CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Museum of Small Things
John Verbos


I’m telling you this because you don’t remember. You don’t remember because it happened a long time ago and while you don’t remember much of anything, regardless of when it happened, you especially don’t remember things that happened a long time ago. But I remember, so it happened. Just because you can’t remember doesn’t mean it didn’t. I’m not making this up. Believe me. It happened. And quit staring at me like that.

      I tell you these stories because it helps me remember. I certainly don’t tell them for your benefit; you’re just going to forget them again, like you’ve forgotten the original incidents that I retell. I’m not doing you any favors. I’m not sitting here in the dark every night, after the curators go home and the security systems come on, I’m not sitting here telling you these things for your sake. This is for me.

      So I guess I lied. I’m not telling you this because you don’t remember. I’m telling you this because I’m afraid that I won’t remember. And then what would happen? I’m the last bastion of memory around here. When I go it’s all over. Our lives may as well never have happened. As it stands there’s just me, no corroboration from you, so, hell, maybe I am making it all up.

      Which isn’t the case, I assure you. There is evidence. In each one of our museums. But it isn’t enough. Physical evidence, sure, great, lovely. But that sort of thing can be faked, and besides, an object has no history but the one we apply to it. So, when my memory goes, as yours has, we’re sunk. Might as well never have existed.

      What I’m telling you about happened when we were thirty. Three-oh. Both of us, because we have the same birthdays. Down to the hour. I shouldn’t have to tell you that, but I do. Your brain’s gone over. So, we were thirty, and we were driving to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. All the way from Baltimore to Anita, Iowa. A long drive. Just inside the Iowa border, we started seeing the signs, signs for The Museum of Small Things. And you looked at me and wanted me to stop at this museum. I looked at my watch; we were ahead of schedule. So I said Sure, baby, we’ll stop, we’ll have a look at this museum. I agreed for your sake. I wasn’t as interested as you were, but you were excited about it, so I figured what the hell, how bad could it be?

      The next sign we passed said FIVE MILES TO THE MUSEUM OF SMALL THINGS, so I started watching the odometer. There isn’t much to talk about when you’re talking about driving through Iowa, so for the sake of keeping my audience, that is, you—for the sake of keeping you awake and not lulling you into head-slumped-forward-sleeping-in-your-chair—despite whatever realism would be gained by describing endless corn, although I’ll admit that endless corn is a little irreal, when you’re faced with it—I’ll cut to the chase. The museum.

      It looked like it was just a farmhouse set back from the road, that is, when you got to it, after more corn—a little farmhouse with a big shiny dome out behind it. The farmhouse looked like a farmhouse, but the dome looked like a moon colony. I thought maybe we’d made a wrong turn; I thought that not only weren’t we on the road to The Museum of Small Things, but that we’d stumbled onto something that we weren’t supposed to see hidden behind all that corn, for whatever reason, and that we’d better get the hell out of there before somebody asked us what we thought we were doing and then shot us when we shrugged in response. But there were the signs, still, now counting down the number of feet until we reached The Museum of Small Things, even though it was in plain view. Regardless of whether it was the farmhouse or the moon colony. You could see both. And it had to be one or the other since there was nothing else around.

      Actually it turned out to be both. You went in through the farmhouse and came out through the farmhouse, but I’m sure that we spent some time in the moon colony. Must have. There’s no way they fit all that stuff in the house.

      Anyway, we parked the car in the gravel parking lot and followed the signs to the front door.

      You don’t remember any of this, do you? Of course not. Of course you don’t remember. Hell. You don’t remember this place I’m talking about or the color of the sky that day, or the fact that you were the one who said the dome looked like a moon colony. None of that is in that head of yours. It’s all gone, floated away. You don’t remember that this day I’m talking about was what led us here, is why we’re sitting, tied into rocking chairs and put up on pedestals. Why we own seventeen individual museums within a ten-mile radius of here, including the Museum of Small Things itself—now housed in The Museum of The Museum of Small Things. You should’ve written it all down when you did remember, maybe written everything down, so when this day came—this day today, when you don’t remember and sit there staring at me, which is spooky, and not in a good way—you could at least take out the relevant notes and play along with me. Could interrupt my story and correct me—I’d intentionally misremember if you could correct me; I would blind myself so I wouldn’t see the notes, couldn’t know that you were cheating, that you had a crib sheet; I would do all these things, ruin my integrity as a storyteller, sever my ability to see and remember even more—I would do these things for you. But you never wrote anything down, even knowing that every member of your family lost their memories as they crept along. You figured the museum would be enough, but you had already forgotten what must inevitably come with such museums as ours, that we must place ourselves on display at some point, that bits and pieces and scraps of old letters are not enough to satisfy the curiosity of the public, that they aren’t sated with the bones or footprints, they want the dinosaur reconstructed, life size, out of whatever materials are most lifelike, and we, my dear dumb memory-less wife, we are the dinosaurs, still alive.

      A shame, really. This whole mess.

      So there, just inside the door to The Museum of Small Things, we stopped and looked around. We took in the posters on the walls that described the wonders beyond the turnstiles, great bright posters covered with words like INTRIGUE! MYSTERY! MISERY! and featured pictures of fainting women and gaping, pipe-smoking men. Then we took in the turnstiles, possibly plundered from a subway graveyard these things were, green where the paint still held, rusty elsewhere. I’ll admit that at this point I was willing to drop whatever quarters were required to see this museum. Well advertised, I’d say, certainly intriguing and mysterious. You were a little put off by the turnstiles, said that the fifty-cent tag was a little steep, but my theory is that really you didn’t want to faint and were still afraid, at this time in your life, that advertising held some truth, no matter how well buried.

      After much cajoling and repeated pointing beyond the turnstiles and down the long hall with doors, and after repeated reading of the banners hanging over those doors, hanging sideways like shop signs, banners that read and sounded like chapter titles: The First Seven Years, The Bottom Falls Out, Kitchen, The Baby, and so on; after all this, I put my two quarters in and pushed my way into the museum. You had only one quarter, it turned out. This is when I crossed my arms and set my jaw and—I’ll admit it—glowered at you, something that you’d never let me forget until, of course, you forgot. But I didn’t have any quarters either, and I really do believe that my glowering and jaw-setting and arm crossing had more to do with my own frustration than necessarily you not having another quarter. I’d go to my grave defending that if I had to, but I don’t have to, of course.

      Why am I dwelling on this? We have time, why not dwell? Are you asleep over there? My vision isn’t perfect you know. Hard to see you by only the light of the security floods. It’s gotten darker too. But I could hear if you were snoring. I wonder how long you can retain things in your head, if you remember how this started. Assuming you’re not asleep. Or have you drooped to knowing only the present, unaware of anything that comes before right now? Is this the first time you’ve seen me, if you see me, whether because of the light or your sleep? Do you know me? Are you living a million moment-long lives over there in your chair?

      I would poke you, but I can’t reach.

      On with it.

      You jumped the turnstile. There wasn’t anyone around. I should’ve mentioned that before. No one around at all. I should’ve mentioned that earlier because now I’m going to have to contradict myself. There was someone in the museum. Except they didn’t see you jump the turnstile. Nonetheless, they were there, and we started seeing him or her or it or whatever just after we were inside. A curator, a tour-guide, a watchman, another visitor, the owner, someone. Disappearing around corners, just in front of us. We both saw. You went Eep! the first time, like it was a mouse and not a shadowy figure wearing a cloak or cape or some such thing that trails a little after one’s heels when one rounds the corner, and I saw it too, though I didn’t go Eep! like you did. A shadow just ahead of us, every so often. I’d say there was a pattern, for the sake of making sense in the story, all important moments in stories needing to be hammered home with something mysterious like that, a big God finger coming down and saying Hey, look, something important is happening, stupid! It’s like how the weather sets the scene: A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT, and such. But, to tell the truth, there was no pattern; the shadow turned the corner ahead of us in the rooms, the exhibits that affected me most—I can’t speak for you, of course, though I wonder if I should, seeing as how you can’t remember enough to speak for yourself—the shadow appeared as often as not in those places that resonated, emotionally-speaking, with me as it did when I might as well have been looking at Russian graffiti.

      That reminds me, it was partly cloudy. Cold, but not unpleasant if you were wearing the right coat. And we were.

      In the Birthdays wing, we were first greeted by candles. Thousands of birthday candles, laid out in rows, on display under glass. Some of the candles still had cake on them, a little frosting too. Others had melted down, a selection of blue candles from one year in particular had looked like they’d burned for hours. Who would let a candled cake burn that long, you asked me, and I looked for a placard, a note, to explain.

      I was still examining the patterns (the candles seemed to be displayed in chronological order, some impaled with stickpins, some labeled with years and the name Timothy, and then some were without identification, as if they spoke for themselves), still attempting to unlock the mystery of the burned down candles when you called to me from the Hanging Tricycles Display down the hall, beyond the Wall of Gift Wrap (torn pieces, neatly flattened out squares, singed edges saved from the Christmas fire). This, the Hanging Tricycles Display, I maintain, is where your love affair began. The red one you liked best, hung from the rafters so that it tipped forward, the front wheel turned off to the side hanging lower than the rest. Look, you told me, even though I already was. I had one just like that when I was little, you said. I said that all tricycles were more or less the same (I was ignoring the wide variety of tricycles attached with cables from the ceiling), and that I was waiting for INTRIGUE! MYSTERY! MISERY! and that birthday candles and kids’ trikes weren’t cutting it. But there was a tricycle that caught my eye, a yellow broken thing. It was hard to tell there was anything wrong with it because of the way the tricycle was hanging, but if you stood in the far corner of the hall and leaned diagonally from the wall and cocked your head, you could see that the frame was bent and dented, that the rear left wheel was not attached as much as it was hung close to the rest of the tricycle. Now here’s some INTRIGUE! MYSTERY! MISERY! I thought, although I wasn’t agape yet, by any means.

      Any number of things could’ve happened to this tricycle I told myself. Just as singed wrapping paper didn’t necessarily correlate to arson, this tricycle did not mean disaster. Probably no one was hurt; probably a child carelessly left the thing in the driveway and the father, on his way to work, backed over the PASSENGERLESS tricycle left carelessly in the driveway. This must be the case, I remember thinking. Disaster does not strike common folks in this way, and certainly not ones who make museums to themselves out of their houses.

      Oh, I should explain. I assume too much, like that you remember or could piece things together from the general goings on. I forgot (Dear Lord it’s happening, isn’t it, I am forgetting. slowly the small things, the details, the conventions. it is a small leap to not knowing your name or my own), I forgot that you forget, and forgot, because of that forgetting, to fill you in on those things that you’ve forgotten but that I’ve remembered. Like what we knew about The Museum of Small Things by the time we’d seen the candles and tricycles.

      In The Bottom Falls Out, the first place we visited—which probably shouldn’t have been the first place we visited on the one hand, since it more or less gave away the ending (I am not in that danger here, of course, given that the ending of the story of The Museum of Small Things is not the ending of the story I am telling you), but on the other hand, is the only place we should have started (and perhaps where I should have started—too late now, I suppose. and hindsight being. and so on.), the only place we should have started since it filled us in more or less as to what this museum was all about, which isn’t really ever a problem with art museums—you KNOW that they’re there to display art—but aside from knowing that this museum was to display Small Things, we hadn’t a clue as to why, here, just over the border of Iowa, it existed, and what, if anything, these Small Things were.

      In brief, then (there is so much more to get to, and dawn and the lightly heavy steps of our curators that come with dawn approach, and then the opening of the great doors and the lines to see us and have us speak our parts as written and assigned by the writers we hired to give words to the tale that we told them. frankly, I think they muddled the whole thing, but I am no longer in a position to make such judgments—no longer proprietor, now simply a mechanical display, my jaw creaking to say the lines to retell my life, our life, edited and rewritten for the sake of drama and to fit into the small amount of time each tour group may spend in front of us. and you, my dear, you only barely know the lines written for you, if that):

      In brief, then:

      Henry Woolridge and his wife, whose name has slipped my. oh hell. Well, when Henry’s wife left Henry, she left with only the clothes she was wearing at the time (now reproduced, as close as possible, and worn by a mannequin of striking resemblance—when you compare it to photographs taken around that time—and posed walking out a false back door of The Museum of Small Things empty handed), leaving Henry with an entire house of things (minus herself and the things she was wearing, hence the dummy). With, as Henry explains it in certain oversized placards in The Bottom Falls Out room in The Museum of Small Things (now all preserved for forever in The Museum of The Museum. but we’ve covered that, haven’t we?), with nothing left to do in his life and feeling a certain amount of guilt for being the reason for his wife’s departure, turned his house into a sort of homage, a way of not forgetting, a three dimensional reminiscence of their lives together. Hard work, I would think. Especially the dummy, hard to look at, even, I remember, much less construct, I imagine.

      Yes, I think that covers it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything. The point might’ve been self-evident, but this is the quandary with the spoken-tale—there’s no such thing as editing, unlike the written story, from which one may strike any number of passages. I cannot do that, obviously; I can only repeat for emphasis or correct myself as I go, have to rely on my wits to create undertones and resonance; I cannot re-read what I say, am not a cartoon cat or mouse who, might, I imagine, wipe that speech bubble away and replace it with another when he or she or it so chooses. There isn’t the chance to add a well-placed metaphor once the moment has passed without interrupting myself and saying No, no, better yet, better than the cartoon mouse or cat, I am not a.

      You’ve fallen asleep. Your head is cocked in that way. And yes, there, in the dim light of the security flood, that is a glint of drool.

      I go on. I am not telling this for your benefit. Or so I’ve convinced myself. I don’t remember anymore. I’ve talked too long, and now I’ve lost my audience.

      No no. My audience is myself. My audience is myself. My audience is myself.

      Nothing worse than hollering in a void.

      My audience is myself. My self.

      A silly concept.

      These springs they’ve put in my jaw are too tight. Tell on.

      We spent an hour on the Woolridge’s bed in The Museum of Small Things. Interactive. Well before its time. Upon the bed we lay. An ordinary bed at first, but after five minutes the sides turn up, tumbling the occupants (you and me) into each other, forcing an embrace. The bed then flattens out, and there you/we are, together in the middle. The bed rotates, spins - not too fast, not dizzyingly, perhaps the sex wasn’t all that great, perhaps H. feared law suits or having to clean vomit from his bed, who knows? - but we spun in the middle of the bed for a time, and then the middle of the bed rose up and we tumbled away from one another, towards the edges. The bed leveled before either of us fell off - although I was perilously close.

      You?

      I shouldn’t bother asking.

      No more questions. Especially ones I know the answers to.

      You were even closer to tumbling, you told me later. You whooped and then giggled. But neither of us fell off. I looked over at you and began to crawl across, I wanted to whisper in your ear, to tell you that this would never happen to us, no matter what else did, we would not separate—in life or in symbolic dumb-show; but then the bed split, twirling each of us towards opposite ends of the bedroom. I reached out to you each time my bed went around and you waved back, smiling as you and your half of the bed spun away.

      Something I’ve never told you, and although it’s too late now, I will tell you anyway even though you won’t hear me, asleep, and if you did hear me, if you were awake, you wouldn’t catch my drift—a gesture of love requires a memory, one must be able to stack it up against all those other gestures of love, to compare and contrast and rank it according to its merits.

      Something I’ve never told you about that moment, no matter how many times I’ve told that story—I didn’t even put it on the cassette that visitors can rent and listen to over headphones as they walk around The Museum of The Museum.—I’ve never told you that as you laughed and spun away from me and as I reached and spun away from you, on our/their halved bed: you were more beautiful and more terrifying than you’ve ever been. I’ve never loved you more than then, laughing and smiling as you were, and I’ve never been more afraid of you, of life and what it can do with its hidden mechanical floors and beds that break for reasons known and otherwise.

      That’s a compliment. You’d blush if you remembered how or could hear me or could remember anything at all. I will imagine you blushing, as I remember you spinning away from me whenever I want to remember loving you, or when I want to scare myself, or want to feel guilty for some thing I’ve done - all on display in The Museum of Things Regretted, by the way, into which you weren’t allowed until your memory had gone completely, although I considered letting you wander through when your memory was simply GOING, to see if my mistakes could trigger a bloom in your brain—an idea I didn’t act quickly enough on.

      You went so fast.

      And now here you are, asleep in that chair, a chair that was never in our house, a chair you’d think was “simply horrible” if you could remember having taste.

      Oh, horrible. Simply horrible. I love you still and you drool on yourself.

      I am not a mean-hearted person. I am merely afraid.

      And, finally—it has to be, I hear a key in the lock, I must speed—and, finally THIS is why I tell you this story, and if this were the only thing you ever remembered, I would be happier than I am, tied to my chair, springs in my jaw, reciting an adaptation of my life to strangers and ice cream-mouthed children. I tell you this, if I can tell you anything, if I can force my way into your head again, like I must’ve once invaded your thoughts, I tell you, I tell you, I tell you, I tell THIS:

      The shadow I claimed had no significance led us through the house; we followed it, searched him out, together. or perhaps I am forcing consciousness onto the unconscious, or perhaps you had no part in this game. we never said a word about it, assuming (or perhaps that should be `I assumed’) that a shadow in a museum is a shadow by choice, and is not to have attention drawn to it. We followed the shadow, or I followed the shadow and you followed me, or the shadow knew our thoughts—like the one on the radio when we were children—and followed ahead of us, or perhaps there was no shadow, merely the symbolic gesture, perhaps anything and everything, perhaps.

      The point is that we went through The Museum of Small Things, however we did, in whatever order we went, however it was done, we went, we saw, I was terrified and elated at the same time, and you seemed only amused—that kept me up the next night, at least—we went through The Museum of Small Things; through the kitchen with its spatulas identified by when and how they were used; through the laundry room where I ran my trousers through the dryer and shivered a little standing on the concrete floor; through the re-creation of a barn-loft where we were encouraged to re-enact the couple’s first kiss but did not (the linger of the shadow was longer there and it unnerved at least me); through a room filled with reckless love letters, not all written by or to the same person, I counted at least three authors and at least three addressed loves; through Miscellany/Gift Shop, with the look of an interior yard sale or perhaps an attic, where we were allowed—according to the sign posted—to take one BUT ONLY ONE thing. we took nothing, and it looked as if nothing had ever been taken, whatever prior patrons there had been were probably confused, as we were, as to whether the offer was meant in jest or sincerity; through the gestures, symbolic or actual, of love, of regret, of time lost in any number of ways; through bedrooms and bathrooms and miscarriages and infidelities; a house of horrors and at the same time, a monument; we passed through everything and ended up—by accident or fate or being led by the shadow or because there is an internal storytelling monster in us all that takes us to the climax in just the right place or clouds our eyes to see climax where it belongs - and ended up in a large circular room, so white that if you didn’t look hard you couldn’t see where the floor ended and the walls began, giving the whole thing a sort of round, sunken-in-the-middle feeling.

      And there, in this otherwise empty room, white except for. in this room, dead center, where the floor felt most sunken. in this room there was a child, an infant, suspended above the floor, in some kind of stasis, hovering there. We didn’t see it at first. The room was so immense and the infant so small. A kind of distant humming going on, a pulsing, but that may’ve only been in my head or perhaps a construction by memory for the sake of story.

      An infant. There. I can see him if I close my eyes. Sometimes it is all I can see if I close my eyes. You walked toward the center, toward the infant, your feet soundless on the floor, and I stopped you, I grabbed your hand and squeezed it; we must not go any closer I remember thinking, we must not.

      You looked at me; I had no explanation. I shook my head.

      And behind me, in the very corner of my eye, I thought I saw our shadow, the one chasing/leading us, and I turned to it. Of course there was nothing.

      You whispered. You whispered to me: This is what we need.

      I turned back and gaped at the child hanging in suspension. Then I gaped at you.

      It’s perfect, you whispered.

      The infant?

      And then you began to laugh and shake your head, and you let go of my hand and put that hand to your chest, your laughter echoing off the walls, bouncing at me from every side, rocking the child back and forth in his stasis, your howling riotous laughter coming at me from everywhere, from all around me; and then I joined in, laughing at myself and the look that must’ve been on my face when I thought you meant the child, laughing that what you meant was the museum and that you were serious, laughing at laughing, laughing at an infant suspended in mid air in a white room in a museum in Iowa, laughing knowing that we would begin building museums the very next day if we could, laughing at Henry Woolridge because he wanted me to cry for him and I might have if you hadn’t started laughing because of me, laughing out of love for you and laughing out of fear of the future and fear of forgetting this way we laughed.

      We laughed, we howled, we bent double. You said you thought you might wet yourself. We laughed harder. We laughed until we made ourselves dizzy and couldn’t stand up and then we laughed from the floor. We laughed and laughed.

      Where has that laugh gone?

      Where have we gone?

      You don’t remember us, do you?

      To be honest, I could only ever guess answers. That’s all I’ve ever been good at. I’ve only guessed all along.

      So I guessed:

      We are still where we were, our laughter trapped in that room, trapped around that infant; we’re still suspended, like him, in there, at the center of The Museum of Small Things, at the center of The Museum of the Museum of Small Things, at the center of the plaza circled by all the museums we’ve built.

      And then I went to see.

      Before they put us up here and strapped us down, I went to see - the room is the same, except they pipe in a looped track of us laughing and there are mannequins who look like us, bent over, presumably with laughter. But we are dummies and the laughter is tinny and small and faked and sounds to me almost silent, empty of us. How much bigger and emptier that room seems.

      So, no, we aren’t there. Possibly we never were.

      We aren’t in any of our museums, not even our shadows. I’ve checked every corner, every display.

      But.

      My love.

      My dear, dumb, memory-less wife.

      You and I, we are kept here, the only place left.

      And we are locked safe.