The File Cabinet:
Spirit of Truth
There was one thing Leo knew he had to do before the end. He had to tell somebody. It didn't even really matter who. It could be the night janitor, if the guy ever took off his headphones long enough. It could be Sylvie, or even - why not? - the chaplain. It wouldn't matter who heard his confession, as long as he told someone. It wasn't the kind of secret you wanted to take along into the next world.
Leo heard footsteps in the room, then Sylvie's curly hair and bright eyes appeared around the edge of the curtain that separated the beds.
"Knock knock," she chirped, then "Daddy, you look good, a lot better than yesterday."
He could never get used to seeing his daughter with gray hair. It wasn't right, somehow. Sylvie maneuvered her ever-present tote bag past the upright leg of the overbed table and stowed it by the night stand. She poured him some water and sank into the visitors' chair with its hard wooden arms.
When they ran out conversation Sylvie brought out her surprise, a copy of the local independent weekly. Her crooked smile was a leftover from so many years of hiding a discolored tooth on one side when he didn't have money for the dentist.
"Look," she said. "There's an article about you. Shall I read it?"
"Sure, go ahead. Maybe I'll learn something about myself," Leo said. He wanted to smile too but somehow it didn't happen. Sylvie got comfortable and found the page.
"Okay. They used that real nice picture of you, the one from the time right after her head got knocked off, remember? Okay, here goes. It says, 'Venerable Allentown sculptor Leo Schreiber, 68, was hospitalized again last week. Schreiber is known throughout Buffalo's bohemian community as the most underappreciated artist of his generation. In the larger community, he is recognized as a public benefactor. Over the past twenty years, Schreiber has donated hundreds of hours of volunteer labor to one cause: the restoration and preservation of a single statue. Some call him a saint, others say he's a few colors short of a full palette...' "
This brought a snort from Leo. He spit into a tissue, balled it up, dropped it into the paper bag taped to the bed rail.
"Okay, you ready? There's more. 'But no one denies the dedication with which Schreiber has cared for the statue, christened Spirit of Truth, that stands outside Allentown High. It was created in 1940 by a now-forgotten sculptor under the aegis of the Work Projects Administration. Over the years the life-sized, nubile lass with arms upstretched toward heaven has been the butt of jokes and the target of more serious vandalism. Football teams like to paint her in the school colors and set a helmet on her head. The statue has been dressed in tacky lingerie, wigs, and Halloween costumes. In the Sixties, fun-loving hippies once fastened fifty helium balloons to each of the Spirit's uplifted hands. In 1970, however, the good times were over. One dark night, someone with a very big hammer had his way with the Spirit of Truth. In the morning she was discovered, armless and headless, her scarred torso surrounded with rubble. That was when Leo Schreiber stepped in. "I was walking past the High on my way to the unemployment office," the Good Samaritan said at the time, "and when I saw what had been done to that beautiful piece of art I was shocked. I decided right then and there to do something about it." Using materials donated by local suppliers, he spent part of every day during a long, hot summer bringing the desecrated statue back to life. Since then, hardly a year has gone by without some wanton act of destruction being visited on the hapless Spirit, but Schreiber has uncomplainingly repaired the damage every time. Now, with the statue's guardian angel in a debilitated state of health, the future for the Spirit of Truth looks dim.' "
"Just like I thought," Leo remarked. "We already knew all this."
Sylvie shook the magazine at him. "Daddy, you won't believe this other story. It's too gross. This mother was arrested for feeding her daughter all kinds of household chemicals to make her sick. So she can rush the kid to the hospital and sit bravely by the bedside and take such good care of the little girl and have the nurses and doctors admire what a great martyr of a mother she is. People actually do that. It even has a name - Munchausen's syndrome by proxy. Regular Munchausen's syndrome is when a person makes themself sick to get attention, and by proxy is when they do it to somebody else, like their own child..."
As Sylvie talked on, Leo noticed with mild interest that he couldn't hear her voice any more. Her mouth moved, but his ears reported only a kind of white noise. As he wondered whether to tell her about this strange phenomenon, another thing happened. It was a lot like being bashed on the skull with an anvil, or flattened by the biggest wave you ever saw. One tremendous whomp. Still, in the traditional manner of drowning men everywhere, Leo somehow had time in the interval between alive and dead to think a whole lot of thoughts. Most of them were about things he should have done for Sylvie, and for her mother. In that spacious moment he even found time to ask himself what sort of man would hurt a thing of his own creation? Dying had a lot of disadvantages. It was a lousy deal no matter how you looked at it, a lousy deal all the way around.
The very worst thing was that he never had a chance to tell.
© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman