There is a tenderness to the way MJ cradles the whirling molten orb. Alice, shameless exploiter of the museum’s generous discount policy, has seen it a hundred times and still not enough.
The Ticket Line
Welcome to the Galesburg Glass Museum. Please form a line on the left to purchase a day pass; season pass holders and donors may line up for expedited ticketing on the right. Children under 5 get in free. Ask about our senior and military discounts. On the first Tuesday of every month, we have a half-off special for Galesburg residents; proof of residence required.
Student discount? Sure, we have that, too. Though we had to add a good amount of fine print after a certain student of Lombard Junior High took advantage. What kind of 12-year-old goes to the Galesburg Glass Museum every day? World-class though it may be. Fun for the whole family though it may be. Located just across the highway from the school though it may be. Alice Lim, the discount demon.
While Alice is darting across Interstate 96 at roughly 2:48 every afternoon, three car lengths away from becoming roadkill, her mother, the austere gynecologist at Guthrie Medical, thinks her daughter is on the way to swim practice.
Please form an orderly line on the left. Please place the proof-of-purchase sticker on your clothing where it is clearly visible. Please don’t fall for Alice Lim’s heartsick preteen bullshit. Swim practice, sure. Alice is neck deep in something.
You would think we at the GGM would have a soft spot for Alice, the town’s youngest and most prolific patron of the glass arts. But no. Alice Lim is here for the wrong reasons, because Alice Lim is in love with the lead glassblower. You would have to be an idiot not to see it. You would have to live with your head in the furnace—which the lead glassblower practically does, which is why Alice doesn’t even fall on her radar, why Alice is no more to her than a speck on the smooth surface of a borosilicate bowl.
Glassblowing demonstrations are held every hour in the hot shop. Demos are included in the price of admission, first come first serve, and you’d better believe Alice is one of the first waiting outside the studio every time. If she times things right, she can go to two demos before the museum closes on weekdays and as many as she wants on Saturday. On Sunday, the Lim family goes to church along with 98 percent of the population of Galesburg.
The glass museum is almost smack-dab in the middle of the town geographically, and culturally, it is the absolute center. Other establishments in the town of Galesburg: First Baptist, First United Methodist, First Presbyterian, His Tabernacle, His Holy Light, Betsy’s Yarn Shoppe, Murphy’s Pub, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Courtyard Marriott, Super 8, the Galesburg YMCA, and one of those places where bachelorette parties drink wine and paint with unsteady hands a predetermined image on canvas.
In the hot shop, Alice Lim watches MJ, the lead glassblower, sit on her bench and roll the metal shaft of the blowpipe back and forth across her lap. MJ holds the pipe in one hand, and with the other, presses a wet cloth against the molten glass at the end. The difference in surface temperature sends up billowing steam. The spinning shapes the liquid ball into an oversize bullet, oblong and tapered to a piercing point.
There are mere inches—the thickness of the cloth—between the glass and MJ’s bare hand: proximity enough to leave viewers breathless. When MJ pushes her sleeves up to reach the pipe into the crucible, Alice can see the scars on her arms from past firings. The glass emanating heat, the glassblower emanating heat; the glass like the guts of a volcano and MJ like the surface of the sun.
MJ wears protective glasses, a studio safety protocol, but Alice imagines her eyebrows gently singed and furrowed in fierce concentration.
Safety protocol. Alice and her imagination. Nothing about this not dangerous.
There is a tenderness to the way MJ cradles the whirling molten orb. Alice, shameless exploiter of the museum’s generous discount policy, has seen it a hundred times and still not enough.
The Exhibit Hall
Please make your way into the exhibit hall. Non-flash photography is permitted. Please do not touch the sculptures, as this will leave fingerprints on the glass and diminish the experience for your fellow museumgoers. Like we tell the youth field trips, at the Galesburg Glass Museum, we only touch with our eyes.
Glass is an incredible material, and as evidenced by the works you’ll see today, an incredible medium, as well. It can be strong and fragile. It can be utilitarian and high-concept. Vases for flowers. Urns for the remains of the deceased. Plates for your Olive Garden leftovers. Ha, ha, just kidding. Like we tell the visitors of the museum café, if you have leftovers, you’re not doing it right.
Glass smartphone screens so you can text your cousin in Wisconsin. Optical fiber cables so you can stream the big game. Germ-resistant glass for hospital rooms. Crash-resistant glass for automobile applications. And you’ll never believe what the geniuses in the lab are developing now: a glass-top kitchen island that functions as an induction burner, then swipe your finger across the glass and—whoosh!—the surface turns into a TV. Make breakfast, then catch the morning news. The power of glass. Wow.
You want to know where to find the Chihuly? Sure, everyone comes for the Chihuly. It’s just up here, on the right. The green one there. The 10-foot stack of bulbous tendrils, can’t miss it. The kids call it the sea monster, say it rises up from the Galesburg River every morning and trudges into the museum, all spooky and sopping. We don’t point out that sea monsters don’t live in the river. We don’t point out that sea monsters like to eat little kiddies. We don’t point out that the first-shift janitor, Mean Mug Margaret, would kill—literally take the business end of her mop and suffocate—any poor, unsuspecting soul that made a mess on her floors before opening.
We don’t say these sorts of things to our guests. It’s important to us that our guests have a good time.
As for the Chihuly, it brings in a lot of traffic, but did the world really need another ode to the almighty phallus? At what point does the provocative just become boring?
Why not spend some time with the mosaics? There’s a giant chessboard from Murano. There are tiny, delicate beads and modern sculptures with dramatic curves. On the left, a thick-paned optical illusion from a German master. On the right, an ornate Russian chandelier. Fingerprint-proof glass invented right here in Galesburg; that one you can touch, go on, go ahead.
This, truly, is where the ancient and the contemporary meet. The whole world cast in glass. Limitations as malleable as the glowing glob at the end of a gaffer’s pipe, which can be stretched wide and ballooned—a bodiless swollen belly—with a single deep, practiced breath.
All this makes Mark Kasinski feel like shit. He’s a Galesburg lifer and it will be a relief to everyone when he stops pretending otherwise. He went to Steele Elementary, then Lombard Junior High, then Galesburg West for high school, where he joined the marching band on a dare and proved to be more than proficient at the trumpet, despite not taking it all that seriously. He made first chair his sophomore year and now he walks around the exhibit hall at the glass museum touching all the sculptures.
Mark’s dad owned Kasinski’s Hardware until the town fell on hard times in the nineties and half the stores on Maple were forced to close. Mark was just out of college and full of ideas. One idea was to stay in town and get into local government, where he could make sure hardworking men like his father weren’t left hanging out to dry. Another idea was to install an 85-inch flat screen in his basement apartment and watch home-improvement shows while taking huge rips off his bong late into the night.
Mark Kasinski has astounding breath control. He would’ve made a decent gaffer.
Mark’s bong? Made of glass.
Mark Kasinski could’ve worked his way up the political ladder to the presidency, but now his whole life fits within these 17 square miles. His church of choice is First Presbyterian. When family from out of town comes to visit, he recommends the Courtyard Marriott. He thinks Murphy’s Pub is a racket but likes to go to Applebee’s on Thursdays, when it’s margarita dollar night and everyone is drunk and friendly and willing to share their tables.
Mark uses the elliptical machine at the YMCA every Monday morning, and every Monday morning, vows to use the treadmill next week; this week is more of a warm-up. Mark Kasinski has been warming up for a very long time.
We tell Mark Kasinski it’s not cool to touch the sculptures, just like it’s not cool to drive twice the posted speed limit into the glass museum parking lot and then park crooked, taking up two of the spaces. But there’s only so much you can say to guys like Mark Kasinski, who insert themselves into strangers’ conversations hoping they’ll ask for local recommendations; and who attribute their bad luck with dating to slim pickings—slim pickings here in Galesburg, and the pickings aren’t exactly slim, if you know what I mean; and who wink too often and too slowly, as if to be absolutely sure you don’t miss it.
Mark Kasinski used to meet women on an online dating site and bring them to the glass museum on their first date. After one girlfriend told him he wasn’t creative enough, that she was drawn to more artistic types, he thought better of this plan. He wasn’t a dull man, after all. Showing the women the work of renowned glassmakers must be creating too distinct a point of comparison.
The going theory at the GGM is that Mark runs his fingers along the cold, sloping curves of the sculptures because he has no warmer alternative.
Another is that, like the rest of us, he wants to be reminded of the sheer thrill of human potential, the boundlessness of our control. One breath from the glassblower and the orb becomes a vase, a smoking pipe, a Christmas tree ornament; several more breaths to make a tiny stallion, mascot of Lombard Junior High.
Please do not touch the sculptures. Please do not remove your proof-of-purchase sticker and stick it onto the sculptures. Please do not ask Mark Kasinski why he drives back and forth along the dirt road at the edge of town with his headlights off for hours at a time, then later, safe in his memorabilia-covered garage, uses a handblown glass ice pick to scrape the dead possums off the wheels.
Mark Kasinski is not a psychopath, not exactly. He is just what you become when you’ve been in Galesburg rudderless for too long.
Mark will say it’s no different from hunting. He will say that’s what men do: they hunt.
Maybe it’s that Mark’s father, failed hardware store owner, was too liberal with his hammer when his son was growing up. Maybe it’s that his mother seemed too often made of glass. Or maybe it’s that Mark thought staying meant Galesburg would grow more familiar, yet every week he recognizes fewer and fewer faces at the decaying shopping mall.
The Hot Shop
Please take a seat in the studio. Please move all the way down the row to make room for those behind you. Please feel free to talk quietly amongst yourselves. The glassblowing demonstration will begin in 10 minutes.
Everyone thinks MJ is short for Mary Jane. MJ’s mother, volunteer event coordinator at His Tabernacle, says she named her daughter what she wished for her: More Joy. MJ will say something different every time she’s asked: Modern Jukebox. Mighty Jellyfish. Missed Jackpot. Might Jump.
You would think glassmaking might not be the best career for someone to pick back up after a yearlong stint in the self-injury treatment center on the other side of the state. But MJ would tell you there’s no safer place for her to be than the Galesburg Glass Museum hot shop. The glass she handles isn’t yet sharp. She gathers it in white-hot liquid gobs from the furnace—where it lifts up sweet and willing, like honey—then brings it to her bench to be rolled and blown, shaped and fused.
Each exhale into the glass feels like a birth. The metal blowpipe she carries is more her arm than her arm is her arm. Her arms, crisscrossed with scars and usually hidden behind the black uniform of the hot shop staff. You’d have to be naive to see those scars and think burns. You’d have to be unacquainted with all the ways the body heals: in intricate, lace-like patterns and in grotesque ropes. You’d have to be stupid, or a 12-year-old girl desperately in love.
Once MJ disconnects the glass piece from the blowpipe with a soft tap, her part of the glassblowing demo is done. At this point, she hands it off to her assistant, who moves the glass to the annealing oven to start cooling, adjusts the mic on his collar, and announces which lucky audience member has been chosen to take home an MJ-made piece today.
The prize is always a piece from a previous demo that has already had time to cool. By the time the assistant brings it from the stockroom—often a bowl, sometimes a carafe, these seductive things that could so easily be broken into useful shards—MJ is long gone.
When field trips come through the hot shop, the assistant takes requests from the audience at the beginning of the demo. After broadcasting what she’ll be making, he gestures dramatically in the direction of the lead glassblower, who is not miked and can smile up at the kids congenially while muttering under her breath, “Jesus, not Pikachu again,” or “Do they really think I don’t know what they’re getting at with the eggplant?”
When tour buses come in from the city, casting fat shadows over the parking lot, the prerecorded PA narration that walks the audience through MJ’s every move is accompanied by a Chinese translation, or Spanish, or Polish; how to say 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a hundred different languages.
And at the end of every demo, a winner is chosen to take home one of the finished pieces.
In all the years he’s been going to the GGM, Mark Kasinski hasn’t been chosen once. That’s just his luck, he says. Did you ever think to reward your loyal customers, he says. Did you ever think, he says, that if he were picked while on a date, he would ask for a vase, and he would fill it with flowers he had thoughtfully purchased ahead of time, and he would give it to the woman on his arm—and then the hot shop staff could make not one person’s day, but two? Did you ever think of that? Mark Kasinski thinks a conspiracy is afoot. He goes back to the exhibit hall with clenched fists, lets them bloom into flat palms against the glass.
Alice Lim was picked for the demo prize once, last year, on the kind of glorious summer day that inspires hikes and picnics and water-balloon fights and results in lower-than-average attendance at the Galesburg Glass Museum. Alice wasn’t expecting to win, because by all appearances the winner is chosen based on audience participation. That is, the studio assistant shouts, “Who will be the lucky winner this time!” and cups his hand around his ear. This cues the audience to applaud and cheer, to stand up in their seats and wave their arms. Ooh, ooh! Me! Pick me!
Mark Kasinski whistles with his fingers between his teeth. MJ’s mother, who shows up from time to time to check on her daughter but doesn’t care to win and be responsible for another fragile thing, claps politely from the back.
That day, Alice Lim did nothing. She barely breathed. Hands in her lap or at her side—what did it matter where her hands were when she was floating away from herself, leaving her body behind in the stadium seating? Behind the assistant, already forgotten by those who had turned their attentions to the prize, MJ was packing up to leave the stage. She was moving in slow motion, taking off her apron and pulling the scrunchie out of her hair. Alice loved the way MJ wrapped the apron strings all the way around her waist and brought them back around the front to tie. Alice vowed to do it the exact same way when she took home ec in high school.
Some people think the assistant chooses the winner; some people think it’s MJ, whispering instructions to him from behind. The kids think it’s magic, the cynical think it’s random, and the trusting think it’s fate. But they’re all wrong. Because it’s Greg, the guy who operates the studio lights.
While the members of the audience are hooting and hollering and reaching over one another like a troop of monkeys vying for a banana—banana, another common audience suggestion from the field trip kids—Greg is operating the spotlight from upstairs. He waves it around the room, adding to the general air of chaos and excitement while the assistant eggs everyone on and the music plays. The effect is like that of a gigantic agitated firefly. And wherever the light stops and remains stopped, that’s the winner.
And it has nothing to do with how loud the person is, or whether or not they look like they’re on a date. It has mostly to do with when Greg’s arms get tired.
When the spotlight landed on Alice Lim, the person on her left sighed with disappointment and the person to her right scooched over to try and share her light. But the assistant, not fooled, waved for Alice to come down and collect her prize; and everyone waited patiently while Alice floated back down from the ceiling and reentered her body and struggled to maneuver it, left leg, right leg, toward the hot shop stage.
And there was MJ, closer than ever. Alice’s stomach went Major Jelly, Mumbly Jangly.
Mere feet away now, hair an untied curtain. Mouth Jubilant. My Jewel.
Alice Lim reached the stage pale and shaking, and when the assistant handed her the vase, marbled in violent shades of green and red, she wasn’t looking at him but at some point just over his left shoulder. Could it be any surprise, then, that she dropped it? The vase barely grazed her fingertips before it went tumbling to the floor.
MJ looked at Alice for the first time then, and soon after, the glassblower’s gaze filled with a longing bordering on lust. But while Alice will remember their eyes locking, the lust and longing being directed at her, the truth is that MJ’s immediately turned toward the shattered glass between them. Her eyes widened at the countless shards, some already red, the convenience of that. The vase had broken so cleanly and the edges were so straight: characteristics of well-made glass. Long fingers reaching out in every direction. Especially hers, it seemed. Especially hers.
Attention, please: The custodial staff is tending to an incident in the hot shop. The next demonstration will begin 15 minutes behind schedule. Please excuse the delay. Please excuse Mean Mug Margaret; she took a double shift today and will sweep over your feet if she has to. You may take this time to fuel up at the vending machines or pick up a souvenir for a loved one. Have you visited the museum gift shop?
The Gift Shop
Welcome to the Galesburg Glass Museum gift shop. Stroll through the aisles, sparkling with beautiful objects, and you’ll see the gift shop is like a miniature glass museum in and of itself.
There is something here for everyone. Tableware made in our very own hot shop. Millefiori beads of all shapes and sizes. Statement jewelry from local designers. A wall clock made of recycled glass bottles in the shape of Illinois.
On a budget? May we recommend the canework section, full of colorful, hand-pulled canes the perfect length for stirring your coffee? May we recommend the fused glass magnets? Fifteen dollars: mix and match your own set of three.
And then the fucking paperweights. We mean, the stunning paperweights! Rita Dempster rings up more paperweights than all the other items in the shop combined.
The Galesburg Glass Museum was supposed to be Rita Dempster’s second act. She knew she would suffocate at the reception desk in the dental wing of Guthrie Medical. It’s true what they say about people hating dentists more than any other doctor: what other office sounds so much like a construction site, smells so much like twisted aluminum and bone? It’s invasive the whole way through: the X-rays, weighted apron pressing down on your sternum; the probing, mostly rhetorical questions about frequency of flossing; the clumsy, powdered-glove fingers inside your mouth.
One of the dentists, Dr. Musgrave, has a particular fondness for the latter. Let me see you open real wide, he says to patients.
He likes to tell jokes while administering the nitrous oxide. What does the dentist of the year get?
He promises, even if you don’t like them, he’ll be able to make you laugh. A little plaque!
He’s heavy-handed with the laughing gas. It helped him relax Rita’s jaw enough to fit his whole fist inside her mouth.
Rita always wanted to be a glassblower, but something was always coming up: kid, marriage, divorce, in quick succession; second marriage, miscarriage, crazy mortgage, her father’s cancer.
There is a tower that sprouts out of Maple Street: white stone painted with the silhouette of a gaffer in royal blue, his blowpipe extended like an elephant’s trunk, his lips on one end of the shaft and the sky on the other; a portrait of exaltation. Though no more than 15 stories tall, the tower is the most recognizable jut in the Galesburg skyline, and every time Rita drove past it, she remembered her unattended dream. When she walked down the berry-stained streets of perpendicular Market, she thought only of melting glass beads.
Rita’s first 40 years were an airport conveyor belt: she had only enough time to grab what she thought was hers and go.
Rita Dempster hadn’t taken a deep breath in her life. But there is something about a dentist’s latex knuckle, alien against your tonsils, that helps you remember.
Please! Please! No running in the gift shop. No running anywhere in the glass museum. We know you’ve heard this one before: you break it, you buy it.
Rita didn’t have the money to go back to school for glassblowing, nor the connections to pick up an apprenticeship at any of the studios in the state. So when she saw an opening for a retail position at the Galesburg Glass Museum gift shop, she thought it could be her in. She thought it this wild, romantic thing: she would put in the time, make friends with the hot shop staff, buy them a round of lemonades at the museum café one day and convince them to give her lessons after closing time. They would inevitably see her potential, her passion. She would work harder than anyone. She would be humble. She would learn on the job.
But it turned out the hot shop staff didn’t frequent the café, opting instead to get out of the museum as quickly as possible and head to Murphy’s, where they were treated like local heroes, one oversweet on-the-house lemon drop after another. And Rita quickly realized her foolishness in thinking Galesburg was strapped for fresh glassblowing talent. It was the only glass museum for hundreds of miles, and competition for positions in the hot shop—even assistant positions, even assistant-to-the-assistant positions—was fierce.
Everything around Rita is constantly breaking.
The gift shop didn’t turn out to be so different from the dental wing, after all. Rita spends most of her days behind a counter, staring ahead at a long line of bored, impatient faces. Those called patients rarely have it! Children smack small, sticky hands onto the countertop while their parents, not realizing they’ve reached the front of the line, continue to tap and scroll unblinkingly on their phones. The receipt machine stutters and runs out of ink. Crumpled wads of paper—now museum maps rather than orthodontic brochures—miss the trash can in lazy arcs.
And when museum guests are only there to kill time before a delayed glassblowing demonstration, the gift shop becomes indistinguishable from a dentist’s waiting room.
No, the gift shop and the dental wing, not so different. Save for the fact that Dr. Musgrave doesn’t work there, and most days, that is enough.
But some days, Rita Dempster isn’t sure. She wanted to be closer to her goal. It was painful to be far from it, but she has discovered it hurts more to be close and not touching. The way you might pass out from the pain if you apply pressure to a nerve directly; touch just a few inches to the left of it, though, and you’ll feel the pain but stay awake, acutely aware with no relief.
When traffic through the gift shop is slow, Rita reads the books they sell on glassblowing and learns about the artists whose pieces line the shelves. She studies the craft all the way back to Roman times. She becomes a human encyclopedia, waiting to be cracked open. But no one asks her anything—nothing besides the location of the sale section and the direction of the restrooms, that is. And no one wants to buy the big, expensive masterpieces, much less hear their stories. It’s all paperweights for the visitors of the Galesburg Glass Museum, and in early August before school starts up, beginner-friendly stained glass kits for the classroom.
Wasted knowledge aside, Rita Dempster is tired of sitting in her swivel chair and being privy to everyone else’s exhausting lives; having secrets and cruelties exposed before her, impossible to ignore, like air bubbles trapped in glass. Same here as at Guthrie Medical reception. Conversations hissed too loudly. Glass figurines indiscreetly folded into palms and stuffed into the deep pockets of winter coats.
There was the quiet day last summer when Alice Lim went sprinting out of the gift shop in tears, too fast even for Rita to yell after her to slow down.
There was the day, a week after Rita had started at the gift shop, when Mark Kasinski maxed out his credit card trying to buy an extravagant bouquet of glass roses for his date, who stood at his side fingering the glass keychain display and looking vaguely disinterested.
Everything around Rita has the potential to be broken.
Rita is very tired of calling rude men “sir.”
When Rita said, as carefully as possible, that there looked to be an error with his card and would he like to try another payment method instead, Mark’s face flushed hot with blood.
“There must be a mistake,” he snorted dismissively, demanding to speak to a manager. “This is ridiculous. These registers look like they’re from the eighties.”
When Rita said, embarrassed, that she didn’t think there was a manager, Mark grew more flustered. He said he and his date didn’t have time for this—they had a dinner reservation to make in the next town over—but he expected Rita to package the bouquet up and sort out whatever issue her register was having processing the charge. He said his personal assistant would be by to pick the glass up in the morning.
Alice Lim’s problem: to keep up the swim practice rouse that allows her to spend every weekday afternoon alone at the glass museum, she has to soak her hair in the bathroom sink before crossing the highway back to Lombard Junior High, where her mother picks her daughter up and sees nothing out of order.
Alice Lim’s other problems: pre-algebra; competition for babysitting gigs; no crosswalk on the highway between the museum and the school; the way the sky over Galesburg gets darker much earlier in the winter.
Mark Kasinski’s problem: Being a know-it-all with the dates he brings to the hot shop. Pointing to the second furnace in the row of three and identifying it as the glory hole. Winking when he says “glory hole.” Doing it very, very slowly.
Rita Dempster’s problem: There was the day a new delivery of glass beads came in. They were small and white, dented and jagged and many shaped. As Rita unpacked the boxes, she couldn’t help but be reminded of teeth.
MJ’s problem: While the rest of Galesburg goes to church, MJ looks for God in the furnace. She squints against the brightness; blinks back the splotches of black forming in her vision. MJ knows the origin of the term “glory hole.” It’s the name for a break in the clouds where sunlight passes through.