Simone Morris

White Walls

I work at the Marina Oak Gallery in New York City because one day I saw a flier, called the listed number, and had a voice that sounded unsure when the other side picked up. They hired me because, to use their terms, it seemed I was “malleable.” And I didn’t question it because I knew I would have something to say about myself when asked; that I have a job. Except the case was then and the case is now that that’s all I can say. Contractually, I can’t say it’s a job where I spend all day in a room, walls completely white, answering phone calls in as contrary a nature as I can muster, a job where I know so little about the people who employ me I sometimes forget they exist at all, a job where when I speak I must pretend to be someone else and when I don’t speak I try not to think about the someone else I once was. Outside of my agreement with the gallery, though, I’m still nothing but an employee, and I think about how it’s nice right now not really to be anything. And then I feel the vice around my lungs and let it tighten a bit before I take a deep breath and force it open, if only for a little bit.

Where I live is not far from the above-ground section of the F train, and when it passes it’s ghostlike behind me, yet I can hear it, colliding with its tracks, making audible friction with the air. At times, when I am tired perhaps, or simply not concentrating, I can’t bring myself to think of its location in logical geographical relation to me. Instead, what it sounds like becomes a reality, transporting me into some dreamlike state, in which everything is thundering towards me; the traffic otherwise not associated with trains, horns, voices, the usually silent buildings and the inconsistencies in the street’s tar. It’s not a kind of claustrophobia that overcomes me – that’s what I would expect to feel. Instead it’s this kind of acceptance of all the separate life out there in Brooklyn, separate from me and separate between each element that is to me one thing, united by the very fact of its detachment from me. The train sounds like it’s passing directly by my window, though in reality its path is perpendicular and blocks away. It sounds like it’s gliding through the air, the way dragon kites do, jerked by passing breeze or the child holding the other end of the string. The train becomes its own kind of creature: mechanical, sure, but distinct in and of itself, by way of routes taken and the marks people leave inside. It only makes sense that the city becomes a place not entirely manmade when I get into these states. Instead, what began as monolithic unbreathing monuments against nature have become soft and malleable, made so by the people who live here or the animals who have found shelter in its openings. When the residents of this bizarre concrete town become the rightful inhabitants of their environment, their influence no longer can be characterized as “manmade,” instead they – we – have found our niche and created our own ecosystem. I don’t get much greenery living here, it’s true. But I am surrounded by a kind of moving vivacity that rocks me to comfort.

When I myself am on the train I have no identity; I am just a body sitting on a shuttle along with everyone else in our shared space. I have passively worked hard to become this way, starting midway through college, and by the time college ended, I didn’t have anyone from home to call or call me, or anyone for congratulations from school. There were my parents, but now they’ve stopped trying. I let them know I am alive by sometimes calling them and saying the nice things they want to hear, like, “The weather is very nice today, yes, it’s cold, but it’s also bright which makes it easy not to notice!” Or, “Today the woman who lives downstairs’ cat had kittens and I can hear their sweet mews through the door when I pass by.” This makes them happy. Other times I will send them things that are very New York and my message to them will be in the loops of my handwriting on the package’s address sticker that has voyaged across the country to their Washington door.

I sit on the F, thinking about something new to send them, which is pointless because whatever I find usually presents itself to me and feels appropriate and insignificant, to the point where I have no idea what I have sent them in the past. For all I know I am sending them the same gift over and over again, and they are too polite to say anything, or too concerned to know how to act. In either case, there’s a silence I appreciate, and I am left with no inspiration.

The train is forcing me to move in what is to me a very unnatural swaying, though within the confines of the car not to move at all would be eerie and force me to lurch into those nearby. A strange soft clanking sound draws my attention to the center pole a few feet from me, and on the ground is a woman, crumpled and dazed. There is an empty seat very close to her, and she reaches towards it, reclaiming it. She looks up at me, then around to everyone else staring. “That just happens sometimes, sorry,” she says, eyes on the pole. She holds her head as she fills the orange seat, and stays like that for a little while, before moaning a bit. “It just hurts.” No one says anything more.

I get out at 23rd Street and begin walking towards the river, trying to strip myself of the woman’s weird cries, trying to make myself blank, preparing myself for another day of blinding whiteness all around. These streets are streets, I must remember, there is nothing to them. These people are not worth looking at, and they must be avoided. When I am in the circulating air, out of the subway in Manhattan, I am working and must adjust my thinking to the kind of mindset Marina so likes. I am not anyone particularly, though I could be whomever the caller wants as long as I am not myself. The place in which I work, the famed Marina Oak Gallery, the exclusive, gorgeously curated and perfectly managed art gallery does not sell art. Nor does it show art. I do not know why the gallery is, but it is, and I do not know what I do for them except that I do it. I am in no way a part of any kind of performative art, and I will not leave anything memorable behind, except perhaps a few million skin cells or the scratches my bag’s buckle leaves on the softer surfaces.

I work in the front room of the gallery, and the white walls and a computer I stare into for eight hours a day are the only things surrounding me. Sometimes people call, and if they ask for anything resembling the gallery, it’s my job to tell them that they’ve reached the wrong number, unless they’ve tried one of our false lines. The real phone line connects only to the back room, but I’m not even allowed in there.

As far as I know, the only way to forge passage between the rooms is through the other side. It threw me, the first time, because the wall I sit against isn’t actually anchored to the floor; instead it acts as a door, pushing out towards me when someone slips between the rooms. Other than Marina and the other, I don’t know if anyone goes back there, or when anyone is actually back there. Sometimes I hear muffled sounds that seem like they could be voices, but I think that’s just the blood in my brain telling me that it’s still there, flooding around. Sometimes, though, I’ll answer the phone and I’ll pretend to be whomever the callers hoped to reach. Sometimes I am, anyway. They’ll call asking for some pizza place – Mario’s or Mama’s – and I’ll take their order and tell them how delicious it sounds, how I wish I were the recipient of that pie, how all those toppings together sound so, so good. One guy gave me his credit card number to pay, and I spent the rest of the afternoon looking at it, thinking about how I could use it, until the indecision and guilt of it all weighed heavily on me and I crumpled it up and dunked it in my glass of water. I watched the ink leave the paper and turn the liquid blue, slightly blue. Another time a girl called me, complaining that she had been sent to the principal’s office for biting one of her friends. She kept talking at me before I could say anything, saying Mommy, I’m sorry, but she just made me so mad. That time I hung up even before she stopped talking.

Though I’m trying to immerse myself in only work-related thoughts, I cannot help but wonder why, and then become slightly horrified by the reality of the fact that it was warmer in the train station than it is outside, now. I don’t particularly like the idea of other people’s body heat and who knows what other fermenting things keeping me warmer than when I am exposed to the city’s circulating air. While I think about this I am attacked by wind coming off of the Hudson and picture it flapping away behind me, taking any remaining scraps of my personality with it. I’ll gather them on my way home.

I reach the building in which the gallery is located, but that building’s entrance does not allow for getting into the actual set of rooms itself. The true entrance is in the building next door, and even though I use it every day, the doorway always seems to elude me. Posters and flyers and stickers for bands going nowhere cover the opening. Every time I get here I feel like the paper changes and I always pass it by. Once I’m through, I have to walk down a long hallway, through another door, down stairs, up stairs, to an elevator that opens directly into the room where I sit every day. In my year or so of working for Marina, I haven’t seen any outsiders come into the gallery.

The phone is ringing even as I step out of the elevator into my pristine white room. I sit down, pick it up, and don’t say anything.

“Hi,” a man’s voice says, comfortably. I still don’t say anything. “How are you?”

“What can I do for you?”

“Is this the gallery? Marina Oak Gallery?”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t know what that is, sorry,” I say and hang up.

After all calls it is my job to note down the tone of the caller’s voice, the questions he or she asks, and if he or she tries to call again.

I wait. He doesn’t.

I lean back in my chair, take off my jacket, and take out the glass of water waiting for me in the mini-fridge beneath the desk. It was made to look like a filing cabinet, white. The phone rings again.

“Hello? Is this Marley’s Oats and Goods?” It’s a woman with a hoarse voice and a thick Queens accent.

“Yep, since nineteen eighty-three. How may I help you?”

“I want to get some oats. A pound?”

“Great,” I say. “Which kind would you like? We have all sorts.”

“There are kinds?”

“Uh-huh. Rolled, whole, or steel cut. Gluten-free or not. Each kind can come mixed with other wonderful breakfast grains, if you should choose, for a little morning excitement!”

“Oh,” she says, suddenly a bit trepidatious.

“You know, you sound like you’re a rolled kind of woman who doesn’t need any hodgepodge with your first, all-important meal of the day. Let’s just get you some rolled oats. Would you like a jar or a bag? Jars are more durable, but cost an extra dollar. Bags might break during the shipping process. Let’s set you up with a jar.”

“Okay,” she says, and sounds relieved that these difficult decisions are being made for her. She gives me her shipping and billing information, which I listen to and then forget.

“You’ll have this in a week or less,” I say, “otherwise the order’s oat of our pocket!”

As I hang up and start towards the notepad, I notice Marina has just slipped through the wall-door and is moving away from the created gap. Every time she makes such an entrance I feel dizzy; I feel the room should be turned into some kind of a vacuum, filled with the negative space created by the wall’s movement. She is this tiny little woman, Marina, she has these small, small hands that are always fidgeting, and she never looks me in the eye.

“Keep doing that,” she says. “That’s in your job description now. I loved it. It was so funny.” As sincere as she sounds, I don’t think anything I have just done is funny enough to warrant a visit from my otherwise absent employer.

“Um,” I say, and before I have the chance to say anything else, she’s gone into the back area, which seems to have no light at all compared to the overwhelming white that envelopes my own room out here. But before she fully closes the door, she opens it again and pops out. Standing in the gap, she asks, “Did I ever tell you about when I nursed my second-born?”

“I didn’t know you had borne any, actually,” I say.

“Yes. She would get so annoying that right before she would feed, I’d drink a martini or two! She’d go straight to sleep after that. Of course, those were easier times, the seventies. I know it’s wrong now, but it’s very funny!” She is not laughing, and I realize I have never heard her laugh. She disappears again, and then once more opens the wall. “I am so glad you’ve done this.” She grins, toothily, and I notice for the first time that her teeth are more yellow than white, and at least three are gold.

No one calls for the rest of the day. Marina doesn’t come out again, either, and I hear no sounds from the back, no thuds, no human noises. I don’t know if she or the others live back there, or what she spends her time doing. I leave, taking the extended pathway to the street exit, smelling the heavy, dry odor of old paint, which has lingered in the final corridor for as long as I have worked here. I close the door and wait for the satisfying clicks that indicate I might slowly begin to let go of the day and become myself again. As I turn around to begin walking, I notice a guy, my age maybe, leaning against the side of the building, a few feet from me.

“Hi,” he says, comfortably. “Do you know how to get to the Marina Oak Gallery?”

I freeze and my face snaps into a vacant wide-eyed smile. When I speak my voice is a few notes higher than I am used to. I say “I don’t know,” and I do my best to move my face into an empathetic and apologetic smile. I nod, awkwardly, more of a tic than a social symbol, and start to walk away.

“Wait,” he says. “Did I talk to you earlier?”

Instead of answering I look at his nose but there isn’t anything about it. I cannot bring myself to look at his eyes, so I breathe and say, “I don’t think so.” He nods and his entire physicality seems to fold and weaken. If I move too quickly I feel like I could create a gust that would push him into the crevice between the building and the sidewalk, and he would be defeated. So I don’t move, and I look at him, fully. His eyes are hazel.

In my saving him from the concrete, he has gained himself another breath and says, “Okay. Okay. But do you know anything about the gallery?”

“Why?”

“Because it seems like you would know.”

“Why?”

“Because I need you to.”

“Why?”

“Well, do you see the sign there, in that window in this building on the corner? On the second floor, the one reading ‘Marina Oak Gallery’?”

I nod.

You can’t get in from that building, there’s no way to get there, and this building, the one you just came out of, is the only one connected. I think. Well, there’s a weird alley on the other end. Anyway, do you think you see why I might ask you?”

Yes,” I say, but I’m afraid I can’t help you.” He is not moving. I am not moving. I look at the ground and see our shadows stretched under the streetlights, knowing well that in a few months, early spring, the lights won’t be necessary at this point in the evening; the sun will provide all the light we need.

And I think about sunlight. It travels however many miles, and its color refuses consistency. It is warm and it makes things here grow. It helps us with our natural processes. We need it. I understand now that we are dependent upon something that is not even a part of this earth, yet it changes everything it touches here, both chemically and in appearance. Earth flirts with it, causing constant, imperceptible changes in shading and brightness; in concert the two make every object and every staging unique.

The streetlight is stagnant now, and so is he, under its influence. I appreciate what I need, and I have had enough, tonight, of what I don’t. I stop looking at the ground, and I turn around and walk quickly away from him, back to the subway and back to myself. The white walls, gold teeth, and hazel eyes become a part of the receding distance, and I am tired.