The Shroud

“And here, the museum’s most prized possession, the shroud worn by the Prophet himself. It is said to have been taken from his body just before interment. You will notice that it is quite dirty. This is not due to ill-care but rather the journey it’s endured. It has been passed around the globe for many years, centuries even. Disciples used to tote it from town to town, city to city, displaying it for great crowds. They would sift through the gathered masses looking for the sick and the dying so they could bring them up to touch the cloth. Many reported that they experienced healing after laying hands on it. The shroud went missing for many years until we here at the museum were able to track it down.”

Bertram stared at what he’d just written. Perhaps this rejuvenated speech would engender renewed excitement about his museum’s prized piece. He drew his maple-syrup eyes away from his scribbles and cast them toward the shroud. It was glowing dully at the end of the main hall. He stroked his graying beard and surveyed the expansive space through his large office glass. It was devoid of natural light. The windows had all been spray-painted over or covered with dark blankets. Even the front glass doors were coated with a near-opaque tint. He had learned somewhere that the ultraviolet light could compromise artifacts. So, in its place were scattered soft spotlights, illuminating the sparse collection of religious relics. The artificial light seeped into his office to create a swirling of black and yellow, and it made his desk and filing cabinet look alive but unwell. At the end of the hall, he spotted Otto leading a tour comprised solely of an older, rotund woman. Upon seeing them, Bertram threw his pencil down and swiftly fell to his knees before a large framed picture of The Prophet.

“Prophet!” He prayed loudly. “Hear my humble voice. You are entirely great! I have devoted my life to serve you, oh Holy One.” Bertram peeked out the corner of his eye.

“I have sacrificed much and given of myself unendingly. I have denied myself many times over in obedience to you. I have kept your word. May you see all I have done and be pleased!” He peered again through the floor to ceiling length windows that encased him. He saw a pair of white orthopedic shoes shuffle by, followed by a pair a slick black dress shoes. They stopped just before the front doors. Bertram continued to pray, now slightly quieter, as he craned his head to the side to listen. As he strained his neck to the side, he managed to hear Otto giving a few lines from the prepared speech about donating to the museum. The woman mumbled something Bertram couldn’t hear.

He stood up and peeked around the corner to see if the woman had been persuaded by Otto’s speech but all he saw was a thin strip of sunlight that vanished as the door closed. As he assumed the position of prayer once again, he emitted a lengthy sigh. His strained eyes pinched to see clock in the dim corner. 6:56 pm. Not enough time to say anything that mattered. He got back on his feet and grabbed his coat and wallet.

He looked up to see Otto making his way toward the coat rack. Dressed in a stark white shirt and bow tie, he looked more like a waiter than a guide. He was a tall, thin man and often stood with a slight hunch, giving him the appearance of a windblown tree. As he slung his coat over his bony frame, Bertram pushed his way out of his office.

“Suppose it’s quitting time, sir.” Otto said.

“Indeed, it is. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Bertram watched Otto grab his coat and slip through the front doors when he heard the clanging of metal on metal behind him. He turned around.

“Jim.” Bertram said with a nod.

Jim, the overnight janitor and security guard, was the museum’s only other employee. He was heavyset with dark thick hair, slicked back with what Bertram always assumed was naturally occurring grease. Jim was panting lightly as he pushed a mop bucket down the hallway.

“Hello, sir.”

“I’ve been meaning to discuss something with you.”

“What’s that, sir?’

“I know you’re still getting accustomed to the incorporated role of security guard and janitor but my office windows are very streaky.” He pointed to his glass encasement. “Please make sure you are cleaning them as part of your nightly routine.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Grimble.”

“I feel as though I can barely see through the murky glass. I want it to be especially clean, seeing as I am the owner and face of this museum.”

Jim nodded understandingly.

“Thank you. Have a pleasant evening, Jim.”

“You too.”

“Sir.”

“What?”

“You forgot to say sir.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. Won’t happen again, sir.”
 Bertram pressed his stout frame against the heavy glass doors and shoved his way out onto the city sidewalk. He heard the click of Jim locking the doors behind him as he made his way down the street. The sun hung low, peeking its way between the tall downtown buildings. There was a fall chill in the air and it smelled vaguely of burning leaves and exhaust. In the evening haze, Bertram began to think about the future of his museum. It was becoming apparent that the shroud no longer carried the cultural importance it used to. Years ago, Bertram had purchased the shroud at secretive auction for a small fortune, believing that owning something of great historical and religious value would benefit both his soul and his wallet. He had staked all he had on the museum, using his entire savings and a generous loan to purchase the building and the shroud. He was convinced that curating a collection built around the great Prophet’s shroud would be a gratifying and lucrative venture. Thus far, it had not been. An icy breeze blew between the buildings. Bertram shoved his hands into his front pockets and ran his forefinger over rough edge of his keys for the rest of his journey home.

When Bertram got to his apartment, he hung his coat and made his way to the cupboard. Grimacing, he surveyed his inventory of canned foods: beans, corn, beets and one can of tomato soup. He decided that the chilly air outside had put him in a soup mood. He rooted through his fridge and found half of a days-old French bread. This would do. He dumped the contents of the can into his only pan and placed it on the one working burner on his stove.

As he stirred slowly, waiting for the soup to boil, the hunger-fatigue in tandem with the swirling liquid began to hypnotize him. Soon he saw himself inside his museum, dressed in the finest three-piece suit, making lively conversation with several prominent members of the church. They laughed at his jokes and patted him on the back like an old friend. When the numerous guests walked by, they nodded in reverence at the important men around Bertram. There was barely room to move around and the exhibits were alive with excitement. The buzz in the air could almost be felt; like riding in car with a broken muffler, it caused the fatty areas of Bertram’s body to vibrate. He didn’t feel the constant nervousness associated with potential bankruptcy or the even greater fear of being outed as poor in front of his employees and peers. He dug his hands into his pockets and felt the heft of coins and paper; the weight was so great that it was caused his pants to sag slightly. It hurt his hip.

“Ouch!”

In his daze, Bertram had leaned in too close to the burner and singed his shirt. He licked his fingers and tried to wipe away the black line it had left. Some of the black transferred to his fingers but most of it stayed put. Pulling the pan off the stovetop, he grumbled ancient curses under his breath. This was his only suit. As Bertram released one more growly lament, he plopped down in his armchair, dipped the French loaf into the soup and ate his dinner straight out of the pan.

When he pushed the door open in the morning, Bertram saw Jim sleeping in one of the hard-plastic chairs by the entrance. He slammed the door shut causing Jim and his bulk to shoot up like one of those inflatable tube characters at the car dealership.

“Oh, Mr. Grimble. Good morning. I uh, I must have just dozed off.”

“What have I told you about sleeping on the job?” Bertram said angrily.

“I know sir, I-“

“You’re not solely the janitor, you know. You are our security. Imagine if someone had tried to break in the back and you’re up here, asleep. They would make off with everything.”

“I’m sorry sir, I won’t let it happen again.”

“You best not.”

Jim wiped the drool from the corner of his mouth and groggily wobbled down the hall. Bertram shook his head in frustration and entered his office. He began to set his things down when he noticed that it seemed brighter around him. The reflection of the lights off his lacquered desk was different. He looked puzzlingly at his desk and cocked his head to the side in confusion. His eyes followed the source of the light upwards until he was facing straight forward. The shroud. It was exquisite, glowing brilliantly, pure and white, from inside its glass case. Bertram gasped as his pupils narrowed. No longer were there shoe prints, smudges, dirt and grime coating the Prophet’s shroud. Its thread caught the light and exploded the particles outward in every direction. He stumbled out of his office, unable to take his eyes off the display.

“A miracle.” He said in a half-whisper. His heart beat harder as he walked clumsily up to the shroud and inspected it. He caught his reflection in the glass and for a moment thought he was seeing the Prophet incarnate. When his mind corrected itself, he shook his head and patted his pockets for the keys. After struggling to find the right key on his overcrowded keychain, he opened the case. The shroud was pure white, defiled no more. It shone with a near-blue crispness. Bertram knelt down, grabbed the lower portion of the garment and gently rubbed the fabric between his thumb and middle finger. The garment was rough and lighter than he expected. He pulled his hand away and examined his fingers. No trace of dirt or any other contaminants. “How can this be?” Bertram thought to himself. After thieves had stolen it from the Prophet’s body, it had travelled far and wide, reaching nearly every continent. It had changed hands many times and was fought over by various religious sects. The shroud’s authenticity had also come into question many times and is still a point of controversy. One thing that was certain was that it had not been well cared for. When Bertram came into possession of the shroud it was filthy. He distinctly remembered his feeling reluctant to touch it for fear he would make contact with some rare illness or disease left there by some unfortunate soul. In fact, he had made Jim do most of the handling and mounting of the shroud. Even after it was mounted and placed inside its case, Bertram would not look too closely at it. Until now, it had made him feel anxious and susceptible.

Bertram heard the sound of the doors jostling and immediately stood up. He slammed the case shut and turned around with a suspicious whip of the head. He saw Otto closing and locking the front doors behind him.

“Mornin’, sir.” He tipped his head in Bertram’s direction.

“Did you lock the doors behind you?”

“Yes, sir. We don’t open for another 15 minutes.”

“I know that. I’m just making sure you’re doing your job.”

Otto momentarily gave a confused look but shrugged it off his face as he turned and made his way toward the coat rack.

“Otto, come here. Look at this.”

“Look at what, sir?” Otto said, his back still toward Bertram.

“It’s the shroud. It looks…new.”

“Huh?” Otto turned around. He stuck his neck out as if trying to get his eyes closer to the display. A disconcerted look came upon his thin face as he ambled disjointedly toward the case. Bertram had since turned around to continue admiring the shroud. When he came up alongside Bertram, Otto’s mouth has drooped open to a gaping maw.

“Would you look at that.” Otto said. “It’s spotless white!” Otto was nearly bouncing with delight. In his excitement, he slapped Bertram playfully on the shoulder.

“Excuse you!” Bertram exclaimed.

“Oh, my apologies sir! It’s just- you know what this means right? We are bearing witness to a verified miracle!”

“It certainly is a miracle.” Bertram said, almost to himself. A smile sneaked its way onto his face and he gripped the keys hard into his hand so the teeth made little indentations on his fingers. “We won’t be opening the museum today.”

“What? Why, sir? People will surely be clamoring to see the shroud once word gets out.”

“Exactly. We need to prepare the museum for our extra guests.”

“Ah, I see.”

“And we’ll need to raise the admission fee.”

They worked all day to ensure the museum was in its finest state. This task was made considerably more difficult by Jim’s nightly cleaning (or lack thereof.) Bertram found several old cups of soda left in inconspicuous places. There were hamburger wrappers stuffed behind chairs and several pieces of hardened chewing gum adhered to the undersides of handrails and informational signs. Much of the glass encasing the artifacts were smeared with remnants of whatever had been on the fingers of the museum’s guests. And the windows to Bertram’s office were still streaky. The longer they cleaned, the angrier Bertram became. Toward the end of the day, after finding a half-sucked hard candy affixed to a bench, he had finally had enough.

“Jim has got to go.”

“What?” Otto said, caught off guard by the broken silence.

“You saw what we had to clean today, the amount of work we had to do. Jim is clearly failing to do even an adequate job.”

“Yeah, it was awfully dirty in here.” Otto paused. “But you know, Jim works during the day too, over at that fried chicken restaurant on Grand. I bet he’s mighty tired by the time he gets over here.”

“Oh, he most certainly is, since I often find him dozing when I arrive in the mornings. He has taken on too much. If he cannot fulfill his responsibilities to this museum he must either quit the restaurant or be fired. I cannot stand for this!”

“He can’t quit, sir. I know his cleaning hasn’t been exactly up to snuff but he’s got that sick kid, you know…” Otto trailed off.

“’Not up to snuff?’ This is completely unacceptable! If he was taking extensive measures to maintain the security of the building, I could possibly excuse the utter lack of cleanliness in this place. But as it stands, the only thing Jim does well here is sleep!”

“Maybe we could-“

“No, I’ve made up my mind. Jim will be fired as soon as he arrives tonight.” Bertram placed his hands firmly on his hips.

“You’re firin’ me?” Jim’s voice broke the dead air that followed Bertram’s proclamation. Bertram was startled by Jim’s voice behind him and turned around quickly. He gathered himself quickly in order to maintain a sense of composure.

“Oh, hello Jim.” He straightened his spine. “Yes, you are being terminated, effective immediately.”

“But sir, please, I can explain…”

“No, do not try to argue your case. Through my extensive inspection today it has been revealed to me that you are nothing but a strain on the museum’s pocketbook. Please hand over your key, grab your things and leave.”

Jim’s shoulders dropped.

“I don’t have anything to grab.” He grimly tossed Bertram the keys, turned slowly and walked toward the doors. Otto, who was standing behind Bertram, lifted his boney hand slightly and raised his long neck as if he were about to call out to Jim. He stopped himself. As the doors nestled shut, Bertram walked briskly over and locked them.

“There.” He said, dusting off his hands. “Without Jim weighing down the museum we stand to make a tidy profit. Let us reconvene here first thing tomorrow. I will make calls to all the local churches and newspapers tonight.” Bertram turned to face the shroud. “It shall be a truly joyous occasion.”

“Yes, sir.” Said Otto, still looking toward the doors with a sullen face.

“The Prophet chose us, Otto. The Prophet chose to reveal his miracle to me.”

“Yes, he did, sir.”

When he got home, he made several calls to prominent priests, journalists and television stations. Bertram spent hours telling and retelling his story to anyone who picked up the other end of the line. Each time he made sure to emphasize the mysterious power of the Prophet’s shroud and how its renewed brilliance had been revealed to him. He also remembered to mention the museum’s raised admission fee.

When Bertram finally retired for the night (at an hour well past his usual bedtime), he couldn’t sleep. He lay supine in his twin bed, seeing his ceiling as a movie screen onto which his future was being projected. Due to the prodding nature of the springs in his mattress, he first imagined the bed he would buy, once the money-laden crowds flooded his museum. This then caused him to think of the silken pajamas he would purchase, to sleep in such a fine bed. He looked over to his right. Ah yes, he would also need a new nightstand. And lamp. And Bible. Yes, he would get for himself the finest Bible that money could buy: leather-bound, glossy-paged, embossed with stylish lettering. Of course, he would assuredly donate some of his new fortune to the church. And to the widows and orphans. How could he not? Yes, he would certainly have to do that at some point. But it would obviously take some time to find a deserving church or a trustworthy charity.

When morning came, Bertram rose early in order to spend more time grooming himself. After a long shower and attentive shave, he stood before his mirror examining himself in his suit. Tugging his jacket around his belly, he struck several poses and emulated being in casual conversation. As he turned to the side to practice shaking hands, his jacket swung back to expose the blackened burn line on his shirt. He licked his fingers and rubbed at it again. Have to make sure to keep the jacket buttoned, he thought.

Briskly he walked down the sidewalk, breathing in the crisp city air. It smelled young and caused him to feel younger as well. The sun felt giddy in the places where the tall buildings couldn’t hold it back. As he made his way toward the museum, he practiced the different greetings and reverent salutations he would be using during the day. As he rounded the corner to the museum he was astounded to find that a line had formed down the block. The sight of it stopped him in his tracks. The newspaper and television stations must have run Bertram’s story. He reached his hands into his pockets and grabbed at his keys while an ugly smile crept onto his face. As he started walking again, he addressed the visitors waiting in line.

“Good morning, you pleasant lot! Prepare yourselves to witness the miraculous! Be sure to have your admission fee ready at the door so as not to impede yourselves!” He had just started to shake some hands while he walked toward the entrance, when suddenly he stopped. He pulled his keys out of his pocket and began to jingle them above his head playfully. “Additionally, some of you may wish to touch the shroud to experience it’s healing power.” He raised his eyebrows in a supercilious manner while smirking out of the corner of his mouth. The crowd of waiting people murmured with excitement. He continued making his way toward the museum’s front doors. When he reached them, he turned back to address the mass of people.

“For a small fee of $50, you may lay your hands on the Prophet’s shroud.”

As the visitors gasped and cheered at this new information, Bertram slipped himself through the doors and locked them behind him. Inside, he found Otto sitting on a bench with his head hanging low between his shoulders.

“Otto, my good man! Have you see the line that’s formed outside? It nearly wraps around the front of the building!” While speaking, Bertram looked out the shaded windows of the front doors. Some of the visitors has begun knocking on the panes of glass with anticipation.

“I saw, sir.”

Sensing Otto’s lack of excitement, Bertram turned around.

“What is wrong with you? You should be rigid with eagerness. Today is going to be a momentous event!” He walked over to Otto.

“Someone is here to speak with you, sir.”

“Ah! Is it someone from the Daily Herald?”

“No, sir.”

“Then surely it’s one of the priests I phoned last night. Father Garner, I presume?”

“No sir, it’s me.” Jim emerged from the bathroom hallway, still trying to get his belt fastened around his large waist.

“Jim! What on earth are you doing here!? I thought I made it abundantly clear last night that you were no longer in the employ of this museum.”

“Yes sir, you did, sir. I jus wanted to stop by and apologize. You seemed real mad last night.”

“I was. Still am, as a matter of fact.”

“Well, I just wanted to say that I’m real sorry that I washed the shroud. It just seemed so dirty and you were always makin’ such a big fuss about things being clean around here so I thought I was showin’ some initiative. My wife told me when I got home what a dummy I was to do that. She told me that’s probably why you were so mad.”

Bertram’s eyes were as wide as sand dollars and his mouth hung open like it had come off its hinges. It took him a moment to remember how to speak.

“You…you what?” He finally sputtered out.

“I know, it was a real dumb thing to do. But I was hoping maybe if I came down here like a man and apologized, you might rethink your firing me.”

Bertram made a face like he’d been kicked in the stomach. He looked past Jim’s sweaty face to the shroud. As if having been suddenly entranced, he started to shuffle toward it.

“Sir, I said I was sorry.” Jim pleaded.

Bertram ignored him and kept walking. Otto followed curiously behind.

“Sir, where are you going?”

The knocking at the doors had turned into banging; the visitors were growing restless at the chance to be healed. The barrage on the doors filled the cavernous museum with echoed claps of thunder. Bertram continued to make his way to the shroud. Otto soon gave up pursuing him and simply stopped to watch. When he got to the case, Bertram stood motionless, staring into the false radiance of the shroud. He squinted to try to see it with different eyes. He tilted his head to the side and squeezed his eyelids even closer together. Inching nearer, he gripped the sides of the glass case with his shaking hands. Closing his eyes, he pressed his head to the glass, leaving an oily impression of his face. The pounding on the doors had increased in volume; the banging was now synchronized and barbaric in nature. Bertram faintly heard Jim and Otto asking him something, but it was too loud now to make out exactly what. He inhaled a deep breath through his nose and blew it out, leaving foggy condensation on the shroud’s case. He opened his eyes. The fabric was still stark white, glowing in its glass box. Each strand still caught the beams of artificial light that shone down on it from above. Bertram reached into his pants pocket and fumbled for his keys. When he found them, he clenched them so tightly his fingers bled.