``Where's the wench?'' the old man asked me.
``Uh, she's at a meeting right now,'' I answered, just as I'd done so many times that summer, ``can I take a message?''
``She's with one of those NEA posers, isn't she?'' he asked.
``I'm afraid so, sir.''
``Are they in that office back there?''
``No sir, they went to lunch.''
``Okay, I'll wait right here,'' he said, sitting down next to a couple of would-be sculptors and a pseudo-painter in the waiting area. ``That is, if you don't mind.''
``Uh, no, not at all.''
It was my worst MIT summer job ever. At least at Pritchett I could be rude and make chicken puck, pickle and mustard frappes. Of course, the cockroaches were disgusting and the never-ending stream of Grateful Dead tapes drove me insane, but overall it was better than this desk job. The official title was Student Assistant to the Public Relations Department of the List Visual Arts Gallery, and as it turned out, the List Visual Arts Gallery consisted of nothing but a public relations department. The job was sitting at a desk in a windowless office of a horrendous I.M. Pei-designed abomination of a building, and running interference for the director, who was constantly beset by remarkably incompetent fifth-rate self-proclaimed artists. Most of my days were spent telling bearded, black-clad, art school drop-outs that the director was at a meeting of some sort and agreeing that their collection of candy wrapper bras was a searing indictment of the shallowness of the paternalistic American capitalist system. Occasionally, I was given some minor clerical task, such as typing gallery labels for some pretentious creep who had managed to get a grant for his hackneyed artistic concept.
The old man in the office that day was a different story altogether. He was Harold ``Doc'' Edgerton, inventor of the strobe light, Institute Professor, co-founder of the EG\&G corporation, famed photographer and certified living legend. Although I regularly treated visitors with polite condescension then returned to my typing or to whatever sleazy fantasy novel I was reading, with Doc it was different. I could do nothing but stare at him and wonder. Doc was an artist of enough merit to get one of his photographs (the milkdrop as I recall) permanently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. What he was doing at the List, amidst the local arts pond scum, was beyond comprehension.
It took twenty minutes for Miss Elizabeth Rogers, director of PR, to come back from lunch. From the redness of her cheeks and the smell on her breath I deducted she had been hitting the Chateau Bimbeaux at the Boston Sail Loft again, an undeniable sign that the NEA had been paying for lunch. Elizabeth was, as Doc put it, a bitch, and especially after a few glasses of Bimbeaux. She had rather repellent notions about art. Her theories can best be summed up as ``art is too complicated for the mob of unwashed brutes to understand, so they should let me spend their money on what I think is art.'' Apparently, art was broiled salmon and white wine.
Doc stood up when she entered the room, cut in front of the three professional losers, and followed her into her office. After closing the door he berated her for fifteen minutes straight. From what I could make out, Doc had a radical exhibit proposal that Elizabeth was avoiding. Elizabeth replied with nothing but vague promises until Doc grew so angry that he stormed off. After Doc left, Elizabeth summoned me to her office. ``Echo, darling,'' she said, ``first of all, get rid of the java jockeys in the reception area, they're starting to collect dust.''
I went back outside, gave five cheap excuses and four vague promises, and cleared the room. Once I did so, Elizabeth called me again.
``Echo sweetheart,'' she began, ``you are not to say a word about this little encounter with Mr. Edgerton to anyone, anywhere, ever. Doc is quite advanced in years, and frankly, he doesn't have all his faculties anymore. But he's still an MIT role model, and we are to do everything in our power to keep that reputation intact. Understand'?''
``Oh sure, I won't say a word,'' I said.
``You better not dear, you better not.''
The incident had been odd, but I forgot it in a few days. Doc didn't return until two weeks later. I gave him the usual smoke-screen, except this time, Elizabeth really was in her office. ``Sweetie,'' he said to me gently, ``I may look like a pathetic old fart to you, but I can smell overpriced white wine from a mile away. I know she's in her office, and I'm going in. Excuse me.''
He pounded on her locked door a few times and when she refused to answer he took out a couple of wires and picked the lock. She sat at her desk with an amusing look of astonishment for the duration of Doc's tirade. ``Listen you incompetent yellow-bellied bitch! I'm sick and tired of every pimple-assed New York art-fag getting all the credit for crap that I came up with years and years ago and never received credit for. This Mapplethump asshole, this Serrado pinhead, I did it first, they ripped-off my stuff, and I get no credit. I'm the ONLY REVOLUTIONARY PHOTOGRAPHER IN AMERICAN HISTORY! EVERYTHING COMES FROM ME! I'M THE ROSETTA STONE! THE BIBLE! THE BIG BANG! I DID IT ALL! I DID IT FIRST! I DID IT BEST! AND I CAN PROVE IT! IN TEN GODDAMN PHOTOS! You can stop me for now, but I promise you, people will know someday. These works will be seen, with or without your help. The only reason I want to do it in your pansy-ass little gallery is so every PATHETIC WANKER WHO THINKS HE'S AN ARTIST CAN SEE THAT A REAL ARTIST HAS TO BE A GREAT SCIENTIST FIRST!''
As Doc left, he threw an envelope on Elizabeth desk, Once he was gone Elizabeth called me into her office. ``Echo dear,'' she said, ``I must repeat once again that everything you hear from Doc cannot leave this room.''
``Of course, Miss Rogers.''
``I don't think you quite grasp the gravity of the situation Miss Love. If you even mention this to that stoner boyfriend of yours you're both out of this institution. If you're lucky, that will be the biggest problem you'll have.''
``Think, darling, for once in your life. Do you really think there are as many suicides on campus as the Tech tells you?'' With that she motioned me to leave.
Stunned, I went back to my desk. A few minutes later I heard Elizabeth shriek in horror. My intuition told me I didn't want to know why. I heard her pick up the phone and call. She spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone. When I left at five she was still on the line.
The next morning Elizabeth dropped Doc's envelope on my desk.
``These are Doc's photos. You are to type up labels for them. Nobody is to know of the existence of these photos. Do you understand?''
I nodded, then made a mistake.
``Does this mean we are putting up Doc's exhibit?'' I asked.
``ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? OF COURSE NOT! You'll be doing this to pacify the old bastard until he forgets about this whole sordid scheme. He's a sick, old, decrepit man, he doesn't know what he's doing. Now, I'll be in my office, and I don't want to see a single human being today.''
I opened the envelope. First I read Doc's handwritten specs and titles then I opened a smaller envelope containing 5x7 preliminary prints.
All my life I had been interested in photography. I took a few visual arts classes; I volunteered for Technique; I subscribed to American Photography. I always had the feeling that there was nothing I had seen that I couldn't do myself, given enough money or time. Doc's regular photographs were easy enough to replicate. However, the ten photographs that I held in my hand that morning showed a sense of depravity, nihilism, technical expertise and pure undiluted artistry that would be impossible for any so-called artist to replicate. It was a case of a great genius looking into the abyss, finding the abyss looking back, and loving the experience. My reaction was a combination of awe and fear. That the man that produced such uncompromising art, a man that felt himself above all that humanity found sacred, had been in my presence, had even spoken to me, was more than I could bear. The man was a monster and a genius, and you could not separate one from the other. That very day I sold my Nikon and my lenses for beer money and I have never taken a photo since.
The ten prints were so shocking, that even though I wasn't allowed to keep written proof of their existence, I remember them, or more to the point, I am haunted by them to this day. These are the titles and descriptions:
Doc came to the office again a day later. He was visibly weaker than he had been the first time I had seen him that summer. He was much more pleasant that time. I handed him the typed labels, he thanked me and left. I never saw him again. He died the following winter. A heart attack did him in. I never heard anybody mention the photos, so I never did.
The summer ran its course. I wasn't invited back to work during the term, so I went back to flipping burgers. But my life was not the same. I dumped my boyfriend, stopped drinking, stopped socializing. I stayed in my room and stared at the walls.
Somehow I managed to finish out my program and get a degree. After graduation, I moved as far away as physically possible.
I'm sure nobody will believe my story. In the end, it really doesn't matter. It is the truth and it is horrible.