3 • THE LIBRARY
I closed the book on my lap and looked at the spine again. October 22, 2008. Only a date. No title and no explanation. Yet, somehow, it seemed so familiar to me. Like something I had read in my childhood. It hung on the cusp of recognition, but was obscured by volumes of useless information that had been committed to memory in years after. If only I had known that the capacity of the human memory was limited when I was young, I probably would have omitted all the song lyrics, movie quotes, famous names, and Jeopardy answers that now cluttered my head. Oh well. Should-a, would-a, could-a.
This room was entirely different from the strange bedroom with the virgin door I had emerged from earlier. It was unusually tall and narrow library that seemed to twist as it rose three stories. It looked like a set from a Tim Burton film. From floor to ceiling, all four walls were stuffed with books, journals, magazines, newspapers, and loose papers. A narrow walkway ran the interior of the second and third levels accompanied by rolling ladders. A treacherous metal spiral staircase ascended from the floor to the third level walkway. It seemed to twist on its own like a boa constrictor wrapping itself around its next meal. I sat in a comfortable upholstered reading chair, one of three. The upholstery was an exquisite deep-blue color accented by silver embroidery in an unrecognizable but predictable design. In between two of the reading chairs in the middle of the room, there was a bright wooden writing desk. It looked brand new. It looked as out of place in the library as I felt. The top veneer was as reflective as a mirror and was bare. It had a single drawer on one side, which I hadn’t opened. The oak floor was old and unfinished, but the effect it achieved was tangible. It gave the room an organic feeling. It was like reading in a dense deciduous forest. Even the air in the room was full of an earthy aroma, despite the absence of any windows. Looking straight up toward the ceiling above the third level made me dizzy. The wall-mounted lights did little to pierce the darkness that filled the upper stories. I wondered if I could really see the ceiling of the room at all or if my imagination was merely filling in the blank. I assumed it was there, but it could have just as easily gone on forever.
I scanned the other books on the nearby shelves. Most of them were labeled with a similarly arbitrary title. Some bore only the names of places or people. Clifford Hart. St. Paul, MN. Jonathan Reese. The Art Institute of Chicago. September 11, 2001. I couldn’t read some of the titles, which appeared to be written in Chinese. Almost nothing was recognizable and most of the books were only partially full, leaving whole sections of blank pages. What was this place? It was like a graveyard for unfinished novels, books that were never given a fair chance. I imagined that they were begun with the noblest of ambitions and then, like so many potentially great works, eventually succumbed to the interruptions of life and writer’s block. There were no names on the covers or inner pages. Was it a lifetime’s worth of the abandoned hopes of a single author or, rather, the accumulation of works by a group of failed writers, pooling their collective disappointment? I was standing amongst the wreckage of forgotten dreams. The idea unsettled my stomach and for the first time since I had woken up, I felt hungry, almost unbearably so. How long had it been since I had eaten a meal? I couldn’t remember. A house with such a large and uniquely designed library was sure to have an equally impressive kitchen, but I couldn’t be sure that anyone was actually living here. I hadn’t seen a single person. I hadn’t seen any signs of habitation. However, the electricity was on. Someone was paying the bills.
I stood up from the reading chair only to meet with a sudden head-rush. The swell of dizziness put me back down in the chair almost immediately. I crushed my eyelids together and gave my head a quick shake. Opening my eyes as widely as I could, I stood up again. This time my stance was significantly more successful. I walked to the door and reached out to take hold of the knob, stopping suddenly with my hand outstretched. This door was almost entirely different in design and choice of materials, but the knob bore another unrecognizable symbol. Again, I assumed, based only on appearances, that it was Chinese in origin. It was obviously a different character from the first one I had seen. I looked around the room for a blank scrap of paper and something with which to write. I noticed a mostly empty piece of yellow legal pad paper that was sticking out from between two massive tomes. I pulled the paper out from the shelf and tore it in half, replacing the top portion that had a small amount of writing on it. I went to the desk that was in between two of the reading chairs and pulled open its single drawer. Inside, in a state of disorder, there was an ink well, a writing quill, a brush and ink stone, a black fountain pen, a ruler, a piece of charcoal, and a pristinely sharpened pencil. It was a strange assortment of writing tools; like props from a History Channel program on the evolution of written language. There was one more thing in the drawer, a shiny penny. It looked as new as the ones in my pocket. I picked it up and habitually looked for the date and mintmark. It bore no letter, but the date was 1977. That year held importance for me, but I couldn’t remember the reason. This house seemed to block my memories. I had first noticed the impairment shortly after leaving the bedroom. It was getting worse the longer I was here. The feeling was frustrating. It felt like someone else was slowly replacing me, taking my place in the world. It was the place that I had spent a lifetime carving out for myself. I had broken it in like a new pair of jeans and it was just beginning to feel comfortable. Now, slowly and unsympathetically, my thoughts and memories were being stripped from me. Maybe, what the library housed was my replacement. The complete back story for a new me.
I must have been really hungry. I pushed all other crazy thoughts out of my head and decided to focus on lunch. Or was it dinner? I looked at my watch, which was still stopped dead on 7:55. I wondered why I was even still wearing it. I suppose it completed the look that had been chosen for this new me. First things first, I had to copy down the symbol on the doorknob to the best of my ability. I could find out what it meant later. I pocketed the penny and took the pencil from the drawer, slamming it closed. I grabbed a nearby book to write on and knelt down in front of the door to get a better look at the symbol. I took my time to understand the curves and crooks of its shape. I sketched the character as best as I could and briefly admired my work.
Not bad. I folded the paper neatly and placed it, along with the pencil, in my front left pocket. I stepped out in to the hallway and looked down the length of the hallway in both directions. The rows of unmatched doors on both sides seemed to stare me down with unmoving intimidation. I could spend days exploring theses rooms. It was then that hunger made its presence known. No longer mild hunger pangs, my stomach was wrenching and heaving inside me. Most people go their whole lifetime without ever experiencing true hunger. It is perhaps the single most painful and debilitating feeling in the repertoire of the human body. It begins with simple heartburn, an unpleasant, but tolerable, burning feeling in your chest and throat. The burning eventually subsides and gives way to the feeling of emptiness in your stomach. It’s hard to describe the sensation of emptiness. How do you explain the feeling of total absence? Even if it can be adequately described in words, the reality of the experience is entirely different. Along with the feeling of emptiness, your stomach begins to feel smaller and sunken in to your pelvis. It contracts violently like it’s being crushed by unbelievable pressure. The feeling begins to spread to other parts of your body. You feel short of breath, like all the air has been sucked out of your lungs. Cramps in your abdomen force you into strange contortions and the feeling of weakness flows over you like waves crushing your body against a rocky shore. Knees quiver and shoulders hang lifelessly from the neck. You collapse to the ground with an intense throbbing pain in your head, just behind your eyes. Your body bulges in strange places as your stomach implodes and your esophagus dries up and crumbles inside your throat.
I was entering the sunken-pelvis stage when I pulled a penny out of my pocket and balanced it on my thumb and forefinger. Heads, left. Tails, right. I flipped it in to the air, caught it and slapped on the back of my hand. Heads. I looked left, but turned right to walk down the hallway. In matters of life and death, fate always had it wrong.
Trying to ignore the spasms in my empty stomach, I passed by door after door and there seemed to be no end in sight. Most starving deaths occurred in deserts and dense jungles and the like. My body would be discovered in a man-made wasteland of doorknobs and abandoned literary works. What a strange way to go. I wondered, what would they write in my epitaph? Finally, approaching the systemic phase of hunger, I caught a glimpse of stairs at the end of the hallway. It was a shaft stairwell, leading both up and down with landings at precise right angles. Up wasn’t even an option. I followed the stairs down trying to maintain my balance with increasingly weakening knees. The next floor was a broad room with high ceilings. The floor was finished hardwood. The planks fit together perfectly like puzzle pieces and created a sort of mosaic of different shades and grains of wood. It looked slippery. I was temped to take off my shoes and pants and recreate the famous scene from Risky Business. The thought was quickly eradicated by the debilitating hunger that was racking my body. Besides, I didn’t have any sunglasses.
Half of the room was a dining area. In the center, there was a large black iron framed table with a thick glass top that was surrounded by four unmatched chairs. Beyond the dining area was the kitchen, separated by a waist-high bar that extended from the wall and served as a tiered countertop. I slipped in and looked around. In the center of the kitchen, there was a large square island countertop. The countertops were made of a raw and unpolished-looking wood. They were deceptively smooth to the touch. From the ceiling, an equally sized structure composed of unfinished wooden cabinets hung directly over the island with about three feet of clearance. The cabinets under the island were of the same wood. The kitchen’s design was warm and reminded me of the innocence of childhood. What it lacked in functionality, it made up for with its distinctly natural aesthetic. Half of the island countertop was devoted to a four-burner gas stove made of a bright metal that shined as if it had never been used. The whole kitchen was in pristine order. There was a window over the sink that was hidden under layers of white lace. There was no glow from beneath the curtains and the only light in the room beamed down from recessed flood bulbs in the ceiling. The importance of the window dawned on me briefly, but paled in priority to hunger. I ignored it as I turned my attention to the large white refrigerator. I heaved the top door open and the interior light clicked on, momentarily blinding me. My eyes quickly adjusted and began scanning the contents of the fridge. Everything was neatly aligned in perfect little rows. Milk, eggs, cheese, tofu, butter, turkey, lettuce, and the list went on. I was overwhelmed with the possibilities, but my stomach protested, demanding the quickest solution by leaping out of my pelvis and throttling my brain. The resulting dizziness caused me to lean on the open refrigerator door, which creaked slightly under my weight. I conceded and quickly gathered turkey, lettuce, Swiss cheese, bean sprouts, and mayonnaise in my arms, kicking the refrigerator door shut. I laid the ingredients out on the countertop next to a clean plate and pulled a tomato from a nearby fruit bowl. I opened the overhead cabinets systematically until I found a loaf of bread. It was rye by the look of it, but the bag bore no labels or names. For that matter, neither did any of the other ingredients. I tore off a piece of the bread and popped it in my mouth. My stomach rejoiced as I swallowed, but I suddenly felt ill. It was too little, too late. My hands worked fast, locating a knife to cut the bread and cheese and tomato into even slices, spreading mayonnaise and stacking the ingredients. I wanted to toast the bread too, but my stomach couldn’t wait any longer. I was a perfectionist when it came to sandwich making, but even perfection kneeled to hunger. I cut the sandwich in half and took a huge bite. It was the best sandwich I had ever tasted, but I couldn’t be sure if it was the sandwich or the hunger. At this stage, even a McDonalds hamburger would have been considered edible. I could have eaten anything. I tore through the sandwich and quickly made another. There was no time to savor. The food began to loosen the grip of fourth-stage hunger and my strength slowly returned to my limbs. I found an apple in the fruit bowl and cut it into quarters. Red delicious. The only thing missing from this perfect meal was a cup of fresh black coffee. Sure enough, there was a cheap-looking white coffee maker on the counter next to the refrigerator. I scoured the cabinets for coffee.
Eureka! The unmistakable aroma of coffee grounds hit my noise like a face-full of ice cold water. I removed yet another unmarked bag from the cabinets. Only the contents mattered. My nose led the way and my hands quickly followed, tearing open the top of the bag and pinching a small amount of the grounds between my fingers. My hand moved with orders from my brain to introduce the pinch of coffee to my nose in fluid movements so as not to drop a single grain. A symphony of nerve synapses, conscious thoughts, and rehearsed muscle movements ensued. The overture had begun not one minute earlier with the craving for a cup of coffee. I was now well in to the first movement with the discovery of the grounds and the resulting indulgence. The piece was unfolding nicely. I thought of Beethoven’s seventh symphony for some reason.
The overture exploded with a sequence of orchestra hits: an impossible coffee craving suddenly attacking my mind and my senses like a wounded dog. I could almost taste it. The hits settled down and the strings and woodwinds took over, slowly building into successive frenzies with the aid of the percussion section: ransacking the cabinets, one after another, in a near-irrational and desperate search for coffee grounds. Between the frenzies, the mood settled like the deep ravines between mountains: the disappointment of each coffee-less cabinet.
The first movement began with the hopeful and inspiring sound of strings and timpani in a dance-like rhythm: rejoicing in the discovery of coffee grounds and deeply breathing in the aroma of victory. And, man, did it smell sweet! The orchestra moved in to an industrious-sounding section with the woodwinds carrying the melody lightly on their backs like the ocean bearing ships: plugging in the coffee maker, pouring the water, and scooping the grounds. I was reminded of something my mother often said. “I love it when a plan comes together.”
The second movement was a slow and sullen march of cellos and basses: waiting for the coffee, time begins to slow to a crawl as my craving becomes ravenous. The cellos and basses swelled into the frustrating stomping of time, dragging its feet and punctuated by the timpani and brass: impatience takes over as I watch the coffee stream too slowly in to the pot. Frustrated and desperate for coffee, the unrelenting need to physically destroy something invaded my hands. From the shoulders down, my arms became independent entities and ignored the rational pleas of my mind. My hands took up the empty plate that had previously held my life-saving sandwiches and smashed it irrevocably on the hardwood floor of the kitchen.
The third movement signaled the release from my overwhelming frustration with a cheerful melody composed of violins, flutes, and clarinets. The melody soared like a bird of prey freed from captivity: the senseless destruction of my sandwich plate had satisfied some primal need for control over the physical world. My mind became calm again as I watched the coffee drip in to the pot. Steam rose from the beautiful earthy liquid. It was a near perfect shade of hazel and the smell that filled the room was a taste of things to come. It danced in my nose like a happy childhood memory. The scherzo section grew into an avalanche of anticipation: the aroma of brewing coffee filled my nose and mouth like a liquid, overflowing. I couldn’t wait any longer.
The fourth and final movement began with a beep from the coffee machine and the powerful blast of horns: at last, my impatience would be rewarded. My hands became independent of my mind again, located a cup, and recklessly poured the coffee. The full orchestra plunged into a fierce collision of sounds: the coffee filling my taste buds with sensation and bursting into the nerve center of my brain, demanding satisfaction. And, satisfaction was had. Again, I thought nothing had ever tasted so good. The conductor drew the orchestra to a close with a flick of his wrist and slowly let his arms down to his sides. The audience erupted with applause, moved to tears by the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of my coffee odyssey. My imagination threw up a white flag and I leaned back against the countertop savoring the spoils of war. What a strange person I was.
I finished my coffee and picked up the broken pieces of the plate. I placed the big pieces carefully in the sink and tossed the little pieces in to a pullout trashcan under the counter. I poured myself another cup of coffee and looked around the kitchen again. My eyes became fixed on a blemish on the door of the white refrigerator. It stuck out very obviously in the otherwise perfect room. I couldn’t imagine how I had overlooked it before. In the throes of hunger, the aesthetics of the kitchen had been the last thing on my mind. I stepped forward to examine the blemish a little closer. It was a small dent accented by uneven scratches in the paint. I ran my finger slowly over the dent, feeling the depth and texture of the imperfection. As my finger slid in to the shallow recess, I saw the fragment of an image in my mind. It exploded in my head and dissolved before I could make it out. It was something violent. Something desperate. I touched the refrigerator door again and closed my eyes, trying to invite the image again. Something metallic slammed into a dark photograph hanging from the white door by an orange square magnet, accompanied by the sound of someone screaming. The noise was warped and grating and sounded inhuman. My body was tense and I had unintentionally been holding my breath. I let it out slowly and drew in a fresh one. I looked down at my fingers wrapped around the handle of the coffee cup. They were red and white around the knuckles and my hand shook unsteadily. I set the cup down on the counter next to refrigerator and my eyes were immediately drawn to something shiny and hard. It was a stainless steel toaster, which was crushed and bent on one end by the corner. I picked it up and held it close to my face. It was unusually heavy. The metal around the smashed corner was folded and misshapen. There were scraps of dry white paint clinging to the folds of the thin steel. I held the damaged corner up to the dent in the refrigerator door and the shape and depth matched perfectly. I pressed it into the dent and closed my eyes again.
I was standing in the kitchen alone. It was the same kitchen, but different. The curtains were open and the window streamed early morning sunlight through a white lace valance. There were pictures, business cards, and notes hanging from the refrigerator door in disorganized clumps. The sink was full of dishes. There was a black cordless telephone mount on the wall by the entrance to the room, missing the handset. It was not the disused and pristine kitchen I had seen a moment earlier. It was full of life and memories. I was standing in front of the sink. The faucet was running. My hands held an empty coffee mug and a sponge, but they were frozen. I was looking straight ahead through the window. My eyes were fixed, but I was looking at nothing. I didn’t know how much time had passed. I looked down and set the cup and the sponge down in the sink, turning off the faucet. A metallic clicking sound broke me out of my trance and called my attention to the two pieces of blackened bread that had just emerged from the toaster with a plume of smoke. The toaster was not mangled. Rather, it retained its original rectangular shape. I slid open the trash drawer underneath the counter, carefully removed the ruined pieces of toast, and tossed them in the garbage. My face was blank. I looked completely removed from reality. I took a loaf of bread down from the cabinets over the island and set it on the counter next to the toaster. I untwisted the paper-covered wire that was wrapped around the opening to the bag. My hands froze and rested around the metal form of the toaster. I stared down at the wires in the slots, still slightly orange. Time stopped. An intense unidentifiable emotion filled every corner of my body, followed swiftly by guilt and then fear. I took up the toaster in my hands, turned, and heaved it at a dark photograph on the refrigerator door with a cry the likes of which had never left my mouth before. The toaster crashed in to the door with a thud and then fell to the floor with a cold crash, several small pieces flying this way and that. I stood over the wreckage, body rigid and breathing heavily. I looked at the twisted photograph that had taken the brunt of the impact. It was an ultrasound picture. I walked over and pulled the picture out from under the grasp of the orange square magnet. I looked at it blankly, running my thumb over the distorted image of the unborn child. There was a small dent in the refrigerator door from where the corner of the toaster had met with it. My fingers found their way in to the small depression, now a material reminder of my weakness. I took a step back, pulled on my jacket, and shoved the folded photograph into the inside pocket. I walked out of the room.
The kitchen returned to its previous state. The curtains were closed, completely obscuring the sunlight, if there was any. The refrigerator door was devoid of pictures, business cards, and notes. The telephone mount was missing from the wall by the entrance. The sink contained only the large fragments of the plate I had smashed on the floor. I pulled my hand away from the refrigerator door and reached in to the inside pocket of my jacket. I removed a bent ultrasound photo and straightened it out. It was blank.
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