[This is the first chapter of a novel I wrote about six years ago. If anyone likes it, I'll post the rest over the next few weeks.--MM.]
To the north there is a cornfield. To the south there is a cornfield. Cornfields stretch to the east and the west. And in the middle, there's me.
If there were ever a time to leave, this is it. Yesterday, Annie Stokes died, reducing our population by half. I’ve been sitting on my porch, looking at the fresh tomatoes scattered around her and lamenting their fate to rot on her front steps, rather than simmer in one of her bronze pots. I don’t know if she died and then fell, or fell and then died; I don’t know if I’ll even be able to tell when I look at her. All I know is that I’m going to have to dig a grave, but I think I’ll wait until the sun goes down, when it’s a little cooler.
It looks like Annie’s fall is what killed her. There’s a gash on her head, and her soft white hair is matted with blood, much more brown than the red I had expected. I sit beside her, holding her frail hand in mine, stroking its thin skin. I don’t want to let her go yet, even though I expected this day, in some sort of hazy way. What I didn’t expect was this feeling, sneaking from my insides and then down my spine, leaving me in chills in spite of the searing sun. I didn’t expect to feel that I’ve reached my fate, that I have nowhere to go from here, stuck at the end of an awkward, rhythmless song with no verse, no crescendo, the music quickly fading with nothing but silence left in its place.
I close my eyes, hoping, maybe, that I will disappear, or reappear somewhere else when I open them. But when I do, I am still sitting on the ground, next to Annie, the loose ends of her apron strings dancing in the breeze in a way more beautiful than this moment should allow.
I didn’t expect to feel quite so lost in a place I know so well.
Even though the sun’s gone down, it’s still brutally hot, and I’ve only dug about half what I need to. Sweat is stinging my eyes, and I have to keep stopping from crying jags--some about Annie and some about me. I’ve been left here by things I don’t like to think about, and because my mind is the only thing over which I’ve ever felt I’ve had any control, I manage it with fierce vigilance, holding my history at bay. It is surprisingly easy to suppress thoughts of the past when one lives a life of days so similar that time has lost all meaning. I am now feeling the burden of that decision; in not thinking about the past, I have also foregone considering my future, and now that it’s here, I am woefully unprepared.
The shovel crunches into the dry earth, and my teeth gnash and grind together. I’m hot and sore, and I want to be finished. I want Annie to bring me a cold glass of lemonade.
I feel an unpleasant solitude creeping, filling in the empty spaces around me, and a keen but distressful sense of Annie’s sorrow, always present to varying degrees since Lester died a decade ago, presents itself for consideration. She never told me about it, not in words, but there were days that its shadow would crawl across my skin and then slip underneath, when she sat at her piano and made a sound so haunting that it could have come from nowhere but her loneliness. It was part of her I never really understood until now, now that she’s gone. I never knew she was playing that music for herself as much as for Lester, that it asked why she was still here as much as why he wasn’t. Three feet more and she’ll be beside him once again.
I remember the night my father and I dug for Lester; it was cold. The ground was nearly frozen, and although the work was a lot harder, I think I might have preferred it to soft dirt and this unbearable heat.
It’s almost sunrise, and the sky is turning a shade of purple that any unwilling insomniac has seen a hundred times, but only people who choose to be up this late can really appreciate. I didn’t want to be up all night, but it took me longer than I expected to bury Annie, and now I’m back in the place I am each time after I’ve buried someone. Just get in your car and go. Go. It was always quite comforting before, immersing myself in thoughts of leaving and hiding there for awhile. But this time I feel different. There are no excuses now--everyone else is gone. It’s just me. I am faced with the possibility that maybe I am the thing that’s been holding me here.
I push these thoughts away and instead sit and watch the sun rise. The constant humming of an unengaged mind cedes, but eventually creeps back unsolicited, and once again I am contemplating my position as the sole resident of Syntax, Indiana. Lost somewhere between Chicago and Indianapolis, and worlds away from each, it’s not even a town, really--just a collection of six houses and a defunct post office. And me, right in the middle, the only one left standing. The best I can manage right now is to delay any decisions or conclusions. I don’t want to think about anything except crawling into my bed, but it’s Tuesday, and Jimmy will be bringing groceries from Merrittville today, so I’m going to stay up until 7:00, when his dad’s shop opens, and cancel Annie’s order.
George Fowler used to deliver the groceries himself, but once Jimmy was old enough, he took over the deliveries. I liked it better when George made the trip; he’s the kind of robust man who always has a joke ready, and tells it well, making you feel it’s the first time you’ve heard it. Jimmy is rail-thin, with a pointy, expressionless face. He regards me with a complete absence of consideration. I would prefer it if he’d show disdain or disgust or at least confusion as to why I’m here--after all, why should he have the good fortune of not being confounded by it when I myself can’t boast the same? But there is no disdain or disgust or confusion; it is just nothingness on that face, and I dread his visits. I feel a person in my situation deserves at the very least to be regarded as confusingly freakish, although pleasantly eccentric would be preferable.
7:00. I call George and tell him about Annie. He gives me his condolences and tells me he’ll do the usual. The usual is calling the Merrittville Gazette and telling them to run an obituary, then calling Ben Wright, the attorney who handles all the Syntax estates. He’ll mail the paperwork for me to sign. I’m Annie’s sole heir. Just a default, really. There was no one else to leave it to.
I now own all six houses. I probably own the post office, too. No one else would want it--even I don’t. Its wooden frame is so rotted now, it has outlived not only its usefulness as a post office, but probably any potential it might have had as kindling.
After putting down the phone, I walk down the narrow road on which all the buildings lie. This is the only road in Syntax, so limited in its purpose that no one ever bothered to give it a name. Those who need to know--the IRS and the National Geographic, primarily--find me at #4, Syntax, Indiana. I walk until I reach the end, where it forms a T with State Road 62. The fields of corn all around me stretch so far I can’t even see the farmhouses which shelter the men who work them.
I look left. Somewhere up there is Merrittville, although I’ve never seen it. I look right. Somewhere down there is Darby, although I’ve never seen that either. I have a car; in fact, I have several. I could just get in one and go. Go further than Merrittville or Darby or Lafayette or Indianapolis. I could go to Chicago and get on a plane and fly to Perth, Australia, which might not strictly be the furthest point from Syntax, Indiana, but it seems far enough. I turn and walk back toward my collection of unused cars. I’ve never driven before, but it doesn’t seem like it would be all that hard. I lift the dusty tarp covering the ’67 Cadillac left to me by the Faulkners, and run my hand across the grill. Just get in your car and go. Go. I go into the house and lie down.
Jimmy shows up right on time--an hour late as usual. I hear the grumbling engine of his crappy truck and walk out to the porch to greet him. Although there is an expanse of empty road and a driveway devoid of obstacles, he pulls his truck half onto the lawn, not even managing to settle his wheels into the deep, ugly treads he left last time.
“Hi, Jimmy. How’s it going?”
He doesn’t look at me; he looks up, but past me rather than at me, and nods his head in silent greeting. He looks around at the other deserted houses, and I think I see him shiver. “Just me now,” I say, and he looks startled, glances at me quickly and then away as if I spooked him. I never figured that the first and only reaction he’d ever give me was one he might give a ghost.
He starts to unload the brown sacks from the back of the truck, and I move down the stairs to help. When I lean over the side next to him, he drops the bags he is holding and moves to the other side of the truck. This is not unusual, and I think it has less to do with his fear that I could be a wraith than his fear I could be gay.
Without exchanging a word or glance, we carry all the bags into the house. “How much do I owe you?” I ask him. It never varies--$56.62--but I always ask, just in case George has raised prices, although I don’t think he has since the Johnson administration.
“Fiffy-sis sisty-two,” Jimmy says, and I hand him sixty dollars from the envelope of twenties I have specifically for this purpose, telling him to keep the change. He folds the bills and shoves them in the front pocket of his jeans, turns and leaves without a thank-you. There is never a thank-you.
As I’m putting my groceries away, I notice that there is a long, slimy trail of tobacco down the side of one of the bags, which obviously made it out Jimmy’s window but didn’t manage to clear the back of the truck. I look down at my shirt, see that I must have had the unfortunate task of carrying the bag, and decide it’s a good day to do laundry.
Dinnertime. A cheeseburger and a baked potato with Tabasco sauce again. I need to think of some new things to add to my grocery list now that I’ll be cooking for myself a lot more often.
The day after I bury Annie is hot and humid, but cut with a cool breeze. Fall will be coming soon, and today is the first day I’ve felt it. I stand on the front porch and look up and down the street. It’s so deserted. It doesn’t seem like one person missing would make such a change, but it has. I wonder what will happen when I die. I won’t be left for long; whoever is making the deliveries from Merrittville will discover me within a week. Oh, God, I hope it isn’t that idiot Jimmy. I picture my corpse lying facedown, Jimmy standing next to it, nudging it with his toe. “Hullo? Hullo?” Nudge, nudge, nudge. He’d probably get a stick and poke at me and try to flip me over.
The thought of my soulless body being jostled upright and then lying there, staring up with unfocused eyes, with Jimmy gazing down at me, spitting carelessly out the side of his mouth, is too much to bear. Maybe I should get a cat. Perhaps it will eat my face before any slack-jawed morons come to gawk at it.
To take my mind off my pitiful demise and its horrific discovery, I pull out some of the cuisine magazines of which Annie used to be so fond. I look for recipes; actually, I look at the pictures. I intend to expand my grocery order, but many of the ingredients are unfamiliar. I wonder if George will have them. I don’t even know how common they are. If my mom didn’t make it, I haven’t eaten it. Annie had cooked for me quite a bit, too--I remember liking okra and risotto and scallops. None of the dishes in the magazines have any of those things in them, though.
I start writing down some chicken recipes, and then remember that I can just take the magazines. A wave of melancholy passes over me. As always, it is met with equal parts I need to go to China and I need to lie down. I once read that on the flight to China you bear witness to two sunrises and two sunsets. I’m not sure it’s true, but I’d like to find out.
I’d like to stand on top of the Great Wall, and see a live panda, and eat authentic Chinese food, rather than the steak and peapod stir fry I occasionally make in my 1970’s avocado green wok. I’d like to stroll though shops and see plucked ducks strung up by their necks and resolve to be a vegetarian until I have a hankering for red meat that can’t be ignored. I’d like to learn phrases and mispronounce them and blush when people laugh at my terrible accent.
I wonder if there is a man in a small, isolated village somewhere in China, looking at the rice paddies surrounding him, and wishing he could see a cornfield for a change.
I take out the atlas, and my list of Places I Want to See falls out. I scratch off India, Egypt, and Morocco. Too much unrest. Plus, I couldn’t handle people judging me because I am an American; I’d at least like them to get to know me and then judge me based on my actual flaws.
China and Australia are now at the top of the list. I conclude that I’m not as interested in seeing anything actually in Australia as I am in how far away it seems, and scratch it off. China has the Great Wall and rickshaws, so it stays.
Japan. I want to sleep in a tiny little tubular hotel in Tokyo, falling asleep to the sounds of a Japanese sararuman talking excitedly on his cell phone. Great Britain. I want to climb a munroe in the Scottish Highlands and have a desperately clichéd picture taken of myself standing in front of Big Ben. Kenya. I want to go on safari and feel my heart beat with elation and fright when I stare into the eyes of a lion lazing on the Serengeti. Russia. I want to traverse the country on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, sipping Vodka from a crystal glass and invoking the spirit of Tolstoy....
Lost in my dreams, I shut the atlas and lie back, closing my eyes and picturing the places I’ve never been, and have a strong suspicion I will never go. I drift and lose myself in the world that exists in my head. The atlas is heavy on my chest, and I enjoy the gentle strain it causes as it rises and falls with my breathing.
I’m struggling through the snow, lagging behind my sherpa, who is accustomed to the altitude and in considerably better shape than I am. He turns to catch my attention, and I squint into the sharp, snow-laden wind, following the direction of his extended finger. He is pointing at the peak of Everest. We are so close, and I’m struggling a bit for air, but I’m going to make it. I climb, and climb, and climb....
I grab the atlas and toss it to the floor, where it lands with a dull thud, rattling the loose pane in the front door. I crush my Places I Want to See list into a ball, tossing it disgustedly into the bin, but I’ve crumpled it loosely, knowing I’ll retrieve it later and return it to its rightful place in the atlas.
Wandering restlessly, I walk along the bookshelf in the den that stretches from ceiling to floor along the length of the west wall. My fingertips absently touch spines from Homer to Irving; The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Cider House Rules, The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Son of the Circus, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories....
I move past the desk, glance at the photo albums stacked haphazardly on the closed top of a broken Victrola. It is an assorted collection of large and small albums; my mother had favored the traditional large photo albums, three photos or more to the page. I favor the small photo albums, one photo per page. I find them less unwieldy to page through, although my mother’s assertion that her multi-photo pages were happier might have something to it. In her albums, your image is never alone; even if you’re the only one in the photos, you’ve got some grinning doppelgangers to keep you company.
Her big albums are all carefully labeled: May 1978-October 1979, November 1979-March 1981, and so on until they come to an abrupt halt in 1996. My albums aren’t marked; the pictures may not even be in order. Since 1996, there are only two of them, anyway.
I reach for the album labeled “Syntax.” It is thin, far fewer pages than most of the massive albums she preferred to use, which better accommodated her compulsive picture-taking. Each set of pages starts with a hand-written headline. “The Havens.” I look at pictures of my mother and father, smiling, happy in front of our big white house. There’s a picture of my dad holding me in the crook of his arm, pointing at something not captured in the frame, therefore long forgotten. Whatever it was, it was making me laugh, evoking the wide, crooked, semi-toothless grin reserved for six-year-olds and old men.
“The Stokes.” Annie and Lester looking proud in their beautiful garden. Annie is holding up a basket of ripe tomatoes, and I shake away the image of the strewn tomatoes from the day before. Lester with his horse, Grundy, who spent his days loose in their backyard and never wandered away. He once wandered onto their front porch, peering in through the window that looks into the dining room and eliciting a scream of such pitch from Annie that the rest of us went running out to see who had been murdered. “I was just serving up dinner, and there he was at the window!” she explained breathlessly. By the time we had arrived, Lester had already shooed him into the backyard, and we were left to examine the evidence--smeary wet smudges left on the glass by his velvet snout.
“The Faulkners.” “The MacLachlans.” “The Andersons.” “The Learys.”
I close the book and return it to its perch on the Victrola. I resolve to take “Syntax” with me when I go.
I lie in my bed in the darkness, and gradually the sound of the crickets is replaced with the noise of memory. It is the Fourth of July, and I am seven years old. Everyone is setting up chairs at the end of the road, where the enduring flatness of Indiana allows us to see Merrittville’s fireworks. Jack Leary has dragged his grill down to our chairs, and he’s cooking bratwurst--bratwurst for everyone but me, a cheeseburger for me, a cheeseburger for little Carter who doesn’t like my bratwurst! His mock indignation makes me laugh, and he hands me a paper plate with two little cheeseburgers smiling up at me with mustard eyes and ketchup smiles. I put the tops of the English muffins on the burgers--Jack always put them on English muffins instead of buns, and I’ve eaten them that way ever since--and squoosh them around to spread the condiments.
Mary MacLachlan asks my mom if I can have caffeine this late in the evening, and my mom says, “Oh hell, it’s one night a year,” so I get handed a soda. Later, I’m given a blanket to cover my legs in case it starts to get chilly--a very unlikely event in a midwestern July. Someone else gives me an ancient pair of binoculars, and with nothing but darkness surrounding us now, I can’t tell how far they’ll let me see. When I look at my dad with them, all I see is a giant nose. He flares his nostrils at me, and I giggle, “You sure got a lot of bats in those caves, mister!” He grabs me and tickles me and tells me what a horrible brat I am, and then my mom tells us to settle down because the fireworks are beginning.
Every year, we see the lights and hear the pops. Every year, we ooh and ahh as if we’d never seen fireworks before. Every year I lose track of the existence of the faceless people who are sending these beautiful explosions into the sky, and regard the event as a cosmic wonder, sent expressly to mystify us, the people of Syntax, the only place on Earth.
The oppressive heat returns the next day, and so I decide to clean out Annie’s refrigerator and freezer; at least the chore will keep me cool for a bit. I clear out all the stuff that’s starting to spoil and food I don’t like--peaches, eggs, cottage cheese--and take it all to the compost heap. The rest I put in bags and take over to my place.
Afterwards, I walk through the house and unplug all the appliances, then use her phone to call the utility companies and have everything turned off. I call the post office in Merrittville and tell them to bundle her weekly deliveries with mine.
It crosses my mind that perhaps I should list her house with the real estate office in Darby, but the Learys’ place has been on the market for three years with not a single enquiry. The Stokeses’ house is bigger, but I don’t think the size of the Learys’ house is the root of the disinterest.
I cover the furniture and the piano with sheets from Annie’s linen closet and make sure all the windows and doors are shut tight. I gather all the cleaning supplies to take to my place, and on my way out, I also grab the toaster; hers is better than mine.
The old toaster goes to the Faulkners’ place, which I have been using as a storage facility, keeping there everything I have slated for charity donation. I tell myself for the millionth time that I need to organize it all so someone can come around and collect it. It’s not that I don’t have enough time; it’s just one of those jobs so immense that even thinking about where to begin overwhelms me. The potential exhaustion is always enough to summon at least another two month’s worth of procrastination.
I pick up a rock which is sitting under the boarded up front window and put it in my pocket, then look around the collection of furniture, curios, appliances, stacks of books ... everything is tumbling over something else. For a moment, I have a small surge of momentum. I nudge the leg of a chair with my toe, peek under a sheet covering an ancient but still functioning console television, and a vague will to tackle this beast stirs. I reach for a lamp, to brush the grime off the shade; my elbow catches the top of a pile of books and at least twenty go crashing to the floor. Dust flies up, filling the room and highlighting the streams of light poking through the blinds. My eyes burn from the contaminated air and whatever motivation I had is now gone. I turn and head for the front door, searching out fresh air and a place to lie down.
I’ve been stretched out on my bed, a glass of milk on my nightstand and a well-worn copy of Great Expectations in my hand, for about an hour when I hear a faint voice.
“Hello? Is anybody home?”
I go the window of my room and look out. Wandering around the perimeter of the house, peering in the first floor windows, there is a woman, a young woman, carrying what looks from my perch above to be a briefcase. I call down to her. “Who are you looking for?”
She backs up so she can see me, holding her hand above her eyes to shield them from the sun. “Oh, hi. I’m looking for Carter Haven. I rang the bell--I wasn’t sure if anyone was home.”
“The bell is broken,” I tell her. “I’ll be right down.”
I swig the last of my milk and mark my page in the book, read so many times that the corner of each page is creased, having served as a bookmark on one occasion or another. I go down the stairs and open the front door; she is standing there, waiting.
“I should put a note on the door about the bell,” I tell her. “It’s just ... I don’t get many visitors, so it’s never been important.”
“Oh.” She smiles; her eyes are big and blue. After a pause, she holds out her hand, which I shake as she tells me her name is Bromley McClemont.
“Bromley--that’s an unusual name,” I say, and immediately feel the cringe that accompanies an inevitable, a-moment-too-late realization that you’ve just made the same observation that everyone else has been making for a hundred years, as if it’s a brand new idea.
She chuckles, but generously. She has seen my cringe and knows I would do anything to erase the last ten seconds. “It is unusual,” she agrees, and manages to say it as if it’s the first time she’s ever had to. “My dad chose it.”
I don’t know if I am meant to continue this thread, asking the obvious, “What is the significance?” so we can further draw out this painfully polite conversation, or whether I should just change the subject altogether. I settle on the latter, reserving the questions for a later time, should the opportunity present itself, because now I am genuinely curious. “So, um, what brings you to Syntax?”
“Carter Haven,” she tells me, and it occurs to me that I’ve never heard anyone say my first and last name together like that. There’s never been any occasion for it. “Do you know where I can find him?”
“Uh ... yeah. Yes. I mean, you’ve found him.” I feel like my eyes are bulging out of my head and my tongue has swollen as if stung by a bee. This is the first new person to which I’ve spoken face-to-face in probably twenty years, and I am suddenly, inexplicably, nervous. Can she tell I haven’t met anyone new in twenty years? Why am I sweating? “I’m Carter Haven.”
“Oh!” She smiles broadly: mission accomplished. “Nice to meet you, Carter.”
“Thanks.” She looks at me expectantly, shifting from one foot to the other. “You, too,” I add, a beat too late.
“Can I come in for a minute?” she asks.
I look at her blankly.
“I’m from Ben Wright’s office. He sent me over with some paperwork for you to sign.”
The blank look continues. I don’t know why she’s here. Ben has never sent a person along with the paperwork for me to sign before.
She gets it. “It’s a little more complicated than the other estates,” she explains, more patiently than I deserve. “You know Annie and Lester had a son—-”
“And a daughter,” I interrupt, inexplicably. There is no reason to mention this. Their daughter died before I was even born, but I feel a strange competitive feeling welling inside me, as if The Stokeses belonged to me, and this interloper before me couldn’t possibly know them better than I did. I immediately feel embarrassed, and I sputter, “Sorry, go on.”
Again I receive a patient and empathetic smile. Her eyes say, I know this is hard. It’s okay. I am further ashamed of myself because of her calm tolerance; how could she be so indulgent with someone who is handling themselves so awkwardly?
“That’s okay. You’re right. They had a daughter, too.”
“Corrine,” I say, and the voice in my head screams SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!
“Right, Corrine. I think she died quite awhile ago—-” I manage to just nod in agreement rather than spewing the date “--and then a son, Russell, who is presumed dead, but, in fact, it is not known whether he is dead or alive, but--well, you probably know this better than I do--but to my understanding he went missing after he was drafted, and hasn’t been heard from since.”
She reads me so well. She is acknowledging these odd territorial feelings I have, and somehow she understands them: you probably know this better than I do. She is making this so much easier than I am. She’s just so nice. Bromley McClemont.
“Right,” I say, and then quickly add, “I don’t know much more than that, though.” It’s not true. I know what Russell looked like when he left; I know what day he went missing; I know all the efforts Annie and Lester made to find him, and how much it hurt them that they never did. I know all about Russell, and what was left in the wake of his sudden departure.
She is nodding, leaving a pause as a transition. “So, because of his indeterminate status, we need you to sign some additional papers, since their wills didn’t make any provisions regarding the possibility of Russell returning and contesting your designation as sole beneficiary. It’s extremely unlikely, after all this time, and I don’t want to scare you ... it’s really just some standard paperwork, where you’ll indicate you haven’t had any contact with Russell, that he hasn’t approached you to try to make any claims, that sort of thing.”
“Yeah, yes, well, of course, that’s makes sense, I can see, sure.” I am stammering like an idiot, and I don’t know how to stop it. I can’t get my mind to stop focusing on the stupid things I’ve already said and start paying attention to what I’m now saying, to prevent further stupidity. “You, uh, you have the papers with you then?”
She holds up her briefcase and pats it. “Right in here,” she tells me.
I stand back, holding the door open, and wave my arm, ushering her in. “Please come in,” I say, and all at once my mind is back on track. “Come in and make yourself comfortable. I’m sorry I’m being so ... I just ... wasn’t expecting all this. You caught me a little off guard.”
As she steps by me, she looks at me and her eyes, so blue, are incredibly close. “I know, I apologize. I thought if I just stopped by with the papers, it would be easier. It’s on my way home, you see. I work in Merrittville, but I live in Darby....” She stands, looking vaguely uncomfortable, not knowing whether to go to the kitchen or the living room, both equally close and visible from the front entryway. I motion toward the kitchen, figuring paper-signing is best done at a table of some description, and she moves in that direction, looking relieved. “So anyway, I apologize. I should have called.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” I tell her, convincingly I hope, because it really is fine, and I have no idea why I was so easily flustered. “It was good of you to stop by. I appreciate it.”
“Well, okay,” she says, and I’m not sure if it’s meant to accept what I’ve said, or whether she’s just getting down to business now, or perhaps both. She seats herself at the table and opens the briefcase.
“Do you want something to drink?” I ask. I’m hovering around the table, still feeling a little too self-conscious to sit down and relax just yet. I need another thirty seconds or so. “It’s really hot. Are you thirsty?”
“Water would be great,” she says. “Thanks.”
I busy myself with the loud noises of plopping ice cubes in tall glasses and running the tap while she loudly shuffles papers. Neither of us has to talk for a minute, and the interlude, though brief, is enough to erase the clumsiness of our meeting. I hand her a glass of water and sit down across from her. “Thank you,” she says, and I tell her it’s no problem.
The papers are all laid out, handwritten Xs where I’m meant to sign, and it occurs to me that it will take a shorter time to perform this task than it did to complete the discomfiting dance in which I’d engaged us. There is a quick explanation of what is written on the pages--the same thing on each one--one copy for Ben’s file and one copy for me, and feeling it’s entirely clear and well-worded and makes sense and all that, as if I really have a place (or a reason) to question any of it, I sign my name to it. Carter Haven, near each of the two little Xs.
“I guess that’s it,” she says, and smiles at me as she returns their copy to her suitcase. She pushes my copy across the table to me; “That’s yours.”
“That was easy,” I say, and she nods.
“Yep. I guess—-”
She is probably about to say, “I guess I’ll be going,” and I don’t want her to finish. “Do you want to stay for dinner?” I blurt out, and I know my face has contorted into a desperate expression. I try to force my facial muscles to relax into some sort of casual look, but they’re having none of it.
She stares at me, surprised, for a moment, then says, “Can I use your phone?”
“Um, sure,” I say, and my voice cracks. I am crimson. I gesture to the phone on the wall, and I’m sure she can hear me gulp. She is probably calling the police, or a judge, to have me committed.
She dials a number, waits, says, “Hi, it’s me. I’m going to be late getting home. Can you make sure Josie gets her dinner? Thanks. No, it’s nothing--I’ll explain when I get home. Okay, thanks, Chris. Bye.”
My mind races. Ohmygod, she’s married. Her husband has to cook dinner for their kid now because I’ve made little Josie’s mommy feel obligated to stay and sup with the pathetic loner man in Syntax. Nothing? It’s nothing? What does she mean nothing? Isn’t dinner with me something? Surely, it’s something. No no no, it’s nothing. It’s nothing to Bromley McClemont and her handsome husband Chris and their beautiful daughter Josie.
I look at her finger. No ring. Still....
“If it’s inconvenient,” I say, “I don’t want you to feel you have to ... I just thought that.... If you have to get home to your ... husband...?”
She laughs, and her eyes flicker as she does. “Oh, no,” she says quickly. She sits back down at the table. “I’m not married. I was just calling my neighbor to see if she could feed my cat. Josie, my cat. She’s diabetic, has to eat at certain times.... She’d probably be fine--I’m just a worrier.” She shakes her head. “It’s silly.”
Silly?! Ha--it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
“I understand,” I tell her. “I’m a worrier, too. I look at her and let her look back for a moment. “How do you feel about cheeseburgers and baked potatoes?”
“You’re younger than I expected,” Bromley says, wiping a bit of ketchup off the corner of her mouth.
“Oh?” I’m chewing a massive bite of burger, and it’s all I can manage without half-chewed food falling back onto my plate.
“Mm-hmm.” She cocks her head to the side, squints at me. “I figured you’d be in your forties or fifties. Somehow I had gotten the impression you were about the age the Stokes’ children would have been.”
“Yeah. No, I’m only twenty-seven,” I tell her.
“My God, you’re a baby!” she exclaims.
“How old are you?” I ask her. I remember my mother telling me that it’s impolite to ask a woman her age. Despite the warning, I have it in my mind that only women whose faces are starting to crease in that way that is as disappointing to them as it is exceedingly sexy to younger men would really be bothered by that question.
“Thirty-one,” she replies, and seems decidedly nonplussed by answering, so I assume I haven’t offended her.
“An old woman,” I note.
“Indeed,” she chuckles.
“Did you grow up in Darby?” I ask her.
“No. Did you grow up in Syntax?”
We are both quiet. It seems that she is no more ready to volunteer what brought her to Darby than I am to explain what left me in Syntax, and so we move on.
“Why did your dad name you Bromley?” I ask her suddenly, surprising myself.
She smiles and waves her hand at me. “Oh, it’s a terribly boring story--you don’t want to hear it, trust me.”
“No, I do,” I assure her. “Come on, let’s have it.”
She gives me a look, lifting her eyebrow and pursing her lips. “Okay ... but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I won’t,” I promise, nearly squirming in my chair.
“My dad is from Scotland,” she explains, “and while my mom was pregnant with me, his grandmother died, and he had to fly back to Edinburgh for the funeral. My mom couldn’t fly at that point, because it was so late in her pregnancy.” I’m not sure if this has to do with changes in air pressure, the logistical problem of trying to squeeze a very pregnant belly into an airplane seat, or some other reason altogether, but it isn’t really the time to ask, so I nod noncommittally and Bromley continues. “On his way home, Dad stopped and visited a friend in London, and while he was there, he and Mom were talking on the phone--and get this ... he was calling her from a pay phone because he had gone for a walk and lost track of the time. He didn’t want to worry her by missing the time he’d promised to call, so he called collect--can you imagine?!--from a phone box.”
“Right!” she exclaims. “Anyway, they started discussing baby names. They knew I’d be Malcolm if I were a boy, but they couldn’t agree on a girl’s name.” She is tracing a deep scratch on my table with the tip of her finger, and I break our eye contact for a moment to look at her hand. It is beautiful, her fingers tapering into perfectly painted nails. “So while they were talking, he said, ‘How about Bromley?’ And she said, ‘Bromley. Bromley McClemont. I like it!’ And when she asked him how he came up with that, he told her, ‘I’m standing outside a store called Russell & Bromley.’ And because they both liked the idea of being four thousand miles apart, and missing each other, but still feeling this closeness while talking about their baby, the name stuck.”
“That’s amazing,” I say, and she shakes her head. “No, really--it’s a great story.”
“You think?” She squints at me, makes a face. “The funny thing is, I usually don’t bother with that whole story when people ask about my name. I usually just tell them I was named after the borough of Bromley in London.”
“Oh, right,” I say. Nod, nod. Sure, the borough of Bromley. In London. Of course. “Well, I’m glad you told me the real story. It makes your name that much more interesting.”
“Well, thanks.” She blushes a little, or maybe I just think she does. “I like it, anyway. It suits me.”
“It does.” I look at her. Bromley McClemont. There is a pause while I ponder how we got here, and she does, too, or maybe I just hope she does. “What kind of store was it, anyway?” I ask.
“A shoe store!” she exclaims, and bursts into laughter. “That’s the non-romantic part, but it could explain why I am a compulsive shoe-shopper.” She swings her foot out from under the table and holds it up for my consideration. The shoe being modeled by her small foot is a black leather shoe, with a short heel and a strap across the front of her ankle. “My favorite MaryJanes,” she tells me.
“Nice to meet you, MaryJane,” I say to her shoe, and she gives me a grin.
“And where did the name Carter come from?”
“He was president when I was born,” I say. “My parents liked him.”
“Agh!” she cries. “You’re two whole presidents younger than me. Damn, if I had been born in August instead of May, I could say one, but no....”
“Be thankful your parents chose a shoe store instead of a president then, or you’d be Nixon McClemont.”
“Good point.” She nods, looks around the kitchen, then back at me. “So what do you do?”
“Read, mostly,” I say. “And, uh, well ... I’m trying to learn how to cook.”
She stares at me blankly for a moment, then chuckles and shakes her head. “I meant, what do you do for a living?”
“Oh.” I feel a hot flush of embarrassment, and my head spins, frantically searching for an acceptable response. I am probably two seconds away from blurting out an entirely ludicrous answer when she cuts me off at the pass, much to my resounding relief.
“You like to read?” she says, and it sounds as much like a statement as a question. I am too occupied with trying to discern whether she’s interested in my reading habits or attempting to veer away from what do you do to respond. She continues, “I read a lot, too. Almost constantly, if I’m honest.” She smiles. “If I were home right now, I’d probably be curled up on the couch with a microwaved dinner and a book.”
I’m elated that she’s a reader, a real reader, one of those, nose always buried in a book, as Annie used to say about me. My mind tears off in a new direction, and I’m determined to stay on this subject, because I love it, and because if I don’t, I’ll faint from mental motion sickness.
“What do you like to read?” I ask, and we’re off.
“I love Dickens,” she is saying, because I have told her I am re-reading Great Expectations. I haven’t told her I am re-reading it for the twelfth time, and my head is too buzzy from happiness at hearing she loves Dickens to fully concentrate on the requisite caveat she is providing, the one that all fans (or the four fans I’ve known, anyway) seem to feel obligated to give after professing their fondness for his work. “I know that’s a bit like saying ‘I love breathing,’ because if you love literature, it seems almost trite to verbalize loving Dickens, but I really do just adore him.”
She is smiling, and I am smiling back.
The conversation turns and weaves and tumbles, and each time we approach a fork in our curving route, we find ourselves traveling down the same prong of the path without a word or a nod or the consultation of a map to set us on the same course. It’s a discussion that could go on forever, having no definite beginning, middle, or end, and providing no opportunity for resolutions or eurekas. It’s just the shared thoughts of two people about something they love, and it wouldn’t even have a purpose, really, except that we have given it one.
Each of us wants to know the person sitting across the table from ourselves, the stranger with whom we agreed to sit down and have a meal, but direct questions seem premature, and somehow insufficient. Instead we talk about books, which happens to be, I discover, a deceptively revealing subject between two avid readers.
I hold on to books I have read; a shadow of every idea and every character resides deep inside of me, informing my own ideas and self. When I look out at the world, every image and experience is filtered through the thousands of little eyes behind mine, seeing what I see, because I have made them a part of me. When I talk about George Milton, or José Arcadio Buendía, or David Copperfield, I’m really talking about a part of myself. And so I feel a particular comfort, and thrill, when I forget to censor myself and say something silly, like, “I miss Owen Meany,” and Bromley sighs and tells me she misses him, too.
“I would be hard pressed to think of many books I like more than A Tale of Two Cities,” Bromley says, continuing on Dickens.
“Me, too,” I agree. “Absolutely.”
The topic is winding down, and I am eager to find the next thread. The words are suddenly tumbling out of me, and I can’t stop them. “Since we’re talking favorites, or I am, at any rate, why don’t we play Fahrenheit 451? Imagine it’s become reality, and all our favorite books are being relegated to the flames. Which one book would you commit to memory for the sake of posterity, and which would you feverishly shovel onto the pyre, screaming ‘Burn, you bastard, burn!’ at the top of your voice? You first!”
She looks at me, I’m not sure with what thoughts behind it, but it makes me feel warm.
We’ve finished Fahrenheit 451 and had a rousing rapid-fire discussion about the best first lines ever. I stand by “The clock struck thirteen;” she stands by “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I probably agree with her that it is the best first line, but my unwillingness to be so obvious prevents me from saying so.
I want her to stay stay stay, but it’s getting late, and she tells me so, in a way that suggests I might not have noticed, and because her presence is so enjoyable, I might not have, had the thought that eventually she would have to leave not crossed my mind so frustratingly often.
I walk her to the door, and I’m not sure if I should do one of those movie-things. Do I kiss her cheek? Do I ask for her number? Do I give her mine? No, she already has it.
“I had such a nice time talking to you,” she says, and she looks like she really did.
“Yeah, I feel the same way,” I say, and I am lost. What do I do? Are we supposed to see each other again, or was this one of those things that happens once and never again? I would say I’ll see you around, but the thing is, I won’t.
“Goodnight, Carter,” she says, and hops up on her tiptoes, taking hold of my upper arm for balance, and kisses my cheek. “Thank you for dinner.”
“Any time,” I say after her. She is walking down the steps, down the drive, to her car, getting in, waving. Goodbye.
Long after her scent is gone from the kitchen, I can still feel her hand on my arm and her lips against my cheek.