For the Museum of Natural History

Carla Thomas

They were the last to board the 11:20 Cardinal and had trouble finding two seats together. The cars were packed with sleeping blacks. Ellen could smell their sweet heavy perfume and their hair oils. She kept one hand on Bodie’s back as she followed him through the train. She didn’t want to be stranded alone among sleeping strangers; their long arms seemed to stretch toward her from rows of dark dreams, and the occasional twitching of fingers unnerved her. At the end of the sixth sea of strangers, Bodie found two seats side by side. He let Ellen have the window. 

In her seat, Ellen became aware of the train carrying her away from the capital city with its long halls of history-under-glass. Her feet were swollen. She felt acutely American. They’d spent the entire day going through museums

Bodie stretched his long legs one at a time. “We should’ve got a hotel, spent another day.” 

“Except Mom’s expecting us in the morning. Besides, I don’t think I could stand another day of this.” 

“Thought you liked all that history stuff.” Bodie grinned at her, put a hand on her knee and squeezed. “Hey, you ever made out on a train?” 

 

Bodie snored lightly in his sleep. Ellen watched the rise and fall of his chest for a while. She was no good at sleeping on trains. It had been a long day. They had walked from one building to another and looked at things—the Constitution, dinosaur bones, the Hope diamond, Neil Armstrong’s space suit. It was funny. Seeing it up close like that

She’d looked at the space suit for a long time. It probably wasn’t really the one he’d worn on the moon. It looked too clean, and she remembered, or thought she remembered, that the moon was dusty. At least it had looked dusty in the summer of 1969, when she and her mother had stayed up late one June night to watch Neil Armstrong do his lunar bunny hop. 

The summer of the moon walk, she and her mother, Jean Ann, had been in Florida. Jean Ann had been moved to tears as they watched the flickering image of Armstrong on the television set as he stuck a flag in the colorless ground. The moon belonged to America. “If only your father could have seen this,” Jean Ann said. Ellen told her, “Maybe he‘s watchin’ from Heaven.But Heaven didn’t seem so real with the space program probing the sky day and night: none of the astronauts had found God. 

The train jiggled Ellen in her seat. She wished she had gone to the bathroom before Bodie went to sleep. How awful to be the only one awake in a car full of dreamers. To pass the time, Ellen got out her notebook, flicked on the small overhead light, and started writing: 

This is what I remember of my father: a brown arm flung over the edge of the bed, and no response when I whispered, “Wake up, Daddy, supper’s ready.” Ellen looked at this for a minute, then scribbled at the top of the page, For the Museum of Natural History.She went on writing: 

Mom and I moved to Florida not long after that, and the next year I started school. My fathers absence made itself known whenever I came home in mid-afternoon and found myself alone. I’d run into the living room and suddenly know that something of importance had happened the instant before my arrival. He had died again, maybe, or a wild animal had been there. 

When Mom got home from work, shed find me sitting on the front steps waiting for her. I’d follow her through the small airless rooms as she raised windows, turned on fans, and put Jim Reeves on the old Victrola. That was how she exorcised the emptiness

Nights, we’d sleep in the same bed with the fan in the window backwards so it could suck out the hot residue of the day. I’d lie awake in the humid room, listening to the rattle of the fan and feeling my mother’s arms twitch in her sleep. Sometimes there were fears of black men with axes moving sluggishly through the swamps and finding us, female and alone. Always there were dreams of a faceless father asleep on his stomach, one arm hanging over the edge of the bed like a dead fish. 

Every now and then she’d write things like that. It gave her great pleasure to put the past into words. She d save sheets of her past for nights when she couldn’t sleep. Then she’d take the notebook pages into the bathroom and burn them in the bathtub. When she turned on the tap, the dead words would eddy in the water before burying themselves in the drain. 

The past showed itself one piece at a time. The little instants that made up her life would come to her, still and perfect, like the beads of a rosary, like pictures at an exhibition. 

Her reflection, framed in the window of the train, was like a negative of herself. She turned off the overhead light. 

For a long time she sat still, hearing air go in and out of lungs, feeling the speed of the train beneath her and behind her. The train seemed to be gathering strength. It pushed her toward West Virginia, where her mother would meet her at the station in a polyester blouse and matching slacks. Ellen tried to picture the instant. She wanted to get it right in her mind. Ever since her mother had moved from Florida to West Virginia, Ellen had trouble getting used to the change. She visited her mother about twice a year now. Usually she drove alone from Virginia (Bodie couldn’t get off from the Volkswagen plant very often), and during the seven-hour trip she’d listen to the country stations. If she was lucky she’d catch a Ralph Emery show. 

Her mother: she would be wearing her hair too long and too blonde for forty-six. If Ellen said anything about it, Jean Ann would be hurt. Jean Ann was a beautician. “Tammy Wynette was a beautician,” she’d tell Ellen, “and this is how she wore her hair at the time she met George Jones.” Ellen would say, “Yeah, and wasn’t he a winner.” She didn’t need to go any further. Jean Ann would be crushed and wouldn’t talk to Ellen for an hour. This had happened before. Tammy Wynette and George Jones were Jean Ann’s personal heroes. Ellen pictured her blonde mother meeting her and Bodie at the station and prepared herself to just ignore the hair. Jean Ann was getting old. Sometimes Ellen could hear her bones creak inside her

There were certain subjects that Ellen wanted to avoid this trip. Like the fact that she and Bodie had never had a church wedding. Jean Ann had a way of making her feel guilty about their ten-year-old elopement. 

“My only child, and I never even got to see you in your wedding gown.” 

“I didn’t have a gown, Mom. I wore that navy blue suit you got me for graduation.” 

Then there was Ellen’s recent discovery that the father she’d found dead in his bed was not her natural father. Jean Ann’s sister had let that one slip, and if it got back to Jean Ann that her sister had told Ellen of her bastard birth, there was no telling what would happen. Jean Ann was very big on religion. Suddenly it struck Ellen that her mother had always seemed unusually touched whenever she heard Tammy Wynette sing, “I Am a Christian, Lord, But I’m a Woman Too.‘ 

Ellen was unnaturally uncurious about her “real” father. The whole concept of a father seemed remote to her anyway-vaguely interesting, but not very important. Bodie was close to his father, and Ellen sometimes watched them together. They seemed more like brothers. But it was probably different for Bodie than it would have been for her

Still, there were questions Ellen would like to have answered. Like, who had Jean Ann loved more-the father of her child or her husband? Ellen didn’t want to get in touch with the real father. She thought she knew who she was even without knowing that. But it troubled her that there were gaps in her knowledge of the past, gaps that would probably go unfilled. Unless she could get some more out of Jean Ann s sister. 

The train jerked along noisily. It was one of a million different things that connected Ellen to her mother. In Ellen’s mind, the system of highways, railways, and airways that stretched between her home in Virginia and her mother’s home in West Virginia had knotted themselves into one huge umbilical cord. 

Jean Ann lived in Chemical Valley. Whenever Ellen visited, her sinuses got clogged and she sneezed a lot. “How can you stand it?” she’d ask her mother. “Oh, you get used to it.” 

The Indian Burial Mound in South Charleston was Jean Ann’s favorite local spot. It was rumored that they’d excavated the remains of twenty-nine Indians from the mound then put them all back inside. They were afraid of old tribal curses,” Jean Ann would explain. The mound was scrunched between the chemical plant and the business district. At noon, secretaries and plant workers went to the mound to eat bagged lunches. The city had put benches all over the sides of the mound, and there were winding stone steps leading to the top. 

Jean Ann also liked to show Ellen spots where Civil War battles had been fought. One day she’d driven her to Point Pleasant, a factory town on the Ohio River, and made her read the black-and-white marker which explained the strategic importance of the town. That was the kind of history Jean Ann liked-the kind that happened a long time ago so that nobody really cared anymore. Jean Ann’s excursions into the impersonal past always left Ellen longing for something specific, detailed, and complete. 

 

Ellen had put off going to the bathroom for as long as she could. “Bodie,” she said. “Bodie.” She shook him awake. “I’m going to the bathroom.” He pulled himself up a little in his seat. “I want you to kind of look out for me.” 

“Okay.” 

“What time is it?” 

Bodie tried to look at his wristwatch through his sleep. He held it up to his ear. “My watch has stopped.” · “Well, if I’m not back in fifteen minutes, you’d better come for me.” 

“Okay.” 

Ellen looked back when she got to the other end of the car. Bodie had slid back down in his seat. She couldn’t find a toilet on their car, so she went through two sets of sliding doors into the next car. She moved slowly toward the back of the train, being careful to not let any hands touch her. No toilet. Next car. The space between cars was short but seemed like a long time. 

Ellen’s feet were swollen, the way Jean Ann ‘s feet used to be when she came home from the beauty shop in the evenings. Ellen remembered that her mother used to soak her feet in saltwater. 

The hand of an unconscious passenger brushed her leg. The space between cars seemed like nothing in this world or any other. Maybe she should have gone the other way, toward the front of the train. The space between cars were gaps through which she could fall and disappear forever. Somewhere at the end of the long tunnel of sleepers she would find something she had lost. 

“No, no,” she told herself. “Don’t let yourself think about it.” 

But she felt it. Something pushing its way toward her from the back of the train, traveling through the canal of its mother. Moving through the night train, the memory hit her like a blast of air: 

The long run from her father’s bedroom, down the long hallway, down the stairs toward the kitchen and Jean Ann. “Mommy, he won’t get up, his arm is cold.” Yes, she had touched it! She had touched it and known something. Not death, but something. An absence. A coldness. And Jean Ann had just looked down at her and sang. “That’s the way love go-wo-woes.” Sang it. 

This piece of her history met Ellen on the train, and her fingers worked to form the words but there was nothing to capture the memory with. It passed over her and rushed through the train, settling over the sleepers, becoming part of their dreams. 

Ellen stood still. At the end of the car, a black man stirred and turned his face to the aisle. In the faint light, one eye opened. The roundness of it, the complete whiteness of the eye, whirred into Ellen’s mind. Feeling her way back through the cars, she held the image away from her with the palms of her hands. Bodie was asleep, and her bladder was full. The dark dreamers fed on her memory.