The Curator's Last Day
It was midnight, and the museum was empty. As I walked down the halls on my way to the office on the third floor, I couldn't help but feel a bit uneasy at the vacant stares of the skulls lurking in the glass display cases behind me. It seemed this feeling always hit me on nights like these, nights when the wind outside howled and the distant laughs and curses from the night security guards' Tuesday night poker games in the break room drifted through the building's massive halls.
I turned right, past the marble staircase that lead to the atrium and walked towards the elevator at the end of the corridor. As I neared the elevator, I stopped dead in my tracks. An odd sensation swept over me. It was the kind of feeling that accompanied those quiet nights, alone in an unyielding setting, like an icy draft that crept its way into a room after you opened a window on a frigid day.
It was the feeling of being watched. I wasn't exactly frightened by this feeling; it just made me a bit uneasy. I turned around slowly. My eyes darted back and forth between the Roman tapestries and tribal masks that populated the cavernous room. Nothing, not even so much as a whisper or a breath. Had I forgotten my medication at morning?
I'd always felt a little nervous when I forgot to take them, but this was different. It had been hard to remember to take the pills every morning after Maria passed. I was getting older now, slowly nearing the age when I wouldn't be able to work. I knew I couldn't keep this up for much longer. This job, I meant. I'd known it for some time, and even when I was younger I knew that day would come. But who else on earth could say that he was the head curator of one of New England's most prestigious museums for over forty years?
I turned away from the elevator as I decided to walk the marble stairs that led to the third floor. A little exercise never hurt. Besides, Dr.Schneider always told me that exercise is what would keep me going for ten more years. Doctors, what did they know? If I'm exercising like Doc told me to, then why did I feel like I couldn't handle this job anymore? As I made my ascension up the steps, that same foreboding chill struck me and yet again left me motionless.
I spun around to catch the source of my unease, but my gaze was only returned by the ancient Greek statues that lined the halls, frozen in their poses of triumph and sorrow, just as before. I ignored my paranoia and continued to ascend the endless stairwell in front of me. After a harrowing climb, I finally reached the top. As I stood on the highest step, I looked out to the vast expanse of the museum's main hall below me, just as Hillary viewed the snowy peaks of Tibet after climbing Everest. I was tired, though and I had completely lost my breath. My heart pounded and my lungs demanded more air. I sat down on the top step for a bit, trying to recover as much as I could, but after a few minutes, I got restless once more and stood up.
The doorknob to the office had been worn for as long as I can remember. Of course the forty some years of my continual opening and closing of the door every day probably contributed to its appearance. The door was jammed. That was odd. The door had never jammed before. I gave a tug, but the door wouldn't budge. Maybe after all these years the door had finally busted, or maybe the door wasn't really jammed at all and I was just getting weaker.
Then I remembered that the door opened forward into the office, not out. Why had I forgotten that? Perhaps it was just because I was tired and I wasn't thinking straight. The old radiator in the corner of the room started to whine as soon as I opened the door. Just the look of the radiator made me remember how old this building was. I stumbled towards the back of the room and plopped down in the ancient leather chair behind my desk. The chair's leather was beginning to peel, but it felt good to rest in it. To the outsider, the whole office would seem to be it a state of disarray, but to me it was the only place that actually made sense anymore. The room was, however, completely devoid of dust. Years ago when I first took this job I made it very clear to the custodians that they could dust the place as much as they wanted, but they were not to touch or re-organize anything.
It was late and I spun my chair around to face the window. It was snowing outside and I knew it would be murder trying to drive home. I gave some serious thought to the notion of staying there for the night to avoid getting into an accident on the icy road. After all, that office was the only place in the world where I had complete control. That room had always been there for me, almost like a friend in a way. It was there where I battled the hundreds of papers I completed over the years and it was here where I could always retreat from the stress and uncertainty of life at home. Every day for the past forty some years when I came to work each morning, I could be sure that everything in the office was in the exact same place as I left it the night before. I sat and rested for a while, but then I began to wonder why I had gone to such lengths to get up to the office. Maybe some last piece of work needed to be finished and now I'd forgotten what it was. Maybe I went there because I didn't want to go back home to no one.
It was my last day at the museum. Some of the other curators and guardsman threw me a sort of farewell party in the break room. It was... nice. There was some chocolate cake and Nora, one of the museum researchers, brought in some sugar cookies. Everybody at the party wished me a happy and relaxing retirement, a retirement that I thought was more or less forced upon me. The museum board had "suggested" that it would be "in my best interest step down from my position". The word "suggest" seemed more like demand to me. But I guess I couldn't blame them. The board knew what was going on. They had noticed that I was missing important meetings and forgetting important dates. In those last few months it had been a real struggle to get my work done.
They probably had some eager young college graduate with a brand new PhD ready to take my job. How could they have expected anyone else to run this museum like I did for thirty some years? I knew everything about that museum, all its history, nuances, even its secrets. Like for example, there were a few antique Chinese vases stashed in the basement that the founder of the museum bought on the black market years ago and a few of the diamonds in the jewelry exhibits are fakes. Some secrets I would never even dare to mention.
I can remember the first time I visited the museum. It was years ago when I was a child, probably no more than six or seven. My parents had taken me one weekend and as I walked those halls, I remember feeling completely awed. It was that moment that I knew I wanted to devote my life to that place. I spent most of my adult life in thet museum. For years it was my home, the only place in the world where I actually felt welcome, where I actually enjoyed life. Now it was all over. I was doomed to spend my last days on this earth in a cold and lonely little home with nobody. I had no wife anymore, no kids, not even any friends. I started thinking about what I would do with myself in those last few years. The notion of not being able to take care of myself terrified me. I began to think about the end...
Then I realized why I had gone to my office in the first place. I bent down and opened one of the desk's draws and pulled out a bottle of scotch and a small glass. I poured myself a drink and took a sip. It had been a while since I had had a drink and the liquid burned a little as it slid down my throat. I knew I man of my age shouldn't really be drinking, but this was my last night at the office. As I continued my drink I stared out the window, watching the snow hit the glass pane and melt into small drops of water. For the first time in my life, I sat in my office and wondered about what lay ahead. But in the back of my mind, something told me "don't worry about the future, at least you're here now."
After I finished my drink I got up, put my wrinkled overcoat on, and left the office. Even though it was my last day I thought it would be nice if I locked up one last time, so I pulled out the museum's keys and headed downstairs. Before I left, I had to make a quick run around the building to check for any unlocked doors or open windows. There were none so I headed for the front doors. "This was it," I thought. "Once I pass out these doors I'm never going back in." It saddened me to think like that. Right before I opened the doors I turned around and took one last look at the main hall. I stood there for a few seconds, almost to say goodbye to the building in a way since it had been my only friend for so many years. The sensation I felt a few hours before when I walked the stairs to the office was gone.
When I stepped outside, I was instantly met with a cold blast of December air. I locked the doors behind me and then started walking to the car. As the snow fell on my head that night, I pretended that it was just the end of every other work day. In the back of my mind, it still felt as though I would go back to the museum in the morning. Even though I knew full well that this was probably the last time I would look upon that magnificent building, It almost felt as if I were still there and, for only a moment, that thought made me feel a bit better.