Fiction | Exhibit A

A Short Story

By day thirty-seven, he’d broken dozens of rules, so what was one more? He went up and introduced himself to the woman in front of the Soyuz space capsule.

“My name’s Phil,” he said. It wasn’t. He extended a hand.

It took a moment, but she extended hers, and gave her name, which he immediately and silently replaced with “Amber,” because he wasn’t about to break that rule: Never use visitors’ real names.

His was Elliot and he wrote the museum’s “Above and Beyond” blog from a twelve-foot-diameter glass sphere suspended near the Tesla coil. He’d lived there for weeks now, having won a fifty-word essay contest. Every day at eleven and three, he opened a hatch and descended a ladder to answer questions and use the bathroom.

At night, he was to stay put.

So, too, special-event attendees.

They were both breaking the rules.

Nighttime events were always held in the Hall of Flight downstairs, a room that was only becoming more vast as the struggling museum sold off various historic aircraft. But sometimes guests wandered beyond the ropes, and sometimes Elliot watched them. Sometimes he hid from them. But no night visitor had ever wandered this far into his wing, the Hall of Wonders.

He’d overheard more than one curator describe the Hall as the museum’s junk drawer. There was a deep-sea diver’s bathysphere (with the otherwise misplaced Soyuz nearby for comparison), a fist-sized green space rock, an ant farm, a timeline of adhesives and another of artificial fabrics, a Plexiglas beehive connected to the roof by a clear pipe that was cloudy with wax and pollen, and, of course, Elliot’s “blogosphere.” And next to it—

“Wow,” Amber said, staring not at the blogosphere, but the neighboring exhibit, the Tesla coil, Elliot’s rival. The coil sparked purple spasms inside its own glass sphere all day long, drawing visitors away from him; at night, when it was supposed to be off, it continued to crack and buzz and affect his laptop, whose display had compressed itself into a two-inch column of cowering pixels.

Maybe his brain had been fritzed, too. Because Elliot now heard himself do something else he shouldn’t have, which was invite the woman on a “behind-the-scenes tour.” He told her he’d found a hidden door, a hidden catwalk, a hidden exhibit in the rafters high above the Hall of Flight.

(And Elliot had. It was dizzying to tell the truth, however briefly.)

“I should get back to the party,” Amber said. It was a summer gathering for students interested in attending private, college-level military academies. She was about to graduate from one out west, she explained. She looked down the hall. She was as tall as he was. Taller. Definitely smarter. She turned back to him.

Elliot could tell she was up to something, but he couldn’t quite say what. That wasn’t Tesla’s fault, or maybe it was. After hours, Elliot had a lot of free time to roam and read. So he’d learned that in 1934, at age seventy-eight, Nikola Tesla announced the invention of an electronic beam “powerful enough to destroy 10,000 planes 250 miles away,” which the New York Times called a “death-beam.” (The New York Sun called it a “Peace Ray.”) An editorial in London’s Electrical Review mused that “Mr. Tesla may be quite invulnerable to Cupid’s shafts,” but that “science in general, and Mr. Tesla in particular, will be all the richer when he gets married.” Did studies bear this out? Did British journal editors often cite Cupid? It was unclear, though two things were certain: Tesla never did marry. And the man loved pigeons. So much so that he fed “thousands of them for years,” or so Tesla told the science writer for the Times. “But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me.... As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”

Elliot thought that Tesla, and his coil, were crazy, and that pigeons were dirty. But like Tesla, he was suspicious of marriage.

Unlike Tesla, he had once proposed.

“You—your—it’s a very cool uniform,” Elliot said. A floor-length dress paired with a tiny, unbuttonable tunic, it reminded him of both Ulysses S. Grant and Mary Todd Lincoln, as though each had been caught halfway through trying on the other’s outfit.

But Amber’s V-shaped tie reminded him of neither Grant nor Lincoln. Upside-down and thus pointing to her face, it worked like any other of the hundreds of directional arrows in the museum. It meant: Pay attention. It meant: Look here. He did. She was beautiful.

“Not as cool a uniform as yours,” Amber replied, and there it was, the opening, the faintest flutter of something behind her eyes, her lips—but Elliot missed it, because he was looking down at himself. His uniform: he’d forgotten that he’d had it on, a baby blue flight suit from the third Space Shuttle mission. In one pocket, Elliot had found a lighter, in another, a memo in fading purple ink forbidding lighters. “I can’t believe they let you wear it,” she said.

They didn’t. But the museum—the eighth building in the entire country that Thomas Edison had wired, according to a display case next to the adhesives—was undergoing a massive electrical upgrade and its automatic security systems had been turned off. Indeed, the live-in blogger program was a secret way of supplementing the museum’s human security force. The marketing director who’d explained this to Elliot thought it extremely clever, but ordered him not to write about it—You wouldn’t want to put your own security at risk—and so Elliot rebelled in other ways, this way, wandering the museum at night, undressing mannequins, trying on their clothes. He’d come to find that the astronauts’ outfits, while small (few knew how much the space program relied on short people), were the most comfortable.

“It’s for the party,” he said. “I’m supposed to make an appearance later, talk up the space program.”

He wasn’t.

But this much was true: Elliot was handsome. His ex-fiancée had told him that, and so had, begrudgingly, her mother. And he’d lost weight in the sphere, grown his hair long. Was—could—Amber be attracted to him? An experiment was called for.

“Follow me?” he said.

Thirty-seven days, and the only other woman he’d spoken to after hours had been Marie Curie, and she didn’t count, since you knew what she was going to say depending on which button you pushed. Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas. She had a mannequin’s body and a flat oval head, upon which flickered the projection of an actress’s concerned face whenever the exhibit detected someone was near. Watch out—radioactive experiment in progress!

Amber looked away one more time. The party sounded centuries distant.

So, too, was Elliot’s old life. Twenty-two years old, twelve months out of a small Catholic college he had entered thinking he would become a priest and had left engaged to a woman who just eleven months ago had left him, Elliot was re-learning how to relate to the world, to women. He was doing so scientifically, a word he preferred to tentatively.

Sometimes when the male lion is seeking a mate, he stands and walks out of the pride for some distance. He does not turn around during this walk; he stops at one hundred yards and waits for one of the female lions to accept his invitation.

Elliot had put those sentences in a blog post last week, explaining that he had copied the passage from a poster in the Africa Annex, though he hadn’t, he’d made it up, he was waiting to be caught.

As now. He’d let his last words to Amber hang in the air like his sphere, and walked away to see if she’d follow. It was hard to walk fast in the suit, but that was good—it would give her more time to catch him.

But she hadn’t, and here he was, about to put his hand to the secret door.

He couldn’t figure out how to pause without seeming to pause, so he went in. Who didn’t follow an astronaut?

Perhaps he should have dressed as Lincoln. Or Tesla.

The secret door led—initially—to a handicapped bathroom. The bathroom. It was all museum visitors asked him about all day long. Sex. It was all visitors to the museum’s blog asked him about all night long. The bathroom answer was easy, was yes, they had it figured out; the sex answer was no, as in, no, they hadn’t figured that out. Nor, to some degree, had Elliot. Not how to meet a woman, talk to her, kiss her, hold and be held, never let go. College hadn’t taught him. The museum hadn’t taught him. Only this: that when the queen bee is ready to mate, she makes her way out of the hive, up through the sticky tube to the roof of the museum, and then up, up, up into the sky. The drones, the males, all pour out of the hive to chase her. She is stronger, more than twice their size, and keeps climbing. The ranks of suitors winnow as the exhausted fall away. Finally, only the strongest, bravest, finest male is left, and they mate. His sexual organ is of a piece with the rest of his insides; when he pulls away, she does not let go, and he falls to the earth, disemboweled.

Elliot thought some—many—of the museum’s exhibits would be better off without any explanatory signage whatsoever.

After a long minute came a cautious knock. It couldn’t be Amber; the knock was too quiet and soft. So it had to be one of the guards, scared. Elliot had been surprised to discover how frightened the guards were, to a man, of the museum at night. We see things on the monitors, they said.

Once, one said, I saw an astronaut visit the Plains Indian encampment and steal a baby.

Elliot had put the baby right back. It had frightened him how light it was, how unclear it was that the baby was a just a doll. Its face, its eyes—

There had been a plastic baggie beneath the baby and he’d taken that instead. He kept it in here, behind the mirror. He wasn’t sure what it was, though he had a hunch. And a hunch about Amber. He took the baggie out from its hiding place.

A second knock, louder now. He opened the door.

This is the secret—” she said, but he interrupted her.

“No, this is an—” he said, and she interrupted him.

“Interactive exhibit?” She pointed to the baggie. “Because, hello. Is that what I think it is?”

“Yes,” Elliot answered, not because he knew, but because he’d thought, like she did, that it was pot. It was why he’d taken it from the Indians. It was why, or partly why, his fiancée had left him. One critical night that he hadn’t known was critical, he’d gone to that dark corner of the neighboring college’s student union where everyone knew you went to buy. But his fiancée had always been the one to go before, and that night, Elliot looked around and didn’t know which guy with the backpack was the right guy and everyone was looking at him oddly, intently, and he left. His fiancée had called him chicken and worse and she was right. And then she was gone. Not because of that, just that, but because there’s a lot you don’t know about the world. And that included what it was like to smoke pot. He’d been on a path to the priesthood. He hadn’t had sex until he’d had it with her. He hadn’t had wine until his parish started offering it at Mass. He’d never stayed awake late enough to see Saturday Night Live live. And he’d never proposed to anyone until her parents said he had to.

Amber ducked inside. The door clicked shut. She was close enough now that he could smell her shampoo, see the spot on her neck where the wool uniform’s high collar chafed, feel the heat coming off her.

She took the baggie. “This is ancient,” she said with a quick, curious laugh. “You got robbed.”

“I didn’t pay for it.”

“Good thing.” She squeezed the bag together between her fingers and ground some of what was inside to dust, and Elliot felt his heart sink the way it had when he’d split the crotch of Abraham Lincoln’s mannequin’s pants. There was no going back now. “For both of us, I mean,” she said. “I’m already flying. The brownies my brother sent were twice as strong as I thought they’d be. It’s why I was exploring. I needed a place to come down.”

“Like I said, I know just the spot. A hidden exhibit.” He started to reach around her.

“Whoa, John Glenn,” she said.

“I’m sorry, I just—” He didn’t know what to say or do. Tesla, the coil, the sphere, the solitude. He wasn’t well. Not entirely. But there was a way—just through here—

She frowned and then moved, which let him open a tiny door she hadn’t seen. He ducked through and reached back for her.

“‘One small step for a man….’” he said.

“Seriously?” she asked, her face bending down to his, close enough to kiss.

In the rear of the Hall of Flight was a poorly lit display of a memo William Safire provided Nixon forty-eight hours after Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 left earth, to be used as soon as it was confirmed there was no hope of return. Titled “In the Event of Moon Disaster,” it prescribed words—Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace—and protocol. First, contact the “widows-to-be” by phone. Then, read statement on television. Then have NASA cut communications with the lunar module. And finally, a “clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea.”

“Seriously,” Elliot said.

A cramped passageway led to a ladder that led to a catwalk that led to the ceiling of the Hall of Flight. Decades ago, Edison, showing off, had wired the ceiling with hundreds of bulbs. From the catwalk above, the tracks of wires resembled a grim model railroad display; from the floor beneath, where the partygoers were still mingling, it looked like what it was supposed to: the principal constellations of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

“There’s even better,” he said and led her to a far part of the catwalk.

The zeppelin exhibit had been closed for years. Or rather, just this part. The zeppelin gondola itself was still visible from the floor below, suspended as it was from the ceiling along with all the other historic aircraft. But invisible was this small access platform above. A series of panels discussed the history of zeppelins, the tragic polar flight of the airship Italia, the superior lift of hydrogen versus helium, the ability of some airships to receive, stow and launch small airplanes, and the ease with which zeppelins once circumnavigated the globe.

“Look at this,” Amber said. “A glass zeppelin ashtray, for people to use onboard, with a giant bag of Hindenburg-quality hydrogen two feet above their heads.”

“Read carefully.” He found himself whispering and so drew close. “It’s an Esso ashtray. ‘Esso,’ s, o, Standard Oil. The glass isn’t brown. It’s filled with gasoline.”

“Holy shit,” she said and turned to him.

Somewhere, his fiancée had told him, there is a museum of cowardice, and you are exhibit A. She was keeping the ring, for example, because she knew he would let her. And she was getting rid of the baby, because she knew he would let her do that too, and the ring would pay for it and a plane ticket besides, so she could fly far, far away—from her parents, from him.

And he’d said nothing.

And she’d said, See?

And he’d looked but he hadn’t seen anything, not until now. Not until the gondola creaked slightly beneath their combined weight as he and Amber boarded, not until they felt their way to the zeppelin’s back stateroom, not until he discovered that Amber’s skin, vast and bright as it was upon discovery, with a spread of tiny moles across her stomach forming their own converse constellation, wasn’t quite luminous enough for him to read her face, nor her his.

So he fumbled in the pockets of his discarded uniform for the lighter. Engraved, it said it had orbited the earth multiple times. More impressive would be if it still worked.

For a full ten minutes, there was nothing, nothing but a party coming to a close in the hall below and an Esso wick lantern dangling romantically in the zeppelin above. In time, of course, the rain began, and for a long minute, the party guests really did think that it was rain, that the aging museum had one or two last tricks up its sleeve and one of them was weather, because how much harder could it be to have water fall from the ceiling if Tesla had bottled lightning, and Edison hard-wired stars? But the tablecloths were white and the rain was red, or red-orange from the rust of the sprinkler system, and people began to run.

Not everyone. Not Madame Curie; not the bees; not the space rock that, the hazmat team later determined, really should not have gotten wet; not the Plains Indians who wondered if miracles might come in threes (their baby returned, rain erasing a century of dust—would the museum walls now fall away?); and not the unclothed couple in the first-class stateroom replica of the D-LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, the first aircraft to fly over one million miles.

The Tesla coil shorted out. Elliot’s blogosphere sheeted sprinkler spray like an underwater comet. The stateroom’s curtains, rayon—once called “mother-in-law’s silk,” or so said the Hall of Wonders—which had caught fire when elbow accidentally knocked lantern, were quickly saved by the water sluicing from the ceiling, but at the expense of the museum, whose glass disc sprinkler system, state of the art for 1890, would take the fire department hours to figure out how to shut off.

By then, of course, the two were gone, their uniforms, names, and identities, too, and years later, on the annual summer sojourn, not even their grandchildren knew the scuffed lighter by the cabin fireplace had such history, only that late at night, the grownups asleep, jarred lightning bugs forgotten, and the rest of the surrounding wilderness held at bay by the door, the flint spat spark after spark after spark, each a bright, brief universe, each an invitation to try again.

Published in the July 11, 2014 issue: 
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Liam Callanan is the author of the novels The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. His new short story collection, Listen, will soon be published by Four Way Books.

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