Fiction

“The Museum of Near Misses”

A writer gets trapped by what could have been.

Lisa Larson-Walker

In the Trump Story Project, we’re presenting a series of short stories from contemporary writers, compiled by Ben H. Winters, imagining America’s future under President Donald Trump. This series was made possible by support from Slate Plus members. Read Ben Winters’ introduction to the series.

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I was traveling through the American Midwest, around what I had reason to expect would be the midpoint of a grueling, months-long book tour, when I got a call from an old friend. “Acquaintance” is perhaps more appropriate, or “former friend,” as I’d long since cut my ties to this person, having found him unreliable, manic in the extreme, and conspiracy-minded: a crackpot, if you will. He told me that he’d seen on my Twitter that I’d be giving a reading not far from a small town called Alder, and he wondered if I’d mind doing him a favor. “There’s something there that I want,” he told me. It was a painting that, six years before, he lost at auction in New York by a hair—unfairly, he added, implying that some hidden machinations had favored his rival—and that now hung, his research indicated, in a small museum in the aforementioned village. My friend’s calls and emails to the museum had gone unanswered, its website was down, and he suspected the place might be preparing to liquidate its collection. The friend wanted me to drive to the museum, find out if the painting was really there, and, if so, buy it for him.

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At any other moment on my tour, and to a request for any other favor, I would have said no. But I didn’t know anyone in this part of the country and had six rainy hours to kill before my reading, and the alternative was to camp out in my motel room and watch television. I didn’t intend to actually carry out the request—knowing my friend and his proclivities, I’d probably be stuck with the painting—but my sense of adventure prevailed. I agreed.

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Alder was a tiny farming community half an hour’s drive from where I was staying, a low place of wide streets and grim, blocky storefronts. As I pulled into the center of town in my rental car, the drizzle turned to a violent downpour; the wind tore maple leaves from the trees and they smacked my windshield like desperate hands. I tugged my jacket up over my head and made a run for it, finding shelter at last on the steps of the museum.

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A filthy glass door proclaimed its name in gilt: The Museum of Near Misses. The place was imposing only in comparison to the buildings that surrounded it; perhaps it was a grange hall once, or seat of government. The structure, two stories high, was of stone; its linteled windows were covered up from the inside. Its entrance was sheltered by the portico I now stood beneath, flanked by stone columns. I peered through the glass and into the murk; the place looked closed. Indeed, the entire municipality of Alder appeared abandoned; I wasn’t even going to bother to try the door. I was startled, however, by the sudden appearance, mere inches from my face, of a pair of rheumy eyes peering out from beneath a peaked cap: the custodian of the place. The door flew open before me and he welcomed me in. He was an old man, retired no doubt from the feed store or tractor mechanic’s office where he’d spent his life of labor. For a moment I failed to comprehend his outstretched hand; I had the strange, passing impulse to kiss it. But then I saw the sign behind him announcing the admission fee. Surprised, I paid it.

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I might have preferred to tour the museum on my own, but the custodian guided me, his hard-soled shoes scuffing along the gray floor and his threadbare cardigan sweater exuding the scent of naphthalene. Exhibits lay in half shadow beneath cracked glass vitrines, their labels yellowed and peeling; when the custodian used his sleeve to wipe away years of dust, the glass rattled and groaned like a sick old woman roused from sleep. The exhibits were hyperbolic in claim, unimpressive in substance: a child’s tricycle that was almost, but not quite, swept away by a tornado. A brick, half-shattered by a bullet from a faulty rifle, an artifact of what almost was, but ultimately wasn’t, the accidental shooting of the mayor of Davenport. The taxidermied carcass of a housecat known to have slept every day on the sixth-floor fire escape of a St. Louis tenement without ever falling to its death.

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We stopped before an unmarked bell jar containing an irregular dark mass—an ossified, fibrous object propped up by what appeared to be a pair of six-sided dice.

“What is it?” I demanded.

“Its exact composition remains unknown,” the custodian croaked, obviously following a script in his head. “It is believed to be the issue of a certain quarter horse that was nearly bought from a local farmer at an astronomical price, by a Russian prince wishing to race it.”

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“But … the prince didn’t buy the horse, you’re saying.”

“No, sir. The sale was not completed.”

“This is the horse’s … issue, you say.”

“Its exact composition,” the custodian repeated, “remains unknown, sir.”

“You’re telling me it’s horseshit.”

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But the custodian had moved on, further into the gloom. “And now I call your attention to this skull!” he cried, gesturing toward a desiccated object on a shelf.

I did not follow, however, because at that moment I spied, half-concealed by an ill-placed curtain, the very object I’d been sent here to find: a 4-foot-tall portrait, rendered in acrylic, of disgraced real estate mogul and former presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.

In truth, I owed some measure of my success to Trump. When, in 2016, he lost the presidential election to Hillary Clinton, I was commissioned by an online magazine to write a speculative short story about the ill-fated candidate, one that imagined a world in which, implausibly, he had become president. The story proved unexpectedly popular, and served as a study for the novel that, two years later, propelled me out of the literary backwater I had long inhabited, and onto the best-seller list. My life was transformed; I now wrote mostly sequels and traveled the world promoting them. It was, I suppose, the life I’d longed for, but now, standing before this unlikely portrait, I felt a deep sadness of uncertain cause.

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Trump was largely forgotten now, in the wake of his arrest and death in prison. It’s difficult to describe the heady extremes of those days, immediately following the election; Trump’s accusations of tampering, the riots, fears of a violent populist uprising. But then the courts convicted him of fraud, and made him pay compensation to his rape accuser; and Russian compromat surfaced which depicted a naked Trump performing sexual acts upon a bound and quite possibly underaged girl. And then there was the mysterious fire and the suspected poisoning and the tax evasion, and the Trumpist movement faded, embarrassed, back into the flyover wilds of rural America, where I now stood, gazing for the first time in years at the face I once hated with such passion. This painting was famous, in its way; a campaign imbroglio had arisen around the misappropriated funds used to commission it. But, in the end, the painting’s provenance was merely a small detail, lost in the tidal wave of disqualifying evidence that had made Trump, it was clear in hindsight, utterly unelectable.

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The custodian had noticed my absence and come to stand at my shoulder. “Sir, the tour.”

“Tell me,” I said, “how might I go about buying this painting?”

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“The museum’s collection, sir,” the custodian replied in a wounded tone, “is not for sale.”

But I pressed him, demanding the name of the museum’s director, and where he might be found. A bit of cajoling and the old man folded; the director was a retired bank loan officer, a Mr. Virgil, who lived just a block away and was probably at home right now. I thanked the custodian, turned on my heel, and strode out the door.

The rain had stopped and the clouds had parted, revealing a sky of the deepest blue. Bright sun shone upon Alder’s grim streets, lending them a freshness I knew was illusory and that would disappear the moment the rain dried up and the hour grew late. But for now I watched a young woman crossing the street in a floral dress and jean jacket, her sneakers splashing through the puddles. Headphone cables trailed from her ears and into her pocket. She turned to me and I smiled, and she gave me the finger.

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Mr. Virgil’s house was a tidy bungalow surrounded by a white picket fence. I passed through the gate and knocked on a heavy oaken door, which opened to reveal a small, rotund man with the round face, haloed in white hair and whiskers, of a samoyed puppy. I pointlessly identified myself (“The writer J. Robert Lennon” appeared to mean nothing to him) and stated my intention to buy the portrait of Donald Trump.

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I expected to have to bargain, but his answer surprised me. “I would be delighted to sell, Mr. Lennon,” he said, “but I’m afraid there is no such picture in our museum.”

“You’re mistaken,” I replied. “I have just seen it. Portrait of Donald J. Trump, by one Havi Schanz.”

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“No,” the director said, stroking his beard, “there are no portraits in the Museum of Near Misses. What would be the point?”

I wanted to offer the rejoinder that there didn’t seem to be much point to the museum itself—things didn’t happen for good reasons, I would have argued, and there was no need to dwell on what might have been—but instead I repeated to him that I’d just seen the painting five minutes before. Mr. Virgil repeated his denial that the painting existed. We both reasserted both our honesty and sanity, and Mr. Virgil appeared confident that the topic had been closed. “I hope you enjoyed the museum!” he exclaimed. “Did you see the quarter horse issue?”

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“Look, Virgil,” I said, my voice breaking. “Come to the Museum with me. If I am right, and the Trump is there, agree that you will sell it to me. And if it isn’t … I will pay you the money anyway!”

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Virgil registered surprise and amusement, and, after a moment’s thought, produced a sheet of paper from a nearby inkjet printer. “Take this red-and-blue pencil and using the red—the red, please—put it in writing for me.”

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I did what he asked, albeit with a sinking feeling. Had the custodian phoned him while I was in the street, warning him of my approach? Had Virgil told the custodian to take the Trump down from the wall and hide it away? I began to plot my escape from the agreement, even as I codified it with my hand, having impulsively flipped the pencil around to the blue point.

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Virgil didn’t seem to notice. The agreement clearly delighted him. He signed, too, using the red end of the pencil, and stood up, motioning me to join him. We strode out the door together, and I followed him across the street, first to the gas station next door to the museum, where Virgil bought himself a can of soda and a package of Red Vines. He sipped hungrily from the former, then gestured to me with the can. “Pepsi?” he offered, with a wink. I declined.

The Museum had been transformed in our absence. A school bus was parked on the street outside, and the dusty halls were filled with rowdy young men dressed in dirty padded uniforms—a football team, on its way back from a game. Their loud voices echoed in the dusty spaces; every now and then a stooped, vexed-looking man, doubtless their coach, blew ineffectually into a whistle that hung from his neck. One of the young men cawed and flapped his arms, in imitation of a stuffed crow behind glass; another stuck out his behind in front of the horse dropping and grunted, as though he himself were extruding it.

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Virgil and I, however, were undaunted; I think he was as eager as I to prove his point. I led him to the spot where the painting was displayed; to my relief, it was still there. Virgil stared at it for several long seconds.

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“Well, friend,” he said, “I stand corrected!” And he tore up, with evident glee, our signed agreement.

“Shall we settle on a price, then?” I inquired, still debating, privately, whether to spend an exorbitant amount of my eccentric friend’s money in order to punish him for his presumption, or to bargain Virgil down as far as possible, as a hedge against the very real possibility that I might never be reimbursed.

But, “Follow me!” the little man exclaimed, and he hurried off into the darkness, where a dim red EXIT sign glowed. He moved nimbly and swiftly, and I had to jog to catch up. At one point we pivoted to avoid two football players arranged in a skillful imitation of a nearby bronze statue: that of Muhammad Ali dodging Michael Dokes’ frantic barrage of punches, in their famous 1977 bout.

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Over his shoulder, Virgil said to me, with a wink, “These young men! Aren’t their uniforms snazzy?”

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“Mr. Virgil!” I said, winded. “Aren’t we going to discuss the sale?” We were passing through a dimly lit room containing mannequins, all male, displaying the accoutrements of soldiers, and, among them, tables piled high with discarded fashion magazines. “Our Dapper New Leaders!” screamed a headline.

“Patience, Mr. Lennon!” he called back cheerfully. “The Museum’s treasures are also Alder’s treasures, and the mayor must approve all sales! At the moment she’s on a hiking trip, and has been for some time.”

“But … when do you expect her back?” I cried, as we passed through another dim hall, this one empty, save for a motley collection of baseball caps bearing an illegible message, hanging from the walls on pegs. I slowed to get a closer look, but an illustrated sign caught my eye instead. It appeared at first to be the same choking-response poster that hung in every restaurant in the state of New York, but, upon closer examination, clearly depicted a man in a suit grabbing a woman by the crotch. HOW TO WIN, the legend read.

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“Back?” Virgil shouted, with a little laugh. I could barely see him now, through the gloom of the next hall, which seemed to feature a winter scene, complete with artificial-snow–covered trees, low-hanging cotton clouds suspended by wires, and a papier-mâché newsboy, holding up a newspaper whose headline blared THE CLIMATE CHANGE HOAX. “There’s no telling when she’ll be back, if at all! But don’t worry, Mr. Lennon, you’ll get your Trump!”

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I couldn’t see Virgil at all anymore, could only hear his footsteps receding into the distance. How could the little man move so fast? I doubled over, panting. The hall I found myself in was silent and almost completely dark, save for a large object looming deep in the murk, something blue and white and bulbous, like the nose cone of a huge bomb. After a moment, I laughed at my misapprehension: not a bomb, but an aircraft, a jet. On its flank the words UNITED STA … faded into darkness, and a stairway descended from an open door, where a figure emerged in a smoky blaze of ochre …

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I sensed more than saw a light in the distance, away from the plane, and I moved toward it, anticipating liberation from the absurdities of the Museum and from my friend’s ill-fated mission. Cold air met my face and I breathed it in … something bracing and dank, urban, with rank notes of subway and the toasted flavors of nuts and salted pretzels. The light intensified, turned golden, and I could make out, not just a door, but a magnificent wall of windows, latticed in gold. Beyond them people moved to and fro in heavy coats, and traffic passed; I knew I had found the exit to the Museum and would soon be sitting in my car, listening to the radio and rehearsing the introduction to my reading. “Thank you all for coming,” I would say. “Delighted to see you here this evening. No … overjoyed to see you here. This is so gratifying. No, such an honor. An honor to bask with you, on this rainy night, in our shared love … of story.” To hell with Virgil and the painting and my friend and the lady mayor, lost forever in the woods. The real world beckoned.

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Perhaps I could have turned back—retraced my steps, found my way past the jet and the statue and the horseshit and the custodian, and returned to the world from which I came. But I don’t think so. I think my fate was sealed when I beheld the painting, or when I answered my former friend’s call, or earlier still, when I elected to live a life of self-deception, a life dictated not by reality but by the seductive and shapely contours of fiction.

In any event, I was through the lobby and out the revolving door before I realized what had happened, before the falling snow told me that it was no longer autumn but winter, late January to be precise, and the noise of traffic and the blaze of yellow cabs told me I was not in the village of Alder but in the place where my imagination had resided for so many years, the place that, I now understood, even before the Secret Service agents tackled me to the ground, their radios crackling, I would never be allowed to leave.

I don’t have to describe that place to you. You have always lived there. I caught a horrifying glimpse of it before my face hit the pavement: the scrum of sign-bearing protesters, half decrying the family that, it was now clear, would not be dislodged from office without armed revolution; the other half demanding the imprisonment of the intellectuals and the gays, the silencing of the blacks and Jews, the expulsion of the Mexicans, the extermination of the Muslims. I heard them cheering on the agents as they lunged at me, Tasers ablaze. Before I fell, I caught a glimpse of a sign on the other side of Fifth Avenue, “PRADA,” it read, and underneath, its groomed and moneyed patrons calmly gliding to and fro behind another gilded glass façade, the exchange of goods and money proceeding without interruption, as though there were nothing in the world less remarkable than a random man emerging from the president’s tower and being brutally subdued by police. Because there wasn’t. Such things happened every day and were relevant to no one.

But enough. I’ll spare you the story of my imprisonment and subsequent ordeals, which pale in comparison to the struggles of others, many of whose lives ended violently. Perhaps mine will, too, when all is said and done. All I can tell you today is that none of this is my fault. I’m not from here. Where I’m from, we clearly did something right, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.

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