THE LIVING MUSEUM
by Jen Knox
I am on the bus with a cloth grocery bag and my notebook, trying to depersonalize my urge to speak to the man next to me. He is over six feet with no ring, and he already looked my way a few times. Now, mouth open and eyes fixed, he watches the reddening sky with everyone else, while I watch him. I long to be a part of the sky.
The little girl across the aisle points to the window when I look her way, but I just nod and write. My urges are part of a condition, not part of me. They will pass. Meanwhile, the impending storm is bathing everyone in soft, flattering light.
My goal is to avoid triggers until I become stronger, but this requires meticulous planning—more planning than I thought given the bus schedules and a rather inconvenient mistake I made some months back. The problem is numbers. Well, that and proximity.
I slept with Jack, who is my neighbor, who has sticky eyes and lifts his eyebrows often when he speaks to me, as though always genuinely interested in everything. Jack is a waiter with odd shifts. I knew he would be a problem when he moved in, but I successfully resisted his extended company until he invited me to an open mic night on a particularly lonely Tuesday evening.
It is never the good poetry that gets me. Good poetry is a brief release from body and mind, but good poetry is rare. Besides, there’s something about bad poetry—I think it’s the intensity with which the material is delivered, the naïve beauty translated, the human desire to be heard, to be seen, even if a voice is swathed in cliché and melancholy.
I have seduced many mediocre and outright horrible poets in the last few years, so many in fact that my likeness appears in at least half a dozen chapbooks that I keep in a small safe along with my passport and divorce papers. I make a point to buy and read as many literary journals as I can, searching for my depiction as though I were Waldo, lost in red and white—the conceptualized, hypersexual version.
I find it curious that, of those approached, no one has outright resisted my advances. Perhaps my suffering is just less passive. I am irresistible due to the slight curl to my upper lip, someone once said. Mom used to call me Little Elvis.
I was a willing muse. It pained me to stop going to open mic nights, but it was the museums and galleries that really tugged at my soul. Long before I began treatment, I was a regular in the gallery district. Often, a painting would propel me to grab a guard by his belt loop. “No touching,” the best of them said. He still calls. I sometimes answer.
It was never the obvious exhibits. It was a single painting the size of a hardcover book—an abstract forest with richly colored angles. It was the sculpture of a miniature armoire made of forks with an old boot resting on top, a single shoelace untied. I would talk about juxtaposition or color or dimension and wonder how any person could go home to an empty bed night after night. I’d think that shoe was at least a size eleven, and I’d imagine its owner.
I use graham crackers for Mr. Graham’s intended purpose—to squash desire. I eat them plain, to be dunked in milk and allowed to dissolve on my tongue in order to distract. I eat them one after another on particularly lonely nights. I eat them until they begin to taste like nothing. I have four boxes in my bag.
One day, I will enter the museum without willing the person next to me to slip his hand into the back pocket of my jeans, and I will enjoy art. I will listen to poetry without intent. One day, I will be able to sit on this bus, next to this slender man—or one like him—and not even register the slow way he chews a piece of gum.
When one of the security guards I picked up at a gallery a few months ago showed up at Jack’s apartment for a party, there were only eyes to tell stories, but it was this day—so close to home—that I decided to begin therapy three days a week. Most of my check goes to rent and therapy now, so I can’t afford excursions. This works out well because the likelihood of two people I slept with showing up in a single location again is increasing.
Generally, I aim to arrive between four and five-thirty to avoid Jack. I would’ve made perfect time today, but the bus keeps stalling and people keep discussing the sky. When I finally reach my stop, a short man debusses before me.
I notice his shiny shoes moving quickly. His pants are worn at the bottoms—the contrast would catch any artist’s eye. This man is a walking painting, I think, and I want to meet the painter. As we wait for the crosswalk, I see him examining my bag, so I offer him a graham.
He points toward the mass of red clouds moving along the panhandle. “Winds up to thirty miles per hour,” he says, double-checking his phone to confirm. He smiles at me, an old gold filling winking dimly from the back of his mouth.
I still have the bag with the graham crackers pointed his way. He works the cardboard loose and takes one before walking off. As I watch him go, I finally notice the sky as everyone else does. People stand, staring.
I realize I don’t have to wait at this crosswalk because there are no cars. Winds this strong and clouds this dense mean lost visibility, and drivers have pulled over. Red dust dances in the wind, and I have to blink fast to see anything until it settles.
“Be careful out there,” the man yells from half a block away. He opens an industrial-sized umbrella before speed-walking toward a pearl-colored Jetta, which confuses me. I want to run after him, to ask if I can borrow his big umbrella because it looks as though it could guard me from anything and might be able to double as a boat; the sky looks as though it is about to open up.
I wonder briefly what it would be like to curl up with the man in the back of the Jetta. I imagine a brown interior, soft. Instead, I hurry toward my apartment with the cloth grocery bag handle around my left wrist.
Summer-long droughts made the rains that began yesterday headline news, but when the clouds turned red, while I was shopping for my grahams and humming to the brilliantly numbing sounds of The Smiths, panic began to rustle up around me. Now, those of us outside have our phones poised as though they are shields.
The online news is replaced by sermons—celebrity preachers praying for our souls. Then come instructions to get inside, blasting on all public speakers, creating an unsettling tone that will keep my ears ringing.
The rain is thickening, visible in the distance, falling in heavy clumps, as though being squeezed out like dough. It is slowly violent, sealing people in their homes and cars. The best option is to run for a bridge, somewhere open but sheltered. Locking ourselves away in our homes appears a death sentence.
People are abuzz, gossipy flies. Someone says it is a mixture of volcanic ash and sludge. The thickness may be due to the humidity and wind.
“They say there’s an extreme heat wave following this craziness.” Jack’s voice is not deep, not rough. Still, it echoes. He is wearing a large coat with a checkered lining that peeks out from the collar. Thick clothes make sense. He posts pictures to social media and asks me to pose for a selfie with him, selling it like this: “It might be your last one.” I wave him off, say I’ll take a quick shot of him instead. “Put on the filter,” he says.
“Are you kidding? Selfies in Pompeii?”
“This lighting is great,” he says.
It looks as though he is standing in front of a green screen, a garishly fake background behind him—as though he was supposed to be on Mars or in the middle of, well, the apocalypse. He stands smiling, waving at me as though it’s been years, and I feel a familiar nudge to grab him and tell him this is it, our final days, so why not?
“Take a few,” he says. His narcissism breaks the spell, if momentarily. Perhaps I wouldn’t have to avoid Jack if I got to know him well enough.
“You realize this might be pointless? These clouds will erase us all,” a woman says through gritted teeth. She holds her hand out and a stray dollop of clay lands in her palm. As it expands, she tries to peel it off and cannot.
I drop my grahams. News blares over loud speakers and a message flashes across all mobile screens. I hear and see nothing until someone yells, “The rain is turning people into fucking statues!”
Becoming fucking statues could be nirvana.
Jack grabs my hand, pulls hard. It feels like a slow, cool shower. It feels like a thick bath. It is seductive, a coating of cool paint. My feet begin to stick, and I lift one to find myself leaning forward, but I fight to reposition. I tense every muscle, focus, but soon I am immobilized to the ankles, then calves. Jack is stuck on his knees.
It happens quickly, with a wave of heat. I feel my skin pulling toward the clay, beginning to dry, and I struggle to control what I can—to reach for Jack’s hand. In mere hours, we are solid and begin to crack in the hot, Texas sun.
Some say we still look alive, that our shells just need to be chipped away to reveal the life within, but these people are regarded as eccentrics by others. They all speculate in some way, however, because when we engage them they become transfixed. They are captured in a moment, relieved of all urges, if briefly.
No one will take photos at The Living Museum, but they will arrive in droves to meet us. They will surmise different scenarios, cite erroneous sources, touch when guards are not looking, guess and claim to know our relationship. They will say Jack worshiped me, revered me, and rightfully so.
Meanwhile, when they arrive, we will watch them and their world as though they are the ones on display. We will continue to watch, just as they always dreamed someone would.
Jen Knox is the Writers-in-Communities Program Director at Gemini Ink in San Antonio and a freelance Writing Coach. She is the author of After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press, 2015), and her short work can be found in The Adirondack Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, Istanbul Review, Room Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. Find Knox here: www.jenknox.com
Image credit: amira_a on Flickr