The Mouse

Kate Steciw, Untitled, 2011. Gelatin Silver Print, 20 × 16".

There was a woman in a white suit who had grown a human ear on a mouse and a curly-haired MacArthur genius who made documentary films on government secrecy. There was a two-man team of economists from Harvard, one of whom apologized for the absence of his companion, who was sick, and for sitting far apart from everybody else because he too was sick, although he assured everybody that neither of them had the swine flu. There was a number theory mathematician, an anthropologist who studied sheep herders, even a neo-Fluxus artist. And then there was Kemal, observing all these people until it was his turn to be introduced to the other fellows of the yearlong residency. He walked down the long hallway with its polished wooden floor, the ornate lamps shaped like clubs hanging threateningly from the ceiling, and when he introduced himself and his project, the words tumbled out in a mess, some of them lingering on for a while in the still air of the room. “Ramallah, Jaffa, occupation . . .” The four Israeli fellows in the audience nodded politely and smiled. They hadn’t been fooled.

The days went by quickly, unvaryingly, after that. He slept in the studio he had sublet in Inman Square and ate his meals at a loud, garish Indian café. At the residency office building, there were lunches three times a week, where the fellows were unvaryingly pleasant to each other and unable to remember each other’s names. On some evenings, a fellow gave a talk followed by wine and cheese. There was always a sprinkling of old ladies with creased faces at these sessions, and one or another of them would often drift up toward Kemal. She would ask him commonplace questions, but he could see in her angelic eyes that she had a special message for him. He would wait patiently for the old lady to give him the message but, as soon as she began, she would be drowned out by an announcement about the next event, followed by a rush of good-byes as the fellows hurried out into the Cambridge darkness that stretched all around them like a magic forest. Then Kemal stood by himself, taking in the empty wine bottles, bread crumbs, and the rubble from demolished squares of cheese, as an angry-looking Polish woman in a uniform arrived to clear everything away.

Kemal would step out into the Sunken Garden and look at the office building, empty but ablaze with lights, a palace without a king or a court. The building, once a science laboratory, had been converted a few years ago to house the offices and studios of the fellows on four levels, beginning at the basement and working up to the third floor. But when Kemal looked at the building from the Sunken Garden, he could see only two of the three floors. The top floor was not visible from outside. It was either a trick of perspective or a result of the recent remodeling, but it made the building seem larger inside than outside, a living, constantly adjusting space from which sprang an extra floor that contained Kemal’s office when he was indoors, and that vanished the moment he stepped outside.

He stayed late in his office. Even though the administrative staff were there only till five, he had twenty-four-hour access with his swipe card. After everybody left, he sometimes went out to get a cup of coffee from one of the numerous unsmiling women who worked in the cafés of Harvard Square. When he returned, he took the elevator instead of the stairs if he felt like company, listening to the recorded voice of a woman saying, “Going up! Thiiird floor.” He talked back to the woman, saying, “No, don’t go up. Go down. Stop on the second floor. The basement. OK, go up to the penthouse.” Of course she never responded.

When Kemal entered his office it was always the same, showing no sign of wear and tear at its constant vanishing and reappearing. There were gray steel cabinets, desks with particleboard surfaces, a blue armchair, and a swiveling office chair. On one wall, there was a motion detector shaped like a small speaker. It had a pair of eyes, one green and one red. The green one blinked constantly when Kemal was in the room, but the red one came on only from time to time, as if to indicate displeasure. There was a video camera on the ceiling, although it could perhaps have been a sprinkler. Then there was his computer, a large expanse of Mac that could be controlled remotely.

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