I'm at Radiator Springs Racers (Anaheim, CA) w/ 9 others [pic]: http://t.co/lWRuVkSa
|The Red Portfolio|
|Written by Craig M Workman|
|Friday, 02 March 2012 00:00|
Sam sat still in bed, wondering if he would sleep tonight, or if this apartment would keep him from it. It was awkward living under a roof again. It didn’t matter that it was dark in his miniature bedroom. He still felt covered. It had made him sleep differently these past eight months since that day at the river, and this early, unsure morning was no exception.
He peered at the alarm clock, wondering how long the cheap old thing—like himself—would work before it finally wound down to nothing. Sam could barely make out the time on the luminescent hands.
Still time. Well, a little at any rate. He realized he was thinking about his writing, not about the present or even if he should sleep a little more. A moment later, Sam rolled back over in the ancient, squeaky bed. The worn out springs rocked up and down several times with his movement, and he had nodded off before they even had time to stop.
In his dream, Sam placed his hands over his head. A smile dawned on his brushy face, and up into the sky he darted. He flew up over the city that he now might almost call home. No longer homeless, no longer in a cardboard box or a bus station or a men’s shelter. In the dream, it seemed as if everything were perfect. Sam smiled and took in a gulp of air. He splayed his fingers wide and opened his mouth as the cold whipped around and through him. It invigorated him. City Hall was coming up quickly as he flew, and he saw a familiar, exquisite vision of a woman wave from the roof as he approached.
And in his dream, he was not ashamed to see her.
He soared straight upward toward the stars, away from the city and all the mean, unforgivable places that were once his bed. He flew up and up, and he could hear the ringing of the atmosphere, of heaven itself all around him, and he felt his hands breaking through into space. Then something kept ringing. It wouldn’t stop.
Sam woke to the chingy patter of the old clock, which had been going off for almost fifteen minutes. His eyes bowed open and saw that his hands were breaking through the outer space of his bathrobe, which hung dutifully on the headboard. He brought his hands back to earth and flipped the latch on the alarm clock. No more atmospheres. Sam swung slowly out of bed and made haste for the coffee pot. A short trip later, Sam nabbed the pot, filled it with water, and helped it get to work brewing.
The kitchen was small, especially for a man as tall as Sam. The living room could most aptly be described as a box, and the bedroom was nothing more than a nook, consisting of a single bed, a small nightstand, and a two-drawer dresser that touched the walls on both sides of the room.
But to Sam, this place rivaled the Taj Mahal. Because to him, the only other word to describe this place would be ‘his.’ He felt very proud about that fact lately.
It had taken him nearly five months of working every spare job and part-time job. Temporary labor, illegal labor, carrying couches for ten bucks. It didn’t matter. Every beer bottle and soda can he found went to the recycling center. Every red cent found itself in the secret pocket in the pouch of his courier bag. When he had finally made enough, he went for it. He had gingerly trimmed his beard with a pair of children’s scissors (84¢ at Pennerman’s Shop and Save). He’d put on his spare, almost clean shirt and slicked what was left of his hair back. And then, with the terror of a six-year-old on the high dive, he walked into the rental office. He filled out the application, and walked—almost ran—out as if the place were on fire.
And here was Sam with a home again. A place to hang his proverbial hat.
Coffee was imperative and the leftover doughnut from yesterday wouldn’t hurt. He pulled the pot off the burner and sat down at his rickety green table.
“What’s on the agenda today, old man?” he muttered to himself. “This is — after all — the day off.”
But to Sam, this was a rhetorical question. There was only one thing to accomplish on his one day off per week and he knew too well what that thing was. Thursday was the single day he wasn’t working at Central Learning Center or at Nigel’s Used Books. Thursday’s agenda, therefore, was as important to Sam as breathing or blinking. The day to create. The day to do what he was made to do: set whole worlds in motion with the swipe of a ballpoint pen.
Thursday was the day to write.
He retied the belt on the blue bathrobe and reached under the table. After a bit of fumbling and knocking his knees on the underside of the wood, he produced the worn courier bag and set it on the shaky tabletop. He opened it and retrieved three folders. The blue and the brown ones were about two inches thick. The green folder was quite thin. Its shiny cover caught the kitchen light, sending it shimmering over Sam’s lenses as he slid it underneath the other two. Sam opened the blue folder and as he reached for his pen, a rattling knock at the worn hollow door — the only door this apartment owned — stunned him to his feet.
“MIS—TER KESTERSON!” a loud voice poured through the door. “I HAVE SOMETHIN’ FOR YOU!” A few more knocks followed, and Sam swore he could hear The Kid sigh through the damn door. “Hello?” the kid whined.
The Kid, Sam thought. Timing.
Sam walked the four steps to the front door and opened it. A tall, lanky kid with a horrible complexion and a run-down, grimy orange parka stood with a toothy grin on his face and a book in his hand. To a stranger, this sight might seem strange. But Sam knew The Kid. Everyone in this building knew The Kid.
“How’s it going, Charles?” Sam yawned. “What’s new?”
“It’s THE KID. Oh, you know,” The Kid yammered. “Not a whole heck of a lot. I was just making stacks and stacks of grandma stuff, and my mom said to give a book to you and to say hello and to say when is your book gonna be done and she also says hello.” The Kid handed the book to Sam and clapped his hands together.
“Grandma stuff?” Sam asked.
The Kid nodded up and down. It looked as if his head would snap off his body.
“She went to see heaven on...” The Kid mashed his eyes closed, then opened them just as quickly. “Monday in the night.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that, Char... Kid. How’s your mother doing?”
“Okay, I guess. Gotta go. Hope the book is fun.”
The Kid zipped his parka to his chin, waved, ran down the hall, and kicked the second floor fire door open. Small, sparkling flakes of snow blew in and the cold December wind shot through Sam like a thought. He closed his apartment door and locked it. Sam found himself thinking about the strange happenings of a moment ago and how life was like that.
You can never tell about these things.
The Kid was what Sam’s father would have called a retard. Then again, Sam’s father never said or did anything that was nice, right, or correct anyway. The Kid was... well, he was a pretty good kid. He always had a smile to show you and that’s more than most of the world can say. Sam looked at the book in his hands. The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham, it said. He thought be remembered that one. Something about the end of the world, man-eating plants, and the salvation of the human race. Pretty fun read, actually.
“Thank you Charles,” he said to the book. He set it on the kitchen counter next to the waiting coffee. Sam donned his glasses, set himself up with a double coffee, and opened the blue folder. Dr. Kesterson was still attempting to regain his art and he berated himself more than any of his editors ever did in his other life. He handwrote, proofread, revised, revised, rewrote, revised, and agonized about his writing. After this exercise in madness was completed, he typed it at Central Learning Center. To accomplish this, he showed up two hours before his workday began. And he did this twice a week. He was amassing so much material that soon these two hour sessions wouldn’t be enough to transcribe his work. The Factory of Mind, it would seem, was nearly in full production. Unbelievable.
Sam sipped at his coffee and began to read the only true thing he’d ever written, bore out on twenty pound, white-wove pulp.
The first sentence was one Sam had a hard time writing and an even harder time reading: ‘I never loved my wife until they told me she was dying.’ To read those words were difficult to him. It was even more difficult to realize the truth of the sentence. He had always wished idioms made sense to anyone. Sam had always thought about the one, ‘the grass is always greener’ would make sense to him one of those days, but it never did. He would catch a glimpse of himself brushing his teeth in the mirror and realize he had a finite number of days left on earth. His wrinkles and growing baldness, the unfamiliar brown spots on his face, and his posture all spoke a truth he never thought he would have to listen to. When he thought about how green the grass was at one time and how he should’ve known how green it was, he fought the urge to vomit. He felt the sickening certainty that a great number of his days were in vain.
He was married to Libby for thirty-one years but he considered himself to be really there for about twenty months. He was his wife’s husband from the time he was told what was wrong with her until they put her in the ground. And just before the last moment he realized what he had, what he had missed, and what he had lost. All those realizations — to say the least — came far too late.
In the beginning of his professional career and their marriage — which came at roughly the same time — teaching owned his days as much as scotch did his evenings. As things went their way, it became cocktails before and during teaching. And finally his life made its way to little or no teaching, only cocktails. Regardless, Sam felt his nights were the time to create his worlds on paper. They were the time to write. Well, nights were the time to drink and possibly to write. Every evening Sam wrapped himself in his favorite gray sweater and burned his imagination to its core from the privacy of his meager yet well-equipped study. He was always so positive the words would cease to flow unless he wore that sweater on his person and a liter of scotch in his stomach. Now, sitting in his apartment miles and months from where he started, reading over new words of old deeds, he can’t remember what happened to that sweater.
Sam’s days and nights as a professor and writer passed for years in this way. Every year, he resolved to stop drinking and to become more of a family man. One New Year’s Eve, Sam thought about asking his wife if they could start a family of their own. He never got around to asking her, though. And so it went, day in and day out.
Cocktail party. Blah, blah, blah. Yes, I do have a new manuscript in the oven. Libby? Oh, yes. She’s fine. Never better.
Sam sipped at his coffee and considered the truth of a line he had written in what he thought to be stark, awful words: ‘I had no idea how or who she was, though. I can’t remember when we became strangers. Truth be told, I’m not sure it really matters now. Other things matter. That doesn’t.’ Libby tried to talk to Sam all the time. She asked Sam questions all of the time. Sam and Libby didn’t talk. Looking at things from so long ago, Sam realized he had made love to his typewriter. He had long, meaningful conversations with his editor. He took his manuscript out for a night on the town, stowed securely in his head.
Aside from his university position, writing and drink, the only thing he ever saw (or cared to notice) about his wife at the time was a large red portfolio Libby seemed to fiddle with on a regular basis. As he wrote, drank or both, he casually noticed her scribbling in the cumbersome fire engine-colored thing. He noticed it living temporarily throughout the house and then he noticed that — sooner or later — it always somehow made its way back to the bookshelf in the study. It ended up sandwiched between Dante’s Inferno and Jules Verne’s Omnibus. As Sam had absolute respect for nothing but her privacy, he never invaded the portfolio. As strange as it might seem, it made perfect sense to him at the time. He simply didn’t want to pry in the life of another and what they were interested in. He felt that at least he had the redeeming trait of never opening another’s closed pages.
Libby fell down in the kitchen one day and Sam happened to be there when it happened. He’d only had one drink and he wasn’t even close to drunk. She made a strange sound and Sam remembered being mad at her, thinking she was playing some kind of idiotic game, trying to play dead or something. That was one of many things he was wrong about. She couldn’t get up by herself that day. Sam picked her up and took her to the hospital. While they poked and probed and ran tests in the other room, Sam called and made an excuse to the department to cancel his classes for the day, which he seldom showed up to anyway. He paced the hallway of the hospital for some time, thinking about his wife. Sam hoped she would be okay. He hoped she just got some bad fish or something and that she just had a stomach thing. He hoped he could get back home and get to work on a chapter he was having a particularly difficult time putting together. He hoped he would have a drink soon. And when two doctors came out to talk to him about what Aggressive NK-Cell Leukemia meant, Sam was surprised that he wasn’t surprised. And at that moment, by not really reacting at all, he felt as if something had reacted for him. He felt struck as he was a moth entering a frog’s mouth at elastic speed. The haze of creation and inebriation had washed over him day in and day out for years. That something, that reality that was not fiction slapped him about inside, though on the outside he reacted as if someone had just asked him what he fancied for dinner.
Sam sipped at his coffee in the small apartment. He had read the final portion of this opening chapter many times and was all-too-familiar in its flaws and obvious need for rewrite: ‘I accepted her end immediately.’ Sam thought this wasn’t necessarily true, thinking about it after so much time had passed. Then again, he supposed he couldn’t really be sure. His memory was funny like that. It was hard to say how you felt when no one’s around to help you remember it or why you wanted to.
He remembered that once the doctors had told him the news, handed him the brochures and list of specialist information, he had walked away down the hall. Tears fell down his cheeks. They felt hot on his face and he was surprised to feel them there. Sam had trouble breathing and his head throbbed worse than any hangover had ever caused. He knew then that he loved her and that this information hurt. Before that moment, he didn’t think he had loved her. In the distance between no news and the news of her illness, these things had changed.
Sam took her home ten days later, wrapped in his gray sweater. On that first afternoon, he read to her for several hours. Not from what he was writing but Marianne Moore. He had somehow remembered she was one of Libby’s favorite poets from when they were in college together. On that first day, she grabbed onto his hand and didn’t let go for the longest time, and that was only after she finally fell asleep. Sam’s fingers scraped her dry skin against the sanitary cotton sheets and he knew she was coming to the end of things, yet she was the calmest Sam had ever seen her. Her strength made him feel important, needed, loved.
The next day, they began to talk. To finally, truly talk. They laughed together. Sam asked everything about her he didn’t already know, which—not surprisingly—amounted to quite a bit. He realized how much he had missed. He decided that though he had been married to her forever, he had just met the love of his life.
Just before she died, Libby asked Sam something he didn’t quite understand. In a shaky voice, she asked for Sam to bring the red portfolio. He went to the study and retrieved it from its place on the bookshelf. Libby grasped it and Sam kissed her just where her chin met her bottom lip. He remembered her smelling sweet, like a flower or a morning outside. Sam sat beside her, figuring she wanted to doodle or write or whatever she did in it. Libby held onto the portfolio most of that afternoon. She turned it over and over in her hands as if she had never seen it before. Her hands caressed the cover and she nodded slowly, taking the greatest effort after a time to even be able to turn it over. It appeared to Sam that, for that expanse of time, she was having a mental conversation with another person far away from the bedroom. She finally took his arm and pulled him closer to her. Sam was surprised to feel such a strong grip from her and the bruises his arm showed for days after looked like the outline of her hand. He kissed her again and Libby put her hand over his. She looked at Sam for a long while. It was so quiet in the room Sam could hear his ears ringing. Libby tucked the red portfolio under his arm and kissed Sam’s hand. She breathed in hard, once, and then exhaled slowly, and then she was gone.
Sam sat there by her side until well after sunset. He didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t anyone to say anything to. After some time, he realized her hand was still on his, and it had grown cool to the touch. He pulled his hand from her grasp. Sam turned to snap on the light and he felt something against his ribcage. He had forgotten her gift.
The cover seemed larger than he had remembered from when he had seen it so many times from afar. He opened the cover slowly and it struck him that he had never actually touched the thing. On the first page, Sam saw an amazing likeness of himself at the typewriter, and it looked to be drawn in pencil or charcoal. From the clothing and clean-shaven face on the subject, it must have been drawn soon after they were first married. He scanned the page and discovered a date at the bottom corner, which confirmed the timeframe. It was a nearphotographic likeness of him. Sam couldn’t believe she could draw that well. She had scribbled and doodled when he had first met her but he honestly didn’t know she could do things like that. Sam turned to the next page of portfolio and found himself struggling for breath. He leafed as quickly as he could and still see what he needed to. The red book contained two-hundred eighty-one drawings. Sam writing at his desk. Sam asleep in his puffy brown armchair. Sam fixing himself a drink. Sam. Years and years of worthless, stupid Sam. He closed the portfolio and rubbed at his eyes. Libby had loved him for the duration, and he had repaid her with a bit of ill-timed, weak epiphany and years of indifference.
Sam replaced the red portfolio between the two books on the shelf. He knew what he was going to do and he wouldn’t be taking that masterpiece with him. He didn’t deserve it. For all he knew, that book still sits between Dante and Verne. After the funeral, Sam felt lower than he thought a man ever could. He packed the books he used to think he couldn’t live without. He locked the house, threw the keys under the porch, and left Planet Academia. The solar system of humanity was surely the better for it. He had nothing to lose and he roamed the free land and the roadways. Nothing could be taken away but his life and Sam knew that was a steal at half the price it was worth not so long before.
It was nearing lunchtime and Sam jerked from his reading as if he’d been asleep. His nose was running and his eyes were watering at the edges. He mashed at his cheeks with the sleeve of his robe and glanced back at the page. Strange as it was to have it in writing, it felt almost right to have done so. Sam reached for the thin, green folder and opened it close to his face. Many more pages of his thoughts and his life skittered against his fingers and the inside of the folder. He rose from his chair and walked to the window. Downstairs, in an ever-growing snowstorm, The Kid stood in silent admiration of the flakes swirling about his feet. He flapped his arms as if trying to make an air-snow-angel.
Fine, Sam decided. I’ll let The Kid decide. If he looks up and sees me, I’ll keep writing. If not, I’ll throw all these pages in the trash.
And in truth, Sam had no idea what The Kid was going to do. It’s a strange old world.
You can never tell about these things.
Sam kept his spot at the tiny window. He waited for the rest of his life to be revealed to him by a kid in an orange parka.
~ The Red Portfolio
|Last Updated on Sunday, 18 March 2012 10:15|