In the living room, the dead room, the reborn room, he found the faded denim couch. The yellow comfy chair he used to curl into like a cat after coming downstairs in the morning. Paintings that looked just like the originals—were they ever originals or just prints in the original house? This rug and that cupboard over there missing one knob. How?
A little painted cast of his face stood on the mantelpiece—crafted in fourth grade art class, said a plaque on the wall. The artist recalled the darkness inside the mask, the sensation of cool plaster strips coating his cheeks, and then a bright flash pulled him back to the lamplit living room. A nearby teenager lowered her phone and avoided his gaze, embarrassed to be caught taking his picture.
All of the visitors to his living room avoided eye contact with him. He imagined them rushing to tackle him to the ground, tearing at his flesh with their teeth and nails, picking his bones dry—for now, this museum was enough to satisfy them. Still, the question remained: How? His archivist had assured him that her research was extensive, but he had not been prepared for this.
Indelible, the day his house burned down. He was home from school for Thanksgiving and the fire was feasting, could not be extinguished until finished eating its fill. Home, outside, and Mom was crying. By morning, the house was a black hollow, burnt beams protruding out of the rubble like fossilized ribs. He sifted through debris and left with ash on his hands.
Decades after the fire, this house became the focus of the most prolific and celebrated phase in his art. On huge canvases, he painted vibrant reimaginings of the kitchen, living room and his bedroom, which, as frustrating as this was flattering, drew comparisons to Van Gogh (they turned the home of that poor one-eared painter into a museum, too). At the opening of a gallery show exhibiting the series, the artist set fire to a portrait of the house’s facade, and this stunt, though widely criticized, only raised the alleged value of the blackened canvas.
The woman working the front desk eyed the artist with suspicion as she handed over a ticket and receipt. Yes, it’s me, he thought, but only smiled and turned to follow the signs past the gift shop to the permanent exhibit, heads turning as he passed. His followers. They must have read the tweet his publicist ghost-wrote about his visit to the museum. He wondered how these people would feel if he knew as much about their lives—hobbies, romances, affairs—as they knew about his own. Perhaps he wouldn’t receive so many violent threats online.
Text on the wall summarized for the artist the story of his life: famous musician becomes famous painter, achieves famous fame. Nested in the biography was a large black and white photograph of a man much younger than him wearing a turtleneck sweater. The artist searched his two-dimensional eyes—what are you so smug about?
The first exhibit comprised a replica of the foyer from his childhood home. Entering through glass doors, the artist felt that he was stepping into a dream; red rope and stanchions composed a path forward, identifying the space as unfunctional, mere representation, but this only made it more surreal to him that the little room was so detailed and accurate. Over the rope, there was that uncomfortable wooden bench. And to his surprise, a pair of his mother’s shoes that looked legitimate—blue running sneakers, muddied and well-worn but now forbidden to be touched by hand or foot. It felt ridiculous that he should not be able to explore this place with his body. After all, it was his home, wasn’t it? Maybe not, maybe it had ceased to belong to him when he made the decision to revive and immortalize the building in his art instead of letting it rest undisturbed in those ashes.
There you are, said a familiar voice behind him. The artist turned, unsurprised to see his archivist walking through the exhibit. She always seemed to move with a clear destination in mind, which in this case, was him.
Fancy meeting you here, he said and moved to hug her but she leaned away.
Listen, I’m not happy with you—I told you to call me when you were coming. I didn’t appreciate having to find out you’d be here from a tweet.
So you finally got Twitter? Okay, I’m sorry I didn’t call, but I really was just in the neighborhood and stopped in on a whim.
Uh huh, she said with a smile. Sure you did. Come on, let’s go to the living room, I’ll show you around. She took him by the hand and led him through the open doorway—his mother had led him through museums like this.
Here, look at the curtains, see this pattern? We were able to find the original manufacturer; they don’t make them anymore but amazingly they had some left in storage.
How did you do it?
Oh, I just talked to a curtain expert who pointed me in the right direction. After that it was just, email, email, email, until I could send someone to pick them up.
Sure, but I mean, all of it, all of this, how was this even possible?
She laughed, as if he was joking.
Anything’s possible, she said.
Far from it, in fact, I’m almost suspicious. All of this from our interviews and old home videos? It’s almost real enough to fool me.
Almost? I was actually hoping you wouldn’t notice any discrepancies.
He hadn’t—though he doubted whether his own memories of the living room, soft and graying, could withstand the presence of this exhibit. If the couch had not looked like this, would he have noticed? If he had remembered it otherwise, would he have been wrong?
Of course, said the archivist, the truly impossible thing was creating one snapshot of a house that existed for decades. Like, between every photo and video we had there were discrepancies. Furniture moved, walls redecorated, so the best we could do was make something that felt like it captured the spirit of the house.
Hm, he said, and thought about her turn of phrase: the spirit of the house. It did feel spooky, this lost place made present. Or perhaps he was the hauntological presence here, out-of-time, a visitation. Soon enough, they could make his death mask to match the plaster fourth-grade face on the mantel. You’re right, he said, I couldn’t tell you what year this room represents, but I think my own memory of the house is the same way, all mixed up and patched together, like a composite character.
So then, what exactly feels wrong to you? Don’t worry, you won’t offend me. From the very beginning you said you didn’t want to be involved in the project, so I don’t feel bad about falling short of perfection—
And you shouldn’t.
And I don’t, she reiterated.
Well, honestly, the one thing that really doesn’t do it for me? It’s the smell. I can’t even remember what the living room smelled like, and even if I did, you could never recreate it, because smells are so subjective, right? I mean, it must have smelled different to me living there every day than it did to anyone who came to visit and could only smell the dog.
The archivist nodded along faster than he spoke. I know, I know, she said, but there’s nothing to be done for that, I’m afraid. It smells like a goddamn museum.
It is a museum.
She didn’t respond. They continued exploring the exhibits for a long while in silence.
The archivist and artist were in the kitchen inspecting plastic apples in a wire basket when distant screams came resounding through a window on the far wall. Perhaps from another exhibit? Every chattering visitor in the kitchen with them suddenly hushed, and looked to the artist as if he should have known what was going on. He made eye-contact with an elderly woman wearing big purple glasses who appeared particularly worried. Her dry lips parted, as if on on the verge of speaking, when he shrugged his shoulders and turned to the archivist, who herself wore a subtle pout.
Maybe you’d better stay here, she said, moving to follow the noise.
Where are you going? I thought we’d go see my bedroom?
It’s probably nothing. I just want to be sure.
I’m sure it’s nothing, honey, he said, and she snapped back to face him. Honey? Why had he said that? A word that had been so uncomplicated when they were in love but at this point only drudged up sour memories.
Okay, stay here, honey, she said, breaking into a smile. He winked, but continued to trail the archivist, despite her protests, back to the living room as if this was a planned part of her tour. He wondered what she felt she needed to protect him from—he’d been braving a publicity storm for decades; if he could handle the paparazzi then he could handle this—whatever this was.
In the original house, the living room would have been just a few feet away, around the corner and through the dining room. But here, he found space stretched so that the replica rooms became isolated, torn from their kin—perhaps, he thought, to make room for more informational placards and the visitors vying to read them. The archivist walked at a brisk pace down the white hallway connecting the kitchen to the living room. Museum guards came rushing past them, escorting people to the nearest exit. It made the artist smile, seeing the perfect museum scramble.
They were almost at the door to the living room when a museum guard—young, buzz cut blue hair, probably an aspiring artist—came bursting out towards them. The guard looked at the artist in surprise, and then spoke in a fearful whisper: run.
The archivist hesitated, watching the door to her exhibit creep shut, glimpsing a concerning but unidentifiable scene on the other side. The artist was only more curious now what was happening in the living room, but looked to the archivist to see what she would do.
Please, can we run? said the guard, a little louder this time.
The archivist finally nodded to him and tugged the artist along. They followed the guard, jogging back through the labyrinth of mismatched rooms and hallways. Finding a secure door just past the kitchen that was painted the same color as the rest of the wall, rendering it almost invisible, they entered an employees-only area with dim lighting.
The aging artist was relieved to slow down. He sat to catch his breath on a cardboard box that bowed under his weight. The area was still under renovation, plastic sheets, white dust and paint cans lining the walls.
What’s going on? demanded the archivist.
He’s taking hostages, said the guard, nervously. I managed to slip out while he was distracted, but he says he’s got a bomb. He’s threatening to blow up the building if you don’t come to the museum and listen to him sing.
Sing? The artist laughed. Wait, you mean, he doesn’t know I’m already here?
It doesn’t seem like it, but just to be safe, we should get you out.
Let’s go to the garage, said the archivist, taking off her round glasses to clean them—multitasking as usual. She already looked more calm now that she had a plan. The artist had long been amazed by how well she had managed to organize and preserve all the messes he had made in his work and life. Come on, she said. We can take my car.
Wait, wait, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Maybe I should just go in there and, you know, let the guy sing a song or two.
You can’t be serious; we don’t know what this person might do.
I’m going back.
The artist started to turn and she clasped his wrist. He was reminded for some reason of when she had cooked a steak for him, sous-vide, even though she was vegetarian. It had been his birthday, or some other occasion, and they drank red wine while she cooked. After lifting the plastic-sealed filet from its bath, she brandished a meat thermometer, and he watched as she slid its sharp point into the steak with such precision, such care—like a nurse inserting a needle to draw blood.
You can’t go in there, she said.
Water or some substance rushed through the pipes as they raised their voices, speaking over each other. The archivist was as stubborn as he was, and now that she had a plan to get him to safety, nothing would sway her. But his curiosity was gnawing at him.
The museum guard stood silent, eyeing the corners of the space. Still in shock from what he had just escaped—after all, his training prepared him for little more than preventing flash photography—he was also starstruck by the presence of one of his favorite artists. When this was all over, would the artist be grateful for his help? Perhaps even take a look at his ceramics?
Eventually, the artist gave up trying to convince the archivist and started back to the living room alone. She watched him go out into the white hallway, where he would retrace his steps through the exhibits, his home, wondering for the first time if he was making the wrong decision and consider going back to apologize. But just as he reached the door to the living room, the archivist caught up to him—the guard, who’d led them away from this precise spot, had slipped out of the museum through a back door, having decided it wasn’t worth risking his young life to impress anyone.
I know what you’re thinking, the archivist whispered. But don’t think because I’m here that I’m okay with what you’re doing, because, I am not. I mean, after everything I’ve done for you and for your art, it’s like you still don’t give a damn about my opinion, which, just so we’re clear, is that you should not go in there.
But if I did, would you come with me?
Of course, she said, exasperated.
Pulling the door open, they were astonished to discover that the living room was empty except for a handful of police officers milling around, mostly examining the furniture. A cop with a greasy moustache was looking at the plaster mask on the mantel. Fourth grade, he muttered. The air in the room was calm and stale.
All clear, said the archivist, reading a notification on her phone with relief. The museum and all of its visitors, including the artist himself, were safe. He was surprised and a little guilty to find himself disappointed.
One heavyset officer explained with amusement how a museum guard who was in a band had realized the alleged bomb was actually just an audio amplifier. The perpetrator, some kid now on his way to jail, had probably only wanted to go viral.
Talking to the police in his old living room made the artist feel like a teenager in trouble, and he had the sudden urge to run upstairs to his bedroom to make sure there was no drug paraphernalia lying around.
Hey, wait, said one of the older cops. Aren’t you?
The bed was not very comfortable, his feet extending over its end. He remembered coming home from college and experiencing the same discomfort. The same disconnect between the comfort he remembered from his childhood and the physical reality of a hard mattress. He gazed up at the ceiling dotted by glow-in-the-dark stars. He’d painted those. He’d painted this bed, and the bookshelf over there. That acoustic guitar in its stand, and that creaky desk chair. Would this one creak? He got out of bed, careful to smooth away any evidence of his having crossed the red ropes to touch it. No guards now, and no alarms either, it seemed.
After they’d finished speaking to the police, the archivist went home to decompress. He assured her that the incident would amount to nothing but good publicity for the museum, but she was too shaken up to continue their tour. So he was visiting his bedroom alone—you can stay as long as you want, she’d said, as long as you don’t touch anything.
Stepping over another red rope, he sat down in the chair. It did creak, felt fragile. He imagined how angry the archivist would be if he broke it, how much work she must have put in to achieve just the right amount of fragility. He opened the desk drawer, and was surprised to find his little leather-bound copy of the bible inside. And his notebooks dating back to elementary school, filled with immature song lyrics and doodles. You can never forget what you don’t remember, was a line he wrote in high school. Why replicate these? He supposed they were like his many paintings locked in temperature controlled storage facilities, waiting for a special exhibition, or to be sold. Waiting in the dark, unseen. He closed the notebook, closed the drawer.
Just like you remember? said his mother from the doorway that night, long ago, when he came home from college for Thanksgiving. She was letting her hair go gray.
Guess so, he said, imagining her walking into this room, now, crossing the red ropes to organize the clothes he’d dumped from his suitcase onto the replica bed.
Hey, don’t do that, I can do that.
You won’t if I don’t.
Maybe not, but either way I’m an adult now, you don’t need to take care of me.
Is that so, you’re all grown up? Maybe I like mothering you, even now. (Is that what she said? Mother, to mother, mothering).
Okay, okay. Where’s dad?
He’s in his study, of course.
I’ll go say hello, said the artist, though they both knew that would be impossible. His father, like his mother, was dead, but more importantly, there was no replica of his father’s study—they hadn’t constructed it, because he hadn’t painted it. Why hadn’t he painted it? He’d painted the basement, and the foyer. His own bedroom, in twenty-six works. But never his father’s study.
The artist got up from the desk and went to examine the bookshelf he’d built with his father when he was twelve. Delillo, Dickens, Didion. Where’s dad? He’d alphabetized the books in high school, but many of them he never read. Carefully, he slid one from the shelf: The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This one he’d enjoyed as a child, but the volume was now unreadable—in a hollow carved out of its pages was his secret stash: incense, lighter, grinder, papers, tobacco, plastic bag of weed. That night of the fire, when he was visiting home from art school, it was all still there. And opening the book now, he found everything replicated inside just as he remembered. Black lighter, white residue of some sticker rubbed away. Grinding the spark wheel with his thumb, he clicked out a flame.
I know you did it, said his mother, beside him.
It was an accident.
He saw her now with a head of silver hair, the way it glowed in the evening light. They’d never actually had this conversation while she was alive, but he could hear her say, I told you not to burn incense in here so many times, I told you it was an old house, but you never listened.
Well, I had to hide the smell of weed somehow.
He took the book over to his desk and pulled a stick of incense from the package. Scent of patchouli. He lit the stick, and pungent smoke wisped up from its ember tip. How would the archivist feel, seeing him burn a replica, burn a memory? You only think about yourself, she’d said—well, at least the exhibit would smell like it should. How would she feel if he left it burning slowly through the night? How flammable was this museum? Probably not very. But maybe it was. Maybe all of this distressed furniture was enough to torch the whole place to the ground. Something about the idea was irresistible to him—this replica following the same course as the original.
No, order could not be preserved, no more than his aging body could. Peering into the replicated | replicating mirror on the wall, he imagined the archivist carefully fabricating his skin, eyes, lips and teeth for tourists to ogle and contemplate. A young man looking smug in his turtleneck sweater. Or a composite character, his gray hair combed over a baby-smooth forehead. The best we could do was capture the spirit of the artist, but not the smell.
With intention, he repeated his careless actions of that late autumn night, decades earlier—a quiet night, it had felt too cold for a fire—placing the lit incense stick in the mug on his desk, leaning out with all the pencils and ballpoint pens. A fluff of ash fell down to the varnished wood, inches from the pages of Sherlock Holmes. Turning to the door, he wondered how long it would take to set off a fire alarm; they would tear him apart. But as long as this remained his body, this remained his house. This would be his art. ▩
Eli Sugerman is a writer living in Chicago.