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Edna's orthopedic shoes clumped awkwardly down the padded gray carpet. She gripped her sensible handbag tightly, although there was no reason to do so. The halls of the museum were practically empty, save for the occasional stoic security guard. She had wisely chosen Tuesday for her museum trip. No one ever came on Tuesdays. Groups of chatting children were herded in at the end of the week as a small reward for good behavior; young 20-somethings and teenagers usually roamed the halls on weekends. She hated crowds.
The harsh fluorescent lights beamed down and reflected on Edna's silver-framed glasses. They forced her to bend and squint to read the descriptions, but Edna didn't mind. Long ago she had developed a gung-ho attitude toward museums, power-walking past exhibits and barely glancing at who made what. One of her greatest accomplishments was seeing the Louvre in a day. She was a young woman then, fresh and full of exuberance, Kodak camera ready at hand.
She was in no hurry any more. Now she had enough time to leisurely stroll about the museum and read the little placards, which were printed in type so small that she wondered if the museum had a covert agenda against the elderly. Women's dresses lined up neatly in rows, fitted over mannequins. Edna puffed asthmatically and sat on a wooden bench, staring at the garments. They were laid out like a children's puzzle: all made of brown hide, and yet so different. Some had bright blues and shells. Some had small tassels at the bottom, and elk teeth embedded in the bodices.
Edna was a child of the fifties, the kind political pundits called a “baby boomer.” Looking at the dresses called to mind her brother's endless games of cowboys and Indians, the way he would run around the house with a feather stuck into his tangled hair, waving a toy of a brown-skinned figure atop a horse, shouting “Bang! Bang!” The horse, Edna recalled, was painted the same color as the Indian, so the two blended into some sort of fantastic animal. The memory made her ponder her true intent in going to the museum on this sticky, humid day. Had she decided to enter its air-conditioned halls to escape the heat? Or perhaps to recapture a tiny piece of the past in the Native American artifacts?
Either way, she wasn't finding what she was looking for.
The museum's darkened halls were certainly not a solace – the artificial air pumping through vents was stifling. The dummies in Native American garb felt antiseptic. The floor beneath Edna's black shoes looked cleanly vacuumed, without a hint of the modern human waste that generally lined public spaces. There's too much order in the museum, she decided. That's what's bothering me. The dresses weren't meant to be fitted onto lifeless figures; they were mean to be worn by living, breathing humans. The tassels on the hems were not meant to be carefully preserved, but rather to bounce along with the steps of a woman's body. Edna felt peculiar looking at these specimens, so carefully preserved in a temperature-controlled environment. Perhaps someday, when her body was wasting underground and her grandchildren slowly forgetting her face, her beige JC Penney slacks would be carefully fitted onto a mannequin, with a neat little typed-up card:
Women's Pants, c. 2000
Materials: Cotton, polyester. Made in China.
She became aware of a prickling in the back of her neck. This wasn't the way to preserve the past, taking objects once useful and cluttering them into a tightly sealed display. The whole business was about as respectful as her brother watching Westerns on the glowing TV set on Saturday mornings, yelling, “Kill them Indians, cowboys!” The entire atmosphere, from the dim ceiling lights to the polished glass cases, felt artificial. It isn't fair, she decided. If these women only knew what would become of the garments they so carefully worked on. When I'm dead and forgotten, she pondered, which might be quite soon, I certainly don't want anyone showing my stuff in a display case.
“Madam, please step away from the glass.” A bald-headed security guard poked his head into the room. Edna had been leaning on the glass for support while her thoughts rambled. She nodded to him slowly, but what he was saying did not quite register. She was too far into her mind.
“Step away from the glass, please,” the guard repeated. The lights shone brightly on his smooth head.
“What business you got, telling me what to do?” Edna barked back. Even she did not expect such an outburst. She covered her mouth with her hand as the guard strode toward her, like a soldier dutifully walking into battle.
“If you do not listen to me, ma'am, I'm afraid we're going to ask you to leave,” he warned. His voice was softer now, as if he had just gotten a glimpse of Edna's face and realized how old she was. Perhaps he thinks I'm senile, Edna thought. She chuckled to herself quietly and straightened her body, taking her hands off the glass. Perspiration had left small fingerprints on the case.
“I'm so sorry, I don't know what got into me,” she mumbled.
“It's okay, ma'am, happens to the best of us.”
“I'm not usually like this …” She trailed off, struggling for a good explanation for her strange behavior.
“The weather, that must be it. Gonna rain today. Something strange always happens when it rains in New York.” Edna smiled as the man sighed. “You're the only one in this museum, I guarantee it,” he continued.
“It must be very dull,” Edna replied.
“Yep, but that's the job. I been staring at these little dresses for months. I believe I've memorized each and every one,” he joked. Edna felt herself growing increasingly bored. Was this what her life would be like now, trying to make awkward conversation with security guards and strangers?
She suddenly had the erratic idea to take a dress. She wanted to do something, anything that would take her out of the monotony of life. And in her twisted ramblings she reasoned that it could serve as a memento, or even clothe a poor person. Within the confines of her imagination, she imagined starting her own museum, with exhibits that would have the things lying out there in the open, for everyone to feel and touch and interact with, as you should with everything old.
Edna found herself stumbling, as if in a dream, into the other exhibition hall, where another dizzying line of dresses stood. Some of them, she realized, were not even shrouded in glass cases. Why, it's a sign, she thought to herself. They want you to take one. They know the stupid tchotchkes at the gift shop are so very expensive. By now, her idea had grown so powerful in her mind it had overtaken all her wisdom. She reached out to touch a dress. The soft hide felt good against her dry skin. She was in a daze. She did not even hear the sharp, buzzing alarm that began the moment she stepped within the boundaries. She was leaning against the metal railing, stroking and running her hands over the smooth blue embroidery.
Blue is like the ocean, she remembered reading on a museum placard. Blue is the ocean and I am touching the ocean. I am free and wild like a silver fish jumping with the waves. I can go where I wish and do what I want.
The bald guard came running into the room just as Edna was trying to climb over the railing. Her leg was poised stiffly in the air as she stood trapped, like a ballerina forgetting her moves. Her hand clutched the ancient dress for support. She was beginning to come out of her reverie as the guard roughly grabbed her arms and pulled her back.
“Old lady, you crazy?” the guard shouted, in a quizzical tone. He knew she was harmless.
“I suppose I am,” Edna mused. She struggled with him, but was no match for the burly man. It was his job, after all, to deal with people like her.
The back room she was in had no air conditioning. It was completely bare except for a small typed memo taped to the wall by the metal desk. Edna sat demurely on a folding chair, hands on her lap. It was the way her mother used to sit when her husband scolded her for burning the potatoes or spending too much money on groceries. Her picture had been snapped and phone calls made. She could hear the click-clicking of heels against the marble hallway, and a shrill voice flitted between the empty gaps of sound.
“My mother … no charges … I have a lawyer …”
The door swung open to reveal a young woman in a navy business suit. “Ma!” she exclaimed in exasperation. “How could you do such a thing? What came over you? Do you know how much damage you have done to this museum? They almost pressed charges! What were you thinking? What, I ask?” She bombarded her mother with so many questions that Edna felt her head begin to whirl.
“But I haven't done anything,” Edna said, confused. “I just touched a bit of a dress, that's all.”
“You ripped an original Native American dress, Ma,” the woman replied in annoyance.
Edna had not been aware of this. Everything from her outburst was a haze in her mind, covered with something like the smoke that came out of the glove factory near her childhood home in Newark. She often wondered who lived there now, and had considered visiting the split-level home, but had forgotten the address. Did the present occupants mow the lawn every weekend like her father had? Did they scrub the linoleum floors? She sincerely hoped they had kept the floors. She had played so many solitary games of marbles on them, and now they were likely in a dump somewhere.
“Do you know my first address?” she asked her daughter, who raised her eyebrows in return.
“Mom, you're going off topic.” The woman sighed. “I knew this would happen eventually.”
“What would happen, sweetheart?”
“You would start going off into your mind. You're getting older, Ma. The only reason they decided not to charge you with destruction of property was because they saw how old you were.” Her daughter broke this as gently as she could. They were silent for a moment.
“I have these pamphlets.” She shuffled in her bag, past the iPod and BlackBerry and work files, taking out a few glossy pieces of paper. “There are some really great communities for the elderly. People like you. People you can talk to. They take care of you there.” Edna shook her head violently.
“I don't belong with those old geezers. You know I don't,” she protested.
The woman smiled down at her mother and offered her hand.
“Okay. We'll discuss this when we get home. Come on, Mother.”
Edna hobbled out of the room, clutching her leather handbag.