In which a museum director learns that he is leading badly.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. This was nonsense! Jonathan still had work to do.
Jonathan gazed upon the stack of Change of Status Forms weighing down his desk. They would need to wait until after the new year for his signature. Those people would need to wait for their jobs. Nothing that can be done methodically should be done in haste.
The unsettling noise started again, getting louder as it resonated off the hard surfaces of his office. He must be overworked, Jonathan thought. If only people understood the exhaustion of the never-ending glad-handing.
Gazing out the window, he tried to regain his mental composure. Larger ones were superseding small snowflakes. In 12 hours, he would be Miami enjoying a holiday thanks to one of the trustees. He tried to focus on the image of the infinity pool and bikini-clad ladies—the real meaning of the holidays.
He was abruptly jogged from his imagination by a vision reflected in the window. Allegra Marley had been gone six months, and yet there she was reflected in the glass.
Jonathan Scrooge knew she was dead? Of course, he did. How could it be otherwise? She and Scrooge worked together for I don’t know how many years.
Jonathan turned his Knoll chair back to face his desk, eyes closed. After three slow breaths, he reopened his eyes. There, sitting across from him, was his deputy director, dead these six months. She seemed every bit the woman he sat beside in endless meetings. She wore her characteristic black clothing tailored in fashionably asymmetrical, haphazard manner paired with a ridiculously monumental necklace. Her hair hung in a loose bob, framing an angular, plain face. Her eyes had always been her most charming feature. But, now instead of an electric blue, they glowed. In fact, her whole person seemed to glow.
“Who are you?”
“You should ask who I was?”
“Alright then, I don’t have enough time for this. Who were you?”
“I must say that I am not shocked at your refusal to name an attribution. You were always averse to making declarations, just focused on counter-declarations and rebuttals. But, your time is shorter than mine, as it stands. So, I will do you the favor of getting to the point. I am Allegra. And, I am here to share what I know.”
“Al…Allegra. I must be nuts or overly caffeinated.”
“There is no saying if those two statements are true. But, I am still here sitting in your office, as I did when I was alive. Though now, I no longer need to listen to your complaints or endure your micromanaging.”
“There is no need to insult me.”
“True. True. I am not here to settle a score but instead to warn you of your errors.”
“Errors? I don’t make mistakes. I have made this museum into an exemplar. The best scholarship and best business sense.”
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”
“We are focused on the business of people. We are mission-driven.” Jonathan exclaimed smugly.
“Oh, now. I was like you. I said mission-driven more often than my own name. But, I also avoided any family event. I spent 2 hours with the general audience in my last year here. And, most of that was when I traversed the lobby to go to the cafe.”
“Well, you were busy. The executive team has many responsibilities. They can’t be everywhere.” Jonathan knew how to handle his staff, even the dead ones. Words like this were perfect to prevent confrontation.
“Jonathan, you are not listening to my words. You are more focused on manipulating me.”
“Allegra, whatever has happened to you? You would never be so…direct.”
“Death, Scrooge. Death has happened. I spent the first week after death sitting in my old office. Listening as people walked by. Do you know what the staff said when they walked by? ‘She didn’t have much, poor girl.’ ‘Oh, she used to be nice before being promoted.’ ‘At least we don’t have any more of those awful committee meetings.’”
“Allegra you have a Ph.D. Really. Who cares what those people think? They are curatorial assistants. Secretaries.” Jonathan pronounced the last word with resounding disdain.
“They are our staff–our colleagues. And, they didn’t care for me…because I didn’t care for them.”
“Now you just sound like a consultant.” Jonathan sneered.
“Listen, you don’t need to believe me. You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”
“At least it is a literary number.” Jonathan chuckled, first quietly and then more loudly as his pride turned to pronounced fear. He looked at the seat where Allegra had been. It fine leather surface was unmarred and empty.
Scrooge blinked hard. There truly had never been anyone in the seat, he concluded. Another coffee was clearly necessary. He picked up the phone to ask Mrs. Cratchett to whip up a latte. Then he remembered that he had let her go home early today–it was Christmas Eve. HR had demanded that he let the whole staff work only ½ day today, selling the bonus vacation day rather than a holiday party. He didn’t know why his staff deserved this bonus frankly. He was the one who really kept this ship sailing. And, he was the one who was still working, holiday or no.
He rose slowly. He felt a bit unsteady, truthfully. Passing his private restroom, he turned into the kitchenette. He avoided the instant coffee machine generally, but everyone made sacrifices. Tonight, this was his. Watching the brown brew drip, he stood trying to assess what might have caused his hallucinations. No head injuries, no spoiled food, no strong alcohol. Stress must be the cause. If only his staff understood the trials, he endured!
Coffee in hand, he turned back into his office. Had engineering done something with the HVAC? The room was unnaturally cold, even for a museum. Oh, no. It was happening again. But, now Allegra looked incredibly strange as she sat huddled in the chair.
“Allegra, don’t you have something else you should be doing? Guessing ghosts don’t have budget reports to do, huh, if you have time to wander back in here.” He stated with clear sangfroid.
Whoever was sitting in the chair didn’t respond.
He approached the figure only to see an older man with an affable expression in pleasant repose.
“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Scrooge.
The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.
“Who, and what are you?” Scrooge demanded.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“Long Past?” inquired Scrooge: observant of its dwarfish stature.
“No. Your past.”
“This will need to wait!” Jonathan snapped. “Someone is playing music. I don’t like music at work.”
He barreled out of the office to find himself in a large, bright lobby, but not his museum’s lobby. There were signs everywhere, like an airport. Even worse, the space was filled with people wearing some of the crassest sweaters he has ever seen. Just then, he saw the oddest sight of all. There he was, some thirty years earlier, wearing not only a reindeer sweater but also a red boa.
“Where are we, Scrooge?” The glowing pinstriped man that had been his office now floated unseen above the ticket center.
“No need to tell me! This was my first museum holiday party. It was the year I was interning right after my masters. Oh, wait, I love this song.”
The Ghost of Christmas Past chuckled as he watched Jonathan young and old bob their heads to the tune. He let the inadvertent synchronized dance continue for a few minutes before coming to rest beside Jonathan, “What do you notice?”
“Music was better before millennials?” Scrooge retorted.
“Now, now. Those millennials are willing to put in 100 hours a week for sixteen thousand dollars.”
“Hey, I would have been thrilled with 16K. I had to live with mother and work at the library to be able to take this job. It was a privilege.”
“Mother, sure. I mean, look around. Describe this shindig.”
“People are dancing. Oh, look at Lara. She always made parties fun. But, she was fun. She always had a full candy dish at her desk in registrars. There is food. Oh, yeah, that terrible cheese ball. And, some weird chili. Who catered this? The gas station?”
“Catering…” The Ghost snickered.
“Oh, look my deviled eggs! That’s right. It was potluck. Look there is John Brownstone, the legendary director. What a mentor! He published a book every other year, even when he was the director. I’m very like him, actually.” Jonathan proudly gazed over at the older man who stood beside the microphone.
Eventually, after the roar of speech, speech, the old man stepped up to the microphone, alone on a stand.
“Another year is done. I know we are celebrating early this year. But, that is because I hope that you will all use up all your vacation time between Thanksgiving and New Years. You have done such a stellar job making the museum wonderful this year, and now you need to enjoy wonderful times with your family. Now, no more speaking! I want one of you to show me that new dance.” Brownstone left the mic as the whole staff broke into applause.
Jonathan stood stock still gazing at the dance floor mesmerized. Cleaners danced with curators, educators and registrars laughed uproariously, and the director attempted to dance gracefully.
Scrooge startled when a chilling tap on the shoulder jogged him out of his memories.
“It’s time,” the ghost whispered.
Before Scrooge could make sense of the words, he was once again sitting in his desk chair. He felt a vague sense of loss and loneliness, but then his email dinged. He picked up his phone. As he scrolled through his email, a familiar chill subsumed him. He wondered idly if he might avoid the ghost by shutting his eyes.
“Wake up, buddy.” A cheery voice stated.
In front of him sat a young woman dressed in an outfit likely hailing from a thrift store wearing the smile of a fool.
“So, on our way down, just stay on the right side, okay?” the ghost said in an innocuous voice.
Jonathan barely acknowledged the ghost. This was a ghost who hadn’t signed on to adulthood, obviously.
With that thought, he found himself sitting on the floor of a gallery. He sat frozen for a moment, stalled by the shock of being on the floor. When sanity, as it were, returned to his consciousness, he attempted to stand. The Ghost of Christmas Present put on his shoulder, forcefully pushing him back down.
“I can’t sit on the floor.” Jonathan went to stand again, and again the Ghost pushed him down, this time with an even more placid smile.
“I don’t sit on the floor,” Jonathan said again. This time the Ghost held his shoulder in a most impressive vice grip. Apparently, he would be sitting on the floor.
Scrooge’s attention shifted as the cacophony of young voices started to get louder. A young woman, dressed as if she shopped at the same establishment as the Ghost, walked in followed by a group of children walking in a line if you were generous in your description. The whole mass of humanity flopped down into a seated position.
“Now, listening ears, all. And, looking eyes.” The woman said.
“Of course, they are listening and looking,” Jonathan said.
“Now, now. Could you spend 45 minutes with 20 three-year-olds?” The Ghost whispered. “I would pity those children.”
“Of course not, I have a Ph.D.” Jonathan rolled his eyes.
“Right.” The Ghost burst into laughter.
“So, let’s look at this man. What is he thinking?” The educator said.
“Please!” Jonathan said. “This is an abstract painting. The kids won’t know.”
Soon, limb flew akimbo energized with the excitement of knowing the answer.
“Everyone will have a chance. Jon, let’s start with you.” The educator said.
Jonathan began to say, “Well some scholars think.” when he realized a young boy was answering.
“There is a man in the middle. The red one. He is so excited to be in the forest. See the green square…”
So it continued for nearly 30 minutes. The educator listened patiently, repeating key words. Finally, the educator asked the children to stand. “Walk in a line as if you are on a tightrope.”
This little visitors lined up dutifully and filed out of the gallery in silent awe.
Jonathan expected to be whizz back to his office. Instead, he was unceremoniously pulled to standing and pushed to the end of the line. He watched the kids move into a lobby. Standing in the middle, Mr. Cratchett was holding a clipboard.
Mr. Cratchett, the spouse of his assistant, had worked in education for 20 years. He was an older man who without fail asked questions at all staff meetings. He always thought people wanted his opinion.
Mr. Cratchett smiled broadly at the students and his staff member. “Great job all! Such scholars.”
“Scholars.” Jonathan chuckled.
As the students left the building, Mr. Cratchett turned to shake his educator’s hand. “Lilia, thank you for all your work this year. I really do wish I could have offered you more hours next year. But, you know.”
“Mr. Cratchett, I know, I know. It’s not your fault. I know that you tried.”
“Oh, Lilia, but you were the best. So many teachers congratulated you on good work. I just wished I could have many Saskia understand. But, you know, there are so many layers here. And, now, big money is in “outreach” programming, she told us.” Mr. Cratchett’s voice had the tenor of someone attempting to hold back tears.
“Now, now. It’ll work out.” Livia said before hugging her boss.
Jonathan stood shocked by the display of emotion.
“This young person is worth more than you. And, if you don’t care about her, your visitors lose. If you miss a day, your staff miss meetings. If she misses a day, 100 children lose out.”
“Pshah, I make the important choices. I make sure that we get diverse students in here. Those kids didn’t look diverse.”
“Man! Diverse just means more than one type of thing. There were boys and girls in that class–that is diversity. If you don’t get her a job, you will be sorry.” Then the Ghost pushed him down to sitting. He went to object to her treatment, but then he realized that he was once again seated at his desk.
He sat for a full ten minutes staring at the visitor chair. He wasn’t going to let the last ghost surprise him. But, nothing. He turned back on his computer. Scrolling through the emails, he started to feel a headache coming on. Oh, the stress. If only the staff understood. He closed his eyes for a moment, only to feel a cold hand on his shoulder. With that touch, the room becomes suddenly, unbearably, bone-chillingly cold.
He tried to turn towards his assailant but found himself paralyzed. A moment later he was standing in the lobby of his museum.
But, everything was slightly different. There was a forest of signs. But, these signs were advertisements. A monkey was extolling the virtues of hair tonic on a sign below the ticket fees. Another sign showed a rubicund man and a tiny sports car. While signs abounded, there was a dearth of visitors. People, actually. There were no people at all in the lobby. There were a couple of screens, but they flickered ominously.
“Is the museum not open yet?” Jonathan said to the ghost who stood beside him.
The ghost remained still. Unlike his compatriots, this spirit seemed to be the absence of light. He wore black from the hooded sweatshirt to Chuck Taylors. His hirsute face was set off by hollow eye sockets.
“Alright, so, it isn’t? But, it’s AM. The board would be livid if we were empty at this time. Oh, I get it. I am well read. If I don’t do something, we will be empty at 11 AM. But, come one, one gallery teacher?”
Two grey-haired staff members came down the stairs into the lobby just then. They spoke in hushed voices, but their giggles were fairly obvious.
“Well, at least this year will be better than last.I mean, really. That micromanager has left us!”
“Yeah, seriously. Can’t really get worse after that guy.”
“Spoiled sports,” Jonathan snapped. “But, wait, so in the future, I get a better position. I knew I could.”
The dark figured nodded slowly and then pointed to the screen ahead. The screen showed Jonathan, suit-clad, with the phrase, Rest in Peace.
“Rest in Peace? How tacky!” Jonathan said before realizing the meaning.
“Heart attack?” The one old staff member chuckled.
“Heartless attack.” The other retorted.
Jonathan sighed slowly and dropped to his feet. Head in hands, he started to sob. The next thing he knew he was at his desk.
Light was streaming into his office. Morning had broken. This terrible nightmare was over. He went back to the kitchenette for coffee. He could hear a woman typing while quietly humming “Joy to the World.”
Peaking into the outside office, he saw Mrs. Cratchett wearing black check.
“Whatever are you doing, Mrs. Cratchett?” Jonathan said sternly.
“Oh, I’m sorry Dr. Scrooge. I didn’t know you were already in.” She barely looked into Jonathan’s eyes for fear of upsetting her boss.
“I mean, Mrs. Cratchett, it’s Christmas Eve, you know. And, I have decided it’s ridiculous that we have ½ day off on Christmas Eve.”
“Yes, Dr. Scrooge.”
“You think I am about to say ‘Bah Humbug’ I might have! But I am a changed man. We should have the whole day off. I mean, we spend every day working hard. Today we should enjoy. I need your help. Can you please reprint that change of status form about Lilia? After that, please go home and don’t come back until New Years. At which point, we will need to figure out how to throw a great staff party. You know, one that feels fun. I am not great at fun so that I will need your help.” His speech over, he expected some reaction from Mrs. Cratchett.
Instead, she stared at him as if he were a ghost.
“Alright, I will need to return to my desk to send out the official email sending people home. I will need you to know HR will need to stay for a few minutes because I have a mound of Change of Status papers. I can’t leave those. But, I will be able to sign them. The managers have checked them. Won’t be more than 20 minutes before I am gone too.”
Mrs. Cratchett murmured a faint sound of agreement.
Jonathan went back to his desk. Rather than returning to his office chair, he chose the visitor chair. From there he could see out the window onto the entrance of the museum. He sat for a minute observing the museum’s visitors–his visitors. Then he went to work on those papers. This would be a great holiday for his staff; he would make sure of it.