She would tell me to start the story in a different way. I know she would because she’s the writer. She would start nearest the action, just before it was about to happen, which would be, for her, as we sat still strangers on the bus —the words we were about to speak resting just around us, collecting like dust into tiny pockets, readying to be spoken or brushed away. She wouldn’t mention she wasn’t wearing make-up or how that made her look the way she is, which is beautiful.
She has talked about writing this down, though I don’t know if she has. She likes to work at night, while I sleep; she says it’s better when she feels like she’s doing something wrong, keeping it hidden until it’s finished. She likes secrets. I know she would start this differently though, the way it very well may need to start, but I am trying my best.
She mentioned her concept:
“I want to tell the story through the Polaroid photographs of those two days. See?” she said, showing with her pair of index fingers and pair of thumbs —made into L’s —the size of a Polaroid. “Each section would be divided by the numbered exposures. Right?”
I encouraged her because she’s the writer and I am the encourager. She encourages me to write, but I tell her that I could never write as well as she could.
“That’s great. Right?”
“That’s great,” I, the encourager, said.
She wouldn’t write in her story how we first met in the funhouse or how we had to start using her camera to take dim pictures of corners and long hallways, trying to find our way out and remember the paths we took, nervous and worried about taking them again and again, over and over; there wouldn’t be a word of the chatter we made about unraveling our clothes and leaving a path through the house until we were both naked and our threads made a colorful line down every hall, tied together in neat, little knots. She certainly wouldn’t talk of where we fell in love: the deserted island we woke on the following morning afloat a folding cot.
“I would be sure to talk of these things,” I said.
That is why I am the encourager.
She’d be the one I saw climbing the grimy stairs of the bus one early July morning. It was 1988; though she might change the year if she were to have her way, change our names. She would be carrying, as she is in my memory, though perhaps not in her version of the story, her camera (the Polaroid), and a large tape recorder with a headset. The tape recorder would be a secret, if she had her way.
She’d say, “It sounds crazy to carry around that wretched beast of a machine just to record sounds and strangers’ conversations.”
I’d say, “You were working on your book,” but she would only laugh.
“You’re right, absolutely right,” but she wouldn’t be agreeing.
As she came down the aisle, she might smile, raise her elbows over slumbering old men’s speckled heads, but the tape certainly would be recording her footsteps, the idle chatting of the elderly near the front, and finally the awed silence that was my own as I watched her sit down three seats before me; she would record that. I’ve listened to the tapes. We sat up one night listening. This was years ago, in our living room. I was feeling nostalgic, and she was only tired, but amicable. The tape was labeled 'One.' We listened and heard her footsteps, coughing, and a few words, and then nothing.
“There,” I said. “There I am.”
There I was.
For her sake:
An old man, portly, with a thin beard and graying long hair, gets off his old bed, which creaks beneath him. The mirrored hall reveals his shuffling feet in the beam of his flashlight. Following the light he moves around the walls, he walks slowly. He sighs, scratches his cheek.
I do not know why he is there, why he sleeps there, but it is early, and now is the time to mention him.
I do not know where he goes during the night or what his name is, but, by his voice, I know he is real.
I will show you.
Pressing my face against the window, I might have seen her shoulder or profile. She wasn’t wearing make-up, but her pale cheeks were naturally rosy, and she had long eyelashes, which brushed occasionally against the windowpane. She wore her hair long then, and a wisp would fall forward, but she would push it back, behind her ear.
We wouldn’t talk on the bus though it might seem we should.
“Action,” she would say because this is the way she speaks, “must begin to happen as early as possible. Always consider those stories beginning with dialogue, throw you right into the laps of those characters, let you wallow about in their tresses and feel and grope.”
“Yes,” I would say. I’d be lying down, my head in her lap. I’d hold her chin above me, run my fingers along her lips, her ears, and the tip of her nose.
We met in the funhouse. How could we talk on the bus?
“You were on my bus.” She was certain.
“Right,” I said, looking nervously around the halls, seeing my reflections, her profile reflected upside down, and panicking. I greeted her, which sounds strange now. She’s sleeping in the next room; she was up late last night working on a new novel, which she says will be her best.
It’s strange to say, “I greeted my wife.”
She would have no trouble tackling the dialogue; she’s a writer. She would say something so thoughtful, so delicate, and wonderful, profound, but it would be on the bus. She might even start with the dialogue:
The tape recorder played back, “Where are you going?”
But there would be no recorder. She would forget about it. She might even be wearing make-up.
“Are you all right?”
I didn’t like the funhouse.
She wouldn’t mention this.
“Do you want to walk with me?”
We introduced ourselves.
“What would you call your story?”
“The Photographs,” she said.
I thought, She would know best.
If I were she, I would still have us on the bus, just getting to know each other, but that is not the case:
We’re separate and alone in the funhouse, but, within the confines of the building, we are together. I don’t know where she is or her name, and then, while careening around a slim corner, scared witless (though she could never say so, because she didn’t know, and, for her, there might not even be a funhouse), colliding with my reflections, I run into a reflection that is not my own. I am out of breath, and sweat goes down my brow, my sides.
I remember she calmly recorded the sounds of the house. She tapped on the mirrors. Her chin was upturned, and she felt along the ceiling. She bent down on one knee to look at the floor.
I was relieved to see anyone. By the time I found her or she found me, I had been in the house for three hours. She barely heard me breathing loudly behind her, but she heard something and turned. She was absorbed in the sounds of the creaking house —the hollow wind and the tapping nails she dropped against the glass —the experience. She hadn’t seen my reflection behind her own yet.
“You were on my bus.”
But, for her, we’d be on the bus, and she would have to greet me with a simple ‘hello’ most likely.
I’d be introducing myself to her on the bus, which wouldn’t be true.
While we walked through the funhouse, talked, she didn’t seem afraid. She recorded everything. Sometimes, I would ask her questions, simple ones in the beginning like “Where do you go to school?” and, stopping mid-stride, she would firmly press Stop on the player and, while listening on a headset, rewind until she had found a spot on a tape —sometimes changing tapes; her bag was full of them, new and used. She would press Play, remove the headphones, and the tape would say, “Brown. I go to Brown.” The tinted voice would echo down the immense halls.
“Do you like it?”
The old house converted into a maze was called The Vanity, and now the story, which could have or should have been The Photographs, shares that name.
She told me The Photographs would begin this way:
—Where are you going?
The first photograph I took of the only man I will ever truly love was by mistake, which is, in itself, unnerving —to say the least —as it was that we were still merely strangers.
She never took a photograph of me, but she’s a writer, not a liar, though I would still encourage her.
I kissed her cheek when she told me. I said, “That’s wonderful.”
She said she thought so, too.
She went upstairs to her desk, and I went to fall asleep on the couch, leaving the lamp on, and a paperback in my lap.
She wouldn’t write about how, after seventeen hours, she got sick. She would tell me not to mention it, to anyone, ever.
By the seventeenth hour, she could trust me. We comforted each other, talking about what we’d do when we got out, and we avoided exhaustion by eating the granola I had packed and drinking the water she carried in a small jug dangling from her bag. The heat made her sick though. Trying to make her laugh, I took a picture and showed her. In the photograph, the flash, which I hadn’t shut off, created a great whiteness to engulf the entire portrait, save the space just above her hunching back, which was not a mirror, but a hallway that continued on for, what we would find to be, a long while. She wiped her mouth and held herself —her arms across her chest. I shook the picture and held it to her. She took me by the hand and said she was feeling better already. Her face even began to glow a little, I remember. We quickly went down the hall, excited that we happened upon a straight path.
When the path ended, we came to a dead end and a cot.
“The heart of the funhouse,” she said.
While lost inside The Vanity, we saw no one else until morning.
I dampened the piano's sounds and played a Bach piece very slowly.
When she came into the room, I stopped playing, my hands hovering over the keys, my foot just leaving the pedal. “I’m sorry. Were you sleeping?”
She rubbed her eyes. “Yes, but it’s all right. I love when you play.”
I smiled and played more.
She came behind me, said, “It’s so sad.”
“Any music is sad when you play it slow.”
Once, she told me she loved the way I played so slowly, carefully, like picking flowers. I told her I just wasn’t very good, that I couldn’t play any faster.
I never got any better.
She promised me she would write my music into a story one day: “The music lumbered through the air slowly, like a staggering giant,” she imagined aloud, though I knew she wouldn’t use those words; she knew best and could always better even her own inventions.
If she were to tell you about the funhouse, she would explain how we kept our backs to each other as we undressed, putting on shorts or removing extra clothing to sleep more comfortably. She wouldn’t mention how I looked over my shoulder at her because she still doesn’t know, though I remember her catching my reflection in the mirror. The mirrors weren’t enough for me.
Tiny freckles decorated her back, which reminded me of the night sky inversed on my eyelids —black stars and whitewashed space.
As we agreed to sleep on the cot, head-to-toe, soft music began to play —a Tchaikovsky composition —too quietly, carefully. The music lumbered through the air slowly, like a staggering giant.
It was two o’clock when we started talking. At three, she told me to lie next to her, which I did. Our foreheads fell together and rested there. When we stopped talking, growing silent and tired, I kissed her cheek. She smiled in the dim light of the funhouse. She was crying too, but she wouldn’t have said so if I had asked. I already knew that much, so I did not ask. Looking at her, remembering all the things she had told me, I thought, I’ll strangle this Bernard for all the ways he’s hurt her, the things he’s done and made her do —and to never leave her alone, the one good thing he could have done.
I couldn’t sleep that night for a long time.
The deserted island where we woke was where we would fall in love. I can say it was deserted because it was small, just big enough for the cot upon which we had slept.
She keeps the Polaroids in a box at the top of our closet. I assembled them into a single line, which stretched from our bedroom door to the bed, where she was still sleeping. The first six pictures are nearly white from the sun that day, but the remaining are dark, and in the twentieth she is getting sick. The last exposure is only a gray haze —no objects; there is nothing.
“Where are we?”
“I don’t know,” she said, though she denies it.
“Take a picture.”
She did, though she says she knows nothing of it.
The twenty-fourth picture came out from the camera with a whir, and she turned to me, waving the exposure in the air, pursing her lips, blowing on it.
“Wake up,” I know she said. “Wake up.”
“But I’m not dreaming.”
Gently, our lips touched, and they brushed together once more. And, in the funhouse, we were in love.
The Vanity stretched along the length of a sidewalk block and crumbled near the porch. At the top of the building, an old weather vane spun and creaked, though there was no breeze. The salt mist of the ocean collected on the broken windowpanes in a white film and covered the old house’s small lawn with dew. From inside the house, not a sound could be heard.
She explained The Photographs, if she ever began, would end like this:
The camera was wedged between us as we slept, his head against mine, and, in our sleep, a photograph was taken. He wore a gray shirt.
I protested. “That is not what happened.”
She didn’t respond for a moment.
We were in the kitchen, and I was boiling water for tea —she liked to work at night, but thought coffee was too strong.
She said, “We fell in love, and that was it.”
The kettle shrilly whistled.
She wouldn’t talk about the island. She wouldn’t talk about the way the sun hung, suspended just above the water’s edge, or how the ocean surrounded us.
A thin line of smoke rose off the horizon. “A cruise,” I said, pointing. She said, Maybe it’s a whale smoking.
She wouldn’t even talk about the cot or how it creaked beneath us as we moved to better hold the other. She wouldn’t tell about her perfume, the way it made my eyes water as though I were crying because she thought I was crying because I was happy, which was true.
For all I know about the place, the sun never set.
Somewhere within the funhouse, where we sat upright in the shabby cot, waking ourselves, a thin beam of light fell upon us. From beyond the light, came a voice: “Get out of here.”
“We would like to,” I said. I held her close.
Hidden in darkness, a figureless man, blinding us with a flashlight, opened a door next to us and told us, “Go home,” which we did.
She would encourage me to describe the man, though I’ve never seen him and wouldn’t know him if I were to see him now.
If I had to guess: he was portly, with a thin beard; he wore overalls and slept on the cot during the day, which creaked as he stood up.
She would try to tell me it was wrong, convince me to change the way the story ends, if she knew.
If she knew I was writing, scribbling page after page, filling the room with scrapped ideas and illegible haikus about funhouses, if she were to wake up and wander into the room, rubbing her eyes, she might catch me here at her desk, drinking from her cup in hope of a miracle; she might hold me around the shoulders or around the neck and whisper some line of encouragement, share with me some inspiration, but she does not know. I have no inspiration but my own. And so this is how I must end my story because she does not know, and, if she did, I could not say what I am about to say:
I still want to kill Bernard.
© 2007 prickofthespindle.com
Joseph Murphy is a recent graduate of Temple University's English
Department living in Philadelphia. He won the Bob Hoffman Award for
fiction in 2004 and 2005. His work has appeared in various small