Melanie J. Cordova

A World of baskets


Without my professional touch, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture might as well be a mountain of trash. No one else tended the grounds as well as I did. If a teenager threw a soda can on the paths behind the museum, if a toddler dropped some gummed-on toy, I was the first responder. You’ve never seen a lovelier place than this courtyard, except maybe my kitchen, since I’m also the cook of the family. I only really learned because I’m a glutton, though. My love of special percentage dark chocolate makes me fifteen pounds overweight—not enough to have me do anything about it but just enough to wound my self-esteem a little bit. Aunt Lettie once told me I could be real pretty if it weren’t for that.

“Merlinda, it wouldn’t kill you to use some lipstick,” she said as I left the house the morning I was fired. “You’re too used to that place, it’d really shock people.”

I’ve lived with Aunt Lettie for six years now, but the museum might as well be my home. It’s as if it were my temple and I’m the goddess in the wings. I kept it in such pristine shape it was like my life depended on it. And I still do—I’m here more than Arnie knows about. I figure if I could just catch those kids who got me fired he’ll give me my job back.

Aunt Lettie said I overreacted, that it was just some dumb statue and that they were just kids. It’s possible that’s one of the top ten stupidest things she’s said in her life. The Apache Mountain Spirit Dancer is the best sculpture I’ve ever seen. I named him Apple Jack but I’d never say it to his face and godhelpme if Arnie hears it.

What does Aunt Lettie know? It’s not as if she’s even set foot on the museum grounds for all the posturing she does about her “heritage.” She’s my grandparents’ oopsybaby, only five years older than me. They’ve been dead now for twenty years and after the funerals Aunt Lettie got it into her head that Granny Rosa had a one-off with some Comanche. I don’t believe it for a second—not because Granny Rosa’s some nun or anything but because I’m ninety-nine percent positive that Aunt Lettie’s only vocabulary on the subject is the word “Comanche.” She must have been watching Tonto or something, couldn’t name another tribe to save her life because she doesn’t think any others exist.

Long story short: she doesn’t know the deal. I could get her and her kids into the museum free, too, if they wanted. God, those kids—two little girls. Real assholes. I noticed them starting to get mean when they hit the double digits. You come home with your pants split once and maybe some Fanta on your shirt and these girls suddenly have Powers of Observation. All things considered Aunt Lettie’s all right, so I couldn’t tell you where they got the attitude.

That’s what made these teenagers such a big deal to me. It was a lovely day besides. The museum has this vista that’s just heartbreaking—mountains, plains, mesas, you name it. All these primary colors tossed and chewed around by mother nature, this cascade of life bubbling up and over Museum Hill. Bright blue sky, blue like some artist from Canyon Road tripped over a bucket of Robin’s Egg Blue or Waikiki Wave that reset the afternoon. The first I see of these teenagers they’re spilling from a Honda in the parking lot. There are a few steps to take from the lot to the museum, so I could see them just fine from my vantage point next to Apple Jack.

I’d just finished a run-through of the grounds: I start in the parking lot, then the sculpture garden. There’s always some little bit of trash in the rocks there, some discarded tissue or receipt, and if I see some bird droppings on a rock I’ll flip it so the shit’s on the bottom. They’re more likely to dump on the statues themselves, though, so I keep my supply of rags and solution at the ready in my cart.

Then the picnic area. It’s a rentable space, you know, real nice. Wood slat tables, no trashy concrete, under a matching awning. Doesn’t matter how many times I do a sweep of the place, I always find a juice box or paper bag or a pencil or lip gloss or a napkin or some junk or other. Field trips are a big thing here on Museum Hill. Sure, I’ll do a sweep for trash and tidiness for the Folk Art Museum people but I know who butters my bread. Or who did, before these kids, who burst onto the scene out of that parking lot like they were God’s gift, adjusting their jacket collars and flicking back their hair like they’d just come from a showing of West Side Story.

Even at first glance I knew I’d have to wait to eat my chocolate until after they were gone. I slipped the bar into my back pocket. Before he died my dad taught me all he knew about making his own chocolate. He loved to make little hearts and squares we could just pop into our mouths whenever we passed through the kitchen. In the evenings he’d tool around with some plastic and make his own molds. I remember watching him as a little girl, younger than my nieces, sitting at his side and staring at his hands.

“This one is for your mother,” he said of the plastic mold. “A flower, after her name.”

“Will you make one for my name?”

I was surprised when he shook his head. “We’ve named you, but it’s up to you to make that name special.”

I was most interested in how he roasted the cocoa beans. Last year I bought a popcorn maker to see if it would work just as well but I could imagine him shaking his head at me. I mold the chocolate not into small shapes like him but long thin bars. I felt the bar in my pocket that day at the museum break when I shoved it in my jeans before the teenagers were finished unloading from their Honda.

And then I almost choked on my sandwich when I saw the dog bound from the car, the last of its six occupants. Long floppy ears just flying away in the breeze. Leashless, of course, because no teenager thinks his dog will get smashed by a Ford in the parking lot of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. By the time they made it up the stairs I’d finished my sandwich and stood to meet them.

“Welcome,” I said. “Which museum are you here for?”

The tallest boy whistled for the dog, which was off nosing around the café. The dog looked up briefly but then jumped onto one of the metal chairs. “Get off there,” the boy said, but the dog licked the top of the café table instead.

He turned back to me. “Yeah, I don’t know. Our teacher said we had to go to a museum before school lets out for summer and we kind of forgot until now.”

I’m real nice to the people here. I’m usually the first one they see because I want them to view the museum grounds at their best, and like a cop has to prowl certain streets, this courtyard is basically my beat. So I said, “Well you’ve got some choices then, but unfortunately you’ll have to leave the dog in the car.”

Apple Jack’s shadow stretched over me. The dog trotted to the teenager and jumped up at his knees. The boy turned his legs like a mobile skier and the dog slid down his pants.

“I’m not going to leave Boomer in the car,” he said, flicking his hair back behind his ear. “It’s hot in there. People get arrested for that.”

What else am I supposed to say? Maybe you shouldn’t have brought your dog to a museum? I told him: Only service animals allowed. I told him: Please come back without your dog. You’re more than welcome here without your dog, young man. I didn’t tell him that his Basset Hound was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, like a Beagle burdened with the weight of time. What a dopey little creature. Imagine the mess it would leave in the sculpture garden—that’s desecrating someone’s culture right there.

None of that sank in for them. They said something about my jeans that I didn’t quite hear but I knew it wasn’t nice. Had to physically block the door to the Folk Art Museum. The dog jumped on me and when I pushed it off the tall one started screaming to see the manager and it was this whole big thing. Jesus Christ, I saw Aunt Lettie’s girls in that attitude—like a future inscribed on their tongues.

When Arnie came out he said the same thing, even though he’s had it out for me since I was hired.

“Sorry, but we can only let service dogs in,” he said, all narrow suspenders. “There’s too much that’s sensitive in these exhibits for us to let animals walk around in there.”

“This is shit,” the boy said. “This is discrimination.”

When Arnie crossed his arms the teens made like the Jets and snapped their way out of the courtyard. One of them pulled a balled up paper from his pocket and threw it at the base of Apple Jack’s sculpture. It rolled down the steps, got caught up in the breeze, and bounced into the hillscape.

Things like this happen. Like I said, this is a popular place for field trips and not all the kids are shining stars. Arnie went back to his office and I scrambled into the bushes to find that crumpled paper. It gets really windy up here on Museum Hill, like the air surging north from the Chihuahua Desert’s just impatient to escape the rash of tumbleweeds chasing it. Once when we drove to Albuquerque for the girls’ track meet last summer Aunt Lettie crashed into a tumbleweed the size of a buffalo. Made me think the scrubs are just snowballs of the desert, accumulating growth as they roll along. They can do a surprising amount of damage. We were lucky. This one hit the shoulder of I-25 and arced through the air toward our car.

I saw it like it was some sort of movie—all slow and with positively no sound until the car erupted into screams from the girls in the backseat. And here’s Aunt Lettie pulling to the side of the road—“Jesus Christ, Aunt Lettie,” I said after the tumbleweed stretched across our windshield like a corpse, gnarled into the grill of the car like it’d been there for years, “couldn’t you have just slowed down for a hot minute so it could pass?”

Her lips were the thinnest line. “You swerve for people, not tumbleweeds.”

"Sure," I’d said, "but you’d seen it coming, just barreled into it like a moron. Racing a tumbleweed to the crossroads." Sometimes we still see parts of that thing after all this time, sticks emerging from the air conditioner vents like the reaching fingers of a skeleton.

I found the paper caught between two rocks and opened it. I had hoped for something more interesting than numbers to be written on the paper but it was only the kid’s algebra homework or something. I tossed it in the trash when I went back to the courtyard. I should’ve kept it, though, for handwriting identification, like I was Nancy Drew. Nancy would have figured it out right away that it was the teens who came back that night—I’m sure it was them—and spray-painted the words Fuck You Nazis on Apple Jack’s base and Penis on his chest. In cursive, too. I feel like Nancy would find that important if she were investigating this case, them coming back and vandalizing our property—the Case of the Cursive Penis.

Arnie and I surveyed the damage the next morning: Penis looking wobbly and unsteady like the penmanship of the elderly across Apple Jack’s six-pack.

“How do you think you’ll get that off?” asked Arnie. He squinted at me in the morning light.

“Soap and water probably.”

He nodded and walked into the museum. “Don’t let it discolor or the artist’ll sue.”

Arnie’s not really an art lover or a culture lover and actually I guess he’s not entirely an Indian lover either. It’s kind of silly that he’s the Director in charge of things around here. Once he said that the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is just filled with baskets: “Things to put other things in.” He and Aunt Lettie would get along.

I thought about this as I scrubbed the Penis from the statue’s abs. If you take away the fact that it was water from the hose and the brush I’ve used to scrub the bird shit off the café tables and Arnie watching from the glass doors, it was like some sexy movie I was in, bathing Apple Jack like that. It was disappointing when the last of the Penis faded and I had to start on the Fuck You Nazis. What do you think, that we like the Nazis here? The same people who like Nazis probably also like teenagers, so Fuck You Too, Teenagers.

It was a job well done, if I say so myself. I wondered if maybe the statue needed a bath more often. It rains here, sure—people think it’s dry as death in New Mexico but it’s not so bad up north—but a real scrubbing had done wonders. People were sure to notice.

The wrong people noticed, though. I hadn’t meant that the statue needed a wash every day, but apparently those teenagers felt differently. Imagine my surprise when the next morning the same exact thing had been spray-painted onto Apple Jack again. It was like they’d taken a picture to make sure they could recreate the magic.

I stood in front of it, baffled.

“What the hell is this?” Arnie asked, walking up from the parking lot. “I thought you cleaned this off yesterday?”

“I did.” I turned to him. “Those teenagers must’ve come back.”

Arnie shook his head and walked into the museum. “Little shits. Get it cleaned off before we open, Merlinda.”

Who would bother coming back a second night to deface a statue? Just because we wouldn’t let them bring their dog inside. How is that not the perfect out for your homework? Just tell your teacher we wouldn’t let you in—don’t come back that night to spray-paint our stuff. But these geniuses came back three nights in a row. Three. I thought for sure on the third morning the most I’d see on the statue was bird droppings or the stray plastic bag flapping from his feathers in the breeze. Instead they upgraded the word Penis to a drawing of a penis, genitals that wrapped around Apple Jack’s chest by his armpit and ended on his lower back. Real creative types.

I’ve told Arnie that we need security—that the outside is just as precious as the inside. If they’re advertising the sculpture garden and the circle they’ve got to protect those things as well, right? Wrong. Too much money, he said. Too much hassle. We don’t have the budget. But then we get these asshole kids who think they can do whatever they want with this stuff. This important stuff. Jesus, I can just see Aunt Lettie’s kids sneaking in here after dark, see the light of their teenaged future in their mocking eyes. Horrifying. I’ve got to make sure they never get a dog. They’ll be lucky to get a hamster. A hamster with a leash like a responsible pet owner, no more no less.

“Someone’s got to stop them,” I said to Arnie. “I’ve got other stuff to do.”

“They’ll get bored of it eventually.” Arnie tugged on his left suspender and walked around Apple Jack, his eyes on the giant penis. One prick likes to examine another I guess. Then he circled back and said, “I know you’re going to say hire some security. Can’t do it. You should know that by now.”

It still doesn’t make any sense to me, that reaction. These kids could do something worse—maybe they had and we just hadn’t noticed it yet. Maybe they’d lined gum under all the café tables or toilet-papered the trails.

So I thought: You can take care of this yourself, Merlinda. They’re just a bunch of kids. The dog’s not even that big. So I thought: Why not? Why not just camp there? Make a fort under a picnic table. Totally doable. Catch them in the act, call the police. Simple detective work. It was actually Mom who gave me my first Nancy Drew book. I think she was jealous that I spent so much time in the kitchen with my dad making chocolate. First she tried to bond by teaching me how to make cheeses, but she was pretty terrible at it and started giving me books instead. After she died was when I moved in with Aunt Lettie to help her out with the kids. It’s how I’ve made my name special—Nancy Drew went on adventures not for herself but to help others, so I figured Mom would like that I wanted to help Aunt Lettie. Merlinda helps, is what Dad would say. She likes to work.

That night I left home after dinner. On the passenger seat were my supplies: water bottle, slippers, special percentage dark chocolate—my personal recipe of course—a book, a flashlight, two granola bars, and my cell phone so I could take pictures of the teenagers while I waited for the cops. Perfect plan. I parked the car around the corner and walked up to Museum Hill from the back.

I figured I could hide behind the picnic area, my supplies spread neatly next to me, so that the kids didn’t see me when they pulled into the lot. And it didn’t even take very long, either. Just a couple hours. I felt like a genius squatting behind that thing when they rolled in around 1:30. I took a drink from my water and tried to get my phone ready.

I heard their footsteps in the courtyard, their hushed whispers. When I peered through the slats in the awning I saw them sure enough, could even make out that tall kid shaking the spray-paint can. And there was that dog, just wandering around like a dope without a leash. When I heard the tinkle of its collar my adrenaline spiked. In the darkness I saw him sniffing around the glass doors of the entrance.

I shifted and the movement toppled my water bottle, which rolled down the little hill beyond me. I froze, my heart lurching. But the kids didn’t notice. They were too busy whispering clever little jokes at each other by Apple Jack. If this were Nancy Drew I’d have found a secret passage that led to the statue’s base, and I could jump from it and catch them in the act. I thought of the way they’d fall and clutch at their chests when me and the police cornered them. Jesus, the mystery novel writes itself, the headlines too: Brilliant Cook Stops Vandals from Destroying Treasured Monument.

Suddenly something cold and wet pressed against my ankle and I jumped, scattering my granola bars and flashlight and cell phone. It was the dog, running its nose up and down my leg like we were romantically involved.

“Get away,” I whispered, pushing it to the side. It came at me again, eager to know what was on the bottom of my shoes. I pulled my feet under me, but the thing wouldn’t leave me alone.

I reached for my cell phone, dropped in the dirt somewhere nearby. I felt around for it like I’d seen my grandmother look for her glasses once, a mole in the dark patting the earth. Instead my hands found my dark chocolate bar. Next to me the dog was licking my jeans, but when I sat back he must have smelled the chocolate, because he lunged for my hands, tail wagging.

“Stupid thing, get off me.” I pushed him aside again, but he kept nosing at my hands. “Fine,” I whispered. “Is this what you want?”

The dog sat back on his haunches, eyes intent on my hands. With one motion I tossed the bar as far as I could onto the trails below me. The dog took off after it like a bullet train, and a moment later I saw him launch himself by me into the courtyard again.

“What a waste of chocolate.” I turned around and peered through the slats again. The kids were still at it, shaking their cans leisurely, like they had all the time in the world. I heard the tinkle of the dog’s collar but couldn’t see him—probably over by the Folk Art Museum entrance or the circle.

My phone. I needed to have proof or I’d waited for nothing. Where was it? I felt the earth around me, scrambling like an animal. Found the flashlight and one of the granola bars. There! A few moments later the cell phone lit up at my touch. I brushed off the dirt and leaves and crawled back up to my spot. We were back on track. I switched the phone to the camera and turned to the kids.

“Boomer!” said the tall kid, slapping his thigh. Oh God, I needed to hurry. Zoom, turn on the flash. Where was the dog? He wasn’t in the frame. Did he need to be? Would the police care about that? I paused, but then the tall kid whistled for the dog and I lost it. Just as he reached the teenagers I managed to take a photo. It looked ghostly afterward, their faces ashen in the flash, shocked like deer. They saw the light and panicked, sprinting for the Honda, the dog bounding after them. The sound of their car peeling out of the parking lot was the only thing I could hear for a while after. I was left breathless.

Just like that it was over. I hadn’t remembered to call the police but at least I had proof. Thought that would be that, like any normal person would. They had to know if they came back I’d use the photo against them.

But it all boils down to that dog again. I left for home that night not knowing what waited for me back at work. Jesus Christ, you’ve never seen such a mess. I saw it as I hosed it from the performance circle the next morning, half-digested bits and whole parts even of that special recipe I created. Like he couldn’t be bothered to shit it out. That goddamn dog somehow scarfed down my entire bar of chocolate and then barfed it up in our performance circle. I hope it’s still puking all over that kid’s car.

Here’s the thing: I’m not dealing with rational minds here. That morning, feeling pretty proud of myself dog vomit notwithstanding as I was giving Apple Jack his latest bath (the teens only got to finish Fuck You Naz) I saw that Honda roll up and that tall kid stroll by me like he’d done it a thousand times, totally natural. No dog.

I didn’t see him leave but about an hour later Arnie called me into his office and go figure I’m fired.

“He doesn’t know it was you but I do,” he said, like he was protecting me or something. “This is the last in a long string of incidents, Merlinda.”

I gave the whole “How can I help it if some kid feeds his dog chocolate?” line but it didn’t work. Unreal. Years of work, all alone, no staff to speak of. Fired. Snap of your fingers. I went there the night before to help out the museum, to stop these entitled kids. Arnie wasn’t even listening to me. Didn’t he know the work I put into this place? I make it look like a masterpiece up here. Go ahead and hire some lowest-bidder team to do the grounds. I guarantee they’ll miss the details, leave the bird shit unturned on the rocks, the used condoms on the trails.

“You’ll notice when I’m gone,” I said, and he actually literally genuinely honestly called the security guy on me. Am I a threatening person? The worst I’d done was feed some dog chocolate, and it hadn’t even died—or maybe it had, maybe that’s what the big deal was? I don’t remember what Arnie told me after he sat me down and told me to get lost. Prick.

So that’s it: I went from goddess of the temple to heretic “banned from the premises” in the course of a week, all because some stupid shit teenager can’t buy a leash. I haven’t told Aunt Lettie yet. For all she knows I’ve been demoted to the graveyard shift at the museum—I leave for “work” at 11:00 p.m. and skedaddle before Arnie comes in the morning. I’m less cautious about showing myself in the courtyard at night now that it’s been a few weeks. I figure if Arnie still hasn’t hired a security guard that’s on him. He’s really lucking out in this whole scenario, though. Those kids are bound to come back, and I can’t handle the idea that the new groundskeepers aren’t doing things the way that works so well, the right way. Whoever this new groundskeeper is, he polished Apple Jack and godhelpme if it’s not the most garish thing I’ve ever seen in the light of day.

But, it’s crazy—at night, in the light of night, he’s a beacon. The statue glows from the light of the stars. I just want to be helpful. I love this place. It’s where I find joy. Joy in my work. Those teenagers took my name from me.

When I’m done tooling around and tidying up I go and talk to Apple Jack, sit myself on his base and stare until he notices me. Last night a coyote ran at breakneck speed from one side of the courtyard to the other and when I looked up at the statue I could feel how he twisted his toes, how he wanted so badly to run alongside the coyote. Maybe Aunt Lettie is right. Maybe Grandma Rosa did love an Indian once—but an Apache, like Apple Jack.

He says my name to me: Merlinda. He whispers my name at night in my ear: Merlinda. Merlinda. He makes my name special.

            Porta Nuova Railway Station, Torino Italy | Mike Stilkey

            Porta Nuova Railway Station, Torino Italy | Mike Stilkey



MELANIE J. CORDOVA serves as editor in chief of Harpur Palate and has stories out or forthcoming with Blacktop PassagesRed Savina Review, Whitefish ReviewThe Oklahoma ReviewYemassee, and various others. She reviews books for The Santa Fe Quarterly. You can follow her on Twitter via @mjcwrites.