By Rebecca Nison
Inspired by Ann McCoy’s The Four Alchemical Doors, 1992, found at 2 W 13th Street, 5th Floor.
Jacob makes faces out the car window, pressed behind the passenger seat where his mom sits, telling his father to slow down his driving. His face fills the open window, and air surges around his cheeks with the gentlest violence. Today, the Healeys are headed to the Museum of Natural History. Today, Jacob rattles with excitement to think he’ll see dinosaur bones for his first time. From the time he was a much smaller Jacob in his crib, his father taught him all about star clusters, the human body, extinct species, and how trees grow. From the time Jacob could ask questions, he craved only hear about dinosaurs; how big, how ferocious, how many kinds, how they lived here, right where he could touch the ground, how it was possible none survived.
This ride thrills him, too, because he’s already gathered two waves from people in cars with his legendary pig face — the masterpiece of all ugly faces. Stretching his nostrils up with his thumbs, he scrunches his eyelids so they look wrinkled like unmade blankets, his mouth hanging open sloppily. He wants to collect five more waves by the time they reach the museum — because he’s seven years old, seven’s his favorite number, and a wave is the supreme gesture of acknowledgement.
For a long time, while he guesses fifty cars must have passed by, he’s not getting any waves. Maybe, he thinks, he’s not giving enough oomph — a word Mr. Torano, the music teacher, taught them this week. He explained it meant giving as much energy as you felt you could. Sometimes, Mr. Torano said, imagining yourself in a situation that makes you very happy or very angry or very strong can help you sing better, help you give a song — or anything at all — more oomph.
Jacob wants to practice using oomph, hoping it will earn him more waves. He thinks of Mrs. Chipmunk, his first-grade teacher. Jacob’s mom would probably make him tell you her real name isn’t Mrs. Chipmunk — it’s Mrs. Chimmerak. What Jacob would tell you is that between her two front teeth there’s a gap almost the size of a whole tooth and when she talks, she spits across the classroom, that the spit’s like a soccer ball shooting right through a goal, straight into the next field. He believes that the spit always lands on him, that it’s on purpose.
Thinking of Mrs. Chipmunk’s spit on his cheek, Jacob remains resilient, staying true to the face and wagging his tongue with so much oomph and so much pride he feels like his face takes up the whole window and maybe the entire road.
His mom taps his arm and looks back with disappointment like Jacob’s doing something horribly wrong. “Please stop,” she seethes. In the tone that shrinks Jacob’s bones, she says “Maybe your face will get stuck that way,” and asks, “Would you like that?”
“I’m using oomph,” he tells her. “I’m giving this all my energy, as much as I feel I can.” Jacob likes using Mr. Torano’s words. Hearing them come out of his mouth, in his voice, he feels like a grown up; all Mr. Torano’s words sound more real than his.
“That can be practiced in more productive ways,” his mom tells him. So Jacob sits up straight and glares out the window with a choking regret for all the potential waves he could be collecting. He tells himself it will be okay; in a few minutes she’ll forget and chatter to his dad, and then he’ll continue with his faces. Watching the New Jersey Turnpike, he tries to distract himself. Clouds puff from the factories; people in their cars talk or sing or stare ahead still as dolls; electric towers stand like large cages; fat wires thread pole to pole and tower to tower, sewing the road together.
After a few minutes of this, his mom’s already calm again and talking to his dad about how there are so many trucks on the road today. Jacob jolts with excitement as he recreates his pig face and pushes his head through the open window, into the day.
After maybe six cars pass, there’s nothing. So he tries another face, a great new one he’s been working on for awhile. He shows his teeth and pushes his cheeks forward with his hands so his mouth looks like a little box. His eyeballs rotate in quick circles. Two cars pass after he starts this, and he’s already collected another wave. This one comes from a man with long hair and a big mustache. And he gathers two more, just like that. For Jacob, each wave feels like winning.
From two lanes away, a lady driving a car looks at him. She’s pretty and she smiles mildly but seems far away, the way people do when they’re thinking hard about something they loved a long time ago. From behind the glass of her closed window, she looks straight at Jacob, but she doesn’t wave. Higher, higher, Jacob pulls his nostrils up then spreads them further apart. She stares. Jacob tilts his head side to side, sticks his tongue out as far as it reaches. She stares. He changes his face, pulls his cheeks back as far as they will go. No wave. Now she gazes as if she knows him, like she’s opening him up and figuring him out. Jacob thinks she can’t know him because he doesn’t know her, and he’s been making these faces and no one could recognize him like this. Not Mr. Torano. Maybe not even his mom.
This pretty lady does not look away. She looks only at Jacob. So he continues performing, and her gaze thrills him. Being watched makes him feel like apple trees grow in his belly. She’s staring. Jacob needs her to wave at him. He’s grabbing the tops of his cheeks like they’re fruit he intends to pick off a branch — and she’s gone.
There’s a truck horn and a sound like paper crumpling into the loudest microphone. Jacob sticks his head and chest far out the window to look back. The lady’s car is clasped between two trucks, pressed flat as play-doh between a table and hand.
Jacob lurches to his seat, sits up straight, hugs his seatbelt around himself, and clicks it into its cradle. His dad continues driving. His mom looks out the window and gasps. She shrieks, “Richard, look. Richard, we should stop and try to help,” but his father turns back, looks, turns forward, and continues to drive.
“Someone will help, but there’s nothing we can do about it. That guy will need an ambulance. We’ll just hold up traffic.”
Jacob wants to say, ‘It’s not a guy, it’s a lady. She had a pretty face and pretty eyes and she watched me with them.’ He wants to ask, ‘Why will she need an ambulance? Will she be okay? She’s not dead, right?’ But he is terrified anything he says will show them all that this was his fault. So he sits up stiff, says nothing, and stares into the back of his mom’s seat, hoping she will turn around and tell him not to worry, that everything will be alright, that these things always appear much worse than they actually are. When seven cars have passed and she hasn’t said a thing, a feeling enormous and terrible tumbles through him. This is more fear than he’s ever felt. He’s more afraid, he thinks, than that time he broke his ankle on the trampoline. Much more, even, than when he trapped himself in the basement last winter for a whole hour and thought he’d never be found. Jacob remains silent all the way to the museum, looking straight ahead, yearning for his mother to tell him the lady will be alright, hearing her instead talk to his dad about how crowded the museum will be today, the dad’s clients, where they’ll eat dinner tonight.
In the museum, Jacob tries to forget what happened earlier today when he and his dad laugh at the still, stuffed animals behind glass. He imagines he’s wandering the wild, that he’ll hunt these animals for food and it’ll be easy as opening a refrigerator. Though he can’t touch the giant gems because they’re separated by glass, he watches them shine onto his fingers, claims to his mom he knows how much money each one is worth, and thinks about how he would steal them if he were a pirate. When they reach the dinosaur bones, Jacob’s father begins explaining extinction. Jacob’s heard this same lesson many times since he was a smaller version of himself in the crib. “Some people think a giant asteroid came out of the sky and, kablam!, hit the earth. A huge collision. Some say that’s why all the dinosaurs here died, why all that’s left of them now are the bones, like what you see here.”
Jacob grows quiet. His dumb joy dims. He remembers the car accident earlier and wants to be far away from bones right now. When he tries to stalk past them, his dad rests his hand on Jacob’s shoulder.
“All this time you’ve wanted to see this, and now that we’re here, you’re getting grumpy? Look,” he says, “there’s the t-rex,” and his face grows bright with elation for Jacob. His smile is wide as a canyon.
Jacob says he wants to see something else instead.
“But this is what you’ve always wanted to see,” his mom jumps in, encouraging.
His father pushes him over to the t-rex, and as he does, his footsteps echo like he’s important and to be obeyed, the way Principal Murphy’s shoes sound when he walks down an empty hallway. His father stares up at the massive bones. “I’m bored of these,” Jacob says. “I don’t want to look at them. They’re just big dead things.” He hopes his father will understand, that he won’t have to argue or explain.
Marveling at the bones, his father laughs, “You must just be feeling shy with all your heroes around.”
Jacob wants to look away from the bones because they’re skeletons that used to have bodies and used to breathe and can’t anymore. And he can’t say why, or everyone will know what he’s done. So he stares at the ground, and he thinks of the pretty lady. He remembers how she looked at him like she was figuring him out, like she knew him. She was alive and she smiled.
The image of her car invades — the whole thing a shriveled catastrophe; all a mass of metal entrails; its body inside out like chewed-through metal meat; the trucks the teeth of giants, her car a sliver of food stuck between them.
When he looks up, Jacob is overcome by a craving to climb up the t-rex bones, to grab onto the notches of its leg and pull himself up the way he sees his dad do on a ladder sometimes. How he wants to swing from the ribs! He could make it all the way across the dinosaur’s body in less than a minute, like he’s been practicing at recess on the monkey bars. Just to stand on its skull would be triumphant — to rest there awhile and watch all the people below, to slide down its spine and then smash the whole skeleton until the bones don’t look any different than branches and sticks. But if he can’t do that, he can’t just stand here.
He can’t just stand here because all the dead things in the room tower so much larger than the living people in it. He can’t stand here among dead things unless he can climb them like they are his very own playground, unless he can stand on top of them like they are nothing but tree-houses, unless he can believe they never moved or felt or breathed.
But Jacob knows he cannot do these things. He can only hug his arm around his stomach, look into the dead dinosaur’s missing face, and stand still as the bones.