STORY: Claude and the Henry Moores

When I was young I met Knife Edge Two Piece, a bronze sculpture by HenryMoore that stands in Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver. My friends and I drummed on, vocalized into, dodged through, and play-acted with this simple, tactile, resonant, receptive piece of art. Years later I worked in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which housed a number of large works by the same sculptor. Of all the art that hung and stood and spun in that place, the most friendly and accessible remained the Henry Moores.

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Claude and the Henry Moores

by Casey Wolf

I was in a dream of excitement. When I rode on the open top of a bus I felt that I was travelling in Heaven almost. And that the bus was floating on the air.”

—Henry Moore, 1921

Claude Tubb—yes, his father had thought it was a funny name, too, and called Claude's younger sister Ivory, to boot—Claude Tubb strolled along Beverley Street en route to his first day of work at the AGO.

He liked the sound of that. A. G. O. It was hard, no-nonsense, urban and kind of hip, which was nice because he wasn't especially hip although he should have been urban at least, having lived every minute of his life in a city. But no, Claude didn't feel especially urban, either. Nevertheless, here he was, strolling up Beverley Street en route to the AGO, which is to say, the Art Gallery of Ontario, down on Dundas Street in the beating heart of Toronto. It sort of made him feel like an artist himself, and an important one, to be working there.

Claude turned up College Street and whistled in the crisp autumn air. He followed the walkway to the entrance, glanced down at the big sculptures there— looked to him like a weird mouth biting a big butt—and pushed his way through the glass doors. He walked past the guys in the little booths who greeted customers—patrons—and scooted on over to the changing room.

When Claude came back out again he was in full security drag, and he knew exactly where he had to go. Click, click, click along the corridors and up and down flights of stairs until he was standing in position among the Ukiyo-e prints, all delicate and perfect behind their glass, just a few of them hung on the bald, off-white walls.

It was brilliant, beautiful, serene. Claude was in heaven.

A cluster of people came through and passed right by Claude as if he wasn't there. They stood looking at a print of snow-clad mountains with odd and dark, angular trees. They chattered among themselves awhile, and then moved on.

A woman in a yellow wool jacket came in and gazed solemnly at each print in turn. She paused for a long time near a portrait of a grey kimono’d woman standing beneath a red-flowered azalea. Then she walked slowly from the room.

So it went. Room empty, room thinly peopled, and all the while Claude standing there ignored. His crest, if he had had one, would slowly have begun to droop. His legs, his feet, and his back gradually grew sore.

After a while Claude was moved. Another fellow took the print room and Claude walked along to the dark, lush Tom Thompson oils. Later still, the Greg Curnoe exhibit, with its flat bright bicycle and other odd things, was his to guard. Finally, the day was done. Claude wandered back to the staff room, collected his clothes without bothering to change, swooshed them up over his shoulder and walked outside. Bending over his cupped hands, he lit a cigarette. Took a long, mighty, most emphatic draw and blew it out, sad and pissed. Sighed, shrugged into his jacket, nodded goodbye to the biting mouth and back-thrust butt ("she wants it," he thought humourlessly) and went on home.

The rest of the week was very like the first day, and the rest of the month like the first week, with only one bright spot—lovely though it was.

Claude was not one to complain, really. He didn't fail to see the good he had. He was surrounded by art he would otherwise never have seen, and it was quiet in the museum, and there really was something special about staring into the eyes of a painted unknown person. Their colour, their pain, the wildness of those op-modern backgrounds or the softness of the more regular stuff—stuff with mountains and canoes and people bent over stooking hay in fields. The paintings were wonderful, and he was very grateful to get to be with them, especially after-hours when the lights were turned down and no one else was there and he could wander on his own. The guys he worked with were pretty nice, too, when he actually got to talk with them.

But somehow the thing he thought he was getting here never materialized. He didn't feel like an artist anymore. He barely felt like a person. None of the customers—patrons—ever spoke to him, except to say, "Which way is the lavatory?" or, "Do you think the members' lounge is open still?" or "I'm lost." He had shrunken down to the size of his uniform.

So, that bright spot. That was the collection of Henry Moores.

Henry Moore was an English guy who painted a little and drew a little more, but mostly, who made these huge amazing sculptures that were just—unreal. Claude couldn't explain it. Some of them were ridiculous—the "mouth biting butt" out front was one of these—and some of them were spooky. Like "Working Model for 'Reclining Figure: Lincoln Center'". That one had an upright bit that seemed like someone on her knees with her mouth muzzled and her arms tied behind her back. It was scary. It made him feel a scream deep inside that could never come out.

But other ones. My God. They were like a family of Friendly Giants. Scattered around the place and doing their own thing but connected somehow. It seemed to him like they always knew what the others were experiencing and—he never would have admitted this to anyone of course, no way, but—it also seemed like they loved each other. Claude could kind of imagine—fantasize, you know—that they were aware of him, too. That they might even come to love him one day.

Except for outside, by the biting butt, stern signs warned people not to touch the sculptures, saying that they could be harmed by staining fingers. Claude was sure they could, and yet, the Giants seemed like captives here, like creatures not meant to be contained in a sterile place like this. Creatures that were meant to be touched. Made to be. It was as if they were dying a little inside. Like he was, but not because they were alone like him, cause they weren't, but because they never moved, and they never touched.

That really bothered him.

The gallery could keep their stupid paintings with screeching colours and jagged lines, the endless boring canvasses of this and that that he couldn't even remember—not referring, of course, to the really good stuff, but even that, you know... Even that could take care of itself. It was all kind of intended to be in a place like this. Maybe in a grander house with velvet drapes and all, or maybe in a fancy place by—what was that guy's name? The one who made those houses in the States and then yelled at the people who bought them if they dared to decorate them themselves. Anyway, the point is maybe they weren't made for this exact building but they were meant to be hung and stared at and more or less ignored the rest of the time.

But these sculptures, these people made by that Englishman, they were different. They were wild creatures condemned to wither in a lifeless zoo.

As time went on Claude got used to the fact that people didn't see him, and he started not to see them, either. He'd say "Please don't touch, Ma'am." Whenever necessary and leave it at that. He read all the labels by the paintings he guarded and he picked up the guided tour things, too, when they were available, and listened to them carefully. He took to ducking in to the members' lounge when a certain girl was working and getting her to make him up a lox and cream cheese sandwich with a little crème caramel on the side. (Never ate like that at home!)

He went out to the park for smokes with an older lady named Hannah and listened to her talk about her kids and that crap husband of hers. Sometimes he would eat his lunch with a guy named Benny Chan who worked in the kitchen. Chan even invited him out to drink brandy and play cards one night, but Chan was a hard-living guy, and Claude didn't even like to stay up past ten, so that never really panned out. But the long and the short of it is, he got used to the place, and stopped worrying about not feeling special anymore.

Whenever he had the opportunity, though, he would hang out with the Henry Moores. The more he did, the more he felt he knew about them. He came to think of them by various names. Corky was the big honking blonde (well, okay, in his mind she was blonde) known as Draped Reclining Woman. By her date he could see she was old enough to be his mother but he knew in fact she was old enough to be his ancestor, back in the caves. Yet among the Giants, she was actually pretty young.

And the butt biter, well she turned out to be a real old yeller, maybe googols of years old—what could Claude know about a thing like that? Anyway, she was way older than anything Claude could imagine, and yes she was a bit testy, ol’ butt biter, whose real name, it came to Claude one icy winter morning, was probably Edna. Edna was testy because she felt in some way responsible for what had happened to them. For their getting trapped one by one in that old fart's brain. (Of course he was a young fart compared to the Giants and even a young fart, period, when he captured the first of them in plaster and marble and bronze.) Claude wasn't entirely sure how it was that they got trapped—after all he just came to kind of know these things and had never had the pleasure of getting any detailed explanations or anything. But he was pretty sure in his heart that it really wasn't Edna's fault, it was just the way things went.

Corky of course was sister to Draped Seated Woman, aka Alice, and Edna wasn't actually biting—but was protecting the best way she knew how—Drake, a young guy who had never had the sense to figure anything out and was always getting into trouble. Always on a cosmic scale, that is. Claude never even saw him move, that's how not action-oriented these guys were at this stage.

Claude was absolutely spot-on about one thing. They were really sad. Yes, they loved each other and they were happy at least to be together. And they were fond of him. Claude was the first person in that place to ever really sit down and be with them in the sense of, you know, Corky and Edna and all, not just in the sense of, "Ah, such form! Such majesty!" But they were dying inside.

Touch, it seemed, was a very big thing for the Giants. Which clearly even Henry Moore had sensed. The forms he gave them just cried out to be felt.

So Claude began breaking the rules.

He would go down there after-hours or, if he was working mornings, come in a little bit early, though that was riskier. He would spend whatever time he had standing as close as possible to Corky or Alice or that spooky-looking, sorrowful, headless one, that ineptly named Reclining Figure. (Her Claude name was Vanity. He didn't know why. Maybe he had some of his father's genes after all.)

Claude would move in very close to one of them. He would place his hands just above the surface of the—well, he couldn't say sculpture. That just wasn't right. The being, okay? Claude would put his hands just above the surface of the plaster or bronze or whatever he or she happened to be encased in and he would move them slowly, sensing the—well, kind of like the heat of the surface. He would just stand there concentrating really hard. When he had his hands in some places it would be kind of cool or even cold but in other places it seemed almost blazing, as if the electrons were hurling themselves out of the material and burning right through his skin. He would just soak them in, soak them in as hard as he could, like he was drawing poison away from the blood of an injured person, and spitting it out the back of him onto the floor. In time he would find a spot on the being that drew his hands in a little bit closer, that urged him to actually place his skin right on the surface where maybe some deep scratches were, or a fold in the metal or a cool hollow in the plaster. Then, oh, Claude's hands would just settle in like sleepy birds and silence the ache in the being, and the ache in him. He would feel himself almost melt into them, almost fall into a trance or drop off to sleep, but not because he wasn't paying attention anymore. Oh, no. He was paying attention more than he had in all his life.

Pretty soon Claude began to realize he was falling in love with these things. That he had come to be their friend and that he didn't have anyone or anything in his life that he cared about anywhere near as much as he cared about them.

That was when he realized he had to set them free.

So how does a guy on a security guard's salary free a bunch of giant, priceless—well, pricey, very very pricey—pieces of art from the permanent collection of a serious gallery? He doesn't buy them. Even one by one on a payment plan it might take, oh, twenty million years at a guess. And it isn't like he had room in his bed-sit for them. So that ruled out stealing them, too, even if he could roll a ton of metal along the wheelchair ramp and out the door. Nope, probably wasn't going to happen. So then, what?

It was Edna who came up with the idea. For several days every time he stood next to her, or even glanced at her as he passed through the hall, an image formed in Claude's mind of how he might liberate his friends. Edna took her position seriously. She was, after all, the oldest, and responsible for the lot. Even, it was beginning to seem, for Claude.

It involved the touching, and it involved Claude breaking a much more serious rule, which he did without a second's thought. That is, instead of leaving the gallery one night when he was supposed to go, he bamboozled his way into staying around. Nearly everyone was gone. Claude insinuated himself into the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, and sneaked up to the furthest and frailest sister among them—Vanity.

He put his hands gently next to her flank and listened with them, letting them wander undirected by him until they came to the spot that just hummed, that drew his hands closer until they touched. But this time, the reaction was very different. Energy from Vanity coursed into his palms and lit each cell and synapse on fire. The hairs all along his arms stood wavering with static as she flowed up and into him. The hair on his head rose silently and his face grew mightily pale. Still the energy throbbed along his arms until it suffused him utterly, and the sculpture was as cold as empty stone. The connection was severed. Claude collapsed to the floor.

Moments went by, precious moments, with him stunned and delirious, unable to speak, unable to move, his entire body vibrating madly. The being he had freed from the sculpture jangled inside him, hurling herself against him from the inside out, frightened and as disoriented as he. In time, Vanity stilled somewhat. The soothing sensations of Alice and Corky, of the wee Plaster Maquettes, of Edna and Drake and all the other beings in the collection, close or far, began to wash over both of them, like the warm shush of a gentle tide, calming, reassuring, righting them.

In time, Claude pulled himself to his knees, triggering another, much smaller panic in Vanity, then staggered to his feet, leaning against the empty sculpture for support. "I can't do anymore," he said in despair, but the beings continued to soothe him. It was okay. He had been terribly brave. They loved him endlessly. Go. Sleep. Return tomorrow if he could.

Claude went home when the gallery opened. He slept fitfully, Vanity still frightened inside him. Their dreams inter-tangled. Her need for pressure, his need for air sometimes struggled against each other. But in the late morning he woke to the sound of his alarm, rolled like a stuffed sack from his bed, and readied himself for another shift at work.

The Dinner Party opened that day. Judy Chicago, whoever she was, had made a great triangular table covered in very odd plates. Throngs of women and other seekers filed through all day long. When they were done with the plates of woman-sex and such, they wandered through every room of the gallery, so no matter where Claude was posted, he was on high alert, however sleepy he might be. By then the being was silent in his body, absorbing what she could of the sights around her, of the patterns of heat and cold, pressure and vibration, odour and taste and sound. Claude could feel Vanity perking right up. Could feel her delighting in the novelty. Could sense her feeling outward toward the people in the gallery as he had never known her to do before.

Maybe it was Claude’s sense organs that facilitated her explorations. Maybe it was the excitement of liberation that woke her up from her habitual gloom. Whatever it was, it began lifting Claude's spirits as well. What if he had been battered by their union the night before? So what if he’d barely slept? This, right here, was the feeling he had been touching at when he strolled along Beverley Street that first day. An opening up like an iris to a new day's light, a giant iris as big as the city and ready to blink all the soot and crummy stuff away. All right. All right! He wasn't a poet. And he wasn't an artist, that's for sure, but he was alive as he had never been before, and his whole soul threw open its joyous doors.

Claude wasn't able to stay inside the gallery that night. Or the next night or for several nights after. No matter. It gave him time to restore his energy and grow accustomed to SheeAk (Vanity’s real name.). To begin to contemplate making yet more room inside himself.

The next opportunity, he took the tiny Maquettes. Nights later, Alice, then Edna. With Edna in him, he was better able to guide the process, and in a matter of weeks Claude had absorbed each and every one of them into himself.

The next step was more difficult. It wasn't enough to travel around Toronto with a pack full of aliens in his body, sharing the sensations and wonders of that beautiful and filthy place. They wanted to go home, and he wanted them to. He wanted that very much.

It meant taking some vacation. It meant a plane trip. And a pickup ride—a pickup with very good winter treads and a great deal of weight, loads of sand and shovels and those sorts of things in the back. It meant packing up as many warm clothes and sleeping bags as he could stuff in there and folding in a small, tight tent and driving as far from the town of Churchill as he could get, under cover of the black, star-choked sky. Finally they found a place on the ice that everyone agreed was It, the right place, their jumping-off point. Claude stopped the vehicle, turned off the motor and rolled the window down. The heat was sucked right out of him in about ten seconds. The air was brittle with cold, and all he could see was the amazing sky and the cloud of his own breath.

Claude opened the door of the truck and squeaked and crunched across the snow carrying bundles of supplies. He began to set up his tent, sleeping bags and so on—of course he got into his thermal type gear first; he wasn't an idiot. When it was done he sat down in front of the tent and looked up at the sky. All that endless sky that he never even knew existed in his entire life. He could see the eternity of it going on and on, more stars than anyone had ever known, bright as thumbtacks. Somewhere out there was the star that these friends had been sucked away from so long ago, by a mind that was entirely unaware of its power.

Claude just could not take it in, but he didn't need to. He wasn't worried, and he wasn't alone. All of them were just like him, awe-struck, looking up with the silent surprise and anticipation of captives somehow set free, almost home. Almost home.

There was no aurora that night, but they were ready for that. Claude built up a little fire to stare into for a while. Everyone pretty much kept their thoughts to themselves, but the mood was one generally of weariness and anticipation and peace. He crawled into bed eventually and some of them slept. In the morning, Claude came out of the tent and you would have thought it was just the same moment as when he went in, except that when he looked up for awhile he realized the constellations weren't the same ones he’d been looking at the night before. That was really something.

Eventually, the aurora did come. It started off kind of shimmering faintly, all white and pale and not too enthusiastic, but it built gradually until after a long while it was a massive, powerful thing, all grandeur and crackles and convincing colour, and Claude knew he couldn't put it off any longer. But they never bugged him. They never clamoured for him to hurry it up and let them out of there—they were as sad as he was at this moment, for all their barely repressible joy at being nearly there. They knew as well as he did that at the moment they detached, Claude was lost to them, and they were lost to him, for all time.

He stood up. He didn't need to, he supposed—it's not like it brought him all that much closer to the sky. But Claude wanted to be standing. He wanted all his power and energy to go into this; he wanted to send them off like heroes, cause that's what they were. To survive so long and be so loving—they were an example to him, for sure. He wanted to sort of salute them with his body as they went. But also, he wanted not to feel too weak. Not to feel shattered or not to let them see the shattering, if it came. Though of course they would.

So Claude stood and he lifted his face to the magnificent humming lights and he raised his arms and spread his fingers wide, mitts off—it didn't matter. There was so much energy writhing around in him right now there was no way he could freeze. He lifted his arms to the heavens and opened his heart utterly and even before they began their swift, silent exodus, the tears were sluicing down his cheeks and round the curve of his jaw and down his throat into his shirt: tears just rivered out, oceaned out. From him was going all the loving family he knew and his feet would always be planted on this planet, not theirs, and although he wanted with his whole heart for them to go, they took his whole heart with them, he was sure.

The beings began to organize themselves. One and then another, in some kind of fluid line they began rising up in him. As they passed from the inside to the outside of Claude—Vanity, Corky, Drake, Edna—each one touched him gently somehow. A thought, a sensation, a feeling of wondrous love. And then they flew up, away from him just as easily, just as powerfully, up and up in a long, rainbowed arc, till the line of them reached the aurora and the solar wind swept them away, off of the earth forever, started on their long journey home.

Claude lay back on the snow-covered ice and watched the aurora for hours, his whole body warm and relaxed. His friends had left him humming softly with their heat. He wept as he would never weep again and barely noticed it. His gaze was on the heavens and a smile was in his eyes and on his lips.

Claude continued his job at the AGO. A.G.O. It still had a nice ring to it. But now he didn't mind at all when people didn't notice him. He noticed them. He smiled when he caught their eyes, and he went out for smokes every day with Hannah. He took her and her irascible husband to Fran's Restaurant for a bite. They had a laugh. He asked the girl in the members' lounge out on a date and she refused, but nicely, and he finally did go drinking brandy and playing cards with Benny Chan. He whistled when he walked down Beverley Street. He visited his sister Ivory and the folks. And now and then, he went down to the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, and admired the art.

Then one day Claude made the connection about the Lincoln Centre in New York and the Henry Moore Figure that Reclined there all alone. It just kind of sat him still. He couldn't believe he'd never thought of it before. It struck him—there were Henry Moores all around the world.

Well, Claude thought, letting out his breath, he was young. And he'd always wanted to travel around a bit.

Claude and the Henry Moores” appeared in Finding Creatures & Other Stories by C. June Wolf, 2008.