the museum of americana

a literary review

Diorama: Great Chicago–Fire, Water, Stone—Nonfiction by Christine Butterworth-McDermott

I.

Seahorses unfold themselves in the aquarium tank, minuscule dragons. We are trying not to think of the shards of plastic forks on the actual ocean floor, rising up from the coral—no Disneying enchantment, just a thousand wonders torpedoed by tines. What we fear for our daughters’ daughters is that these creatures will only exist in tanks or stone artifice, in this frieze of the Shedd.

 

II.

Later, we stand on Michigan, the river bridge, the TRUMP sign dwarfing everything, letters gleaming like Hollywood, as if Ozymandias, not Christ, is King of Kings and all that remains is us, colossal wrecks. We take a boat tour with others who can afford the forty-five-dollar charge. A Black man on the bridge shouts, condemns our privilege, shakes an angry can of coins. We look away, ashamed.

We float by all the buildings, admire the restoration in the bright light. The river guide tells us how the river was so polluted in 1871, that when Mrs. O’Leary’s infamous cow started the fire, it offered no shelter, but burned itself. Then, he tells us the cow was framed by Pegleg Sullivan; his convenient scapegoat. “Fake news,” he says—and everyone laughs. Our sunglasses hide our eyes.

 

III.

We burn and do not replenish. Our oceans are angry, roiling up their hurricanes, spitting out the whales to the shore. This is not fake news. Scientists take thermal underwear to the Arctic and do not wear it.

 

IV.

In our purses, there are plastic forks from restaurants. We give our leftovers to the homeless man but forget the fork. We imagine him in an alcove eating the spaghetti, the meatball, with his fingers. We feel guilty about the fork but then imagine him pulling out a metal one, chiding our use of plastic. Later, we will throw the forks into the little black bin under the hotel sink at the Intercontinental. We will try not to imagine the trash of every room collected, where it goes, what stink it emits. 

 

V.

We leave extra money for the maid and say we will live in this moment, this screech of horn, this great glow of flickering light, our daughters’ steady breathing. The digital clock tells time by the threaded count of white sheets. Savasana. Namaste.

 

VI.

In the morning, our daughters will unfold their limbs, uncurling like seahorses, in the tank of a room. We will stare through the watery Monet light of the window into the sprawling city we love, the old and new buildings rising in their glorious mix of sentiment and century.

 

VII.

Panoramic diorama: Memories of our own mothers on the El, laughing. Memories of reading Dybek’s “Hot Ice” the first time, that frozen girl, candle flame under a frosted pane. Dinosaur bones. Memories of hot chocolate at the Walnut Room, the twinkling of jewels in glass cases, treasures on display. Colleen Moore’s castle. Romeo and Juliet in the Palmer’s entryway. Les Mis at the Auditorium. Balm of relish the color of Baum’s gated city, ivy on stone, cheering crowds. Fountain girl in Lincoln park offering her bowl. Memories of winter wool wet with snow. Slush and boots. Here’s Caillebotte’s umbrella. Memories of our fathers explaining how brushstrokes make masterpieces, make things look like water, (O, Vétheuil! O, Homer!), how bundled pylons support soaring steel, (O, Wrigley! O, Adler!) how we could go upwards from any place (O, Second City! O, Ferris!). 

 

VIII.

Memories of ghosts and miracles, of gigantic wheels, memories of the taxidermied animals in the Field. Walrus. Walruses. Odobenidae. Odobenus rosmarus. Arctic Ocean. Hall N

 

IX.

We will say we don’t know what we have done.

~~~

Christine Butterworth-McDermottChristine Butterworth-McDermott is founder and co-editor of Gingerbread House Literary Magazine. Her latest book Evelyn As, is a poetic exploration of the early life of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. Her creative work has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Massachusetts Review, River Styx, and the nonfiction anthology All That Glitters, among others.

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