Out of luck. out of town and on the bus from outside Des Moines headed to the big city. Destination, the Art Institute of Chicago, hoping to land a job. The man sitting across from you the past few miles gets off also. He says you need to know to somebody and he becomes that person whose name you can drop.
You’re thinking how all this fell into place twenty-seven years ago. You’ve seen them come and go; other guards and daily viewers. You patrol two rooms on the second floor containing the most treasured artworks. Two paintings in particular you have claimed as your own, as steward. You possess them as much as anyone can ever possess a work of art; Hopper’s Nighthawks and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. They have followed you from flatland to city street.
The farm couple with pitchfork faces are well-known to you….and you to them. You greet them in the morning like your no-nonsense, taciturn parents. You know their story; you’ve done some homework.
As the artist tells it he was in the chair braced with a few shots of whiskey waiting for the Novacain to do its numbing, studying Doc McKeeby’s face. He remembers thinking how his dentist must stare into teeth all day the way his neighbors stare down rows of corn all behaving themselves. Folks do a lot of staring here in Iowa. Byron McKeeby says to relax, then yanks out the misbehaving tooth.
Tell you what, Doc, the artist says, what if I cover the bill by painting you? Suits me fine, says McKeeby. That’s how it all started he recalled. Then Grant Wood persuaded his sister, Nan, to pose. He aged her thirty years and gave her a face that could make milk sour. The dentist was already pinched and dour.
You know all this but to you they are American icons, hard work, stern and church-like with their gothic look in front of the gothic window. A museum guard can know too much or more than he wants to hear. You disregard what you have heard; that Wood, even toothless, had an ironic bite. It could be that the icon is a parody of who we think we no longer are. But for you it remains a time gone and austerity left behind.
In the other room you alone have found the portal into Hopper’s late-night café, this human still-life, gloomy for all its illumination. Even in the morning it is always near closing time. You take your place on a stool and stare into coffee, black and bitter. These night owls can’t afford to give a hoot. They are hawks scavenging for their lives.
You know these people from the resident hotel; the salesman down the hall, the redhead in the lobby waiting for a return call. Sometimes you are willing the counterman to catch your eye and be that man on the bus who lent you his name.
There is no one on the street, no easy chatter for the lost; only you, in your uniform, moving in and out of the frame rescuing yourself from this dead-end street where now and then you can almost spot the moon yellowing the wall like some sudden hundred-watt bright idea.