A Person Named Max
Maxim Hodges straightened his cuffs and snugged the knot of his tie. He looked good, and he knew it. His hair, trimmed every two weeks by Ernesto at Gleam, was perfectly pomaded. His clothes had been selected by his personal shopper from this year's shows in Milan and laid out by his valet that morning. He'd been to Choate, to Princeton, and to Mrs. Beadlewithe's Dance Academy for Young Ladies and Gentlemen. And he was scared.
Why? Why did he have to sack Clara? He understood that Clara had to be sacked. She had a bad habit of talking the patrons out of buying whatever piece of art they had their mind set on buying and into making donations to her favorite charitable organizations instead. Which, while admirable, was hardly the reason they were there. If she wanted to proselytize, she'd have to find another platform. The Hodges Gallery made suitably-sized donations for every charitable function of note, but its purpose was to display and sell art.
Yes, it was a given that Clara had to be fired--all efforts at cajoling her away from campaigning and towards selling had failed, so fired she had to be--but why did he have to be the one to do it?
Maxim knew the answer to that, as well. He was the one who had to do it because he was the manager of Hodges Gallery, because although displaying and selling art was a purpose of the gallery, it wasn't the purpose. The purpose was to give him, Maxim Hodges, a place to go every day--dressed to the nines, primped and pomaded--where he could appear to be doing something other than exactly what he was doing, which was living off his mother's money.
If Clara hadn't tried her charitable switcheroo actually on his mother, she could have kept right on doing it. The gallery didn't make a profit, but it never had. No one could blame Clara for that. No, that was on him. He wasn't cut out to run a gallery. He rather enjoyed doing the shows. At least, he enjoyed the minutia involved in planning them--which canapés to order, whether the cocktails ought to follow some kind of theme--but he had no insight when it came to more important matters like selecting an artist to feature, and he certainly wasn't cut out to handle the personnel. Decisions, actions--those things were scary. Canapés were comforting.
Clara wasn't comforting, and she was a terrible salesperson who couldn't serve a patron a glass of infused iced green tea without spilling it on them, but he didn't mind having her around the gallery. He'd gotten used to it, at any rate. Then Clara had suggested that, rather than spend fifteen thousand dollars on a reproduced photo of an Instagram posting showing two teenaged girls with their arms around a dead giraffe, his mother might send a check to the African Wildlife Foundation, and now his mother wanted Maxim to fire her.
"Today, Maxim," she had decreed that morning at breakfast. She would come by to check, he knew.
And so Maxim straightened his cuffs and snugged his tie and marched with assumed determination over to fire Clara, because if there was something scarier than giving an employee the ax, his mother was certainly it.
"Good morning, Maxim," Clara sang out, although it was well past noon. She always said good morning the first time she saw someone that day, regardless of the time.
"Good morning," he answered, not because he followed her logic but because he was a well-bred robot who said good morning back to anyone who said it first. If the toast rack were to greet him one morning he supposed he'd answer it as well.
"You're looking dapper today."
"Thank you. You look . . . appropriate," he replied, surprised into candor. There wasn't a single article of clothing on her that was polka-dotted or purple.
"I got the impression I might be skating on thin ice here, after what happened with your mother the other day. I'd hate to lose this job. It's a lovely place to come to work every day--the natural light, and some of the artwork is very nearly pretty. And then, we depend on my income."
"We?" He'd been under the impression she was single.
"I count the cats. They don't earn anything themselves."
"So if your Mom pops in today, I thought I'd make a nice impression. What do you think?"
"It's . . . it's Chanel, I think."
"It is! There's a second-hand place over on Tenth. I told them I needed the classiest outfit they had, and one of the gentlemen who works there came up with this. Not quite my size, of course."
"No, not quite."
"But close enough. I'll leave the jacket unbuttoned and with my shirt untucked, you can't see that the zipper won't close all the way."
"I see," Maxim repeated. "Well, carry on then." He turned to walk away from her, glad to have successfully navigated that exchange, only to realize that he hadn't navigated it at all. "No, I'm sorry," he said, turning back to her. "There's actually something else."
"Yes?" Her wide mouth with its slightly crooked, slightly yellow teeth smiled encouragement at him. Even in a Chanel suit--or mostly in a Chanel suit; he wasn't going to check the position of her zipper--she was an unsuitable employee. He was foolish to have hired her, but she'd been persistent and he'd been typically unauthoritative, and now, because he'd been too timid to turn down her application, he had to undergo the worse ordeal of terminating her.
She continued to look at him with bright, friendly eyes--green eyes, rimmed with gold, and heavily lined in purple--as though she were eager for whatever he had to say. The words froze in his throat. The longer he stood there, the stronger the inertia became.
She touched his arm lightly. "Go on, Max. Whatever it is, it's OK."
No one called him Max. His mother allowed no exceptions. Maxim was the manager of an art gallery. A person named Max . . . a person named Max might mix drinks for a living or serve canapés rather than order them. A person named Max might have a friend like Clara. He might have a dog named Fred and a boyfriend named Hank, and they might all hang out together on the balcony of his tiny apartment in Queens drinking wine out of glasses that didn't match and eating food with their fingers. A person named Max might do whatever he liked, but Maxim was not that person.
"I'm sorry," he said, apologizing more for his inability to speak than for what he was meant to say.
"Ah," she replied, understanding anyway. "The Chanel is too little, too late, isn't it?"
"I'm sorry," he said again.
"Don't take it so hard, Max." The hand on his arm squeezed reassuringly. "You're shaking. Come sit down." She guided him to one of the cushioned benches opposite the long, back wall of the gallery. "You hated having to tell me that, didn't you? You've made yourself sick over it."
"You're the one getting the bad news," he said. "I should be worrying about you. And your cats," he added, though he felt ridiculous for acknowledging them.
"No, don't worry about us. We take whatever comes and are happy for it. I liked working here but I'll like the next place just as well, I expect. Sometimes it's a blessing to move on. Freeing."
"You'd like to move on as well, wouldn't you? You hate this, I can tell. Not just firing people--all of it."
Maxim looked over his shoulder at the front door. If his mother came in and saw him sitting with Clara--her arm squeezing his shoulder tightly against hers--admitting to her how very much he hated all of this, how very much he'd like to move on . . .
"How long have you been here?" Clara asked him.
"Always. My mother bought the gallery the summer I graduated." It had been his graduation present: a thing to do. He hadn't had anything else to do, nothing his mother would have approved of.
"A long time in one place, then," Clara observed.
Twenty years now. Twenty years of one day much like another, of dressing in what his valet laid out, of escorting the right women to the right functions, of cringing every time an employee came to him for a decision, of trying to avoid his mother's notice.
"I didn't intend to be here so long," he admitted.
"Now's as good a day to leave as any. Where will you go?"
To a bar where men in t-shirts played darts, to a kitchen where garlic sizzled in olive oil, to that imaginary balcony in Queens. Clara would be there, the purple tips of her white-blonde hair matching the potted orchids. Her laugh wouldn't ring too loudly in the open air. Her nails wouldn't look so un-manicured scratching behind Fred's ears. Leaning back in a white, plastic chair, she'd nag him to donate to the ASPCA or Doctors Without Borders or Save the Whales and he'd agree with mock protest.
"Don't let her bully you, Max," Hank would joke and Maxim would smile because Clara wasn't a bully.
"I don't have anywhere to go," Maxim told Clara. The balcony wasn't real and he wasn't a person named Max.
"Then don't go anywhere. Just go."
"My mother would disown me." He tried to laugh, but the sound that came out was more honest than that.
"Are you worried about losing your mother? Or are you worried about losing your mother's money?"
He didn't answer. His mother herself was a thing he'd like to lose. Someday. Someday, certainly, she would be gone. The money would be his. And then the money would be his burden. Imagine managing all that money when it was horrible enough to manage an art gallery.
"Money's a kind of prison that way," Clara said. "That's why I've never had any. You don't need it--a fact very few people know."
"I need it."
"You've always had it, that's all."
She was in earnest, he could tell, but it was no use. When prodded, the dream toppled; when exposed to light, it shriveled. An undergraduate degree in Classic Literature--Princeton or not--didn't qualify him to mix drinks, and a job mixing drinks wouldn't pay rent on a balcony in Queens anyway. He had no skills, wouldn't even be able to pick out a pair of pants or wash them when they got dirty. There was nothing out there for him--no Hank, no Fred, no person named Max.
"Maxim." His mother's disapproval rang clearly across the gallery floor.
Maxim stood and tugged at his cuffs. He snugged the knot of his tie. "I'm sorry, then," he said to Clara, as if they'd settled the details.
"So am I," she answered, her eyes looking directly into his. "So am I."