Yesterday on this blog I posted my “Eulogy for Etan Patz and His Uncle Jerrold,” explaining how the photographic self-portrait of Etan’s father came to grace the cover of my out-of-print book titled Pocoangelini: A Fantography and Other Poems. What I didn’t say is that the kidnapping of Etan Patz was the inciting reason for a story I wrote, “The Museum of Ordinary People,” which was first published in 1991 in the anthology American Fiction 2 edited by Michael C. White & Alan Davis for Birch Lane Press of New York City.
The story was subsequently reprinted in a 1996 textbook, Heroes and Villains in American Literature, edited by Henry I. Christ for AMSCO School Publications of New York, and in my own The Book of Dialogue: How to Write Effective Conversation in Fiction, Screenplays, Drama, and Poetry by the University Press of New England, (www.UPNE.com) in 2004. It also became the title piece of my 2008 book, The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories. This is the story:
THE MUSEUM OF ORDINARY PEOPLE
They had been making these trips ever since their children had disappeared. Now, almost ten years later, they were on the road once more, driving through yet another little town they had never before seen. It was spring, the sun was warm. The pain had diminished over time until it was a dreary ache, but it was there, always. Every now and again it would put out a blossom of poison and then fade. It was the same for both of them.
"Look," Janet said, reaching over and touching Howard's hand as it rested on the steering wheel. She pointed through the windshield at a billboard.
"THE MUSEUM OF ORDINARY PEOPLE," Howard read aloud, "Five Miles Ahead on Route 12A." He blinked and frowned. His eyelids appeared to be paper thin, and the skin on his forehead not much thicker. One had the impression that the iris shone through, or the bone, but it was an illusion. His was a common sort of face.
So was Janet's. Both of them were beginning to gray, Howard more than his wife, but they were still on the farther edge of young adulthood. If they appeared to be older than they were, no doubt that was owing to their situation.
"Let's stop when we get there," Janet said. "We can take the time." She frowned also and covered her eyes briefly with her long fingers, then she smoothed her dress which was blue and wrinkling under the seat belt.
Howard braked suddenly and leaned across his wife to peer out the right window. "What is it?" Janet looked too -- a boy and girl were playing in the front yard of a house with a moderate-sized lawn. He appeared to be about eleven and she, seven or so.
Janet sighed. "It can't be, Howard. You know that." She shook her head. "They're too young. When are you going to realize that?"
"Sorry," he said, sitting up straight and easing down on the accelerator. "Good thing there was nobody behind us." He glanced into the rear-view mirror as they moved slowly forward down the street of anonymous houses.
"They'd be ten years older," she said. "Billy would be a junior in college and Beth would be just out of high school."
"My mind knows that," Howard said, "but my guts don't."
They drove in silence for a few minutes, remembering the day the children hadn't come home from school.
There had been nothing unusual about it. All four of them had gotten up at seven in the morning, dressed, and had breakfast. "What are you going to do today?" Howard had asked the table at large.
Billy had shrugged and his pompadour had fallen down across his eyes. "Nothing much," he said, reaching for the butter. "We're having a spelling test is all."
"I think you need a haircut," Howard said to his son. "How about you?" He sent a droll wink in his daughter's direction and she giggled.
"Eat your cereal, Beth," Janet said. "You're just moving it around with your spoon. Don't you like it?"
"You put too much sugar in it."
"Okay, give it to me." Janet took the bowl over to the sink, poured some of the milk out of the cornflakes, which were beginning to look a little soggy, and added some fresh from the bottle on the counter.
"Okay, mom's fixed it," Howard said. Now eat it up and let's go."
Beth began to scoop the cereal into her mouth. Billy got up and grabbed his backpack. "See you!" he yelled.
"Wait for your sister!" Janet said.
"Wait for me!" Beth squealed, grabbing her lunch box.
"Whoa!" Howard called as the front door slammed.
It opened again, briefly. "Bye!" Billy called and slammed it again.
And that was the last time anyone had ever seen either of the children.
"There's another one," Janet said, pointing ahead through the windshield.
THE MUSEUM OF ORDINARY PEOPLE, read the sign, Three Miles Ahead. Largest Wax Museum in the Midwest.
"How many do you suppose there are?" Janet asked.
"Not all that many, I wouldn't think." Howard had to bend to look as they passed.
They Move! They talk! The Experience of a Lifetime! Don't
A red light stopped them. "We need gas," Howard said.
"There's a place," Janet pointed again -- it was a Seven-Eleven station up a half-block.
The light turned green and Howard pulled in and stopped at the pumps. "Fill it, please," he said to the attendant and got out of the car to stretch.
"Nice day," the attendant said as he unscrewed the gas cap and inserted the nozzle.
"Really nice." Howard put his hands on his hips and arched his back. The sun was warm on his face. "What's the name of this town?"
"Midville. Not from around here?" The pump hummed.
"Not so far away -- a hundred miles or so. Lived here long?"
"All my life -- twenty-one years." The tank was full, and the attendant rattled the nozzle against the rim and recapped it.
Howard reached into his pocket for his wallet, pulled out a bill and handed it over. His fingers hesitated, then he flipped to a picture of the children. He showed it to the young man. "Ever seen these two kids? They might have shown up in town when you were, oh, about eleven years old."
The attendant peered at the faces smiling out of the photograph. He hesitated, then he shook his head. "Can't say as I have," he said. He gave Howard a look as though he were going to ask a question but had decided against it.
Howard nodded. "Well, thanks." He took his change and put his wallet away. As he opened the door to get back into the car he said, "By the way, how's this Museum of Ordinary People up the road? Ever been there?"
"Oh, sure." The attendant turned to look up the street. "But not lately. Everybody's been there once, I guess. If you haven't, you ought to try it. It's good for a laugh." He nodded and turned to go back into the station. "Have a nice ride," he said.
Janet and Howard got back into the car and re-entered traffic. They were quiet for a few minutes. The trees along the curb were turning green quickly -- it seemed almost as though spring had accelerated as they'd driven, but no doubt that was because the season was further along this far to the south. And then, as the houses began to grow sparser, the front yards to grow larger, and the trees to thicken, suddenly it was countryside and there were fields and few houses except at considerable distances.
Janet reached down and turned on the radio. She searched for a while and found a station they liked. For a few minutes they listened to golden oldies. And then they saw it. "There it is," Janet said.
Howard slowed down. "Are you sure?" he asked.
"Why not?" she said.
"'Admission $5.00,'" Howard said.
"Oh, I guess we can afford ten dollars, can't we?" Janet looked at her husband. "And it's not as though we're in a hurry," she added quietly, almost under her breath.
He smiled and nodded. "Sure we can." He pulled into the small parking lot and they sat in their seats for a moment or two listening to one of the old songs, then Howard turned off the motor.
When the children hadn't shown up by suppertime Janet and Howard had really begun to worry. They phoned around to the homes of schoolmates and friends and discovered that Beth and Billy hadn't been to school at all that day. The police had been notified then, and soon it was apparent that the kids had never even made it to their busses. They'd simply vanished between the house and the bus stop a block away.
The police canvassed the neighborhood, but no one remembered seeing the boy and girl in particular. Kids walking the streets in the morning were such a common sight that, even when someone thought he might have glimpsed the missing children, he wasn't sure it had been that particular day.
When at last Howard had been able to stop pacing or running to the door or driving around in the car peering out the windows into the shadows gathering and thickening among the houses of his neighbors, he joined his wife sitting next to the phone with a haunted stare in her eyes and a handkerchief in her fist. They had sat there like that all night long, waiting, jumping when the phone rang or the doorbell sounded, slumping when it turned out that there was no news. As the search went on neighbors and friends came and went with food and consolation, with assurances that Beth and Billy would turn up, that all would turn out well, that there would be a reasonable explanation for what had happened.
But they had been wrong, and a strange sort of emptiness began to occupy Janet and Howard from that point onward. The rooms of their dwelling filled with a silence that cried out for quick movement and loud music. A veil of anxiety settled itself between the parents and their home -- nothing seemed to be real, to be solid or stable, not even their marriage, although they drew closer together after an initial repulsion, like magnets reversed, for each wanted at first to blame the other for what had happened. Common sense had prevailed, however; they saw that nothing could have been done to prevent the loss of Billy and Beth, for it could not have been foreseen.
When at last the police had no leads left to follow, when the story faded from the back pages of the newspapers, when even a private investigator could offer no more hope, on the weekends and on their vacations Howard and Janet would drive in any direction, show their pictures, ask their questions.
"Are we going in?" Janet asked.
Howard roused himself and shivered a little. "Oh, sure, hon," he said and got out. By the time he'd walked around the car Janet had gotten out herself and stood waiting. Together, they walked to the door of the museum and went in.
It was a large old Victorian house. Just inside the door, in a wide hallway, there stood an oak table where an old woman sat selling tickets. "Welcome to the Museum of Ordinary People," she said nodding mechanically and leaning forward. "That will be five dollars apiece." Howard gave her the money. She opened a drawer in the table, deposited it inside, and handed him two tickets. "Please take a brochure," she said in her odd monotone. "It will explain the museum. Please walk straight ahead." She sat back, blinked her eyes slowly, and said no more.
As they walked down the corridor toward the first door Janet leaned close to Howard and whispered, "Doesn't she remind you of someone?"
Howard paused, glanced over his shoulder, frowned, and said, "You're right, but I can't think who."
"Let's look at the brochure," Janet said.
The museum of ordinary people is a unique exhibit, it began, in that there is nothing extraordinary about it except its premise. Here the visitor will find the people he knows saying the things he would expect them to say. The waxwork figures are completely lifelike, even to their movements, for they are animated by extremely sophisticated electronic components which are capable of smoothly imitating natural muscle action. The recorded voices are those of real people responding to real situations and dialogue. Please enter and enjoy yourself in an imitation of the real world that is so convincing as to be astonishing. If the exhibit is successful, it will make reality seem fresh and new -- it will give you a new perspective on your own life.
Howard looked at Janet with eyebrows arched high on his papery forehead. She stared back at him, the phantom of a smile playing across her mouth. "Well," he said, "let's give it a try. I'm willing to be amazed."
"It sounds like fun."
He opened the door and they entered.
"Well, hello there!" said a woman on the other side. "It's real nice to see you, hon," she said. She had on a waitress' uniform; there was a pencil stuck behind her ear and a sales pad slipped through her belt. "Geez, when was the last time you was in here? Musta been a long time."
"We've never been here before," Janet said. "We didn't realize this was a restaurant too."
"Oh, never mind, just let me tell ya what's good today. The soup's good -- minestrone they call it, but it's just vegetable soup. And then our specials..."
"Thanks," Howard said, "But we're not hungry. We'll just look at the rest of the exhibits." He smiled politely, his hand gentle but firm on Janet's back as they moved past.
"...are liver 'n onions with bacon, chicken fried steak...." and then she stopped talking and stood still, facing toward the door.
"Look, Howard," Janet said nodding toward a beam of light through which they had stepped. "She's one of the wax figures."
"We tripped an electric eye," Howard said sticking his finger into the ray. "Unbelievable."
"Well, sir," an elderly male voice said behind them, "that was back in 'sixty-six as I recall, and I never caught a better fish since." They turned quickly and saw the replica of a dock with a boathouse where an old man sat leaning forward in his rocking chair whittling a piece of wood. "Sure would like to run into a fighter like that big-mouth again." He nodded and chuckled.
"Straight out of my childhood," Howard said. "That looks just like the boatkeeper at Huntington Lake."
Janet laughed uneasily. "I feel like telling you to be quiet because he'll hear you," she said. "They really are lifelike." She walked on.
"Sorry, folks," the policeman said. He stood with his hands behind him and shook his head. "There's been an accident down this street and you'll have to keep clear. The fire department's laying down some foam over the spilled gasoline." He pointed with his nightstick. "It's not much farther if you go that way."
"Thank you, officer," Janet said before she could catch herself.
Howard grinned. "Probably the accident's in the living room," he said. Janet laughed and flushed.
They lost track of time. Every room held a crowd of ordinary people who spoke to them, offered advice, asked directions, complained -- like the fat woman on the mock-up of a bus who said, "Oh, my feet ache. I been on my tootsies all day long, and now I gotta go home and make supper for my old man. Will he appreciate it? Oh, no," she said shaking her head, making her chins wiggle and her red hair with the brown roots jounce, "he'll just sit there after supper with a beer watching Monday Night Football while I do the dishes." She snorted. "Boy, I could do with a beer myself, come to think of it."
And there was the journalist sitting at his word-processor typing a story. "Fred Foyle," he said, turning around as they entered his office. "What can I do for you?" He had a thin face and a shock of pale hair that fell down over his eye. "Want ads? That's over there at the classified desk," he said pointing. "Can't help you." He turned back to his screen. Janet and Howard heard him sigh. "Obits!" he snorted. "This week I'm on obits. Next week I'll be on garden parties." He hunched forward and began to type, still mumbling.
"I'm starting to get hungry," Howard said. They were standing in an upstairs hallway looking out a bay window over the countryside. The sun was beginning to settle into the fields and appearing redder as it did so. There was a wind, too, that could be seen but not heard, riffling through the few trees visible in the landscape.
"That was a lot of fun," Janet said. "It was like walking through a whole town full of people that you feel you know."
"I wonder who got the idea for such a museum." Howard mused a moment and then said, "well, I guess that's about it. What say we hunt up some food and then head home?" A gust of wind rattled the window behind them as they turned toward the stairway. "Too bad that waitress downstairs isn't real."
"Oh, look," Janet said, "there's a doorway we missed." She walked across the carpet and paused with her hand on the knob of a door that looked out of place in the old Victorian building. Out of place but familiar, like almost everything else in the Museum of Ordinary People.
"Never mind it," Howard said. "I've seen enough, haven't you?"
"Oh, let's just have a peek," Janet replied, and before her husband could reply she turned the knob and pulled open the door. The house exhaled as they stood looking between the jambs.
"It's the attic stairway," Howard said peering upward into the gloom over Janet's shoulder.
She put her foot on the first stair. "Shall we go up?" she asked even as she shifted her weight forward. "There may be more exhibits."
"There doesn't seem to be a light switch." But he followed her. In a moment they were standing at the top of the flight listening to the hum of a wasp on the ceiling and the sound of a lawnmower in the hands of a distant neighbor. They stood quietly for a few moments peering into the shadows. They could make out a clothes rack filled with outmoded fashions, trunks and boxes. There was a film of dust lying upon everything.
A god's-eye stood raveling colored yarn beneath the narrow garret window. A girl's ballerina slipper lay beside it. A box of toys contained Pinocchio with a rubber nose. Winter lay preserved in a carton of Christmas tree ornaments, but the musty odors of summer sweltered in the nooks and cracks between objects. An umbrella waited for the sound of rain to come drumming over the roof.
"It's late," Howard said. "I'm hungry." He smiled. "I've had enough, haven't you?"
Janet hesitated, then she smiled back at him and let her hand fold into his, but before they could turn and descend the stairs out of the dim place where time lay in keeping, they heard the door close behind them.