In Her Head a Cello Plays
Elaine pulls on the carpet. A satisfying staccato of glue separating from fabric, and the last piece is up. She rolls it into a dusty burrito, surveys the room. No sign of it.
She marks off “under the carpet” from a list on her yellow legal pad. She goes to bed.
Morning comes, and she wakes at seven with no alarm. She checks her legal pad.
The words “his car” are next on the list. She lifts the receiver of her phone and lets it rest against her ear. The dial tone hums like a siren of the abyss. She does not dial the number. The tone drops and she is told the number she has dialed is incorrect. She hasn't dialed and the lie makes her angry.
In her head she would crawl through the telephone wire like a secret worm, arriving where the electric operator is telling her she misdialed. She would enter the woman's ear. Tell her that pain keeps her from dialing. That to hear his voice will be like unstitching a wound. She would unload the burdens of her heart until the electric operator breaks, and all phone calls cease.
Elaine hangs up and tries again. This time her fingers move and the phone rings and his voice says hello.
Static on the line.
“Are you there?”
“What do you want?”
“Look, I'm sorry to bother you like this, but I'm looking for something. I might have left it in your car.”
“Elaine, it's been six years.”
“I know but I was just hoping--”
“I don't have that car anymore. Sold it. I don't have anything of yours.”
“I guess that's all I needed. Thank--”
She hangs up slowly. Picks up her pen. Marks him off the list. The next item is a coffee shop she visited seven years ago in Dallas.
She throws on sweatpants, a sports bra, a tee-shirt. The drive is three hours, hours she doesn't feel. The coffee shop is still there.
She orders a tall latte and doesn't drink it. Instead she moves from table to table as they become unoccupied, looking under the chairs, feeling under the tables.
She waits until there is a lull and approaches the counter.
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah. I was just wondering, do you guys have a lost and found?”
“Um, I think so. What're you looking for?”
She told the barista.
The barista disappeared, came back. “Nope. Sorry about that!”
“It's alright. Worth a shot.”
She sits down, takes sips from her lukewarm latte.
A man comes in. He hasn't shaved, he wears baggy shorts, a tight shirt. He orders something indiscernible, sits at the table next to hers. He takes earphones from his pocket. He takes a journal and a pen from another pocket and starts to write.
She tilts her head slightly to the right. In her head a cello plays. In her head she's brave. In her head she speaks:
“I'm sorry?” he would say, taking off an earbud.
“What are you writing?”
“Oh. Just a poem.”
“What's it about?”
A smile. “Nothing. I'm just scribbling.”
“Can I read what you've got?”
“I'm sorry. I'm being so nosy. I don't know what I'm thinking. I'll let you get back to it.”
“No, it's alright. Here.”
“Are you sure?”
She would cradle the journal. Lift the page before reading it, hands trembling. She would drink the poem like milk. Her hair would fall in strands until it covered her face.
Smiling, she would say “It was great,” and she would mean it.
“Well, it's not really finished.”
“Yeah but I can tell it's great.”
They would continue to converse. He would tell her his name is Drew or Tom, he would skip work to be with her. She would lose track of time.
But even in her head, reality takes its toll. He would ask her what she does. She would try to skirt around it. Maybe she'd lie. But always it would be a wedge, slowly driving her away.
In her head she would finally tell him. It would go like this:
“I wrote a novel. It was the best thing I have ever written,” she would say.
“You finished a novel? Did you try to publish it?”
“No. I lost it.”
“You lost your novel?”
Elaine would nod.
Elaine would shake her head. Look away.
“I lost the journal I wrote it in.”
“But can't you just--”
“Rewrite it? No.” She would face him, eyes bright. “Have you ever written something so that the words just interlock, woven like a rug, and you go to edit it, and you can't change anything because it would unravel the whole thing? And you know the entire thing was a gift, a test from the gods, so that if you write it down, if you capture it just right, they grant you immortality? I did it. I wrote it. And now it's gone.”
He would tell her its nonsense. He would tell her to just write another one. He would find out about her wasting seven years of her life searching for the journal. He would go away.
Elaine finishes her latte and leaves.
The man never looks up.
Elaine cranks the engine, pulls out of the parking lot. Green light. She pulls into the intersection and looks left. A truck is going too fast. It won't stop in time. Elaine screams.
Elaine looks down at her hands. The journal lies there inconspicuously, having snuck back after all these years, expecting nothing to have changed. She lays the journal on a desk.
“We need to talk,” she says to the journal.
The journal stares up at her.
“I've waited seven years to find you, and you just show up like this. I feel like flushing you down the toilet.”
The journal's pages turn and flap.
“And you should be ashamed.”
One page turns itself quietly.
Elaine sighs. She picks the journal up and begins to read. The words. Her words. Each punctuation mark a vertices of the web of silvery sentences. Each comma is like the sway of a mother soothing a baby.
She walks across the sentence fibers, making her way to the center. The center quivers in anticipation, making it hard to balance. She tightropes, teeters, falls into the center.
“Can you hear me OK?”
A single nod.
“Are you aware of what has happened?”
Hands lift. They are empty.
“Journal,” voice croaks.
“Good. Glad to see you back with us. You had us worried! I'm going to need you to sign a few things here. Nurse Bigham will be here in just a second with your papers.”
Elaine fumbles with the lock. Drops her keys. Bends over awkwardly on crutches. Gets the door open. The room smells displaced. The dried carpet glue looks like vomit. She throws the pile of credit card offers and bills onto the floor, they fan out like hen feathers.
She stands in the doorway, stares at them, reads them like Tarot cards. Death, death, death. No letters from friends, no get better cards. Nothing from a human being.
“Need some help with those?” The old black man from two apartments over. He stands too near. She can smell his breath.
“Thanks, no. I'm fine.”
“Here, lemme help you now.” He squeezes past her and into her apartment, picks up her mail.
“Say, you doin' some remodlin' or somethin'?” He looks at the top envelope. “Elaine Green.” His brows furrow.
“Thank you so much.” She tries to get between him and the rest of the apartment. “I ought to be fine now. I really appreciate it.”
He hands the mail to her absently. He mouths “Elaine.” He mouths it again. “Say! Are you a writer?”
Elaine blinks. “No. At least, not anymore.”
“Hold on a minute. I think I got somethin' belongs to you.” He hobbles to his apartment, comes back with a journal. “This yours?”
Shockwaves from a bomb of emotion roll like thunderclaps from her core. Blood fills her head, water fills her eyes.
Elaine hops forward on her good leg, puts an arm around his neck. He stiffens. She sobs once, catches her breath. Pulls back. “Where did you find it?”
“I think it was just here in the parkin' lot. Years ago. I kep' thinkin' about askin' folks around here if it was theirs. Just forgot to I guess. I got a thing about names. I can tell you my second grade teacher: Mrs. Mannings. Anyway, glad to return it.”
“Thank you. Oh God thank you.”
“Don' mention it.”
Elaine hops inside, leans against a wall. She stares down at the journal. Exhales a seven year breath. Her novel rests inside her hand, a hidden lottery ticket. She cracks the cover, smells the stiff pages.
Begins to read.
After three minutes the fear sets in.
Paragraphs bounce off each other like fat kids in a wave pool. Bloated sentences drool across the pages, oozing and coughing. Phrases are cliché, dialogue unnatural, characters flat. She forces herself to read every painful word. Fear becomes anger, anger sickness, sickness numbness.
An hour and a half hour later she closes the journal and throws it in the dumpster.
She returns to her living room, picks the legal pad up off of the carpet roll and marks off “coffee shop.” The next item on her list involves tearing into the sheetrock of her apartment. She better get some rest.
words: Bryan Tarpley, Texas (The Hopeful Midwife)
image: Jeff Crouch, Texas (more)
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