By: Anna Sharp
Once, when I was still small enough to think her manic days were a treat, my mother woke me up on a September Tuesday and told me she was taking me to Chicago instead of to school. A Mental Health Day, she called it, though whether hers or mine wasn’t clear.
This was the first time I saw the city. We spent the first stretch of the two-hour drive playing the phobia game, a family favorite. It went something like this:
That one didn’t make her laugh like the others had. After we reached zipperaphobia I tried to count the windmills as we drove by, but there were too many and the car was too fast and all the spinning blades made my eyes heavy like hypnosis.
The first thing we did in the city was eat breakfast in the first café we could find, a smoky place with pink wallpaper. Mother ordered coffee and pancakes for each of us, and she slapped her hand on the table and laughed when I spit out my first sip of the bitter, brown liquid. The waitress brought us our pancakes topped with whipped cream, which my mother smeared onto her upper lip like a Frenchman’s mustache.
“Parlez-vous Français?” she asked me in a deep voice, leaning over her plate so that the whipped cream added a beard to her chin. I had never seen her so light before.
We took a train to the Art Institute, and I sat in the window seat staring down at the streets we passed over. A few stops before ours I noticed a man come onto the train. He was obviously blind, clicking at the ground with his red-tipped cane. I had never been so close to a blind person before, and I stared at him freely knowing he couldn’t see me. His eyes were a shocking milky blue against his crinkled dark brown skin. I wondered if they had always been that color. My mother leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I bet he can feel you staring at him even though he can’t see it.” She sat back and raised her eyebrows at me. I couldn’t tell if she was serious, but it was time for us to get off the train so I let it go.
Walking out of the station she kept pulling my hat down over my eyes, but I couldn’t reach hers even when I jumped. We entered the museum and removed our hats. She knelt down so I could smooth out her hair, which was long and auburn and smelled like roses even though it usually smelled like smoke. I realized I hadn’t seen her with a cigarette in several weeks.
I had an uncle, my father’s youngest brother, who worked at the museum. Mother asked around about him, going through several people until one gave her a clear answer. He was out of his office until noon. She decided we would wait, leaving us two hours to explore the museum.
It wasn’t crowded, but we spoke to each other in whispers out of reverence for the art. This was a habit we had developed together when exploring the one art museum in our hometown after I got out of school most Fridays. There was a form of hide and seek we played sometimes in the museum at home where one of us would choose a work of art, give the other a hint, then go wait by the piece until the hint was deciphered. The museum staff knew us and let us play this game, but I doubted we would be allowed to do it here. The atmosphere was more formal, and I wasn’t familiar with the art anyway.
There was a special exhibition of Japanese art that I particularly liked. There were traditional woodblock prints with mountains and samurai and women in beautiful kimonos. Alongside these were more modern ceramic works, which my mother studied for a long time. Then there were the fans. Painted with delicate flowers and landscape scenes, these were my favorite part of the exhibit.
We went into the gift shop, even though my mother grumbled about capitalism and the commodification of art, and I picked out a replica of a Japanese fan to take home as a souvenir. It had a design of orange koi fish and I folded and unfolded it to make them shrink and grow.
At noon we went to my uncle’s office as planned. His name was Harry, and he was my favorite uncle. In my father’s family of no-nonsense manly men, Harry was the odd one out. He was soft-spoken and kind, more inclined to hugs than handshakes, and he dressed almost exclusively in thick wool sweaters. Even at my grandmother’s funeral he had not worn a suit. At family holiday parties he and my mother would often sit on a couch talking for the entire evening. She was always trying out some new art form, and Harry was always interested in her progress. I liked to sit with them and listen to him talk about the new exhibits that came to the museum—the paintings carefully unwrapped and hung on the walls. He would speak about a work of art so gently, like it was a woman he loved. I was too young to understand that my mother had become that woman. All I knew was that Uncle Harry seemed to understand us both.
Harry appeared surprised to see Mother and me, but he greeted us with hugs like usual. He wore a deep green sweater and smelled of muffins, laughing when I told him this. After a few minutes my mother asked me to leave the room because she needed to talk to Uncle Harry alone. I sat outside the door playing with my fan and listening to my mother and Harry whisper to each other just like she and I had in the galleries. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, so I got up to walk around. Walking past one office I noticed a framed Japanese fan hanging on the wall. Painted with snowy mountains, it was more beautiful than those I had seen in the exhibit.
“Do you like my fan?” a voice from behind me asked.
I spun around to find a silver haired man smiling down at me. I replied that I did like his fan, that it was more beautiful than the fans in the gallery. I showed him my fan with its fish, opening it and fluttering it against my face like I had seen in movies.
“I like your fan, too,” he told me. “Can I frame it on my wall?”
Unsure if he meant it, I simply shook my head.
“Well then, can I at least take your picture with it?”
I considered this. “Why?”
He paused a moment before saying, “Because you are very beautiful and so is your fan. And I like beautiful things. That’s why I work in an art museum.”
It was the first time a man had ever called me beautiful. I had always been a girl more inclined to roundness. None of the boys at school talked to me unless they were teasing me. I agreed to let the man take my picture.
I sat on his desk, peeping out from behind the fan. He backed away, studying me.
“Something is off,” he said, and coming up to me he began to unbutton my blouse. I knew this was wrong, but I couldn’t move. I could barely even breathe. He reached the fourth button and stopped, pushing the top of the shirt down onto my shoulders so my skin was bare from the collarbone up. His fingers felt like spiders crawling across my skin. The man smiled. He was so close I could smell the peanut butter and cigarette smoke on his breath.
“There. That’s better.”
Because I still couldn’t bring myself to move he positioned my hands to where I was holding the fan spread fully in front of my chest. Just as the man was about to take the picture my mother walked past the room looking for me. Her face was flushed but it turned pale when she saw what was happening. Darting into the man’s office, she ripped the fan out of my hands and began hitting him with it, yelling, “How dare you! How dare you!” She threw the fan across the room, pulling me out of there by the hand. I hurried along behind her trying to button my blouse with my free hand.
When we reached the stairwell my mother fell to her knees crying and fumbling to help me fix my shirt.
“I’m so sorry, my darling. So sorry. I should never have left you alone.” She brushed my hair away from my face.
“I’m so selfish. This is all my fault.” She finished securing the top button of my blouse.
“Did he hurt you? Why didn’t you call for me? Oh darling please say no, please please please say something.” She kissed me on the forehead.
I shook my head. I still couldn’t find my voice. My mother let out her breath in response.
“I’m sorry about your fan.” She looked away. “But I’m not sure you would have still wanted it anyway.”
We waited for the train in silence, and when it came I noticed some of the passengers stepping off wore pained expressions on their faces and a man’s loud voice drifted out through the doors. Stepping onto the train I saw that the voice came from the blind man I had stared at on the ride to the Art Institute. He was standing up, leaning on his red-tipped cane, and speaking in an endless stream of words.
“Brothers and sisters the end is coming and you must be prepared!”
“Have you made your peace with the Father? For if you have not you will surely burn. Burn, my brothers and sisters, in the never-ending fires of Hell.”
“I have spoken to Jesus and he wants you to repent. Repent! Repent and he will open his arms to you and take you in, for you are his sheep.”
Most of the passengers in the train kept their eyes on their feet, but several nodded along with the blind man’s words. My mother had her face in her hands, shaking her head from time to time and mumbling to herself like the blind man. Gradually she stopped and looked up, listening to the man rant about Heaven and Hell.
The train reached our stop, but she didn’t move to get off even when I nudged her. She just glanced at me and said, “Shhh,” before turning back to watch the preaching man. We rode the train until it reached the end of the line. Before stepping off my mother went to the blind man and took his hand briefly between her palms. He didn’t stop his speech, but he did place his other hand on top of hers.
My mother didn’t believe in spiritual matters so I don’t know why she sat there listening to the blind man preach for so long. When I challenged her about this in the car she stared straight ahead at the receding rows of windmills and said, “Darling, I may not believe in God but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in people.” I forgot about this response until years later.
In any case, she never took me with her to Chicago again.