Online Exclusive

Toward a General Theory of Distance
When a library is emptied, the books are dispersed so that the gathering stands as simply a stage in their being. That the books were once artifacts entering lives briefly is a product of the library’s dependence on the temporal; because the pages were fingered by those now lost, each sheet stands as a relic.

     The birth of any collection holds time as a necessary element. So when she starts her spoon collection, it is not without the adoption of interval. It is the end of a collection that stands as the pillar of irony; because the inherent value of collection is time, is the waiting between periods of gathering, the death of a collection is dispersal, which passes as a singular event.

     His photographs are framed and line the walls in a thick strip running the perimeter of the house. They feature each of her spoons; the rusted pocket or the scratches on the back; the shades of dark embraced, the degree of reflection offered. Only one frame exhibits a pile, stacked so that it is clear they are less than symmetrical. This photo sits above the bed.

     What dictates a collection is self-iteration. The items, while at their nucleus the same, must be ostensibly diverse in order for the project to succeed. Children might be deemed a collection; former lovers or an exhibit of photographs. The corpses of birds that gather in the sills of the library window, too.

     For what is fact but the collected debris of memory agreed upon in mass?


Against Loss

In times before when the photographer would write on her body, he admired the way it lingered for days, fading slowly, a working toward erase. The night before he finds her in the bathtub, he will upcap the black marker and watch the skin dip where the pressure of the tip sits. He will watch the ink split and turn in jagged paths at the borders of each mark, settling into the cleaves between the discs of her skin. It will look like a miniscule branching. The sentence will run from the inside of her thigh up and around the thick of her rear and end in the small of her back.

     And then, in the bathroom, before the gravity of event weighs in, before he has time to consider what he will do with her spoons and her debt, he will think he should scrub the dirty words away, save them both from being the joke of the men who will see her like this, the story they tell their colleagues after work, over drinks that ends in wide grins and hung heads. He thinks about the way that if he does not move now, what should be temporary will set and sit as fact.

     In the coming days, there will develop a faint rattling in the kitchen. The rhythmic tinkling will persist for weeks, and he will try to let his ears guide him toward the sound, but he is out of practice when it comes to the act of listening. Whereas before he was always certain of what he heard and didn’t, he will soon be unable to discern if this is peripheral or internal sound, the wings of mating insects or the ringing in his head.

     A note on trajectory: Things either intersect, refract, or pass untouched. Qualify which this is: When the men come to take her away he is not scrubbing; he is stroking her matted hair. The photographer then sees it in their faces, that they, too, have participated in this act of marker and skin, and words have coiled ascending from their lovers’ legs and trunks, and they stare back into his eyes and tell him he should not look when they lift because the body will not be limp.

     In the paper the next day, they spell her name wrong.


Regarding Re-Union

What is collected turns cruel. When she draws her baths, she does it with one hand in the pooling tub. When she draws her drapes, she does it with one hand on the gathering folds. In the mornings, he would wake her up by fingering the cove of her navel. Now she finds herself waking in the middle of the night, doing it to herself.

     The deaf mathematician sits in her car at the landfill of bodies. She is not smoking or biting her nails. She is not touching her lips, or tightening her thighs. Her head is not at a tilt. She watches the snow fall, thinks of her felled tree, the photos of her hands on the refrigerator. He took close-ups of her knuckles, spread the fingers to capture the spaces between. She wants to collect the photographs of her hands, has an empty album ready to be filled, but she cannot come to pull them from beneath their heavy magnets, the glass atop his desk. To touch that would mean a violation. To change what was set would be participating in his end. When asked, she would say that clean is simply removal, the enactment of subtract. Now, in the car at the place where under the soil her lover’s body is set and settling, she looks at her hands, the knuckles calloused, the dips clear and smooth, safe from the elements that spoil skin. Under the soil, her lover’s body settles, the skin around the fingernails shrinking so that it looks like the nail extends. It is a trick of the eye, the moving back. Then, the tractor’s mouth opens, the lazy jaw draws back and bites the earth above the photographer’s headstone, and it begins to flurry, and once, when he was writing a dirty message on her thighs in black ink, he told his deaf mathematician the sound of snow falling is one that she knows.

     That evening, when she is home and the snow lay dormant over everything flat, she does not need a corkscrew to begin the sad and sated ceremony of repeal.


In Defense of Memory

After the rain, everything that is vessel is filled. And even that which is not vessel is filled; the weight of the water makes tarps that were once pulled taut now dip, the concrete path’s invisible arcs now clear. The birds that have not yet hit the windows of the library drink from the puddles where the water is opaque.

     Lately she forgets things, finds herself parked in strange driveways, practices pause and search when it comes to spelling her name. When she goes out, she has to remind herself to trust: her feet not to slip, the buildings not to fall. When asked, she would say that the root of fear is dependence, that we are in such close relation, nothing moves alone.

     She only drinks champagne now, and is forgetting the foundations of arithmetic. In the bath, she performs the times tables to keep her mind sharp, keeps her full glass on the tub’s lip, is careful not to touch where he last set his bar of soap. When the deaf mathematician steps up and out of the tub, she untapes the bandages around her leg and pulls them back to reveal the preserved words he wrote in ink on her skin. When asked, she would say that these are the things one does to defend against the linear; if the world refuses to follow the laws of recursion, we must slow succession down.

     His bar of soap is growing cracks, she notices; there are sweat pills on her glass. It is a terrible kind of awe, the deaf mathematician thinks, sinking naked to the tiled bathroom floor, knowing that with so much power goes unseen.


On Absence

A library might only be deemed such if there are books inside. What, then, is the function of the building that stands now void, other than to amplify the echo of birds collecting in the windowsills?

     Upstairs there are boxes of his negatives. At night she pulls them out and up to the light, entering worlds of reverse. When she spreads them across the living-room floor, she does not leave a path from which to escape, and so treads softly out of the mass. She looks at the spot where she sat on the floor, the place where no negatives collect, and holds the thin champagne flute to her mouth, the thunder of her drawing bath unheard. To her, there is nothing as remote and lonely as that patch of empty, like a bruise in the middle of her room.

     Somewhere they are turning things together: a steering wheel, a water spout, the handle of a door. When asked, she would say that time is less a dial than a screw; it turns and returns, but also simultaneously descends.


The Opposite of Temporary

On his way back home after retrieving a corkscrew, the photographer looks out the frame of his window to see a child watching him from inside the adjacent car. This is moments before he will find his deaf mathematician in the tub, alone, eyes wide and glossed. This is moments before the climax, before the threshold is met, before the juncture of before and after, the pivot and apex of the tale in which he occurs. All movement needs to breach. When the change is death, it is more a violation than a shift; it is particular and cruel.

     The child in the car across from him brushes a mitten against the window to clear the fog and the photographer mistakes it for a wave. He nods and when the light turns green the cars move together, push forward in parallel motion until the photographer thinks he and the child sit still while the world, its trees and snow and spoons and baths and mourning are moving and they are for a moment the fixed constant against which every other action is measured. It is less the two points of their heads but the line that connects their stare, a segment lying flat on the base of a plot as certain and steady as the ordered progress of time.

     A lesson in proximity: All becoming is a product of relation. As he ascends the empty library, a ceiling becomes a floor. When he walks into the bathroom, the tub becomes a tomb.


Against Duality

She taught him to lose his voice like a skin. And his hearing, too; this was more a task than a decision. Now, standing in the kitchen he has started to talk to himself, considering aloud what to do with her shoes and her books, the marker he used to write on her skin.

     It is weeks before he learns the source of the buzzing. It is when he reaches for the bourbon that he realizes it is not a product of his mind; when he opens the cabinet it grows louder and ends when he touches the shelf. It is the champagne flutes, their thin glass skin holding nothing, two adjacent slight curves touching, the contact inducing the sound. He lifts his hand from the shelf and the hum is reignited and when he uses his index finger to split the tangent, there is no greater gaping than that liminal space between the glasses now, divorcing the singular world of what is from the infinite realms of what isn’t. And he is filled with wonder, thinking of all the places she is not, thinking that she is ultimately now nowhere, and asking, as he pulls the bourbon from the shelf, glancing at the photos of her hands on the refrigerator door, what is the something making the glasses move?


The Laws of End

She studied dimensionless quantities for a few weeks one summer, numbers that do not correlate to the tactile properties of the world; ratios, decimals, fractions. But nothing you can touch comes in parts; things either are or are not. She abandoned dimensionless quantities when she realized she didn’t want to spend her time underscoring the distance between things.

     He would like to untake certain photos, like this one, his wife’s body floating in the tub, the dark words ascending her trunk. Or: He would like to crop it so that all you might see is the delicate hairs on her belly, how they grow darker around the vortex of her navel and the way it holds a bit of water like the hollow of a spoon.

     This is how to resist retreat: Once she sat him down to explain how she understood the world. She told him X is the number of bones on a plate. He looked at her then, his forehead crimped with confusion. But what if X isn’t? he asked.

Lindsey Drager’s novels include The Archive of Alternate Endings, The Lost Daughter Collective, and The Sorrow Proper (all from Dzanc Books), which have won a Shirley Jackson Award, been finalists for two Lambda Literary Awards, and are currently being translated into Spanish and Italian. Winner of the 2022 Bard Fiction Prize, she is currently an assistant professor at the University of Utah.