He told me as we were by the front door readying ourselves to go outside. He was kneeling, his hands looped around the frayed lace-ends of his walking boots. ‘Good news,’ he said. ‘I’ve just sent off for it.’
He looked up at me from his (perhaps strategically) subordinated position, searched my face for recognition and found what, I imagine, in truth, he was hoping to find: no recognition. He held the silence for long enough to let his point land, but not so long that it would require me to interject, and then clarified: ‘The magazine. The old issue with that story in it.’
I should have remembered. He’d been talking about it for a while, since the spring probably. I still recall him arriving at my apartment and gingerly carrying his muddied bike up the stairs, his fluorescent green jacket marked down its back with a single, spattered, brown line, and declaring when he reached the hallway at the top (helmet still on) that he’d just listened to the best short story on his ride over here and that I should give it a listen, or a read, too.
The next time I saw him he’d printed it for me: ‘Here you go. I couldn’t fathom how to do double-sided but the font is the same as the original magazine so it looks pretty authentic. I underlined my favourite sentence. Don’t skip to it—reach it in your own time; it’s right near the end anyway.’
I read the story the following day when he’d left for work. I enjoyed the story, I did. The single sentence—just fifteen or so words about some woods becoming legendary—was underlined with a fountain pen and when I turned the page over I could see through its reverse three separate globules like little molehills of blue ink where he must have unintentionally pressed more firmly. It was just the sort of story I expected Will would like: a tale set in small-town America, involving unkind characters and wildlife. And there was a strange kid in it.
‘I hope we have a kid like that one day,’ he told me when we discussed the story. I didn’t fully understand the aspiration, as the kid had bad skin, was bullied by a stepfather and told barefaced lies—something I can’t abide—to pretty much everyone (including a police officer). But as a concession I told him I thought the kid had a strong imagination.
He suggested that I could, if I wanted to, place the print-out in my bookcase. By pure chance I slotted it on a shelf between One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. ‘That’s perfect,’ he said, when he noticed where it ended up.
A few months passed before he mentioned the story again. ‘Remember that story? The one I really liked and got you to read? It’s on your shelf at home printed out.’ I told him I did. ‘Well, I decided to order the author’s collection with the story in it. I couldn’t find the edition here so it’s coming from America. I guess nobody knows him that well over here.’ It arrived a week or so later and he read it quickly, concluding that it was very good but there was probably no need for me to read it. It was summer by then and we were sitting outside at a restaurant having lunch and he had the book with him. Just over the other side of the fence railings from our table there was a full-service car wash and there would be loud, intermittent blasts as a powerful hose stripped off the dirt and for the next minute or so I watched tiny particles of mist and grime float towards us. ‘There are no more strange kids or big wildlife in the other stories,’ he added. ‘Just some minor marine animals and cuckolds.’
Then about a month after that he brought the story up again: ‘I was reading it yesterday, for the first time on my laptop, and the full-page illustration the magazine originally ran alongside it came up. I didn’t see this before when I read the story on my phone. Must be a compatibility issue—the magazine should look into that. Anyway, the imagery and colours are so perfect. Brooding khakis. The animal poised. The kid lying down. I’ve started looking into how one might go about getting hold of old issues of the magazine. There’s eBay and second-hand bookshops… But better than that there’s also a process out there to order old copies direct from the magazine publisher itself, through the mail from the US.’
He explained this ‘process’ as we were in my kitchen cooking with anchovies and the briny absoluteness of the aroma made by those dead, miniscule, silver creatures almost mocked the gargantuan complexity of the procedure he outlined. He had determined that although it would cost more to get it this way than, say, eBay, ‘what with the cost of the magazine itself and the postage out to America and back,’ it was worth it.
Only one question remained for him: ‘Do you think I should include a full cover letter with the cheque, or just a slip of paper with the issue number I’m after?’ I asked him what the process prescribed. ‘The instructions remain silent on this point. A lacuna. I think I’ll play it safe and write one,’ he said, adding after a short pause that, ‘The size of the paper I’ll use for my letter will indicate clearly that this is an overseas order—in case the person in the department thinks ‘UK’ is a typo for ‘AK’.’
October passed and by November there was still no sign of the issue.
‘I have concerns, Clara. I should contact them and find out what’s going on. Do you think I should write a letter or use the email address they provide on the website? I guess email would be much quicker but to email does seem to go somewhat against the grain of the whole procedure.’
He must have emailed, because some days later I went to his apartment and as I came in the door he explained to me excitedly that he’d had an email back from the magazine: ‘Look! From a guy working in the relevant department. An actual human working on this. His email is a good one. Well-crafted; good spacing too. Look.’ He turned the laptop screen round. I read the email and the reason for the delay was explained: Will had dated the cheque incorrectly; he’d not used the American date format so it couldn’t be cashed until next month.
Buoyed now by the news that this was ‘all in hand’ (the term used by the department), he admitted he actually took delight in the additional interaction caused by his error: ‘The address I sent the cheque and letter to was just for a PO Box in some town in Kansas. I went on Google Maps and did a tour of the streets looking for warehouses—it must be a warehouse, right?—so I could get a feeling of what I’m dealing with. The town isn’t that big but I couldn’t spot anything that looked likely to be it so I decided just to imagine it and write that down instead. Want to see it?’
He showed it to me on a printout with a couple of his manuscript revisions remaining in the wide margins:
Single storey: this is a small town and therefore space is of little concern. Squat, regular, block shapes make it up, and they are painted an orange that in ordinary light looks faded but in the occasional winter glow of the full moon must turn beautiful. On either side of it, only parking lots and scrub unless you walk back across the road (into another parking lot) so on the right, out of the far corner of your eye, a Dairy Queen sign appears, rotating slowly, ceaselessly. The entrance, unsigned, is two wired glass doors blocking out any view of internal workings and is reached via a gentle ramp. If one were to venture in, along the hospital-scrubs-blue, easily-cleaned, lino-floored corridors and past various, orderly offices filled with efficient people (editor’s note: like the guy who replied to my email), a main hall would be reached. The lungs of the building. In there, columns and rows of tall bookcases dated by year, then by month, and then further marked by issue number. All the colours and words within those magazines are hidden entirely. The only splashes of colour against the brown of the bookcases are the few red gate valves for the water detection system and the flashing lights of the temperature and humidity gauges.
He asked if I liked it. I told him I did and asked what he intended to do with it. ‘Recycle it into my work maybe? Seamus Heaney wrote a great number of little prose description pieces and bundled them together and called them prose poems. Could do that if I get good at this stuff.’
Just before Christmas I went over to his apartment and saw that the magazine had finally arrived. It was there on the coffee table, and he’d lined it up precisely on top of the white envelope it had been delivered in, so precisely that around each edge there was an inch of white.
‘There was no note or anything else with it in the envelope. Just the magazine. So simple,’ he said, tapping the front cover twice with his index finger, as if with pride.
It lay there like that for a few more days and then one morning I walked past and it was opened. I saw he’d underlined that same sentence. Turning the page over in my hand gently, so as not to add any fingerprints or warping to the immaculate copy, I could see the ink through the thin paper connecting like a desire line through a forest of words.
Then, in the very first days of the new year, he told me to come over to his apartment and to bring pastries to celebrate (exactly what we were celebrating I did not know). I opened the apartment door, knelt down to take off my boots, my hands working loose the frayed lace-ends, and I saw hung on the wall directly opposite me a pinewood frame, and inside that pinewood frame three pages side-by-side. On the left, was the story’s title page and illustration cut from the magazine. In the middle, the page with the underlined sentence also snipped from the magazine. Then on the right, a printout of the email from the magazine department explaining the delay.
‘What do you think?’ he asked.
I told him, and he responded: ‘Some people have a mirror by the door to check they’ve not applied too much lipstick or missed something stuck in their teeth. Well, this is a bit like my mirror. My checkpoint. When I’m sat down there like you are now, fiddling with the matter-of-factness of boots and laces and finding keys and checking I’ve got everything I need, I’ll look up, and see it, and think: God, I love that story, and that strange kid, and this one little sentence. What a way to be ready for the outside world!’
I pushed a loose strand of hair lightly back into place behind his ear and smiled encouragingly, and went into the kitchen to throw away my chewing gum. I saw in the bin the remains of the discarded magazine. It was twisted and scissor-cut and stained in places, marked wet and brown by coffee grounds that still clung to the pages like crumbs on a plate. I lifted it out and turned to find the pages of the story that remained. I read for a few paragraphs. It was the bit where the strange kid was talking to the police officer. There you are, I thought, lying, yet again.