Fiction · 07/29/2020

Painted Urns

She doesn’t want painted urns, so when her class nears the Hall of Antiquities, she tells her friend she’s going to ditch, and then she does. A twelve-year-old frizzy brunette with some serious orthodontics work ahead, she ducks under a rope slung between the two wings of the museum, winds through a landscape exhibit and wanders into a darkened gallery. No one’s present. No guard stands duty.

She sits on a narrow, red pincushion bench bisecting the gallery. Pin lights hang above four sculptures, all of them plaster, life-sized boy babies sitting on pedestals. Where his arms should be, one baby has rubber snakes, another has sapling branches; the other two have telecommunication cables and antlers. The babies are her brother’s age, and each one’s penis has been replaced by the same matter that comes from his shoulders. A single, sharp antler curls up from one boy.

The girl gets gross art. She’s discovered that what she likes is called true crime, and she likes the serial killers best. She dreams about becoming a serial killer’s pen pal and reading his exquisite handwriting. Every serial killer has perfect penmanship. That has been established.

They are silent, the freak-armed babies. She doesn’t need to quiet them. Her parents haven’t let up about her terrifying her brother. He’d been howling and she’d yelled like hell in his face, but he couldn’t understand what she was saying, so what did it matter? But it’s the principle, her parents said.

She has seen her brother’s penis twice, as her mother changed his diaper. Here, they’re not exactly not-penises, and that opens another avenue. Parts can be moved around. She can move herself around the museum, where anything can be considered beautiful, even what’s ugly, like the babies, and like what she feels herself to be, and that should be the principle.

Before they find her, she’ll need to do something to soften the punishment. She pulls the class assignment out of her backpack, wide-ruled, with her teacher’s writing across the top: Write a story about the people on your urn. What was she going to say about naked people running around an urn anyway? She’ll write the assignment, but it will be about the babies: their quiet, soulless bodies, the thickets of antlers and branches, the ooze of cables and rubber snakes.

And her handwriting will be absolutely perfect.

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Morgan Beatty’s stories have appeared in Fence, The Brooklyn Quarterly, The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal and Nat. Brut. He received an MFA from Columbia University and works in television in New York.