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They looked at paintings, the man, his son, and the out-of-town friend. In one a figure sat up in bed while strange creatures helped themselves to his worldly possessions. The man’s son pointed at the picture, at some sort of bat writhing on the ground, clutching a letter. Cool, he said. The man was glad to be there with his out-of-town friend. Going to the museum was something he thought they’d do since the night his friend had called to say he knew this was kind of on the spur of the moment, but it turned out he was going to be passing through that weekend, would they be home by any chance? He’d love to see them and so forth. The man asked his wife that night if it would be OK, if they weren’t doing anything else, that is, and she told him it sounded fine, they would make it work. He stood beside his friend and held his son’s hand. He had a theory about old paintings he wanted to ask the friend about, to see what he thought. He wanted to test it, he guessed, or just talk about it maybe. It had been a while since he’d been to the museum, or any museum for that matter. The man wasn’t sure how long. Several months, maybe more. For him, time came in thick slices—a month, two months passed—and when it was gone, he lost track of it. He always thought the museum changed anyway, depending on who he went with. He never knew what his friends would respond to. It was like playing a song for someone, how the urgency of wanting to share gave way to a deeper anxiety, as if one were auditioning not music but one’s self, with the person’s judgment suspended, hovering overhead like an ax. On those occasions, the man could hear the music through other ears. Usually he liked it less, noticing for the first time weaknesses, bum lyrics. Such was his experience anyway.
In the morning, as the man was getting ready to leave for the museum, his wife had asked him if their son could come along. He likes the museum, she told him. He likes the ice cream, the man said. Gelato, his wife said, but yes. The man looked at his wife. She was still in her pajamas—a lingerie top and these little lingerie shorts the man liked—with a flannel shirt thrown on over them. She’d had the flannel forever just about, since as long as they’d known each other. He wanted to go back to bed. That’s what he was thinking. He wished they could. Just have one of those mornings like they used to, where they’d lie around, talking, talking about everything. Things were different. What do you think? she said. A little father-son QT? I guess so, the man said. If you want, I mean. The wife called to their son, telling him to hurry up and get ready, go to the bathroom, get his shoes on, etc., etc. Are you doing something? the man asked. I have a lot to do, his wife said. She looked around. It would just be easier if he were out of the house. The man said, It’s always easier when he’s out of the house, provided you’re staying in the house. The wife said not to worry, the museum would be fun. Buy him a gelato, she said. One scoop. Just make sure you see whatever you want to see first, and then make the gelato like a treat. His wife smiled. Gelato, the man said. OK.
Their son was five. He’d had his birthday a few weeks before. It was a pirate mystery birthday, so there was something to do with tiny magnifying glasses and something to do with ghosts for some reason—the man wasn’t clear on how or why ghosts came into it—and something also to do with gold, the gold being these plastic coins they hid all over the house for the kids to find. The boy loved the gold coins. Ever since his party, he carried them around. He had a cloth bag with a drawstring closure, and he was always asking to play hunt the gold. You hide the gold from me, he said, and I’ll try and find it. Alright, scurvy dog? Then he did his evil laugh. The evil laugh was new.
When they got to the museum, the out-of-town friend was inside, waiting by the big fountain. People took pictures there, with the fountain behind them, all surrounded by flowers, huge urns full with blooms. It always seemed like too much, the man thought. As if someone important had died. There were pillars too, shiny black marble pillars. They made a Hitchcock movie here. A scene actually. The man couldn’t remember, but he thought the pillars figured in it. He thought about mentioning this, but he didn’t know what movie it was. He just read about it someplace. His friend said he’d been trying to call. He had his phone out, looking at it as if for some explanation. I get like no bars on the Metro, the man said. It’s good to see you though. The out-of-town friend said likewise, and then he asked the boy how he was doing, but the boy just looked at him unblinkingly. You’re not going to say anything? the man asked. He gave the boy’s hand a little squeeze. He gets shy, he said.
They headed for the galleries. Statues of Greek or maybe they were Roman gods lined the floor, some pushed into the corners, like they’d fallen out of favor or something. One statue, a man, nude, raised a shield to deflect an invisible threat. Across the way, a baby held a severed head by the hair. The man started talking about his theory, trying to sketch it out for his friend. There are these paintings, he said. I think they’re early Renaissance maybe? The man wasn’t sure of the exact dates, but what he had in mind were these paintings where perspective and vanishing point were new still, the ideas and techniques not grasped entirely, or if the painter did grasp them, then he did so inconsistently, so that the perspective might hold together in one area of the painting only to fall apart in another. The man’s son said, Daddy, when are we going to get gelato? We’re going to see some art first, the man said, and then we’ll go, OK? If you’re good, he added. You want to see some art first, don’t you? You like art, right? The boy shrugged. I guess, he said. He likes drawing monsters, the man said to his out-of-town friend. I draw monsters with 98 eyes, the boy said. The out-of-town friend smiled. Ninety-eight is his number for a lot, the man said. He can count higher—he can just count and count—but 98 is, you know, a whole lot of whatever it is. Some of my monsters, the boy said, have—have—have— The out-of-town friend looked over. Have what? he asked. He was gentle, how he said it. Not everyone was. Have, the boy said, lots of mouths and noses. He gets stuck sometimes, the man said. On some word. He put his hand on his son’s head. He liked how his hair felt—he always did—his hair and his head, how solid it was to touch. Our pediatrician told us it’s normal, the man said. The boy asked the out-of-town friend if he knew about a monster called monster number ten. He didn’t, he said. Well, the boy said, a monster number ten is part-dragon, part-Minotaur, and part–number ten. The friend said that sounded pretty scary. Then he asked the man about the paintings, about what he had been saying. I’m not sure where they are, the man said. He looked around, orienting himself, or trying. They were in a room of portraits. Old bankers, men with wispy, white beards, women draped in furs, the elders of some city where he had never been. I always think they move stuff around on me, the man said. But really I just get lost. Someone had set up an easel and was painting a copy of one of the portraits. One of the men. He was just beginning, sketching. The boy tugged at his father’s arm. This is boring, he said. We can find something else to look at, the man said. Would you like that? The boy said, Maybe. Then he grabbed his father by the arm and hung there, twisting, trying to swing. Daddy, the man said to his son, is actually looking for some paintings. The boy didn’t react. If he’d heard, he didn’t show it. You could help us find them, he said. Like in a mystery, the friend said. Right? The boy looked unconvinced. How am I ever going to find any paintings? he said. He had a point. The other night at dinner, the boy had made a bright remark, and the man said it was indeed a good point, and he smiled to say this, because it was probably the first time he’d ever said that about his son, about something he had said, and he expected he would say it again, soon, and after all it was a good point the boy had made, whatever it was, even if the man had, unfortunately, forgotten it. He reached for his son’s hand but caught him by the arm instead. We’ll find the paintings together, he said. His son shook his head. We’re never going to find them, he said. Never, never, ever. The man asked the boy to please just stop whining already, God. Let’s walk, he said. OK? Sorry, he said to the out-of-town friend.
They found a room with older paintings. Medieval-looking, the man guessed. A museum guard stood near the wall, regarding them, but not really. Are we on the right track? the friend asked. A woman walked by holding her phone out in front of her. This is close, the man said. But not quite right. He felt as if he were feeling his way in the dark, sensing something, a warmth, a slight rise in the ambient temperature. So the paintings, he said, the ones where perspective doesn’t hold. Conversations were always needing to be recapped and then started again. The out-of-town friend nodded. This is at the very dawn of perspective, the man said. When it was quote-unquote invented. You’re talking one- or two-point perspective? the out-of-town friend said. Yeah, the man said. No, I’m asking, the friend said. Oh, he said, I guess I’m not clear on the difference? Just, you know, standard perspective. Anyway, many of these paintings feature a building, the man said, within the painting, and the people in the painting, the shepherds or lords or whatever, are inside that building, under it. The out-of-town friend said he thought he had seen stuff like that before. The building wasn’t like anything that existed, at least that the man knew of. It was open for starters, just like four pillars supporting a roof—often an ornate roof but not always. It looked like a gazebo a bit, except more built-up, fancier and made of stone. The man thought of the things this way, as gazebos, though he knew the word was wrong. It was wrong but it would do. The out-of-town friend said what he should do is he should go ask that guard where the paintings are. You know, he said, the ones with a gazebo in them? Right, the man said, the ones where the gazebo is stone and not really a gazebo, are those nearby? He pretended to study the walls. And while we’re at it, his friend said, where’s that painting with the woman in it? You mean, the man said, the one where her hair’s like— He gestured in complex ways around his head. Is that supposed to be a gazebo? his friend asked. It is, the man said. It totally is. He looked at his son. You should ask the guard where the red painting is, he said. The rectangular one, his friend added. The boy appeared confused. Why? he said. Don’t worry about it, the man said. We’re just amusing ourselves. He tousled his son’s hair, grinned too much. I want gelato, the boy said. Now. You said we were going to get gelato. No, the man said. I told you we were going to look at some art first and then— We already looked at art, the boy said. He turned around, taking in the room. Art, he said, pointing at one wall. Art, art, art. I know, the man said, but we’re looking for those paintings. Remember how I said we were looking for some paintings? The boy indicated nothing, like maybe he didn’t hear. Remember? the man asked. The boy didn’t look at him. He never looked at him—would never look him in the eyes. It was one of those maddening things, how he could just stand there and not look at him. Even when the man asked his son to look at him, he looked a few degrees over his head, beyond him. All we’ve done, the boy said, since we got here is look at a bunch of dirty old paintings. We can go, the out-of-town friend said. I mean, it’s OK. If you want. See? the boy said. It’s OK to go. Let’s go. The man looked at his friend. It’s really OK, he said. I know, the man said. I think we’re close though, you know?
The main hall was bright and airy, and people came at them from all directions. Couples mostly, and families. People with strollers, backpacks, bags—all their stuff. Most people seemed happier than the man felt he was. He searched their faces. They just seemed so happy. It must be him, he thought. It had to be him. The main hall was like a highway connecting together towns. Which way? his friend asked. The man wasn’t sure. This way, he said, and he started moving. He just wanted to move. He wanted to find his paintings too, but at this point, he was content to be moving. Movement was progress, or at least its possibility. His son was pulling back, doing his little slow-walk routine. This is what he did. This is what he always did, tugging at his father’s arm with each step. The man tried to focus his mind on the paintings. Sometimes he did that, not so much thinking of something as telling himself to think of something. It was like giving himself an assignment. He wondered what the building—the gazebo, whatever it was called—was for. Painting-wise, he meant. He told his friend that was really his question, what he kept returning to. Did the building help the painter stay on track as it were? Or did it serve some compositional purpose he didn’t know about? The man hadn’t had much art history. I tried to look this up a few times, he said, but I never got anywhere. Nobody mentioned it in books. Never even saw a museum sign that mentioned it. His friend said he’d gotten to the point where he ignored the signs. I used to be real dutiful about it, he said, looking at the painting and then the sign and then back to the painting again. And then for a while I looked at the title. It was like first the title and then the painting. But what’s the title really, except some instruction, you know? The man nodded. And probably an afterthought at that, the friend said. The man stopped and looked at his son. Yeah, no, I’m sure you’re right, he said. Then he bent down, so his son could hear him. Can you please stop jerking on my arm? he said. Look at me, he said. His son didn’t look at him. Look, the man said, at me. Now. His son sort of looked at him for a second. Thank you, the man said. No more jerking my arm, OK? It hurts. You’re too strong, he said. He clutched his arm as if it were broken. He just wanted things to be light once more. He was forever making things worse and then overcorrecting, swerving in the opposite direction. He was like some fearful sailor, sawing the wheel back and forth, peering into the night and trying to steer by some far-off star. They started moving again, and the man felt they had to be lost. He was almost certain. This is wrong, he said. I think. It feels wrong. We need to turn around, he said. His son let out a long, pained groan. Sorry, the man said. We’re never going to find these stupid old paintings, the boy said. The man ignored him. I’m pretty sure it’s this way, he said. They started out again. Daddy, the boy said. I want gelato. He was walking slowly again. I know you do, the man said. And we’re going to get some, but first— I want gelato now, the boy said. Well, the man said, you know the deal, right? The boy stopped walking, and his father dragged him forward a step. Ow, the boy said. You’re hurting me. I’m trying to walk, the man said. Mean, his son said. You mean. You ugly. I’m just trying to walk here, the man said. You’re being a pest, the boy said. This is a big pest. The man sighed. He felt in the grip of something familiar, a pattern taking shape around him. He was part of it, maybe the main part, a circle from which all other lines emerged. Sometimes he thought the circle was under attack, other times that it was unraveling. Maybe in the end it made zero difference. The man told his friend he was really sorry. For all this, he added. For everything. This is what it’s like now, he said. It’s like this is the plan—he held up one hand—and then this is the reality. He held up the other. And they’re so far apart, he said. His son stood in front of him, trying to swat his hands. Daddy, he said. The man ignored him. And it’s not because the plan is some ideal thing either, he said. Like some crazy dream you had to build a palace out of bottles. The boy was pulling on him again. Will you, the man said, just wait please? The plan was already a compromised thing. The man knew this. It was scaled back and riddled with caveats and escape clauses. And yet the reality, when it arrived, when you faced it, you saw it was so much shittier than the plan. Shittier in ways the man hadn’t anticipated or thought possible. So the next time he vowed to make a simpler plan, even more scaled back, but then the reality defeated him again. Time after time he showed up with his lovely plans, which were getting briefer and more vague, and time after time he was undone by the new reality. A person got to this point, the point where he was, he thought, now, lately, and he told himself, An afternoon at the museum, that’s it, that’s all I ask. Or maybe he told himself, An afternoon, that’s too grand. Just an hour at the museum. Sure, maybe I won’t have enough time to see everything, but that’ll just mean I can be more selective and thoughtful. Right? No. Turns out you want too much still. You ask for too much. You expect too much. That’s what he learned: We’re like these rude beasts of wanting, and we receive scraps. Anyway, the man said. Nothing works. Not anymore. Ice cream probably still works, his friend said. I imagine. Yeah, the man said, ice cream works, surprisingly enough. His son perked up at the mention of ice cream. It’s gelato, he told the out-of-town friend. They have 98 kinds here. Come on, the man said. Just a bit farther now.
They walked without saying many words, and they walked through time. That’s what the museum was finally: time rearranged, wrenched until it fit, and then organized discreetly. Little rooms here and there declared some abstract thesis, but even that was, more often than not, time in disguise—time or place anyway. Another idea the man had about the gazebo thing was that the painter was showing off, saying in effect, I’ll show you perspective, look at this building I can make. Because the buildings themselves did not exist. The man was pretty sure about this, that it wasn’t a realistic portrayal of some structure around back then, as if every castle also had, plonked down outside it, an ornate stone gazebo. Many of these paintings were set, assuming set’s the right word, outside a castle, beyond its walls. So the ornate stone gazebo thing had to be imagined. The man thought this correct. Sometimes the gazebo appeared within another structure, an interior within another interior, room within the room, and that made so little sense architecturally that he was back to thinking one of his ideas had to be true, or at least close to true. The man felt his son pulling his arm, and he pulled back, just a little. It was probably too much, but it was what he did, this show of force. The boy tried to wriggle his hand free, but the man just gripped him all the harder. That hurts, the boy said. He broke away from his father then and ran toward a nearby gallery. Jesus, the man said. When the boy reached the entrance, he turned and rocked back and forth, waving his hands in the air, taunting him. Behind the boy, people crowded into the gallery, craning their necks to read, printed on the wall, the introductory text about whoever it was doing whatever he did, whenever. You can’t catch me, the boy called out. A guard, standing by, just grinned. Thinking it cute or whatever, the man guessed. This isn’t some game, he thought. His son then turned, took a few steps and then a few more, and became part of the crowd. The man hustled after the boy, sort of walking fast while trying not to panic, not wanting to appear worried or angry or anything. Really, he preferred not to appear, if that was possible, to be present but not noticed. He felt such exquisite shame, the abundant richness of embarrassment. Can I help? his friend said. The man turned around. His friend was there, right behind him, smiling. I don’t know, the man said. Can you? And then he was telling him sorry again. Can you just stay here? he said. Please? I mean, in case he comes out. The out-of-town friend nodded and looked into the crowd. I can’t see him, he said.
The man entered the gallery, looking everywhere, looking not just for his son but for commotion, anything, for people registering the presence of his boy, alone, assuming they even would register him. People clotted just within the entrance, but he squeezed past, moving as quickly as he politely could, casting apologies as he went. The art here was modern—contemporary, he supposed. He called it all modern when what he meant was contemporary. Light bulbs were mounted on the walls, some framing nothing, some with mirrors inside. A few of the mirrors were broken, the shattered pieces lying on the floor in a carefully curated mess. Just beyond the entrance, a table and set of chairs were made from light bulbs—or else bulbs were installed in them, outlining them. The man wasn’t sure which; he could only glance. In the next room, bright lights on tripods lit up as he passed. They were on a timer or maybe a motion sensor. He felt blinded for a moment, stunned, and then geometric flecks of color floated before his eyes. When his vision returned, he saw his son off a ways, near the entrance to a third room. The people around him were tall, oblivious, and the man realized, not for the first time but the first time in a while, how small his son was still, and how large the room, the walls stretching up. They could display trailer trucks here, stacked atop one another. The boy seemed calm, just walking, looking ahead. He was lit from the front and getting smaller, and then he was gone, part of another crowd. The man hurried now, not caring how he seemed. He was about to enter the third room when he felt a hand on his arm, holding him back. A guard stood beside him. No running, he said. The man was confused. My son, he said. The guard looked around. No boy anywhere. This ain’t the races, he said, glaring at the man. They stayed like that, tense, frozen in argument, and no one said a thing. Then the guard let him go and returned to his place against the wall. The man rubbed his arm, massaging it. He could feel where he had been grabbed. Did you see my son? he asked. He held his hand to just above his waist. Blond hair? he said. The guard shook his head.
In the third room, the man saw several brilliant domes made from light bulbs, like igloos but not as squat. Inside the first dome, people were milling around, chatting. A couple of college kids sat on a bench, looking up at the top of the dome, laughing and pointing, as if all along they’d been trying to get there, and so now they were going to stay, relax. He didn’t see his son, so he moved on to the second dome. Here people sat in straight-back chairs arranged in several rings. The middle of the dome was empty save for a microphone connected to a coiled length of cable. People spoke to one another, if they spoke at all, in whispers. Some looked ahead, at the ground, avoiding anyone’s eyes, like strangers do on trains. The man walked to the middle of the dome. Excuse me, he said. Nobody heard. Excuse me, he repeated, louder this time. Somebody shushed him, and then a guy in a hat called out, Speak up. Then a woman’s voice: We can’t hear you in back. The man picked up the microphone and brought it close to his mouth. Is this on? he said. He heard himself amplified and then he heard himself breathe. I’m looking for my son, he said. He held his hand to just above his waist again. Nobody spoke. A woman in the front row shook her head in that way that means more than just no. My son has blond hair, the man continued. I think he was wearing shorts today, when we left the house. That’s what I’m picturing, he said. He knew his description was poor. People watched him, waiting. I’m not part of the thing, he said. This. He indicated the dome. I’m really looking for my son. A few people stood to leave, muttering, looking back at him, and then more people followed. Thanks for your help, the man said. He placed the microphone on the floor, and it made a hollow thud. Then he wound the cable around his arm, which made him think of his father, who had always been particular about how to wind rope and extension cords, like the one he used for the weed eater. When he was a kid, the man had to wind the extension cords, neatly and in the proper way. That was his job around the house, or one of them. The people were all standing now, pressing together. It was starting to get uncomfortable. A bottleneck had formed where the dome opened into the gallery. At the back of the crowd, the man looked for an opening, saying excuse me please, and trying to get past. On his tiptoes, he could just see over their heads.
He found his son inside the third dome, crouching by some kind of stream made out of light bulbs. Beside him a light-bulb animal, a deer or maybe it was a mythological creature, bent to drink from the water. The boy stood and looked at the animal, its neck extended, little light-bulb ears alert. The boy was still, as still as the man had ever seen him, aside from times he saw him sleeping, when he looked in on him in bed, or when the boy nodded off in his car seat, which he did do sometimes, but only on long trips. And he was quiet too, as if any movement or sound might startle the animal. The boy noticed his father then and came over. Daddy, he said, how do all these lights turn on?
The man had expected worse. A confrontation, yelling, tears. He’d had to carry his son out of a restaurant recently, removing him, because he wouldn’t eat and then he said he wouldn’t leave either, that he really, really wanted to eat now, except that, given the chance and then another chance, he didn’t eat, not a goddamn bite, and so the man said, That’s it, let’s go. When he got up from the table, the man pushed his chair back, scraping it on the floor, and then the chair fell over backward, which only made more noise, and everyone—diners, waiters, the owner, who was their friend actually, he’d opened the restaurant the same month they moved to the city, ten years before it must have been—everyone stopped and looked. Or so the man imagined anyway, because he would look, wouldn’t he? Of course he would. He would watch everything, and he would judge it. The man carried his son under his arm, just to get out of there, leave. He carried him like he would a box of junk he was getting rid of, the boy all the while yelling and hitting and saying, Put me down. Put me down. The man wasn’t about to hold him like a child, how he used to, hoisting him up, keeping him close, speaking into his ear as they walked. Another time, in a used bookstore, the man and his son had found some kids’ books. The man read them aloud to see if they were any good, and when the boy said he liked them, the man made a neat stack and said, Well, let’s get them all, and then he said, Can we go upstairs now to look at some books for Daddy? The boy groaned. You don’t need any more dirty old books, he said. Just for a minute, the man said. I want to look for just a few minutes. The boy refused, and the man wheedled and cajoled and then he just insisted. Upstairs he found a chair near the aisle where he wanted to browse. Here, he said, you can look at all your new books. He was trying to sound chipper. The boy slumped in the chair, glowering. He picked up a book and then dropped the rest on the floor. A few minutes later, the man still wasn’t done. He looked over at his son and saw that he’d pulled his pants down and was inspecting his penis. What, the man said, are you doing? The boy said he was looking at his penis, as if that weren’t obvious. He pronounced it like pie-nus, rhyming with minus, which was their running joke for reasons the man couldn’t recall. Well, put your pants back on, the man said. Christ, you can’t do that here. The boy didn’t move. Will my penis, he said, be big one day like your penis is? Your pants, the man said. Come on. When the boy didn’t move, the man picked him up and pulled his pants on. He wasn’t nice about it either. The boy yelled that time too, screamed really, screamed just these piercing, brain-scrambling sounds, as if the man had tripped an alarm and now he better run.
The man didn’t know how the lights worked exactly, and he admitted as much. He always tried to be honest about what he didn’t know. He never wanted to be one of those blustering dads, the backyard know-it-all, holding forth on how, in the real world, if you just stop and think about it, there are two types of people, or whatever. There must be plugs, he said. Somewhere. He glanced around but didn’t see any plugs. No plugs and no wires either. The artist had done a good job concealing them. I bet there are plugs in the floor, the boy said. Or maybe the plugs are part of the dome and you can’t see them because there are bulbs on both sides and the plugs are in the middle. Like this, he said. The boy held his hands up, pressing them together. He had started doing this, answering his own questions. You may be right, the man said. You want to go find Daddy’s friend now? We probably should. The boy looked off at the inside of the dome. He seemed surprised, like he’d forgotten that world, the one where the out-of-town friend waited at the entrance to the gallery, guarding it. Do you think he’d like to see these light-bulb buildings? the boy asked. He might, the man said. You can ask him. The boy thought about this. You ask him, he said.