She steps into the darkened gallery. No one’s present—no children or adults, no guard on duty. She’d ducked under a rope slung between two galleries to get here. She was hanging back and now, here she is, eight years old, a frizzy, plain brunette with some serious orthodonture work coming soon, in the gallery with the babies.
She’d waited until her class started funneling into a room of painted urns, and she didn’t want painted urns, so she paused when they came to a narrowing of a hall. She told her friend Katie that she was going to run away, and then she did.
She sits on the narrow, red pincushion bench that bisects the gallery. Front and back, no lines, her third grade teacher’s terrible handwriting on the first page: Write a story about the people on your painted urn. She knows the way back to the urns, but she’s not freaked out and she’s not bored, either, as she knows she would be with her class, writing stories about the naked men running and leaping around. Why are the ancient men supposed to be doing something? Why, finally, can’t they run around their urns without getting put into stupid stories?
The gallery is both dark and bright. Pinlights hang above four sculptural pieces set on pedestals. The babies have snakes, saplings’ branches, telecommunication cables and antlers where their arms should be. The babies are boys, and each one has something instead of a penis. A single, sharp antler curls up from one of them. The antlers seem to grow slowly, an inching out, but she knows the sculpture is playing a trick on her eyes.
“I don’t get it, babies,” she says.
She gets gross art. She has discovered that what she likes is called true crime, and she likes best the serial killers. She wants to be a serial killer’s pen pal. The prospect of writing to a killer makes her happy. She savors the doing of it by worrying the practicality of going about it and, above all, she fantasizes about her very own killer’s handwriting. Every serial killer has perfect penmanship. That’s been established.
“This is ugly,” she says.
People have been doing this thing where they say she hates her baby brother. They tell her not to hate him or to want him away. There is nothing she can say. She could be defensive, she could be mute, she could leave the room, or collapse into a recliner and sigh hard at the ceiling without ever convincing anyone of anything different.
Her brother had been howling and she’d yelled, shut it. He had no idea what she was saying, but it’s the principle. About this thing, her yelling at the baby like hell, no one would let up. You do not do that. You don’t ever do that.
She doesn’t need to quiet these babies. They are silent—the freak-armed, no-penis babies. She’s seen her brother’s nubbin of a penis twice, as her mother changed his diaper. Here, they’re not even penises, and that opens up a whole other avenue. In the gallery, she loses her sense of the direction taken by the right kinds of thoughts. Things can be moved around. She can move herself around this museum, and anything can be thought of as beautiful, even when they’re ugly, like she feels herself to be, and that should be the principle.
The pincushion bench, the babies, her brother, her frizzy hair. When they finally find her, she’ll need some help explaining herself. She starts to write a story for the assignment. Her handwriting will be absolute, absolute perfection.