It’s hard for Harrison to see why anyone would break into Miller’s Folk Music Museum. Even during opening hours, the one-room roadside attraction has almost no visitors and disappoints them all. The place is an obsessive passion project of Harrison’s father, who had styled himself as some kind of fiddle-player back before Harrison was so much as an impure thought. The old man bought up the shell of the place for pennies twenty years ago, an abandoned Mini Mart just down the 321 from Patterson, the month after Harrison’s mother divorced him. The building, unprepossessing cinderblock, is separated from the highway by a strip of jimsonweed, and beyond it on the other side is a great big field of fescue and nothing, where Harrison carefully parks his Dodge Dakota every morning in the same well-worn ruts.
Harrison’s father has partitioned his museum into five exhibitions. Visitors are corralled through the door behind the ticket counter into the Railroad Songs Room, featuring John Henry driving a railroad spike in competition with a steam-powered drill. Due to budget constraints, the “drill” is just distant recordings of whistles rising out of speakers in the baseboards. The trees and ships and horses in the big dioramas are commissioned paper mâché-work, propped up against floor-to-ceiling pastoral murals. Beyond Railroad Songs are Sea Shanties, Cowboy Songs, Spirituals, and Sweetheart Murder Ballads. Harrison doesn’t think these are exactly representative of the full swathe of American folk music, but Harrison’s father doesn’t care what Harrison thinks.
The props might be crap, but Harrison’s dad sank all his settlement money into his centerpieces. He’s done John Henry and the rest of the characters as animatronics: mechanical, humanoid puppets. Harrison doesn’t mind the things – he likes their calm, repetitive motions, and the way they never deviate from their precisely laid tracks. But he seems to be unique in this. No one else who visits the museum comes back a second time. Something about it puts people off.
“It’s a highway attraction,” said Old Man Miller nastily, if you ever tried to make any kind of smartass remark about this over the mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. “No one’s meant to show up more than once.”
“You could’ve done the giant ball of yarn thing,” said Harrison.
“Twine,” said Kathy, sitting looking like a real picture across the table. In those days she walked the line between correcting and siding with him, a combo that always got Harrison a little hard. When his dad leaned across for the last pork chop, she levered it neatly onto her own plate instead and set into it with a grin. She didn’t think much of Harrison’s dad, a feeling Harrison dimly suspected was mutual. “Or the World’s Largest Chest of Drawers,” she suggested. “Or Lucy the Elephant.”
“That’s what you could do, Dad,” Harrison remembered joking. He could see his dad’s point, but he wouldn’t say it in front of Kathy. He could never have talked to the man that way at all if it wasn’t for her, his hand on her un-fucking-believably soft thigh under the table, her smirk over her looted chop. “You could put an elephant in.”
That was back when he was still at Rothman’s Automotive and the museum wasn’t yet a personal thing. Back before Old Man Miller got too old to keep the place up. Back before the plant shut down and two pink strips showed up Kathy’s test and Annie came along and Harrison fell apart and they needed the money bad enough. That had been only a year ago, but felt like a decade.
Harrison clocks off regularly at six, but tonight Kathy’s asked him not to come home if he’s going to keep being an asshole about Annie, who is a baby for fucksake and cries and barfs and if he can’t deal with that, he should’ve pulled out, shouldn’t he, and saved everybody a lot of trouble. And Harrison agreed, yes, he should’ve, which obviously went over even better, and now he’s here trying to make a bed out of a jacket and a bag of cleaning rags on the floor of his closet of a back office.
“You’re in trouble when you agree with her and in trouble when you don’t,” his dad always said. “That’s women for you.”
The door to Harrison’s office is hidden, painted to look like part of the mural behind the ticket counter. Bolted to one wall in there, angled downward like a single livid eye, is a cube TV displaying live feeds from the security cameras in each exhibit room. He lies there in the dark for a minute before he hears again the sound that woke him: the short, bright whine of hinges. The time-stamped screen shows 22:01. As he’s squinting at the feed from what his old man generously terms “the atrium,” a strip of tile with a broken vending machine and the ticket counter, he sees the silhouette of a young woman pass across the opaque glass of the locked door.
For a long minute, the feed jumps and blurs, but only with its own static. But then just as Harrison is about to heave himself over to try and get back to sleep, something heavy hits the tiles with a crackling burst from the feed mic, followed by another. Over the comm comes a sound you never want to hear in an unlit museum filled with giant semi-ambulatory dolls, which is hysterical laughter.
Two figures push themselves to their feet, one brushing the other down, holding a pencil flashlight between its teeth. They’ve squeezed through the high window above the door, he realizes, which he leaves unbolted and props open to coax a breeze in summer. Burglars? Burglars in the paper mâché-Palomino resale business? If his dad were here, he’d rush out and confront them. He’d be shocked that his only son wasn’t doing the same. He’s always been on Harrison to buy a gun, but he isn’t the one who has to go home and get an aching earful of Kathy’s ideas on bringing a firearm into the home with a new baby. Gunless and nervous, Harrison is just a lowly employee and – he recalls with relief – very much off the clock. Punched out. Relieved from active duty. No one knows he’s here. He can hear Kathy’s snip as well as if he was back home in bed, staring at the hook of her shoulder-blade through her old nightgown. What a hero.
But when one of the pair raises the flashlight to scan the room, he gets a better look at them and relaxes. Two young women. One of them doing a fine job filling out every inch of a pink summer dress, the other, taller, dressed in black head to toe. The one in black has a rude smirk on her face that Harrison takes objection to right away. Her dark hair is short as a boy’s. The light ripples over her scuffed combat boots as if through deep water.
“You don’t think we’ll get in trouble?” says the girl in pink.
“Looks abandoned,” says her friend. “This place was on its way out even when I was a kid.”
Harrison, who had repainted the baseboards just last week, frowns in his closet. It’s hard to see much in Railroad Songs as they enter. The pixelated beam of the girls’ flashlight plays over a motionless John Henry, his hammer swung up to its highest point, ready to drive down.
“So you were here as a kid?” the girl in pink says as the doors to the atrium close behind them.
“Sure,” says her friend calmly. “There’s not too many places to go, growing up around here.”
“I like going to new places with you,” says Pink. “Like, experiencing them together for the first time. I’ve told you that, right?” She could be flirting, almost, except Harrison can tell she’s not. She’s upset. Harrison knows that tone. Kathy uses that tone. It means someone is in trouble, usually Harrison. You know what I really like? I really like when you buy the formula brand I actually asked for, Harrison. His dad would go crazy if he heard Harrison letting her walk all over him like that. He tries to keep them apart, Kathy and his dad, for fear of exactly that.
“I’ve never been here at night like this before,” says Pink’s friend. And then, out of nowhere and nothing, she pulls Pink into her arms right there on the dark path through Railroad Songs, and kisses her. Harrison stares, something unreal trickling down his arms and ribs. Revulsion, or fascination. Both. “And even if it were the middle of the afternoon,” the girl in black adds when she’s done, “You make every place I go different.”
Harrison, independent of his other feelings, has never seen someone spin a moment like that so well. He doesn’t know where this girl learned what she knows, but Jesus, he wouldn’t mind sitting in the back of a class or two. While he was frozen, they pair has wandered through Sea Shanties and are in Cowboy Songs now, already cracking up at the Texas Ranger petrified atop his rearing horse. It occurs to Harrison again that he should really go and stop them, but the thing is, he wants to see them get to Murder Ballads. Every couple fights sometimes, and even the sappiest fight in Murder Ballads.
Murder Ballads is bad enough during open hours, but in the dark, even Harrison finds it creepy as hell. The walls in there are painted like a patchy sky, with the turquoise humps of the Blue Ridge Mountains troubling the knee-high horizon. The path and the grass are separated by a jute rope stretched taut between low pickets. On the diorama side of the rope, an animatronic man kneels over an animatronic woman lying on her back at the edge of the painted woods. When the power is on, he raises his knife high in the air and then brings it down with a jerk into a specially designed slot in her chest, again and again and again. The animatronic woman’s legs kick in slow motion against the ground, as if she is moving through water. The power tonight shut off just as the animatronic man brought down the knife, and the woman kicked upward in protest, a struggle frozen until nine precisely the next morning. It’s a waste of power for her to fight for her life when nobody is watching.
“Are they having sex?” says the girl in pink, very seriously, when she gets a look at them. “Are they supposed to be having sex?”
“You have a one-track mind,” says the girl in black. This fact doesn’t seem to upset her at all. “It’s the Murder Ballad Room, my dear. See the knife?” Her flashlight shimmies on over to the sign. “North Carolina,” she reads aloud. “Eighteen-oh-eight, a guy drowned his girlfriend because she was pregnant with his kid and he didn’t want it. They let him off and then he confessed on his deathbed. North Carolina eighteen-eighty six, Laura Foster, North Carolina eighteen ninety-four Ellen Smith…”
Pink’s voice is hushed. “North Carolina is fucked.”
Harrison, sitting alone in his back room listening, isn’t a low-watt bulb despite what Kathy says. He can tell that these girls don’t really care about the exhibits. They’re talking about them, but that’s not the point. The point is that every time Pink shivers, she draws a little closer to the other girl. The point is that every time the girl in black laughs at her, she gets to admire Pink in the beam of her flashlight. The thought gives Harrison an odd feeling in his chest, as though a very small hand has found a subtle way between his ribs and taken hold of the red meat inside and given it a sharp twist, like a stuck doorknob.
By the time Harrison remembers to check the feed, the girls have climbed over the low rope into the exhibit. They don’t even seem to see the sign he painted, which reads, “Please Remain On The Path!” Not like he wouldn’t have maybe done the same with Kathy a few years ago, but that was different. Why wasn’t there a way to get back to that? Was there a door through that particular wall between the two of them, hidden and painted and maybe by now plastered over? Every time he tried to approach his wife, now, it seemed Annie got in the way, if not right there in Kathy’s arms then crying in the next room, or not crying in the next room, which apparently worried Kathy equally as much.
“We didn’t treat your husband like a porcelain doll when he was little,” Harrison’s dad had announced, the first time he was over for the big game and caught a glimpse of Kathy’s careful feeding log.
“’We’?” said Kathy, writing. “I thought Rosie had kicked you out the door before you got round to much raising, Dale.”
“We didn’t suffocate him,” snapped the old man, “and he turned out just fine.” Harrison had been on the couch between the two of them for the entire conversation, but they talked right over his lap like he wasn’t there. He was sitting there trying to remember the last time he’d had sex with Kathy, and finding that he couldn’t.
Kathy, closing her notebook, said, “Clearly.”
The two girls are approaching the entangled animatronics now, their flashlight picking out limbs endlessly dismembered by shadow. Harrison isn’t scared of the things, but there’s a reason people are supposed to stay on the path. He finds his workday shirt sticking to his back as the girls wander too close.
“I think they should be having sex,” says the girl in pink.
The girl in black says, “Who’s ‘they,’ hmm?”
Somehow Pink manages to escape her. By the next sweep of the beam she’s stooping beside the animatronics, her shoulder-blades rippling beneath pink cotton, and when she turns around the light glints on the knife in her hand. She’s yanked it out of the animatronic man’s hand. His fingers, empty, now rest lightly on the animatronic woman, as if trying to hold closed the wound in her chest.
“It’s a real knife,” says Pink. “Look.”
The girl in black says, “I’m looking at something else.” And then they’re wrapped hard in each other’s arms, the knife lost somewhere underfoot, hands clawing tracks in each other’s hair.
Harrison feels like a child watching something he doesn’t understand. It’s not that what he’s seeing is complicated. He knows the words for what’s happening, but though the words apply, they don’t seem to fit. Things he’s been seeing his whole life feel like they mean something completely different between the two women. What would his dad think of some chicks getting it on in his diorama? Harrison might have minded more if it hadn’t been so long since he’d actually seen anybody enjoy his dad’s museum.
He finds himself thinking of that knife, lost somewhere in the grass where the girl in pink is arching and gasping now, and he’s thinking somehow at the same moment of Kathy after twenty-two hours of labor, just a few minutes after Annie was finally born and cradled in his arms, the moment he made the mistake of glancing on the wrong side of the curtain drawn across Kathy’s body and saw the blood, all that blood, and went so faint that Annie slipped right out of his arms and onto the hospital tiles the first time he ever held her. She wasn’t hurt, not bad anyway, but Kathy never trusted him again.
The girls have finished with each other and escaped laughing out the back exit, which only locks from the outside and are long gone by the time Harrison steps out of the back room. He finds the knife where Pink dropped it to one side in the grass, and picks it up, and turns it over in his hand.
He somehow wants to talk about the whole thing with Kathy, if she lets him in the door again. He’d never understood what was wrong with wanting things the way they used to be. What could he say to her? I watched two girls fucking around today and it got me thinking –. Yeah, that will go great.
He gets his things and goes out again through the exhibit room and past the animatronics without returning the man’s knife. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to him before how dangerous it was to have a real knife in here. Kids stop through sometimes on road trips with their parents, little kids like Annie, and someone could get hurt.
Usually when Harrison walks past the animatronics, he holds his breath like Annie does when she goes through a tunnel, as if something floating in there might infect him. As if he might accidentally bring it home. But tonight when he looks back he sees for just a second, kind of, what the girl in pink was talking about. The animatronic woman is lying in the dirt, just like always. But the arch in her back is almost pleasure, like something that man is doing to her feels just too good to lie still.