The Great American Museum of The American Nickel
Second Place, City Paper's 11th Annual Fiction Contest
Sometimes, children become very fat very quickly.
We attribute this usually to genes. Like having the gene that makes you predisposed to eventually dying, which I have because my family comes from Eastern Europe. It's easy to blame problems on children. It's easy to go right to the source. You can blame a lot of things on genes, but one thing I know from experience is that I got fat because my mom fed me gravy on top of everything I ever ate. And when I finally said, "Mom, I'm fat and it's because of that gravy, and not only that but I want you to cut all of my servings in half from now on when you serve me dinner and when you pack me lunch, and besides, could you please not put my flannel in the dryer, I hate the feeling of when my flannel has been through the dryer," everything changed, or it started to change. At least she followed my instructions, for the most part.
The Great American Museum of the American Nickel proudly displays everything that could at one time in our country's short history be bought for 5 cents. The first exhibit is on stamps, which we can all relate to. The first-ever federally issued postage stamp cost 5 cents and was dated 1847 with Ben Franklin on it. The Foods and Luxuries exhibit has pretend mugs of coffee from before World War II and also modern day gum balls. And in the very, very back of the museum is the Room of Electricity, which contains only a pedestal with a 280-watt light bulb. Every hour, on the hour, the bulb turns on and expends 5 cents' worth of electricity, which takes exactly 30 minutes. During that time, the room is bright-all white and blinding-until it turns off again and the room sits in darkness expending absolutely nothing until the next official hour comes around.
I cut my hair. I started wearing glasses. I let it grow back. I thought the glasses looked stupid. All of my shirts looked the same. All of them smelled the same. Like a boy who wears glasses and misses the gravy more than anything. A boy who would die to just be able to enjoy gravy on everything like everybody else can do and they don't even think about it. After college I got a job at the Great American Museum of the American Nickel.
Six days a week, I maintained the Room of Industry. I polished nuts, bolts, screws (1800s). I dusted the fiberglass loaf of commercially-made bread (1916) and a replica of the first-ever serving of Coca-Cola (1866). The Great American Museum of the American Nickel taught me one thing, which is that a person can buy some things with some money, sometimes.
Florence, the security guard, was excited because someone asked her a question about the dog food exhibit and she loved to talk about dog food. She loved to talk about anything related to dogs at all. She just loved them. She loved how they can't talk but still find ways of letting you know that they like you or they're hungry. She liked how they like to be petted. Some animals like to be petted a lot. Some animals don't like to be petted at all. Human beings are animals, too. The human being who asked Florence about the dog food was a pretty girl with a notebook and pen.
"Well, sure it might not look like much, but you have to realize that at the time Spratt's Patent Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes represented the acme of human ingenuity. Here was a man from Cincinnati-Cincinnati of all places! I think it's a miracle, frankly," said Florence. The girl she stood lecturing was the third-prettiest girl I'd seen come in that day. And second-prettiest if you disqualify the girl whom I had to ask to spit out her gum while exploring the museum. And if you think those things aren't quantifiable, if you think those things have no absolute value, well, one thing is you're wrong.
"But a lot of terrific things have happened in Cincinnati besides the advent of dog food," the second-or-third-prettiest-girl-of-the-day said.
"Name one," said Florence, and she did not like where this was going.
"Well, I'm sure you get this kind of answer all the time, and so I guess it might sound trite, but Cincinnati's port on the Ohio River played a major role in getting supplies to the Union Army during the Civil War. Also George McClellan came from Cincinn-"
"George McClellan was an ineffectual bungler," Florence said, and rested a foot against the wall. "Everyone whose television gets PBS knows that. Dog food pre-dates the Civil War. Well, almost pre-dates it. Didn't you consider that? It may be a relatively new development in the world of dog nutrition, but compared to the history of our country-well, frankly, if you want American history, look no further is what I say. The world is full of gifts. Gifts that should be appreciated. That's what I'm trying to tell you."
The problem is that most American museums require every employee to have a bachelor's degree. Even just maintenance people like me and security guards like Florence.
"But I don't think the advent of dog food was necessarily a good thing!"
And right like that the girl started crying. Had I missed something? I wouldn't. I hadn't. She cried and I wanted to help, wanted to touch her or shake her or something. But I had the dust mop in my hand, so what would be the point? Even if I was wearing a name tag. Even if I had a college degree. Even if I came from all the way over by the Illicit Substances display and asked, without even trying to pet her head of hair that looked like plastic, but the human kind-if I just asked: "Miss, are you alright?" Because I knew that she wasn't alright, but you've got to start out slow before you let people know how much you've already assumed about them.
I think Florence got confused. I think Florence got confused because she just dropped her pointing stick on the ground and threw up her hands and said to the ceiling, "Why, Lord, why on today of all days?" and walked off. The girl kept on crying. I walked over and picked up Florence's pointer.
"Miss, are you alright?" I asked her, like I planned. But it's not insincere if you're really, really trying. If you'd really like to say, "Miss, I think you're the third-prettiest girl I've seen today and that makes me want to take you out for some date. Just to look at you and talk some. Just to watch how you close your fingers around the silverware when we're out at a restaurant and you're making every movement sort of careful because you're a lady." If what you'd really like to say is that, but instead you just ask if someone's alright because there are only a limited number of things a person can hear when they're distressed, so you have to pick one of them.
"I just wanted, I just wanted to know why dog food started out being so expensive." She wiped her face with her sleeve and got snot on it. "It seemed like an awful lot of expense for something that people took for granted. People used to take for granted that their dogs got fed without worrying about it. Without making a special trip. How could such a thing take off?"
"Don't worry about Florence," I said. "It's just that she has a college degree."
"I have a college degree," she said. Her face had gotten all red and was shiny and dirty in some places from the crying. Her eyes looked bigger. I couldn't tell if the crying made her more pretty or less. The other museum patrons began to steer clear of the dog food display. One thing about museums is there is nothing private about them.
"So do I," I said.
"But my degree doesn't have anything to do with dusting museum exhibits. I'm not really using it for anything. Have you been to see the Room of Electricity? The room with the 280-watt light bulb?" I asked.
"Oh, back to his old tricks again," said Florence, returning with a travel mug of something that we were not supposed to have except on breaks. She took her pointing stick back and stood against the wall. "Don't let him give you the old Room of Electricity treatment. I've seen it before. All young men are perverts, as I'm sure you know," she said to both of us.
"I'm Elvin," I said, because if you have a name it's less likely that you're a pervert.
"Laura-Fay," she said.
Laura-Fay turned, heading to the Service and Labor wing. Down the hall and left after the bathrooms.
"Wait!" I said. "Why are you going there?"
"I want to know about 'shave and a haircut, two bits'," she said.
"Is it because I'm fat?" I asked.
"Excuse me?" Laura-Fay said, and got closer like maybe she'd understand if she squinted.
"It is," said Florence.
"I mean, will you not go with me to the electricity room because I'm fat?" I asked.
"You didn't ask me to go to the electricity room," she said. "And aren't you working or something?"
"That's right. Tell him," said Florence.
"I'm not asking you," I told Florence.
"Oh, don't I know it," said Florence, which is a meaningless thing to say.
"And besides," Laura-Fay said, and looked around, "I don't think you're fat."
"Thanks, but I used to be," I said.
Florence puffed out her cheeks like a marshmallow.
"You're not anymore," said Laura-Fay.
"Mm-hmm," said Florence.
"So what? I still used to be."
"But that doesn't make people treat you badly when they meet you now," said Laura-Fay.
"You'd be surprised," I said. I wanted to touch her hair so badly. It looked almost like food. Like a million tiny strings of some violin all there together, and if you run your fingers through, it'll sound like wind chimes. Will it?
I grabbed her hand and dropped it immediately.
I said, "Would you just come and look at this?" Then I remembered my mom and said, "Please?"
We walked to Room of Electricity and we went in and we stood there, but the place was so dark and would be for 18 more minutes.
"Is this a trick or something?" she asked me.
"I don't think so. It's an exhibit."
"It doesn't seem to do much."
We stood for a long time in the quiet of not being near Florence.
"I'm sorry she made you cry before," I said.
"Oh, things like that happen all the time," she said.
"That's why it's good to develop a thick skin!" Somehow I was now peddling thick skins. Why do things like this happen? It was dark, so I told her a secret: "One time I was almost on Broadway," I said.
"Like in a play?"
"Yeah. As a kid. I was cast to play an orphan in Oliver Twist. My mom took me to New York and everything. But every day at rehearsals one of the moms would bring doughnuts, and then afterward we'd go out for cokes and french fries, and by the time the show went up, I'd gained too much weight. They said it wasn't believable that I could be a Dickensian orphan starving in the streets. Also, my mom always put gravy on everything. She's an immigrant."
"I know." The room seemed to get darker and darker.
"Was it your biggest dream?"
"To play an orphan in Oliver Twist?" Darker.
"Well, more like, to be on Broadway."
"Um, it wasn't my biggest, biggest dream. But it was a dream. Now I exercise and draw pictures. I'm pretty good, actually. I'd like to draw a picture of you sometime."
"I'm not very photogenic," she said.
I wanted to touch her hair so badly. I have never wanted anything so much as I wanted to touch her hair right then. I got confused and tried to shift my weight from one foot to the other and back. I thought about the width of my shoulders. I thought about it as a way to measure the space between Laura-Fay and me. The space between her and me and the pedestal with the bulb on it. I didn't know what to do with my hands. I clasped them together on my stomach, which looked weird, but it was dark, so whatever. She put her hand there, on mine, on my stomach. Just the palm, like a test. All young men are perverts, it's true. I got self-conscious. I tried to hold my breath. I tried to make her think I wasn't a human being. That she'd made some kind of mistake. That something about this meeting in the dark in the Great American Museum of the American Nickel was different than everything else in the world. Maybe it could be different. I counted, silently, back from 100. I listed in my head every item I could think of on display in the museum and the years they corresponded with. Over and over and over again. Finally, she took her hand back and we both looked around the room, bright and lit now by 280 watts of light. ★
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