From My Hard Drive

Author’s Note: This is a reprint of a short story than originally ran in SPLIT Quarterly.

Underwater

He weaves the thick strips of brown leather together slowly, seemingly fascinated that they have a smooth and a rough side. On the suede he traces his index finger slowly, almost lovingly, pushing against the grain, and then smoothing it down with the grooves of his fingerprints.

She looks him over, wanting to make eye contact and knowing he’s not about to grant that small favor to her.

“Hi, honey,” she says, in as much sing-song as she can muster.

He goes about looping another strip of belt material into the snake he already created. She sees that he is making a neat pattern of light and chocolate brown leather. A bit of sweetness in this bland, quiet universe of his. His hair is tousled, even matted in a few places, and he smells a little of urine. Smelling that upsets her. She needs to speak to the staff about that.

She flinches as a man, across the floor from her, squeals at a piece of Formica that is escaping the countertop one increment at a time, near the arts and crafts station. He is suddenly obsessed, slipping his fingers under it and listening to the flap as it slaps back down where it was still glued in place. Flap, flap, flap, flap.

“What are you making there,” she asks the beltmaker.

He continues the pattern. “Water,” he whispers.

She feels warmth on her shoulder, a strong hand. “Hello, Mrs. Alexander. How are you today?”

The doctor sits down next to her, the chair too short for his gangly frame. He is a man who had never filled out into his bones.

“Oh, I’m okay,” she says. “I see he has a new project.”

“He’s really quite talented at these. All of the staff have one from him now.”

“Really? I just saw him two days ago.” They look at him, who is adding a buckle to the end of the belt. She notices that his fingers are calloused in exactly the places where they touched the leather.

“He’s fast. And we’re almost out of supplies,” says the doctor. “Hopefully he likes the next craft project Samira gives him.”

She doesn’t know Samira. She wants to reach out and touch his tired hands, but remembers and knows better. The doctor motions for her to follow him to his office. She gives him one last look before walking away.

The office is full of awards and certificates, but there is still a place for her to sit.

“Any progress, doctor,” she asks, frowning more than she means to.

“Not so far,” he says, pushing his wireframes up on his nose. “Sometimes it takes a while to find the right medicine. We’ll get there. He’s still got his obsession, but his delusions are significantly better.”

“I just miss him,” she says, thinking about his calloused hands.

“Angela, I think you should seek your own therapy about this. I can recommend someone if you like.”

“I’m okay, doctor.” She forces a smile that they both know is fake.

“Look, any kind of mental illness—you shouldn’t blame yourself.”

“Yes, I know,” she says.

“It’s not your fault.”

“I know.”

But it is, she thinks. Not that I have any way of explaining it to you.

She walks back into the main room. He sits there, not moving, looking off into space, having run out of leather pieces. She holds her shoulder bag tight against her coat.

“Sweetheart, do you need me to bring anything for you next time?”

“I couldn’t fight the water,” he said, not necessarily to her.

“It’s okay, honey, you did your best.”

“I lost her.” His lower lip quivers and then settles down.

She feels a hard stone in her throat. “You were so brave,” she says. She sees the corners of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. His eyes look watery.

The doctor appears next to her. He whispers in her ear: “It’s best not to play into his delusion.”

“You’re right,” she says. She pauses. “Mark, sweetheart, I have to go now. But I’ll come see you soon.”

He fumbles with the half-finished belt, still feeling the lines of it with his fingers.

She wants to spend more time with him, but she can’t bear this place.

She walks out to the parking lot, her breath falling behind her as quickly evaporating mist, and once she gets inside the car she puts her hands to her face and breathes hard, a tearless cry. At some point she takes in one long inhale, closes her eyes, feeling the memory around her. When she is done she starts the engine, seeing the dashboard lights come on for a moment, and asking the heater to clear the windshield of the fog.

The clouds hang low and look like they won’t hold the snow away much longer. She parks on what is a busy-street-turned-ghost-town. A long line of uneven row houses slowly decays into the broken concrete sidewalks, their striped awnings fading to become as drab and depressed as the many plywood-filled windows that have replaced glass panes. This had been a pleasant city street 30 years ago when they were children.

She turns the doorknob, not bothering to knock. In the dark room she sees the old man in his easy chair, nursing the end of a cigar. He has smoked so much the wall at the corner closest to him is stained yellow.

“You again,” he notes, his voice is full of gravel. Puff, puff, on the Cuban. “So soon?”

“It’s been six months,” she argues.

Puff puff puff.

“So it has. You are not here to celebrate your anniversary.” Now he rolls the butt of the cigar between his thumb and fingers, listening to the leaves on fire inside.

“I don’t think it worked.” She looks for a place to sit, among the classic furniture, then thinks better of it.

“It worked.”

“He’s lost his mind.”

“That is from you. I told you, you must find every bit of evidence and destroy it.” Puff puff.

“I did exactly as you said,” she says plaintively. The old man’s skin is tired leather, like Mark’s belts. He inhales and lights up the end of the stogie, and then his head is in a cloud. Her eyes are stinging.

“Now now, I know that isn’t true, or he would be a well man. And he is not a well man, is he?”

“He remembers,” she says, looking at the worn area rug, moth damage to the corner nearest her.

“The mind is a very stubborn thing,” he says, admiring the end of his cigar before snuffing it out in tall a metal ashtray. “And still,” he says, drawing a figure in the ash with the cigar butt, “the best smoke is the first of the day. I spend the rest of my time wishing any of it were as good.”

He sighs as he stands up. He motions for her to follow him, shuffling into a room off of the dining room, in the back of the house. It is filled with sagging bookshelves and stacks of hardcover books piled up in every free corner, two and three feet high. The cigar smell is replaced in here by the scent of dust and yellowing paper. Old newspaper clippings are framed near one of the stacks, showing a much younger version of him receiving some sort of award. He finds a wooden hinged box, opens it, and pulls out a tiny, antique hourglass.

“Here,” he says, cupping the glass in her hand, pressing it into her palm. He will not let her go until he has finished speaking, she knows. “This time you must do it right. Very bad things will happen if you stop early.”

She takes it and listens to his instructions, feeling like everything has been off-balance from the moment her fingers curled around the glass and wood and sand. She promises him.

*   *   *

Angela sits on the edge of the bed, looking at the small scorch mark on the low dresser. It could have happened yesterday because it still looks fresh.

She isn’t sure what makes her think this attempt will work. Her fingers tighten around the hourglass, which she hasn’t put down yet. Instructions from the old professor are in her coat pocket. She stands up and stays there, wanting to identify some wisp of inspiration that has up until now eluded her imagination. She loses track of time, slowly and slightly rocking, in that way that muscles do because they don’t actually stop moving until death.

She opens a small, long drawer just under the burn mark and pulls out a photo, the last picture. It is scarred along one edge where fire had lapped at it before it had jumped out from the pile. She reprimands herself again for taking this as a sign it could be saved from destruction.

She looks at the two of them, up close and laughing, sharing the same eyes and chin, knowing even this last picture will disappear. She tucks it into the corner of the vanity mirror that leans on the dresser, a tall frame discovered next to a café on a potholed highway in Vermont. It was much heavier than they thought it would be, and they dropped it once, chipping a corner. She likes things that aren’t quite perfect. But not this imperfect.

Down the stairs, to the glass dining table, a wedding present from his parents, the place for family dinners. She smoothes out the scrap of paper and recites the old man’s prayer, flipping the hourglass over and watching the blond grains emigrate to the bottom of the glass. Then she does as she was told and pours a white powder into a small glass, drinks it, and lies down on their green couch, in another expansive and professionally decorated room. It isn’t long before she falls asleep.

The sound of the phone ringing infuses itself into whatever she’d been dreaming and then wakes her. It’s a nurse from a hospital in the next county. A freak water main break and her husband’s car was washed out, the nurse says in a smashed tone. She recalls from memory the next series of conversations from the last time she had them—their young child strapped into the protective child seat, Mark unable to free her before she was swept away by the rushing water. She already knows he was bruised and battered when he was found, his leg shattered and his lungs collapsed. The nurse doesn’t tell her that her daughter is dead, because the child’s mother still needs to drive to the hospital, and this is the worst news possible.

No. No no no, she thinks. Her dream fog has already cleared. Her pulse pounds and she’s angry that time has only gone back to the moment of disaster. She promised the old man, damn it.

She thinks of the hourglass, and runs to check it as the nurse is telling her what she has already heard.

There, stuck in the crook of the device, ten or so grains remaining, unfallen. One little tap on the wood and they would have plummeted to the pile of sand two inches below. She hears the nurse ask her to drive to the medical center because her husband may be dying. Physically, she knows he will make it. Mentally, he’ll never stop mourning. Five years of mourning and he was never the same. She still wishes, even after all of this, that she could just erase his memory, but now she understands that his mind is both stronger and weaker than magic.

She swallows hard and swipes her keys off the dining room table, leaving fingerprints on its surface as her hand moves. She will take her ruined partner home in a few days. And then she has no idea how to live through it again.

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Categories: ev's writing, Writing

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