CONJUNCTIONS:63, Speaking Volumes (Fall 2014)
Three Found Books
She found the book in the attic of the house she’d bought with the money from her parents’ will. She was their only child, and they had saved mightily over many years and she paid for the house outright. It was blue, with a white door and a thatched roof. Inside, up a stepladder, one could hide in the attic, which was surprisingly clean and open, without boards sticking up or spiderwebs growing. She suspected the previous owners had used it for some purpose, but she could not imagine what, as most activities required furniture of some sort. She did find the book, though, on the second visit. Leaning against a sloped wall. It was an old hardback book, and on the cover it said Things People Say. The author’s name was not listed. The book had no ISBN number or publisher name but it seemed to predate the self- publishing industry so she did not know quite how it existed. It was blank inside, too. Almost like a joke: Things People Say and then the implication of nothing. Ah, she thought, turning the pages. I get it, she thought. Ha-ha. But she kept turning the pages, pulled on by some urge she could not name, and about a third of the way in, she found a filled-in page. “I say it’s over, John,” the page read, in ballpoint pen. “That’s what I say to you and your stupid gifts. I hate that shawl. I hate it, and the dinner, and the daisies. I am allergic. How can you not know that? Done. I am finally done.” Three pages later, in a new and looser handwriting: “OK, Jean. It’s over, then. I see this and I agree. I’m tired of apologizing and getting it all wrong. Just tell me how to go about it.” Three pages later: “John, you are so passive. I can’t tell you how to leave me.”
Three pages later: “Jean, you have not left. We are going about our business as usual. Is it over?”
Three pages later: “It is over, John. I am going about our business as an actor now. I like the house too much to leave. You are still here for your own reasons. But it is over.” Nothing for about twenty pages. Then:
“You seem like yourself, like usual, lately, Jean. Have you been acting the whole time?”
Three pages later: “No.”
“I can’t seem to tell when you are acting and when you are not.” (Also three pages later, for this and every subsequent entry.)
“This is why it is over. You can’t tell? This is exactly like the daisies. This is exactly my point.”
“Can others tell?”
“To what others am I married?”
“Can you tell?”
And that was it for the rest of the book.
The new owner sat in the attic quietly. It was just so clean, the cleanest attic she’d ever seen, and the floorboards were a golden pine color. The walls leaned in to form a peak and someone had built a skylight into the northern slant leaving a stretched square of sunlight on the rug sample left behind that was the shape of Utah. It was, the woman thought, probably the most peaceful place she had ever been, despite what she’d just read. She leaned the book carefully against the wall again, went downstairs, and made herself a dinner in the kitchen using the old but functional appliances.
As she ate her dinner, she thought about the owners whom she’d met briefly when she bought the house. They were older, pleasant, chatted without tension; the woman wore a bun that made her resemble a woodcut. That’s what the buyer had thought: I’ve never met a woman so close to resembling a woodcut, she remembered thinking. Even the wrinkles on her cheeks seemed less like skin creases and more like someone with clear skin who had been roughly etched. The man looked like a regular man. It was the woman who seemed at once drawn and real. So she knew the book belonged to them because it was the same problem raised in the book itself. As far as she could tell, they were still together when she’d completed the house purchase and had moved as a team to another smaller house about thirty minutes away.
The light dimmed outside. She drank a glass of wine with her dinner. Brussels sprouts and a ham sandwich.
She, once, had lived briefly with a man who reminded her of a sculpture. At first it had been a compliment—that he was so burnished and beautiful, his skin and his musculature. But then she started to see him as inert when he would lie there with her in bed, his muscles frozen in some way, his tautness no longer attractive but seeming to indicate a person who could not relax. And come to think of it, there was her best friend in grade school who had the eyes of a watercolor, whose tears even seemed pale blue, whose features were unformed, washy, whose parents instructed her every move until her face itself began to lose specificity and when they were no longer friends the woman had trouble even locating her friend at school, even spying her in the hall. That friend had almost drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool and people had wondered if it was deliberate. Drowned? She hadn’t ever put it together before. It was too perfect. Of course it had been a suicide attempt. She had nearly washed away already and was only taking one more step. For the first time in years she thought she ought to reach out to that girl, hoping she was still alive. I’ll do that, she thought to herself. I should’ve been a better friend. She returned to the kitchen and retrieved a brownie she’d bought for herself, cutting out a square so she could eat it over several days. She looked out the darkening window thinking of all the people she’d met who were made of art and not life. And here I am, she thought, a single woman eating a corner of brownie sipping wine in a house bought from grief, she thought. Be careful, lady, she told herself. Or you will become a Hopper or a lonesome black-and-white photograph from Beginning Photography Class in no time.
She got busy with cleaning and forgot to reach out to the grade- school friend.
It would be months before she ventured into the attic again, and then it was to put down another rug and a little stereo and a few pillows that broke the mood and changed the peacefulness but also made it bearable. She intended to have people over but never got around to it.
I found your book next to the eggs. Did you put it there? You must’ve. It’s quite good, although I can never tell you that, because who knows where you are now, leaver. The note by the toothpaste, the egg book, the diary in my pillowcase, sewn shut, just like you. So easy to open with one big rip but you had to take the time, probably in the middle of the night, to sew the mouth of it with tiny threaded bites, so careful not to wake me, probably doing it while my head was on the pillow itself. Such intimacy, of which I took no part. Then those words on the wall: Bye-bye. Like getting slapped, to wake up and see that.
Remember the time I picked the Tylenol out of your mouth? You came running to me with a mouth full of pills. “Help!” you said. “I’m suicidal!” and you were cracking up at yourself but also all it took was a big gulp. It was like going fishing in your mouth, picking out all but two, at your garbled request, because you had a headache. I flushed the rest down the toilet though later you scolded me, saying all they needed was a little drying out and then they’d be fine. “Tylenol’s expensive,” you’d said, shaking your head. I think I broke a plate that day. Not while you were around. You and I, we seem to do all our big-scene moments in private. You had gone to the movies and I took a plate just like they do in the movies, when they throw it against a wall? but I did not throw it against a wall because I didn’t want to deal with the shards. I put it in a trash bag and I threw the trash bag on the ground. At first I heard nothing so I did it again, harder. That time was satisfying in sound but of course I couldn’t see much so I just tossed it. Then I went to our bed and wept at my ridiculousness.
Your diary—you’d read it to me before, several times. I knew its worn red leather cover. I knew all the entries. The last one was new, though—about how you loved me so much but it was time to go and you would always remember me. The thing is, you’d written that before. If I flipped back about a year, which I did, I found an extremely similar entry, almost word for word. And that time, you stayed away for about two weeks but then came back all disheveled with your dreamy watery eyes and your hair sticking every which way like you’d refused to wash yourself in my absence. I cleaned you up in the bathtub at your request and you bit my hand like a little puppy. It was fun and tiresome at the same time. But this one feels different, even though the words are the same. This time I think you may not return, and I can’t be sure, but I bet it’s something about the book in the fridge that you wrote, your novel, because you must know it’s good and if it’s good and you return and I tell you it’s good what then my friend? No more hiding under the bed because it’s fun to slip under there. No more whimpering in the middle of the night about how you can do nothing, how you add up to nothing, your tears so hot and round. No more spitting on the computer because you say it is your enemy.
I read it while the pages were still cold. And crisp, even. But by the time I finished my hands had warmed it entirely.
When we met, it was snowing, and your skin was cold, and mine too, and we took each other upstairs and warmed each other up. Your mouth, bluish then red. Your cheeks, paper white, then pink. Your hands stiff and then soft, your eyes brightening and brightening.
They found the document under the house after the house burned. For some reason, the document had not burned. It was made of paper, so this caused some confusion, then reverence, then fear. It, around the neighborhood, became a thing, a point of reference. The document, they called it. Our document, they called it later. Though it had very few words on it. It was a stack of papers tied with a string as if the owner had no stapler. And the pages were thick and warm, buttery paper of a kind no one had ever seen before. As if paper were sheets upon which kings slept, or as if paper were fresh cream in a jar for dessert. On each page was a word. The words were all nouns. They described the neighborhood. They first described items: house, tree. They grew more specific with types: Craftsman. Sycamore. They said street names. Each in the middle of each page, centered, These nouns. Then the names of neighbors. John Bowl. Sharon Adells. No comments. Just names. Then face parts and clothes. Long Nose. Blue Eyes. Red T-Shirt. Spotted Dress. It was Mr. Forsynth who found it—one of the leading firefighters of the local department. He had walked through the rubble of the burned structure, and spied it centered in the foundation’s base, and he lifted it out with a thickly gloved hand and brought it to the truck. He almost began to leaf through it but the quality of the paper and the flash of his own name (he lived two blocks away) stopped his hand, and he slid it into a plastic bag. He brought it to his boss at the station and the boss thumbed through with inside gloves on and Mr. Forsynth watched over his shoulder. Chin Mole. Toy Truck. Bobby Johnson. Small Hands. The owner had died in the fire. The artist. The writer. The explainer.
It was not a stretch to make it into an exhibit. They had to put each page up on the walls to get the full sense. It took seventeen rooms. It was the museum’s first local show. The museum had been criticized for only showing artists who lived elsewhere, in big cities, and although the owner of the house had died in the house, alone, with his dog, he had been born in this town and lived his whole life on that street. They had found his teeth. His body, too, but his teeth identified. They had found dog teeth. The fire was widely viewed as arson. Self-arson. The museum set up all the pages in their rows on the walls with acute lighting and the locals came to see the words that made up their world and a scientist tested the paper to see what had made it last and it seemed coated with a fire-resistant chemical no one had used before. It was not a known force in the world of fire resistance. “It made me uneasy,” said one woman after the show. “Seeing my name there.” Barbra Mintz. On Brand St. With Brown Eyes and a Full Mouth. The man who died had not included his own name in the mix. People called him a voyeur. Antisocial. “He was very social,” disagreed Matthew Stevens. “He knew everyone’s names.” Still, many who visited the exhibit left feeling a slight violation. All it was was words, all it was was seeing one’s name on a wall on a page, all it was was hearing your house had been seen by eyes that weren’t your own with intentions you did not understand to feel that something was wrong, to be relieved the man was dead, and to want the show to come down, which it did. The pages were saved in a vault. Not because of artistic value—because of the fire- resistant material he had apparently discovered or made. Why he died no one knew. No one knew him. A few had patted his dog. Frenchie, he’d named the dog. The dog got a page. Somehow that redeemed him to Janet Lasser. “The dog is there,” she said. “It’s OK. Don’t worry.” That the dog died with the man did not bother her. “He loved his dog,” she said. “He loved us all.”
Aimee Bender is the author of five books, including The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and, most recently, The Color Master (both Doubleday), a New York Times notable book of 2013. She teaches at the University of Southern California.