“The Lonely Museum” – Part 1

The Museum of Natural History opened promptly every morning at 10 a.m. The head curator stood with his hand hovering over the key (already in the lock) and his eyes on the second hand of his reliable watch, which was set to Greenwich Mean Time. Even in this day and age of high-speed, one click advances in technology, he preferred the reliability of his watch.

At precisely ten, the click of the lock echoed throughout the fifteen-foot entry way. There was a sense of ceremony to the sound. A sound that came from a definitive action which resulted in greatness. Because this was a great museum.

His museum was great.

He relished the consistency of his morning routine. He would depart his office at precisely 9:45 and head toward the front door. His dark suit pressed, he ran his hand down the lapels, partially because it had become habit, mostly he liked to think it was a sort of good luck charm, the way he smoothed the cloth.

His shoes echoed in the empty hallways as he walked. He’d heard others describe him as stoic, and he rather liked that. He didn’t think he was very stoic, to him that would involve a particular sense of courage he felt he lacked. Still, he tried to walk the way he thought a stoic man might, his back ramrod straight, shoulders back, head held high.

His head bobbed from side to side has he walked, always on the lookout for imperfections in his staff’s readiness. A falter in the clap clap clap of his step, and a glance in the direction of the offending staff member, was all the communication given. Once the problem was eradicated, the curator would continue where he left off. The clap clap clap of his echoing shoes notating his progression.

He tried for a steely stare at the offense, but knew it came across more empty than anything else. He’d caught the same glimpse reflected back at himself enough to know he did not have it in him to do steel; but he could do empty. Perhaps it was the same thing.

*

 At 10:15, the school field trippers began to arrive. It was at this time, on a blustery Wednesday morning, docent Martha Stein could be found waiting in Hell. “Hell” was the lovingly poetic name given to a sterile side street entrance where school children were channeled in from buses, so as to not be a nuisance to full paying visitors. School children, being ghastly rambunctious creatures (according to the head curator), should be shielded from as many patrons as possible. Thus, the side entrance of Hell.

Martha took a deep breath, soothed her short brown hair, tugged at the collar of her maroon jacket and pulled at her skirt. Spine straight, she counted to three and tried to find some peace in the momentary quiet.

Unable to wait any longer, she pushed the door open and screams from the outside world assaulted her. A frantic teacher was busy giving directions, nearby traffic clattered and honked past. The bus, finally empty of its precious cargo, hissed its door closed and squealed as it pulled into the traffic.

“Mrs. Smith?” Martha asked, pasting a smile into place.

The teacher whipped her head around and started through Martha for several seconds until she recalled that indeed, she was Mrs. Smith, and she needed to speak so she could get this gaggle of dear students into the museum.

“Yes, yes. I’m Mrs. Smith. And this is the Potter Street Elementary School’s third grade class.” She preened proudly as she waved toward the short, motley colored group pressing themselves up against the wall in an attempt to be ‘good’.

“I’m Martha, I’ll be your docent today. Let’s go inside and we’ll get started.” She held the door as Mrs. Smith instructed her class move inside. Martha watched as the third graders sneezed, giggled, mumbled, and drunkenly stumbled through the door.

Martha was glad for her practiced plaster of a smile she was able to hold in place, no matter how her insides were scrunching up in disgust. The last parent volunteer, bringing up the rear, crossed the threshold with an apologetic smile. (Already.) Not a good sign in Martha’s book.

Martha didn’t move right away, still holding the door open. She thought for several seconds about leaving. Just let door shut and head down the street. She could do it. Who knows what adventure might await her if she just left.

The pull of a paycheck that could do things like pay electricity and rent and food won out in the end. Just as it always did. Martha glanced lovingly at the idea as it passed her and continued without her down the street, twirling up a group of leaves in its wake. With a sigh she turned and entered the waiting room of Hell, moving to stand in the middle.

Mrs. Smith insisted the gnarly infestation of children gather around Martha. As they encircled her, Martha thought of the way chimpanzees hunt monkeys – just like this.

The excited third graders buzzed, fidgeted, rustled, and hummed with the excitement of being outside the classroom. Mrs. Smith, raised her voice, “We are going to give our tour guide Miss Megan?” Mrs. Smith glanced at Martha in question.

“Martha.” She corrected.

“We’re going to give Miss Martha all our attention and we are going to be on our best behavior today.”

Martha wondered if it was a statement of fact or wishful thinking on Mrs. Smith’s part.

“You don’t look like a Martha.” One boy said.

“Todd, David, Scott.” Mrs. Smith hissed the name of the questioner and the two boys he was standing next to, then moved to stand by the trio.

It was a teacher tactic Martha knew well. The most likely offenders would be kept close to the teacher. They would not act up today. Not on Mrs. Smith watch.

“I’m named after my great grandmother,” Martha said and then turned her attention to the whole group and applied her excited docent voice. “Good morning. I’m Martha and I’m going to be your tour guide today.”

She lied in her job interview. When asked what she thought of kids, she had glowingly exclaimed, “love ‘em.” The truth? She hated kids. Okay, maybe hate was a strong word. She just didn’t seem to care for them. Or care about them.

And today of all days, the little hobbits seemed worse than usual. Of course, that might be because each twitch, each little face, each little head, little hand, little backpack – none of it would allow her to push aside the fear she was trying to ignore this morning: that her birth control might not have worked.

The last thing she wanted to do was have that conversation with her boyfriend of three months. No, that wasn’t the last thing she wanted to do. The last thing she wanted to do was become a mom. In the lineup on her family tree, mothers did not have very good track record of being responsible. Or loving. Or around.

“We are going to have some amazing adventures today. Let me ask you this,” she leaned closer to the group for emphasis, “anyone have any ideas how to get rid of a boyfriend and a baby?” She resisted the urge to spout the honest words and instead went with her usual question, “Have any of you ever wanted to hear a real live dinosaur roar?”

The comment caught the little monster’s attention. It always did.

She wiped the thoughts of birth control and boyfriend away with a swipe of her hand through her hair as she leaned even closer and whispered. “Today, I need you to pay close attention, because at some point, you’re probably going to hear a dinosaur roar.” She straightened and began walking backwards; the one thing she did do well. Of course, in the interview there was never a time when she could have said, “look I’m not great with kids, but I can walk backwards and talk and point like a damn pro.” And then again, what good is that sort of skill? It was a skill needed to be a docent, she supposed, but not much else.

“We’ll start in the Hall of Biodiversity.” She said.

A few groans of disappointment rustled but they were quickly doused by Mrs. Smith’s throat clearing that meant something along the line of ‘shape up’.

“I know, that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But I think you’re going to like this. Biodiversity means a whole bunch of different life forms in an ecosystem. We’re going to see a recreation of a life-size Rainforest. We get to experience the sounds, sights and even the smells of the Rainforest.”

As she talked and walked, the shuffling pygmies crept toward her and the frazzled teacher snapped her fingers freakishly loud to keep the nearest troublemaker’s attention, or portray the message that she was watching and they wouldn’t get away with a damn thing.

*

Sara shook her head, what the hell had Ben just said to her?

A gaggle of school children interrupted them. The tour guide of the group was saying something about life in the Rainforest and how it needed to be protected and how the conservation efforts of the museum since the day it opened was helping but the kids could help to, of course the rest of the tour guides words were lost. Sara was still struggling to sift through the onslaught of information that mingled with the murmurs of the school kids and the shadowed echo of what Ben had just said. She couldn’t quite understand anything at this point, with the other words rushing through her brain, it felt like a ticker tape screaming announcements.

Ben stood with his hands clasped behind his back and was looking down at his shoes. That was the sign of a man who had just said what she thought he said.

Sara tried to filter the attack of emotions as they poured through her and was actually glad Ben’s declaration had been obscured by the school children, especially since she was pretty sure he said something along the lines of “I met a man, we’re in love, he proposed and we’re getting married.”

It took a good ten minutes. Mostly because the school children were asking questions about snakes and spiders and arguing that the Amazon river should be found in Africa because they both start with the letter ‘a’. The youthful driven questioning became tedious. Any other day, Sara would have found it cute and endearing, but right now she was trying to tune out the information and focus on one thing.

“I met a man and we’re in love and we’re getting married.”

The tour guide wrapped up the conversation and signaled for her group to continue moving onto the next room. Sara waited until the hall emptied before she looked at Ben again.

He swallowed hard and took a step toward her, his hands outstretched. Sara took a step back. She wasn’t sure she wanted any of those words repeated in the middle of a reconstructed Rainforest, with piped in birds chirping and a giant fern in front of them.

“Sara, I’m gay. I met a man…he’s so amazing. He asked me to marry him and I said yes.” Ben declared once more.

“Have you told mom?” She didn’t know what else to say.

She had an idea when they were younger that he was gay. But he grew into his awkward body and began to play sports and date girls. So after those childhood thoughts, she never actually thought…well, she never thought any more about it.

“Have you told her?” She repeated though she knew the answer was no. If he had told their mother, she would have been on the phone to Sara giving one of her more popular woe-is-me sermons.

Ben sat down on a bench that faced the rain forest. He stretched his neck and thought the weight of the world might have just slipped from his shoulders.

It wasn’t that bad of a spot for contemplation, he thought. He hadn’t been the kind of person who would sit and contemplate exhibits, so he thought perhaps the point of it all was lost on him. But in this moment, it was rather lovely. Then again, that could be the tension slipping out of his joints. The tension and fear of coming out to his older sister was gone. Granted, she still hadn’t reacted, but she hadn’t walked out on him either.

“I haven’t told mom yet.” He said, “of course I haven’t told her, she’s Jewish.”

Sara sat down next to her brother and took his hand in hers. “When’s the big day?” She tried to focus on the positive. He had finally found his own truth. That still didn’t mean she wasn’t breaking inside for ridiculously selfish reasons.

She was hurt that this was the first she was hearing about this. If he met a man and was getting married, it wasn’t some guy he met two or three days ago. This was a relationship. This was someone he’d known for quite a while. This was part of himself he kept from her.

What else didn’t Sara know about her baby brother?

*

“Ohh they’re gonna kiss!!” Billy Donovan exclaimed in his changing high pitch squeal of a voice as he pointed to the couple standing near the other end of the Hall of African Mammals.

You would think it would be the herd of elephants in the center of the hall, poised in their eternal, life-like march that would have caught the attention of the students. But that just proved what Martha knew about kids: not a lot.

Mrs. Smith shushed the boy, but already a few more of the class had begun to make gagging sounds.

The couple at the center of the attention glanced blandly at Billy but didn’t seem to mind the comment. Of course, they were well past their adolescent years, so they didn’t see the problem.

Martha was about to lose the class. She wasn’t sure there was any coming back from human nature on parade. She was as opposed to seeing the kiss as Bill was excited for it. Martha didn’t want to see the explosion of passion that obviously bubbled under the surface of the thirty-something aged couple. So she was grateful when the couple moved toward the next hall, leaving Mrs. Smith’s third grade class to the giant oval room encircled by dioramas of African animals in their natural habitat.

“Welcome to the Hall of African Mammals.” Martha announced loudly. “There are twenty-eight dioramas in this room. Can anyone tell me what a diorama is?”

“When do we hear the dinosaurs?” One of the students asked.

“I want to eat lunch.” Another exclaimed.

“I don’t want to go this way, I want to go the other way?”

“I wanted to see them kiss.” Billy Donovan announced and melted into a gale of laughter with his friends.

Martha turned her back to her tour group and let her forced smile melt for a few moments.

January there was the snow, she took her birth control. February was the Museum Gala, she took her pills then. March was…a blur. She tried to find a solid memory of the past month, one she could correlate to taking her birth control and she just couldn’t find one.

The sickening feeling crept up once more.

It was nothing, she forced herself to be calm. It was a cold or worry. Not morning sickness.

There was no problem here.

*

They weren’t going to kiss. Well, maybe they were. All T.J. knew was that he couldn’t get enough of Ali. He couldn’t get close enough. He couldn’t look at her long enough. He couldn’t get enough of her scent.

He pulled her out of the hall, away from the disturbance and after rounding several more corners, they tripped into the Hall of Ocean Life. A quick scan of the exhibit, it was darkened and romantic and empty. T.J. pushed Ali up against a nearby wall and kissed her. She sighed into his mouth and T.J. came undone.

Ali wrapped her arms around his neck and held on for dear life. What was happening to her? Every kiss confused her. Sated her, excited her.

“I need to work.” She whispered when she finally was able to pull away from him for a moment.

“Why? Let’s go back to the hotel.” He whispered and nibbled on her ear.

Another sigh. What was happening to her? She wasn’t the swooning sort. She wasn’t even the romantic type. She mockingly wrote about such women, but she wasn’t one of them. “This is the only time he has to do the interview.” She tried to dislodge herself, “I thought you said you could get some sketches done while I did the interview.”

“It seemed like a good reason to take a trip.” T.J.’s voice rumbled softly against her cheek.

This trip. What the hell were they thinking? They were thinking they were in love and they were an artist and a writer and they could put aside the passion for their work. Only the lines had blurred so early on, the lines of passion and art and work and love and all of it.

“Call him and cancel.” T.J. whispered.

“It’s almost eleven. And this is the only time he has for the next two months. And it’s important to me.” She kissed the side of his neck.

T.J. nodded his head and used every ounce of control he had to pull away from Ali, “Work. We promised not to compromise our work.”

“And then he says shit like that and the spell is broken.” She laughed.

“Fine,” He grinned, “go do your interview. I’ll go find something to sketch.”

She turned to leave him but he caught her hand and pulled her back for one more kiss.

“Tonight.” He said. It was a promise that held more than he had the ability to verbalize.

“Ah, to be in love and lustfully stupid.” She whispered back.

When they found their bearings enough to part once more, Ali did a strange twirl of steps trying to figure out where they were and how to get where she was going.

“Into the breach!” She called with a wave of her hand to the room once she figured out where she was going.

“Damn writers.” He called after her.

He watched her go, touched a finger to his lips and inhaled. She continued to leave a faint shadow of memories imprinted on his skin. He did the same bearing gathering twirl she had done and then noticed an older woman, gray hair tied in a bun atop her head, sitting on a bench across the room. He thought they were alone. Of course he hadn’t really looked that hard when they first come into the hall.

“Oh, I’m sorry…” He was going to make an excuse but the woman grinned and held up her hand.

“I understand.” She called out.

T.J. took several wobbly steps. He had wanted to go the other direction, to follow the scent of Ali. He walked away from it instead. “I can’t help it.” He admitted as he got closer to the woman.

“How old are you?” She asked.

“Thirty-six.” T.J. answered, he thought maybe it was a strange question, but he spent his life asking strangers if he could sketch them, so he wasn’t certain.

“It’s a strange thing,” the older woman said and looked in the direction Ali had disappeared, “a wonderful thing.” She corrected herself, “to fall in love later. Teenage love is well and good, and falling in love when you’re twenty is how they did things in my day…but falling in love when you’ve got some life under your belt…” She nodded her head in approval, “that’s something. A horse of a different color, as my husband liked to say.”

T.J. smiled, “Ali would love you.”

The woman raised an eyebrow in question.

“Ali,” he pointed in the direction she’d gone, “she’s a writer and she loves people who talk poetically. You talk poetically.” He explained. But it was more than that. The woman sat with her back straight, prim and proper. She wore maroon slacks, a white blouse, demure jewelry and a black sweater. But there was a mischievous glimmer in her eye.

“I bet you have some stories.” He said and tilted his head, already doing a character study of her. “Did you find love later in life?”

“For our generation it was considered later. It’s interesting isn’t it? You don’t have to fight the ridiculousness of immaturity. You have your own history without another person defining you. You’re a whole person, you’re more…substantial.” Her voice faded and she started across the room, glancing at ghosts as they passed.

T.J.’s cell phone rang then, he took it out to silence it, and to make sure it wasn’t Ali. He planned on declining the call, but it was his gallery in Los Angeles. He’d been ignoring them for two weeks now and they had started calling several times a day.

“I’m sorry, I need to take this. It was lovely talking to you.” He said.

The woman nodded, “Nice talking with you too, young man.”

He answered the phone and walked out of the hall.

*

Betty wished the young man didn’t have to rush off. She thought she might enjoy talking to him. Instead, she took a long sip of her coffee.

Betty took her morning coffee every Monday and Thursday in the Museum of Natural History. She purchased her cup of black coffee with one sugar just around the corner at precisely 10:30 and then she made her way to the museum. Although outside food and drink were not allowed in the building, Betty held herself to special circumstances. She wasn’t just any patron. She was a member of the museum society, a volunteer, and her husband, God rest his soul, had been a janitor at this museum from age 15 to 28, before they’d married.

She loved the museum and always chose a different area to sit and have her coffee. Even though her kids didn’t understand why she chose to spend her retirement years in the museum, moments like this one validated it.

She liked the people she was privy to watch, the people she interacted with. And she felt close to her husband here.

If truth be told, she actually came to the museum so she didn’t have to be alone. She found when she was alone in her apartment she constantly thought one question: Now what? Now what was she supposed to do?

Out of the house, however, she had purpose. Her mind filled with the thoughts of others while she people watched. And that nagging little question, now what, dissipated for awhile.

And she really did feel closer to her husband here, in the museum they both loved so much. And she felt more at home here than anywhere else.

This morning she had choose the Hall of Ocean life to take her coffee. The room was womb like, she always thought. Perfect temperature, a bit cool, and dim lighting with soft blue accents around the edges set off the humidity controlled hall. There was a constant bubbling of water, a meditative sound. And filling the whole of the ceiling was a blue whale that looked as if it were trying to surface through the roof in order to take a breath.

Giggles of delight echoed off the high ceiling as a group of school children shuffled into the Hall of Ocean Life. Betty grinned, oh how she loved children, hers were grown now and immersed in their own lives.

Three boys stood behind what could only be their teacher and snickered and gestured in their secret language to each other. Betty’s smile increased, children needed a little mischief, it was good for their souls and for their development. The ocean, she grinned, not much would really interest them except the giant blue whale hanging from the ceiling.

“Welcome to the Hall of Ocean Life.” The docent’s voice echoed among her small audience.” Did you know that the ocean covers more than two-thirds of the planet? And under the sea, there are many different habitats.”

Betty took a sip of her coffee and studied the docent. The woman had been here a while and was one of the better guides in the museum, but Betty couldn’t remember her name. Mary, Margaret? She knew it started with an ‘M’.

“Above our heads, you’ve already noticed the Blue Whale swimming across the ceiling. He’s 94 feet long, that’s bigger than the school bus that brought you here today.”

The docent wouldn’t linger too long with the children in this room, Betty thought. The docent knew how small their attention spans were and how big their build-up of fidgeting energy was. The woman would offer a few interesting bits of information, then keep them moving.

The docent was so good with them. Betty was certain she must have kids of her own. After a few choice facts were called out to the class, the docent pointed her group onward.

Two little girls hadn’t heard anything that was being said. Their attention was on the giant whale hanging in diving form above their heads. Heads craned backward, eyes wide, mouths open in awe, they stared at the blue whale as it came to life in their heads.

Daisy Pickers. That’s what Betty’s husband would have called the girls, or called any child who let the world around them become a giant daydream. Not that he meant it in a bad way, he loved the Daisy Pickers the most. Those were the ones who were lucky enough to live several different lifetimes.

“Girls.” The teacher bringing up the rear called out to the girls. “It’s time to go. Say goodbye to the whale.”

One of the girls looked over at Betty as she found her bearings and came back into the reality of the world around her. She stared at Betty for several seconds. The teacher’s attention was caught by three boys who had taken the opportunity of not being the center of attention, and took off running across the hall.

“Boys!” The sound echoed through the hall.

Betty smiled and waved to the young girl who was still staring at her. The girl gave a shy smile and waved back. The teacher, having gathered the boys, called the girls to join her, “Melody, Izzy, come on girls.”

Melody.

Betty’s heart leapt at the name.

Melody, a little baby girl.

It’s a girl. And then trouble, no heart beat, no signs of life.

Betty shook her head and pushed the memories away, made it go away with all the others. She wouldn’t do this today, not in her sanctuary.

No thoughts about a husband gone too early, or a baby stillborn. None of that. She steadied her breathing and glanced back up at the belly of the whale that had caught the daydreaming Melody’s attention.

This time was for drinking coffee Betty reminded herself. She relaxed into the moment again, closed her eyes, and concentrated on the noise of the grade school children as they loudly tromped away. She thought for a moment about trying to find that young man and bother him some more.

*

“Here we are!” Mrs. Smith called, she held her arms open wide, keeping an imaginary force field around the five students she was steering as they joined the rest of the group once again.

Martha smiled at the teacher. Of course, what she really wanted to do was flip the woman off. In the momentary absence of their teacher, Martha had been surrounded by the snotty question machines who’d gotten off the rails after the first two questions.

“Do you have any kids?”

“Do you know everything about the Museum?”

“How do you know everything about the museum?”

“When do we get to eat lunch?”

“What time is it?”

“I want to sit down.”

“When do we get to hear the dinosaurs?”

“Do you live in the museum?”

“Why do you live in the museum?”

“I have a dog.”

“My grandma and grandpa have a dog.”

“We’re not allowed to have dogs.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?” Giggles after the last question.

Martha gritted her teeth, the fake smile beginning to slip.

“Alright, everyone. That’s enough.” Mrs. Smith demanded and the cacophony of unanswered questions fell to the floor.

Martha took a steadying breath. “I always thought moose were kind of ridiculous animals.” She said and felt a bit of her control coming back  as she slipped into the memorized script, “until I saw a moose up close. If you’ll follow me into this next room, you’ll see two very large Alaskan Moose in the middle of a fight. And let me tell you something. There’s nothing silly about these moose.”

They entered the Hall of North American Mammals and a wave of relief washed over Martha. Each hall she crossed off her tour was one step closer to being done with Mrs. Smith’s third grade class and this day.

*

Sean thought this museum was the loudest library in the world. Actually, he’d heard that somewhere before, but he could never remember where. And he thought it every time he stood in this very spot. So it had become an ingrained internal commentary, and he often wondered if he should try to break the habit or try to figure out who originally made the comment.

He heard the school children before he saw them. But wasn’t that always the way? He heard the shuffle of the feet, the shushing sounds from a teacher and other parent helpers. And he heard the docents voice, a warning to anyone who might want to retreat before the group arrived.

Sean smiled and tilted his head, he continued to study his brown bears. He had been part of a four-man team that had spent an entire year refurbishing the animals. At the end of twelve months, these bears had become his. His team had painstakingly painted the faded fur of the bears so that they would come to life once more. And come to life they had. Often, while he was brushing the fur with a small tooth brush or painting his bears, one strand of hair at a time (in order to even out the fading), he thought of Michelangelo who went crazy working on his statue of Moses. The story went that when Michelangelo finished the Moses sculpture, he went mad because Moses did not come to life and talk to him. If Sean remembered correctly, Michelangelo took one of his tools and started hitting the statue. Another fact he’d have to look up, either way, Sean understood how that sort of madness could have settled in.

How often had he thought his bears had flexed, or flinched while he was working? How often had he stopped mid-stroke and waited, because he was certain there had been movement?

He held a clipboard and continued to meticulously dissect each section of the diorama. This was the last check he would make, his final report that the restoration was complete. It wasn’t needed, this last check. But Sean needed it. The perfectionist in him needed it.

“Welcome to the Hall of North American Mammals.” He heard the announcement come from the docent as she herded her group.

Sean glanced over his shoulder and saw Martha followed by the shuffling class as they entered the dimly lit hall. There was an audible ‘ohh’ from the group.

This was the power of his hall, he thought. It wasn’t some digital world. It wasn’t presented on a video screen. It was dramatically lit, each diorama. Each flood lit display might be encased in glass, but there was a real life texture that intimidated viewers; that caught their attention and ignited imagination. This was the source of their power.

He looked back at his bears. Power indeed. The detail of the painted landscapes behind each of the animals, the recreation of foliage and natural habitat that had been seen to, and the positioning of the animals in their recreated habitats was something that was impossible to do in two-dimensional form.

Sean felt antiquated sometimes, when he tried to express these thoughts, but as he watched the wide eyes and slack jaws of viewers, the momentary silencing effect that the dioramas still had after all these years, after all the technological advances…well, this was the power he tried to express.

The students stood in front of a pair of giant, impressive Alaskan male moose caught in the middle of combat.

“What do you think is going on here?” Martha asked.

“Duh, they’re fighting.” One of the students answered. The student was quickly hushed and reprimanded by the teacher.

“That’s right, they are fighting. Does anyone know why?”

There were several guesses. They were mad at each other. They just liked to fight.

The docent pointed to a female moose in the corner of the diorama, “They are actually fighting over this female moose.” She said.

There were snickers and one of the kids commented on the grossness of that idea. Sean was glad he had his back to the group and didn’t worry about holding back a chuckle. To be that innocent again, he thought. He recalled looking at life that simply. Actually, there was still an element of that left. It was part of his process, part of his art. He was glad he’d protected his childlike wonder so fiercely, it had served him well in his life.

“Are they going to kill each other?” One little girl asked.

“No, actually, this fight is more like a shoving match. Whoever is strongest and can shove the longest will win. The other male moose will give up and just leave.” Martha said.

Sean glanced over and Martha saw him then. She raised her eyebrows in a silent question, did he want to talk to the group? He thought about it but in the end, he gave a slight shake of his head in reply. Not today. He followed the silent gesture with a raise of his own eyebrows, was that okay with her? She nodded her head and smiled, that’s fine.

“Let’s take a few minutes and look around the Hall of North American Mammals and then we’ll move on.” Martha said.

Normally Sean would have been happy to answer questions. He could talk a blue streak to anyone willing to listen to him go on and on about his bears and his work as an art conservator. But not today. Today he was saying goodbye. He was closing the chapter on his most recent book. He didn’t want to be interrupted. He wanted the cool darkened hall and his silent thoughts. He just wanted to be alone with his bears one more time.

The noise level had risen since the tour group had been given to their own devices, and since the tendency to spiral out of control was the next stop, Martha asked the question, “Who likes snakes?”

There were declarations of “me” and disgusted hisses of “ewww.”

“If you’ll all follow me; I have something to show you that I think you’re going to love.” Martha began to back out of the hall as the school kids reformed their awkward gathering, brought up in the rear by their teacher, a natural at herding her class.

The silence echoed loudly around Sean once again, he looked back down at his clipboard and then at the diorama. He was surprised, when he glanced back again, that his vision had grown foggy.

He hated goodbyes.

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