THE MALL OF HEROES – Part IV
The Chief Artisan
The grey man drove the taxi over the toll bridge spanning the river. The second taxi kept pace. On its outskirts the structural immensity of the city dwindled into low-rise industrial buildings and shopping plazas pocked with whitewashed windows. Hardy weeds grew from cracks in the sidewalks and along their curbs where dirt and dust had collected. Peeling billboards sprouted on the rooftops. Commercial signs winked: QUALITY USED APPLIANCES, RADIO & TV REPAIR, LIQUOR, PIZZA, BLINDS & SHUTTERS, BAR, SPORTING GOODS and HOURLY RATES AVAILABLE.
The penitentiary loomed ahead. Stefan recoiled involuntarily as he gazed at the watchtowers and the coils of razor wire atop its inner and outer fence systems. ‘No need to worry,’ laughed the Secretary of Heritage. ‘That is, unless you’ve done something we don’t know about yet.’
‘I’m a scholar,’ Stefan replied.
‘Then you of all people would know that ideas can sometimes be dangerous things.’
A second building stood beyond the confines of the prison. Stefan noticed that the surrounding grounds were landscaped. It did not appear to be a secure facility. The taxis turned into the curving drive.
‘You’re aware of the Mall of Heroes?’
‘I only just read of it this morning on the train,’ Stefan admitted.
The Secretary nodded approvingly; the citizen had done his duty and had read the Nation’s Eye. ‘The Overlord’s plans are a bit grandiose for my tastes,’ the Secretary confided to Stefan. The grey man’s eyes flicked to the rearview mirror and then back to the pavement in front of them. ‘But the concept is sound. The Overlord envisions a great public space that commemorates all of humanity’s achievements; a place to celebrate the great artists, poets, statesmen, scientists… our collective genius. National boundaries will play no part. The Mall of Heroes will be a statement of unity to the world.’
‘A very noble endeavour,’ Stefan said.
‘It is. It is,’ the Secretary repeated, ‘and you will curate it.’
‘You. Consider this: you’ll be heading up the library project, all that information at your fingertips. Every week you’ll simply submit a list of statuary candidates to me for vetting and then we’ll proceed with the casting.’
‘But the research, Mister Secretary, the research. The vision is of thousands of statues and I must assume the deadline is five years as well.’
‘We’ve made great strides regarding the means of production, Stefan. The Mall of Heroes will be the easiest and perhaps most enjoyable aspect of your work on behalf of the Department of Heritage.’
The drive snaked around to the rear of the building. The taxis followed it and then dipped down through an open bay door. A porter greeted them and then directed the vehicles to a screened off parking area. Inside the building proper the trio was met by a man wearing a tan coloured lab coat beneath a heavy apron which Stefan took to be either leather or vinyl. There was a peculiar, cloying odor too, as if something sweet tasting had burned on a stovetop. Stefan swallowed several times, his saliva glands kept filling his mouth.
‘Stefan,’ said the Secretary, ‘this is Doctor Gingras, our chief artisan.’
‘Welcome, Stefan, a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to working closely with you.’ The doctor tipped the rim of his bifocals in greeting. A pair of safety goggles hung from his neck.
‘Likewise, Doctor.’ Stefan inhaled through his mouth and tried to hold his breath for a moment. He saw that the grey man was attempting something similar as discreetly as he could.
The Secretary clapped the doctor on the shoulder. ‘Come on, Gingras, let’s show our new colleague what we’ve accomplished!’
The chief artisan ushered the three men into an adjoining room. Two life-sized, bronze hued statues stood before them. They were remarkably life-like. Stefan peered at one of them, a well-muscled man wearing swimming trunks and some type of over-sized gloves. He read the plaque on the plinth: Muhammad Ali THE GREATEST. The second figure was another man, this one in a baggy schoolboy uniform and cap; he wielded some kind of stick: Roy Hobbs THE BEST THERE EVER WAS.
‘Two legendary sportsmen,’ the Secretary of Heritage informed Stefan. ‘My choices,’ he added. ‘Too often I think we dismiss the value of competition and the lessons it can teach us all.’
‘These are my prototypes,’ Doctor Gingras said. ‘We’re very pleased with the results. Our current capacity is one statue per day. I believe we can double it as we refine the process.’
Stefan studied the clippings on the walls. They were pictures of these men taken from the archives he’d been shown earlier. The poses had been replicated exactly. Their faces, while distinct, were more approximations. He didn’t suppose that mattered after so many centuries; it was more the idea of the tributes, ideals replicated and manifested. Stefan coughed. The smell in the room made his eyes water. The pair of statues reeked.
‘I’d be honoured to take you on a tour of the foundry, Stefan,’ said Doctor Gingras.
‘I’m very interested to see it,’ Stefan replied. Over the Secretary’s shoulder the grey man’s blue eyes widened into circles for a fraction of an instant. ‘But you must forgive me, I believe at this moment I’d prefer some fresh air. No offense meant, I assure you.’
‘The chemicals take some getting used to,’ Doctor Gingras told Stefan. ‘They’re harmless, pure organics.’
‘These are beautiful works,’ said Stefan. ‘Lovely, very impressive.’
‘Doctor’ crowed the Secretary of Heritage, ‘thank you for your time. You’re a busy man. We will be in touch.’