Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Have you noticed
that her face never moves?
Were she 2,000,
she would be a statue.
Were she 500,
she would be a painting.
Were she 50,
she would be a photo.
Were she alive,
she’d be dead.
March 7, 2009
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Have you noticed
that her face never moves?
Were she 2,000,
she would be a statue.
Were she 500,
she would be a painting.
Were she 50,
she would be a photo.
Were she alive,
she’d be dead.
March 7, 2009
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf Not long after my dad, Ralph Urban Schirf, passed away on July 28, 2001, in Altoona, Pennsylvania, at the age of 88, it occurred to me that I wanted to capture as many memories of … Continue reading →
Ten years or so ago, I took a class on journal writing. I think that was the topic (I may have taken a separate one on nature writing). One exercise was to describe our dream house.
This was an interesting idea to me because, as an introvert who had lived in a mobile home for 18 years, then a shared dorm room, then a shared apartment, then a rundown studio at the time of the class, my dream was not of a specific house or style, but simply to live in one like “normal” people. To have an upstairs and a downstairs — my favourite concept. To have an attic and a cellar and the mysteries those imply. To have a front yard and a back yard — private outdoor space. To have some accessories, like a gazebo and birdbaths. I would have been happy, however, in anything that could reasonably be called a house.
Yet when it came to writing this piece, which was intended to be an exercise in free writing, that is, writing what occurs to you as it occurs without any imposed structure or editing, I could not think of a dream house. I could think only of a dream home, deep in an old forest — an old forest like those that haunted my favourite fairy tales.
I don’t think I have what I wrote any more; if I do, it would be hard to find. I do remember the idea, however, because it’s the same idea I’ve always had, yesterday, today, tomorrow.
There is an ancient forest. The trees are tall. Their canopies touch each other and the sky, blocking it out. It may be midday up there and in the outer world, if there is one, but here it is an eerie, quiet twilight.
The forest floor smells earthy, damp, and rich with decay. It’s black and cool and soothing, teeming with life and the remnants of death. If you look closely, you can see the soil move as the living processes the dead in a cycle of untold age.
Nearby, a brook babbles along over rocks, occasionally turning into a miniature waterfall. The canopy is not so dense along the edges of the brook, so the water brokenly reflects the midday sun and clouds. Still, there are many shadows and still pools. Like the soil, the water is cool, just right for wading as long as you watch out for sharp rocks. One of the best places to stand is at the top of one of the miniature falls, looking down, or at the bottom of one, feeling the refreshing water splashing your feet and up against your legs. There are fish-shadows darting about, while water striders delicately walk the surfaces of the still areas and mating dragon- and damselflies buzz over the surface. Once in a while, a frog leaps in surprise in the wet grass along the edge. A large cloud passing by overhead occasionally covers everything with its shadow and a temporary chill.
Not far from the brook the forest becomes dense with brush that is hard to walk through. It opens into a younger woods, with a pleasant walking path. It is still shady, but the ground is sun dappled. There are whisperings and stirrings as small animals and birds move about, and a snake sprawls carelessly across the empty path, warming itself in the sun. The woods are mostly quiet, though, but they will become noisy later in the afternoon with bird and insect song.
Suddenly the woods open into a meadow of tall grasses and wildflowers, awash with sun. Older trees with short, thick trunks surround it; they have not had to struggle for light and air like their deep-forest counterparts. The grasses are perfect for lying among; they are cool and hide their refugees well.
In the southeast corner of the meadow there is a small stone house. The doors, one on each side, are made of dark, heavy, weathered timbers. The windows are small and leaded, making the inside of the house feel cool and somewhat dim, but shafts of sunlight form pools of heat on the worn wooden floors and colourful rugs. There is a deep, comfortable chair, pulled up to an open window. An insect hum from meadow fills the room, almost but not quite drowning out the running water nearby. Sometimes the sound of a woodpecker drumming floats into the open window, which also draws in the cool, flavorful air of late spring.
There are wood, knotty shelves filled with books everywhere. Some books are piled on the floor in a few places as though someone had just been studying them, but most are arranged on the shelves. Some are leaning over a bit on their neighbours, as though they are tired of not being picked up and read.
In the kitchen, the plates are made of pewter, which is dented and worn from use. An Aga cooker dominates the small room lined with dark wood cupboards. A tea kettle and teapot look as they have just been returned to their places.
There’s a tiny dining nook with a heavy table brightened by an erratic bouquet of wildflowers from the meadow and woods. Two places are set, but one chair is more worn than the other. A short, dark hallway leads to a little bedroom, soon to be darkened by the shadows of the trees that both overlook and guard it.
A door from the hallway opens onto a path that heads into the woods. Although it’s a clear path, it’s not an easy one as it goes on. It’s tempting to follow any of the many side trails and to get lost in the depths, which are dark and cool and tangled. No one has ever found the end of the main path — if there is one. No one has explored all of the side trails. They wait for someone to find what they lead to — lakes, mountains, valleys, vast vistas, fairy lands.
It’s just past midday now, and it won’t be long before the surrounding trees throw their shadows over the meadow, transforming it into a pool of vague menace. The deepening darkness brings with it the sound of life — birds and other animals torpid with heavy breakfasts and noontime warmth slowly roused and becoming restless with timeless urges as the evening and night approach. They chirp, chatter, and rustle in discrete phrases, always sounding alone and lonely.
And then it is night, under the watch of the virgin white full moon.
Right now, all over the world, a nearly infinite number of things are happening. Hawks pursue rabbits; factions make war; dust filters through the atmosphere; buildings burn; stars shine; children die. Things happen, and everything changes. No one can comprehend it all, only what we experience. Our limitations are our protection; in omniscience lies madness.
My thoughts rambled on during the train trip from Chicago to Ann Arbor. In my limited view from one of the train’s windows, it was a perfect, sunny mid-September day, and in the back of my mind I was looking forward to a weekend spent with friends. I gazed out the window, unable to focus on reading or the other usual train pursuits.
The Amtrak passenger train braked more suddenly than usual, throwing everyone slightly forward. It seemed a strange place to stop, in the middle of a crossing in Albion, Michigan. Sometimes passenger trains halt to allow their freight brethren to pass, but generally the delay takes place out of the way and doesn’t interfere with auto traffic. To me, sitting in the second car, just on the crossing, this stop felt different.
A couple in an auto waiting at the crossing got out and walked toward the train. I wondered why.
At first, the passengers continued their pursuits — chatting, reading, listening to music through earphones, eating, drinking, or staring out the window, perhaps thinking of what the end of the trip held — reunion with family, school, work. At last, however, the low buzz of activity and conversation heightened as more people noticed how unusually long the train had stopped. A few made joking comments. The uniformed personnel who generally bustle back and forth between the cars had all disappeared. There was no one to ask about the delay.
A rumor from the first car floated back to mine; the train had hit a person in a motorized wheelchair. A motorized wheelchair? What is the likelihood of a motorized wheelchair being in the crossing just when a train is coming? In a small town in Michigan? Then, what is the likelihood that someone would think up that particular scenario?
Someone must have been hit or hurt, or perhaps become seriously ill; a PA announcement requested that any medical professionals on the train make their way to the café car.
The Albion police and two ambulances arrived. The police quickly set up the yellow “Police Line — Do Not Cross” tape around the triangle bordered by the train’s first car and a half and the grassy area next to the crossing, using several convenient trees. Two young women, late ‘teens or early twenties, stood on the grass, hugging each other and crying. The couple from the auto and then the paramedics talked to them and tried uncomfortably to comfort them. I wondered if they had seen the accident, or if they knew the victim well. For a while, they sat on a curb next to the crossing, but at some point they must have left. I wondered if they would seek professional help.
The conductor walked through the train asking that people not open any of the outside doors. “It’s very morbid, believe me,” he said. I knew then that the medical professionals requested earlier were not for the accident victim, but for someone else.
Both ambulances were parked for at least an hour, lights flashing and paramedics walking about, but no one seemed to be doing anything; it all seemed very disorganized and haphazard, almost dreamlike. Finally, both ambulances left, leaving only the police and what were most likely witnesses as well as the invariable spectators. By now, even the couple in the auto had driven off.
For a long time, the police wandered around aimlessly, at least to my inexperienced eyes. One man, sporting long hair and civilian clothes, talked to nearly everyone else, including the police and witnesses, although his role was unclear. He gestured and pointed quite a bit. He remained on the scene during the entire investigation. Other people noticed him as well and wondered who he was.
Meanwhile, the people on the train were becoming impatient. The man across from me spoke of a birthday party in Dearborn he was to attend, schedule for 6 p.m. Two women in front of me were going to two separate wedding showers. When they discovered their purpose in traveling was identical, even though the destinations weren’t, they fell into a deep conversation.
Some of the police began to board my car and walk toward the back, returning to the front and exiting a few minutes later. It occurred to me that they were probably using the lavatory. A crowd had gathered in the foyer between the first and second cars, and the police and conductors had to make their way through them. I didn’t see any reason for the convention, other than to be in the way or to see something of the action. They were a chatty, laughing group.
As the quarter hours, half hours, and hours passed, the passengers became more restless and agitated, wondering how long it would be before the train would be allowed to move on. A very young police officer told our car that the area was considered a “crime scene” and that they could not allow people off the train to contaminate the integrity of the scene. The photographers and others still needed to do their work. They were working as quickly as they could, he said, but could not make any promises about when the train would be released. I wondered what the “crime” was.
I overheard that we were waiting for another engineer to arrive; the train’s engineer was too traumatized to continue. I wasn’t surprised. I’d read before that train engineers involved in accidents suffered trauma long afterwards. Imagine seeing that you are about to hit someone and that that person is about to die. This probably has happened to many an auto driver, but without the surety of death, nor the particularly grisly qualities of a collision between train and human. Most likely only an engineer who has experienced that sickening moment fully understands the trauma and its reasons.
The passengers I heard talking didn’t say much about the victim or the circumstances. Most felt primarily inconvenienced and talked about why with people nearby. Some complained that no one from either Amtrak or the police was providing us with necessary information about when the trip was to resume. There was a rush toward the train’s only phone; one person came back and said offhandedly to anyone listening, “Don’t even think of trying to get to the phone.” “There a line?” one man asked. “Is there ever!”
Outside, the sun continued to create the perfect day. I looked out the window, forward, and for the first time noticed a motorized wheelchair. The police must have put it there within the last half hour. Next to it lay something covered in white. I must have reacted; the man across from me asked me if I’d seen something. “No, not really,” I answered. I didn’t want him or anyone else to talk about what lay under the white. I tried not to look at it, but it was directly in my line of my vision. I saw it and thought, “Only a couple of hours ago, that was a person, maybe going somewhere, just like I am, just like we all are. No more. Just lying there, an object for investigation.”
The police walked around the wheelchair and the body. A photographer appeared and took several photos of the site, including the wheelchair. Another lifted the white material as well — from the other side — and snapped several shots from several angles. The majority of people on the train were unaware of the grisly proceedings.
The man across from me opened a plastic bottle of diet soda. I was thirsty, too, but it seemed disrespectful to satisfy that living desire in the presence of recent death.
On the corner parallel to the train and the crossing, a small herd of boys on bicycles gathered. Each stood poised over his bicycle’s seat, watching the proceedings. It must have been at least 3:30 or 4:30 by then. School was out.
Another police officer boarded the train. He quietly asked the first few people some questions and seemed to disbelieve their answers. He looked around and asked loudly and a little plaintively, “Didn’t anyone see anything?,” as though he couldn’t believe what he had heard. The passengers looked at each other in puzzlement. How could people sitting in the second car be expected to see what must have happened at the front of the train? A young policewoman joined him; they asked each passenger for his or her name, date of birth, address, and phone number, as well as if he or she had seen anything and how fast the train was going at the time of the accident. This last question seemed pointless to me. A train’s speed is very deceptive; usually they are traveling much faster than it feels to the passengers. I suspect the answers ranged from five mph to 70 mph — all subjective guesses and not very reliable in determining exactly what happened. My own estimate was 15-20 — but I would not swear to that.
People continued to be increasingly restless. Another rumor began circulating — that the train was going to back up to the last station, which was quite a way back, so the police could get clearer photographs and drawings. The complaints began again. “I’ve got a better idea — why don’t we move forward?” Not too long after, the train started backing up, and several passengers began groaning. I watched the wheelchair and the white-covered mass recede before me.
The train did not back up to the last station, but just far enough to be out of the way of the police and probably most of the crossings. The passengers became louder as more and more talked to each other. A series of conversations unrelated to the accident arose as people found out where their neighbors were from, where they were traveling to, and why. The little mob in the front of the car continued to banter and laugh. I kept thinking of the shape lying a few blocks ahead.
Eventually, the engineer arrived, and the police cleared the train to leave. From Albion to Ann Arbor was a fast, uneventful journey; I arrived at 6, about four or five hours late. By then, the day’s bright sunlight was muted with the oncoming night. Later, my friends took me to dinner and then to a nostalgic toy store. Even then, I couldn’t help thinking of the white-covered figure and what it might have been doing had it not been for bad timing — or, perhaps, from its perspective, the timing had been perfect. And how it would never see another bright mid-September day. I thought such thoughts until they became too painful, too overwhelming. I could not think them for the millions of others who died that day. I cannot think them now.
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
For some reason, it seemed to me that Territorial Woman should have filled my quota for encounters of the mundane yet strange kind — at least for this trip. I was, as usual, mistaken. Sometimes one is, indeed, in a groove. This time, at least, it wasn’t my seat mate. Not that it was an improvement.
For the return trip to Chicago, I had a very definite plan for how I wanted to spend my time on the train. I had two goals — to write and to drink lots of beer — the first because I was trying to work some things out in my mind and the second because I was thirsty and beer suddenly sounded good.
After showing my ticket and ascertaining that I really did have my own seat not shared by luggage or by ego (and a seat mate who was detraining in Pittsburgh — a mere three hours from Altoona), I once again took myself to the dinette, looking forward to a quiet and productive evening of writing and drinking — two activities that, in the history of modern literature, seem all too often to go together.
The train itself was not as crowded as it had been the previous weekend (Memorial Day) and the dinette was mostly empty. It’s surprising how people, bored with spending hours on the train, will manage to convince themselves that 9 p.m. is a good time to go to sleep — just to kill the tedium. After all, at night, the train is darkened, and there’s nothing to see out the window — no scenery; only the occasional parking lot spotlight from a warehouse or the lights at the train crossing. When trying to sleep, you soon get used to the train’s persistent whistle at every small-town crossing — as well as the murmurings of people traveling together who insist on chattering into the night. With the semi-darkness, the slightly disturbed quiet, the background rumbling, the lurching of the train passing over points, and the splayed legs of sleepers dangling in each car’s aisles, train travel at night borders on the surreal.
Only the usual handful of night owls were in the dinette, plus a few members of the crew. I picked the last table and settled in to write and to quench.
It went well for about a half hour — both creativity and beer. This was going to seem like a short trip. Or so I thought.
I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on around me. People passed back and forth intermittently to get food or drink from the attendant. Every now and then, a crew radio would sputter. An older member of the crew was trying to train a young member on some finer points of train lingo.
I noticed that a man, perhaps in his 50s, wearing a homespun-type blue shirt and suspenders and sporting a long beard, had taken the table across from mine. The Amish and Mennonites frequently travel on this particular train, and I assumed he was an Amish or Mennonite farmer. I had a fleeting, irrational thought about being a little embarrassed being seen drinking beer — as though I should be ashamed at engaging in an activity that he might see as immoral. I did say it was irrational. It also did not last long.
“Do you like writing? I hate writing. I don’t even write letters.”
I looked. There was no one else around. This was clearly aimed in my direction.
“Yes.” Having satisfied the man’s curiousity, I went back to it.
“Are you a writer?” Apparently, there was more to his curiousity.
“No, not really.” I plowed back into it again, hoping that my burning need to pen would be obvious. It wasn’t.
“What do you do?”
I began giving up. “I’m an employee benefits communications consultant.”
“Oh . . . what’s that?”
“We write and design materials to help employees understand things like their retirement and health care benefits better.”
“You must like to write. Not me.”
“I’ve been up for a couple of days, taking trains.”
I set the pen down. There was no escaping.
“Yep, I spent the other night in the bus station in New York.”
“Some people told me it gets dangerous after a certain time and that I should be careful.”
“I think they were right. Really late, all these people showed up.” He lowered his voice. “Men who like men and women who prefer other women.”
Wisely, I thought, I chose not to expand his vocabulary.
“Anyway, I think I’m going to go to Sea World in Cleveland. I like Sea World. I’ve been to the one in San Diego. And to the zoo in San Diego, which is a really good zoo. Have you ever been to Sea World?”
“No . . .”
“I like Sea World. I like going to all kinds of different places.”
“Where are you from?”
“Chicago. I’m from western New York, but I’m in Chicago now.”
“I’m thinking of going to Chicago.”
“I was told I should visit this one area where there’s a lot of night life. But I can’t remember what it’s called.”
“Yes, it’s a street downtown. Or north of downtown. Is it dangerous? I want to know ahead of time if it’s dangerous.”
“Do you mean Rush Street?”
“Yes, that’s it. Is it dangerous?”
“I don’t really know. I don’t go there much. Probably not any more than anywhere else.”
“You could probably teach me a lot.”
“I doubt it.”
“Can I sit with you? Or am I bothering you since you’re trying to write?”
My passive nature asserted itself. “Go ahead.” I figured he seemed harmless, if annoying. I never was very good at figuring.
He picked up his food and coffee and sat across from me.
“Are you sure I’m not bothering you?”
“Ummm.” I hoped it sounded more noncommital than negative.
“Now you say something.”
“I don’t have anything to say.” It had occurred to me fairly early in this conversation that we didn’t have much in common. “Where are you from?”
“Indiana. A pig farm in Indiana.”
Our common interests were not increasing.
“Pig farms really smell, you know. One lady came and went in with the pigs and the smell got into her hair. Her hair smelled like pigs the rest of the time.”
“Yes, I can imagine . . . I’m a volunteer at the zoo, and if you go into the large mammal house, you do tend to absorb the odours.” I realised this was my longest effort of the evening. I wasn’t sure that it was a good thing to have glommed onto animals’ bodily odours as a bond.
“What do you mean, volunteer?”
“Oh, lead tours, give talks, and things like that. Once a week. On Sundays.”
“Oh . . . you have really beautiful hair.”
“If you went in with the pigs, it would smell, just like that other lady’s did.”
Well. “Just like it does at the large mammal house. The smell comes out.”
“Ah. Hi, there!” This was directed to a man in a stretched tshirt passing by.
“I met his wife, too. I like to talk.” (Really, I hadn’t noticed.) “She’s got real nice hair, too. Wears it in one of those things you pull it back with.” He made some gestures near his own bald head. I finally figured out he meant a hairband. “Do you ever wear yours like that?”
“Hey, there she is! Hi!”
A woman with thick, dark, wavy hair pulled back under a hair band stopped at the table. She said, “Oh, you found someone to talk to.” She smiled at me somewhat pityingly, but with a tolerant smile. It was not reassuring.
“Yep. This is that guy’s wife.” Somehow, I had already deduced that.
“Hi,” I said. There didn’t seem to be much else I could add. She said, “Hi” and then went to get food.
“I’ve been talking to her. She’s really nice.”
“Do you have any kids?”
“No.” By now, my ability to figure was increasing. Maybe it was the little red flags going up.
“Oh, too bad. Kids are a really good thing. Where are your parents?”
“My dad’s in Pennsylvania; my mother’s dead.”
“When did she die?”
“When I was 21.”
“You can’t be much older than that now.”
Here we had clearly crossed the line of credulity. “Oh, yes, I can. I’m almost 36.”
“Do you have a husband?”
I wasn’t aware I should, but I said no.
“You really do have the most beautiful hair. Is it natural, or do you perm it?”
“You’re probably pretty picky about boyfriends.”
“Am I bothering you? Do you want to write?”
Yes and yes. But I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
“You shouldn’t deprive all those poor men who want to be your boyfriend.”
I didn’t recall saying anything about depriving anybody of anything. I’d been sipping my beer. Now I took a slug.
“Do all your boyfriends like to stroke your beautiful hair? Do you slap them when they do?”
“Do you let them?”
This time, I didn’t answer. I picked up the pen absentmindedly.
He took a sip of his coffee, which he said was cold. He then asked, “What are you drinking, if you don’t mind my asking? Is that beer?”
“Yep,” I admitted, guiltily. I took another slug to hide the guilt.
“Coffee smells so good.”
“Well, it smells better than it tastes.”
“I really like the smell of beer, too. Does it taste as good as it smells?”
“I don’t think it smells particularly good, so I can’t answer that.”
“Mind if I smell your beer?”
“Uh . . . okay.”
He took a rapturous sniff of the stuff.
“It smells so good.”
“If you say so.”
“Can I smell it again?”
In all, he whiffed my beer three or four times, each time looking happier and happier. The little tune of “Simple Gifts” came in to my head.
“If I keep smelling your beer and get high and pass out in the aisle, would you pick me up?”
“Would you even say you know me?”
“No. Well, anyway, I have to make a phone call.” Technically speaking, I didn’t have to make a phone call, but I had been planning to, and at the moment this seemed like a really good time.
“Oh. Well, maybe I’ll talk to you later.” And maybe not . . .
After my call, I emerged cautiously from the booth and looked around. No sign of him. I ordered another beer.
Later, I noticed an attractive young man in his late 20s or early 30s talking to the dinette attendant and I wondered what a chat with him would be like. He didn’t seem to wonder the same about me, however, athough he did look once or twice. He eventually sat with another young man and they began an animated conversation. Suddenly, the words “marital infidelity” and laughter drifted through the air from their table.
Of all the conversation companions I could have had on this trip, I end up with Hair Man. Next time, it’s Marital Infidelity Men or bust . . .
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Traveling by train is a gamble — it can be tedious and torturous, or amusing and entertaining. Mostly it depends on your traveling companion. I always travel alone, but whether it’s my neighbour in the adjoining seat or someone in the lounge car, I usually meet someone. My interactions with such people have varied from barely polite to warm, almost friendly. As I said, it’s a gamble.
This particular trip was not the exception. I should have known by its auspicious beginnings.
On the way to Pennsylvania from Chicago, my seatmate was a woman of late middle age and questionable intelligence. As I waited for her to move her belongings from my side to hers (apparently, she never did notice the convenient overhead luggage rack), I regretted my place in the queue that had doomed to me to sitting in seat 47.
“You’re probably not going very far,” she observed hopefully. In her eyes, I could see her plans to move her luggage back to my side before my seat had even had a chance to cool.
“I’m going to Altoona.”
“Oh! That’s not far. I’m going all the way to Pennsylvania!”
I decided against pointing out that Altoona is in Pennsylvania and to let the length of my stay on the train remain a mystery. She continued to probe subtly, but I was unmoved. In frustration, she dug out a portable tape player and began trying to ram a tape into it. I watched, eyebrows arched.
“It’s my husband’s,” she explained. “Darn it! I can’t figure out how this works!”
“Here. Let me.” I put the tape in (facing the correct way) and pushed the play button. Nothing happened. “I think your batteries are dead.” This was both a comment on the tape player and a personal observation. As I suspected, she didn’t get it. “See? Nothing’s moving. This tells me the batteries are dead.”
“Well, I told you it’s my husband’s. I don’t know anything about it.”
“If the batteries were okay, these things would be moving.”
“Oh. Well, I give up.”
This made sense to me. The conductor having collected my ticket, I picked up my computer and shoulder bags and headed out to the dinette for the better light and space, not to mention my primary fuel — coffee. An hour and a half later, about 11:30 p.m., I returned to find that my seat mate had again indulged in ancestral territorial behavior by moving all of her bags to my side. I gently woke her up.
“Oh. I didn’t think you were coming back.” She grudgingly and groggily moved all of her bags. Except for one, which insisted on being in my way. I gave it a nudge and settled back. For once, I fell asleep quickly and deeply on the train. Life was good.
Until, a very short time later, my seat mate began crawling over me. Apparently, nature couldn’t call when I had returned from the dinette and was awake. No, nature chose to wait half an hour and then was very insistent. I was on my guard after that. The watchfulness ruined my sleep.
The next morning, my seat mate (strange that it never occurred to me to ascertain her name) seemed surprised that I was still there, since we had crossed the border into mythical Pennsylvania. Apparently, she thought I would be long gone. She eyed her bags ruefully as she realized they were doomed to stay under her feet for yet awhile longer. She hinted again that I might consider making my trip as short as possible. Unfortunately, Altoona had not shifted significantly westward during the night, although I wasn’t going to point that out. I made for the dinette. I needed coffee to fortify me for the coming ordeal.
Unfortunately, coffee was not the cure for this particular affliction. When I came back, she waited until I was sitting down, then asked me where the lounge was and if they had hot food. I curtly indicated the direction from which I had just returned and said I thought so. I got up so she could get out. This aspect was clearly a game. I was weary of it.
She returned with a pizza. I hid my amazement as she inhaled it at 10 in the morning. I had barely swallowed my own cheese danish, which seemed much too heavy a meal after a night of half-sitting, half-reclining. I was in awe. Or disgust.
Sated, she dug out the tape player. Aha, it occurred to me — the dinette car attendant had foolishly sold her batteries. I cringed as she dug out tapes and pushed buttons randomly, trying to figure out how the darn thing worked. But that was nothing compared to what followed. With eyes closed rapturously, she began humming — tunelessly. She could have been listening to Lawrence Welk or Ozzy Osbourne for all I could tell. To see if I had noticed this latest ploy, she periodically opened her eyes, mid-note, and glanced at me somewhat surreptitiously. I say “somewhat” because it was not altogether successful. I had indeed noticed. At this point, her desire to drive me away was no greater than mine to escape.
As in a movie, the train plunged into a tunnel. The tunnel at Cresson. The tunnel at Cresson within a half hour of Altoona. As a train man began a short historical lecture about the eastern continental divide, the tunnel, and the Horseshoe Curve, I relaxed. I knew I was close to freedom. I didn’t share that with my seat mate. Her first and only clue was when I collected my bags and sweater and swept toward the exit at the front of the car. She muttered a “goodbye” and looked after me a bit wistfully. Her triumph did not seem to bring her much joy.
She did, however, immediately begin piling her bags in the area of the now-vacant seat . . .
Not joy. Contentment.
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Where do you want to go today?”
The perfectly modulated voice spoke over a scene of perfect children in a perfect classroom.
Stupid question. Stupid, stupid question. Where do I want to go? Everywhere, anywhere.
Where can I go? Somewhere, nowhere. Where am I going to go? The same place.
Stupid commercial. Stupid, open-ended question. Unlimited answers, limitless possibilities. Only one practical answer.
Where do I want to go today?
Anywhere but where I am going.
To work. To home. To work again. Nowhere else. Time and space flowing forward in one unchanging, unalterable dimension. No tides, no currents, no eddies. Fluid time and space trapped in a featureless void.
” . . . partly sunny this morning, with thunderstorms, possibly severe, expected by late afternoon or early evening.”
Clouds gathering before a storm. To cause it? Or for self-defense? Partly sunny before; partly cloudy after. A partly partly world.
“Can’t buy me love-no no no-NO!”
I hit the button. Want to go today? No. Have to go today? Today, yesterday, and tomorrow. I slid up painfully. The partly cloudy part of partly sunny seized my lower back.
How do you feel today?
The pain in my back will fade with movement until it’s a slow pulse reminding me I’m alive, then metamorphose into a reminding jab.
“I’m in love with you and I feel fine.”
No, no, no. That’s not right. That’s not how it works.
I made coffee. It steeped 20 minutes while I forgot about it. It steeped another 10 minutes while the pain in my back and the pain in my head compared notes to enhance each other’s efficacy. I took a warm sip and added milk. I took a cool sip.
Time to go today. To the office. No partly sunny, no partly cloudy. No storms. No barometric changes. No measurable changes. No underlying changes.
I wore grey. Mostly cloudy. A lingering storm.
“Good morning.” Like yesterday. Greeting, wish, or statement? All bus drivers believe every morning is good, or wish it so. Good or evil?
“Morning.” Statement. Grudging. It is morning. Where do you want to go this morning? A morning like every other morning. Partly something. Same thing. Partly same thing. Always same thing.
I took my card back. I would need it tomorrow to exchange for a good morning. “Can’t buy me love.” Can’t buy a good morning. Can’t buy a morning.
Trees and lake and parked cars and half-grown buildings blurred by. How they saw me and my mount remains, unfortunately, unrecorded.
“Morning.” I smirked in return-not the correct response, according to my manager’s widening nostrils, revealing a theatre of hairy inhabitants.
“We were looking for you,” her lips articulated. I stared at them and their arrogance. When do I want to go today? Not before my arrival was due.
“What’s up?” What’s up that couldn’t wait for nine o’clock, normal business hours, me?
“Oh, we’re having problems with a disk.”
And couldn’t be bothered to bother with tech support. Much easier to look for me, to wait for me, to gripe at me. Where did she want to go today?
Where do I want to go today?
This isn’t it.
This isn’t it.
“Okay, I’ll look at it.” After I take a leak. I have to go.
“It’s really not a big deal.”
Of course not. That’s why you were lurking in wait.
to be continued — maybe.
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Inside the closet the air is chilly, as though it were coming through a gateway from the place where the past is buried. A lifetime’s accumulation of old clothes hang and lie there — yellowed cotton shirts, pants with torn seams, dresses faded like old women with age and wear and washing. The flotsam of years of living washed up in one place.
The closet is in an inside wall, and it is at least 10 degrees colder than the bedroom.
The colder air seems to flow over her memories, stirring them up. There is the dress worn under the graduation gown on the day when youth and security are pushed aside to make room for the unknown and unplanned future of adulthood. This was the day when the future that had loomed since birth comes as a surprise. This was the moment when she sensed that she was about to take the center stage of her life. This was the moment every laugh, every tear had been leading up to. The rehearsals were over; this was opening night.
And then the dawning realization and growing certainty that now she was just another responsible grownup, looking and acting and maybe even feeling like all the other responsible grownups, with all the specialness of childhood sacrificed to the conformity of maturity, another generic face and name, another unheard voice, another undistinguished member of the chorus continuing the time-honored tradition of producing more generations of aching sameness and disappointment, dressed differently and thinking alike always of tomorrow but never of next year.
There is the pastel blue and pink of the bridesmaid’s recollection before the happy couples for whom she stood acquired mortgages, minivans, and assorted children in various stages of expensive yet unnecessary orthodontia treatment. Before the happy couples threw themselves, no turning back, into the effort to become even more average than their neighbors, changing jobs, changing addresses, changing climates, trading cramped suburban subdivisions for sprawling suburban subdivisions with big plastic homes on tiny plots of land, exchanging blizzards for hurricanes, clinging to the rock of evolving traditions and the facade of piety to anchor and protect them in the waves and winds formed from their own uncertain discontent.
There is the windup musical Ferris wheel, with its four limb-less riders, three children and one dog, operated by the same sneering middle-aged man who hasn’t aged a day in 40 years of mindlessly pushing the wheel around. A song that has the power to evoke a simplicity of feeling that never existed starts up, plays, slows down, and begins all over again, never changing cadence, only speed. Meanwhile,the operator wears a mask of contempt because he knows now what the children will know soon enough (although the fortunate dog will be spared). Today’s Ferris wheel of fun and innocent joy will soon become a life’s wheel of dreary repetition, with the same patterns appearing over and over, at the top and at the bottom. Hope followed by despair followed by flatness, buoyed by hope, sunk by despair, evened by flatness, but never so evenly as in a turning wheel. Brief hope, long anguish, the ascent and fall, the shorter ascents and shorter falls, shorter and shorter, until acceptance that there is no reason to ascend again, that the body and mind are both exhausted, that at the end there can be only the utter weariness and utter peace of descending, of falling, of letting go. Perhaps because he knows that the only real direction is downward, the direction each person is pointed in even at the moment of birth.
There are the photo albums remorselessly documenting discrete moments in hundreds of lives for dozens of years. Some people and events are known; many are strange or forgotten. There are wedding photos, baby photos, bathing photos, nude photos, eating photos, birthday party photos, day trip photos, vacation photos, school activity photos, friends photos, garden photos, neighborhood photos, graduation photos. There are no death photos in the albums, although they exist, hidden away, for those who need to preserve every moment of a life, even when it is gone and only the failed mechanism remains, even now continuing what began at birth — breaking down, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, New York to Tripoli, Tripoli to Jakarta, wherever dust may drift, maybe long after the photograph has faded from existence. Joined with the elements of the earth, the photo and the body perhaps someday will be reunited by the winds, the winds that blow over a dead planet as easily as a living one.
What of the brides in the photos? Some of them face the future with a warm smile of eager anticipation, seeming sure of all the things they will lose or never have — health; money; prosperity; happy children; a secure home; a purposeful life; the same man by their side in 50, 60, or 70 years as the one standing next to them in their today. There is no reflection in the shine of their clear eyes of what will happen. There are no arguments, no brutal beatings, no drunken binges, no nights spent alone wondering why? or why not?, no one-night or three-week or seven-month stands, no car accidents, no falls, no miscarriages, no threats, no suicides, and no end in sight except the inevitable.
Other brides look into the lens of the future somberly, even angrily. They seem to witness a future filled with misfortune, woe, mundane unhappiness, violence, boredom, and grief. A future bereft of love or even a single moment of spontaneous joy. How many of these sober women would find that their marriages did not live up to the appalling expectations their grim expressions anticipate?
There are the dingy stuffed animals hurriedly thrown into a plastic trash bag for moving and storage, heads and tails and limbs entwined or mashed randomly against one another. When the blue camel was young and bright, it lay sprawled on its floppy legs in a position of pride on the child’s narrow bed. At 13 or so, she had seen it in a store while shopping with her mother and had mentioned that it was cute. It reappeared later that year, its irregular form carefully wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree. “I didn’t know what to get you, and you’d said it was cute,” her mother told her, almost apologetically.
Perhaps her mother was remembering the time, years before this, when the daughter, then a little girl, wistfully yearned for a toy she’d seen on television. When it arrived, the little girl screamed and cried until worn out, then fell into a deep sadness because the toy, adorable as it was, did not talk and giggle and make animated faces like the one on TV. It could not be her friend. If the daughter learned that day that the world is a cheat that only the imagination can cure, the mother discovered the heartbreak of disappointing a child she wanted only to please. Things were never the same between them again.
The daughter thanks the mother politely for the camel, but senses that she is supposed to have outgrown such toys. The mother realizes it was not the ideal gift but doesn’t know what else to do. It has been a long time since she was 13 years old, and the world has changed so much since then, when she herself was grateful for any acknowledgment, any small gift — a feeling she still has.
Today, decades later, the camel is a faded, dusty, dirty but much-loved symbol of the daughter’s painful realization that her mother loved her and received only impatience and indifference in return. It is too late to apologize for her selfishness and to purge its taint from both their memories, for one memory is no more, so the other must carry the burden forever.
If the blue camel is a reminder of childhood and adolescent passages, the absence of the bright red squirrel (or was it a skunk?) is proof that happiness, or at least simple contentment, lasts no longer than a belief in the tooth fairy, Easter bunny, or Santa.
Her brother gave her the red squirrel some time before her transformation into a teenager. It was precious in the way all stuffed animals are to a lonely little girl; it had friendly eyes and a happy expression. Its nose fell off several times and was finally lost, but what does a nose mean to a bright red squirrel or its young owner, who loves the soft thing with passion because it has the personality she would wish it to have.
It did not have a plush body, but what it did have was a broad tail full of long, streaming white fur — a tail that was made for petting. And pet it she did, obsessively, for hours, as though each stroke assured her that she was loved enough to deserve petting and cuddling herself.
That Christmas, she took the squirrel (or was it a skunk?) with her family as they drove around wealthier neighborhoods than theirs to see the Christmas lights, holding it up so it could get a better view and enjoying the feel of the soft, furry tail like a living thing against her hand and face.
She does not know when or how the squirrel (or was it a skunk?) disappeared. Perhaps when she left for college, she looked on it with the disdain of youth and threw it out, along with other things that she would now pay dearly to have back. Maybe her mother, thinking she’d outgrown it anyway, gave it to her young cousin when she visited. She likes to think that this is what happened, for it would have been loved and cared for a little longer. Still, she can’t help missing it, knowing there will be nothing like the magical trip with the red squirrel (or was it a skunk?) among the Christmas lights again.
There is the little baby book, earnestly begun when she was born, but never updated beyond the first round of inoculations; it’s almost as though her parents had lost interest in their newborn miracle. Taped to the inside front cover is a lock of fine baby’s hair, a curious dark blonde in color. It’s strange to her to think that this grew up on her head decades ago. It looks like it belongs to someone else, to a happier, friendlier, more beautiful child, one who could make friends instantly with a winning combination of smiles, charm, and chortles and break hearts just as quickly with carefully timed tears.
On a high shelf is the old ViewMaster, at least as old as she is, perhaps older. It is slightly cloudy with age, but the images remain three dimensional, even the two-dimensional cartoon characters. There are tours of caverns filled with stalactites (she remembers the name because they hold “tight” to the ceiling) and stalagmites. Tiny human figures — tiny humans dressed in strangely dated tourist outfits point excitedly at the artificially illuminated wonders of nature and time.
There are reels of Niagara Falls from its heyday as a honeymoon destination. It could be the same tourists from the caves peering over the rails around Goat Island as the Niagara River plunges into the gorge while the captain of the Maid of the Mist powers her to the base of the falls, cuts her motor, and lets her be repelled by the force of hundreds of thousands of gallons of plummeting water. The same tourists wearing the same tourist costumes, the standard shirts and shorts, like today’s tourist costumes, only somehow dated by the cut and the colors.
Mostly they are figures at a long or medium distance, but it is not hard to guess there are no five-year-old boys with pierced ears, mullet cuts, or tattoos among them. The children in these photos are 55 years old now, maybe even 60 or 65. Maybe some are dead, killed by drugs, alcohol, cholesterol, accidents, diseases that no one then knew about. Some are now parents and grandparents, shepherding their own sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters, not to Niagara Falls, which is dated like the clothes, dated and passŽ, but to Disneyland or Disney World, or Six Flags Great America, to places where the majesty and wonder of nature have been replaced, or displaced, by the excitement and thrill of artificiality, where the attractions are plastic rides and plastic people, people with fake heads and hands and feet meant to give the illusion of fantasy, but which only prevent the somehow dangerous contact of warm human flesh.
There is a painted serving tray designed for tourists to remind her that her mother’s father once visited Disneyland. He left behind the tray along with the ViewMaster reels of the California redwoods. She could spend the salary earned during a week or two to visit California again; for her grandfather, freed through widowerhood and the adulthood of his many children, his trip to the West Coast was a hard-earned, once-in-a-lifetime dream experience. Except for the reels and the tray, she doesn’t know what else may survive of his trip. He has been dead for more than 40 years, since a time she was too young to remember, and he left little of himself behind, only a few photos and no memories.
She has not traveled to many places, but she has traveled more than her grandfather could. She has souvenirs, mostly postcards and knickknacks, but they are 50 years newer and are neither quaint nor interesting. She meant to give most of them away upon her return, but there they are, 10 years and more later. She wonders if her nieces will find them someday and think them old-fashioned and intriguing. Most likely, they will glance at them and toss them as old junk.
She remembers her father when he reached the age at which hard decisions have to be made about what is important and what to keep, a point at which he kept only some clothes, a lamp, a clock, and the few necessities that the bare, incomplete human form requires for well-being and comfort. He, who had grown up poor; he, who knew that poverty was only as far away as a blip in the economy; he, who refused to throw away even rusty nails and threadbare screws — he was the one who began disposing of nearly everything he owned, everything he had acquired, with a soul-freeing abandon. He rid himself of it all — his home, his car, his tools, even most of his clothes.
When he was reduced to half a shared room in assisted living, he even gave up the one possession to which he had devoted thousands of hours, the one possession that had connected him to the world that he could not afford to travel even before his health declined — his television, which she still has and never watches.
When he died many years later, it took only a half hour to pack up his half of the room — the same amount of time it would have taken him as a boy to pack the room that he shared with one of his many brothers.
She notices that the room has become darker and colder with the coming of evening, and inside the closet is darker and colder still. In the semi-darkness she searches for something she knows is there, something that is not of the past but of the present, something that she bought for herself but never used. The box is starting to collect dust, like everything else, but inside lies something that in the dimming light still gleams, something free of all association with the past.
A few minutes later, the closet is warmer than it has ever been, warmer and wet, warmer and warmer as the gateway on the past slowly closes.
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
I could feel his body next to mine, hot, clinging, damp, reassuring. Almost instinctively, I pulled away into the void, slowly, quietly, so he wouldn’t notice the abrupt coolness of my absence. He continued to lay silently, facing the slanting wall on the other side of the room, perhaps dreaming of hope and shadowy sunlight and days of tomorrow, and trying to shut out life in this house.
If only I knew who he was and why I was holding him.
“The house has changed some since last you were here,” the elderly woman said. She had always been here, too, just like him. She pointed out the details in the wainscoting and the height of the impossibly large entryway. “It’s lighter and airier. The owner had work done.”
Even now, I could feel the house changing, altering, keeping ahead of me. Nothing seemed familiar from my childhood’s summer visits.
“What about the library?” I asked. I sounded shaky and tentative, even to myself. When I returned to campus, I would take a week or two off to rest, maybe catch up on correspondence, maybe sleep.
“The library?” she repeated. “Yes, that always was your favorite room. You’ll be able to find it. Dinner is at six.” The unuttered “sharp” hung in the still air, even after she left.
“All right. Thanks.” Annoyed, yet relieved, I picked up my briefcase and turned slowly around the hallway. Its wood-framed perfection of whiteness made my eyes vibrate. This must be one of the more recent changes she’d mentioned.
How long it took me to find the library I cannot say. In those days I rarely wore a watch, and the house itself was arrogant in its timelessness. Like me, it sported no timepiece. Like me, it had nowhere to go.
The house hid its jewel well; despite the many happy summer months I’d roamed the house’s halls and rooms as a child, my “favorite,” as she’d called it, eluded me for some time. I wandered randomly, with no sense of direction, looking through every window I found. On one side, trees closed in against the panes, with distilled sunlight seeking gaps among the midsummer’s broad, dark-green, wind-curled leaves. I couldn’t see anything through them, but I remembered, or thought I did, a street. I had no idea what lay across the street, or even what the street looked like. I’d arrived after midnight, when all I could see were a few clear star points through sharp leaf tips. How could I not remember something like that? Had I forgotten? Or had I never noticed what lay outside?
I could see that all the windows were closed, yet the air was cool and fresh in all the rooms I ventured into, as though they had not been shut up for months, perhaps longer. Yet no one lived here. I couldn’t hear anything from outside — no leaves rustling, no birdsong, no children, no traffic. Nothing. Just the small sounds an old house makes as it slowly settles into the ground. The silence that should have been soothing made my head ache.
This must be the east side of the building; I crossed the long hall and entered a tiny room with very narrow windows, almost like medieval arrow slits. Instantly I thought of some legendary figure, perhaps a Robin Hood, peering through them, taking aim, defending self, home, and hearth from outsiders . . . they were surprisingly clean; I couldn’t believe the old woman could keep up a huge place like this so immaculately without some help. I couldn’t. Yet I had seen nothing of anyone else, and I had neither seen nor heard her since we’d parted. It was such a large house, though . . . larger than I thought, larger than I remembered. It seemed strange to me — whenever I had returned to my old grammar school to visit one of my favorite teachers, everything that had seemed so large and imposing to my childish eyes appeared small, almost diminutive, to my adult vision, almost as though the water fountains and lockers had been built for another race of tiny beings. Of course, I knew that I had changed, grown larger and taller; the school was the same now as it had always been, with only a few minor updates. Not this house. It loomed over me as though I had not grown feet in stature and years in maturity and experience. It was different; I was not.
A large, slightly sloping field appeared, with a few worn, gray outbuildings typical of the country scattered here and there among the high grasses, shrubs, and young trees. Everything was a dark, rich green as though it had been a very wet spring here; when I looked up through the slit, I saw clouds breezing in, quickly diffusing the light and changing the shape and hue of the scene, washing out the colors. I leaned against the wall a little weakly; why had I expected a thickly wooded hillside leading up to the house and snugly embracing it? When had dreams merged with memory to obliterate reality?
The library continued to lure me like the first lover of youth, the lover one always thinks of fondly once years and experience have wiped away the tarnish of pain and polished the shine of joy. When I’d stayed here in the past, I had felt the pull of the lovely countryside and the need to explore it and to find out if it was as boundless as it appeared to my young eyes and imagination fired by myth. Always, though — always the library called me back to it, over and over again, every day for hours, calling me with the impatience and insistence and hunger of a selfish young lover. I remembered rarely leaving it, only to eat and sleep and to play nightly games of backgammon with my father. Even now I felt torn between what lay out there and in here. I slid down to the floor and tried to make myself experience — just once — the sights and smells of earth. But I couldn’t. In the coolness, in the silence, I began to dream of what could be out there, if I had the will to seek it, to find it. I stood abruptly and continued down the hallway, determined to find that room. As a child, I had had a similar discussion with myself every day, and every day had concluded — tomorrow I will explore, but today I must learn! As I peered in each room, however, a familiar sense of regret, of horrible, unalterable sadness, followed me, as though I had lost something that I had never had and never would. The past, the present, the future — in here, out there, with me, without me — was as it would be. It was only a little past noon, I guessed, and already I was starting to tire. How many hallways did this place have? How many rooms hidden behind other rooms? How many little steps up and down? Finally, when I thought there could be no more, I spotted a familiar door that opened from a small sitting room into another room — the door to the library.
I opened the door carefully; for some reason, I was afraid of what might rush at me. Another leftover fantasy. Like the other rooms, the library was clean and fresh, but very dark — there were no windows here; it must be an inner room. I didn’t know where I was; I had not noted how I’d gotten here or even thought to leave a trail of paper, if nothing else. I smiled at this wistful notion. I felt by the door — there was a light switch. Suddenly, the room burst into brilliant rainbow lights of an improbably large chandelier. The smooth leather and glossy paper jackets of thousands of books, old and new, shone under its harsh white glow. They stood neatly lined up; none appeared to be out of place, and only the oversized books lay on their sides, carefully stacked face up. For the first time since I had arrived, I felt the thrill of rediscovering long-lost, warmly familiar surroundings, and gently laid my briefcase on the worn wooden table. I jumped at the slight sound, and once again noticed the stifling quiet.
I had not rented the house on a whim; my visit had a purpose — a sound, useful purpose. With the owner’s written permission, sent to me by a local realtor, Mr. Quillen, I was here to check out the old library’s many primary historical sources for the first draft of my dissertation. In this priceless collection were hundreds of original documents about the region’s people, communities, activities, and events for at least two hundred years. Most were mundane but important — documents covering deeds, property settlements, estates, taxes, and other day-to-day legalities; others were of little historical interest — girlish diaries describing first dances, first loves, weddings, and the ensuing joys and disappointments of married life. I did want to glance through these for any insights into family and personal relationships. The rest were what I considered the heart of my research — journals of landowners and their wives, first-hand accounts of local politics, letters from home to soldier boys and the brave-but-frightened answers — the ways we learn about people and their history from their own voices. Over the years, the former occupants of this house, in their unofficial capacity as the valley’s “royalty,” had created history — and acquired, fairly or not, an incredible cache of documents and books about themselves and their neighbors. I felt that I was onto something few knew about — or ever would, without my efforts.By now, however, after the long drive and the short night, I was exhausted — too tired to approach the work properly. Blushing only to myself, I put aside a bundle of maps and deeds to read what appeared to be a simple personal journal. It began with a young landowner’s marriage to a woman he loved — at least for a time, segued into explicit details of his first illicit love (followed by many others), and continued with his life of wealth, boredom, bitterness, and eventual self-loathing and self-destruction. Maybe it was yesterday’s journey, or the strangeness of the place, or the memory of the night before, but gradually the determined scholar succumbed to the gossip-starved teenager still left in me. I collected my notes and thoughts and settled into a deep leather chair that fit my contours perfectly, although it had not embraced my form for more than twenty years.
I could feel a pillow under my head and, as before, his body, even closer to mine, but not as warm now. A tear trickled from my right eye. This time, I didn’t want to let go.
“You weren’t at dinner last night,” she said flatly as she delicately poured rich, black coffee from a polished silver server.
“I . . . I think I fell asleep.” I poured fresh cream into the coffee, making it the color of sandy mud. I wasn’t hungry. For the first time, I realized that I hadn’t eaten or drunk since yesterday morning. I’d woken hours earlier as dawn poured through my window and I’d felt the light beyond my eyelids brightening. Finally, I’d risen from a dreamy, warm stupor and wandered down to the dining room. I glanced down; I didn’t recall getting dressed, yet I was — neatly, with great care — for another day in the library. She was staring at me. She must have had the same thought.
“It’d probably be easier if I had meals in the kitchen,” I said, idly making a circle with my finger around the top of the water glass. “I mean, easier for both of us.”
“The dining room is fine.” She strode purposefully toward the kitchen. It was a statement, not a discussion point. I felt lonely, surrounded on all sides by the silence of 11 empty chairs and one enigmatic woman. Perhaps this had not been a good idea — a week here alone, with just the housekeeper for occasional company, if that. The room closed in on me. She returned with a steaming plate.
“Will you be wanting dinner today?” she asked, with a slight emphasis on “today.” I blushed guiltily; she must have gone to some trouble yesterday.
“No . . . no, thanks. I’ll make a sandwich or something. Why don’t you go on home? I’ll be all right here.” I tried to be casual. The mundane discussion of simple logistics was upsetting me, and my gut fluttered. It wasn’t the pancakes — they were piled on the snow-white plate, steaming less and less. I tried to hide my confusion by spreading butter — too much butter — all over the stack. A spotless pitcher of maple syrup appeared before me. “I’ve enough to do here.” With that, she again walked off as quickly as she could. I thought about how clean even the most remote rooms of the house were, including the library, and didn’t doubt it. Feeling foolish and chastised, I knew I wouldn’t see her again this day. It was odd that I hadn’t heard her doing her work about the house yesterday, and I’m certain she hadn’t been near the library. I again wondered if she had help.
“This is ridiculous,” I said to a generic portrait of a bored, young, late seventeenth-century gentleman — perhaps the author of the journal I’d read. “I’m here to finish my work and get on with life, not to worry about some old woman.” She was probably no more than 15 or 20 years older but I knew I seemed young and a little childish around her.
I cleaned the plate, while thinking how I wasn’t hungry, and finished the pot of coffee. I doubted I would be welcome in the kitchen even if I had wanted sandwiches, so after collecting my materials from my room, I again headed toward the library. Even as I set out, I was sorry that I wasn’t going out to enjoy what looked to be a fine day — and I couldn’t bring myself to try.
The house still felt strange to me. At times it radiated light and air; at others, it shrank in upon me. When I looked around objectively — as objectively as I could — it appeared to be just a large, old house typical of its era, with some oddities and eccentricities — also typical of its era. If I was going to finish my work, I’d better hold onto that objectivity, I told myself. I tried to follow the same route as yesterday, but somehow got turned around and found myself approaching the library’s anteroom from the opposite direction. On the way, I had discovered a little room decorated with a very old, very odd hunting-theme wallpaper. I couldn’t resist my curiosity and examined it more closely. The hunters, on tall, thin, distorted horses, watched the hounds, while Artemis watched the hunters. The background was a stained antique white, dotted with dark, flat, almost cartoonish trees. This seemed familiar, although I couldn’t say I’d seen the wallpaper before; it was simply a feeling of vague recognition. Yet I was drawn to the hunt master who, along with his followers, was repeated every four feet. Yes, his lips and long thin eyebrows made his face the mask of a sneer I had expected. I couldn’t decide if his contempt was directed toward the horses, the hounds, his fellow hunters, or the fox, or perhaps even toward the goddess, unseen to him. Eventually the familiarity became an uncomfortable certainty, and I left him to savor his frozen, decaying emotion.
I’d apparently already left my objectivity behind. Like most people, I can rationalize almost anything, and told myself an afternoon of concentrated research would restore my academic discipline — selectively forgetting the results of the previous day’s experience.
I was rested, a little calmer, and more focused now, I told myself. It was time to start working seriously — how much time had I wasted? — and I delved into it. Within only a few hours, I had completed more than 35 pages of meticulous notes — on only one family’s doings. This was more how I’d pictured my stay — focused, productive, despite the obvious scorn of the hunt master. I stopped only when my eyes began to water and I realized how tired I was becoming. My time here was limited, as was my access to this rare collection of primary sources, but none of it would be of any use to me if I fainted from exhaustion. I somehow found my room and lay down for a nap, falling quickly into a deep, dreamless sleep, the sleep I’d longed for. It was still sunny outside, and the mid-afternoon brightness made me drowsy. I don’t know when I fell asleep, but the travel alarm clock read 5:45 when I reluctantly woke up. The sunlight was losing to the shadows of its own creation. I sat on the edge of the bed for a long time, holding my head and trying to shake off the heaviness of sleep. With some effort, I finally got up and wandered down to the kitchen to see if I could find something to snack on and to drink.
I never made it past the dining room. The chandelier sparkled with a million points of reflected sunlight, making the tall beeswax candles an unnecessary nicety. The white linen and plates glowed, as did the silver serving dishes. I lifted the cover to the largest. Fresh, steaming roast beef, rare exactly the way I always had liked it. Accompanied by my favorite wine, I noticed. I didn’t know what to think. Why had she gone to all this trouble when I’d told her that it was unnecessary? How had she known that I would want dinner? Or was it simply a misunderstanding on my part or hers? I didn’t care. I was hungry, and I enjoyed all of it. By the time I was done, I was both sated and numb. I’d been considering an evening stroll, just to get some air and to get away from the atmosphere of the house, but that was out for tonight. All I could think about was a bath and sleep. It never occurred to me that she was already gone.
I couldn’t feel anything when I woke up, but I sensed him. He was still there, in a slightly different position. In the darkness illuminated only by the alarm clock behind me, I reached for his hand and took it in both of mine. It was large, smooth, and firm. And almost chilly to the touch. I soon fell asleep, giving his hand all the warmth and strength of mine.
The next morning I felt groggy, strangely like being drugged. I had no fear or suspicion of that, however. It was intensity of the work and getting too much sleep the day before. Coffee would probably clear my head. Besides, I was hoping to run into her so I could thank her for the unexpected but welcome dinner last night.
She looked disapproving, as always. I wondered if she knew any other expression and if anything I could do might reveal it. For whatever reason, she didn’t want me here and probably couldn’t wait until the week was up. Despite my renewed enthusiasm for the work and the wonderful library, I was beginning to feel that way, too, although I didn’t understand why. Perhaps in the back of my mind I’d thought I could recapture the peace I’d felt here as a child. But here there was no peace — only a familiar alienation.
I said nothing for awhile. Then:
“I may be leaving a little earlier than I expected.”
“Here?” She couldn’t hide her surprise. Nor could I. She regained herself and said, “That’s up to you. You’ll have to speak to Mr. Quillen. But he’s not in until tomorrow. Or leave him a message.” She abruptly closed her lips as though to cut off an already unseemly outburst.
“I’ll do that. I don’t know. I’m making good progress and I’m anxious to get back and verify some things I’ve picked up here. I could always come back here if necessary.”
“Yes.” She left. It hadn’t sounded affirmative.
It looked dark and forbidding outside, and the broad green leaves of summer brushed against my window in the wind. I would not long to be in the air today. It was filled with the scent of damp earth and fresh decay.
In the dark, his back felt soft and defenseless, and with one fingertip I slowly, gently traced the outline of his shoulder blades against the smooth landscape of his skin. He sighed lightly, with a resigned finality, but didn’t change position.
It was my last day at the old house; I would leave the next morning, two days earlier than I had planned. The longer I stayed, the more familiar the house became — I no longer got lost finding my way about, and even the view from the narrow windows in the one room was becoming familiar, although its nuances changed everyday in a way I couldn’t define.
The more familiar the house seemed, the edgier I felt. I could not have explained why, even if there had been someone to talk to about it. When Mr. Quillen asked why I was leaving before the week was out, all I could say was that I had pressing obligations elsewhere. This was, of course, a lie — my only obligations were to myself. He didn’t seem surprised; after all, it didn’t affect him at all since he — and the owner he represented — had already received payment in full. I was glad he couldn’t see my face over the phone. For some reason, I pictured his wearing the same expression as the woman’s — cold, disapproving, indifferent, yet interested at the same time.
When I returned to my room that day, it was still very bright out — so bright, it was hard to see beyond the glare of an unearthly sun. I had been spending less and less time in the library and in other parts of the house and more time in my room sleeping. Each day, I returned to my bed earlier and earlier. I was so tired . . . as though many years of study and work had suddenly caught up with me. I felt safe and comforted in that room.
Today, I picked up everything lying about and neatly packed it away, taking my scattered life and concentrating it in my luggage. When I woke up early the next morning, I would be ready to go. I would not have to see her again — a relief as much to her as to me, I was sure. I could just leave the keys on the hall table for her. I even left my clothes on. I needed only a little sleep before starting the long drive back . . .
I reached out to touch him, to tell him how I felt, to tell him goodbye . . .
As always, he was there for me. But now his lovely strong hand was ice cold.
I never wrote a dissertation — on that region’s history or on anything else. I don’t remember much of the rest of that year — only going through the process of leaving the university, under the mild protest of a handful of favorite mentors. But even they could see I had nothing left.
I’m middle aged. I’ll never be any more than I am now — a university press senior editor. I couldn’t bring myself to leave academia after all. I couldn’t write the words, but I could check and correct them. I could even do some research when necessary. I’m good at it, and it keeps me going. Why, toward what, or for how long — I am careful not to think about these things.
A week ago, I did it. I returned to the house. I had to. I had to know.
This time I drove in daylight, so I could see. And when I arrived, I saw — nothing. Nothing but an unplowed field surrounded by corn. No signs of a house. No signs of rubble. Nothing.
Across the road — not a street, but a road — a farmer’s wife was hanging out laundry in the light breeze, while a small child played nearby in the grass. I sat in my car, lost, desolate. Frightened. Yet I was in the right place.
“Can I help you with something?” A female voice jolted me.
It was the farmer’s wife, peering through my open window into the darkness of my car. The child held her shirt, his fist in his mouth.
“Yes. Yes, I was looking for the house that used to be here.”
“House?” she asked, her face puzzled. Or was it concerned?
“Yes, it was very large, very old. It was still here thirty years ago. I was here.”
“Maybe you’re lost.” I didn’t say anything. “It’s just that there’s never been a house there that we know of. That was my husband’s dad’s land before he died 12 years ago, and his granddad’s land before then.” I stared at the road. “It’s always been a problem piece — nothing but weeds’ll grow on it, and no one’ll buy it.” I still said nothing. “Of course, no one around here’ll buy land that won’t grow anything.”
“Thanks for your trouble. As you say, I must be lost.”
“Hope you find what you’re looking for.” She took the child’s fist from his mouth and walked in front of my car to cross the road.
“Who is that lady?” the boy asked impatiently.
She lowered her voice, but I could hear her words as they trailed off.
“Another dreamer looking for a place to sleep.”
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
The wonder of words
is not in their order
is not in their length
is not in their sound.
The wonder of words
is not in who says them
is not in who writes them
is not in who records them
The wonder of words
is what you hear in them
is what you see in them
is what you feel in them
The wonder of words
is what they inspire in you.