"This ends our tour of the museum," the guide recited. The cheap microphone in his hand buzzed with static. "You now have an hour free to explore the exhibits. Again, please meet back in the lobby."
The guide set down his equipment on the reception desk and left for his break. Suddenly bereft of their leader, most of the tour group stood in place, murmuring and shifting uneasily. A sudden shout brought them all to attention.
"Billy, come look! Aren't these the just cutest things?" screeched a large woman in an electric pink sweat suit. She was pointing to a display of plush panda bear toys in the gift shop window. Her friend, a large man in a Hawaiian print shirt, hurried over to admire the stuffed bears. They went in the shop, and soon everyone else trailed in after them. In a matter of moments, the shop was filled with the roar of American voices, cheerfully shouting over each other.
Only one member of the tour group hesitated before entering the gift shop, a white-haired man standing alone in the lobby. He held himself upright, despite the cane of expensive dark wood in his hand. The man smoothed the lapel of his dove gray suit and glared at the heaving sea of tacky prints inside the gift shop.
had always valued dignity and good taste, and presenting a good front was particularly
important to him while traveling. He wouldn’t want the locals to think worse of
him or his country.
He was feeling trapped with this group; he didn’t want to spend any more time with them. He turned around to consider the glass doors that led back to the museum exhibits, but he didn’t necessarily want to go that way, either.
The tour had been a frustrating experience for him. Having been raised to think of Impressionist paintings as the ultimate form of art, he had approached this museum's pieces as if they too were blurry watercolors. He had stepped back, and then forward, squinting carefully to discern different brushstrokes. By changing his perspective, he hoped to find the trick that revealed each piece’s significance.
Unfortunately, he found few brushstrokes to analyze, as the museum specialized in installation art. From afar, the first piece he tried to examine resembled a huge abstract painting. Up close, he could see it was actually a framed sheet of red plastic. The inhumanly smooth paint told him nothing. Exasperated, he turned to the small placard next to the cube. He knew he was cheating, but he hoped the placard would at least explain what he should have seen.
Qi-Xian Li. ‘Boxed Light’
Nothing. The group was moving on to the next piece, a giant horse made of yarn. So the man gave up and turned away. As he left the room, the installation’s automated lights kicked in, playing over the red surface and illuminating latent patterns beneath the plastic.
The old man had dutifully followed the group through the entire collection. He had approached each piece with optimism, hoping to find some connection with this foreign art, but each and every piece had appeared just as confusing. So now, he turned away from the exhibit entrance. He simply couldn't go back and pretend to examine more of that junk.
"Blobs of color, ridiculous..." he muttered as he joined the rest of the group in the gift shop. A rack of postcards caught his eye. He pulled one out at random and studied the image. He saw a cartoon dog.
How weirdly the artist had anthropomorphized the dog. The plump animal stood on its hind legs, stuffed into a medieval peasant dress. The dog rested one paw on the head of a pet monkey at its feet. Monkey and dog sported matching fanged grins. Both figures stood behind a table, bearing two baskets on top of black velvet. One basket held fruits painted in golden and rosy tones. The other basket contained a skull. An elaborate, stylized plant motif encircled the whole image.
The man noticed the plants and finally saw something he recognized. His hand shook as he brought the postcard closer to his eyes. The red blobs clinging to the elaborately twisted vine had to be strawberries. His granddaughter loved strawberries. She loved animals, too.
Taking hold of his cane, he stumped over to the counter and made his purchase. He brought the card to a bench next to the museum's paneled glass lobby walls and pulled a fine pen from his pocket, writing:
Here is a postcard I thought you might like. I know you love your puppy, so this picture made me think of you, my dear. Funny picture, isn't it? I am well, and enjoying my trip. The tour your mama booked for me is alright, but I don't really care to be escorted everywhere. I would prefer to explore this city a bit on my own.
The man paused to think of the next line, gazing out of the museum's glass windows. At first glance all he saw was an anonymous cityscape. A stream of pedestrians flowed past the window, people walking in the shadows cast by looming office buildings. As far as he could tell, he just as easily could have been looking at an American city. He’d never been to Asia before, but he had hoped being on a different continent would be a little more interesting.
A shaft of sunlight illuminated a small shop with a sign written in a foreign script. After that, his eyes began to pick out more and more clues indicating that he actually was in a foreign country. Over there, was that a palm tree between two park benches? He noticed a temple, a white onion dome painted with bands of red and gold, peeking from between two gray skyscrapers.
He returned his gaze to the postcard and rushed to scribble the rest of his message:
Tell your mama not to worry so much.
Love, Your Grandpa
He capped his pen and returned it to his suit pocket. Then he stood and marched quickly through the museum's front door.
On the other side of the gift shop, a young man in a polo shirt and khakis watched the room, looking bored. The plasticized name tag on his shirt read:
Hi! I’m Larry!
Underneath, in smaller print, the tag identified him as an employee of:
Crestview Plaza Retirement Living,
Larry noticed the door closing, and he saw the old man, on the other side of the glass, walking away. Larry’s eyes widened with horror before he propelled his rather chubby body across the lobby and out the museum entrance. He was forced to halt abruptly as he hit the crowd of pedestrians outside.
As Larry struggled through the crowd, the tour group of nursing home residents gathered at the glass window to watch Larry’s erratic flailing. This small mob pointed and laughed as he bounced like buoy in the ocean. Trying to move forward in the crowd, Larry would bump into a passerby and get knocked back. While he apologized curtly to the person he had run into, Larry attempted to move again without looking, slamming into the next person.
The old man easily eluded Larry in the crowd. When Larry could no longer make out the shape of the old man’s back, he abruptly turned around and ran back into the museum. The tour guide was back and waiting behind the snickering residents.
“What’s happened?” the tour guide asked.
“We’ve got a runner,” Larry said with professional exasperation. “I bet this guy doesn’t even know he’s in the city. Can we get a head count and try to figure out who is missing?”
“Then what?” the tour guide asked.
“Then…I think we’d better alert the authorities. Maybe someone at the central office can call the family.” Larry winced. “I don’t want to have to make that call.”
Meanwhile, the old man was busy examining the wide variety of graffiti on these streets. Some of the images were recognizably artistic, and he was pleased with the painted animals and friendly community murals. Many graffiti involved words, rather than images. Some words were easy to read, printed statements that looked as if they had been spray painted through a stencil. Most were far more difficult to understand.
He stood and tapped his cane absently on the sidewalk while he examined a more difficult representation. The brick wall bore multicolored letters, stretched into strange shapes, but almost recognizable. He was fairly certain that letter, in yellow with neon green shadows, that letter must be a Q. He thought for a moment that these words must be in Spanish, but that seemed a strange language to find here. He wondered briefly if this place had ever been colonized by the Spanish.
The old man noticed the pedestrians moving around him for the first time. Yes, many of the people around him looked as if they might have Spanish blood, but an awful lot of them looked American. He realized that he was probably still in a very touristy part of town, and decided to walk a bit further away from the museum. He wanted a real experience.
Soon, he was leaning heavily on his cane, something he rarely needed to do. The streets all seemed terribly steep. He spotted a sign post with a number on it. Hoping the post was a bus stop, he halted a nd felt in his pocket for change.
At that moment a red cable car rounded the corner and began barreling down the hill. The man stared open-mouthed as the cable car pulled up to the stop, one hand still in his suit pocket. He couldn’t remember where he had seen a cable car before.
Slowly, he pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket. He recognized it as a transfer ticket for the bus, and was momentarily pleased. Then, he read
San Francisco Trans-
before he stopped and abruptly shoved the ticket back in his pocket. He looked again at the cable car, stuffed with tourists snapping photos.
“Oh.” he murmured. “Oh, dear.” Remembering where he was, he also remembered where he should be, and decided to take the cable car after all.
He has to transfer, and take a bus as well. The bus driver tells him the stop, and makes sure the old man arrives safely at the skyscraper where his daughter works. He takes the elevator, and he is relieved when the door opens on the correct floor. He steps out and introduces himself politely to the receptionist. He fails to hear the receptionist’s faint reply, because he notices his daughter. She is clearly visible behind the glass windows separating the conference room from the front desk.
The glass buzzes from the force of her voice. She clutches a phone in her hand, yelling at the person on the other end. He does not envy that person. He studies his daughter’s expensive black pantsuit and her aggressively permed and dyed hair. He is sorry to see how unattractive she looks with her face scrunched up in anger. He sees the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth and realizes that she reached middle age a long time ago.
She throws the phone down. Then she looks up, and sees him waiting in the lobby. Her face immediately softens, and she rushes out to him.
With his daughter this close, he can see faint freckles dusting her nose. When she was a girl, those freckles would grow darker every summer, reappearing on her childishly smooth skin. He can see that little girl, with her blond hair in pigtails, dressed in a purple unicorn shirt and overalls with dirty knees. Her eyes are still the same lovely clear blue. Her lower lip still quivers when she is holding back tears. He leans over to hug her tightly, and smooths her hair as she sobs on his shoulder with relief.