“They” say to first write what you know. So, I’ve spent my time in Ojai writing this little ditty. So…enjoy, criticize, all of it! I will probably give it more words…final verson TBD.
“Remember we’re on the orange floor.”
“Got it, Dad. Orange is easy to remember.”
Carl knew that unless he announced their parking location, Brian would forget it. Had been that way since he was a kid – always too eager for the next thing, always forgetting.
He counted the colored squares that indicated each floor – eight levels of primary and secondary, plus white. It seemed like the world made things too easy. He remembered the trip to Disneyland, and committing to memory section 400 Goofy.
His son’s family unloaded their overstuffed SUV. Brian’s wife Jackie could never take it easy. But she’d remembered his sweater and glucosamine beverage and peanut butter cheese crackers, so he smiled and pat her back while she unfolded a travel stroller.
“Pop, guess what? We get to ride a train up a mountain!”
Eve held out her chubby hand, and he pointed his index finger so she could grasp it. A curly-haired sprite whose joy came easy. So unlike her brother Jonah, whose long glossy hair obscured a face wracked with pimples. The kid hadn’t looked up once during the hour drive to the museum – head stuck in his phone. Why take a 14-year-old pissant to see art?
The museum was more a hassle than anything else. From the freeway it looked equal parts castle and prison. Brian had naturally memorized the history of the institution, from its humble beginnings as an in-home gallery for an oil-rich billionaire, to a sparkling monolith and international destination. Seemed silly that in a city full of freeways, you had to take a slow ride up a hill to see a couple Rembrandts.
Carl and Beth used to go to the Nelson-Atkins museum every time they visited her sister in Kansas City. While she oohed and ahhed at even the most baffling paintings, he dutifully walked a few steps behind, adjusting his belt and checking his watch while security guards told her to move her nose away from the canvas and glass. When she could no longer walk through museums, he’d learned how to search for pictures of art online, and showed her objects she’d seen and had always wanted to see. She’d always been soft on Monet. The way Carl had been raised made him ambivalent toward gentle pastels and “impressions” of nature. He wondered if Monet had seen the final, fading moments of a deer’s life.
Walking through the visitor turnstile, he recalled a conversation.
“Dad, you’ve never even seen California – Jackie and the kids are tired of Iowa. They hate the snow. And they can only handle so much of the situation.”
“Eve freaked out last time, when Mom peed herself when she was on her lap. Plus she never remembers.”
“I help her remember, godammit.”
“We can go to Disneyland, and the Getty Museum, and Pink’s Hot Dogs, and the beach. It’ll be so good for you to get out. Mom has people to take care of her…Louanna’s an amazing caretaker.”
Carl sat straight and confident as the tram lurched into motion. Despite his misgivings about the trip, he was proud of his family. He still dressed crisply – pressed blue checkered shirt, khaki slacks, brown loafers, and navy blue suspenders. For the first time in many years, he was the one to steam his own shirts, fold them neatly, and pack them in his 20-year-old, indestructible Samsonite. He’d naturally forgotten the toiletry bag in his upstairs bathroom, but Brian and Jackie’s home had two of everything.
He knew he looked like what city folk might call a “yokel,” but that was who he was. He lacked the insecurity that some tourists clutch as they move wide-eyed through the big city. Though freeways continued to make him nervous.
As they moved up the hill through non-native trees and brush, he placed a hand on each knee and smiled while Eve peeked out a window, making various exclamations. Brian and Jackie took pictures of themselves. Jonah continued to focus on the electronic device. The view from the top was appropriately bleak and beautiful – streets snaking through mountains, disrupting the natural order. Above, a hidden vineyard that could only be viewed from the museum.
“Dad look, you can see Downtown from here, even though it’s pretty smoggy. Put on your glasses – you’ll be able to see the Observatory.”
“Pop, can you buy me a popsicle?”
When they reached the top and exited, Brian picked up a map of the museum. Through his contagious excitement and genuine interest, he willed the family to see it all – starting in the flat religious icons of medieval art, and moving all the way to contemporary photography. Carl sighed.
“Dad, do you want an audio guide? We bought you that i-Pod – this is pretty much the same thing.”
If there was one thing he appreciated about museums, it was the demonstration of skill. He especially enjoyed the illuminated manuscripts, with their attention to detail. Tiny figures, given touches of gold leaf, rendered neatly by sequestered monks and lay people who were lucky enough not to die by the plough or plague. The pictures were kept in low light to preserve them, and the space felt like a cool, dry cave. A pleasant female voice in his headphones told him about the rare pigments used to paint saints and sinners.
It was only when two boys started grab-assing in the gallery that his mood soured considerably.
The floors of the museum were freshly waxed, and his loafers squeaked loudly as they walked through the centuries. He nodded at the anatomically accurate equine paintings, and squinted while viewing a self-portrait by Rembrandt as big as a deck of cards. Sculptures of snarling beasts, dainty glassware in glass cases, ornate tapestries, an 18th century bed that looked impossible for sleep. The whole day was an exercise in patience and strained appreciation.
By mid-afternoon his knee was aching and caused a limp, Eve was covered head to toe in a fudge bar, and Jonah had lost interest in his phone and was now staring blankly at his shoelaces. Oblivious to the ragamuffins who accompanied them, Brian and Jackie strolled like honeymooners while reading the labels on every piece of art. He thought again of Beth – always a few steps ahead. Always more eager.
The second-to-last stop was the Impressionist gallery. Carl dreaded this moment – he knew they would spend the better part of an hour studying Renoir, Manet, Gauguin. How did he recall these names so easily? He shrugged to himself.
An elderly docent was walking a small tour group through the gallery, slowly dissecting each flower and figure in the Impressionist oeuvre. He followed her a few minutes, then took a sharp left towards who knew where. He looked up at the nearest painting, and pressed 347 into his audio guide. The pleasant voice continued, undaunted by visitor mood.
“In the fall of 1890, Claude Monet arranged to have the wheatstacks near his home left out over the winter. By the following summer he had painted them at least thirty times, at different times throughout the seasons.”
He stared at the wheatstacks, frozen but rosy from the dawn’s light.
It is a rare moment when forty years of memories coalesce. Carl thought of Iowa, of farms, of paint and canvas, of Beth and adult diapers, of first births and last deaths. He also recalled words, sounds and images as fragments with no memories attached – a dovetail, 50% CLOSEOUT SALE, spilled orange juice, a broken nail, the nose of a pretty girl, a box of watercolors, wrinkled eyes full of tears, a television program about the mating rituals of exotic birds, an orgasm.
He clutched the audio guide and pulled the headphones from his ears. He used a linen handkerchief to blow his nose.
“I have to use the commode.”
“Have Jonah go with you.”
“No, I’m fine. Fine. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Trembling, he pushed open the double doors of the gallery, straightened himself, took a deep breath. He had to call her. She needed to hear his voice. The doctor told him that regular interaction was the best thing for her. That she’d be with him longer, that she’d retrieve memories with greater ease.
He spotted a museum volunteer with a kerry green vest and a big white button that said “ASK ME.”
“Excuse me, I need a telephone.”
Louanna answered brusquely.
“Gibbons residence, how can I help you?”
He paused a moment.
He thought of Eve, who Beth had only known for her first months of life, but who still made her face light up whenever she visited. To his wife, Eve was the pure, vivid palette of childhood. The eyes couldn’t help but re-focus themselves, the lips were helpless to a smile.
“Hi Lou. Is Beth awake?”
“Hey there! Yeah, she’s right here, just watchin’ the hummingbirds. How’s California? I told the kids about the trip and they were so excited for you! Maybe you can pick somethin’ up for them, like a Mickey hat or magnet. I’ll pay you back.”
“Sure thing. Can you put Beth on the phone?”
“Just a sec.”
He heard rustling as Louanna handed over the phone. He heard her whisper his name in Beth’s ear.
“Carl, your husband sweetie.”
“He has lots to tell you about California! Remember, he’s there with Brian and the kids.”
“I don’t wanna talk. I don’t like those people. Motherfuckers.”
Carl calmly, politely hung up the phone, and thanked the woman at the information desk. Beth had always cursed – she was no saint. But when she did, it was always in defense of friends and family. Or, as he loved to remember, she would yell curses at television pundits, calling politicians in big suits “little shitheads” while hand-drying glass tumblers.
He knew then that memory was the cruelest joke played on the human race.
He cried covertly in a men’s room stall for fifteen minutes before running wet fingers through his last wisps of hair. He passed an outdoor café and ordered a coffee and fudge bar. As he walked back towards contemporary photography, Eve ran to him with sticky fingers and a wind chime laugh.
“Pop, we’re all done! Mom and Daddy wanna get dinner and guess what? I got a book from the store that has paintings of kitties!”
Carl held out his index finger.
“It all sounds good, sweetie.”