Musee Mecanique

Fiction
Terri Brown-Davidson


She looked forward to the rocks even before she dreamed about them. It was that craving for gray-and-black striation, stony rubble, the tactile longing so pronounced that she felt the rocks’ blunt edges dig into her palms, though there was never any blood. The railing was rusted, that weird, corrugated, reddish-brown, flecks of it falling off the iron, scant moon to guide the goggled men in black wetsuits steering the motor boats.

And when she woke, clammy, breathing hard, sometimes she saw sea lions lolling atop those rocks, heard their distant lonely bray.

She liked to look at her husband while he slept so she could get used to the idea that he would, indeed, die. She’d shared this information with Jason as she’d shared all of her premonitions: it was her duty, as a wife. And, as usual, he’d laughed.

But she hadn’t laughed, because she’d known that her vision was true.

 

Zipping up the suitcases was good, like tidying up her emotions for travel. Glancing at Jason as he prepared for the flight, folding his already impeccably squared blue Oxford shirts into tinier rectangles, lining the shirts with tissue, she wondered if he ever felt anything anymore, since Tara’s death. There were the flashes, of course, and the images that accompanied the hole: the hole was what she felt. She never would have believed that she could have walked around carrying the sensation of a moist grave inside her, but she did. She saw it, too: the roots that threaded up through the gently collapsing mud; the yellow weeds that sprouted stick-fingered across the sloping mahogany coffin, oversized, ludicrously expensive for a child. She felt it and saw it, and it wasn’t the least bit empty for her, or morbid. It was a form of fulfillment, of emotional satisfaction. Communion with Tara.

The flight was fast and she knew that he was nervous by the expression on his face. She felt nothing except the sensation that she was flying into the future, where she belonged, or at least the place where the future intersected with the past. Jason ordered orange juice from the flight attendant. Megan helped him settle the plastic cup into both palms, closed the fingers for him over the plastic; he was trembling too violently to manage. “Shh,” she said, over and over. He couldn’t lift the cup. She raised it to his lips, tilted it, helped him drink. Soon they’d be in the White Swan Bed-and-Breakfast Inn. She would savor the opulence of the floor-length, blue-velvet curtains, the winding staircase, the chocolates and rose on each of their pillows, the warm buttered croissants and rich, black, Columbian coffee. He wouldn’t, though: he’d be remembering, instead, the last time they traveled there.

“Drink your juice,” she said, and regretted the edge to her voice. But he just stared at her with his wide gray eyes. She lifted the cup again, wedged it firmly into his hands. “Here,” she said. “Here,” and gripped both his wrists until they stopped quivering. Max & Stein wouldn’t give him an indefinite leave from his position, she knew. Still, it scarcely mattered, since he’d be dead in three years anyway, so why should he spend his final years selling insurance? Plus, she knew that he wanted to be dead. There was a hole in each of them, but the quality of the hole inside her was different: maybe it was the moistness of the soil, from which at least a few scattered weeds could take root, flourish. And she thought of Jason’s impending death not with panic but with an incipient warm sadness that had flooded her ever since childhood, when she’d begun to know that things that happened in her mind would happen in real life but also knew that she was powerless to prevent them from occurring. She didn’t like the term “psychic,” though, because she believed that the power she possessed was, in fact, accessible to everyone; it was simply a matter of allowing the conduits of one’s consciousness to open: it was natural.

“I don’t want to go,” Jason said, but he didn’t cry because he simply didn’t anymore. He closed his eyes. Even with them closed, she kept lifting the cup to his lips, helping him drink.

Ever since she was a child, San Francisco had been a haunted place for Megan. And a magical one. She and her parents didn’t live there but about seventy miles away, in the more sedate city of Santa Clara, which was famous for its plum orchards at one time and then became renowned for Silicon Valley later. Santa Clara was too pedestrian for her, not mysterious enough. She loved, though, their almost routine trips to San Francisco every weekend, where she felt her otherwise quiescent mind jostled into a kind of fevered activity via the oddness of the place. Holding hands, all three of them (they always walked that way, she and her mother and father, and she was always in the middle), they’d stroll down Fisherman’s Wharf through a fog so thick Megan pulled its moisture back into her lungs and learned to savor the dampness, as she came to savor the dampness of her hole after Tara’s death. There were vendors who sold huge orange crabs along the Wharf; sometimes they’d raise them, still alive, from plastic soaking buckets, and Megan would stare at their thrashing claws and feel something dark yet pleasant start in the back of her mind, strong-tasting as chocolate. Then they’d stroll to the Wax Museum with its big hokey monsters, a hulking, bright-green Frankenstein, a blood-dripping and fanged Dracula in a long black plastic cape that looked as if it’d been purchased from PayLess and the girl—Marie Antoinette?—being guillotined, her white-powdered head laid down below the blade, her smooth, pale neck bared, and Megan would always scream though her screams, increasingly, were fake: the shepherdess being beheaded hadn’t scared her since she was three.

And then there was the long drive back to Santa Clara, through the semi-darkness of the freeway and the fog thinning out and the tall, stately mansions, the Victorian Painted Ladies that her momma loved easing away and the picture of tangled steel and blood that grew sharper as she grew older, though, then, she didn’t know that the picture was real until it actually happened on a day she was home and not in the car.

 

Megan handled the check-in. She didn’t want to think of Jason as a “mess” because that was too unkind. And he followed her dutifully enough, up in the black-basalt elevator to their modest room (no flowers) on the fourth floor. When they entered their suite with the key card, he went immediately to the overstuffed recliner near the window, sat down, stared straight ahead.

The window looked out over an industrial part of San Francisco; the sight of all of those back alleys (greasy-looking, with blowing papers) and back doors to shops or factories fascinated Megan, so she had to remind herself that they weren’t there for sightseeing but for the Musee Mecanique, and she set to work hanging up all of their clothes.

When she finished, Jason was still staring out, so she found a plastic comb in one of his back pants pockets (the pants hung up neatly, now, folded along the creases) and combed his dark hair going to gray while a distant Asian man in the alley hauled mysterious trash out to a dumpster.

 

She often fed the hole but preferred not to consider it. In the beginning, right after Tara’s death, a series of images had penetrated her consciousness, sped toward her faster and faster while she ate breakfast at the sad yellow kitchen table with Jason, walked solo around the block in their quiet New Mexico neighborhood lined with paper-bagged luminaria, the sea lions, the darkening ocean, the rocks, flashing toward her as if urging her, Why didn’t she know?

Because she hadn’t been allowed to.

Yet.

She’d believed she was taking a trip with Jason and Tara to her old childhood haunts: the Cliff House, set on the white-foamed majesty of the Pacific with all its rocks and sea lions lounging in the foggy sun; the Musee Mecanique, a white-painted, ocean-weathered shack full of odd antique toys and turn-of-the-century memorabilia, where Tara, upon hearing her stories of Laughing Sal, begged to be taken, too.

She’d believed she was going there, with Tara, to play.

This time, she had no illusions.

She understood—or thought she did—why she and Jason had been summoned back.

He slept as uncomfortably as he lived. And she knew he was already there, hours before they had to be, at the Musee Mecanique. She looked at his eyes, twitching beneath his lids, tried not to view it as a betrayal that he’d preceded her. And then she closed her own eyes, pressed her fingertips into the lids. Odd how she’d liked going there with him, before Tara. Had there ever been anything enjoyable about the place? It was grotesquerie personified. The nude, semi-pornographic lithographs through an outmoded viewmaster. The racist black dolls that hauled bales of cotton in inch-high wagons toward some happy vision of slavery, their little mouths grinning. And, of course, Laughing Sal, whom she couldn’t bear to think of anymore. She wished, for a long time, that they’d torched the place, she and Jason, after the accident. And it had almost closed once due to lack of interest: who ever wanted to visit it anymore?—it was purely depressing. But it had stayed open because it was a “historical landmark.” And she was glad that it had. Because of Tara. And, of course, because of Jason, a few years from now.

In the semi-yellowed grayness of the room, Jason twined his arms around his torso as he slept.

 

When she woke, she didn’t know where she was. She sat up in bed, bracing her palms against the mattress. Outside, the sky had turned a stark, blackish-brown, as if ink had leaked into the fog, suffused it with shadows, and she thought of the darkness of the rocks with the whitecaps breaking over them, the solidity and blackness of the rocks and how they thrust up through the foaming ocean, and she had a kind of a hunger to see them though she didn’t know what that hunger meant, the rocks pushing broken-mouthed out of the water and, far below, the faint browning pools of blood. She placed her fingers over her mouth, eased them inside, bit down. Her skin tasted dusty, as if she were a museum piece herself, and for a second she saw Tara’s face tilted sideways and staring up, ants crawling across the sweet sticky glaze on her irises.

Fuck, Megan thought. I’m going to be sick.

But she was tougher than Jason. Bracing her hand on her stomach, cupping her belly through the nightgown, she crawled on her hands and knees out of bed. The carpet, a rich rose plush, felt so sumptuous and warm against her knees that she stood up then, staggered before heading out to the balcony, where Jason was drinking strong black coffee in the fog, peering out at the ocean, the breakers, the Cliff House, Musee Mecanique.

“I can’t do it,” he said, and sipped his coffee, though she saw the cup tremble.

“You already did it,” Megan said. “Last night. I saw you.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“In your dream.”

He shrugged then glanced at her with such a strange, calculated air that she felt startled, even before he tossed his cup over the balcony; she willed herself not to hear it shatter against the rocks, but it was fine; the cup was too small, too far away, for her to hear anything.

“I can’t accept… everything you’ve told me. Though it’s a relief, I guess, in a way. ”

“You don’t know how much.”

“What d’you mean?”

“You don’t want to be here anyway,” Megan said. “Three years isn’t so long.”

“You’re crazy,” Jason whispered, before he wiped his wet eyes with the back of one hand.

“Sure,” Megan said. “If that helps,” and touched his back through his white, terrycloth robe though he didn’t look at her; he kept gazing at foam that shrugged and billowed, riding up onto the rocks.

 

They didn’t go eat at the Cliff House, as they used to do before visiting the Musee Mecanique; maybe neither of them could admit they had no appetite. Jason was never hungry much before anyway: in some respects, he was a passionless man. But when Tara was born, a bloody mass of shriveled skin and bone on the nurse’s palms, something in Jason had intensified like kindling laid to a fire. It was wonderful, of course, while it lasted. But, of course, any fire can be extinguished; Tara had taught them that.

Nevertheless, though they’d both—it seemed—tacitly agreed not to eat there, they found themselves walking in tandem toward the Cliff House’s bank of tall white windows glittering with sunlight reflected off the bay; Megan grabbed Jason’s hand, whispered something she herself couldn’t hear, so loud was the pounding of high cold blood in her temples, and Jason whispered something back she couldn’t hear either, pieces of white quartz glinting off the parking lot, tourists in red shorts and T-shirts walking with arms draped around each other until—“No,” Megan said. “No,” and started to retrace her steps, and then she found herself running.

The building still the same. More dirty, battered, but that was all. A little more salt erosion. The big tattered sign intact: “Musee Mecanique.” And, inside, Laughing Sal. The Grandmother Fortune Teller. The Arm-Wrestling machine. The Dancing Can-Can Woman. The Bizarre Musical Monkeys. She stepped inside and leaned against the wall, her palms braced against a machine she couldn’t remember though she knew Laughing Sal was to the left, she could feel her, hanging there, though it would take a quarter to make her laugh again, and she never wanted to hear her laugh.

She opened her eyes and was gazing at Jason’s forehead. She looked carefully at his sweaty forehead and then at his big calloused palm flipped open against his jeans knee and knew before it happened that she was going to think of Tara’s hand and the red scratches she had on that day from a sharp chair arm she’d cut herself on at the hotel (drawing no blood, though, no blood) and how the hand looked receding from her, just the hand moving away, the face, the open mouth.

She kept staring at his sweat.

“You look awful,” Jason said. “Maybe we should go.”

“No. Today. We had to come today.”

“You say that as if you were sure,” Jason said.

“I am sure.”

“How could you be, when you didn’t—”

Say it, she was whispering inside her mind. Say it. And another part whispering, Just shut up. Though she knew, yes, that he would. Three years from now. She couldn’t wait. Sadistic-sounding, but she couldn’t wait.

Not for herself—she still loved him, in all his torpor and limpness and passivity—but for Tara.

“We could go outside,” Jason said, and touched the soft area beneath her chin with one finger, teenagers in black leather jackets clinking quarters (it was the sole expense of the Musee Mecanique; you had to come laden down with quarters), milling about them laughing, and the roar inside her mind started, the roar that she hated because it pushed the language out.

“No,” she managed, and grabbed his finger, clutched it until she felt the bone. “No camera obscura. And no—”

“No—”

“Telescopes. Yeah.”

He looked so pale, suddenly, that she wanted to laugh, and she knew that he was thinking about the blood. Knew—Jesus Christ—that he hadn’t thought about it till this minute! Hadn’t let himself think about it, though there was all that blood too, Christ yes, from the birth, from the warm steaming mound of the placenta, the cord, so much blood she threw up on herself on the cranked-up bed and then laughed though it was ridiculous, a harsh stale laugh (she could smell her own breath after the delivery) of raucous love and joy—

Against her better judgment, she did.

And then: Laughing Sal.

The roar inside her skull louder.

She turned her face to the left. A skinny boy in a crewcut walked toward Laughing Sal, juggling a quarter on his palm. Megan lowered her eyes. Raised them. She was there, in her glass booth. Her pasty face framed by crimson curls, grotesque dark freckles on her cheeks, her red mouth open, her chest heaving in mock-convulsions of mirth when the boy fed her the coin, her head bobbing forward, and Jesus she felt sick because Sal’d scared Tara, she had, the last time Megan’d heard that laugh, and Megan looked down at her shoes and the cracking green linoleum but Jason grabbed her shoulders, shoved his fingers under her chin, thrust her head upright.

“You wanted it,” he said. “Then and now. You wanted it.”

And then he walked away.

Megan sat down on the floor, against one of the machines. It was strangely comforting being there amid the cracks and dirt and grime. Tara’d been there all the time, really, a tiny child who could never resist crawling across any floor, though how satisfying had her worm’s eye view of everything been? And Megan was always trying to change her. Shouting “Dirty!” when she dropped to her knees, because she was too fucking old to be crawling the last time they’d been here.

She gazed at the shoes wandering past. The turned-down socks, the cracking leather, the bare ankles (blemished, blotched) ending in sneakers. She felt so cold, sometimes. And not just from the hole. It was the sense that she was outside all of this, watching. As if only a pane of glass separated them. But thick glass. Thick. She rose against the machine, discovered she couldn’t stay standing.

Jason helped her out. Guided her out, fed her popcorn. They swayed, both of them, coatless in the cold, against the railing that protected the ruins of the Sutro Baths. Standing there, her fingers curled over the railing, Megan wished that she’d brought a hood, an umbrella. It wasn’t raining, but she’d forgotten how potent the San Francisco fog could feel. Megan kept staring at the baths. Jason dug down into the red cardboard container, pushed a few more kernels tenderly between her lips. And, when Megan shivered, he slipped one arm around her shoulders; she only stiffened once.

“I think this was a bad idea,” Jason said. “I think we should go home now.” He hesitated. “And you didn’t feel anything, right?”

She looked up. His face waxen in this peculiar grayish light.

She didn’t want to admit it.

But it wasn’t fair to him. To Jason.

“No,” she lied, finally. “I didn’t feel a thing.”

Jason paused, gazed out at the brown ruins of the Sutro Baths. Then moved his gaze to the left to take in the massive sea lions lolling across rocks. “Then… do you think we should go home?”

Megan thought of Tara. And of what she’d believed that—coming back here—she’d find. She didn’t know how to say “No” anymore. That was the truth.

 

One thing that she’d learned, in the time that she had Tara, was that there were different varieties of darkness. Like a mood disorder, that first year of darkness after Tara’s birth: no gray mixed into the shadows. Megan was that darkness, and the darkness blossomed up through her, blocked whatever psychic ability she possessed. She lay in bed on her back, the covers heaped over her, her eyes trained on the ceiling for flickers of light from passing cars.

 

She woke in the White Swan that night and the darkness was everywhere, but different from the way she’d experienced it after Tara was born, more of a metallic taste inside her mouth. And she got up out of bed, went to the window, sat down in an easy chair, pulled the lovely damask curtains apart. It was out there, the ocean, illuminated by the moon, and she heard something inside her mind, studying it, it wasn’t a voice, exactly, or it was more like her own voice talking to her, consoling her, and there were no images but there was a tightening inside her body, inside her mind, as if all her synapses and neurons were preparing, and a migraine flashed yellow and brown across the periphery of her vision.

Downstairs, in the deserted lobby, she picked up a phone, called a Yellow Cab. There was nowhere to wait except on the overstuffed sofa, the cushions swallowing her. She knew that the wait wouldn’t be long this time because images were starting to snap over one by one, like the quickly shuffled cards inside a Rolodex, and she couldn’t see any of them, they were all still too cloudy, gray, but she was hopeful that they’d clear, was confident they’d clear because of the way her body kept tightening. Why hadn’t she known that Jason wouldn’t be part of it? Of course, he was, in the biological sense: he was the father. And he’d be the one taking care of Tara after he died. That couldn’t be helped, though she wished, somehow, as she’d wished long ago, seeing the dog wandering the alley, that it didn’t have to be like this, that she could become more agent and less receiver, but it never worked out—

She waited on the sofa before windows tinged with a yellow glow. Outside, the streets were gray, deserted. Occasionally a lone walker passed, head jutting forward against the wind, not a homeless person but a businessman returning home late from the office.

And soon enough, the yellow cab pulled up, cutting a clean headlit swath through fog, and she climbed inside the back seat and once again was gone, winding through and through the streets, uphill, down, lone cars passing, the occasional white stretch limo, though the cabbie wouldn’t shut up, kept questioning her destination even after he pulled up next to the railing.

 

“Fifteen-fifty,” he said. “You sure I can’t take you somewhere else?”

“No,” she said, and handed him a twenty. “Really: I’ll be okay. Please keep the change.”

“Let me take you somewhere else. This area isn’t safe at—”

“Really,” she said, and climbed out of the cab’s back seat, slammed the door. She was sick of his narrow yellow face, his obsequious manner: she knew he was ill but just kept wanting him gone.

He idled for thirty seconds before pulling away.

She waited until he’d turned the corner before she gripped the rusted railing, climbed over, started her rocky and uncertain descent to the Sutro Baths though no one was allowed, the descent was too steep, too dangerous, the cacophony of voices more than she could bear. They’d died here, so many of the young men who’d come seeking warmth, the young men with their crewcuts and corded backs and moist lips and straddling bodies: she could feel their presence, their thin and poignant cries, feel them wrapped inside each other’s arms, all the hard blunt pushing that wouldn’t bring them relief, only a hot, momentary pleasure though sometimes, she knew, that was enough, their lips bitten to blood, their eyes rolling back, the young men seeking in sex and in their bodies what they only located, finally, in death, though not until the last had they expected what a warm lover death could make, and her body tightened and spasmed as she climbed on hands and knees down the rocks, the baths broken off and rubbled-looking, like old, decaying teeth snapped off toward a blackening gumline, as she approached nearest the ocean side, the water foaming up rusted and metallic, even the whitecaps foaming brown, tears in her eyes that she had to keep wiping away with hands bloodied from the rocks: it wasn’t time to cry yet. Wasn’t time.

 

When it’d happened, she’d been blank. After they searched the rocks. After they searched the shore. All of those flashlights, gigantic, green, sweeping over the rocks that loomed black though then there was only a sliver of a moon, and the directed white light, the gaze of a single powerful eye. She’d been shivering, up above. She’d brought a coat but forgotten it back in the car when they walked to Musee Mecanique. Then, she’d thought it hadn’t mattered. They’d have the quick dash to the car after, Megan the only one coatless, Tara in her pale-blue parka with the white-fur trim bundled in Jason’s arms, all of them laughing wildly, grotesquely, in imitation of Sal, pulling up at the It’s-It’s stand after, its battered red sign fluttering in the San Francisco wind that—even on the sunniest days—contained that secret chill.

But that hadn’t happened, of course.

And the boats.

The men climbing into speedboats.

She wondered if they’d disturb the sea lions, sleeping like large dark sacks atop their rocks. The thin veil of black blood atop one, like a garment discarded. She hoped that that was what it was like. It was too soon to cry. Too soon to feel anything yet though Jason left a few times, staggered over toward the Cliff House, vomited in the parking lot. She saw the flashlights sweep the water by the railing. She and Jason stood there and watched. They watched the men diving off the boats in their scuba gear. For nights she’d wake with the image of the goggled, black-wrapped faces, shiny and rubbery, in her mind. And Tara. She was sleeping out there, sleeping, and Megan didn’t know where. She wanted to bring her home. She couldn’t see anything. Her mind a great gray sleeping muscle, sleeping the sleep with her baby in the ocean, beside the rocks, dead and distilled to one perfect sensation of suffering, unable to see anything.

She sat down on the edge of the rocks. She’d dressed more warmly this time, taken one of Jason’s chunky fisherman’s sweaters from the closet, and the beige, densely knitted fabric slopped over her wrists, caught weird flickering gleams of light as she waited, staring out at the black ocean, hearing a single sea lion’s cry (like a great, guttural moan) in the darkness; she waited until her legs ached then her entire lower torso and then, when she couldn’t stand it, she sat down on one of the rocks and the foul-smelling ocean rose over her boots, crawled up her long johns beneath her jeans, the soaked jeans and the sopping long johns clinging, shaping themselves to her, and she was gazing at the rocks, her body shocked again and again from the cold.

It was like this the first time, at her early home where she lived with her parents, when their dog first went missing and they tacked fliers up for him around the neighborhood, knowing how valuable Irish Setters were, knowing that he was probably lost to them, probably dead, her parents not knowing how Megan woke before dawn and saw him out there in the alley, how she climbed down the fire escape and started tracking what she saw (the glimpses of red hair, the feathered tail, the droplets of blood) through one trash-choked alley after another until, from a distance, she saw him lying beside a gutter, and when she approached, tamping down again the shout that had strained against her chest, he was there, though his eyes were sockets, dark, as she knelt and took his muzzle on her lap and finally, finally, let the scream out, though she knew, by then, what was happening. That would be the last—the absolutely last—time she ever screamed about anything she saw.

So she sat there for a half hour, waiting, as the images flipped over faster and faster, until the dark clots started washing up against the rocks, the fabric scraps that looked as if they never could have been blue, a thin dark sliver that might have been bone: she sat down in the water up to her waist and lifted little fragments, cupped them, clasped them, kissed them, peered at them under the moonlight, trying not to hear the faint cries of the men behind her, and then she pushed it all back into the ocean, the fabric and the kelp and the memories, and watched it go bobbing away, and then she turned, her palms bleeding from the rocks. She could still feel how they’d cut her as she hung onto them in the water, and then she turned and started up, hearing Laughing Sal laugh, seeing the Fortune Teller light up slowly in her glittering glass cage: she started running though she kept falling on the rocks as she scaled the way back to the railing that seemed miles away now, miles, Tara’s faint voice in the darkness of the Musee as the lights snapped on one at a time and the machines went buzzing, whirring, creaking, groaning, and once again Tara was crying, crying for Megan, crying for Jason, who’d be joining her soon, as Tara surely knew, though it wasn’t soon enough to suit her, she was lonely and wanted her mother, a jagged, knifelike shard of bone bloodying Megan’s hand.

pencil

E-mail: tbrowndavidson[at]comcast.net.

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