"The history of color is a sordid affair," the old guide begins, virtually guaranteeing that most of the audience in the small group of tourists would begin to drift away, post haste. The building we're in, a little two-story brick affair, on the edge of a dusty little piss-stop outside of Shawnee, Oklahoma, is not much more than a square of asphalt to park on and a place to water your dogs. It squats next to the stretch of road where Rock Creek kisses what used to be Route 66, deep, deep in the humid armpit of the Great Plains. It is empty, save for the usual post-Route 66 attractions—placards proclaiming this and that, piles of corn and sad displays of Indian tribes long gone.
The worn plank flooring sags under the desultory grazing of the few tourists in the place. The air is grain-silo heavy, smelling of history and dust and thousands of bored grade school field trips. Black and white photos line the walls and the glass cases are full of what you could only describe as "old shit the pioneers forgot to take with them."
The old man speaking is as gray and colorless as this place. The bare brick of the walls looks like it's only had a passing acquaintance with paint in the last century or so and the guide isn't in much better shape. He continues, to the dismay of my son, who is shifting from one foot to the other impatiently. Little Ed looks like he's regretting bringing his Transformers backpack with him, in spite of Laney telling him to leave it in the car, along with the dog, Laney herself, and roughly three weeks worth of empty Sprite cans and Fanta bottles.
"On your right, you can see one of this museum's great claims to fame. The personal effects of Francois-Emmanuel Verguin, the father of the modern synthetic dye industry."
The glass case, lit much more brightly than the rest of this floor, is open on the top. It holds a dusty coat, a small set of lab equipment, and a few books of varying sizes and shapes. Pinned to the back wall is a photo of a harried-looking man standing beneath a very tall and dour woman. Her dress is a thing of massive engineering, piled high in back and built like an impregnable fortress, as high fashion tended to be back in the mid-1800's.
"He invented fuchsia." The old man winks at my son, who stares back at him with the sort of hostility Mongol invaders tended to reserve for Han Dynasty courtiers. Obliviously, he continues. "If it weren't for him, we'd have no colors at all to paint with. Local legends say that he lived here briefly before heading west to San Francisco, to make his fortune. They said he had the Devil's Coloring Book."
"'The Devil's Coloring Book'?" Little Ed gives him an arch look, with the highly concentrated levels of skepticism that only an eight year old bored completely out of his damn mind can give.
"Oh, yes. Legend has it, that if you had the Devil's Coloring Book, you could color anything and the colors would stick. You could change the lines of anything in the world and that's what they'd be forever more. They say that cheetahs didn't have their spots before someone spilled ink in it. If you had that sort of power, young man, what would you change?"
Little Ed just stares at him.
"Is that it?" I nod towards a picture book lying at the edge of the case. It's open to a page full of plants and flowers and written in a spiky script, probably German, judging by the sheer number of umlauts and unfamiliar letters. It looks old.
"Oh, heavens, no. That's just a tall tale told by old folks around here. That book was written by Leonhart Fuchs, the German botanist who discovered and named the fuchsia plant. Verguin named the color after his plant and had that book in his collection."
I head for the stairs, on the general theory that elevation would clear out the thick air a bit, trusting the others to follow behind. And maybe there's something more interesting up there, after all.
Little Ed lingers behind. "It looks like a coloring book. Just outlines and shapes of things," I hear him say behind us.
I take the stairs two steps at a time, the old man and the few other tourists still interested enough to listen, trailing along behind at a much slower clip.
No such luck. The second, and top, floor of the place is entirely devoted to potato farming and cotton gins. The old man creaks up to the top of the stairs, his eyes lighting up. Apparently, this is his favorite part of the tour. The next two tourists, an elderly Canadian couple wearing "Don't Mess With Texas" t-shirts, crane their heads over the railing, share a glance and head back down. Nobody else follows us up.
At least it's better lit up here. The windows are bigger, less dusty, and mercy of mercies, mostly open. The place smells like rust and dried potatoes, though, in spite of the breeze.
The old man waits a bit for more people to come up. After a few awkward moments, he shrugs and launches into a brain-blastingly dull account of Oklahoma's wilder days of potato and sorghum ranching.
It takes a few minutes for me to realize that Little Ed isn't up here with me. I decide to hold off on retrieving him. Wherever he is, he's probably not as bored as I am now.
A few moments later, I notice the potatoes are electric lime. Then the old man turns green. Before I can convince myself that I'm having a stroke or hallucinating, the old man stops, looking alarmed. It's not just me, good. If you're going to go crazy, it's nice to have accompaniment.
And then he grows leaves and turns into a tree, his feet ripping into the plank flooring. He opens his mouth to speak again, but only manages a rusty groan before that, too, turns into bark and wood. He spreads his arms and they burst into dusty foliage, growing into the roof and then breaking through.
The light coming through the windows changes color, becomes an eye-shattering shade of bright purple: fuchsia, I think.
Alarmed, I pound down the staircase. Little Ed has the book from the case out on the floor. He's got his eighty-color Crayola pack out and is furiously scribbling away. On the left page is an old man who's been scribbled into a tree. The sun is now a messy purple and all the buffalo have devil horns, mustaches and are fire-engine red.
I knock the flesh-colored crayon out of his hand before he starts to color in the Rocky Mountains. No need to turn half of Colorado and Wyoming into meat.
Outside, I hear the Canadian tourists gasp. There's a sound of camera flashes going off, something they didn't bother with inside.
"This place isn't boring anymore."
Kid has a point.