Milar hated going to the museum, as most ten year olds would, and considered it as stuffy and snotty as his parents, Esmerelda and Peko. Even he had figured out that they had changed their birth names, and that they wanted their son to have an original designation as well. What snobs, he thought. What fakes. They walked him around the museum to impress culture upon him, holding their noses in the air at paintings worse than what his three year old cousin could do. He watched them and waited for the next part of their routine as they stared at some abstract slashing of colors on a canvas, an impression of a naked woman. Milar’s mother had stood naked for him once so he could appreciate the female body and not sexualize it later in life, and seeing her like that made her more normal than when she wore that eclectic mixture of hippy and goth clothing. Peko had dyed his skin and hair white as some protest gesture against animal experimentation, and his pointed chin and nose made him look like a lab rat.
“Oh,” Peko gasped in reference to the painting, putting his hand to his mouth, “There it is. Do you see it?”
‘There it is’ was part of their routine, that vagueness which when asked ‘What do you see?’ they replied ‘You must find it for yourself.’ When Milar figured out that this answer meant that they didn’t have to prove that they were seeing anything, he realized how pretentious they were.
Esmerelda canted her head sideways, nodding in agreement. “Ah, yes. There it is.”
Milar just followed them silently. Sometimes he nodded agreement, sometimes he shook his head, and sometimes he made funny faces as he faked interest, unnoticed. The paintings on the walls were mostly rude spatterings that his parents tried to imitate on their own walls, and there were some displays of random objects and junk thrown together under some artistic guise. The funny thing about their act was that they believed it themselves, and told him that he must seek out the original in everything he looked at but never share it with others, because they must find ‘it’ for themselves.
In front of a large, wall-like sculpture near a corner, Peko asked, “Do you think with all the people who have come through that there is anything original to be discovered in these pieces?”
“I’d think not,” Esmerelda said.
As they turned away, Milar noticed a figure slumped against the wall, mostly obscured from sight as most visitors turned in the opposite direction. The man wore a tan custodial uniform and hat, and had his face in his hands. Milar decided the thrill of his day should be denying an on-duty nap to a menial laborer, and approached to poke him. As Milar’s finger neared the man’s face, he noticed the pale complexion, unblinking eyes, and a fly crawling in and out of the nose. He withdrew in disgusted excitement to his parents.
“Mom, Dad,” he blurted as he dragged them by the hands back to the sculpture, “You gotta see this!”
They stared at it speechlessly as he pointed and stammered.
“It’s a… it’s a… it’s…”
“It’s so cliché,” Esmerelda said.
“A knockoff of the resting janitor in Milwaukee,” Peko said, shaking his head.
“He’s a dead guy,” Milar exclaimed.
“How melodramatically cliché, then,” Esmerelda reiterated.
“No!” Milar insisted, agitated. “He’s no art display, he’s really — ”
“Yes, Milar,” Peko agreed, “This is not art. What a pathetic effort.”
“But… but… he’s…” Milar stuttered.
Three chimed tones came over the public address system.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” a soft voice said, “The museum will be closing in five minutes. Please make your way to the exits now.”
Both Esmerelda and Peko sighed, turned towards the exit sign, and gave a quiet “Come along, Milar.”
Milar, frustrated and alone now, stomped back to the body and pressed his finger to the cheek. It was cooler and less giving than skin should be. He shivered yet held his finger there several moments more. It was gross and exciting and sad and thrilling.
It was real.
Milar ran for the exit, and as he passed the guard he yelled, “Hey, you might want to give the janitor back there a kick.”
“Whatever, kid,” the man replied as he focused on closing up and going home.
Milar caught up to his parents and fell into a silent walk behind them, his previous excitement turned to dejection. He wanted to tell someone, but doubted even his friends would believe unless there were mention in the news.
“Milar, dear,” Esmerelda said without looking back, “you garnered some emotion about the museum this time. Shall we come back soon?”
He considered his curiosity about the body, about how long before it would be found and when it might stink and if it would get maggots on it. He weighed these against the reaction he had gotten from his parents.
“No,” he sighed with his head down, “There’s nothing original left to find there.”
Dennis Haen lives in Wisconsin with his wife and three kids.