Museum Piece

Seeing the success that Paris has had with their catacombs as a tourist attraction, a midsize city in the American southwest decides to create their own catacombs, right under a new “Heritage Square” district where cobblestone streets and bistro lights will draw newly-affluent twentysomethings to upscale bars. The city takes advantage of tunnels used for drug smuggling, active until the Border Patrol sealed them up a few years back, and dig a few new passages connecting the smugglers’ tunnels to a bauxite mine abandoned in the 60s. But the new tunnels’ patina is wrong: dry and crisp, lacking the centuries-old drip and goo that lends the catacombs their secretive, haunted air. (Lining them fully with bones, as Paris’ tunnels are, strikes the projects’ planners as in bad taste, somehow.) The city gets in touch with a midwestern metropolis that’s modernizing its wastewater system for rising sea levels, and the demolished tunnel walls are shipped down to the southwest. There, they spackle the blackened, pocked surface of the wastewater stone onto the crisp walls of the new tunnels.

All they need now are a tasteful selection of bodies, and markers to memorialize them. There is no shortage of bodies, not these days. From a mass grave where unclaimed Covid patients had been interred, the city ships dozens of skeletons, wrapped in black tarps, in the back of the health department’s white vans, where they rustle like the leaves of deciduous trees in a nighttime storm. They use the tarps to line the stone coffins down in the tunnels; no one wants a sudden flood, unlikely as it may be, to send a stream of unhoused dead out the entrance of the mine. They would wash out onto a hollow, across an interstate exit ramp from a vacant Best Buy, where teens now race dirt bikes and shoot shotguns at the old mining equipment.

After a mildly tumultuous contest to pick a writer for the memorials (certain “creative” high schoolers submit entries so ghastly that the city council demands they be stricken from the public record), a local playwright, active in community theater with productions such as “The Wine Country Murders” and “My Mother’s Sewing Kit,” is chosen to write the plaques’ inscriptions; local school groups, it is expected, will rub these with charcoal. The playwright opts to memorialize notable local residents, which is somewhat strange, their living relatives point out, since they are all interred elsewhere—in family plots or scattered in the mountains or back in Brooklyn. But city officials approve of this approach. An opportunity to showcase the area’s rich history, they say.

And so, in a tunnel where three men once died from asphyxiation while trying to ferry a shipment of cocaine to a car repair shop near the local university, a teenager, who contracted Covid at a shelter after being kicked out of the house by her grandmother and who died in an alley downtown near City Hall, is identified as Army Major Nathanial Toonces, who picked the city’s center as a site for a fort. A recreation of the fort stands a half-mile to the west of its original location—now occupied by City Hall—with its plasticine logs enclosing a museum, snack bar, and gift shop full of local history books about white settlers such as “The Great Cattle Drive of 1889” and “Colorful Bootleggers of Prohibition” and “Carving Life out of the Desert.” Inside, the word “fault” never appears; no sins are assigned to the fort’s builders, only the bounties: ice cream bars served tooth-breakingly hard in the midst of a desert; water secreted through pipes to the sprinklers of lawns whose owners have filled out the proper forms; streets where no bodies dry to cordwood in the hot sun.

When, some years hence, the waters do rise, the tarps prove useless, and the bodies flow, due to an anomaly of the landscape, onto the freeway and into the center of town. There, they enter through the fort’s front gates and bump insistently at the walls, trying to get out, trying to get home. The humans who remain do not try to enter the fort, thinking it haunted. Only one body is at rest: the teen who stood in for the Major. Her family had lived on this spot three generations back, before the city cleared their neighborhood for government buildings and freeway off-ramps. She sinks down to the gift shop—the very spot where her grandmother’s bed once lay—and, when the waters recede, a thousand wildflowers bloom, overwhelming the racks of local history books, the ones that stretch back no more than 150 years. Their dissolution lays a scrim over this epoch, a black shroud, like mirrors covered where the family of some departed patriarch come to sit shiva. Nothing can be seen here. No reflection of what was.

In the records of the people who live here next, this whole period will be represented by a question mark. The records they left, a footnote will note, are either destroyed or incoherent. The teenager’s bones, however, will be displayed in a museum, shreds of the black tarp still clinging to them. This body was interred in an interior room at a sacred site, the inscription will read, and this person was likely one this civilization wanted to remember.


I had no itinerary apart from a visit to the island with the horses, a treat for my last day.

Hot Spring Ghost Story

My father, Yongli, told me this story, but I think he left some things out.