I wore a black velvet jumpsuit that felt like pajamas to the inspection. My colleagues asked if I needed a day off, but I said no, the work would be good for me, the sharp sifting of assessment a comforting mode. The old woman had donated everything to our museum. She’d been an art collector, or her late husband had been, I couldn’t remember. Such details reached my mind through a layer of cold water, then drifted away. My own mother had been dead only a week, had not been old. The house was a modest, two-story colonial. Her rooms were deep fur rugs, gilded mirrors, heavy chairs with skinny legs, the opposite of my mother’s spare spaces, of my own. I wandered with my colleagues, tiny light loose in my hand. My body grew hot, filled with a skittering, trapped feeling. I thought of walking slowly into the river that surrounded the city though none of us had ever seen it, had only read online of its salty depths, its shifting currents, its potential for flood. I moved toward the cool of the front windows, the neighborhood still pale blue with morning. Here and there, on the blank lawns, figures made from boulders of snow. At the end of the street, an elaborate, wrought iron gate glinted. Though crime was low, the city blocked off more and more of its streets this way, like a heart pinching its own veins shut.
Lately my own, still-open street has an aquarium feel. Running in the morning chill, or after dinner, walking with my fiancé, listening to him describe the different styles of architecture—he designs buildings for the city—sky and leaves and houses blend. What if I told you my mother isn’t really dead? What if she does yoga on a blue mat, talks to her sisters on the phone, scolds my father off red meat in a house not too different from the dead woman’s, fifteen-hundred miles from here in the suburb where I grew up, where I hummed too loudly in classrooms, wore bedazzled neons, loved the smell of my dirty play clothes, learned to hate the heat in my skin, craved sidewalks, always knew I’d leave? What if I made her death up to mask a more shameful grief? What if for all my distance— five cities, five museums, ten years—my desire remains screened in cul de sac fear?
On the edge of the city, the museum sits tightly fenced in chain link. Our scant visitors take the riot steps slowly, wander the atriummed gallery for an hour or two. The works, fast fading in the light of too many windows, are all landscapes. “It’s all very nice,” my mother has said. Then, “It just doesn’t seem like you. Isn’t there somewhere else you could work?” “The better ones are too competitive,” I inevitably snap, then explain how it isn’t so bad. When visitors ask questions, we talk conservation and representation, suggest more challenging works they can look up online. I love the hour before I clock out, the light grey-silver and shining on the marble floors, the ocean and cloudscapes threatening to spill from their frames, to wreck the building, wash us all away. “Anything of note in here?” one of my colleagues ask, as we prepare to leave the dead woman’s house. “No,” I say, though I am staring at a piece in the corner the size of a paperback, the size of my purse, an image the board would never let us display: a woman sitting alone at a dining room table, her head a flower of flame.
Once I cross this line, I cross others. At the museum, I sneak one or two landscapes a day into deep storage, stick increasingly strange reasons above the labels: work vandalized, work haunted, work captured patron, work refused to see reason, work went blank and refused to return. Guests float over the empty spaces, squint at my bad handwriting, linger longer than usual. I imagine them imagining what storm light or waves at midnight or cloudscape in purple or desert at dawn might have looked like, what ghosts might have stalked the perfect mountains, surfaced from beneath the glassy lake, who might have knifed the field of spring flowers, how it would feel to be stuck in a cloudscape. At home, I tape faux landscape labels and explanations up in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bathroom, in the bedroom. My boyfriend wanders bewildered. Our walls, once merely blank, have become a hundred stories of absence.
More girls arrive at the museum than ever before. They’re always in groups of three or four, back packed, shoulders slumped as if they’ve walked miles to get here. They push through the doors without speaking, settle on our few benches or cross legged on the marble floor. They wear the clothes of my adolescence, but everything is brighter and stranger: neon plaids with the arms cut off, thick velvet chokers in purple and maroon, gingham and floral combat boots, big sweaters with gold sequins stitched into the wool. In their hair, shocks of purple and turquoise and teal. From their packs they unfurl sketch books, notebooks, novels, biology textbooks, laptops, blue prints. I wonder what they’re planning, how they know each other, but when I ask they don’t respond. Their phones buzz with songs I don’t recognize, tiny birds flitting around the atrium. I wait for one of my colleagues to make a comment about loitering, or the noise, but no one else seems to notice their presence. When the museum closes, and I’m the only one left, my own satchel bag light, my quiet house weighing on my mind, they’re all still here. “You folks hungry?” I ask. They all look up. “I guess,” one of them says, and then they all go back to their tasks. I feel protective of them somehow. I want them to have time and space to finish whatever they’re creating. I want them to know I’m on their side. I order several delivery pizzas, which disappear while I’m in the bathroom, the empty boxes stacked in a tilting tower by the door, a cloud of grease and cheese still hanging in the air.
A man my father’s age is still here too. He hovers in front of an impressionist landscape, wears funeral black. He reminds me of one of our regulars who died a month ago. Of fright, they said, though not of what. I’m scared and also curious: What does this country scene remind him of? His honeymoon in France thirty years ago? A vacation he’s always wanted to take? The underbrush and poppies and wheat grass that used to flourish in this city before the new regulations, before the police ordered all lawns and parks scraped “clean” to keep us safe? I stand beside him and he flinches, as if I’ve woken him from sleep. “The river,” he says, nodding at the silver blue behind the yellows and greens. He doesn’t seem like a threat, with his tiny pack back, his tiger balm smell, but there are the girls and their work to think of. There is myself. I tell him we’re closed, that he can come back at nine in the morning and enjoy the work more. “Of course, I’m sorry.” I watch him float out the front doors, then turn back to the swirling water, think of the line of blue surrounding our city, how playfully it curves on my smart phone map.
The atrium fills with morning light. Deep bags under their eyes, the girls gather their finished and unfinished inventions, their bright havoc, stream out the front door. “Come back any time,” I shout at their backs. In their absence, a quiet like the coldest water, like the loneliest house, fills my chest. I close my eyes, breathe in and out. A sculpture from the dead woman’s house rises in memory, her dress rippling over her body, a river slowing around her waist, rushing down her legs. I imagine tracing the contours with my fingers, the ground beneath me muddy bank. Her dress turns a hundred neons, her head catches fire. My legs spark with restlessness. As I push out into the cold air, I wonder what I’ll write above the spaces I once called myself.
Hannah La Follette Ryan (b. 1990, Amherst, MA) is a photographer and nanny working in New York, NY. She takes a lot of photos of strangers’ hands on the subway. You can see them on Instagram (@subwayhands).
Meagan Cass’s first full-length collection, ActivAmerica, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, judged by Claire Vaye Watkins, and was published in November 2017 by UNT Press. She is author of the chapbook Range of Motion (Magic Helicopter Press, 2014) and her stories have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, DIAGRAM, PANK, Joyland, and Puerto del Sol, among other places. An Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois Springfield, she is co-curator of the Shelterbelt Reading Series and an assistant editor and board member for Sundress Publications. She lives in St. Louis, MO.