The woman stands in a yellow sundress and sandals, snow circling her blue ankles. It’s January in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and she’s out on the street half-naked. She’s not one of the beggars that Dan’s father, Buck, had told him to expect. She’s not asking for money. “Put a little bit of change in your front pocket,” Buck had said as Dan was leaving home. “You got three days in town for the expo. Shake a little loose every day, but no more than a couple, like, five bucks total. Got it?” In Buck’s eyes he saw doubt. “A dollar or two a day, no more. Don’t be soft, Danny.”
Dan’s whole, miserable job at the building trades expo was handing out little keychains promoting their family business—Johansen Ladder Incorporated—and answering questions about bulk order discounts. He couldn’t understand how his dad always came home from the expo all fired up. The chaos and noise of the vendor hall wiped Dan out and emptied his head of sense. Each morning, he left the convention center for a smoke and gave up a five to the first raggedy man who looked like he really needed it.
But the woman in the sundress isn’t asking for money. She doesn’t shiver or give any other sign of being cold as she goes through her routine: Wait for someone to approach. Lean in to say something to them. Wait. Give—or don’t give—a flower from the battered, five-gallon spackle bucket that hangs from her wrist.
It’s Wednesday, the middle day of the expo. Dan’s standing there smoking, trying to guess whether the next person will get a flower. He gets it wrong three times in a row—the first guy got a flower and Dan totally figured he wouldn’t, then the old lady comes up and Dan thinks, she’s definitely getting a flower, but she doesn’t, and so on. Dan gives up and turns to watch the buses go hissing through the slush on Wisconsin Avenue. He knows she’s got to be nuts, but eventually his curiosity gets the better of him. He grinds out his butt and strides over there, hitching up his new jeans as he goes.
She looks to be in her early 20s, young as his little sister. Her short hair is the color of coffee and it gleams, concentrating the weak rays of winter sun.
“Cold enough for ya?” Dan says, though he knows the question is stupid. Her bare white arms are speckled with gooseflesh.
She studies him with eyes the color of corn in early June. “Of course it’s cold. But tell me this: What brings you joy?”
Her face is steady, seamless, giving no signal to him that this is some kind of joke. Her eyes have more depth to them than Dan would have guessed. Up close, the pale green goes mossy.
Her insistent gaze reminds him of the look his fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Halvorsen, always gave him, one that said, I bet you can figure this out on your own. Back then, he just wanted Mrs. Halvorsen to tell him the right answer. She knew it already, so what was the point in risking being wrong?
“I said, ‘What brings you joy?’” The woman is holding a purple carnation out just beyond Dan’s reach.
His hand twitches in his pocket and he imagines himself grabbing the flower. He doesn’t understand what she is asking him. He’s heard of these people, street artists. There aren’t any of them back home.
“Joy?” Dan hears himself say, puzzled, his teeth catching on the J as if he only recently learned English. He shakes his head, rousing himself out of her spell. “What’s joy?”
Her hand lowers, dropping the purple flower back into the bucket. She looks away, toward the next supplicant, a weather-beaten man in a ripped jacket.
“I’ll tell you all about joy, sweetheart,” the man says. “I can tell you some stories for damn sure.”
Dan goes back inside. He hands out ladder keychains. He answers questions about volume discounts, about small business certification for municipal procurement. Later that night, he goes out for dinner at the 5 O’Clock Steakhouse with a sealants vendor and a guy from the carpenters’ union. He tries three different kinds of whiskey.
Wiseacres. Dan’s father warned him he’d meet a lot of them in the city.
“These hoity-toity types who think they know everything. Who think they’re funny about it, too. Think they’re getting one over on ya.”
That woman must think she’s funny. Out in the slush, asking people about joy. Does she think she’s some kind of expert?
He looks for her the next day. Every smoke break—six of them—he strides the circumference of the convention center, two city blocks squared. His calves ache from the walking, the wet cold stiffening his jeans. But she’s not there.
• • • • •
He tried asking people, back home.
At the Legion, catching the Packers game with his friend Tom, Dan asked him. “What brings you joy, man?” His throat caught on the question. It had taken him until half-time to get up the nerve.
Tom tipped his shaggy head back to pour in the last of the basket of pretzels. “It would give me some goddamn joy if they put Aaron Rodgers back in right now. If they kept their defense up, he wouldn’t even be out with his goddamn collar bone broke in half.”
Dan looked at the screen across the bar—one of eight in the small room, all tuned to the game. The Pack was down by eleven. Would seeing Rodgers run out to the field right now really bring Tom joy?
“No, joy, man.”
Tom looked at him out of the corner of his eye and then back to the screen. He hunched his shoulders. “What’s that?”
Dan couldn’t say. On the way home, he hit Walmart to look it up in a dictionary: The emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation.
Just to be sure, he looked up “keen”—finely sharpened, as an edge; so shaped as to cut or pierce substances readily—and “elation”—a feeling or state of great joy or pride; exultant gladness; high spirits.
High spirits or pleasure, sharp as a knife edge. When was the last time Dan felt that? Or the first? Where did Dan have room for that in the trailer he shared with his dad?
They had a real house once, before his mom got sick, a sturdy old brick one with the original oak woodwork and a stained-glass window in the front. On a sunny day it felt like living in a church. As a kid, Dan liked to lie in the planes of color, washing his hands in blue, orange, red. If he lay there long enough, the colors would travel the length of his body, a kaleidoscope transforming him a hair, an inch of denim, at a time.
When his mom got diagnosed, his dad struggled mightily to keep them all in health insurance. But the insurance company came up with some excuse to jack up the company’s coverage, and they all lost it—Mom, Dad, Dan, his sister away at college, the five hired guys in the shop. They just didn’t want to pay for her care.
Buck emptied their savings and Dan took a second job. Even with all that, they had to sell the house and downsize to the trailer. Dan knew that’s what finally killed her: knowing she was leaving them both broke and exhausted and, at the end, alone together in that cramped and humbling space. He saw it in her eyes.
Not that Dan thought he was better than anybody else here, although their trailer was the nicest one in the park. Buck wanted his wife to have some comforts, some beauty still. He had some Amish build a wraparound porch, and he had hung a glider swing to look out on the valley. At the foot of the porch he planted a fat row of pink roses.
• • • • •
Dad, do you ever think about joy?” Dan asked, a couple weeks after the expo. He had dreamed the night before of the green-eyed woman, her flowers.
“Your mother? Of course, you idiot. I was married to her for thirty years. What do you think?”
In all his musing on the word, it never clicked that Joy was his mom’s name. Joy Ellen Johansen, born Joy Ellen Wilder. Of course, Dan always called her “Mom.”
“Right. Besides that, though. I mean, the feeling joy.”
“Damned if I know,” Buck said. “She used to try to tell me that in low times I should look to her, that she would always be my joy.” He shifted in his recliner, lifting up one buttock as if it hurt. It must hurt, Dan thought, him sitting there all day recovering from his heart attack while he knew things were going to shit at the shop.
His mom had held their lives together, at home and work, with threads invisible as a spider web. She was the connector. Dan recalled the mysterious trace of her hands as she taught him to tie his shoes, his eyes straining to capture each movement so that he could replay them in his head and emerge one day from his room, triumphant, his shoes tied.
“And your joy since—since Mom passed away?”
Buck grimaced, as though Dan had released a bad smell into the room. After a minute he waved his son away, “Ah, forget about that.”
From the shop office, Dan watched the guys working the line, gluing yellow plastic caps on the feet of Johansen’s cheapest model. Under their heavy filter masks—the ones that left red lines on their sweaty faces when they pulled them off at lunch—did any of them feel the sharp knife edge of joy? Sure, they joked around with each other in the breakroom—Dan used to be part of those jokes—but it was never anything deep. Now he couldn’t even remember what was so funny.
Without his dad in the office, Dan had more to do but less attention for any of it. Lori, the admin, had to remind him before she left at 4:15 each day of something he forgot, some OSHA report, some paperwork Buck would need for the audit come spring.
The rough-paneled walls made the narrow, rectangular room feel smaller than it was. There remained an empty desk where Joy used to sit and smoke and type up the reports on the computer. The place still smelled like her Virginia Slims. Nobody was allowed to smoke in the office anymore.
He knew his dad expected him to take over the business when he retired—still a good ten or fifteen years off, Dan hoped—and he knew he should be grateful for it. But these weeks in charge while Buck recuperated left him agitated. Maybe he didn’t want his dad’s life, his business. Sometimes, after Lori and everyone had left, he felt like setting the place on fire.
• • • • •
Dan made up a reason to go back to the city every couple of months after the expo: His buddy won tickets from Rock 97.5 to a concert at The Riverside. He was going to a Brewers game with a high school friend who was working in Milwaukee now. There was a blowout sale at a sporting goods store in the burbs and he was in the market for a new hunting rifle.
He enjoyed the challenge of coming up with new and semi-plausible excuses. Sometimes he would actually do the things he said he was going to do—go to the game, buy the rifle—and it seemed like maybe he was becoming someone else in those transactions, someone more interesting.
His girlfriend, Mickey, got suspicious of his sudden interest in visiting the city. “Why’re you going there so much? And why can’t I ever come along? You got another girl?”
To calm her, he took Mickey with him once. They toured the Harley Davidson Museum, played blackjack at Potawatomi, and strolled along the lake. She watched him watch the streets.
“Who are you looking for?” Mickey asked, exasperation in her blue eyes. They were drinking bloodies and eating overpriced eggs at some industrial place in the Third Ward that the guy at the desk of their hotel said was good. In fact, the portions were small and everything was covered in cilantro.
“Nobody in particular. Just people watching, I guess. That’s what you do when you come to a place like this, right?”
“I guess.” She paused in salting her eggs to study him. “You’ve just been, I don’t know, distracted a lot lately.”
“Do you ever feel joy, Mick?”
It was coming on the anniversary of the day they met—three years ago, at a mutual friend’s birthday cookout. Soon after that, Dan’s mom got sick. Mickey had stood by him through her illness and death. He was thankful for that kindness, but had they shared any moments that counted as joy? He couldn’t say.
“You’re getting weird.” She flicked a piece of cilantro onto the edge of her plate, then swabbed it off with her napkin. “And I don’t like weird.”
“I’m serious.” He tried to laugh off her irritation. “Come on, Mick, just answer: When was the last time you felt joy?”
“Joy? You mean, like, happiness?”
“It’s different than that. Happiness is like a long-term thing. Joy is …” He tried to think of an example she might relate to. “Like, when you’re a kid and you and your friends rake together this huge pile of leaves and you jump into it. That feeling.”
“I never liked that feeling. The leaves get down your shirt and there’s ants and spiders and—no.” She shuddered and scratched her back, as if something were crawling there.
“Well, something else then. I don’t know—sledding. That feeling when you go over the edge of the hill and you can’t stop and it’s like you’re flying?”
“Doesn’t anything grownups do count as joy?”
“Grownups sled.” He shrugged. “Maybe we should get a toboggan this winter. Or some tubes.”
“Maybe we should get married. People always look happy on their wedding day.” She squeezed his hand, but the smirk on her face confirmed that the suggestion was sarcastic.
Her sarcasm wounded him. The thought of proposing had crossed his mind once or twice. He loved her, loved the way she made him feel—desired, useful, steady—but it never seemed like the right moment. Now he wondered if his hesitation was rooted in something deeper than that.
“I’m not talking about happy, Mick. Joyful. Joy isn’t happiness.” He thought back to the dictionary definition. “It’s sharp, quick. Something so good it cuts you open.”
“I don’t want to be cut open.” She tossed her napkin on the table and crossed her arms over her chest. “You know, I don’t understand anything that’s going on right now.”
• • • • •
On his next trip, Dan traveled alone, telling Mickey that he had to go to the city for business. She didn’t seem surprised. Since their weekend in Milwaukee, something between them had shifted.
Speeding down I-94, he loved the moment when the downtown suddenly revealed itself, each towering building full of people living lives so different from his. He craved the hours of anonymity in the city. Walking along the lakefront, admiring the tree-covered bluffs and the clean-swept beaches, the silvered apartment windows catching the sun, he was no one anybody recognized. Somehow this made him feel more himself.
That Friday evening, he wandered through the desolate mall on Wisconsin Avenue. At a tourist information kiosk, he picked up a brochure for Gallery Night. Forty galleries would be holding open houses in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. The skin on his forearms prickled. Of course the green-eyed woman would be there, somewhere, among the other artists.
He had dinner at a café near his motel. While he ate his hamburger, he pored over the brochure, reading the descriptions of the art on display and circling the spaces with the most promise. Two locations said they were featuring performance art, one in the Third Ward and one in Walker’s Point. He planned to start with those. Performance art was what the woman was doing, right?
He climbed to the first gallery, up a blinding, fluorescent-lit staircase lined in mosaics of broken glass, and found himself among a hundred people in a space built for fifty at most. More mosaics hung on the walls, all of them composed of clear glass and mirror. A disco ball suspended from the ceiling spun the room’s white light into a slow, nauseating swirl.
“Glass of wine?” A woman dressed all in cream passed him a plastic cup. “Is this your first time at Art Den?”
“Well, welcome.” The woman’s huge teeth dominated her smile. “This is my gallery.”
“Thanks.” Dan didn’t generally drink wine, but he downed the yellow liquid in two gulps. He wished it was beer.
“The mosaics are by Hyun-Ok Kowalski. She’s a genius. The light. The refraction. Don’t you think?” The toothy woman looked Dan up and down. She swept her satiny gray hair from her face, rattling an armful of acrylic bracelets. She was dressed to match the room. “You’re from out of town, aren’t you?”
“Oh, now that’s a ways. Farm country. I initially read the Carhartt jacket and plaid shirt as ironic. Guess not.” She snapped her fingers, as if striking out.
“This is just what I wear.” He crushed the empty plastic cup in his hands. “I’m not trying to make a statement or anything like that.”
“Let me tell you something.” She grabbed his elbow and pulled him closer as though she was going to let him in on a secret. “Everyone, darling—absolutely everyone—is trying to make a statement.”
“I don’t think so. I’m not.” He thought of the street artist and her flowers. “And I met this woman once who only asked a question. She would just stand on the street and ask people, ‘What brings you joy?’ She wasn’t making a statement. Just asking a question.”
“Are you talking about Aurora?” She furrowed her brow. “Darling, you make my very point. Aurora asking people that same question over and over, knowing that so many will fail to answer it, is a statement. It’s art.” Dan could hear the disapproval of him, his farm-country jacket—worn for real dirty work, not for show—in the way she bit down on the word “art.”
“And what’s the statement she—Aurora—is trying to make?” Discovering the woman’s name gave him a flush of unexpected power. Certainly he would find her now, knowing her name.
“That people will fail. That they can’t name a single thing that brings them joy. I thought I saw her on the bill tonight at Protean.” The woman rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe she’s still doing that same shtick. Please.”
“I guess I’m heading over to Protean, then.” Dan had thought it was pronounced “protein.” He handed the gallery owner his mangled wine cup.
“Well, tell Aurora I say hi.” She was looking over his shoulder. Her face brightened and Dan turned to see a well-dressed couple step over the threshold into the crowded room. “You’ll have to excuse me,” she said, squeezing his arm. “Because what brings me real joy is drunk art patrons with money in their pockets.” The toothy woman moved away, slipping between the bodies like a shark through seaweed. “Edgar! Marcy! I am absolutely ecstatic to see you here.”
• • • • •
Protean was the gallery in Walker’s Point that he had circled in the brochure, the other one with performances that night. It seemed like some kind of sign to him that, all on his own, he had narrowed the list down to two possibilities and he had found her. As he drove the couple of miles, his GPS shepherding him through the murky streets, he wondered what it would be like to see her again. In his mind Aurora had become larger than life, a riddling angel with some essential knowledge he could gain if only he could follow her instruction. He had been following it, questioning himself and those around him, and he felt a door opening as a result. Where it led, he didn’t yet know, but it was opening. He shivered in his jacket, although the early September air was warm.
In contrast with the Art Den’s blaring whiteness, Protean’s raw space was dim. The two rooms off to the right of the main gallery flickered with video displays. The gallery to the left featured a series of paintings illuminated by spotlights, leaving the rest of the room in shadow. The main gallery, a high-ceilinged room with exposed pipes gurgling overhead, was ringed by six small stages.
On five of the stages, a single light highlighted a chair or a prop of some kind, the artist either gone already or yet to arrive. On the stage in the far corner, a groaning man lifted something dark and boxy above his head. Dan wedged himself into the crowd of twenty or so watching him pick up an ancient cathode ray-type TV set, hoist it above his head and grunt, then set it slowly down again. The TV was plugged in, tuned to static. The man’s sweat dripped onto the set each time he placed it at his feet and his movements grew slower with every lift, the grunting resolving into a growl.
Dan turned to the rapt girl next to him. She seemed to be in her late teens and wore a brown leather vest over a lime green tank top and a purple-sequined ballerina skirt.
“What’s this about?” he asked. Dressed like that, she couldn’t possibly make him feel stupid for not getting it.
Without turning her head, she said, “I think maybe it’s a commentary on the influence of media? The way our minds are so full of it all the time? Hold on a sec.” She pulled her phone from her vest pocket and snapped a picture of the sweating man in all-out weightlifter grimace. “Crystal’s going to love this.” She pressed a few buttons, then dropped the phone back into her pocket.
“Did Aurora perform yet?”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t think so. This is the first performance, I think. Who’s Aurora? What does she do?”
“She’s—well, I don’t know. You’ll just have to see it, I guess.” Dan began moving away, suddenly wanting to keep the power of Aurora’s art to himself. “Good to talk to you.”
He wandered into one of the video galleries, where a black-and-white film in the style of a 1960s home movie played against the wall: a man and a woman in hippie clothes packing and unpacking a picnic basket in constant loop. The moment the woman placed the last thermos in the basket, the film reversed and she was taking it out again. His mom was never a hippie, but she used to sigh sometimes that life was like this: the hamper refilling with laundry just soon as she had emptied it.
As his eyes adjusted to the shadows and the flickering video, he began to make out the faces in the room.
He sees her then. Aurora is leaned up against the wall to his right, arms crossed over her chest. This time she’s dressed for the season, in a tweed skirt and tights, a light sweater with rhinestone buttons.
In the other room, the TV lifter’s animal growl has become a roar that breaks through the silence of the picnic video.
Dan crosses the room and says, “Do you think that guy’s okay?” He can’t believe he’s face-to-face with her again, after all these months.
Aurora shrugs. “I saw him warming up. He always stops before he breaks anything.”
“Good. That’s a relief.” Dan forgets what he’s relieved about before his mouth is even closed. He can only stare. In this light her eyes look gray.
“Do we know each other?”
“Not really. We met once. In January, outside the convention center downtown. You didn’t give me a flower.”
She laughs, then looks around the room. A couple of the video-watchers turn in their direction.
“Then you must not have deserved one.” Her laugh is taunting.
“I do now.”
“Deserve one. A flower. I know what brings me joy.”
She pats the small pockets of her skirt. “Fresh out, I’m afraid.”
“I don’t need the flower. I just wanted to tell you. And ask you something.”
A husky man in a corduroy coat shushes them and Aurora jerks her head toward the door. Dan follows her back into the main gallery.
“What do you want to know?” Aurora checks her watch, a thin, silver band. “I’m on in ten minutes.”
Dan hopes the smile on his face is as he feels it—inviting, not smug—but he can’t help feeling pleased with himself. “I want to know, what brings you joy?”
She laughs out loud now, her head thrown back, her long arms sweeping toward the ceiling and crashing down onto her thighs. “All this time, no one’s bothered to ask me that.”
“Really?” Dan feels victorious. He’s done something no one else has.
Her mouth falls open. “You know I’m kidding, right? Even the kid who cashiers at Walgreens asks me what brings you joy every time I go in there to buy tampons.”
He doesn’t want Aurora to see the disappointment in his face, so he turns toward the TV man’s stage. A member of the audience has climbed up to help him lift, another squatting on the floor to spot him on the release. What do they think they’re accomplishing, extending this guy’s routine?
“I’m sorry. I’m being a smartass.” Aurora pats Dan’s shoulder. “Tell me your answer. What brings you joy?”
He shrugs off the weight of her hand, her gaze. “No, I don’t think I’ll tell you after all.”
“I said I was sorry.” A darkness crosses her face and she pulls on the sleeves of her sweater. “I’m on in a minute. I should go get ready.”
“You don’t know, do you?”
“What brings you joy.”
He makes record time on the trip home. As he speeds along the midnight landscape, he imagines that there must be someone out there worth telling.