Between the Words
By Robert Earle
On the first day Dara felt well enough to leave the house, she looked out the front window at the street number hanging from her walkway lamppost and wrote it down in the small green memo pad she kept fastened to her wrist with a rubber band. Then she entered her address in her computer and found the address of a Starbucks five twisty streets away. This enabled her to print a map with a blue line indicating her route to a cup of coffee. A simple cup of coffee. She’d take the thing Lawrence gave her, the book thing, so that she would not feel self-conscious sitting by herself. “Here,” he had said, “whatever you want to read, you can read on this. Now you have only one thing to keep track of no matter how many books you get involved with.” When he said, “‘involved with,’” she cringed. Hadn’t he meant it when he said, “You will be the love of my life no matter what happens as this goes forward”? He had.
She didn’t remember what it was called or where she put it and hoped she’d know how to use it. Not on her desk. Not on the kitchen counter. In the bathroom? Why would it be in the bathroom? She wished she could dial it like her cell phone and follow the ring. She wished she could talk to it like the radio in her car. That would have made her morning’s homework, which had been so tiring, much easier—just talk right into it and watch the words crawl into existence in response to her voice instead of having to hunt the keys on the keyboard: I am sitting in our study at the walnut desk looking out the French doors onto the patio and the birch trees. The birch trees look scarred, but they’re not diseased. Birch bark always looks that way. It peels off in papery strips as birches grow and the bark isn’t big enough to contain them. It’s a natural process like shedding. I don’t know this because I studied trees, but I seem to know it anyway. Yes, something dark went around and around in her mind when she struggled to formulate and investigate her thoughts, but she knew she was getting better. The word “shedding” pleased her. She pictured a tree weeping, discarding the leaf pages of memory, letting them fall to the ground and dissolve into the earth far beneath the roots.
She saw it lying flat on the ottoman in the living room, and then, disappointingly, the next thing she knew, she was at the Starbucks and didn’t know how she got there. These lacunae were upsetting. They were dangerous. Doctor Clarendon said they would diminish but when? First you encode, then you consolidate, then you retrieve, 1-2-3. But she didn’t encode, so there was nothing to consolidate and retrieve. The streets and neighborhoods through which she had driven had no more registered in her mind than they had swum through the windshield and gotten her wet. She surfaced out of the darkness dry and disappointed, suddenly here, suddenly there.
She got out of her car and thought to herself, I must have been at this strip mall a thousand times in my life, but have I? I don’t remember that little pizza place. No, look, it isn’t open yet; they are still working in there. She could see that through the peephole they’d put in the plywood—four young men and a young woman doing carpentry inside, building shelves, painting in the back and fastening floor tiles in the front. With their bandanas and jewelry they looked like pirates. The girl’s hair was thick and brown and hung in a great loop that she kept fastening behind her lovely ear so that she could measure where the boy would cut the piece of wood with his power saw.
Quickly, she stepped away, not wanting to hear that power saw scream—the thought terrified her, reminding her of the noises in the hospital. As she did, she saw herself in the reflection of the toy store window next door. She raised her hand and waved somewhat diffidently, just a flicker. Judging by her image playing over the background of dolls and train sets and robots, she would say she was in her fifties, acceptably dressed and all-right-looking with long brown hair and nice small ears. The only thing odd was a green price sticker she noticed on her wrist. This blouse must be new. She pulled the sticker off and dropped it in a wastebasket on the way to the Starbucks.
With her coffee in hand she felt the urgent need to flee, a genuine panic, but she didn’t want to go home. The thought of the screaming hush of it all, upstairs and downstairs and far downstairs in the cellar where they did the electroconvulsive therapy…she couldn’t show up for that with a cup of coffee in her hand. They wouldn’t tolerate it. No, she had to sit down, sip, pull out the little white plastic machine she could talk into and read back exactly what she had said because here was the way she thought of it, which Dr. Clarendon said was all right: Memory was like the secret of the ants. You could have no ants, and then you could have hundreds of them. When they started to appear, they must have been in the house all along. All you had to do was not wipe something up and voila! you would recall everything that you tended to forget now, and the world would be embroidered with a glistening, beadlike meaning that was busy all over the place inside and outside the hole.
She got it out, she got her glasses out, she got her brassiere adjusted, and just as she did, a young man was pouring whole milk into his coffee from a silver thermos and saw it and said, “Excuse me, I can’t help asking. Is that a…?”
“Yes, is it a…for books? What do they call those things?”
She laughed. “Oh, I know, isn’t it awful? I can never remember, either. It is and also I can use it to help me transcribe my thoughts.”
“You mean write on it?”
“I suppose you could say that, but I would never say it about myself.”
“That you’re a writer?”
“Oh, no, no. I download real writing on it. It saves money. Only $9.95 a book!”
He raised his eyebrows in lighthearted censure. They were dark, his eyes and hair were dark, too, and he had a kind of design on his arm that looked like three faces, a totem tattoo, and he was tall, and he had a baritone voice that stirred her, and he had been in that pizza shop on the other side of the peephole, or she had seen him somewhere else, his face flickering in and out of the screen like those—who were they?—incomplete faces on his arm, spinning like the sharp-toothed saw in his hand, settling down to tear into the wood where the poor terrified girl was holding it for him.
“I’m sorry to hear that since I’m a writer, and well, it dims my prospects.”
“Well, not yet,” he conceded. “I mean I want to be a writer, and I don’t know what the future holds for me given all this post-Gutenberg stuff, although I didn’t know you could write on them, too, or dictate to them. How does that work?”
She really didn’t know how it worked. “Here!” she pushed it at him. “You’re a writer; you need it more than I do.”
He regarded her with friendly amusement, the nicest look she’d had from anyone in she didn’t know when. “Oh, I couldn’t. But tell me—what do you put on it, besides the books you download?”’
“Well, it’s embarrassing. I can’t really say.”
He was such a nice boy. High narrow forehead. Extremely intelligent. (What did that mean? That she could be candid with him? How could she not be candid? She was the naked wood barely making it through the weather and seasons, no bark on her at all. He could take everything he wanted from her, including her soul.) “Would you like to sit down and join me?”
He said yes, and he looked at her as if he knew her, which, of course, how could he? She’d only seen him about to start the power saw through the peephole and scampered away.
“You see, my challenge is that I have lost a great deal of my memory because I recently went through a series of electroconvulsive shock treatments,” she explained. “It isn’t any fun.”
He returned it to her and said in his baritone voice, “Why were you having ECT?”
“Do you know about ECT?”
He said his mother had ECT, which she used to call her et cetera. “‘I’m having my et cetera today.’ Like that. Almost funny. She majored in classics at Bryn Mawr.”
“What was her problem?”
“She was Bipolar I and when her mania really took off she could become psychotic. You’d think you were dealing with Dante. Every circle of eternity’s damned right there in front of you.”
“Oh my goodness!”
He sipped his coffee and said he was that way a little. She asked him what he meant by “a little”? He said he meant he could be very careless, which is the way he would describe some of the things his psychiatrist called manic.
“Did you say ‘curious’ or ‘careless’?”
“Careless. Inattentive. Out of focus, you know?”
“I know,” she said, poking at the thing in her lap to get it to go and marveling at the way sometimes it was like the surface of a dream in which she was reading a book she must also be writing, millions of words streaming before her eyes.
They contemplated one another in the institutionalized tastefulness of the understated Starbucks. The silence foamed and crackled a little bit as the bubbles popped around her ears.
“The fact is,” he said, “I sat down to test myself. I could see you wanted to talk and—”
“How could you see that?”
“I know instantly when someone wants to talk. Normally I avoid that. But I just started taking a tiny pill to give me an edge after my antidepressant does its job and, well,” he smiled at her, “here I’ve risked it, but not carelessly. Carefully.”
“You did take the seat farthest from me.”
He confessed that was true. “I’ve been wandering around and trying to write poetry and songs. Dropped out of two colleges. I did a stint in Tuvalu. I told you where that is, remember?”
“No!” he laughed. “You’re thinking of Tupelo, but that’s good. Tuvalu is in the south Pacific. They’re the people who have the world convinced global warming will drown them. It’s the most foreign assistance-corrupted society on earth. I couldn’t bear it.”
“And Tupelo is where Elvis Presley was born.”
“Yes,” he said, encouragingly.
“Like your tattoo.”
“Yes!” He stretched out his arm so that she could see the faces. The first was Duke Ellington. It had been completed. The second was Buddy Holly. It was done in a kind of dot-dot-dash-dash outline. The third was also in Morse code: Elvis Aaron Presley. Birth and death dates beneath all three faces.
She reached for her little green notebook but seemed to have lost it and then fingered her white thing, typing her thoughts on it, which crawled busily across the screen. A breakthrough: Mississippi, that’s where the ants hid, all of them after the honey. She remembered that now, but who knew which one was which and why some of their faces were incomplete? He said it was because he had the best tattooist in St. Paul and she worked in stages so that the flesh could set.
“Not because they died too young?” she asked.
His eyes became vortices, all pupil. She remembered now: he’d been a student, he’d died young, he’d taken his own life.
“I just told you why,” he snapped, as he would speak to no one else on earth but her, confirming how awful it was to be enveloped in each other’s hole.
They never came to you and asked you if you wanted more coffee so she sipped her latte very slowly, patted her lips with her napkin, and asked if he minded her taking notes on their conversation so that she would remember it. He said if there was anything he could share with her, he would be glad to because he was sorry to hear about her difficulties. What could she remember?
“Oh, that’s my homework,” she said, fingering the touch screen on her notebook. “I sit by myself in the morning and my assignment is to write everything down, it doesn’t matter what.”
“Do you write in sentences, or just make notes, or lists, or…?”
“No, no, no,” she said.
“What do you do, then?”
“Don’t you remember when you were a boy and we got you a book about writing and it said that to write something first you made spider webs—a word, then a line, then whatever word you associated with the first word?”
His mouth looked like the crust of a piece of burned toast. “That didn’t work. I never wrote anything that way.”
She could feel her heart begin to race. Finally, she knew what to tell him. “Yes, because writing’s not in the words. That’s what was wrong about the way we approached it. Writing is in the lines between the words. But you would write the first word and then the second and rush ahead to the third without stopping to think: what’s in the line? And that’s where writing is, not the words, the line!” The line marched along in emptiness, the line stretched across the plain like a distant horizon, the line swayed under the weight of the tiny heavy letters, heavy as gravestones, trudging across it, stretching it, daring it to break. Ants, ants and more ants. Oh, so many ants!
“Mother, we have been through this again and again, and I could repeat ‘again’ forever.”
“You mean I would say that then?”
“Yes, you would say that then.”
“Do you remember everything I ever said?”
“Do you remember everything I ever did?”
“Yes.” He was like a giant ant, all the darkness from the top of his head to his eyes to his burned mouth rippling together, fat and velvety and black. The pressure of looking at him was immense, crushing. “You tried to persuade my tattooist to come finish before I was buried—connect the dots, connect the dashes, fill in the blanks, leave no gaps, but she said she couldn’t, not on a body, and that was it. That was when you scattered everywhere. That was when you came apart. Don’t you remember?”
“I do remember.”
“All of it?”
“Now write it down.”
He pointed at the thing in her hands. She stared at it for a long time, watching it all happen, the memories crawling back into place, glistening, luminous, round-headed and black, up and up, out of all of the holes in her past.
Robert Earle is the author of Nights in the Pink Motel, a memoir of a year in Iraq, and The Way Home, a novel. His short stories have appeared in Mississippi Review, 34th Parallel, Iron Horse Literary Review, The MacGuffin, Consequence, Potomac Review, Louisville Review, Pangolin Papers, Inkwell, Black and White, Main Street Rag, Hurricane Review, Nassau Lit, Quarterly West, Chiron Review, Iconoclast, and elsewhere. He was contributing editor of Identities in North America, a study of North American interdependence. He has degrees in literature and creative writing from Princeton and Johns Hopkins. He has just completed a new novel.
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Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund