An ocean breeze cuts through an open window and sniffs about the apartment before reaching a book resting on a desk. Off in the distance, those seagulls sound restless. All of which intrudes on the moment without knocking but let’s focus on what we know so far. Let’s jot down the facts ripening like fruit. I never remember details if I don’t jot them down. This is a book full of letters, sure. Contessa Glockenspiel complied the letters, double sure. For certain it stresses what’s missing because there are curious gaps on every page. And we know gaps are used in filmmaking all the time.
Let’s examine this. Someone’s shown walking on a street. We only see and hear loud shoes striking and then like a lightning bolt the movie jump cuts to a hand grabbing a doorknob. Now insert the absent details and become therefore involved. Sucked into a world of truth waiting around the corner, out of sight but always present. A thriller’s activated. The walker reaches the building and checks the address on a crumpled note. There are wrongs to be made right. Flashback to a few of them. An abandoned car on Pacific Coast Highway. A chained dog barking. A broken chair in a kitchen. A pot of boiling water. This revenger shivers before heading up some stairs. A gun is made ready. The coast is clear. Now the killer’s hand touches the door. See how much drama happens in the mind between shoes hitting asphalt and a trembling door handle. Nothing but the actuality of cinema.
That same ocean breeze bumping through my second-story apartment window moves the lime-green flyer from Yellow Jacket Books thumbtacked to my wall. Light also comes through. Daylight spliced with lamplight vitalizes the pages of Letters. As far as this book’s concerned, Glockenspiel’s technique is to let the words be themselves, gaps and all. No explanations and no plot-making details to Mickey Mouse things up.
You’re right. Your question’s good. Our plan’s simple, darling. Stay away long enough to erase doubt. I keep at preliminaries. Tulips and roses, red and yellow. Patience is our agreed word. Remember not to worry. Remember our walk when you said the slice of moon’s a smirk on the face of night?
That “smirk” is no lazy word. It hints at the glaring theater between the lines. Maybe the “darling” receiving the letter is alone in an apartment just like I am. The same midday sun enlightens us both. Might we also be listening to the same waves and the same squawking seagulls?
Let’s call her G. He writes letters to her. He’s A. A is her dear friend, someone who matters quite a bit, though they are not the kind of lovers we think of when we think of romance. But you never know about these things. Eyewitnesses have seen them strolling barefooted on the beach. Sometimes they walk at night when the sound of the waves hitting the wet sand is all there is.
They both work at Gobo’s Garden Supply Center, which is just three blocks from the sandy beach. They met at Gobo’s. According to their coworkers, what sticks out is their ways of dealing with customers. G trusts her eyesight. She sees someone browsing the shelves and reading labels and knows immediately what that person is thinking. It’s really a whole floriculture of native plants arranged in knot patterns that the customer wants, and “when you’re ready for a real garden, we can make it happen,” which is what she says. Then she discusses plants, color patterns, soil pH and amendments, because “dirt needs calcium just like people,” water preferences, direct versus indirect sunlight, animal control, and “what about humus?” Like a perfect plan, she ends her talk with a smile punctuated with crooked teeth showing.
A’s strategy is far different. He agrees with customers, the effect being that everyone is simultaneous boss and the smartest person on the planet. “Yes,” he says, “of course a hoe will do the job. You’re right on that mark.” His goal is to make their desires happen no matter how bizarre. With them he nods, pointing out their trophy-like brilliance. Even so, he processes none of it. While he’s echoing back their words his mind is lost on fog and the science of fog and how it creeps along the shore when the air and water temperatures are perfect. When fog surrounds the end of the pier it’s the ocean’s artistic masterpiece. Everything’s sticky whenever fog trundles in.
No one seems to know what they do outside of Gobo’s. For sure they’ve been seen on the pier, eating hotdogs and chatting it up with the old man who limps because of a prosthetic leg. The guy selling donuts at High-Hat’s reports that he’s seen a couple who fits their description getting “two coffees with maple bars to go.” He wears that same greasy white apron every day I question him. His take is they walk down to see the sunrise slowly flood the beach. They’re two nice people, he says, and that’s that.
How out of sorts it seems now that the sun outside is a klieg light bleeding through yet another pasty sky. Squawking seagulls tumble in synchronized movements and plunge at the seawater, at something in the seawater and too far away for positive identification. Off to the left of this a merry-go-round house sits at the end of the pier. Holding my hands like a picture frame and looking through this frame makes it become a cottage at the tip of a peninsula. Maybe the old salt living there lights a pipe and tugs at some gray whiskers and talks nonstop about adventures with sea monsters. One leg is missing and, well, there you go.
Let’s be candid. Glockenspiel is beautiful. I know this because her picture’s on that lime-green flyer that I borrowed from the bulletin board at Yellow Jacket Books last week when I picked up her unbelievable book. The flyer sits perfectly at eye level and shows her pixilated face partly enveloped with light dusty hair with that same crooked grin that sticks in my mind long after I’m done looking at it. It’s that flash of white taking its sweet time to ripple and disappear whenever you close your eyes the second after you flick on a light in a dark room. Is it possible to fall for a lime-green flyer thumb-tacked to a wall? Head over heels, the saying goes.
I’ve one idea to add. Talk to no one. Discuss zero. Once gossip erupts like a volcano, there’s no stopping. Avoid it. It’s a plague. Keep to yourself. Stay inside. All’s not ready. Give it time. Let our plan develop.
A train’s crawling on tracks and it’s rhythmic, looping over and over in the background. The tracks are two blocks away, behind Gobo’s and near the abandoned brick building where there used to be lumber kept and it took time to rearrange the wood into symmetrical stacks and the supervisor at the time got grumpy when asked to cut a two-by-four the length of a baseball bat. Window panes are broken now from all the rocks. I can almost hear the sounds of glass breaking and train rolling mixed in the letters, combined with the over-and-under pleading about Glockenspiel dubbed into every sharp word.
Remember the trampoline park when we talked ‘til dawn and our fingers got cold? You smiled just because. We sat for hours with no one to bother. Keep your thoughts there. Dwell there.
For some reason C visits almost every day and when he walks in I’m thinking beach tent because his shirt’s too big. As usual he has a cinnamon stick in his mouth, its edges frayed and chewed because he’s been working it for hours. He scans the room’s corners like a documentary creator aiming his camera at the cobwebs there, searching for proof there, even though there’s nothing there, not even dust. Only C isn’t a documentary creator. He’s my one literal friend wearing a big Hawaiian shirt that’s scattered with green palm trees stuck in dirt mounds. He grabs my little notebook on Letters from my oversized chair and tosses it on my purple ottoman and plops down, stretching his legs over my pages. By the way this is very nervous making. He asks what I’ve been up to and why in the world I won’t pick up my phone anymore.
First, I say, “I’m being methodical.” But saying it makes the apartment feel peculiar, as if everything—book with the spine aligned with the desk’s edge, desk with the chair perpendicular, beige mug inches to the right—all of it has some stranger’s fingerprints. Second, and I’m counting on my fingers as I go along, “the rent’s due and I’m dead broke.” Third, which I save for last, “G is missing. Can you imagine? Fourth…” I pause to let the odd feeling hang like smoke.
“Man, Lance Beck, you’re a predicament. Unbelievable.” He crosses his legs. My notes, written by hand in the open spiral notebook, rustle on the ottoman like autumn leaves. Mud’s pancaked in the crevices of his sandals.
“A has something to do with her vanishing. There are clues.”
“The letters. A writes to G only she never responds because she can’t, obviously, at least there’s no proof she can. The letters create this terrific illusion she’s reading them. That’s their purpose, to create an illusion. It’s too perfect, don’t you think, that we have such an obvious red herring?”
C raises an eyebrow. “So, guess what. I met this little kid at the fish market the other day who told me right to my face that he had no stomach. Came right out and said so. Yeah, food just travels straight through him.” He’s scratching his abdomen. “Me. A total stranger.”
I know what he’s thinking. I let him go on believing I’m on a wild goose chase, which is what A wants me to be on, which is why I can’t be on one because that’s way too air-tight.
“So out of respect for one poor stomach-missing kid let’s do something honoring the food he can’t.” C stands. “Think gastric charity.” The notes lay now with bent corners. “I say let’s forget about your missing woman stuff. Head that Italian place. Remember the baskets of garlic bread? Come on. Don’t make me beg.”
I want to act antagonistic, to stand square-shouldered, to inflate my lungs and grind my jaw. Instead, I shake my head and exhale in a drawn out way and rub the back of my neck. Through the window—looking like a Van Gogh painting—the klieg-like sun has dipped a little further into the sticky horizon. A melancholic train horn peals over undertones of rhythmic track rumbling as it passes the brick building it no longer stops at.
“Ah, come on.” C picks up my notebook from the purple ottoman. His movements agitate the room.
There’s a big mountain of reasons why I can’t just traipse off with him. One, I say, “I don’t have any money,” and two, again counting with the fingers, “I’m thinking A needs to be tracked down and questioned,” and three, snapping my fingers, “don’t look at that.”
But C flips through my notes and points with the cinnamon stick and I worry about potential drool so I make a move to grab them, which he countermoves by lifting his arm. “So, suppose that for purposes of pure entertainment we entertain the idea this dude really did something with her. Suppose he tucked her away in a dumpster.”
“Is that possible?”
“Or buried her in the sand.”
“I saw a movie once. Don’t remember which one. This dude buried his wife in the sand. Then he got all frantic acting and started running around town trying to find her. Organized a search party even.”
“It’s always the husband. Detectives know right off. They arrest him. They interrogate him. His story changes the more he tells it. He’s trying to throw them off the scent.”
“Which is as good as a confession in their book.” He tosses my bent notes down on the ottoman. “You think you can let it go for one night?” The cinnamon stick is back in his mouth cigarette-style. “Come on, man. Pasta for the kid.”
Does resistance weaken from overuse like old wood or does it become thicker like scar tissue? For my part, I tell C no in as many unspoken ways I can think of. I yawn. I stretch. I shut the window. I adjust the book on my desk. I take a nice long drink from my beige mug. Coffee drips down the side like lava oozing from a volcano. I mosey to the front door. The fingertips of my left hand touch those of my right, forming a cage. I cover my nose and mouth.
“There’s way too much to sort through,” I finally say, opening the door. The hallway to my apartment is as salty and as damp as beached kelp. It’s lighted with a single light bulb hanging on an electric cord. Standing at the door I’m a guard at Buckingham Palace, steel jawed, unmovable, cemented. My mind, though, races with possibilities.
“One of these days, old buddy. I’m getting you out of here. Nice babe.” He’s glaring at Glockenspiel’s picture on the thumb-tacked flyer.
“That’s the truth.” There’s nothing more dramatic than wanting to find her. Nothing better than wanting to hold her and say we’ve so much in common we must be kindred souls.
“Man, Lance Beck. A living predicament.”
Anxiety is more than a word:
You have no idea what this is doing. Remember the times. I suffer for what has no reverse. I’d put it all in a bag. Bury it. What then? Let’s go back to precursors. What led to this. I said so and so and you nothing. I did this and that and you like a schoolgirl covered your eyes. What now? Is there a tomorrow? Let me visit. Think of the beach and the echoing waves. I’ll visit. Let me. What then is up to you.
Tony’s Italian Restaurant sits on the pier just beyond High-Hat’s. Next, there are two other restaurants with cooks offering free tastes of their unique clam chowder in small paper bowls. Beyond them sits a gift shop with seashells the color of bones in the window, then an ATM boxed in dried redwood, and then that merry-go-round house that draws the eye. I’m on a cement bench. The fishy air minces with the smell of pastrami cheeseburgers. The setting sun still feels warm. Here’s what we know, what’s in the palm-sized spiral notebook. G’s a genuine missing person. When questioned the clerk at Yellow Jacket Books shakes her head and acts overwhelmed. The donut maker won’t talk anymore. The staff at Gobo’s are clueless. Seagulls again squawk and dive in the background, off the edge of the pier. In the day’s brightness Letters glows.
And A is getting more substantial. Using himself in letters as clever diversion. He walks in a cemetery although no one he knows is buried there. A few clouds hang. He touches headstones, running his fingers along the curves of Beloved Daughter. Statuesque angels watch. Precious Wife and Mother. His neck is sunburned. His mouth tastes dry and the heat’s a heavy blanket. He must be an orphan because he writes that the stones and the names make him remember he’s a man with no history.
Around me G’s mysterious disappearance hasn’t had any effect. Life on the pier thrives on the very edges of a mysterious riptide that has pulled someone sweet and wonderful away from me and from the world. People move past now like so many minnows, feeding, congregating, now bouncing off each other. All this while the most significant action happens offstage.
A final one before the end:
I could watch the waiting only so long. Such futility. Hope does not lighten weight. It does not lessen. Does not diminish. It’s incompatible. It is not.
Those who are taken always leave behind information for the curious observer to detect. A broken twig, a folded piece of paper, initials etched in a wall. From the apartment window I watch the gummy horizon go from pale to charcoal while lounging in my oversized chair with my feet propped on my purple ottoman. Letters is open on my lap with the spiral notebook of notes on top. Now the wind picks up and I start to fall asleep to the brushing sounds of tree branches.
It would be wrong here to say I might dream. I never dream. I only think of things as I drift off and those things never make dreams. Dreams can’t go the distance, not the way yearnings can. I prefer to think how one day Contessa Glockenspiel and I will touch our fingers together and both of us at that same spark of time will feel our hearts tremor.
Later that night a storm approaches. The wind grows harsh. Waves stir against the pier. The lights leading to the merry-go-round house are like a trail of breadcrumbs. An empty soup can tumbles across the street, hitting, clanging. Tree branches scrape the apartment. The apartment walls groan like old wooden buildings do under stress. An aggressive wind pushes against the window.
C’s no longer suffering from a generous hunger since he’s now walking in the street. He watches the same soup can tumble across his path. Drips of rain hit the pavement Jackson Pollock-style due to the disturbing wind. The can strikes the curb and its momentum is ruined. The sky’s a mesh of moving colors. Dark clouds gather like crows. Within these clouds there’s muted rumbling like a train. C’s hard shoes strike the moist asphalt as he walks. A tree branch cracks. He hurries, tightening his coat around his neck.
His footsteps are on the stairs and the wood creaks. A naked bulb lights the hallway. The corners are dark, the ceiling dark. The hallway resembles a tube. Outside, the wind shoves against the building. Inside, he looks at the tarnished brass numbers on the doors, 22, 24, 26 and then stops at number 28, runs his fingers along the door, horizontal and vertical, over and around the three projecting ridges of molding. Here is a small nail sticking up from the wood that’s sharp, here’s a splinter, here peeling paint. Behind him in both time and distance lie the footprints in the wet sand covered over by the sounds that waves make. He knocks. He tries the doorknob.
Inside number 28 the doorknob and the door shake together. The two details choreographed. I ease to my feet. Letters hits the floor. My notes slide along with the book. I count my blessings that I had remembered to double lock the door earlier. I turn off the desk lamp without breathing.
Downstairs the front door blows open. The wind wheezes up the stairs. The light bulb swings on a squeaking cord, making the poor light move across the hardwood floor, up the wall with its peeling gray paper, down to the floor again and up the other side, illuminating number 27. Then the floor. Then the papered wall. Downstairs the front door slams shut. C hears it shudder as the wheezy wind dies and the light bulb on the cord swings, slows, stops. The wooden stairs creak. C gives the doorknob a much harder shake.
It’s automatic. A thing that happens without thinking. I lean against the door, grip the moving doorknob, dig my feet into the carpet. I’m making a wedge with my body.
A figure in a dark coat and dark hood stands now at the top of the stairs, frozen, for lack of a more convincing word. Maybe it’s that I feel frozen and the effect’s spreading. This scene, unmoving, holds long enough for C to shiver. Then the figure starts moving starts toward him, making plop-drag-creak sounds that are musical.
I push my face against my side of the door, against the door’s ridges. My ear bends against the wood and I feel cold air squeezing in.
C doesn’t run. He didn’t come to number 28 out of fear and he’s not about to leave because of it. The present situation then has nothing to expand upon or make worse. It merely is a lone fact drifting like a piece of wood from a downed ship lost in a storm. C’s visit is part of detective-like thinking and a stretching of probabilities, of clues reworked. But there’s still time. The figure approaches. When A washed up on the shore with the waves lashing him against the sand and pulling him back to sea simultaneously, C became a believer in cruelty. He became its eyewitness. What no doubt ran through his mind at that moment on the beach was the lime-green flyer thumb-tacked on the wall. The crooked grin must have spoken to him.
C watches the coat and hood get closer, plopping, dragging, creaking in the poor light. There’s a missing person and now there’s a cover up. He pulls a red-brown cinnamon stick from his pocket and puts it in his mouth. Darkness hugs the corners of the hallway.
Stepping, creaking, the approaching coat and hood drags a limp leg. C rams against the double-locked door, against the force of me pushing on its other side.
In one sense, I’m the only friend C has ever had. In another, I’m the one friend he never wanted, and it’s these polar opposites that are now intersecting at the door of number 28. One moment is enough to lay siege to his thoughts and rifle-butt him to action. That and the still damp and salty memory of the beach and the sea that gives up its dead at the perfect moment to even the most skeptical eyewitness.
C focuses now on his own life.
He slams into me holding the other side of the door.
He repeats this with deadening force.
There’s an exhale and the last plop-drag-creak of the hardwood floor.
It’s a few feet away and raises a face to the poor, weak light.
The smell of cinnamon fills the dark hall.
She seems to notice this smell as she lunges at him.
A storm attacks the coast now and gale force sounds fill the air. Curious notions arise because of the noises in my hallway and the dull thumping against my apartment wall. Because of the pounding on the door that gets louder. Because the door bursts open and a hollow wind rushes in. Because my whole body is pushed aside and I hear myself not breathing. Because the room starts dissolving and Letters‘ pages flutter like dead leaves. And my notes lay like a cadaver at the morgue.
How okay this all seems because Contessa Glockenspiel is there grinning like her picture.