A little black squirrel startled me as it suddenly launched itself out of a trashcan. I was walking down a sidewalk on my way to the museum, facing a bunch of rush hour traffic. The squirrel looked really scared as it tore down the street and ducked into some bushes. Readjusting my backpack, I took a deep breath and looked over at the line of cars stalling behind a red light. Some of the drivers glanced up as I passed.
At Warren Avenue, I was kind of disappointed the homeless man wasn’t on the green bench. He usually slept there sitting up, his chin tucked down on his chest. I didn’t know his name, I hadn’t even seen him with his eyes open, but I hoped he was okay.
On a whim, I took a running jump and pulled down a handful of bright yellow leaves that hung over the sidewalk. They were basically neon against the dark color of the bark. I threw most of them into the wind, but decided to keep one. I liked how it could twirl by its stem between my thumb and finger. It smelled good too, I covered my nose with it a few times before tucking it into my backpack. Marcus was at the main entrance.
“Theo! How are ya?”
“Hi, Marcus. Doing good. You?”
“Can’t complain.” He winked and held the door open. Then his voice got deep, “Be good, son.”
As I walked in, I turned slowly and nodded.
“I have my eye on you.” Marcus pointed to his eyes, then to me. I glanced over again and just barely heard him mutter into his radio, “The ghost is in the house.” I didn’t know what that meant.
I swung into the European galleries–past the ginormous painting of Louis-Philippe saluting his army on a life-size white stallion, then up the marble stairs–to the third floor and the Dutch Golden Age wing. The collection wasn’t very big, mostly plain churches and grey landscapes of old windmills, shipyards, and sleepy cows. When I rounded the corner, I took off my bag and stood in front of my favorite one. It reminded me of Momma.
The painting’s frame wasn’t big. Inside, a girl sat next to a small white dog laying on one of three dining room chairs. A man wearing a bright red coat and a large black hat (like Captain Hook) sat at a table with the woman. Sunlight from the window lit up the right side of her face. She was looking directly at the man–who seemed to be watching something through the window–and was handing him a playing card. Both of the grown-ups were holding cards. And plus there was the boy standing behind them, “most likely brought to the Dutch Republic from Africa,” the plaque said. He was dressed nicely and pouring from a pitcher, “modeled after Chinese porcelain.”
What I like about the painting, though, was the way the hands were positioned. It looked like the boy was taking the card from the woman, but his hand was actually directly behind hers, holding a glass by its base–an optical illusion. Leaning forward, I read the plaque again. The Game of Cards, oil on canvas, by Hendrik van der Burch—
“Kinda tells you about the history, don’ it?”
I jumped and spun around to see a big lady, a guard, standing directly behind me with her arms crossed.
“He could be about your age, couldn’t he? Kinda looks like you.” She noded to the painting.
“Oh? Yeah, I–”
“Makes you wonder about the painter, huh?”
The lady leaned in to get a better look. “To be honest, I’ve been working here so long I forget these are real paintings. After a while I just kinda stop seeing them, you know?”
“Well, not really, but you can only look at a bunch of dead white people for so long before you go crazy.” She put a hand on her hip. “See, about eight or nine o’clock at night? I start playing hop scotch with these squares on the floor.” She started hopping on one leg, making the keys on her belt jingle, loud.
“Hey, I was gonna aks you, where d’you live, anyway?”
“Oh, uh, my momma says I can’t tell that to strangers.”
“You live in the city?”
“How close to here?”
“Pretty close, I guess.”
“Who’s your momma?” She hoisted her pants higher on her waist, tucking in the back of her shirt.
“Uh, she works–she used to work here.”
I scratched the back of my ear. “I donno. She emptied trashcans in the offices and stuff. Why?”
The lady folded her arms again and stepped closer to me. She lowered her voice, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” she paused and looked over her shoulder, “but a couple of us have noticed you come in here an awful lot by yourself at all hours of the day–even during school hours–but we never see you leave.”
“Oh.” I nodded my head slowly, suddenly feeling really hot. My thoughts jumped to Marcus. He must’ve said something.
“Like I said, I’m not accusing nobody, but…” She gave me a once-over with her eyes and pressed her lips together tightly before turning away, “you tell your momma hello, whoever she is. Stay out of trouble now.”
I watched the woman walk down the hallway, keys swinging. My heart was pounding. A picture of a Dutch princess popped out on the wall directly to my left. Her face and neck were really bright and contrasted against the murky background. I noticed for the first time she was staring, frozen, with her lower lip sticking out in a sad way. I backed away, but no matter where I moved, her eyes always followed.
It’s an illusion. I told myself, but I was sure those eyes followed me all the way down the hallway, and I ran.