by Richard Thieme
[This story was published in the Spring 2008 edition of Karamu (Vol. XXI, No. 1), a literary magazine published by the Department of English and the Office of Grants and Research at Eastern Illinois University with additional support from the Illinois Arts Council. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.]
Harry or Eddie or Robert or Lew woke up one morning in a bedroom that had grown so familiar over the years that he didn’t see anything in it anymore. The little bedroom in his head, however, had stayed the same for more than a decade, and that was the bedroom he saw when he opened his eyes, a tiny doll’s house model of a bedroom that had once existed, one in which nothing ever disappeared.
Eddie’s eyes were open but felt a little bleary. Knuckles pressing into his eyes, feeling flakes of sleep.
Vague light had diminished the perfect darkness he required for deep sleep. At first he was barely aware of having awakened. The ceiling was white, cobwebby with shadows. The pillows under his head were white and stay puffed because he spared no expense when it came to pillows. Lifting his head, he saw the top sheet and blanket crumpled in a tangle on his chest; turning his head, he saw sunlight limning the edges of the white shade. The shade made movements in gusts of wind that filtered through the imperfectly glazed glass, slapping the sill with a jerky rhythm.
He threw off the blankets and swung his legs in blue cotton pajamas over the edge of the bed.
He made a noise he had seldom made in the past—the distant past, that is, for the noise must have started sometime which must have been the recent past. He made one now as he pushed up against the pull of gravity, a pull that seemed to have increased over the past few years due to some unexplained but cosmic kind of cause, and he went into the bathroom. Every morning the first thing he did, after opening his eyes and getting out of bed, was go to the bathroom.
Harry had been fortunate. In all his life, it never felt anything but really fine to take a leak.
He flushed when he finished and came back into the bedroom.
There had been two tables, one on either side of the king-sized bed, but now there was only one, on the near side, on which could be seen a slim white telephone, a lamp with a coral pattern, and a paperback book. The book was Raymond Chandler’s “Lady in the Lake,” published in the seventies, the shiny florid cover, one of Tom Adams’, beckoning to him to reach out and feel it.
The glossy cover still felt slick and the inch-thick book felt solid as a rock.
The table on the other side of the bed had disappeared. But Harry or Eddie, certainly not Lew and probably not Robert, didn’t notice. Instead he yawned and went back to the bathroom and showered and then returned to the bedroom to dress.
His clothes were familiar and hung in their customary spots in the closet. They might have been fashionable fifteen or twenty years before. Harry could have been blind and still been able to pull the shirt he wanted from a hangar to the right, his old jeans from the top left hook, then sneakers from the hardwood floor. Leaning to reach them, he made the noise again. He put on a seventies long-sleeved shirt with narrow stripes, blue on white, not noticing that three other shirts had disappeared sometime in the night or the weeks or months before. Fewer and fewer, these ancient shirts of the ages, five or six of them hanging still, yet they filled the space as if they were more.
Harry or Eddie combed his hair and shaved with an electric razor, then shook the hair into the toilet and flushed it again. His face felt a little prickly still but good enough. Then he went down the hall to the small yellow one-window kitchen to make breakfast.
He opened the front door first, however, and picked up a morning paper. Then he went to the kitchen. Cloudy daylight filled it with countertops and a white table with two white wooden chairs. He took a banana from the myrtle wood bowl on the near counter, peeled the banana, and ate it slowly over the newspaper (before that, he threw the peel in the garbage through the swinging swinging white top) . Harry did not notice that three pears had disappeared from what had been a pear-and-banana bowl, leaving it just a banana bowl and a little dusty.
After he finished the banana and had scanned a few stories of scandals (most were political, some were obviously placed for publicity, and one really angered him – it was totally unnecessary, wasn’t it, now? it must have been an editor holding a grudge) he rose and put two pieces of whole wheat toast in the toaster oven and pressed a button. An orange light on the toaster lighted and through the small dirty window on the front of the appliance orange coils glowed, radiating heat. He stood at the toaster enjoying its warmth and read more irritating stories while waiting for the toast to toast.
The newspaper used to have many more stories written by real journalists but most of them had disappeared. They disappeared incrementally, little by little, so Harry did not notice until it had happened. He did notice that once he removed the advertisements for which the newspaper served as a container there was little left. The news hole grew smaller and smaller. Even on Sunday, when he scanned what he called templates, stories that were so familiar they were nothing but fill in the names and blanks sorts of repetitious silliness, he could make it through the huge paper in less than ten minutes.
The orange light went off and the toaster beeped. He slid the hot-to-handle well-toasted toast onto a plate and opened a jar of orange marmalade. Harry didn’t notice that the raspberry jam beside it had disappeared. He thickened the marmalade spread with a double dose and replaced the sticky jar, not noticing that strawberry jam and blackberry jam were also no longer there. He washed his hands because marmalade was always sticky and read the toast over the rest of the newspaper and the paper too, eating the toast until there was nothing to read except old stories and other filler intended to keep him from thinking too much about what wasn’t there.
What wasn’t there was so much bigger than what was.
He cleaned up everything in less than a minute. Then he faced the day.
The day was a vast empty space. He teetered on the edge of it as if it were a pit. With the shades raised, the bed made, the curtains pulled, autumn daylight was everywhere in the apartment, diminishing the sharp edges of the furniture, whitening the titles on the spines of books, illuminating the artifacts on his knickknack shelf. Some of the knickknacks were still there and he looked at them for a long while instead of thinking about how many had disappeared.
The ones that had disappeared were, oh, these or those, the sorts of things one associates with this or that. Some of the ones that were left were bigger than others, some were almost works of art. Their denotation was irrelevant, however. They were less objects in themselves than labels stuck onto events that had flowed by like leaves on a stream – connotations broadcast into a null space, signifying something but Harry wasn’t sure quite what.
Some mattered, however. However, how? He continued to gaze into the space they created by defining the nodes of a geometric shape without a name as if he were reading a crystal ball. There were still a few doodads, little somethings, pieces of things and several small figurines made of stuff like plaster clay or some composite. Plastic things, too. A Tudor house, half-timbered, attached to an image of the Cotswolds, cold and rainy, and warm bread pudding in a tea room at noon. A copy of a big fat Venus, her immense belly and breasts he had turned around and around in his hands and then purchased from a slim jeune fille at the old Museum of Man in Paris France, the one that has disappeared. Or not? Eddie was uncertain. The original, he knew, was twenty-five thousand years old, more or less. His was a copy, of course, a memory of a memory, and much younger. Most real Venuses had long since disappeared. The people who made them had disappeared. The language with which they conveyed their thoughts and feelings had disappeared. The culture that thought up the people had also disappeared. Then twenty five thousand years of a flowing muddy river buried all but a few, found on the ground. Recent people gave them a name recently (“Venus”), a label big enough to let them pretend that nothing had disappeared. Their precise academic language occluded the immensity of the vast dark cave in which they had been discovered. Their words constructed temporary boats like arks to contain the few bulbous females found and now bobbing along in a flooding river of time, markers of some illusive time and space contained in boxes made of black lines that they drew in their white minds.
The fixity of print dissolved in a digital flow like ice in water running in what Harry and his peers still call a sink and will for a while yet.
One thing there on the shelf was a little rectangular square on which one rested a knife or another thing. There was also an igloo or more likely an Anasazi hut (Harry had never gone to Alaska so it wouldn’t be an igloo). Other things faded in the process of staying or disappearing even as he looked at them, flickering like holograms into and out of visible existence, some with quasi-names and some already nameless. He could see the connotations and could smell the connotations but he couldn’t quite reach their deceptive meaning. Harry felt a vague pain, a dissonance, noticing how many barely existed, half-here and half-not. He hung under them, holding onto the disappearing balloons for dear life, his arms growing exhausted. The tags that identified what they were and where they had been purchased, neither paper nor digital fonts but chemicals, molecules, cells, had disappeared.
Harry now gave the day a salute, a long arms-over-his-head sort of yawn and stretch and he turned and the shelf went out of sight. He forgot it quickly and absolutely. His eyes filled with whatever was illuminated inside his apartment by the pale daylight. The sun therefore had not yet disappeared, nor had his furniture vanished, nor his apartment, its painted walls or mortared bricks. The galaxy was still intact, more or less. Inside (the galaxy, the world, his apartment) he sat and picked his teeth with a plastic pick to stimulate his gums. He took an inordinate pleasure in the dislodging of crumbs from between his teeth which he felt with the tip of his tongue before he swallowed. Then he washed again, wiping maybe marmalade from his mouth and hands. As he dried them in a faded kitchen towel he saw that his hands loomed larger than any hands had ever loomed or looked before. His hands looked huge. Turning them, his palms and the backs of his hands, Harry clenched his fingers, numb with sudden tingling, until the tingling had not quite disappeared but was much less.
He forgot about his hands as soon as they were down at his sides. He remembered his tingling fingers intermittently throughout the day, flexing them when he did. Otherwise he forgot them completely.
He went to the window of his livingroom and looked out. Once he had owned an automobile and parked it at the curb on city streets. In fact he had owned a dozen, more or less, and he saw them along the street in the gray light, a white Dodge Dart, an orange little GM something sporty, a blue Mazda wagon, a big dark Buick, a white Tercel. Then there were Fords, a whole lot of Fords, Taurus upon Taurus, all the way to the end of the street. Then the autos one by one winked out until the street was empty again except for the autos of others, and along the curb, piles of leaves waiting to be vacuumed into a truck.
The wind whiskered dry leaves from the tops of piles and danced them away.
“Darling, don’t! –“ he remembered Malcolm saying. Malcolm was a character in a story he had written fifty or more years before. For a class? A college course? Perhaps. Malcolm had watched his wife Agatha enfolded by the dying light, taking her away. Malcolm was breaking things in the story, unable to cope with the loss—a prescient image for an adolescent at the early, other end of the rope, a tether attached to his youthful self who had twirled it like a lasso with a smirk. Harry or Eddie, Harry, say, Harry once and for all was looking now at the frayed other end of the rope, a rope made of words, words that had held him spellbound in his youth when he believed deeply in so many things that had disappeared. He did not know then that words too were artifacts. Nor that Agatha was a type, a form or a mold like the red rubber ones into which he had poured plaster of Paris, waiting impatiently until he could peel away a white bear, a lion, a dog, still wet and already crumbling.
And a wife.
Harry had believed then in things like enchantment, meaning, the persistence of memory and self.
Harry saw visions of shades or wraiths among the pouring light and the leaves, dust devils suddenly swirling them toward the trees from which they had fallen. Harry suddenly felt, suddenly experienced not remembered the sounds of his childhood kitchen and he smelled kitchen smells, he heard muffled voices and frying sounds and then the entire kitchen was in his head, a perfect miniature kitchen. He ceased seeing the light and the leaves and never saw the young woman walking her small white dog, pausing while it sniffed and pissed, then walking on. That memory must have become someone’s, however. Someone must have seen them come and go. But if it were Harry, he saw the walking woman, the trotting dog, as afterglow, a faint ghostly image among the people in his head-kitchen who were so much more vivid, his mother and his sister, the linoleum looking like a bad Jackson Pollock splashed with red yellow white and black as the feet of his mother crossed the floor and disappeared.
Then the entire miniature disappeared. It simply vanished into thin air. He heard in the long hallway of his aloneness their echoing footfalls fading away. Then he saw leaves again in the light of an overcast sky. He saw the day as it disappeared. He saw the little girl, the jeune fille, the same or another, for a moment before she disappeared.
He would in all likelihood never see that girl again.
The earth shifted suddenly. The floor tilted and slid up until it was nearly vertical. His hands slid down the slick surface. He teetered on the edge of the abyss, flailing his arms, and fell.
Mail didn’t come until late afternoon.
By then the day had for the most part disappeared. Where had it gone? Had the abyss into which he had tumbled improbably become a cornucopia? Had the darkness suddenly poured forth light? Apparently, perhaps. Harry would never know. But one way or another, one thing or another had taken place, something had gotten done, there had been a sequence of things linked in his life or his mind by a thread of happenstance or intention, one. Something must have happened.
Had you knocked on his door in the late afternoon and asked, what did you do today? he would have told you something and you would have gone away with his story seamlessly spliced to the other stories you hear from Monty or Jessica, Max or Loretta, any or all of the others. The stories you have heard have been edited into one long story, the story you tell yourself or tell others if asked or maybe you keep some of it to yourself and tell the rest, the story of your historic climb or tragic fall, your itinerary with all its interesting (to you, to you) detours, the story of your always ending adventure. Harry’s story would have sounded enough like those to disappear almost as soon as you heard it. By the time you said good-bye and went down the short half-flight of worn-carpeted stairs to the inner door of the three-story walk-up, through the mail hallway, out the outer door into the suddenly chilly fading light and blowing leaves and bare trees, Harry like his story would have disappeared and he wouldn’t have held it against you. Harry understood how it is.
Not much flesh left on his bones. Not much story left in his story—pretty much anyone’s story, like his face—pretty much anyone’s face.
The stories, all of them, seem to exist for a purpose. Stories are containers like newspapers for the advertisements of selves. The next day the newspaper is at the bottom of a cage or pulped or burned. Even if saved and pasted, the pages flake and decay. Scrap books don’t last. Tombstones grow moldy and inscriptions disappear. The eroding stone and the faded names dissolve into the odor of yew trees’ litter and duff. Then the nose goes too.
It is not an offense, then, merely a fact that your story too is a template, nothing but a fill-in-the-blanks sort of repetitious silliness.
Still, for a moment, someone listens. Someone listens. Then forgets.
That’s why Harry would never have held it against you. Harry knew.
The real Venus, Harry thought, looking again at the unreal Venus in his hands or his head, had been carved by someone too. The Venus was a story about woman, lust and fertility, a pretty good story, he had to admit, as far as it went.
Once upon a time the carver(s) had heard stories of this or that, but now, there weren’t even echoes. If ever a page, now it’s blank. If ever a kiss, now it’s a whisper.
Flatulence, unanticipated, became a cause for quiet spontaneous celebration.
And mail! So did mail. Mail as little as it was was quite an event. Even when it didn’t come, the anticipation was something. Even the disappointment of receiving nothing, nothing at all, was something to experience. Nothing filled the space as much as something. Getting nothing could take hours. Achieving nothing could last for a lifetime. And having nothing was axiomatic, Harry suspected, his vision clearing even as it dimmed.
The mail fluttered into a box in the mail hall (or not), then his hurrying hands retrieved it and carried it carefully upstairs before it was torn and tossed into the garbage (or they didn’t).
One piece of mail lived for a short while in his head. No, two.
It came from a place he had once worked. It was all about a change in the pension and stories about people coming to work there, starting a new life, people just starting out, advertisements for people thinking they were fixed once and for all but who in fact were carried along in the flow of the life of a newsletter sent mostly to folks who threw it away unread. Pictures of some of them however made a brief impression on Harry’s eyes or brain before they disappeared.
The booklet or newsletter, pamphlet, whatever it was, was quite impressive to Harry, here. There were plenty of photos and someone had taken time because they must have cared. There were stories arranged by decades about different people and what they were doing. As he read however it became more apparent that this missive had not come from his former employer at all. That was the four page benefit explanation or letter already set down on the round mahogany table with the green lamp. This was something else, a second letter, this had come from his old school, and it told some of their stories but mostly consisted of sound bites from people still taking the trouble to send them in. The ones he read said little or nothing of much interest; they were advertisements for the still living in the eight-page black-and-white rag called The Old School News. Reading the names felt like kicking at dirt with the tip of his shoe. A little puff of dust went up, then disappeared back into the earth. Each name an image dissipating quickly and sinking into the ancient ground.
Some names stayed for a moment, however, as if they were typed in boldface. Susan Loomis and John Jensen were alive and had written advertisements for that happy fact. Harry Doskell who sat near him for two years or maybe more was simply dead. The beautiful Gustafson girls, blonde objects of adolescent lust that stirred an echo of an erection in his tented brown trousers, were also dead. Bob Rutkowski who had shared a room with him for a year at college, a strange bird who hated to be away from home, who went home, who left again, who had his life, he too was dead. Jerry Schwartz either German or Jew he was never sure which, he had had a nice smile, was also dead. Their names were printed in the dead list in the newsletter he held for a long while as the light fell and the leaves fell and the curtains he refused to pull so long as there was even a little twilight were as ghostly white as his mother’s nightgown when she came roaring down the hallway in the morning from her bedroom.
The hallway, the bedroom, his mother and father, his sister, had disappeared. Agatha had disappeared, his wife had—Harry turned away from a memory he refused to entertain and forced himself to focus.
The daylight was dying and yellow candescent streetlight painted his space. Day into night.
He remembered once more the linoleum on the kitchen floor and the voices of the few who loved him then the very very very few who were like cries in the twilight like birds ready to roost for the night and he realized, sitting there in the twilight, it was birds making the sounds, crows ready to roost, and all other sounds of the day disappeared. So Harry rose from his chair, leaving the newsletter and explanation of benefits letter on the round mahogany table with the green lamp and went to the window and felt the cold glass with the undeniable fact of the tips of his fingers. The new streetlights were severe, a brutal illumination of darkness that had covered the earth for eons long before night meant electric light. A car went past or a person or two hurried by, their collars up against the wind and their hands deep into their pockets. He felt himself small inside a snow globe that was no longer being shaken, the large flakes settling quietly in the night as the earth ran around the sun and the sun circled its galactic center, a big black hole, and the galaxy wheeled as it would for as long as the stars had not yet disappeared as he himself had not yet disappeared.
These stars, Harry remembered, were the third or fourth round. Stars exploded and their pieces became more stars. If anyone was there to name the next generation of stars, they gave them different names. Likely there will be many more stars, many generations of more stars. Many stars had planets and many planets had life. But Harry would never know their names or why their visits had so far been benign or what would happen next. Epsilon Eridani. Zeta Reticuli. Names once magical now were little pieces of worn paper on slides needing careful cleaning. On each smudged slide was a star and its planets. Labels or cradles of infinitely variable life.
Harry closed the curtains and tried to half-remember the day but the day had disappeared. He went into his bedroom and turned on the light. The bed and the table and the paperback book were still there. A bookmark stuck out, halfway through. He would have that story, then, to know momentarily. Even if it ended.
The floor trembled, he slid onto the bed before the floor could tilt. The edge of the pit was variable, advancing, and he did not understand the kind of geometry that tried to define it. Nobody did.
Harry felt that his bed or a chair was safer than the floor but of course, he knew.
He closed his eyes and held his face in his hands. The world inside his apartment disappeared, the snow globe world in his head appeared. He was player and field, figure and ground, and all of the advertisements or stories were torn pages in a magazine or comic book blowing down an alley in a black wind, an empty black wind defining glimpses of pictures on flapping pages changing from moment to moment in the wind and the shadow-and-glare of the minimal light, the form of the lost stories framed by whatever, whatever had been, whatever names or labels had once been pasted onto the torn pages disappearing now in the sudden calm windless still of a disappearing planet.
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Published in Karamu and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.