"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
I found the cupboard full of teacups and saucers a few weeks after my last tenant moved out. There were thirty or forty cups and as many saucers, no two alike, adorned with everything from roses and peonies to ornate patterns in red and blue, from plain white with gold rims to solemn cherubs and soaring dragons. Stacked inelegantly in the lower cabinet to the right of the sink, they defied the impression of fragility in spite of the fact that they were so obviously delicate.
I was slowly migrating in the direction of my third floor apartment, pressed to new heights as the utility companies cut off power and water first to the ground floor, where I had lived for almost seven years, then the second floor, which had been empty for almost a month by the time I began squatting there. Finally the top floor was all that was left to me. Through some delightful oversight, the last tenant to jump ship had neglected to have the utilities switched into my name, even though I’d instructed her to do so, and thus the lights continued to shine and the water flowed unabated. I’d rather be lucky than good every day of the week.
It had been ten months since I’d made my last mortgage payment. Notices arrived almost daily apprising me of the actions the bank intended to take. I stopped opening them eventually, knowing I could do nothing to stem the tide, knowing also that one day I would likely climb my steps to find a notice taped to the door and a shiny new padlock dangling from a hasp screwed to the doorframe. I put it out of my mind. I had larger concerns, had at long last laid my hands upon the one thing I genuinely wanted, and nothing as mundane as bankruptcy or foreclosure or even homelessness was going to get in the way of it.
The tenant who had moved out of the third floor was a friend and so, a year earlier when she asked if she could paint, I said, “Sure.” She had done a purely amateur job, slopping paint all over the woodwork and the ceilings, missing spots here and there, but I have to say, relative to the array of off-whites covering every other wall in the house, at the very least the variety of colors gave the tiny apartment a warmth and charm the rest of the house resisted with practical stoicism. There was the orange kitchen, the blue bathroom, the red dining room, the purple living room, and my personal favorite, the unqualified yellow room – favored not for its yellow walls but because no one had ever managed to distinguish the room with a name. Too narrow for a bedroom, too big for a closet, it was simply and unequivocally the yellow room.
Kate promised to stay with me the first night on the third floor. It was a Sunday and she would be making her way back to school, an hour north of me, from a weekend at her father’s place, an hour south. “You’ll need to get me some tea, and help me grade lab reports,” she texted. Then, a little later, “I want to sleep in the purple room.”
No one I knew appreciated whimsy more than Kate. It would be easy and insufficient to say it was because she was much younger than the rest of us, not yet jaded by the years. There was a quality to her sense of wonder that defied obvious explanations. I remember Easter Sunday a year and a half earlier, when she was still living with the Farmer. Dispossessed of our families, the bulk of us had converged on the one good restaurant for a long, cocktail-filled brunch, after which Kate and the Farmer invited us out to walk their land. It was a sunny late April afternoon, a bit blustery, but under blue skies on the back end of what had been a considerable winter, and with our healthy collective buzz, a long walk over rolling fields felt like just the thing. When we got there Kate pulled me away from the group, saying she wanted to show me something. “Let’s see if there are any voles.” Only Peggers, Kate’s dog, followed us, her bum leg swinging behind her like a stiff and awkward second tail. Kate led us away from the group, striding with her shoulders back and her head high, but the flickering grin on her face revealed that this was something new and special and in her enthusiasm she stumbled twice, laughing at herself, her cheeks flushing a shade just shy of crimson.
Next to the lone utility shed a few sheets of corrugated metal lay scattered about. In a low spot beneath the first piece of tin Kate flipped over lay a family of rodents, curled tight and pressed close. Peggers barked and pounced as the voles scattered. She caught one in her mouth and tossed it end over end into the air, then pinned it to the ground with her paw and bit its head off. “Ah!” Kate shrieked, howling with laughter. “What was I thinking?” The dog paused and looked at her mistress to find out if she’d done something wrong. “Circle of life,” I said to Kate. The wide smile never left her face as she rocked back and forth, her body fairly humming with joy.
“And you wonder why I love you,” I whispered.
She lowered her eyes.
“Dumb words,” she said in a voice that didn’t sound like hers, or that version of her. It was the voice of a much younger Kate.
“It’s all I’ve got,” I said.
“Do better,” she replied, sounding like herself again. “Those are just dumb words.”
When I didn’t speak, she said, “Come on. I want to show you the stone wall.” She started out across the field and after a moment’s hesitation Peggers and I followed. “It’s still early for salamanders,” she called over her shoulder, “but maybe we’ll get lucky.”
That was a Sunday in another life. This Sunday I found a set of clean sheets and tossed them on the back of the fold-out couch so there wouldn’t be any time wasted digging around later when it was time to crawl into bed with Kate. I walked downtown and bought two cans of food for the dog and a box of Lipton tea bags for Kate and called it good.
I spent the afternoon at my parents’ house, a rare visit, perhaps the third or fourth time I’d visited with them in the past nine months. Of their five children, I’m the one who lives the closest, and yet the one they see the least. Turns out I’m a worse son than I am a landlord, which is quite an accomplishment. Of late it was mostly a function of wanting to avoid the disheartening details. It’s one thing for your parents to worry about you because they haven’t seen or heard from you in too long. Letting them in on the particular mess you’ve made of your life is an entirely different sort of worry, the kind you don’t want them to have to bear when you’re already into your forties and should be getting more right than wrong by now.
My mother baked a chicken and a batch of her incomparable biscuits. For as long as I could remember she had been making biscuits from scratch, and in nearly forty years I’d yet to experience anything other than one perfect batch after another, in spite of the fact that she’d never once used a measuring cup. I’d known her all my life and still couldn’t comprehend such grace.
With Kate on my immediate horizon I was unusually ebullient that day, more so than I had been in a shamefully long stretch. In the houses of the poor, somebody has to be a comedian because everyone wants to laugh. I’d always been the comedian in our shabby home, and when I wasn’t, as I hadn’t been for too long, whole platoons of concern would lay siege on all sides of me, sending wave after wave against the walls of my uncharacteristic reserve. And so that day I made my little jokes – about the weather, about my father’s ill-fitting new dentures, about the topless coffee shop that had set up camp near the edge of town, rankling my mother in a way I’d never seen.
“It’s ridiculous,” she almost spat. “Who needs to see that?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I hear they serve the best doughnuts around. Right, Dad?”
The old man snorted and played along.
“Can’t be beat,” he said. “Or so I hear.”
“It’s all in the presentation,” I concurred.
“You’re both idiots,” my mother said behind a poorly concealed smile.
My father probed around the topic of my unemployment, my house and tenants, but I deflected and he didn’t push. The afternoon rolled along, a satisfyingly light affair, so much so that I let my guard down and found myself telling them about Kate.
The women in my life were not a topic I shared with my parents. Not only had I not brought any women home to meet them in more than a decade, I hadn’t even mentioned anyone to them in the dozen years since my last big love Lucy and I split up. There were plenty of women, some of them appropriately and undeniably wonderful, but nothing ever rose to the level of meeting the parents. They were transient affairs intended to scratch a temporary itch, and although my folks must have wondered, they never asked, and I never brought it up.
“So are you going to send me home with some biscuits?” I asked my mother.
“Don’t I always?” she replied.
“Just making sure,” I said. “I want to impress a girl.”
Based on the look that crossed her face when I said that, I knew for certain she’d wondered, and most likely often worried.
“She’s unique,” I said.
“She must be,” my mother said.
I told them she was in graduate school, told them about Peggers the four-legged three-legged dog, about the year and a half we’d spent getting to know each other, about the Farmer, about the last two months. To my surprise I found myself describing the way Kate tilted her head almost imperceptibly when she bestowed the smile that was just for you, how the corners of her eyes turned up at the same time, reshaping them into identical smiles that emulated the one on her lips.
“She does sound special,” my mother said.
By the time I left, she looked happier than I’d seen her in years. She passed me a large plastic storage bag containing the last of the biscuits and said, “I hope she enjoys them.”
Kate and Peggers arrived shortly after I got home. I stood to hug her, but she had an armload of books and papers and a plastic shopping bag. I settled for hugging the dog instead.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked.
She pulled out a cast iron steeping pot and a small paper sack.
“Tea,” she replied.
“Ah, good,” I said, making a mental note to hide the Lipton.
“Please tell me you have food,” she said. “We’re both starving.”
“You are both very much in luck,” I said. I pulled one of the cans of Alpo Prime Cuts out of the cupboard, opened it and plopped it into a dish for the dog.
“Looks delicious,” she said. “Is there enough for both of us?”
“You get something special,” I told her. I pulled the biscuits out of the cupboard, then opened the fridge and took out ham, provolone and pickles and set everything on the counter. She walked over to me and put her arms around me. I kissed her on the forehead.
“Go make yourself comfortable,” I said. “I’ll bring you a plate.”
“Could you put water on for tea?” she asked.
I started digging around in the cupboards. Except for a few bare necessities, I hadn’t brought any kitchen items upstairs from my apartment. Tenants always left things behind for one reason or another, and so I fully expected to find an old, dented pot that would be sufficient for boiling water. I opened every cupboard and in the last one, instead of a pot of any description, I found the teacups.
Perfect, I thought.
“Be right back.”
I grabbed a flashlight and bounded down the stairs. The first floor apartment had an ominous air at this time of night. Most of my assorted belongings, accumulated and arrayed over seven years of occupying that space, now cold and only dimly illuminated by a flashlight with a dying battery, left me with the sense that I was creeping among somebody else’s things, surrounded by the remnants of a stranger’s demise rather than my own.
It had been so long since I’d bothered to cook anything, it took more than a few minutes to find a small saucepan. As unlikely as it seemed, I found it under the counter where it belonged, clean and ready to be useful.
Upstairs I put the water on, sprinkled tea into the strainer in the teapot, then set about making half a dozen ham, cheese and pickle sandwiches on biscuits.
“Beer?” I called to her.
“Water, please,” she said. “If I have a beer now, I’ll be toast.”
I carried the plate and a glass of water into the living room and set them in front of her on the coffee table.
“I’ll have you know these are the most amazing biscuits you’ll ever taste.”
She looked at me, her eyes wide.
“You baked biscuits?” she asked.
“You’re hilarious,” I said, “but no. These are my mother’s biscuits. Try one.”
She picked up one of the little sandwiches and took a bite. I could tell she was prepared to be polite, but the look that crossed her face after the first bite was unmistakable.
“Oh my god,” she said.
“You need to learn how to make these,” she said.
“Pretty tall order,” I replied. “Many have tried, none have succeeded.”
“I can see why,” she said. “Wow.”
“My sister tried to make them when we were kids,” I told her. “She ended up with something just slightly less edible than hardtack. My brother and I used them to destroy a bees’ nest in the garage. She never baked again.”
“You’re mean,” she said.
“I was six.”
In the kitchen the water was boiling. I poured it slowly over the tea leaves and let it sit for a few minutes. Peggers stood by the door.
“Taking Peggers out,” I said.
“Mm-hmm,” she said through a mouthful of biscuit.
I smoked while the dog wandered around the yard. I looked up and saw that the stars were out. It was almost October and the nights were growing decidedly crisper. Sometime in the next few weeks the first trace of a typically fast approaching winter would settle upon us and it would be too cold to stay in the unheated house. A few weeks seemed very far off at that moment. “Come on,” I called to the dog as I tossed my butt into the driveway.
She was where I’d left her, a green pen in her hand and a stack of lab reports in her lap. She sat with her legs stretched out in front of her, her feet resting on the coffee table beside the now empty plate. I brought the teapot into the living room and poured for her. I opened a beer for myself and settled in beside her.
“Here,” she said, passing me a lab report. “You just worry about the grammar, I’ll grade the science.”
An hour later I was only on my third lab report. I kept pausing to commiserate about the relative illiteracy of college freshmen. Her responses grew more and more brief. Finally I took a long sip of beer, turned to her and asked, “What’s up, kid?”
She stared straight ahead and didn’t say anything for a few minutes. When she finally spoke, she said more or less what I’d been expecting to hear for weeks.
“Ben called me,” she said.
The Farmer. The fucking Farmer.
“He said he was calling to see how I was.”
“What did you say?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “I mean, I don’t know. We just chatted for ten or fifteen minutes, mostly about nothing.”
“That happens,” I said. “Doesn’t sound so bad.”
She sighed and shook her head and then, still not looking at me, she said, “I kind of think I want to marry him.” The look on her face was remarkably devoid of expression.
I nodded, then reached for my beer on the coffee table, rattled it and found it was empty. I stood and picked up her empty teacup and the beer can. “Do you want more tea?” I asked. She shook her head and I said, “Be back in a minute.” She didn’t move or watch me walk away.
The dog followed me into the kitchen but I told her to stay. I descended the stairs to the first floor and let myself in to the dark apartment. I realized then that I still had the beer can and teacup in my left hand. I dropped the can on the floor and kicked it into a corner. The cup dangled from my index finger by its thin, dainty handle as I paced back and forth in front of the door that led from the enclosed porch to what had once been my dining room. It was a beautiful door, solid oak, more than forty inches wide and seven feet tall, a door that in its day, before its essence had been muted by decades of immoderate paint jobs, must have inspired a sense of warmth and a certain invulnerability. I could just make out my reflection in the beveled glass, illuminated weakly by the streetlight on the corner. It really was a beautiful door.
I cradled the teacup in my hand, turned it over and wrapped my hand around the open end, gave it a light squeeze. In that moment I had no doubt I could reduce it to dust if I chose to. I tossed it lightly into the air, made my hand soft and caught it just as lightly. Tossed it again, let it land softly in my palm. Then I eyed the door, eyed the cup in my hand, contemplated the foreseeable consequences of the intersection of the two. I raised my arm and prepared to make that catastrophic confluence of the delicate and the durable a reality.
Sound had an uncanny knack for traveling in that house, and I pictured Kate sitting on the third floor, looking up from the page she was grading, tapping the pen against her bottom lip as she considered what she’d just heard. I paused and held the cup close to my face, tried to locate the precise spot where her lips had touched it as she raised it to her mouth and sipped the steaming tea. That image, Kate drinking her tea, came to me obliquely, existed literally in my memory’s periphery. At my end of the couch I had sat studiously maintaining the impression of someone who was focused on the task in front of him, all the while letting the corner of my eye take her in. For a year and a half that was how I constructed pictures of Kate in my mind, banished as I was to the opposite ends of bars and tables and rooms, constantly under observation for anything that might contribute to the whispered speculations, and so relegated to surreptitious, momentary glimpses. Hers would always be a face that came to me as the sum of a thousand stolen glances.
When the truth finally reveals itself, it is very much like the fat salamander discovered under the flat rock beside the stone wall, the family of voles under the sheet of tin: it wiggles away or scatters in every direction, but not before your eyes take it in, not before your sense of the moment has been altered in some slight but irrefutable way. It hit me with the force of a revelation I never sought: all this time she had, with unfathomable purpose, placed herself precisely where I could see her, where I had to see her. She could have chosen to sit or stand in any number of places, could have concealed herself behind any number of other bodies or simply turned her back entirely, and yet she always chose a spot that put her at just the right angle so that her image, her face, remained effectively in my periphery. Always.
I stepped outside and smoked a cigarette, the teacup once again resting in my free hand. The night had grown colder just in the hour we’d been sitting quietly grading horribly written lab reports. Only a few weeks before we had slept on top of the covers in my first-floor bedroom. She had slept, while I lay awake contemplating the lump in her breast. She had taken my hand and pressed my fingers against the lump and said, “I may be toast.” I smoked slowly, looking up at the stars. In time I made my way back upstairs. I set the teacup on the counter and grabbed myself another beer from the fridge.
“Back in a minute, eh?” she said.
“I got lost,” I replied.
She patted the couch beside her. I sat and she put her arm around me, laying her head on my shoulder.
“They change minute to minute,” she said. “My dumb feelings.”
“Terrific,” I replied.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m a mess.”
I took a deep breath. Then I put my arm around her and pulled her close, kissing the top of her head, smelling her hair.
“I know,” I said.
We slept that night under a pile of blankets, Kate on one side of the fold-out couch, me on the other. I didn’t stir when she woke in the morning and got dressed. She sat on the bed and took my hand in hers.
“Dumb words,” she said.
“Dumb words,” I replied.
She leaned down and pressed her forehead against mine.
“Do good work today,” she said.
I didn’t see her again for a week. She came to town the following Sunday morning to meet some friends who were going to the agricultural fair, and she wanted to leave the dog with me for the day. I stood on the steps with Peggers and watched her drive away.
“Come on, Gimpie,” I said, leading the way upstairs.
Peggers and I spent the day in the apartment. I wrote a couple thousand words, but they read like the same sentence written fifty different ways. I finally gave up late in the afternoon, put on a movie and promptly fell asleep with the dog curled up on my feet.
I didn’t hear her come in and, when I opened my eyes, had no idea how long she’d been standing there smiling at us.
“I think she likes you more,” Kate said.
“Than she likes you?” I asked. “Or than you like me?”
She frowned. “Maybe both,” she said.
I sat up and stretched.
“Do you want to get some dinner?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I’m pretty tired. I think I’m just going to pack up Peggers and head back to school.”
I stared at her for a long time but didn’t say a word.
“Too much work,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
I held up a hand and shook my head.
“Did you write today?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, although of course that wasn’t entirely true.
“Can I see it?” she asked.
“It’s rough,” I said. “I’ll send it to you tomorrow.”
I walked them to the door, got the sideways hug, and stood at the top of the stairs, listening to them as they descended the stairs, stood there until I heard the downstairs door close behind them.
After she left, I sat at the kitchen table for a while, smoking cigarettes, working my way through the thirty-pack in the fridge, and flipping through songs in my music library on the computer, trying to find one that matched my mood. I didn’t move for hours except to go to the bathroom or grab another beer. It was well after dark and I was plenty drunk by the time it occurred to me to eat something. I opened one of the cupboards and was greeted by the bag of loose tea she’d left behind a week before. I glanced toward the teacup still sitting on the counter. She must have poured the remains from the pot into the cup before she left, as half an inch of murky amber liquid sat in the bottom, shreds of tea leaves floating on the surface. I reached for it, poured the remains down the sink, then held it in my hand as I had that night. It felt like absolutely nothing. I took a step back and threw it as hard as I could into the yellow room. It exploded against the wall, the shards scattering so profusely it was impossible to imagine they had once comprised an entire cup. I nodded my head, opened another beer and sat back down at the table.
I couldn’t sit still. Empty beer cans were scattered among the table, the stovetop, the kitchen counter, the floor. I grabbed those within reach and tossed them, one at a time, into the yellow room. In another minute there wasn’t an empty can standing. Then I opened the cupboard full of tea cups, wrapped my fingers around the first one I came to, one with a lovely red rose in full bloom, and I heaved it against the wall of the yellow room. One by one, I threw every teacup in the cupboard, leaving a sea of shards fanning toward me like a tide coming in. When I’d finished with the cups, I did the same with the saucers. I was breathing hard and my hands were shaking by the time the last saucer spun through the air and blew apart in the next room. I sat in the middle of the floor with my beer and stared at what I’d done.
I stayed like that for some time, struck by something I couldn’t put my finger on. In the low light from the single overhead bulb, viewed from that low angle, the tiny pieces of bone china, set against a couple dozen beer cans of various stripes, looked less like the remains of a cupboard full of cups and saucers than like a thousand flower petals sprinkled across the floor. They suggested a strange sort of hope I found instantly and unbearably distressing.
I stood and walked over to my laptop, unplugged it and carried it to the doorway of the yellow room. It took several tries to get a picture that took in the entire scene. When I was satisfied, I saved the picture, named it “Self-Portrait with Room,” and uploaded it to my Facebook page.
Because most days now we’re all so interconnected, there is no abyss in which to shout.
Because tomorrow the abyss might be all there is.