by Abbe Rolnick
“Quiet.” I say quiet over and over, an impossible task for people. You all leave me with your voices, your thoughts, your careless remains. You’re gone but I still hear you, echoes of time. These walls have listened, counseled, borne the brunt of centuries of good and bad intentions. I’ve made the decision to show you the consequences of your folly.
Josiah, even with his excesses and abandonment, had built his house to endure. He had hired the best workman, loyal patrons to his logging empire. Men he trusted with all his wealth. Josiah left his legacy within me. I still feel the obligation to his ancestors. If only his distant relative, Catherine, would listen to me now. She never uses her own voice, quiet anger brewing. Her mother is of no help, but I need her to turn the fate of the Walker Museum.
Lindsay held promise. The young director, with ideas and visions. I’ve just got to turn her focus from what is on the floor, as in the words of the brash Ted Davis, “the collection is a hodge-podge of mediocrity,” to the structure, the essence. I have within me treasures that Josiah intended the world to reap. I have the stories of the criminals, the innocent, the faithful and unfaithful, and lovers with passions misplaced but deeply felt.
Josiah knew that there would be thieves, robbers of materials. He worried about ideas, history, the personal stories of the less fortunate. I miss him. He left me with a huge task. I don’t trust the banker, Mr. Hanson, or the rich realtor Toni. Josiah warned me with his gentle touch, his inspections of the walls, the floors, the pegs and joists, that trust begins with the hands, the sweat, the detail is just for show.
I’ll begin today, with the rustling of dust, a shake or two of floorboards, a malfunction of the furnace. I hope I can guide Lindsay to the Grand Staircase, and even outside to the useless balconies. I need her to see.
Lindsay arrived at the museum at precisely 7:50 a.m. Her habit of arriving early had been with her since a child. The youngest of four kids, she’d learned that to beat the crowds in the bathroom she needed to slip in before her sisters. To get food, she’d eat before they were down from primping. Efficiency made her the prodigy at the university. Not only did she have a librarian’s degree but also a master’s degree in art history. She’d made a joke of her qualifications to Andrew, but it was true that no one wanted to curate at a run-down museum.
After she unlocked the doors, turned off the alarm, she took her ritual first breathe—she called it the scent of age. Everyone complained about the displays, the lack of audience. But Lindsay knew in her bones that the museum had potential. She sniffed again. Cursing under her breath, she followed the burnt smell to the furnace room.
The bowels of the museum groaned as Lindsay rubbed her hand along the bumps on the wall. They cried for attention, black soot and lines covered so many years of neglect. The furnace clicked over and over. A sure sign that the electric starter had failed. Fearful that the whole building would explode she turned it off. She shivered in advance, thinking how cold the upstairs would be if she didn’t get the furnace fixed soon. Catherine would freeze giving today’s tours. Lindsay should warn her.
Lindsay dialed Catherine’s house. The phone rang and rang and finally someone picked up. “Hi, this is Lindsay over at the Walker Museum. Is Catherine there?”
The woman on the other end took forever to answer, as if the world had impeded on her dreams. When the woman finally spoke, Lindsay’s heart went numb. “Catherine, you mean Catherine my daughter. She isn’t here. She leaves me alone, to take care of the museum. I need her. It’s the curse that has a hold of me. They say Josiah left a fortune for the town. But he left a home a century ago, and still, there is nothing for his family. Catherine knows that place better than she knows me. Why are you calling me? I’m lost. Can I help you?”
Lindsay knew the signs of dementia, the signs of mental fogginess, that placed a loved one in a different state. “Mrs. Walker, you are so kind to ask. I’d love to hear about Josiah and his life. I’ll ask Catherine if I can come by one day. I want to make sure she has a sweater as the furnace isn’t working.”
“Yes, the cold touches the bones. Hardens the heart. You could check in the basement or in the hidden rooms. All the good stuff is stashed there.”
Just as Lindsay hung up, Catherine walked through the doors. “It’s freezing in here. What’s that smell.”
The walls shuddered, one of the Victorian Dolls fell off the display. Lindsay caught it before it hit the floor. “I just called to warn you that I had to turn the furnace off. Maybe we should dress like these dolls, in layers like they did a century ago. Petticoats, tights, corsets. It’s a wonder that the ladies could even move.”
“Not my style. I assume you have a list of repair men who can come out quickly. We open in two hours. Maybe they’d donate their services for a good cause.” Catherine took the doll from Lindsay’s hand and screwed it to its pedestal. Each turn emitted a tiny screech.
Lindsay noted Catherine’s closed mouth, the set of her jaw. She assumed it was her reference to her mother. “I’ve got an idea. I’ll make a few calls and then let’s pop in at Subdue Brews Coffee before the museum opens. We can warm ourselves up and order food for later.”
The last thing Catherine wanted was to be around people. No one knew how far-gone her mother was. Now Lindsay would go soft on her, ask questions. Sometimes secrets were meant to stay hidden.
Lindsay held Catherine’s arm and guided her into the café. Catherine chuckled to herself. Patrons might think they were a couple. A silly idea. Lindsay was as straight as an arrow and too focused on the museum to even notice men let alone women. Even so, the human connection felt good.
Sunburst called out, “Catherine, so good to see you and the same to you Lindsay. We’re real busy but I’ll find you a table. You two don’t usually come in together or at this time. Must be important.”
Lindsay laughed, “It’s about survival. Thanks for being here. You are a bright light.”
Catherine bristled at Lindsay’s cheerfulness. No one had the right to be so happy, young, and smart.
Lindsay sat by Catherine’s side instead of across from her. “I hope you don’t mind, but I want to watch for the repair guy.”
“Makes sense. Tell me, what did my mom say. She usually doesn’t answer the phone.”
Lindsay extended her hand, a gentle touch. “I could tell she was confused. I don’t want to pry but I have some experience with this. My father had to take care of my mother. She had early onset dementia. We learned to be with her where she was at. I know you go directly home after all the meetings. Do you have help or is it all on you?”
“I know you mean well, but this is private. Unless it impacts my work, please observe my privacy.”
“You are so important to the museum. As the docent you know all the nooks and crannies. Your mom mentioned hidden rooms, she inferred that your ancestor Josiah, left valuable artifacts in them.”
Catherine choked. “She’s been saying that for years. Believe me, I wish it were true. Claims that the story came from her great grandfather.”
Lindsay looked at her with pleading eyes. “This is important for the museum and I bet it might help your mother, repeating stories that are imbedded from the past. I know it helped my mother and father communicate.”
Despite her reluctance to expose her life, Catherine felt appreciated, seen. “What do you need?” The smile on Lindsay’s face reassured her.
“The only way we can find out is to look at the original plans of the house. I bet the entrances have been closed off. I’ll search for files at the museum and in the archives. Maybe I could visit you and your mom. Just talk. You never know where it might lead.”
“Promise you won’t tell anyone? I’m embarrassed, feel resentful. My mom probably doesn’t even care.”
“Absolutely, hush is the word. I don’t want the board to know until we’re sure. Even if we don’t find anything, it might help your mom, and maybe you.”
Catherine covered her eyes with her napkin, a few daps and she was okay again. Emotions didn’t serve her well. When she looked up, she saw the repair truck going by. “Lindsay, better rush over to the museum. Our furnace repairman just passed.”
“Thanks, see you back at the museum. Take your time.” She put twenty dollars down on the table. “Have Sunburst wrap up our order. She is a gem of a person, one of my favorite friends.”
Lindsay ran out of the café with her brain on fire. Catherine’s dilemma burned a hole in her heart. She’d learned the lessons of love the hard way. She didn’t want Catherine to face her mother’s illness alone. Her own weak spot for family kept her honest. The museum could benefit, but more important was the community—Catherine and those who live here. Who knows what would happen if they found Josiah’s treasures?
From the corner of her eye she noted Toni, walking with one of her clients towards the café, so deep in conversation, that they didn’t see Lindsay wave. Across the street she noticed Jeff Hansen leaving an apartment building. His face flustered as he adjusted his tie. She laughed to herself when she spotted Ted zip by on his fancy bike. He was headed to the café. Sunburst would fill her in later.
Lindsay arrived at the museum just as the repairman finished parking. Breathless she fumbled with keys. As she opened the door, she heard what she thought was a bird flying. It probably flew in because she left the windows open to let out the smell of burning. The Victorian doll that Catherine had reposition on its pedestal lay on the floor.
Within an hour the furnace hummed, but not until the burnt wires had been replaced. The repair was just a band-aid. They’d have to open the walls to rewire the entire electrical system. Lindsay saw money flying out the window.
Upstairs on the second floor, the stuffed Great Auk rolled out of the diorama. It lay by an open window. Lindsay leaned against the window, rested her hand along the edge. She felt a pulse, hers, and that of the museum. How was she going to breath life back into the building? Josiah had died but his spirit seemed to have lingered.
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