill, occupied the ledge outside his window. Their decibel count increased.

Adonis rapped his knuckles on the dirt-streaked glass. The effort produced a brittle sound.

The pigeons swiveled their heads and glared defiantly.

He rapped again.

The glares hardened into those exhibited by unrepentant criminals in police mugshots.

Adonis rocked back on his heels. How could pigeons harden an expression? For that matter, how could pigeons display an expression? Still, he believed they had. The stuff of bad dreams? He pinched the flesh on the underside of his left arm just above the elbow.

Or thought he did.

“Goddamit!” he heard himself cry.

Or thought he did.

Tiny heads bobbed. The pigeons seemed to be chuckling.

In what world, Adonis wondered, did pigeons chuckle?

Seven measured paces—given the darkness, he counted as if he was blind—took him across the studio’s floor to his lone closet. He reached inside and felt for the baseball bat he’d won as a child at a minor-league game. It proved to be the only baseball game he ever attended. Gripping the wooden handle, he pivoted back towards the window.

The commotion increased. Adamant about defending the territory they’d staked out on the ledge, the pigeons seemed not so much to coo as to bray. The sound evoked choirboys on the cusp of puberty.

Adonis squeezed the bat. No question, the pigeons had gotten into his head. How? The answer seemed obvious. Or at least, credible. Exhaustion. He was sure—or almost sure—that he’d stayed up past midnight. But since when did a man about to enter his mid-thirties find midnight too late an hour? Admittedly, he needed more sleep than he used to. He hadn’t gotten it. Unless he was getting it now.

He considered pinching himself again but instead took seven steps back towards the window.

The great mystery remained. From where had the pigeons come? He’d rented the studio after coming to the city and landing his job at the Museum. Like all urbanites, including new ones like himself, he understood that pigeons flew roughshod over the city—feathered street gangs, brash and swaggering. Yet until now, they’d never appeared on—let alone overrun—the ledge outside his window. Not, at least, that he knew about.

A sense of fury—unfamiliar for the most part—tore through Adonis. He was, by his own admission, a mild-mannered man. Yet here he stood—or dreamed he stood—ready to swing or poke or otherwise wield a lethal weapon to force the withdrawal of unwanted intruders a fraction of his size but massed in numbers. He raised the bat.

The pigeons held their ground.

It occurred to Adonis that the pigeons understood the folly of his threat. For one thing, the window remained closed. Still, the bat was in his hand, the ball in his court.

He placed the bat on his bed. Then, grasping the window’s handles, he pulled up. The sash elevated several inches then balked. He banged the frame with the heels of his palms.

The pigeons gaped. If pigeons could gape.

Adonis squatted to gain leverage and clutched the sash with both hands. He took a deep breath, released it with considered deliberation and stood. Or attempted to stand. A multitude of unwelcome sensations shot through his elbows, up his arms, across his shoulders and down his back. Pain flared in his knees. Determined, he applied every last ounce of muscle—what muscle he could claim given his status as a wide-body built for the more sedentary pursuits of art, music and literature.

The window might well have been a barbell set to an Olympic-record weight.

Adonis grunted. Or thought he grunted. Sweat beaded on his forehead.

The window, like the pigeons, maintained its defiance.

Adonis released his grip.

The pigeons strutted like gray-shirted fascists. Having communicated their disdain, they adopted a carefree mood and milled about, cooing softly as if making small talk at a cocktail party.

“Goddam you, motherfuckers!” Adonis heard himself scream. Or thought he did. His cheeks flushed.

At least, he thought they did.

He feared having wakened his neighbors, whose responses might range from unpleasant to hostile. A small rationalization extended a measure of comfort. In major cities, the concept of neighbor could be defined as sketchy. Furthermore, who was going to confront a man who screamed curses when everyone else was asleep?

Defeated, he collapsed on his bed.

A pigeon jerked its head into the narrow opening above the sill.

Adonis reached for the bat.

The pigeon’s head bobbed up and down. It appeared to be laughing.

He waved the bat half-heartedly.

Refusing to capitulate but apparently willing to concede that Adonis had been tormented up to and perhaps beyond his limit, the pigeon withdrew.

The back of Adonis’ head burrowed into his pillow. He closed his eyes, although he could not determine the probability that he had just experienced an illusion. Whether awake or dreaming, he found affixed to the undersides of his eyelids images of pigeons laughing, strutting, mocking. What, he wondered, had he done to have rats with wings—real or imagined—devastate his night’s sleep?

A period of calm passed, unmeasured and indeterminate. The blue-gray of first light streamed through the lower part of the window. Anticipating the musical throb of his cell phone alarm, Adonis opened his eyes and, not unlike his antagonists real or imaginary, cocked his head. The dissonance of workday traffic greeted him. His head dropped back on the pillow. While he seemed to have sweated through his tee shirt and shorts, he reassured himself that the episode had been a dream.

Although why was he cradling his baseball bat?

• • •

Not long after sunrise, Adonis subjected his unruly hair to a final and meaningless swipe of a comb, secured the three locks to his apartment door and turned towards the stairs to deal with another day as a faceless cog in a celebrated wheel. The elevator out of service for the better part of a week, he clutched the railing as he walked with a measured pace down the three flights flanked by walls the color of his Grandma Sophie’s split pea soup. He didn’t mind taking the stairs, cracked and chipped as they were. Descent involved minimal effort and offered at least one advantage over those who lived on the floors above him. On returning home, ascending the stairs would require substantially more from him. On the plus side of the ledger—his mother was a student of ledgers—climbing the stairs would provide a measure of exercise to counter the weight he continued to add in small but steady increments.

An increase in girth was to be expected. Adonis spent most of his time seated in front of a laptop in the bowels of the Museum writing catalog copy, exhibition labels, brochures and teacher’s guides. Emails with fellow department members, conservators and educators—their work demanded digital paper trails—also filled his workdays. Then there was the considerable time spent around the conference table. The Curator in Charge of the Department of Renaissance Art called her team together often. To encounter each other in the flesh is supremely human, people. We are humanists, people.

Regarding his weight, Adonis had fought the good fight then surrendered to the inevitable. After moving to the city, he took out a gym membership, hoping to work himself into reasonable shape and, no less important, meet women. Not beautiful women. They would always be beyond his reach. No, he sought a woman on his own modest level. With luck, a level higher.

Within weeks he concluded that above the gym’s entry might have been inscribed: All hope abandon, ye who enter here. He would never make the virile, confident impression exhibited by all those athletic men running the treadmill or striding the elliptical and enlarging their upper bodies with various machines recalling medieval torture devices. He sought and found a plausible excuse to miss a workout. One excuse led to another, which at least exercised his creativity. He abandoned hope for good.

From time to time, guilt plagued him. A metaphoric finger pointed to him as the Licht that failed. Again. When he was a child, his parents continually reminded him that they enjoyed good health and boundless energy thanks to uncompromising discipline. To succeed in life, you have to be hard-nosed, his mother insisted. Yoga and vegetarianism served as the pillars supporting their successful business. His mother pointed to his older brother as a proper example. Handsome and an accomplished athlete, Apollo still worked out daily and played ice hockey year-round. Given the random nature of genetic inheritance, Adonis avoided making comparisons.

He stepped down to the lobby floor with its checkerboard pattern of worn black and white tiles installed perhaps as early as the Eisenhower years. He found the entry door propped open.

Outside, the Building Manager retrieved a newspaper from the sidewalk. After straightening, she rolled her shoulders in protest of the small discomforts of age. She wore a green hand-knitted cardigan unraveling at the left elbow, a cream-colored blouse and a brown tweed skirt. She might have purchased her wardrobe from several nearby thrift shops.

To Adonis, the Building Manager represented something of a relic. Given her liberal application of bronze eye shadow, powder, blush and lipstick, she appeared to be anywhere between fifty and seventy. More likely, he thought, the latter—a milestone approached by his mother. Her hair brought to mind the redheaded angels in Titian’s Worship of Venus.

The Building Manager rubbed the back of her neck.

Adonis joined her on the sidewalk.

She opened the newspaper’s main section. Her eyes, a pale green reinforced by her sweater, flicked up at him then back down to the paper.

“Excuse me,” he said.

“Elevator repair guy’s coming next week,” she said.

“It’s not that. It’s the pigeons.”

“Pigeons?”

“Outside my window.”

She turned the page. The newspaper crinkled. The sound suggested a predator crushing the bones of a small bird. Possibly a pigeon. If pigeons had predators. “Don’t let this shock you,” she said, “but the city’s filled with pigeons.”

“Yes, but I’ve never heard them outside my window before. They woke me in the middle of the night. I couldn’t get back to sleep.” He sniffled.

The Building Manager lowered the newspaper. “Tissue?” Without waiting for an answer, she extracted one from beneath her sweater’s left sleeve.

Adonis slipped the tissue into his jacket pocket. “I don’t like pigeons,” he said.

She scowled.

“Not on the ledge outside my window. All night. And the mess.”

“And I’m supposed to do what?”

Adonis shifted his weight. He hoped to have time to walk to the Museum as he did most mornings unless rain or exceptional cold forced him onto the bus. Were it not for those walks, he’d likely balloon into Falstaff-like proportions. “You could call one of those pest-control companies,” he said.

The Building Manager placed a finger on her lower lip. The motion implied that she took her tenants’ concerns to heart as long as they didn’t cause her to expend undue energy. “You’re not happy here?”

Adonis was quite happy. His studio proved adequate for a single man who only occasionally hosted guests and never more than one at a time. Closet space was limited, but he owned little in the way of clothing or anything else other than books. Most of his contemporaries had forsaken paper for the digital world, but he remained something of an antediluvian. Volumes of art and art history filled several shelving units. Others squatted in stacks along the walls. For reasons of economy as well as space, the remainder of his reading took the form of e-books. He devoured mysteries by British and Scandinavian authors. A few African writers caught his imagination. Occasionally, he indulged in extended bouts of science fantasy. Rent was affordable since the neighborhood, while boasting interesting cafés and restaurants, had yet to fall prey to gentrification.

“So?” asked the Building Manager.

Adonis wondered if he detected a hint of menace. If a woman probably as old as his mother could be menacing. Although he often found his mother intimidating. He smiled to demonstrate his good intentions.

The Building Manager raised the newspaper. “Slip a note under my door, Light.”

He sniffled again. “Licht. As if it was spelled L-i-c-k-e-d.”

She peered over the top of the newspaper. “Whatever.”

“Anyway, thanks,” he said to stay on her good side.

She turned the page.

He started down the sidewalk. Something wet splattered his left shoulder.

2

Exiting the café he stopped at every morning, Adonis glanced uncomfortably at his shoulder. He’d initially used the tissue given him by the Building Manager to soak up some of the pigeon shit that had found him as if he’d been laser-targeted. Following up with dampened napkins from the café almost disguised the attack.

Although the Museum was only a block ahead and his sleepless night left him drained, he turned the corner and approached a narrow, dead-end alley nearly devoid of sunlight. Its grime-crusted brick walls, despite their flat planes, created the illusion of towering trees in a forbidding, Brothers Grimm forest inhabited by giants, ogres and witches. The alley could well have been the point of intersection with another dimension.

Adonis held up a small cardboard tray holding two large lattes and two paper bags, each containing an apple turnover. One of each was for him. The others constituted gifts for Anna, who sat just inside the alley’s entrance. He’d given her that name as a bit of wordplay relating to her anonymity despite a considerable degree of visibility. As to her real name, he thought asking to be inappropriate. She’d never offered it. She’d never spoken.

Most mornings he found Anna there perched like an apparition on a small folding stool, its legs hidden beneath her. She kept a dented grocery cart close. Black plastic bags stuffed to bursting spilled over the cart’s sides. Adonis wondered if they contained remnants from another life. He supposed she spent nights in the alley. When she’d taken to the streets and why remained concealed.

He first noticed Anna several months after assuming his position at the Museum. He responded to her with a measure of disgust. She might well have emerged from the farther reaches of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, enveloped as she appeared to be in multiple layers of clothing encased in industrial-size garbage bags with holes cut for her head and arms. A black wool cap hid the length and color of her hair. It descended far enough to cover her forehead and eyebrows. A black scarf concealed her neck and the lower half of her face. Black gloves obscured her hands. Black shoes and socks covered her feet.

Adonis could make out only her eyes—the irises as black as the shopping bags and accessories—the flesh beneath them and the bridge of her nose. The small revelation of a deep golden skin tone suggested vermillion and yellow ochre with touches of ultramarine and titanium white. A passerby might take away the impression of an ageless woman from a distant, exotic land. Or a character from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

A week later, he acknowledged that Anna was, after all, a human being. Contrite, he brought her a cup of coffee, which she accepted but did not drink in his presence. The next week, he brought coffee and a pastry. This became a weekly ritual. He assumed that she devoured his gifts after he left to avoid revealing herself, a situation he found disappointing at first but one to which he soon acquiesced. By the end of his first year at the Museum, the frequency of his offerings rose to two mornings a week. Sometimes three. She’d reveal the hint of a nod and a glint in those black eyes. Beyond that, Anna maintained the contemplative silence of a cloistered nun. But if she would not—or could not—speak, she provided Adonis a cherished gift. Unlike his mother, she listened.

“Big meeting today,” said Adonis.

Anna’s gaze encouraged him to continue.

His right eye began to tear. He sniffled. He realized he’d forgotten to bring napkins from the café. “I really don’t feel comfortable in meetings.”

• • •

The Curator in Charge of the Department of Renaissance Art set coffee in china cups at the far end of the polished teak conference table—one before the Museum Director and the other before the Chief Curator.

Adonis’ eyes followed her return to her seat. He knew it unwise to stare. Still, he couldn’t help himself. The Curator in Charge, who happened to be his boss, drew attention to herself, wanted or not. That, Adonis believed, made the two of them polar opposites.

A feeling of self-consciousness crept over Adonis unrelated to the Curator in Charge’s striking appearance, which always left him a little uneasy. She’d advised him and his fellow Curatorial Assistant to dress casually for the meeting. In response, he’d chosen a blue oxford shirt to go with his usual khakis. Now he felt like a child at the adults’ table.

The Museum Director, as always, struck Adonis as being as imposing as a four-star general. He wore a dark gray suit, white shirt with blue pinstripes and navy tie displaying the museum’s logo in gold. The Chief Curator, to whom all departmental Curators in Charge reported, wore a blue blazer, white shirt and crimson tie along with gray slacks—a wardrobe choice both impeccable and subtly deferential. For her part, the Curator in Charge dressed in a simple white blouse revealing a hint of cleavage. More than a hint, Adonis thought. It and a navy skirt displayed her figure to full advantage. Her Administrative Assistant, who had stepped out of the room, wore a more modest blouse and flowing skirt.

The Curator in Charge turned to Adonis. “Be a dear and pour me a coffee, would you? The African blend. And you’re not coming down with something, are you?”

Adonis shook his head. If a cold was trying to infiltrate his system, he’d fight it off. In five years at the Museum, he’d taken only two or three sick days. Following her request—or was it a command?—he circled the table to a cart containing two containers of coffee, a large bowl of mixed fruit and a tray of small, elegant pastries. The Museum Director having passed, the fruit and pastries remained untouched.

“Soy milk,” called the Curator in Charge.

Adonis complied.

The Administrative Assistant reentered the room and sat.

The Curator in Charge nodded as Adonis placed the coffee in front of her. “Thank you, Adonis,” she said.

The Museum Director turned to the Chief Curator. “Shouldn’t we have placed someone named Adonis in the Department of Antiquities?”

The Chief Curator smiled. As did the Curator in Charge, the Assistant Curator in Charge, the Administrative Assistant and the Communications Director, who wore a matching gray skirt and jacket. The male Curatorial Assistant with whom Adonis worked on the project to be discussed smirked.

“My parents named me Adonis because they have degrees in the Classics. They were double majors, actually. Classics and Asian Studies.” He remembered offering that same explanation at two previous meetings. Possibly three. He assumed he’d have to offer it again—and that ten minutes after the meeting, both the Museum Director and the Chief Curator would be unable to pick him out of a random group of employees.

The Museum Director’s lips barely curved upward as if he was greeting the hundredth guest on a reception line. “Yes, of course.” He turned to the Chief Curator then to the Curator in Charge. “So where do we stand?”

The Curator in Charge nodded to the Administrative Assistant who turned down the lights. A PowerPoint slide filled a large screen. It bore the title Madonna and Child: The Love of Beauty, the Beauty of Love. The Museum’s upcoming exhibition would showcase paintings of Mary and the infant Jesus—all acknowledged as masterpieces—from around the world. The exhibition would run from mid-autumn through mid-winter before transferring to a collaborating institution sharing its expertise and the considerable costs involved.

Adonis, having done considerable legwork on the exhibition along with his fellow Curatorial Assistant, focused his attention on the Curator in Charge. She could have been taken for a brunette version of Botticelli’s Venus. True, she was older than Venus. Older than him for that matter but not more than forty. Early forties tops. Like a goddess, she defied age. Her figure aroused his fantasies, although it often left him with the impression less of erotic curves than sharp angles. Most intriguing, her left foot turned slightly in. From time to time she walked with a barely detectable limp. Adonis found this oddly alluring. Perfection, he considered, might be a greater flaw.

A slide came up of a masterpiece held by a private collector.

The Curator in Charge pressed her palms together. Even in the near-dark, her face glowed. “Wonderful news,” she said. “I’m pleased, thrilled, honored, overjoyed to announce that Clark Merrill, one of the city’s most prominent business leaders and a member of our board, has agreed to donate the painting we’ve been talking about for so long. It’s the breathtaking Madonna and Child by the sixteenth-century German Norbertus of Hannover, who’s had the art world buzzing these last few years.”

Murmurs of approval rang out around the table.

“I don’t have to tell you that the competition was fierce. Despite Mr. Merrill’s relationship with the Museum, another institution with rather grand ambitions nearly secured the painting. Let’s just say that I snatched away Mr. Merrill’s commitment in the nick of time.”

The lights went up.

The Museum Director clasped his hands. “I’m very pleased. We’re all very pleased. That painting going anywhere else would have been an embarrassment.”

Heads nodded in unison.

The Communications Director cleared her throat. “And what valuation will we announce?”

The Curator in Charge beamed. “The appraiser puts it at thirty-five million.”

“A nice little tax deduction,” said the Museum Director.

“Of course, that’s less than half the price of Holbein the Younger’s Darmstadt Madonna at auction in 2011. Not even close to the Modigliani that brought a hundred-and-seventy million with fees at Christie’s in 2015.”

“Impressive enough,” said the Museum Director. “And provenance?” He looked down the table at Adonis. “I take it provenance has been wrapped up?”

• • •

 

At lunchtime, Adonis found a table in a far corner of the Museum’s basement café. If he ever rose to Assistant Curator, he’d be privileged to eat in the members dining room. But that leap might take years. And even if he could ward off the competition, the promotion probably would be his last at the Museum.

A Ph.D. remained a possibility if programs didn’t dismiss his undergrad and graduate work at run-of-the-mill public universities. His parents could have covered the tuition at any prestigious private school, but his mother had baulked. You go off to one of those hotshot schools and you lose the common touch. Your father and I kept that. We made it work for us. That said, his parents met at an expensive private university heralded for its academic standing and liberal bent. His mother frequently boasted that her parents wrote all the checks. Your father’s parents? Timid people. They always struggled. Your father went on scholarship. Whether she was proud or dismissive of that, Adonis remained unsure.

So, a doctorate. And then what? He acknowledged lacking the drive and political cunning of his Curator in Charge. Or, for that matter, his mother and brother, whose undergraduate degrees proved sufficient to their purposes. They were strivers, trampling obstacles like bull elephants in heat. Yet some surprise might lie ahead. After all, his father, as laid-back as they came, built the family fortune.

Adonis returned to his sandwich: grilled vegetables and feta cheese on focaccia. A healthy choice. Chips balanced things out. His mother disapproved of chips unless the potatoes were organic and baked. Making the case for quality of life, he ripped the bag open.

The other Curatorial Assistant who’d attended the morning’s meeting dropped into the seat opposite.

Only now did it occur to Adonis that the Curatorial Assistant wore a shirt with alternating inch-wide mauve and pink stripes. Second thoughts leaped out at him. He’d chosen his blue oxford to demonstrate his seriousness. Blue symbolized royalty and authority since blue dyes—like pigments—once were difficult to obtain and thus expensive. Artists found blue in abundance with the commercial manufacture of Prussian blue in 1823. Had he left the higher-ups with the impression that he was stodgy and unimaginative? A more strategic choice would have been his mock Mondrian with its squares and rectangles of red, yellow and, yes, blue. Primary colors. Powerful colors. Or would the mock Mondrian have colored him quirky, the antithesis of a team player? Why not an orange jumpsuit?

The Curatorial Assistant narrowed his eyes. “What’s in the bag?”

“Another sandwich.”

“For?”
“Someone.”

“That someone being a semi-exotic Asian type who works the membership desk?”

Adonis feigned annoyance.

“No offense, but she’s no beauty queen. That’s why semi-exotic. But a warm body’s a warm body.”

Adonis made no effort to explain that he’d bought the sandwich for Anna.

“Anyway,” said the Curatorial Assistant, “it’s your ass.”

Adonis stared.

“The provenance you did on Norbertus’ Madonna and Child.”

We did. To make sure asses were covered.”

“A certain ass. And a fine ass our Curator in Charge displays.”

Adonis cast a look at the Curatorial Assistant like a father finding his son staring at naked women in a magazine and, remembering his own youth, unsure how to respond.

“Look, I’m not the only guy here who thinks this way,” said the Curatorial Assistant. “The straight guys, anyway. It’s just that the Museum expects you to project this image of gentility, which is total bullshit. You ever really listen to our exalted Museum Director? Besides, you know the kind of lives most artists lived. And whose work hangs on our walls? Anyway, someone with an incredible ass wanted to show the powers-that-be how she works her staff—you and me primarily—to the bone, leaves no stone unturned, climbs every mountain. Even fords every stream.”

“You don’t think those clichés are a bit worn?”

The Curatorial Assistant shrugged.

Adonis nodded. It had taken a major effort to unearth documentation relevant to ownership of the Norbertus painting. They’d even uncovered a letter from a marquis, who bought the painting before the French Revolution and an unanticipated encounter with the guillotine. It detailed a previously unknown work by an obscure German artist elevated into the pantheon only in the mid-twentieth century. The Virgin cradled the infant Jesus in a garden of Italianate design. Green hills rose in the background. Clouds dotted a blue sky in which—the work’s signature feature—floated a palace. A noted German laboratory authenticated the letter.

The Curatorial Assistant smiled. “I’m just saying, shit happens. And you being low man on the totem pole, guess who takes the fall?”