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A Selected Text from Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity
After the sudden death of my employer, I was tasked with overseeing the transfer of his personal library. The books would travel from his studio in New York City to an arts foundation in Italy, where my employer had once enjoyed a long and productive stay, many years in the past. He was a playwright—a very famous one— and his personal library contained over five thousand books, including a number of rare volumes. I had served as his personal assistant for fifteen years; in his will he had left me a handsome bonus, to be deposited after the library transfer, a task he apparently believed no one else was fit to complete. His three adult children, who had made it clear that they would not be keeping me on, bought me a first-class plane ticket and, upon learning I had never been before, offered to fund a short stay in Rome after the library business had been settled, lending my journey a morbid and bewildering aura, some combination of last rites and a holiday and a severance.

     At the townhouse, the library was appraised and inventoried. Next I supervised a team of packers, recommended by a high-end auction house, as they wrapped each book in clean tissue (newspaper was strictly forbidden; the ink could damage the books), followed by bubble wrap; each package was then sealed in a plastic bag, to guard against moisture. If the packers found any notes or cards slipped between the pages, they were to bring them straight to me, for me to read and then hand over to my employer’s son, who already had a novel about his father in the works (I had already deemed one correspondence too private and had fed it into the paper shredder). My employer had prized my attention to detail and my discretion, even if his children felt I had been too discreet in some respects, especially when it came to guarding his secrets.

     Once the boxes were in transit, I photocopied the paperwork and packed the duplicates in my suitcase, which had not seen use in a very long time. As the taxi pulled away from my employer’s brownstone, I realized I would never set foot in the building again; the children planned to sell, and by the time I boarded my return flight, I would be employed by the family no more.

     At the airport in Rome, I was collected by the foundation director, an American woman driving a tiny white Fiat. She was only three years into her directorship, but had been in Italy long enough to have adopted the belief that one should not put milk in his or her coffee after ten in the morning because it was bad for digestion. I had met her several times before, at my employer’s home, before she moved abroad; she used to attend the dinner parties he had been fond of throwing. As I waited on the curb with my luggage, I remembered sitting at his dining-room table and writing her name, Sylvie, on a cream place card with a calligraphy pen, the heavy cursive belly of the S, the loop of the L.

     “Did you sleep on the plane? Do you feel delirious?” she asked me as we sped east, toward Le Marche, nestled between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea, where the foundation was situated outside a small village.

     “I’m fine,” I told her. “Eager to see the books.”

     “Of course you are,” she replied.

     The drive took two hours and during this time we continued to exchange pleasantries. We never mentioned my employer directly or his manner of death, which had shocked everyone. Sylvie looked different than she had when I saw her last. Her dress—navy, sleeveless—was impeccably tailored and her wavy hair had been bobbed and streaked with blonde, the work of either chemicals or the sun. I had never known her well; after a time, her name disappeared from the guest lists, as names did on occasion, and then she returned, in a manner of speaking, after the tragic death of her son was all my employer’s circle could talk about. The boy had died in a drowning accident, in the Finger Lakes region. Not long after his death, she and her husband separated and she fled to Italy and the party chatter moved on to someone else.

     “I’m sure he told you all about this place,” she said as we rolled down a long driveway, arrow straight and lined with cypress trees. “He loved it here.”

     The foundation grounds were every bit as lovely as I had imagined. From the outside, it looked like a hilltop town in miniature, a gated compound with a collection of stone buildings with terra-cotta tile roofs, everything connected by a network of gravel paths, embellished by rose gardens.

     The director escorted me to my quarters, a room in a small building near the kitchen, the square windows framed with ivy. I had a view of the valleys with their pale rounds of hay, the green and distant hillsides.

     “Dinner is at eight sharp,” the director said, just before she left me. She added that this meal would be the first held in honor of the latest group of visiting artists and I might meet some interesting people. Yet when the moment arrived, I was made invisible, as was always the case at these kinds of affairs. I was not an artist or a curator or a director or a publisher. People talked past me and over me and around me, as though there was not a human body sitting in my chair but a tall and inconveniently placed plant. The only people who showed even a vague interest in my presence were the young playwrights who wanted to be regaled with tidbits about my employer and even then I was not quite a person to them, just a conduit. I was relieved that no one was indelicate enough to ask questions about the particulars of his death.

     The director was wearing the same navy dress, but had added cork wedges and a pair of round sapphire earrings. I overheard a painter ask the director if she had children and felt a sharp pang on her behalf, a feeling that evaporated the moment Sylvie fingered an earring and replied, “Why yes! I have a son, three years old this month. And you?”

     We were eating in a garden, surrounded by cypress trees and pink geraniums planted in enormous red-clay pots. A long table had been placed under an arbor; ivy dangled like green tentacles from the beams. I continued to watch the director, her earrings catching and throwing the light. She did not seem sheepish about telling such a brazen lie with me in earshot; she was simply a person who had a child once more. After a sip of wine, the most obvious solution presented itself and I felt suddenly daft: in three years, she could have very well met someone in Italy and given birth to another son.

     Before departing, I had secured daily Italian lessons with a private tutor and so, in the morning, I placed a few casual inquiries with the kitchen staff and learned that the director had told everyone she had a son, but no one had ever seen the boy. The director never brought him to the foundation, not even for special events, as her predecessor had; apparently he spent the weeks with his father in Florence and only the weekends, which the director enjoyed off-site, with his mother. Of course, these details only made me more curious.

     “Strange situation, if you ask me,” said one of the chefs.

     The next day I began my work in the library and it was a good thing I had flown all the way to Italy to oversee the transfer, as the library was otherwise supervised by an ancient man in suspenders and a part-time intern from Minneapolis. The librarian shuffled around with a Walkman in his pocket and headphones in his ears; whenever I appeared I startled him so badly that he dropped whatever books he’d been carrying. We unpacked one box at a time and began cataloging my employer’s library—a system that, to my horror, was not digitized. Instead we were at the mercy of the librarian’s archaic method of flash cards in little plastic boxes, each entry written in inscrutable pencil. Early on, the intern had stabbed at one of the packages with the sharp end of a letter opener and I had shrieked so loudly a stream of bats fled from the upper eaves. I rushed over to the girl and took the letter opener from her hands, replacing it with a small, sharp knife and instructions to only cut the tape and to do so with extreme care.

     I know they talked about me when I wasn’t around, the librarian and the intern. Once I overheard the intern asking, in Italian, why my employer had been such a big deal, wasn’t he just some playwright, and the librarian had shrugged and said, “Gli americani sono pazzi.

     In a hallway, I had pressed myself to a cool stone wall, breathless, surprised by my desire to smack the young intern hard in the face. My employer had sat at the center of my world for nearly two decades—if he was irrelevant to her, then what did that make me?

     After all the books had been unpacked, cataloged, and bookplated, we began the process of shelving. To prepare for the donation, the foundation had constructed tall bookcases on the library’s ground floor, with two inches of space between each case and the wall to encourage circulation, the wood treated with a waterborne polyurethane varnish to prevent acid from bleeding into the paper. Each case had its own laced iron door, with its own skeleton key. Soon a person would be able to stand in the center of the room, on a glazed tile floor the color of pomegranates, and be surrounded by my employer’s vast collection. The library had long windows—scenic but the sunlight was a concern for the rarest and most expensive books, so a temperature-controlled glass case had been installed in a different room for a handful of select items including first editions of Leaves of Grass and Ulysses.

     I was transferring one of these volumes, a rare edition of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, into the special case when an envelope slipped out from between the pages. I collected the slash of cream from the carpet and slipped it into my pocket, making a mental note to inform the auction house that the packers had done a subpar job of following my instructions.

     In my room, I stretched out on a small sofa by a window—I could hear birdsong through the glass—and examined the envelope. There was no address or postage; the back flap was not sealed. From the scent of the paper, I could tell the envelope, and whatever it contained, had been between the pages of Goldfinger for some time. I opened the letter and pulled out a single sheet of stationery. The letter was addressed to the residency director, Sylvie, and signed by my employer; even before I glimpsed his name at the bottom I recognized his impeccable cursive script, the product of a lifetime of fine private schooling. From the letter I learned that he’d carried on an affair with Sylvie and the son she’d lost in the drowning accident had not been fathered by her husband, or ex-husband, but rather by my employer. The letter was dated several months after the boy died and each sentence sang out with regret—how he wished he had gotten to know his son, how he had been a coward, too afraid of his three spoiled and overbearing adult children, too afraid of his long-suffering wife, to do so much as acknowledge the child and now it was too late, far too late. He was sorry he had begged her to have an abortion and, when she refused, he was sorry he had ended their relationship the way he had. He was sorry she had to sit alone with the complicated layers of her suffering. The last sentence, which began I have taken too much …, trailed off, uncompleted.

     I put the letter down and listened to the birds. Before I left for Italy, my employer’s son had asked me to read a chapter from his novel in progress, in which the father (who had been transformed from a playwright into a sculptor) has too much to drink while dining with his family in the countryside and, on the drive home, because it was understood the sculptor would still drive no matter how much he’d had to drink, had swerved to miss a deer, careened through a fence, and beached the car in a lush green field. Then the father hoisted the boys onto the roof and instructed them on constellations while the mother wept in the front seat. He was magical and terrible, and he despised every one of us—that was how the chapter ended. My employer’s son wanted my opinion on whether the father character seemed “accurate” and I had wanted to tell him that, in the end, I had not known my employer as well as they had believed.

     I wondered at what point my employer decided the letter was not one he would send and if he already knew, at the time of the writing, that one day not so far in the future he would take his own life.

     All night, I flopped around in bed, trying to decide what to do. If I had discovered the letter in New York, I would have destroyed it at once, but finding the correspondence at the foundation, with its intended recipient not a hundred paces from where I slept—well, these facts altered the terms. More than anything, though, I kept thinking about writing Sylvie with the calligraphy pen, the fat S and the looping L, and then her name being replaced by someone else’s. My employer had had many affairs through the years, most of which I’d been at least passingly aware of, but this one I had missed. Where had my mind been?

     The day the library transfer was completed, I shook hands with the librarian and the intern and thanked them for their labor. I said it would have made my employer very happy to see his books in such a beautiful place. Then I walked across the grounds and knocked on the director’s office door. She invited me in, offered me an espresso.

     I sat down across from her and placed the envelope on her desk.

     “What’s this?” She peered down at the envelope, but made no move to touch it.

     “I found it in a book,” I said, “while we were organizing the library. The letter was written by my employer and it was meant for you.”

     I leaned forward and nudged the letter a little closer to her.

“It’s about your son,” I said.

     “My son?” She sat up very straight, her back pressed to her chair. “What would he have wanted with my son?”

     “It was written after your son died,” I said. “I think you can imagine what my employer might have wanted to tell you.”

     “I don’t know what you mean.” The director gave me a pinched smile. Her hands were in her lap, but there was enough space between her chair and the desk for me to see her long fingers coil into fists. “I saw my son just this morning.”

     “Sylvie,” I said. “Let’s stop this. Please.”

     All the windows were open, the linen curtains billowing in the breeze. The gardener kept a team of hounds on the edge of the property, and I could hear them baying in their kennels.

     “This is a strange conversation,” she said. “Brought on by a strange woman. I can’t say it was ever clear to me what he saw in you.”

     “Show me a photo,” I said next, with the cool of a detective closing in on a suspect.

     “What?” The a stretched with genuine surprise.

     “Show me a photo of your son that was taken right here, in Italy.”

     The director stood and went to the espresso machine in the corner of her office. She placed a tiny white cup under the spout and pulled the handle to tighten the contraption, but she did not press the button. She just stood there frowning down into the empty cup and then finally abandoned whatever private negotiation she had been engaged in and returned to her desk.

    “I owe you nothing,” she said, sitting back down.

     I was starting to wonder if a miraculous transformation had occurred during the director’s time in Italy—if, through the powers of her own imagination, she had managed to liberate herself from the terrible reality of her grief. I was fascinated by the possibility of such a transformation and wanted to better understand the inner workings. On the one hand, the correct part of my character had wanted to force the director to right her story; on the other, I remembered arriving at my employer’s studio and finding his body hanging from a rope that had been lashed around the strong wood rafters—after such a sight, who could make claims about the right way or the wrong way to survive?

     “Why did you accept his collection?” I asked. “The foundation had to undertake renovations to accommodate all his books, a lot of trouble and expense for a library that was already well-appointed.”

     “The collection is priceless,” she replied. “Many years ago he wrote the play that made him famous here. He felt he owed the foundation a great debt and debts should always be paid.”

     I saw the wood footstool kicked over on the striped rug, all four legs in the air; in the moment, I had thought of turtles. To my shame, I had not tried to cut him down; I had not called 911 or the police or his children. I backed out of the room and ran down the spiral staircase and out the front door, slamming it behind me like a harried teenager, straight out into the glorious blaze of summer. It was a beautiful day; the air smelled floral. For a little bit longer, my life was still my life. I ran for blocks and blocks. I only stopped an hour later, after I got a call from his daughter on my cell. Come right away, she had wept into the phone. Something terrible has happened.

     I looked out the window; across the lawn, the gardener was trimming the hedges.

     “It was me,” I said. “I found his body. Nobody knows.”

     The director did not say anything back. She sat slumped in her chair, her expression flat and inscrutable, utterly disinterested in my confession; she seemed to have floated away to some other place. I left her in her office, staring down at the envelope in the center of her desk.

     On the day of my departure, the story spread first at a hush, from the chattering of the kitchen staff, and then at a roar, for no one enjoys gossiping about human tragedy more than intellectuals and artists. The director had been arrested that morning, for attempting to steal an infant. The theft had occurred at a market in the village center. Apparently Sylvie had lifted the child straight out of his bassinet while the mother was haggling over the price of porcini mushrooms. When the mother heard her child wail and chased after Sylvie, she had started to run, the baby jiggling in her arms; before long she was apprehended by the carabinieri. So she had not been liberated from her grief at all; rather, it had mutated into an underwater state, where the distinction between the living and the dead, between the debts that could be repaid and those that were bottomless, had been erased—a confusion that could turn a person monstrous.

     “Her child died,” I told the kitchen staff, hoping that they might take pity on her if she were ever permitted to return to the foundation. “In a drowning accident, not long before she came here.”

     On the train from Perugia to Rome, where my employer’s children had booked me a room at a storied hotel beloved by their father, I thought about what a peculiar existence I had been leading, so consumed with enhancing the presence of another life that it had not even occurred to me to be surprised that the children had not asked where I wanted to stay; they had assumed, and not incorrectly, that I would want whatever brought me closer to him, that I had few curiosities of my own. There had been a safety in my vocation, a concealment, that I would miss and that I would have to learn to live without. How did people begin to learn to live without the things that they had loved and would miss?

     Everyone, including his children, thought that we had been lovers through the years, but they were wrong. There had been one moment, early on in my tenure. I was helping him organize documents for a project and I said a word—cumulus, I think it was; I had been talking about the sky—and he removed his glasses and asked me to say the word again. I repeated “cumulus”; he touched my wrist. The slight music of my pronunciation had caught his ear because that’s how he was, obsessed by the smallest details, the details that anyone else would miss. In his study I watched the dawn of shifting possibilities pass over his face and wondered if my life was about to change forever—but the moment came and went, a door swinging open and then shut, leaving me uncertain as to whether I should never say “cumulus” again or if I should say the word every day for the rest of my life.

     I kept thinking that the door might swing open some time in the future, but it never did. I suspect that I became too useful to his day-to-day life to be considered erotic. He moved on and he moved on and he moved on until a door was flung closed in his mind, one that, try as he might, he could not push open.

     Then again I couldn’t say how hard he tried or didn’t; I had been just as shocked as everyone else by the way he had died. I began to count the stops—Assisi, Foligno, Trevi. I got off in Trevi for no reason in particular beyond the fact that the name made me think of the Trevi Fountain in Rome, which I had read about in a guidebook. I walked uphill to a café in the town center, pulling my suitcase behind me. I wondered where Sylvie was right then, sitting in a jail cell or in her own home, and what would ever become of her and the ghost of the child her imagination had birthed. I thought about the grace of finding oneself among strangers, unanchored from your own history—a refuge I had robbed her of, I will admit, though the shelter she had constructed for herself was very fragile and so it was only a matter of time. I sat down on the edge of a piazza, under a crimson awning. A waitress, a young woman with heavy eyeliner and a crooked smile, approached my table and I began to marvel at all that I could tell her.

Laura van den Berg is the author of two short story collections and two novels, most recently The Third Hotel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Her honors include the Bard Fiction Prize, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pushcart Prize, and an O. Henry Award. Born and raised in Florida, Laura currently lives in Cambridge, MA, where she is a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard University.