by Jim Plath
&&& By the third Friday of October, the worst of the cold hasn’t found its way east. Shelby thinks it wants to snow, but it can’t yet. Nature has to wait sometimes, too, even if only on itself. Freezing rain hangs translucent buds from the cat’s cradle of naked branches outside her house.
&&& Shelby stands on the front porch. She watches a gray squirrel spiral down an oak trunk while the sun dips below glowing vermillion clouds over the hill at the end of the street. The squirrel hits a patch of laurel green grass. She thinks he’ll stay there a moment, rest or plan where to go, but he doesn’t. He runs serpentine across the road, disappearing behind a wall of skeletal hedges.
&&&The overhang keeps her dry while she sweeps beads of half-melted ice like glass ashes between the wood slats with the insteps of her sneakers. She tucks her nose under the fleece lining of her coat’s collar. When her mother calls to her through the half-opened front door, Shelby swears it isn’t too cold to wait outside.
&&&Noah parks the silver hatchback Shelby calls the pregnant roller-skate at the end of the driveway just as the last of the freezing rain shakes loose of the air. She hasn’t seen her brother since he left for the fall semester. That was a few weeks after she turned fourteen. They went camping that weekend. She told him how to build a solar still and he smiled the way he did the first time she beat him at acey-deucey. He’s let his hair grow since then. It overlaps his ears in loose curls of black tucked beneath a wool ski cap.
&&& “You’ve got something on your face,” she tells him as she approaches his car, reaching upward and circling the scant patches of hair he’s forcing to become his beard.
&&& “It’s called style,” he answers. “Don’t worry. It’s not contagious.”
&&&Shelby helps unload the hatchback, but all Noah’s brought is a backpack full of books, a laptop, and two duffel bags full of laundry that smell like sweat and aerosol deodorant. Her mother takes the duffel bags downstairs to the laundry room. Shelby watches Noah pour himself into the pleather loveseat in the living room.
&&&At dinner, Shelby wants Noah to tell her about college. He complains that his roommate never sleeps and sounds like a Clydesdale tap-dancing across the tiled floor at three in the morning. She wonders if he’ll ask her if she likes high school. He doesn’t.
&&&By the time they’ve finished eating and clearing the table, daylight is a saffron yellow rinse bleeding between gaps in the trees. Noah tells Shelby the gallery on Pine Street is open until nine, and there’s an installation he wants to see there. Their mother sits cross-legged at the end of the sofa. She reminds them the roads will be slick, but doesn’t ask them not to go.
&&&Shelby sees the gallery from her school bus window most days, but she’s never been inside. It’s a two-story gray brick building rounded with Tuscan columns painted white. Lights under the eaves by the entrance catch droplets of water unfreezing as they fall and flood the cracks in the cobblestone by the doors.
&&&“You’ll like this stuff,” Noah says as they step through the foyer. He’s more upright now, taking longer strides with a pool of black and white tile at his feet.
&&&Shelby pauses to admire a three-foot sculpture of a bison. She thinks it’s carved from marble, but isn’t sure. Noah is walking too fast for her to pause and read the card at its base. She scurries forward to catch up. “Have you seen it before?”
&&&“No, my history professor told me about it.”
&&& “If you haven’t seen it, how do you know you’ll like it?”
&&&“Because he told me about it.” Noah lets go of a long breath. “That’s the thing about art. It’s not really about how it looks. It’s about what it means.”
&&&They pass a row of impressionist landscapes, a spring winding through twin processions of wildflowers, a verdant field at the foot of a snowy mountain range. Shelby thinks Noah would stop if she asked, but he’s looking for something, not at anything, so they move ahead. Looking back over her shoulder she watches the detail in the landscapes meld and re-focus as she moves away. She smiles
&&&“This is it,” Noah says as they turn a corner and reach a set of paintings and sculptures ringed with velvet rope.
&&&Shelby first sees a twenty-inch clay sculpture atop a lectern. It looks to her like a nun on horseback who brandishes a sabre in her right hand.
&&&“It’s supposed to be Mother Theresa,” Noah answers before she asks.
&&& “I don’t think she ever carried a sword.”
&&&“It’s metaphorical,” he laughs. “It’s making fun of the image people have of her.”
&&&Shelby doesn’t answer. She continues forward to another lectern, this one with a twenty-six inch carving in aspen wood. The subject is a man with shaggy hair and round-rimmed glasses seated in meditation. His right hand is cracked at the wrist and the fissure runs down the length of his middle finger. “This one’s damaged,” she says.
&&&“No, that’s the point,” Noah answers. “That’s supposed to be John Lennon.”
&&&Shelby nods. “The singer?”
&&& “He wasn’t just a singer,” Noah explains. “He was the front man for the Beatles.”
&&&She doesn’t understand but decides to stop asking questions. Past the lecterns with the carvings, Shelby spots a painting. It looks like Mount Rushmore, but the faces are changed, and the rock is crumbling. She recognizes the likenesses of Isaac Newton, whose bottom jaw is eroded, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. A placard on the wall beside the frame tells her the fourth person is Nikola Tesla, whose hairline is split open at the part by the roots of a tree that juts upward and out of view. “I’m not really sure I get it,” she admits.
&&& Noah waits to answer. He’s pulled a palm-sized notepad from his hip pocket and he’s writing bullet-points down the margin. “What don’t you get?”
&&& She shrugs. “What’s the point?”
&&&He returns the notepad to his pocket. “It’s about challenging our perceptions of historical people as heroes.” He points back to the lecterns. “Mother Theresa was sainted, but a lot of people will tell you she used helping the poor as a pretext for converting people. Everyone loves John Lennon, and they remember how he preached peace and love, but he beat his first wife.”
&&&Shelby nods. “Okay.”
&&&Noah turns his attention to the painting. “Over here, Isaac Newton had a professional rival, Robert Hook, who he worked to discredit and ruin. Churchill was a racist who opposed Indian independence. Lincoln only used freeing slaves as a way to keep Europe from helping the Confederacy. Tesla believed only people with superior genes should be allowed to have kids.”
&&&“If all that’s true, it’s really terrible,” she answers then drifts back from the painting.
&&&The two linger there another moment. Noah pulls the notepad from his pocket for another round of notes. There are two more paintings on the opposite wall, but Shelby doesn’t look at them. She folds her arms together and watches as a young couple approaches.
&&&The young man smiles as he brushes back his hair and remarks on the detail in the wood carving. The young woman thinks the vibrant green in the stray leaves on the tree in Tesla’s head look pretty against the broken pallid gray rock. Shelby sees Noah taking note of them with a bend in his eyebrows before returning his attention to his notepad. She thinks he’s biting his bottom lip. His jaw is clenched and bulging at the side.
&&&Once Noah finishes with the exhibit, he doesn’t ask if Shelby wants to linger on any others. They leave the way they came, stepping through the doors to find a new volley of freezing drizzle, a starless sky spitting water that still can’t be snow against the walls of the gallery. When they’re clear of the doors, he asks, “Did you not like it?”
&&&Shelby stops and slides her foot across the walkway, gathering the glass ashes into a small pile at the edge of the dying lawn. “It just feels like they’re tearing something down.”
&&&Maybe they are,” he answers as he pulls the collar of his coat closed around his neck. “I think it’s important to remember not to put people on pedestals.”
&&&“An art gallery is a weird place to gripe about pedestals.”
&&&“Well,” he pauses to brush a group of melting drops from the wisps of his beard. “In a gallery, the artist isn’t on a pedestal. Just their work is. You get it?”
&&&“I think I do.” Shelby steps forward and restarts her march toward the parking lot. “If you knock a bunch of people down, you really don’t want to stand too tall.”
&&&Noah laughs. “I’m not sure that’s what you were supposed to get out of that.” He catches up to Shelby as they near his hatchback. “I think you at least got closer to the point than that couple that came in after us, though.”
&&& “Maybe,” Shelby answers as she opens the passenger door. “But I think they enjoyed it more.”
Jim Plath holds a BFA in creative writing from The University of Nebraska at Omaha. His work has appeared most recently in The Flat Water Rises: Anthology of Emerging Nebraska Writers, Blue Monday Review, Oracle Fine Arts Review, and other journals.