Saturday, May 14, 2011

like a moth to the flame.

And anyway, the room was too small. There was barely space for the things he needed, let alone things he wanted, let alone things he neither needed nor wanted. He looked at books piled in corners and shelves that had become home to nests of books and the books lined up like rows of corn underneath the bed and the ziggurat stacks of books underneath the ten or so shirts he had hung from wood hangers in the closet and he decided, speaking it out loud this time so as to make it stick and prove his seriousness to any listening deities that could later hold this against him:

Enough was enough.

So he took it all--the books, the journals, the notebooks, everything--and he started taking it outside in piles. The next-door neighbor was watering his lawn and cocked his head at the sight of a man that young taking inventory of everything on a potholed driveway, sorting it all neatly into stacks that seemed to be in some kind of internal order, one impervious to any outside scrutiny, building a pyramid out of these stacks of paper.

And he kept watching as the young man re-entered and re-exited and re-entered the house ad nauseum, placing page upon page atop one another, adjusting all corners straight and putting all entries level.

The young man stood to the side of his creation, not ten feet away, and crossed long arms across a soft chest. He looked upon his works, tilting and squinting his eyes at the moment that stood before him. The neighbor looked only out of the corner of his eye, wanting to see how things proceeded.

He put down the hose and finally spoke. "What is it you're doing there?"

"It's sort of like a statue," the young man said, not removing his eyes from it. "I've got to run to the store. Do you mind keeping an eye on it?"

"Sure," the neighbor said, scratching the back of his head. "I needed a break, anyway."

"Make sure nobody touches it."

"I'll spray them with the hose."

The young man laughed and pulled keys from the pockets of his shorts. "Thanks. I'll be back in a few minutes." He opened his car door, calling "Don't let anybody touch it" out to his neighbor before getting in and driving away. The neighbor mock saluted as the young man turned the corner and disappeared.

The neighbor went inside and returned to his yard with a beer, sipping slowly and admiring the architecture of the young man's construction across the lawn. He took a seat in the wicker chair on his porch and looked more closely. The corners of it all looked papercut-sharp, as though the razor-thinness of the pages the books contained had been filed down to points before an onslaught. The mid-May breeze took its time making its mark, but began dancing through the loose pages, throwing them up and down and poking its head between the spines of the novels and the dustjackets of the hardcovers.

A gust snatched an unanchored bookmark and threw it on the neighbor's lawn just within arm's reach. The neighbor leaned out of his chair and picked up the renegade sliver and seeing only random words and numbers scrawled upon its surface. He checked both sides, finding nothing he understood. He rose from his chair and stepped slowly to the young man's pile, looking for an open front cover in which to slip the escaped parchment.

But his eye was caught by book titles and covers. Most of them he hadn't heard of--he had never been much of a reader--but a few of them he recognized from high school. Even these twenty-or-so years later--Good Lord, he thought, had it been that long?--he could remember some of them.

That one was about pirates. And another. That's the one where the kid fights in the Civil War. Another. I think that's the slavery one. And his eyes flashed with recognition at more than he thought they would. He slid the bookmark between the pages of a copy of Cannery Row and he returned to his chair, never taking his eyes from the cover of it.

"What were you doing?" the young man said, suddenly standing in the street next to his car.

"I didn't even hear you pull up."

"You were staring really hard. What were you doing?"

"Nothing," the neighbor said, "just putting a piece of paper back. It blew over toward me and I figured it was supposed to be in there somewhere instead of on my lawn."

"Sorry." The young man carried a small plastic bag and placed it on the ground a few feet away from the stack. "Thanks for watching it."

"Sure. The piece of paper had numbers on it. What did those mean?"

"Page numbers," the young man said. "I would write down my favorite words and which page they were on."

"What were some of your favorite words?"

The young man smiled as he crouched in front of the bag and rifled through it. "Strategy. Amorous. Colloquial." He pulled out a bottle of vodka and examined the label. "Clandestine. Umbrella. Transcendent." He unscrewed the top and took a deep draw of the scent, his eyes fluttering at its strength. "Recognition. Audibly. Seafaring." He began to pour the bottle's contents all over the pages.

The neighbor's eyes widened, but he found himself unable to do anything but continue to sit in his chair and sip his beer. A gust of wind brought the smell of soaking pages to him as the books grew visibly dark with saturation.

"Radial. Strumpet. Amalgamation." The bottle was empty, and the young man threw it on the pile, pulling another full one from the bag. "Defenestrate. Constructive. Eastern." He unscrewed the cap to this bottle with his teeth, spitting it onto the sidewalk.

"What does that one mean?" the neighbor asked, his voice shaking. "Defenestrate?"

"To throw something out of a window." The young man began emptying this bottle, too, looking for spots he had missed with the previous bottle and, when he couldn't find those, doubling back over already covered areas. "Subsequent. Hypothetical. Immaculate." After this bottle was emptied, he placed it against the side of the pile. He pulled a matchbook from his pocket, and though the neighbor screamed louder than he had remembered doing since he was a child, it was too late, and the young man had set fire to the entire stack.

The neighbor watched, horrified, gasping for breath and inhaling small ashes of burnt paper, floating through the air like snowflakes. His eyes went from focusing on the young man, who stood casually and objectively only a few feet away, to the massive inferno that had just found its feet. Blue sky turned red and black and heat distorted his view of the fire and all that laid beyond it. The flames grew strong enough that he had to take steps back, the roar of the fire cracking and crumbling on this quiet street in this quiet town on this quiet day.

And they just stood there, the neighbor and the young man, watching it all burn away and turn black and charred and curl up into itself. They stayed silent and continued to stare.

Minutes later, the neighbor wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead. "Why did you do that?" He saw the young man draw his thumb underneath his own eye, catching a stray tear and flicking it onto the sidewalk.

"Because nothing burns like stories," the young man said, taking a single step back.


Meg said...


Joanna Brimhall said...

I know we don't know each other and I don't wish to weird you out by any means but I would describe this as any positive superlative I can think of. Its to the point that it even sounds good when read out loud. You are talented!

Claire Valene Bagley said...

Burning all those pages... this was beautiful and sad. Just the way I like it.

your friend laura said...

you. are. the bestest.