Q. Many of us, your admirers, have long been curious—where do you get your ideas, Mr. N ?
A. Ah! This too has long baffled me. We are all mysteries to ourselves, enigmas…
Truth is, my friend, I’ve never had the slightest curiosity about where my “ideas” come from—my own or anyone else’s.
In fact you may be surprised to learn that, despite my reputation as the most erudite and cerebral of 21st century writers, I have very little curiosity about anything.
Indeed, I am not even curious about my lack of curiosity. It might be said that I resemble an individual with a neurological deficit that prevents him from identifying faces—“prosopagnosia”—“face blindness.” In the most extreme cases the afflicted cannot recognize even their own faces in a photograph or mirror, let alone the faces of relatives or friends.
No. I’m not curious why. Who cares why?
Face blindness, color blindness, tone deafness—these are not personal choices but deficits in the brain. It is said that sociopaths have no care for morality, psychopaths have no care for another’s pain, the autistic have no “theory of mind”—no ability to imagine the interior lives of others. To be lacking in curiosity is to inhabit a small but distinctive category.
I am not even curious about the curiosity of others, as a scientist might be. No more than I would be curious about a dog sniffing excitedly in a pile of rotted leaves. Whatever the dog might unearth in the next several seconds, whatever the excitement of the dog, who cares?
But now that you have asked me the (inevitable) question, the (unanswerable) question, indeed the (stupid) question I am provoked to speculate. As, feeling a sudden itch on my skin, I am provoked to scratch recklessly enough to draw blood.
Where do the ideas informing the bizarre and seeming inexhaustible fictions of N come from?
It is true that my “ideas” do seem to come, as some observers have noted, from some odd, quirky, distant realm of being. Not daily life, not newspaper accounts. Not personal experience. (Not usually!) Not others’ work—not since adolescence. (Myopic) biographers have tried to trace lines between (what they know of) my life and (what they can glean) of my art, with unconvincing results. Any idiot with an impressive vocabulary can argue a “causal” relationship where there is none.
I rarely refute the most implausible notions. I am respectful of the eccentricities of others, so long as they are not malicious or meant to denigrate me. Though I don’t “take pride” in my achievement, any more than I “take shame” in it, for whatever it is, it does not seem wholly my own, yet I suppose I must bear some responsibility.
What is curious, I suppose, is that ideas don’t “come to me”—really. Rather I go to them.
It will depend upon where I venture. If I hike up (oddly named) Wolf Pit Mountain at the edge of the desolate little mill town in which I find myself living in the sixth decade of my life, on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River; if I make my way through tall stiff grasses along the bluff, if I dare to push open the door of the old “Erikson mansion”—(a Greek Revival ruin invaded by generations of impudent children); if I dare to step inside, proceed cautiously across the (rotted, perilous) hardwood floor; if I find myself in a derelict drawing room where wallpaper hangs in strips like flayed skin, and overhead the remains of a crystal chandelier shattered with b-b pellets yet “chimes” in the wind; if awkwardly I squat to examine small, obscure objects on the floor like jigsaw puzzle parts awaiting the touch of the master; if, that is, a sequence of mysterious elements are in order, like DNA—it is possible that an “idea” will come to me, with a palpable jolt, like an electric current.
Though sometimes it’s another sort of experience altogether—a sensation swift and sudden as a tick hopping onto a warm patch of skin, and instantaneously embedding itself in the skin.
By which I mean a deer tick. The smallest, most malevolent of ticks, no larger than the period at the end of this sentence.
How, why, to what purpose, this has come to me, in this desolate ruin in which, strictly speaking, I am “trespassing”—I have no idea. For the obscure objects on the floor might be shards of glass, bits of crockery, strips of fossilized wallpaper, a button made of bone, a fragment of a yellowed ivory piano key… Once, a post card from an other-worldly place in Utah called Bryce Canyon, badly weathered, its scrawled message only just barely readable—Missing you all! Love you! Promise be home soon. Janey.
With this “idea” seeded in my brain I hurry back home.
At such times I must be extremely cautious, for descending the mountain is nearly as arduous as ascending, in some ways more treacherous, for it is easier to slip and fall while descending than while climbing; one can crawl uphill (if needed) but one cannot crawl downhill.
In the brownstone on the river, a place of refuge rather more than a residence, still less a “home,” I quickly take notes in a fever of inspiration. (Of course, I do not think: “inspiration.” This is a word without meaning to me though I believe it has some sort of sentimental meaning to you.) Too excited to stop for a meal, too excited to try to sleep, I “take notes” for hours, until I discover that it is past midnight, my eyelids are drooping and my hand is aching, exhaustion rises about me like murky water.
Usually, an “idea” from the mansion will be strong enough to develop into a work of considerable length, in time. Novella, novel. (Yes, the faded postcard from “Janey” became a substantial novel, one of my most elaborately plotted.)
But time is required for such an effort, as time is required for any growing thing to take root, send up shoots, falter into life, “flourish.”
However: if I walk in another direction, along the river, past shuttered mills and small factories, past weatherworn brick row houses; past taverns with neon signs burning in daylight like insomniacs unaware that the night has ended—my “ideas” are likely to be of another sort, on the whole less ambitious.
In town, my walking is not “hiking”—still less “climbing.” I keep a relatively fast pace, for walking slowly is maddening to me, fraught with peril like riding a bicycle too slowly, or speaking so slowly one is apt to forget the beginning of a sentence by the time one reaches the ending.
Also, if you walk slowly you are likely to be seen as ambling, idling. You are likely to be seen as one who wouldn’t mind a stranger falling into step with you with that most offensive of cheery greetings—How’s it going?
Yet more offensive—D’you live around here?
Herrontown, Pennsylvania is a friendly place. It’s a friendly place in the way that a tide pool reeking with algae is a friendly place. Nothing much is happening, and you can’t escape.
Yet, Herrontown has “historic” significance. (Which is not why I am living here. I care for “history” only if I am writing about it.) Several skirmishes of the Revolutionary War took place in this part of the Delaware Valley not far from Trenton, New Jersey. Often I find myself in the old city center—“historic” Herrontown Square. Near the eighteenth-century Episcopal church and churchyard. Near the Revolutionary War cannon and the monument to fallen soldiers of bygone wars. (The last war so honored is the Gulf War [1990-91].) Mourning doves scatter as I proceed along the walkway.
In the small post office just off the square is a solitary clerk of indeterminate age—young?—no longer young?—from whom I sometimes purchase stamps; this individual is heavyset, with a melancholy / peevish face, straggling hair to his shoulders; in T-shirts stamped with obscure logos (Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath) that strain against his fatty-muscled torso. Often I am the only customer in the post office. Our transactions are civil but terse, unyielding—(I take care to avoid “eye contact” with this morose individual for fear that he might misunderstand)—as brief as possible. Inevitably I feel a tinge of something like sympathy for the post office clerk, if not pity. Yet also—No. It will not be you.
As I leave, clutching a small sheet of stamps—(for why should I buy more than six stamps at a time?—I may not live to use them all)—the morose clerk sighs unconsciously, as a mound of sand might sigh if it could.
A block away is the public library, housed in an old stone fortress of the Revolutionary War era to which plate glass windows have been added, somewhat incongruously; inside, unflattering fluorescent lights that make even robust library patrons look ghostly. The chief librarian Ms. Laport is a stylish woman in her early fifties with a particular smile of recognition for me—“Hello, Mr. N !”–for she’d known immediately who I am, or once was; on my second visit to the library she led me in triumph to a shelf of my books which she’d arranged in the bookcase Local Authors, and invited me to sign, and which I did sign, with some reluctance, having extracted from the earnest woman a pledge that she would protect my privacy in the future, and refrain from pointing me out to anyone when/if I ever returned. “But of course, Mr. N ! We are just so honored”—spoken with an air of apology, and not a trace of irony. With a small bequest to the library given by a generous / anonymous patron Miss Laporte has been able to subscribe to literary publications like Paris Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Boulevard, McSweeney’s, TLS, NYRB.
Sometimes on wintry afternoons I drop by the library, perusing these publications as hailstones pelt against the windows. Thinking how snug we are in here, like survivors in a cataclysm, unable to (yet) know the dimensions of the cataclysm.
Elsewhere in the library high school students sprawl rudely at tables, clicking through laptops, oblivious of their book-lined surroundings as two-dimensional figures in video games.
In recent months I have been avoiding the library though it is one of my places of refuge. I am not sure why. Sometimes, such impulses grip me—instincts for which there are no name, though possibly they are, like most instincts, related to self-preservation.
Yet, today, I find myself entering the library. Unobtrusively, shaking droplets of rain from my coat. And there is Ms. Laporte at the front desk surprised in the act of stamping a date into a library book for a patron, casting a startled glance in my direction, a confused smile, with an expression of—is it gratification, or mortification? Inevitable that I will pass by Ms. Laporte’s desk, greet her with a courteous smile, though not a warm nor even a brisk handshake (for we have not had that sort of relationship), nor would Ms. Laporte offer her hand to me. And the thought comes to me, unbidden—Not you. Sorry!
I know: Ms. Laporte is (possibly) in love with Mr. N the notoriously obscure and reclusive 21st century author of enigmatic fictions.
But though I share a name with N I am not in fact N . Thus I have no responsibility for the fantasies attractive, well-groomed, and “stylish” women, married or un-, spin of me in their idle hours.
As (partial) restitution for avoiding the library/ avoiding Ms. Laporte for months I will donate five hundred dollars to the Friends of the Herrontown Library.
After the post office and the library there is the neighborhood grocery store. Where, like Herrontown residents who have neither the inclination nor the energy to drive three miles to the glaring Safeway at the mall, I am obliged to shop for necessities.
McGuire’s Grocery, corner of Humboldt and Depot. In a neighborhood of old red-brick buildings, small businesses, vacant storefronts. Draw a deep breath, step inside. A sensation of unease, anticipation awaits.
Three cashiers. But only the third cashier is of interest. The name hand-printed on the little plastic badge is exotic—Keisha. The woman herself is not at all exotic, in her late thirties, sallow-skinned, shyly awkward—H’lo, sir, how are you today? (Annoying query which cashiers at McGuire’s Grocery are evidently required to ask customers.) From a distance Keisha appears to be bald but closer up you see that her delicate head is covered in a fine, soft down, the hair of a newborn. She is painfully thin—upper body, arms, wrists. Her face is a girl’s face cruelly drawn with fatigue, her eyeballs lightly flecked with blood. (Cancer? Chemotherapy? And now her hair is beginning to grow back?)
Vaguely, I recall, this is the female cashier who’d been wearing unflattering knitted caps on her head last fall. And then, for a while, could’ve been months, she’d disappeared from the grocery altogether. Until this minute I had not quite realized she’d been gone.
Though the most physically frail of the cashiers at McGuire’s Keisha is the most diligent and efficient. Deferential to customers, respectful and attentive to her work. Rarely smiling until she hands me the receipt for my purchases, and then a sweet, shy smile—“Thank you, sir.”
Evoking the reply: “Thank you.”
It seems that I have become something of a regular customer at McGuire’s (by default: for I would rather not patronize the dingy grocery at all as I would rather not “patronize” any store in any way that might be construed as routine, predictable) I am not so frequent a customer as to greet Keisha with anything like surprise, or pleasure, at seeing her back at the cash register. (As if being returned to McGuire’s was any sort of life!) Still less would I presume to ask how the poor woman is, as I have heard others do, with maddening cheer—“So, Keisha, how’s it going?—you’re looking good.”
Such flippant greetings are offensive to me even if they don’t seem to be offensive to Keisha who merely smiles and murmurs a courteous reply.
None of your business. Leave me alone. Go to hell.
But no: not this young woman. Not likely.
Today my purchases in McGuire’s are few, and unremarkable. I will not note them here for there is an obscure sort of shame in presenting, for the world’s glib judgment, anything so intimate as the items a solitary individual purchases for himself to eat/drink in the solitude of his barely furnished residence—None of your business is the appropriate commentary.
Less than a half-dozen items for Keisha to briskly scan and push along with her thin, deft hands. On the third finger of her left hand she wears a plain wedding band that fit her fingers loosely. So, she is married.
Hardly surprising. Very likely the woman is a mother, too.
“Paper or plastic?”—Keisha will inevitably ask though you’d think (I would think) that she’s intelligent enough to recall that she has asked me this question before; and that I am the sort of ecologically conscious customer who would prefer paper over plastic.
Still, the cashiers at McGuire’s always ask. No matter if they have asked numerous times before. No matter that I always give the same answer.
To help the alarmingly thin Keisha I will “bag” my groceries myself.
Indeed, I am feeling a reluctant sort of tenderness—weakness—in the vicinity of the cashier, and a peculiar impulse to reach out to touch her (very thin) wrist, as if to give comfort.
And the baby-fine hair, that scarcely covers her scalp! My fingers yearn to stroke Keisha’s hair that appears, in the harsh fluorescent lighting overhead, the hue of soft faded copper.
And I find myself thinking, with a thrill of wonder—You. You will be the one.
And so, a decision has been made, it seems.
Yet not (so far as I can comprehend) by me.
Walking home along the river. At my usual brisk pace to signal to whoever might be observing—There is a man with a destination.
Carrying the (single, paper) bag from the grocery that weighs heavier than I’d have anticipated.
It’s a wide, windy river, the Delaware. Gusts of wind stirring the waves into small white caps.
A sensation of unease, agitation has come over me. Is it the wind. Pricking tears in my eyes. (Each night before bed I take one drop in each eye of a stinging liquid, allegedly to slow the ravages of a premature glaucoma; my eyes have grown sensitive.) A mounting tension, excitement, as if something were about to burst into flame.
When the flame illuminates the newspaper page from beneath, with an exquisite quivering radiance. That is how I am feeling!
The decision has been made. The choice.
Postal clerk, librarian, cashier—cashier.
(It should be clearly stated: I have very little interest in “characters” of the kind that populate prose fiction. The individuals I’ve described who live in the small town in which I seem now to be dwelling are not “characters” but actual, living people—that is their singular, sole identification. They are not representative, or significant. There is no way to imagine that they are of any worth except to a small circle of persons who know them, if even to those.)
It’s true—(I see now)—I’ve been aware of the cashier Keisha for some time. Not entirely consciously, but—aware.
Usually, cashiers, clerks, waiters and waitresses pass into and out of my consciousness without definition or identity. If Keisha had not returned to work I would not have missed her and even now, I am sure that if I never saw her again she would soon fade from memory.
Does that sound harsh? It does not feel harsh.
Since I have long ago exhausted my patience with others, indeed with my own self, there is really no opportunity for emotion to flourish as bacteria flourish in warm humid recycled air (like hot-air driers in public lavatories touted as “sanitary”). By the (relatively young) age of thirty-four I’d had enough emotion for reasons that will remain my own business. I’d had enough interest, curiosity. Quite content not to become involved with another person for the remainder of my life.
If you love, you will regret it.
To love is to love unwisely.
Harden your heart! Before another hardens it.
Yet: by the time I reach home my heart has begun to beat rapidly. My eyes blink rapidly as if a blinding light were being shone into them.
“I will! I will do it.”
Rare for me to exclaim even in the privacy of my house. Rare for me to laugh aloud, as I am doing now.
What I will do: set a plot in motion, and see where it ends.
(If it ends. Some plots have no natural conclusions.)
I will send Keisha a fifty-dollar bill with no explanation. Just a folded sheet of paper in an envelope with the terse message, in small caps—for Keisha.
Address the envelope to Keisha c/o McGuire Grocery, Humboldt & Depot Streets, Herrontown, PA.
Stamp the envelope. Take outside, mail in a corner mailbox.
(Does it signify anything that the mailbox less than fifty yards from my residence has been defaced with graffiti in white spray paint?)
(In conventional fiction, certainly: such graffiti would be “symbolic.” In the less-classifiable prose for which N is known, the very point of the observation may be its [ontological] pointlessness.)
Calculating when this envelope will be received by Keisha. Not tomorrow but surely the following day. When Keisha arrives at the grocery the manager McGuire will hand the envelope to her with a quizzical smile—“Keisha! Here is something for you.”
Taken by surprise, embarrassed, suspecting nothing and with nothing to hide, Keisha will (probably) open the envelope as McGuire looks on; she will be stunned to discover the fifty-dollar bill with the scarcely explanatory note for Keisha.
Almost, I can hear the woman’s baffled stammer—Oh. Oh, dear. What on earth is… Almost, I can see the blush rising into her sallow-skinned girl’s face.
Beyond this, what inane remarks McGuire might make, what comments from co-workers expressing surprise, amazement, a twinge (no doubt) of jealousy—I have not the slightest curiosity.
Out of the void, a fifty-dollar bill sent to her—Keisha will be suffused with wonder: who is her (anonymous) benefactor? And why her? One of the great mysteries of the woman’s life, never to be (fully) explained.
Humdrum, ordinary, predictable, unexceptional—banal, trite, commonplace. The lives of most, possibly all inhabitants of Herrontown, PA whose population declined precipitously in the 1950s with the closing of several factories and whose most distinguished architecture is a ruin—the old Eriskson mansion atop Wolf Pit Mountain. (Absurd to speak of Wolf Pit Mountain as anything other than a high, steep hill with a scenic view of the Delaware River extending for miles.)
All that is new in Herrontown, or relatively new, is, at the river’s edge, a red-brick factory that was once Pennsylvania’s premier manufacturer of ladies’ hats and gloves, now under reconstruction into what the builder describes as a luxury condominium village.
(Will the condominium village ever be completed? Doubtful.)
(Like repairs to the old, once-elegant brownstone in which I live amid minimal furnishings, curtainless windows emitting a stark raw light from the river, bare hardwood floors and boxes of books which I haven’t yet gotten around to unpacking since there are—literally!—no bookcases in the house to receive them, and I have not yet gotten around to purchasing bookcases reasoning that effort involved might be disproportionate to the actual use I will make of the [several thousand] books which have followed me around for decades like old, lost, reproachful loves most of whose names I have forgotten.)
Humdrum and ordinary setting, in the most humdrum and ordinary of seasons—late winter, early April.
Gunmetal-gray clouds swollen like tumors, strips of snow remaining beside walls, in shaded places. Today, a Thursday, most humdrum and ordinary of weekdays and yet the day that, by my calculation, Keisha should receive the envelope from her employer, which should have been received by McGuire in that morning’s mail, and so on Thursday, late-mid-afternoon, I return to the grocery to purchase a few items though it is much too soon for me to return.
(Will anyone notice? Steeling myself for a lame remark from McGuire.)
As soon as I enter the store my eyes seek out Keisha. She is one of just two cashiers on duty at this hour and she appears to be more distracted than usual, talking with a customer, smiling, glancing about. Searching for—who?
I can sense (I think) a subtle alteration of the air in McGuire’s. Judging from casual remarks cast in Keisha’s direction by her co-workers it would seem that her surprise gift is known to them.
Lingering not far away in one of the aisles, pretending to peruse shelves of the most banal and predictable of Campbell’s soups, I observe that Keisha is in fact an attractive woman if you are not repelled by her extreme thinness and the sight of her scalp showing through her downy hair like a private body-part. Her facial features are delicate, her skin is strangely unlined, though sallow, with an olive cast—she is (just possibly) of mixed blood, as the vulgar cliché has it, light-skinned black, northern African, middle eastern, even (East) Indian. Her eyes are very dark, beautiful eyes (you might say: if “beautiful” were not another cliché which I would never use professionally) that appear to be more alert, brighter than I have ever seen them. Though Keisha is wearing her usual uniform-like clothes—loose-fitting smock, slacks—she has looped a rose-patterned scarf around her slender neck, a festive note.
Laughing at a lame joke a (male) customer has made to her. Pretending to laugh. The first time (I am sure) that I have heard Keisha laugh.
Am I responsible? Suffusing the poor woman with a sense of worth, dignity? Hope?
After ten, fifteen minutes pushing a shopping cart through the narrow aisles of the store I reappear at the checkout area at just the right time: Keisha is the cashier without a customer.
Setting my several items on the counter beside the cash register. Exchanging the usual (perfunctory, banal) greetings with the cashier bearing the name-tag Keisha. As if there were no (secret) connection between us—as if I didn’t know so much more than Keisha knows of the circumstances of that morning’s surprise gift.
Keisha is smiling, friendly. Not quite so shy-abashed as usual. Definitely, something has happened to lighten her spirits.
A sensation of vertigo comes over me. That this woman, a stranger to me, is yet linked to me, unknowing.
Unique in my life. That a stranger and I share a secret though it is more fully my secret than it is hers.
“Paper or plastic, sir?”—a familiar query uttered with more warmth than usual.
But already I am reaching for a paper bag, to bag the groceries myself.
And already on the jubilant walk home I am planning the second gift, to be sent to Keisha in ten days.
This time, one hundred dollars.
In the shape of a crisp, newly minted one-hundred-dollar bill—which I am sure Keisha has never seen before, never held in her hand.
Do I even recall which U.S. president is on the one-hundred-dollar bill?—I do not, for it is Benjamin Franklin; and through some clumsy oversight of U.S. history, the great Franklin was never elected president.
Having to make a special trip to the local bank, to acquire the bill. Not a word of explanation to the female clerk, no awkward small talk, lame jokes of the kind others feel obliged to make in the bank, clerks as well as customers—polite and courteous and without expression, my way of confronting the world.
Here you are, sir. Is there anything more we can do for you today?
After a beat, coolly—thank you.
Hurrying home then, to prepare the envelope for Keisha.
This time I have decided to make the message a little longer—for Keisha, who is so kind.
Hesitating between good and kind. Deciding on kind, because it is kindness that seems more significant.
A good person might not be actively kind. But a kind person is actively good.
Addressing the envelope and mailing it, as before. Calculating when I should return to the grocery—neither too soon nor too late…
Perhaps I should explain. Though you have not asked.
(Stupid questions are more or less the rule of interviews like yours. But stupid questions that violate protocol are taboo, and our greatest taboo is the prescription against asking about money.)
Money means very little to me. In fact I have no idea how much money I have in assorted investments, bank accounts scattered in several states. (Twenty million? Thirty? Only my accountant knows, and Gopnik is sworn to secrecy.) Royalties from books, sales and re-sales of publication rights over a lengthy (if unspectacular) career can accrue a fair amount of money, if not carelessly spent; of course, N is notoriously a celibate bachelor, has no dependents, thus no obvious heirs. Interviewers who don’t hesitate to ask me asinine questions about where I get my ideas at least have the good sense not to ask about money.
It is true, for some thirty or more years my books sold moderately well, for literary fiction of an avant-garde sort. Inadvertently I’d become a sort of cult figure having repudiated my (working-class) background to explore worlds of surreal, baroque beauty, cerebral phantasmagorias, like an Eros-obsessed Borges; as I have determined to keep my private life private out of shyness so extreme as to suggest morbidity, my reclusiveness has been mistaken for an aristocratic arrogance which in turn has whetted the curiosity of the weak-minded. Films were made of my most obscure fictions, as of my most popular fictions, by both American and European filmmakers as well as the Korean fantasist Park Chan-wook. For a brief while in the 1980s there was a TV series adapted from my shorter fictions, in the mode of a more esoteric and intellectually demanding Twilight Zone.
All the while I’ve had few expenses. I travel infrequently, save most of my money, invest in ultra-conservative bonds, live very comfortably / frugally on my interest as my imagination and energies have begun to wane and I find myself unable to write novels, even novellas, concentrating more recently on enigmatic prose pieces that mimic non-fiction, in the service of what I would call “higher fictions” (if the term were not so pretentious). As I have lost what minimal curiosity I’d once had in the complexities of characterization, the bedrock of the traditional novel, I have gained a keener interest in the complexities of “concept”: how a concept, or idea, can be made to develop, as if it were a character, in a way; as an unpromising seed or bulb, that appears rotted, stringy, hairy, can yet be coaxed into sending out shoots into earth, flourishing in a cracked flower pot, and finally “blossoming”—like my favorite spring flower, narcissus, with their pale, delicate petals, their faint sweet fragrance that is the very emblem of fragility and finitude.
In this way boldly exploring, not a mere “mystery,” but the essence, the germinating seed, of “mystery” itself.
And so: perhaps that is why I am drawn to Keisha. Not repelled by the woman’s extreme fragility and aura of (dare I say it?) premature doom but instead attracted by it.
Eagerly anticipating my return to McGuire’s Grocery.
For the first time in memory waking early, before dawn—with a wild sort of elation—anticipation—(is this what others mean by curiosity, an ardent fluttering of the pulse?)—to see what effect my second gift has had upon the cashier.
Discovering that I am frequently glancing at my watch. I am frequently thinking of her.
Surely the first time in my life that I have thought of a stranger so intensely, whose last name is unknown to me.
And now that I think of it, there is something touching, I suppose, in this curiosity. For curiosity is a cabinet of vulnerabilities. Ignorance is the bulwark against the risks of curiosity. I do not know, therefore I am. I yearn to know, therefore I am incomplete.
Curiosity is a habit of youth. The desperation to know what others think of you. The curse of adolescence, wishing to control what others think. While at my age I scarcely care what I think of myself, let alone what others think of me.
(Perhaps, perversely, as interviewers have claimed, there is a “renewed interest” in the fictions of N of the 1980s; it isn’t likely that I will ever know since I lack the curiosity to investigate. I do own a computer, a very old Dell, but last time I checked the clumsy machine was not connected to the Internet and its word-processing skills are so crude, I prefer my 1996 Japanese electric typewriter, now a sort of antique treasure among typewriter aficionados.)
Three days later, I return to the grocery. Late afternoon. And there is Keisha at her usual station distractedly scanning items, bagging groceries —in loose-fitting smock, slacks—no festive scarf tied about her throat today.
To my dismay I see that Keisha is unsmiling. Slump-shouldered. Her face has been made-up, with a particularly unconvincing rosy-peach makeup, to disguise what appears to be bruising beneath her right eye. Her upper lip is swollen. Her delicately boned nose is swollen. She has been beaten. By–?
Husband? A jealous husband.
Nothing I could have anticipated. Given gifts of cash by an anonymous admirer, the poor woman has been suspected of—infidelity?
My gifts, meant only to enliven the poor convalescent’s life, have backfired for her.
No one has noticed me in the grocery so far. I don’t think so. There is a little flurry of activity unrelated to Keisha, at the other cash register.
Trying to disguise my alarm I push a grocery cart into the interior of the store as if I have come simply to shop. (Will anyone notice that I have returned to the store, so soon? I am hoping that N is as invisible to others as they are usually invisible to him.)
With a few innocuous items to purchase, I return to the front of the store. My heart is beating rapidly, contritely. Though Keisha has two customers waiting in line, and another cashier has none, yet I make my way to Keisha’s cash register as if not happening to notice. My behavior is senseless, suspicious. I am beginning to perspire, a creature at bay.
Waiting in line. Gazing (covertly) at Keisha. The shell of her head looks particularly fragile today. Bruised, swollen face. Partially blackened eye. Yet bravely she has tried to disguise her injuries. She has even applied lipstick to her partially swollen, asymmetrical mouth. All day (I assume) the poor woman has had to endure stares, clumsy queries or murmured commiseration from nosy strangers.
My dear! What has happened to you?—I will not inquire.
Though my heart contracts with sorrow for Keisha. Unless it’s anger for whoever has abused her.
To whom is the unhappy woman married, who could not share in his wife’s (minor) good fortune but felt obliged to punish her for it? Another time I note the wedding band, with a pang of contempt.
Puerile symbol of the marital bond. Such ordinariness suffocates.
“Paper or plastic, sir?”—the cashier’s voice is low, hoarse.
“Paper. Why do you always ask?”
Keisha glances at me startled. Sharpness in my voice which I hadn’t intended. Possibly, I’d meant to sound commiserate, sympathetic. But the reply is awkward for I am an awkward person, outside the confines of my being in which I am precisely calibrated.
Keisha murmurs sorry! It is too late for me to murmur sorry! to her but I set about putting the several purchases into the bag myself to compensate for the sharpness in my voice which I did not intend, I swear.
My poor dear, I will help you escape. If you will let me.
And now, I am at an impasse. For if I continue to send Keisha gifts of cash, and her husband discovers them, he will punish her, perhaps more savagely than he has done. My impression is that Keisha is too honest to dissemble; the kind of woman who feels guilt over small matters, even when she is guiltless.
A wild thought comes to me, and keeps me awake late into the night—I could arrange for Keisha to receive a large sum of money, which would free her from the brute. (Thousands of dollars?) (One million dollars?)
For much of a day the possibility consoles me. Trying to imagine what such a gift could mean to a woman like Keisha who is obliged not only to work at a minimal wage in McGuire’s dingy market but who has only just recently completed a cycle of brutal medical treatment.
A trust fund, perhaps. Monthly allotments. Some (legal) way of providing the woman with financial independence, at least.
Thinking—would a woman like Keisha, no doubt a longtime inhabitant of Herrontown, Pennsylvania, with probably no more than a high school diploma, if even that, be capable of breaking ties to an oppressive husband? Asserting her own dependence, at her age?
One million dollars, gifted to a grocery store clerk! It could not be kept secret, the spouse would know. The family would know. Relatives. Neighbors. Media would sweep upon the frail woman, greedily. Total strangers would seek her out, hoping to exploit her.
As I work out how to proceed, I have to concede that something like curiosity is driving me now. Each morning instead of lying near-comatose in bed scarcely able to open my eyes I wake eagerly, wondering what will happen next: what I will direct, that will happen next. For the cashier’s (ordinary) life is in my control, if I wish it.
“How exciting life is! I’d never realized”—this bizarre remark is uttered to my tax accountant Gopnik who stares at me as if I have suddenly begun speaking in a foreign language.
Rare that I say anything to Gopnik beyond a minimum of words. Tax statements, bank statements, stacks of canceled checks and receipts. In Gopnik’s presence a robotic efficiency courses through me. Even my murmured words of greeting and farewell are the utterances of a robot.
But now, Gopnik is nonplussed. Smiles inanely, as if to agree with me however bizarre and improbable the sentiment—How exciting life is… in Herrontown, PA.
Gopnik doesn’t live in Herrontown. Gopnik lives in Doylestown, forty minutes away.
Inquiring of the accountant how it might be arranged, a “trust” established by an unknown benefactor with interest paid in (monthly?) allotments to an individual who would be given minimum information about the arrangement.
“Well. It could be done”—Gopnik’s reply is notably lacking in enthusiasm.
Why would it be done, who would be the beneficiary of such a (desperate?) transaction, Gopnik knows better than to inquire of his reticent client.
Yes, it is true: I am betraying my initial “neutrality”—“objectivity”—as one whose relationship to life is essentially that of the investigator/ experimenter.
Led by curiosity to discover the grocery clerk’s schedule: five days a week, with Mondays off. And where the grocery clerk lives: one point eight miles away from my own house on the river though inland, in a “working-class” residential area of Herrontown.
Rare for me to become so involved with anyone—anything.
Rare for me to experience such feeling. But here I am across the street from the grocery store one unexpectedly mild afternoon in April. Waiting for Keisha to leave with a co-worker at the end of their shifts, six P.M. Following the co-worker’s vehicle at a discreet distance in my own vehicle. Noting where Keisha is dropped off.
Driving past the small clapboard house on Mill Run Street, a street of small interchangeable clapboard houses. Some of the houses rundown, needing repainting, repair. One or two of the houses abandoned, boarded-up. Puddles from melted snow and ice glistening in driveways. Mud-rutted front yards. In the small front yard of the cashier’s house at 54 Mill Run Street bright yellow daffodils beaten down, broken after rain.
She has planted these daffodils, I seem to know. Broken after rain, mud-flecked, yet still alive, vivid-yellow.
Oh! The knowledge is a needle to the heart. Seeking beauty even in ugliness.
Driving past the house, circling the block. Slow. No hurry. Where else, to go? Nowhere else calls to me. Driving past the small undistinguished clapboard house another time. Daring to park a short distance away.
Lighting a cigarette. (Seven years, five months since I’ve smoked.) Sudden thrill in the lungs as if youth itself is flooding back.
For some time sitting here, smoking. Watching the house through the rear-view mirror on the exterior of the car, beside the driver.
Watching the house—her house? Why?
Might’ve felt discomfort, unease—shame. Yet oddly I do not.
Emptiness of mind: stained sink into which a thin trickle of water falls from a faucet. As it falls, it drains out.
From time to time, vehicles pass my parked car. Slow-moving vehicles, driven by faceless figures.
Am I waiting for him to come home?—the brute husband.
(There is a narrative in which N might pay to have the “brute husband” dispatched, disappeared. Ah, I could afford to pay an assassin, in fact two assassins, a very handsome sum! But this is not that narrative.)
About to pull away from the curb when an insolent-looking boy of about fourteen appears pedaling a gleaming red bicycle, turning into the rutted driveway beside the clapboard house.
She has bought the boy that bicycle!—I know it.
Not that the bicycle is new. Might’ve been purchased second-hand from Mike’s Bikes New & Used in town that sells a few expensive Italian racing bikes amid less expensive American bikes and second-hand bikes. But the boy’s bicycle is a recent purchase, I am sure of this.
Driving away. Pressing too hard on the gas pedal, the car lurches. God damn! Damn her.
The money I’ve given the woman was for her, not her family. Can’t be trusted to spend money on herself. What are families but leeches.
So angry! Feeling betrayed.
Deciding then, I will never return to dingy McGuire’s. Never again, risking such ignominy.
Led by curiosity to discover Keisha’s last name: Olen.
…soon then calculating that I must seek out Keisha to speak to her directly. To address her in my own person. I have seen in your face a soul of beauty. You are kind, generous, good. You must be protected from your own goodness. My wish is to make you happy…
All this is true. Yet the words are laughably banal, vulgar.
Such ordinary words, I can’t bring myself to utter. My fear is that one day I will wish to commit suicide, a most reasonable decision, yet, being unable to compose a suitable note, I will be thwarted and forced to live forever.
Silence is not really an option, in matters of suicide. As nature abhors a vacuum, so silence is a kind of vacuum which others will noisily fill with idiotic theories that will debase the dignity of the suicide simply in being suggested.
Not sure (now) how to proceed. Not (it seems) able to desist.
Like a compulsive hand-washer required to enact the identical ritual dozens of times a day simply to be able to breathe normally I now find myself unable not to think of Keisha Olen virtually all of the time. Not the woman herself but the riddle she represents.
Have I fallen in love? With—her?
But I am immune to love—that’s to say, “love.” No emotions engage me except as fossils of living feeling, transmogrified into language, and through language into texts.
True, decades ago such emotions coursed through me like electric jolts, as (no doubt) they course through you, leaving you exhausted and uncertain who you are—the emotions, or the vessel through which they course.
Take comfort: in time, if you apply the proper strategy, these emotions will drain away like a sutured abscess.
And so, the elaborate strategy I’ve decided upon is a kind of triage: to satisfy the spurious attachment which I (seem to) feel for a woman scarcely known to me, by the name of Keisha Olen, I am writing (typing, on my Japanese electric typewriter) a letter to her which I hope will be the last I will write to her—
Dear Ms. Keisha Olen:
I am writing to you as the Executive Director of the Society of Deserving Americans. Originally established in 1889, the Society has an honored tradition of providing monetary gifts to individuals who are deemed, by virtue of their kindness, good-heartedness, and inner worth, outstanding citizens in their communities—“deserving” of recognition. In bestowing these awards the Society does not seek publicity and requests from all awardees that its bequests remain confidential.
This year only two individuals have been selected as Deserving Americans in the Delaware Valley: you, Keisha Olen, are one of these. Both you and your fellow Deserving American have already received your First and Second Gifts. Your Third Gift is to be a more substantial sum of money which will be awarded to you if you 1) pledge never to speak of it to anyone, not even a close family member; and, 2) pledge to use the money exclusively on or for yourself, and not on family, church, charitable organizations however worthy.
Acceptance of the Third Gift must be in person. It will not be sent through the mail like previous Gifts. You (and your fellow recipient) will be asked to appear at the Delaware River Inn, Herrontown, at five P.M., Monday April 15. Please arrive promptly. A table will be reserved for you and your fellow awardee in the restaurant. A light meal will be served at which time you will receive the Third Gift. You must come alone and arrange to leave alone and keep the meeting, and all circumstances surrounding it, confidential.
Society for Deserving Americans
This (carefully composed) letter is mailed to Ms. Keisha Olen at 54 Mill Run Street, calculated to arrive on the Monday preceding the date of the meeting. It is my supposition that Keisha brings in the mail herself on Mondays which is her day off from work while, on other days, she may not be home when the mail is delivered, and may not see it until it has passed through others’ hands.
The risk is that Keisha will not be free on that date, or at that time. For there is no way she can contact me, to arrange for another time. This is a risk I must take. However, the Delaware Inn is ideal for our meeting. As a local “historic” landmark with inflated prices it is well known to local residents like Keisha who rarely patronize it.
Yes, this has all been shrewdly calibrated. My most ingenious narrative in years, I am thinking!
And so, by way of this invitation, which to anyone with a modicum of skeptical intelligence would be identified as a ruse, the naïve and trusting grocery store cashier is seduced into agreeing to a meeting with a stranger—a surreptitious meeting with an individual she believes to be a fellow Deserving American. Since she is sure to recognize me as a customer at McGuire’s, this is a (plausible) explanation.
And does everything go as planned at the Delaware Inn? Yes, but no.
On the afternoon of April 15, precisely at five P.M, here is Keisha hesitantly entering the Delaware Inn: in a dressy blouse and jacket, skirt and high-heeled shoes. To my disappointment her eggshell-fragile head is covered by a flowery hat of the kind a Christian lady might’ve worn to church in 1957. Just inside the doorway she halts, blinking and staring. She is very nervous, like a wild creature that suspects it has blundered into a trap, and is poised to bolt away.
“Keisha! Hello! You’re here—too?”
Keisha sees me, and recognizes me. One of the grocery store customers! She blinks at me, confused and alarmed.
“What a coincidence! You are the other ‘recipient’… Congratulations!”—my voice is lowered, discreet. It will take a few seconds for Keisha to comprehend the circumstances: the coincidence that the other of two Deserving Americans summoned to the Delaware Inn is someone known to her.
To placate any suspicion she might have about this remarkable coincidence I show Keisha my letter from the Society of Deserving Americans, near-identical to her own, which she hurriedly skims; but Keisha has not a suspicious bone in her body, thus no reason to wonder at the coincidence, if that’s what it might be called. Judging from my manner she has no reason to suspect that I know anything more than she does about the mysterious award we are each to receive.
A flawless ruse! Presenting myself not as the master-plotter of the Society of Deserving Americans, but one of its Deserving Americans.
Awkwardly, we introduce ourselves. (Of course, I provide a fictitious name.) Yet more awkwardly, we shake hands. (It’s clear that Keisha is not accustomed to shaking hands.)
For this daunting occasion, which must also be a secretive occasion, Keisha has made herself up like a high school girl at a prom. Her sallow skin glows, her thin lips are fire-engine red. Shadows and dents beneath her eyes seem to have vanished. The scanty eyebrows have been penciled into thin crescents but there is nothing to be done about the chemo-ravaged lashless eyes that stare wonderingly at me.
Naturally, I take charge. Keisha looks to me, to lead her. Where as a customer at McGuire’s I am somewhat stiff, formal, unsmiling, now in the foyer of the Delaware Inn, in this startling new setting, I am gentlemanly and affable, smiling easily.
“Yes, we’re both to be congratulated! This is an amazing honor…”
“Did you—tell anyone about it?” Keisha’s voice is strained, hoarse.
“Of course not. It has to be a secret. You didn’t tell anyone, did you, Keisha?”
“N-No. I did not.”
“Because I think they would nullify the award, if we did,” I tell her sternly. “It would be—I think—a violation of our contractual relationship with the Society, which we have acknowledged by coming here today…”
This sequence of words is so plausible, so legal-sounding, Keisha nods grimly. It is good for her to be told such a sentiment by me, an older gentleman, seemingly an “educated” gentleman, to assuage any doubts or ambivalence she might have.
Allowing me then to lead her into River View Room overlooking the dazzling Delaware. Amid so much that is banal and predictable, a river is always in a way fresh and unexpected.
Our reserved table?—an affable host escorts us to it, the very table I’d requested, in a farther corner. At this hour of the day the River View is virtually deserted, sepulchral. Unobtrusively I will remove two envelopes from a briefcase to place on a ledge beside the table as if they have been awaiting us.
A waiter appears: Drinks?
Not for her, Keisha murmurs; then, relenting, “D’you have soft drinks? I will have a Coke.”
Coke! Have to bite my tongue to keep from making a sardonic remark about toxic chemicals manufactured for mass consumption.
Determined to remain sober, I order a glass of dry white wine. A single, singular glass.
Now, conversation! Excitement rushes through me like adrenaline through a pathologist about to make the first, exquisite incision in a fresh corpse sprawled before him.
“What a—an—occasion! We will celebrate…”
In my gentlemanly guise I ply my self-conscious companion with low-keyed questions—background, family, how long has she lived in Herrontown, PA—(“Forever”)—how long has she worked at McGuire’s?—(“Seems like forever”).
Discreetly, I don’t ask Keisha about her health. Not yet, about her marriage.
Is she unhappy, does her husband abuse her?—no. Not yet.
As she answers my questions in a halting, hoarse voice like one accustomed to conversation Keisha glances nervously about the faux-elegant restaurant as if she fears being observed, overheard. I am made to realize that this is a person who is rarely asked such questions, or perhaps any questions at all of a general nature. I am made to suppose that this is a person at whom no one, certainly not a well-dressed stranger, has actually looked, with interest, in a long time.
Though uneasy, Keisha is also flattered. The fact of the “award” has made her think differently about herself, perhaps—Yes. You are special. Did you ever doubt, you are special?
Keisha is wearing a lemon-colored satin blouse with a floppy bow and white plastic buttons; her jacket is a coarser fabric, a wool-synthetic blend, dark beige. I seem to know that these “dressy” clothes are not new purchases but years old—from a time when she’d been much younger. Her ears are unusually small, waxy-pale. Her throat is pale, in contrast to the rosy cosmetic face. On the third finger of her right hand is the wedding band, still loose; on her right wrist, which is very thin, a loose-fitting, inexpensive woman’s wristwatch. Touchingly, her short, brittle fingernails have been polished fire engine-red, to match her lipstick.
For some days I’ve brooded about how much cash to give Keisha. A dramatic increase seems plausible, but not too dramatic; better to whet her desire for more money, and then more, to keep her interested and involved; even, to a degree, mildly anxious. And so, Keisha’s envelope contains ten crisp one-hundred-dollar bills.
Am I in love? Ridiculous!
Our drinks are brought by the waiter. Wondering who we are, what relationship. Well—let him wonder!
“Again, dear Keisha—congratulations!”
Ceremoniously I lift my glass, click it against Keisha’s glass. Dry white wine clicking against a vile dark chemical concoction. Keisha laughs, breathlessly. She is making a valiant effort to be gay, festive–a woman for whom surprises are (probably) not often happy.
Well, how frequently are surprises “happy” in any of our lives? When is the last time someone rushed up to you crying Good news! Happy news! You won’t believe this!
Indeed, no one has ever rushed up to me exclaiming in this way. No one has ever burst into a house in which I was living, or into a room in which I had been sitting, waiting… Good news! Happy news! You won’t believe this, N !
Keisha is drinking the vile Coke, which fizzes at its surface as carbolic acid might “fizz.” I see that the fire engine-red lipstick has smeared onto one of her front teeth. I see that the coppery-brown-penciled eyebrows are asymmetrical, as if the hand that applied them was shaky. Like her ears Keisha’s nose is oddly small, and oddly pale, nostrils pinched like slits. Her very face seems too small. Does chemotherapy shrink a face? Or—might the treatment have been radiation?
Indeed, has Keisha recovered from this treatment, as I’d assumed? From cancer? Had her illness even been cancer? Had there been an illness? For weeks—months–I’ve assumed that I know the outline of the cashier’s life, it’s something of a shock to realize that I really know very little about her. The hair loss might be caused by something else altogether—a thyroid condition, a gastrointestinal disorder.
It soon becomes clear that Keisha has not much to say apart from expressing a childlike wonderment at her good luck. For, to her, despite the letter she’d received, at which I’d labored more intensely than I labor at most of my prose fiction, she doesn’t really think that she might deserve the mystery gifts she has been receiving. To her, as to, perhaps, the class of individuals to which she belongs from birth, there is only good luck and bad luck.
Bad luck would be cancer. Good luck would be mystery gifts of cash out of nowhere.
As if good luck were not the consequence of a (human) agent, in this case. Rather, akin to what is (quaintly) called an Act of God—like weather, earthquakes.
Yes, it is somewhat disappointing to me, that Keisha has so little to say to me. My questions encourage her to speak only briefly. I might be a school teacher, an authority figure of some vague kind, whose authority is not to be questioned, but whom she would avoid if she could, for she is uncomfortable in his presence; my white dress shirt, dark blue tie, camel’s hair sport coat seem to have intimidated her, which was hardly my intention. Rather, I’d dressed out of respect for her and for the occasion which is (after all) as remarkable in my life as in hers.
Indeed you are in love. And indeed, it is ridiculous.
Keisha is not a beautiful woman, I see now. No doubt I have been mistaking fragility for beauty. The drawn, melancholy features, the effects of illness. Soft fine downy hair, lashless eyes that seem to penetrate mine with a kind of helpless candor. Even Keisha’s (relative) youth has been deceiving—she is not so young as I’d thought, surely in her forties.
And she is (annoyingly) reluctant to order anything to eat, with the excuse that she isn’t hungry at this time of day. “But we are to have a ‘light meal,’ according to the directive.” I am speaking gaily, giddily. The wine seems to have gone to my brain. “Shall I order for you, dear?”
Dear. Have I been calling Keisha dear? That has not been my intention.
Keisha frowns, stroking the nape of her neck. Stroking the baby-fine hairs at the back of her head. It isn’t clear that dear has even registered with her, she is distracted by the setting—white linen tablecloth, plate-glass window overlooking the river, sunlight scintillant on the river. The River View menu, bound in a kind of quilted white fabric, absurdly large, pretentious, seems to intimidate her too.
Is the woman impressed by me?—I wonder. How crude her husband must be, by contrast. With me.
Of course he is (probably) (much) younger than I.
To prepare for this momentous day I had my camel’s hair sport coat dry cleaned for the first time in nine years. (It was last worn at a funeral nine years ago.) I had my (untidy, straggly, thinning) hair washed, trimmed, blow-dried at the Herrontown Barber. My shirt is freshly laundered, properly ironed, with (onyx) cuff links.
Yet, Keisha seems scarcely to notice my clothes. She is still glancing worriedly about the restaurant– as if anyone in this restaurant would be likely to know her. In her hoarse voice she asks, “D’you think they will come to meet us? Or maybe they are here now—watching us?”
“The people who—the ‘Society’…”
For a moment I have no idea what Keisha is talking about. Then I realize, I should seem as wondering and uncertain as she is. I should certainly not behave as if I know more than Keisha knows about our circumstances. Though of course, by instinct Keisha defers to me, as male.
I tell her yes possibly. They might. “The letter was indeed somewhat inconclusive.”
“They want to keep it secret. Like the state lottery—who wins. So that people won’t be asking for money from the winners. Or from the Society. Like people on welfare and food stamps…”
People on welfare. Food stamps. A startling tone here. Does Keisha resent people on welfare and food stamps, or has Keisha been people on welfare and food stamps herself?
The waiter has been hovering about our table. He is deferential to me, less certain of Keisha—her status, her relationship to me. Judging from the quality of her “dressy” clothes she is not a relative, surely.
He is daring to wonder if you are lovers. This woman, and you!
A flush comes into my face. Not sure if I am abashed, or prideful.
“Come, dear! The Society expects us to order a ‘light meal.’ It seems to be part of the ritual.”
Reluctantly Keisha agrees to a fruit salad platter. My order is charcuterie et fromage.
It’s amusing to me, unless dismaying, that my companion never asks me about myself. Though I have inquired about her life with genuine interest and curiosity Keisha does not think to ask me a single question. Too shy, I suppose. Women of her class are not comfortable asking questions of what might seem to them a managerial class.
At McGuire’s, the bantering red-haired McGuire is free to chide and tease his employees but they dare not chide and tease him in turn. All they can do is laugh, with varying degrees of mirth.
Also, Keisha is (probably) just not curious about me. Whoever I am, I dwell beyond the range of anyone who might factor meaningfully in her life.
Our orders are brought to the table: a large, lavish fruit salad for Keisha, served in a hollowed-out pineapple; charcuterie et fromage for me, on a marble platter with a sprig of grapes and fancy Waterstone crackers.
Keisha stares at her food, and laughs forlornly. “Oh! This is kind of—fancy…”
“Yes, indeed. Very nice.”
How childlike, the woman’s eyes. Almost, it seems as if the pupils are dilated. Beautiful eyes, though still slightly bloodshot.
“Just eat as much as you want, dear. You should try to put on weight, you know.”
Again, dear. Unconsciously the incriminating word has slipped out.
But Keisha seems scarcely to notice. Perhaps nothing about me is noticeable to Keisha.
“Guess I don’t have a whole lot of appetite, most days. Also, I have to make supper when I get home. I can’t stay much longer here. I have to try to eat with them, too. I should.”
Valiantly Keisha lifts a fork, impales a small slice of pineapple. Minutes are required for her to chew the tangy fruit, as I spread brie onto crackers. On the river the sun is losing definition, dissolving into the western sky behind successive hills, like something spilled.
Prodded by my questions—(I abhor the vacuum of silence in a situation like this for which I have only myself to blame)–Keisha begins to tell me more about herself. Yes, she’d been born in Herrontown. She’d gone to school in Herrontown. She’d gotten married in Herrontown—both times.
Both times?—politely, I express surprised interest.
“The first time, I was nineteen. Y’know—had to get married.” Keisha laughs, daringly. Thinks better of it, biting at her lip. “That didn’t last—that was sad. He enlisted in the Marines—they sent him to the ‘Gulf’—when he came back he wasn’t the same. Anyway,” Keisha says, sighing, trying to spear an elusive single Concord grape on her fork, “—it didn’t last, and we had three kids. But—”
“Are you still on good terms with him?”
Naïve question! Immediately I regret it.
Keisha shakes her head, pained. Anyway—there came another husband, seven years later.
Wanly Keisha smiles. It is clear to me that the woman yearns to confide in me, yes this second marriage is problematic too, but no, she cannot speak so frankly, so intimately to a stranger. Cannot speak of the man who is the husband, the husband right now, she has no choice but to defend and protect.
Of course, I understand. I am the wise elder, the gentleman, who understands.
“Anyway—the kids are O.K. I live for those kids. What God sends to me, I can accept, as long as—you know, the kids are O.K. That’s what I pray for.”
Though your husband is a brute. Yes?
Still, that pained look. For Keisha is seriously thinking. The Deserving American award has shone a light upon her, dazzling her.
Confiding in me suddenly, in a lowered voice, that she’d had “bad scares” in her life—twice. First when she was just twenty-six, and had to have “cysts” removed, but the second time, last fall, the cancer had “spread farther.” Wiping at her eyes she tells me that only God saved her.
There’d been surgery: “‘Mas-teck-nom-y’.” Then—“‘Chemo.’”
God, and Jesus, and prayer. Her kids, her family. Why she had to keep going, not give up. Though she’d wanted to, sometimes—just give up. But grateful to be alive. That the treatment hadn’t been worse. Every day, on her knees, giving thanks. Who’d taken it hard, almost harder than she had, was her husband—“It was like he’d been kicked in the gut, he said.”
Keisha is about to say more about the husband, then thinks better of it.
“Well—whoever is giving us these gifts, it’s like they are the answer to my prayers. Because we have been hard hit—financially. Because of course, I had to take off from work. There’s no ‘medical benefits’ at the grocery—of course. There’s not enough ‘margin of profit’—Mr. McGuire says. Lucky just to stay in business. Lucky to have the job. So these gifts, it’s like God is guiding their hands. Knowing how we need the money—my family. They are wonderful people, I guess—Christian people.” Astonishing to hear Keisha speak in such an outburst of warmth and certitude.
She is going to give the money to those leeches. Her family. Of course she is not going to spend it on herself.
Trying to remain calm. Merely noting, “Christian? Really? I don’t recall the letter speaking of…”
“They’d have to be Christian people. Who else would answer prayers like this? ‘Society of Deserving Americans’—that wouldn’t be atheists.”
Keisha pronounces atheists with an odd inflection as if it were a foreign word whose meaning she doesn’t quite know except that it is repugnant.
“Whoever the ‘Society’ is, they are good people. They are people of God.”
Keisha knows. Keisha is certain. No ambiguity here. No persuading her.
Suddenly, boredom suffuses me like ether. A wave of something like vertigo passes over my brain.
My experiment! What a farce. A “plot” set in motion—swerving out of my control.
How badly I’d longed to be close to this person, to have her confide in me as in a friend; such intimacy, such rushes of words, I could not have dared anticipate. And now, facing the woman across a table, scarcely three feet between us, I am overwhelmed with dismay, a wish to excuse myself, and depart. The bill has already been paid on my credit card.
Keisha reaches into her cloth handbag, to show me pictures on her cell phone—a succession of smiling faces. One of them is the insolent brute on the bicycle—I recognize him at once.
“They are the light of my life,” Keisha says, sniffing. “Well, I mean—Jesus is the light of my life. But my daughter Jill, she’s nineteen, just that age when I was married, and—”
I am calculating how to end this politely, and flee. Shall I give Keisha the envelope, as I’d planned? Or—shall I not?
Both Keisha and I are finished with our meals. Neither of us has been very hungry. But I have ordered a second glass of wine.
How pathetic it seems to me now, my notion of willing this woman one million dollars! No wonder Gopnik stared at me as if I were mad.
This woman. In my disappointment, I am angry with her. I seem to have forgotten who Keisha is, why she is here.
Have pity. She is a figure of pathos, not contempt.
Keisha has laid down her fork. Her eyes move toward her wrist, she is anxious about the time.
Quickly I assure her that the meeting has been a success, in my opinion. “And here are our envelopes, as promised.”
For it seems that two envelopes have been placed, unobtrusively, on a ledge beside the window of our table, beside my chair. The one addressed to MS. KEISHA OLEN contains ten crisp bills and the other, addressed to a fictitious name, contains, as filler, a many-times-folded newspaper page.
“Oh! Thank you…”
Keisha takes the envelope from me with an expression more of dread than anticipation. “I guess—I’ll wait to open it later. I’m kind of afraid—what’s inside…”
This is disappointing to me, I think. But no—the money is hers. She must do with it what she will.
“And I also, my dear. It will be a private revelation.”
As Keisha puts the envelope into the deepest recesses of the slightly soiled fabric handbag, so I fold my envelope in two and slip it into an inside pocket of the camel’s hair coat.
I am feeling such strain, it seems that Keisha and I have been together for hours. In fact, we have been at our riverside table less than one hour. So soon, ended! But my predominant feeling is relief.
We are on our feet. Another time I see that Keisha is thin-limbed, fragile. I am hoping that the money I have given her will help her in some way to thrive. But I am reconciled to the likelihood that surely yes, she will spend the money on others far less worthy than herself. For that is Keisha’s character, and character is fate impervious to “plot.”
On our way out of the restaurant the waiter, whom I have lavishly tipped, bids us good evening. The host with a bemused air bids us have a good evening.
In the hotel foyer we shake hands, in farewell. Keisha’s hand is shockingly small-boned, cold. I tell Keisha that it was wonderful to meet her and that she is very deserving of her award.
“Thank you! And you, too…”
Keisha has forgotten my name, I see. But no matter, it has been a fictitious name, in no way to be confused with the reclusive genius N .
I do not want to feel anything further for Keisha. Not in a mood to accompany her to the parking lot, to her car. No. My excuse is a need to use the men’s room.
And perhaps Keisha is eager to be alone as well. To get into her car, to tear open the envelope. To discover what the miraculous Third Gift is, for which she will be grateful for the remainder of her life.
Resolved, I will never see Keisha again.
Soon after this humbling incident, in the early spring of 2012, I left Herrontown, PA.
Not the slightest curiosity as to what became of Keisha Olen. Or any of them.
For surely nothing of significance could happen to them.
What had been significant in Keisha’s life had been me. And I had no curiosity about me.
What?—you are offended by this abrupt termination of the story. It is unsatisfying. It is in violation of the rules of fiction.
But may I remind you, this is not fiction. This is rather the wellsprings of fiction. Its (mysterious) origins. You, unlike me, are suffused with curiosity. Your naivete allows you to wonder what becomes of “characters” after their stories have ended—as if “characters” continue to exist outside a story.
In the case of Keisha Olen as in the cases of the morose postal clerk and the stylish librarian, what became of them after I moved to a larger city was of no interest to me. At once, or nearly, I ceased thinking about them.
Until your (naïve) question where do I get my ideas? I had all but forgotten them. As cattle graze a field, then move on, a writer grazes a territory, then moves on. Nostalgia for where you have grazed is not seemly. Delicious mouthfuls of fresh grass are interchangeable, it does not matter where.
In fact, you are probably coming to resemble me in this way. In other ways too, you will one day realize.
In fact I have returned to Herrontown, several years later. For I am required to sell the property on the river which in my absence has deteriorated like a gangrenous limb.
Finding myself at McGuire’s. Corner of Humboldt and Depot Streets, nothing much changed.
Steeling myself to enter the dingy grocery. The interior seems smaller now. Only two check-out counters are open.
But there is Keisha still at her post!—a stab of emotion leaves me weak, stunned.
But no. The cashier is not Keisha Olen. A slender young woman in smock and jeans with a girl’s face, close-cropped sand-colored hair. Many years younger than Keisha would be.
A roaring in my ears. Though I can see clearly that this young woman is not Keisha. The store owner McGuire, grayer and stouter than I recall, seems to recognize me. Hel-lo! Welcome back. Couldn’t have been certain who I am, or once was. Five or six years have passed.
Slowly like a man in a daze I make my way along the narrow aisles. Like my brownstone the grocery store has deteriorated. The very floorboards beneath my feet are wearing out. There is a scarcity of frozen foods. The fresh produce is not very fresh. Driving into town I noticed a new, expanded Safeway—McGuire’s days are numbered.
For a moment I hesitate, badly wanting to leave. I’d intended to buy a few groceries but regret entering the store. The roaring in my ears is mounting. My usual “cocky” assurance has vanished. After a few minutes shopping I return to the front of the store where McGuire seems to be waiting for me.
No idea how urgently the words would issue from my mouth—“Does the cashier named Keisha still work here? I used to know her—a little—she lived—lives—on Mill Run Street…”
McGuire ceases smiling. His face registers surprise, pain.
Like one reluctant to speak who is yet thrilled to speak McGuire tells me it was a terrible thing—“Her husband murdered her. Beat her to death right in their house. Kids in the house, but couldn’t stop him in time. He had a poker, he’d been drinking. Keisha had been saying how things weren’t going so well between them, her husband had ‘bad nerves’ from the Gulf War. He was jealous as hell of Keisha for having friends.” Fiercely McGuire wipes at his eyes. “Keisha was loved by everyone who knew her. There was no one like her in any of our lives…”
“When—did this happen?”
McGuire calls to a big-busted blond woman stacking cans on a shelf: “Shirley? When did Keisha pass away?”
“She didn’t ‘pass away,’ man. She was murdered.”
The blond woman speaks with her own particular vehemence as if in his squeamishness McGuire has somehow insulted the dead woman.
The way McGuire submits to this, one senses that the two are related, intimately.
“All right. But when?”
“Five, six years ago.”
Briskly a gum-chewing teenaged cashier is ringing up my purchases. The exchange means nothing to her, she isn’t even listening. My knees are so weak, I must lean against the counter. The gum-chewing cashier has turned to me, I see her snail’s mouth moving but have missed her words. Patiently she repeats:
“Paper or plastic, sir?”
So. I have answered your (stupid) question. Please don’t ask another.