Breakfast gobbled down, hair combed, and shirt tucked in, I bounded out the front door and zipped across the red, white, and blue center lines in the street to enter the small museum that had been across from my house all my life. Mrs. Winters, the fat lady who ran it, was pleasantly expecting me.
"Here's the famous artist now," she said, full of smiles.
I pulled up. Famous artist? Over the years, using everything from a BB gun to a Frisbee, I had nicked every window in her museum. Granddad must have really done a number on her to get me this job.
"I still see your drawing in the library every day, young man," she said.
My drawing? The one in the lobby of the Charles Town Public Library, she said. Oh, that, I said. "Tufted Titmice in Spring." Won first place in the Jefferson County Fair years back. I just drew two birds. Some expert decided they were "titmice"--an embarrassing name for birds and artwork alike, I always thought.
She went on to say that my grandfather had assured her there was no reason for her to worry whether I would show up.
"He said you were very much looking forward to it," she said, in another burst of smiles. "I hope you are?"
I nodded so hard I felt something in my neck click.
"All these years," she laughed nervously, "and I've never gotten to know you or your family, my."
This job, she went on to say, leading me into the museum, was a great opportunity for an aspiring local artist. Mr. Harrington, the owner, was very supportive of the arts. How fortunate for both of us, she said, turning around, that I lived just across the street. I nodded. We both had terrified smiles.
After a hundred run-on sentences about everything from the leaky coffee maker to the importance of keeping Mr. Barnes's restroom next door clean, she set me up on a stool near the curtain over the main gallery. Beside me was a single length of red velvet rope, like in a movie theater. With nothing to do at first except read the little brochure about the museum over and over, I soon felt like a big vulture on the stool. All the while, I was experiencing a severe reading disability. I had just come out of the starting blocks for the rest of my life, only to stop and read? Words were going everywhere, and my eyes were skipping two, three lines at a time. Meanwhile, overhead was the buzz of dusty old dim lights. Dark drapes hung everywhere. I felt Vincent Price was behind me somewhere for sure.
Ordinarily I'd already be busy, Mrs. Winters said from across the room, but Mondays in the summer were notoriously slow. So, in light of the extra time, she decided to give me a quick tour of the main gallery now, instead of a little later, as planned.
"Tensions between art and social conditions prior to, and during, the Civil War," she began by saying, "are represented primarily by the works of two artists." She stopped. "Do you know who they are?"
"Not Winslow Homer?" I said.
"No, but good guess."
Sculptor Edmonia Lewis and landscape painter Robert Scott Duncanson, she said.
I had heard of neither.
The museum, she went on, was expanding to include a modern wing for Harlem Renaissance works, such as the "Black and Blue Series," as well as the global Civil Rights retrospective called "Ethiopia Awakening."
"There is a very good local example of African-American art on the side of your high school," she said. "Did you know?"
African-American art on the side of my high school? Oh, she meant the mural of Simón Bolívar.
"I did that!" I burst out. "I mean, we did. The Art Club."
Only it wasn't African-American. It was, I guess, Latin American.
"You did that?" she said, with half a smile now. And your father allowed that? was what the other half of her face said.
She drove by it every day, she said. She had no idea it was Simón Bolívar or that it had been done by the boy living across the street from where she had worked for the last twenty years. It made her smile, but it was a smile I found myself knuckling under to.
"It doesn't really look like him, and the skin tone's not right," I said, quick to confess it all.
"No, I was just going to suggest that. Not if it's Latin," she said. "You need a cosmetologist."
I looked at her. Cosmetologist? Apparently she was serious.
Cosmetologists, she said, were very good at the subtleness of skin tone. She left quickly and returned as quickly with a glossy business card as wet-looking as fingernail polish. It was almost too beautiful to touch. In raised maroon letters on an olive background, it read, Olivia R~Professional Licensed Cosmetologist.
Believe it or not, many artists, she said, consult cosmetologists, which was why she kept a good supply of Olivia's cards on hand. Then she gave me a long, searching look, turned back to the window, crossed her arms, and, with milky daylight rising up her round face, drifted into a smile.
"Day after day I see your father pulling through those trees over there."
"The secret entrance."
She glanced over her shoulder at me.
The situation at my house was this. My family had the last private residence this far down the hill in the historic tract. Jammed around us were a hundred tacky souvenir shops, oversized park buildings, and cheesy museums galore--The John Brown Wax Museum, the new Civil War Library and Museum, with its famous "Stonewall Visits Harpers Ferry" Gallery, and this, The Frederick Douglass Museum.
All day long there was a buzz of tourists in every nook and cranny on the street. Over the years, it had a way of crushing my family down, making us unfriendly. If we weren't ashamed of our drab little house beside the big restored park buildings, we were hostile toward tourists.
Our father's only answer was rules. No one allowed in the house, no one allowed out. Keep the doors closed. Don't attract attention. We were prisoners, and he was miserable. Padlocks on every door, junk-pile barricades in the yard, mutt dog chained to a tree, even tin cans on threads and fake security alarm stickers on the windows, like "Home Protected by Tri-State Burglar & Fire Alarm Association"--we were holed up like redneck fugitives in one of the most visited historic towns in America.
Mrs. Winters stood looking across the street at what she could see of my little house tucked back under the trees. Funny, my father had the same watchful, arms-folded stance from our front door when he looked in this direction, sometimes exactly at this spot. Not that it mattered, but one of them seemed a reflection of the other.
"The man sure wants his privacy," she said. "I admire him for not selling . . . but I sure don't know why he hasn't."
"A man's home is man's home."
She turned to me. "He said that?"
"Well, that I understand."
She went on looking out the window, across the flag-like center lines that seemed to make a joke of everyone's relationship with everyone else in this town.
"How do you know Granddad?" I finally got to ask.
"Roy? Oh, he's a dear. Mr. Harrington knows him from way back."
My grandfather, by the way, was no less than a savior in our family. He wasn't rich; he just did things the right way, was how my mother always put it. He traded in his car every few years for a new one. He kept a clean yard. He waved to his neighbors. Most important, he lived outside the tourist district, up on Ridge Street, where porch chairs matched shutters, which matched cellar doors, which matched oil tanks in the yard, which matched trash barrels, and on and on.
As I stood there with Mrs. Winters, I thought of asking her if she ever spoke to my mother. Mom, she would like. She was like my grandfather. But that I figured could wait until another time.
"Feel free to bring your sketchbook and work whenever we're not busy," she said, moving away from the window. "The last girl we had filled three of them over one summer!"
From that moment on, I found myself more comfortable and relaxed around Mrs. Winters than I could have ever expected. She had a nosy manner, but she also had a good heart. Our little tour, by the way, was over as soon as it started. I wasn't sure what all I had seen. Just a lot of dark-faced painting in murky, slave-era style. On top of that--no light in the museum. Was a bulb out somewhere? Back to the vulture stool I went, to continue to familiarize myself with the brochure.
Soon enough, big silver buses came down the street, and my apprehension rose all over again. The midmorning crowd, Mrs. Winters said. Sometimes they came. Sometimes they didn't. Minutes later, black kids came pouring into the little museum by the dozens, laughing and carrying on. When they saw me perched on the stool and smiling nervously at them, with my sweaty, untanned June face made all the paler by daylight through the large window, their own easy smiles disappeared, and they looked around as if they had made a wrong turn. For inner city blacks coming into this musty little tourist attraction hidden away in the mountains of West Virginia, I must have looked like Casper the Friendly Ghost in a church shirt. Luckily Mrs. Winters was there to handle things.
Full of pleasantries, she took their $2.75 admission at a small register near the souvenir stand, then sent them my way.
"Enjoy our museum today," I said to each, with an awkward smile most of them couldn't bear to look at.
Black face after black face hit my eyes like flashcards. One kid reminded me of Tyrone Sharpe in my school, having the same big cheeks and high voice. Many more were like his sister Shanice--nasty, big-mouthed, thrusting their tickets at me as if giving me the middle finger. Some were dressed in nice suits like Monique Washington, the first African-American class president at our school. Others grabbed whole handfuls of the brochure beside me, History of Colored Troops Serving the Confederacy, even though I was supposed to limit each person to only one. Picking up on my nervousness, they were just eager to get past me. But then they stopped a few feet away at the curtain drawn over the gallery entrance.
"I just go on?" one asked, looking back at me.
When I didn't answer quickly enough, he started on, but got hung up in the folds and started flailing.
"Wait, where I go, boy?"
All his friends started laughing. Ms. Winters had to intervene.
"Yes, the gallery's straight ahead. Go on through. He's just taking tickets for me today."
That, I figured, meant I was already fired. It actually took the pressure off. I was looking forward to limping back across the street and living out the rest of my life in my little room, with this one great experience to look back on.
Minutes later, back through the curtain came the kids, grumbling that they had been ripped off. Secretly I had to agree. A few crappy prints of gargoyle-like black slaves weren't worth $2.75. Even Frederick Douglass would have objected.
By the end of the first hour, I was soaked and miserable, hunchbacked on the stool. As quickly as the museum had filled up, it was empty again. Mrs. Winters said this was the typical ebb and flow. During this break in traffic, I braved my first good look through the big museum window at my house across the street--and I felt like Superman seeing through trees and into our limestone walls. Looking along with me was an enormous sepia print of Frederick Douglass himself. The two of us gazed together through the dusty light, between the big black letters on the glass spelling his name, to where my house had no business being. The historical timeline that the National Park Service was so bent on preserving, in this case, was a series of windows, doors, and walls, between which were periods as jumbled up as 1810 gas lights to Home Depot mini blinds.
Underneath the print of Douglass was a quote so long it ran the length of the outer room:
"Who would be free themselves must strike the blow. . . . I urge you to fly to arms and smite to death the power that would bury the Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave. This is your golden opportunity."
By noon, my first day on the job was improving. I knew how not to make an embarrassment of myself in front of the black kids and how to keep Mrs. Winters from getting anxious as well. She even felt confident enough to leave me by myself while she went up the Fudge Shop. They had the best brittle on Mondays, she said, grabbing her pocketbook. If I should decide to take my lunch break, remember, she said, to put the sign in the window and lock the door. Just to be safe, she showed me how to do all this again. But she was sure she'd be back shortly. Then she left, and just like that, on my first day, the whole museum was in my hands.
Long, quiet minutes passed. The museum was empty except for a black girl in a blue blazer, standing by herself under the big print of Douglass. Arms folded, looking here and there, she had the look of someone who went to galleries alone all her life and was in the habit of viewing everything around her as a work of art. She eventually came closer and asked who did the tall slave painting by the door. I said Paul James Sheridan. He also did the two on either side of it, I added. She asked if we had any other works by him, and I told her there was a small charcoal drawing of his in the back gallery, in an oval frame. She nodded as if recording all this to memory.
She was like no black girl I had ever seen before. The creases in her slacks went in all the right places, and with her blazer open, her white shirt underneath had the kind of high-up mountains in it that let me know she was full-grown. But at the same time, she sounded like she read encyclopedias in her room all day.
"You live here?" she asked suddenly, coming closer.
I waited as long as I could before answering.
"You're lucky," she said.
This I had been hearing all my life and was yet to believe it. As a matter of fact, I believed the opposite.
"Hey," she said, stepping over to the main window with a smile and playful bounce to her stride, "do the Hatfields and McCoys really live there?"
She stood pointing at my house.
My voice shot out hard. She turned to me.
"Sorry. It's just a joke."
Some of the kids in her school group were saying they did. She just thought she'd ask.
"But it looks like they could, don't you think?" she went on. "Their descendants, I mean."
"Sorry," she said again.
I looked down at the stack of brochures I was in charge of apportioning out, and straightened them for about the hundredth time. Whoever she was, she was too smart for her own good, with a lousy sense of humor.
"So who does live there?" she said, coming closer.
"You don't know? But you work here." She broke into a big smile. "I don't believe you!"
I had to glance down. She was so pretty and happy, she was hard to look at.
"What's that?" I was quick to ask, pointing at the big white button on her shirt, anything to change the subject.
She didn't answer me. Instead she turned back to the window and took her time looking across the street.
"Oh, this?" she said, finally turning back around. "It's my school group button. First Zion Black Congress of Churches."
"Congress?" I said, my nose wrinkled up as if the word stunk.
"It's the adopted affiliate of Howard High School."
She looked intently at me for a moment. Then she started pointing all over the place, saying, "What's that? What's that? What's that?" When I didn't take to her little joke, she got rid of her little grin and asked in a serious way if I liked working here. To this I said yes.
When I told her I was an artist, she overdid the excitement, wanting to know if I painted in oils or egg tempera or acrylic. I was uncomfortable, you understand, talking with a girl who probably knew the Dick Blick color wheel better than I did.
"You must travel a lot then?" she said.
"Travel?" I couldn't help but laugh.
"There are two trains here."
"There are two train systems in town."
Systems? There might have been two rail lines, yes, but they were hardly systems. Cows moved faster than the Valley Line boxcars, and the Amtrak came into town once a day on the other. Harpers Ferry might have been home to John Brown's Raid, but outside the park, it was still Podunkville.
She went on looking around at the paintings.
"People in the city never leave their block," she said.
It was the first time I heard sadness in her voice.
"Why?" I asked.
"Why? Crime. Everybody in the city got a gunnn."
It was also the first I heard the black in her.
When she suddenly stepped toward the door, I was afraid she was leaving.
"Did you get a brochure?" I quickly asked, leaning off my stool to hold one out to her.
She stepped back over and took it from me as if it might have information about the art world she didn't know yet.
"I'm going to study art in Washington," I told her.
When she asked where, I was ready, saying The Corcoran. What I wasn't ready for was the fact that she had just been to The Corcoran nights before, to the student gallery for "a limited showing of 'Sculpture of the Western Hemisphere.'" Did I happen to go, she asked.
I watched as she again took a few steps along the wall, looking up at the paintings.
"But if I lived here," she went on to say, "I'd never leave."
It was my turn to laugh at her.
She didn't answer. Instead, she stepped back to the window.
"You sure the Hatfields and McCoys don't live over there?" She glanced back at me. "Sorry. But it's the only residence on the street."
Residence. That was the word for it. We had the only private residence on the street.
As I watched her continue to look at my house, I could see she was a troublemaker, but there was something else. Sadness. Isolation. A need to be happy. She was just like me. Somehow I had to let her know I lived there.
"I'd be lonely over there," she said.
"He is," I said.
"See," she said, spinning around, "you do know him." She took a few excited steps toward me. "Is he an artist like you?"
As she asked it, it was an odd question. Again I got the feeling she stayed in her bedroom all day, reading encyclopedias. When I hesitated to nod, she eyed me for a moment as a result, then glanced around at the paintings hanging in a row on either side of us.
"Well, he can do whatever he wants," she said, "thanks to him." She stood pointing at the big print of Frederick Douglass.
I hopped off my stool.
"That's his father," I said, pointing through a clear spot in the window. I followed her eyes. "Looks mean, doesn't he?"
She stood looking out the window for a second longer.
"No, he looks okay. See," she said, "he's smiling."
Across the street, Dad was leaning down to our dog. Smiling wasn't exactly the word for it.
"What about her?" I asked, pointing at my mother coming out on the front steps.
She took a few steps closer to the window, shrugged, and answered me this way: Since they weren't the Hatfields and McCoys, she said, and since I knew the boy who lived there and he wanted to be an artist in the city like me, then they all must be good people, she said, especially living so close to the Frederick Douglass Museum.
I wanted to throw back my head. God she was so naïve! And precious. "They dress nicely, too," she said.
My parents were dressed up for a wake! Some old lady they knew had died. It was the first time in ten years they had dressed up and left by the front door together.
I stepped closer to the window with her and watched Mom and Dad get into our old car and back out of the alley. Then I turned to her. In a few minutes, I'd never see her again, and Granddad's biggest lesson for me was to take risks in life.
"I can show you their house," I said.
She spun around and gave me a dark look.
"What, you just go into their house when they're not home?"
I nodded as coolly as I could. "He and I are good friends," I said.
"He must really be your good friend," she said.
I nodded again, and she stood studying me. I made it clear with my eyes that I wasn't trying to do anything funny with her, or whatever she thought. But when she turned, opened the front door, and stepped out onto the sunny sidewalk, that I figured was the end of it. I'd never see her again anyway, just as I already knew. She peered down the street, then came back in saying her group was on the grassy area, watching a reenactment. Then she gave me a long look, shut the door, and slowly came closer, folding her arms and looking down at the floor.
"How long will this take?" she said.
I notched the "Back in 15" sign in the window, locked the door as instructed, and we started across the street.
Walking beside her, I became aware of her entirely unfamiliar presence. It seemed that city girls walked our hilly streets without any balance. Still, she moved quickly, eager to go wherever I led her.
Along the way, she asked me my name. Hers was Alexandria.
"Alexandria," I said, smiling.
Before I knew it, we were well into the junk heaps, cobwebs, and dog dirt around my house. When I looked over to see her reaction, she didn't seem disgusted.
"This is limestone?" she said, looking up at the house. Most houses in town, she added, were brick.
My father had made this point years ago, when Mom tried to talk him into selling.
"Is that bamboo?" she said, craning her neck.
It was indeed, and she surprised me by knowing. Dad had planted it there on a whim, and it took. Whenever I went up these steps, all I saw were the rusted raingutters, rotten boards, and mud wasp nests.
When we stepped off the third-floor landing and into the house, I watched her eyes look around at the bare, unpainted walls--hand-troweled in places--low ceilings, and small, cottage-like windows.
"It reminds me of a colonial house," she said, with an excited light in her eyes.
She started out into the hallway, ducking under the low ceiling.
"You're the first person ever in this house," I said from behind, stopping her.
She turned and looked at me.
"Besides me, I mean."
Putting her hands on her hips and cocking her head, she gave me a smile of disbelief.
"The first?" she said. "Oh, come on."
"Seriously," I said.
She cocked her head the other way.
Again I nodded, but I couldn't tell whether she believed me or not.
On the stairs down to the second floor, she said she had read that many houses in town were made of wood scraped from the 18th century river barges, when the railway became the dominant mode of transport.
She stopped again.
"This house should be open to tourists," she said.
It was perfect in its unpreserved look. Rustic beauty, she also called it.
"Has your friend's family ever thought of this?" she asked.
I wanted to choke on the thought, gag it up as preposterous, but all I could do was both shrug and nod, and pretend not to be stunned.
On the second floor, I watched with a smile as she made a beeline for my mother's antique spinning wheel--then practically darted to the window.
Outside my window was the famous view, the mountains and converging rivers of the Jeffersonian Watergap, a view pictured in all the history books, in every classroom in the country, including hers, I was sure. Merewether Lewis, Robert Harper, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass himself--all had come through this, nature's door to the east. Just 68 miles in that direction, as impossible as it always seemed, was our Nation's Capitol: all the world's most recognizable, beautiful, and symbolic buildings, statues, and paintings. And this door sat open and waiting for me. Either that or to tease me to death every day for the rest of my life.
"Oh, he's so lucky!" she cried out. "Growing up with such beauty around him!"
"Who?" I said, sounding jealous.
She looked at me.
I stood waiting for her to throw her arms around me instead, for lack of anyone else. It was what the moment nearly called for.
There was one floor left. The downstairs was my father's Alamo, what I called the living room where Dad kept his gun collection. We headed down. When she caught sight of all the barrels and stocks, she stopped, her foot in midair.
"A Henry derringer," she said, pointing.
"You know guns?"
"No, they have one just like it down in the museum near the river."
She stepped into the center of the room, where surrounding her on the walls were guns--at least two dozen of them. Newer shotguns: 10- and 12-gauges--double-barreled, sawed-off, full-choke, modified choke. Older rifles: Remington .22s and Winchester .30-30s. Meaner-looking guns: a Browning automatic and a M-1 carbine, with big clips. And more older guns, from a 1689 flintlock musket made somewhere in England to a 1921 Lansing fowling piece last owned by Howard Taft's granddaughter, supposedly. Even a black powder pistol.
"So this all is on display?" she asked, turning to me.
I stood looking at her.
I burst out laughing, sounding coarse and ugly under our low, dingy ceiling.
"What?" she asked, giving me the same curious grin.
"Nothing," I said, looking away.
She went on looking around, spotting an old happy picture of my parents I hardly ever noticed anymore. Then she circled the Texas Longhorn chair Dad had fixed up. She noticed, too, my mother's brass pentagram altar candle holder. Her eyes latched hold of all the odd knickknacks, plus more--the Steve McQueen poster my father insisted on standing up behind the TV, the whistle he had carved out of a bar of Ivory soap, the bongos I had made out of bleach bottles and oatmeal boxes, and my mother's blanket embroidered with images of Harpers Ferry and draped over the rocker like art.
"What a neat place! This," she said, "should be a museum."
I whirled and looked at her as if she was out of her mind.
"I wish I grew up here," she said.
I choked back all my disbelief and somehow managed a casual voice.
"I don't know--I admire them."
"You admire them?"
"Yeah, I don't know, they don't care what anybody thinks of them. That takes . . . courage."
"But he hides in here," I said.
She turned and looked at me.
"Hides? Who? Your friend?"
"Yeah, my stupid friend!"
"Well," she said, "he doesn't really need to go anywhere anyway, not with that view." She stood pointing out the front window at the view of the rivers coming together in a swirl of greens. Any artist who lived here and saw that view everyday, she said, was destined to produce work akin to William T. Richards's Adirondack landscapes. Where she was from, she went on to say, all there were, were small, boring apartments with windows painted shut and views of a brick wall or a trashcan in the alley.
"Pigeons and chain link fence everywhere," she said, in a voice that again sounded sad.
I stood looking around the walls of the prison I had grown up in.
"A museum?" I said.
"Oh, look!" she burst out, pointing through my front window at another angle. "He's looking at us."
I followed her arm to see beyond the weeds and trees around my house and through the big front window of the museum across the street, where the giant sepia print of Frederick Douglass, which had kept me company all morning, was looking back at us. From our angle we could make out part of the long quote underneath.
She read the first line.
"Who would be free themselves must strike the blow . . ."
I read the second.
"This is your golden opportunity."
Copyright © 1999-2008 by Amarillo Bay. All rights reserved.