Television bubbles pop and crack against the screen, records skip, cars pass.
December 21, 2012
The world quiet, its inhalation held—just in case—as it waits for the river rush to climb and rise over humanity. The question in every mind passes at the same time for each person: “What if this is it?” When the cosmic river doesn’t rise, the people exhale together and resume their lives.
For those few seconds when the world waits, Jonah—the prophet who gave his own unfulfilled prophecy and from then on was a man of God—drops an empty liquor bottle on the front step.
Jonah watches as the liquor bottle rolls down the stairs and comes to a stop, teetering on the edge of the final step. It spins slightly as if to look at him and say it never really ends, and then throws itself from the last, smashing into bits. He stands, shaky, still angry with the job a thousand years old, still God’s hesitant fool, but smiling. The broom picks up the glass, pushes it from one cold place to another cold place, blessed as broken glass might be.
As it happened, two pieces of glass were left behind, only three inches apart on the sidewalk.
As it happened, one piece of glass was named Gretchen. Her story begins at her end. She is now an old woman. She recalls memories, scribbles them in a journal, These memories begin roughly in 1989, her birth documented five years prior. The least important of these memories, the ones she chooses to document, begin in 2010.
My earliest memory is of oranges and seeing my mother’s legs from under the table. I do not know if it was January or if it was June. I cannot recall if I’d had my birthday yet, or if I had started kindergarten. I remember my bedroom and the curtain catching on fire because the light bulb was a little too close, but if that happened before or after the oranges, I am at a loss.
I was under the kitchen table and my mother was passing slices of orange to me as I sat on the floor, and she sat on the seat of the chair that was guarded from my sight by a red table cloth. I could see the long phone cord as it dangled next to her leg, and I could hear her voice. The cord swayed and bounced as she twisted it around her fingers, and she tapped her foot, and I could smell the smoke from her cigarette.
If I had been a more imaginative child, I might have thought, as a four year old would, that the phone was mysterious and magical. That the cord held voices captive and the numbers on the keypad were something like a lockbox. If you pressed the correct digits, the tunnel would open and the voices would tell you everything you were meant to hear. You would end the conversation the same way, each time—“I love you, mommy” or “I love you, daddy.” Or “I love you, I love you.” And then you hung up the phone, and trapped the voices and the people inside of it until you wanted to talk to them again.
Unfortunately, I was not an imaginative child, and instead amused myself by rolling a bean that I had found across the floor, from one of my feet to the other, and I did this several times. My mother sat at the table, still prattling away to whomever, something about selling our house on Starfire drive. I still remember the name of the street, but very little about the house, excluding the small space under the kitchen table, my bedroom and being absolutely terrified of the way the toilet sounded when it flushed.
As my mother discussed something about foreclosure, I realized all at once that I had two holes in the side of my head—one on either side, in fact. And these holes, I realized, were the perfect size for the legume I had found. The whereabouts of that bean are still unknown, though I think that it might be in my head somewhere still, growing in the place between memories where dark and light exist together, alongside the entire unknowable spectrum of color.
My most quantifiable and vivid memories took shape long after eating oranges under a kitchen table on Starfire drive. Long after daddy left me and mommy and sissy. Long after macaroni pictures at school, and finger paints. Long after my first cigarette, my first orgasm and the first time I contemplated my own mortality. The sharpest memories are of my 24 year old self. They began with a woman named Matilda and the bookstore where she worked.
Matilda, after working for several years as a cashier at this bookstore, realized suddenly that she had no interest whatsoever in the written word. Just like everything else, she saw books as an opportunity and the bookstore as something of a watering hole. She liked the way the men looked at her when she was pouring over some volume of some obscure writer, but had no real interest in anything the volumes held.
The catalog of titles the store carried, locked away in an ancient computer, was a means to an end. Anything your heart desired alongside a couple of choice words typed “thoughtfully” into the system, and Matilda would flit away only to return moments later, your object of desire in her desirable hand. She had mastered the ability to appear as if she knew you. As if she knew what you wanted and was more than willing to deliver it and then some.
The final thought of each man leaving the store was “What a gem. A priceless, worthwhile gem. Someone to while away the hours, sitting up in the evening citing passages of love and tumultuous lust from Neruda, getting drunk on kisses and the best wine. My darling, my love, my Matilda.”
After days, weeks, months of carrying on in this way, in the used bookstore—having read no books since her freshman year of high school (a cool eight years prior)—she disappeared abruptly one summer morning, much to the chagrin of her regular customers. She was found sometime later off the coast of Spain with a man of immense popularity and influence. She was completely, mind-bogglingly drunk off her ass, laughing at jokes she didn’t understand and being felt up by intelligentsia.
To my own delight, I was hired mere days after Matilda’s disappearance, the owner, Paul, muttering something about being understaffed. He did seem truly heartbroken that Matilda had gone. I would catch him muttering to himself, and practically hear him thinking “How could she? I had given her so much. My love, my darling Matilda.” Devastated, clearly, that she had not hopped on board his own weak mustachioed, balding ginger-headed train to love and excitement and become the Lady Chatterley to his self-abhorring lover.
I held no great affection for Paul at first, though I saw him every day. A man in his mid-forties with a receding, thinning hairline and a paunchy little gut that tugged his shirt. His eyes were the only part of him that held appeal. Sad and captivating, set far back in his skull and only slightly off in their width. He was of standard height, standard weight despite the paunch of fat hanging at his gut, and of standard, subtle attractiveness that comes from failing at something for long enough to decide to settle for a career selling words that other people wrote instead of writing your own.
You could usually smell the cheap whiskey he sucked down any time after 3PM if you went into his office for a roll of receipt paper. In fact, you could usually smell it wherever he was, wherever he’d been and on whatever he had touched.
The scent wafted, floated and spread out in front of him. It followed him, hovered above him and invaded the personal odor of everything he touched, leaving an identifiable, though unremarkable trail from this shelf to that display, over the counter, the cash drawer, and the mason jar of pencils precariously close to teetering off the register. The scent was in his genetic code, permeating each cell and each piece of dander that would fall from his head as he raked his freckled hands over and over and over it.
He kept to himself, and that was fine. It was just fine. He kept a stack of half-finished manuscripts in his second desk drawer that he would pull out every Tuesday, mark-up and threaten to throw away. He kept a picture of Matilda in the third drawer next to a bottle of Beam’s Eight Star that he replaced every day. He left the store in the care of his nephew sometime in January the year after Matilda left, citing his heart. At his age and with his diet of partially frozen steak fries and a half a bottle of the Kentucky bourbon blend before bed each night, his extended leave of absence surprised no one.
I was the only one who knew why he had gone. It was in fact his heart, but not his health. A hairline fracture ran through him, all the way around, after she left. He was the one who so unfortunately discovered Matilda’s whereabouts a short year after she had gone. When he had found her, he shot her dead in what he thought was the middle of the North Atlantic, but was instead the Mediterranean, and only a few miles off shore. The devil is in the smallest details, in the smallest oceans—if an ocean could ever be called small—and I like to think that Paul got better, albeit briefly, out there in the ocean before he turned the gun on himself.