e was my writer. The writer whose verse I could recite on loop, by memory, whose words were literally etched into my skin. I’d read him first in high school on the recommendation of my punk friend, Ella, who used to scribble Patti Smith lyrics on her forearms during homeroom and had received, at fifteen, a lifelong ban from Urban Outfitters and its sister store Anthropologie. Despite my prep school camouflage, she had recognized in me a longing—one she shared—and I suppose, that’s why she gave me the book. I stayed up all night that night reading with the sort of urgency one only musters at sixteen, when life still appears to bloom for you alone.
The writer’s post on Facebook (we were friends, though we were strangers) announced that he’d recently suffered a stroke and was now home from the hospital, tremulously recovering his command of language. This wasn’t shocking. I’d noticed, when I friend-requested him in high school, that his profile picture didn’t much resemble the handsome thirty-something from the well-worn jacket of his first book, but someone softer. Dimply, with an extra chin and tired eyes. A yellow sheen to the whole of him. He’d kept his hair, but time had leached its color; it was now stark white, receded several inches to an arctic latitude. Perhaps, he’d thought I was a student or some literary starfucker and so had accepted my request. Equally likely, he’d just confirmed it blindly. He wasn’t famous. Not to anyone but a small, obsessive fandom that gathered nightly on Tumblr to share poems of his and some of our own, each of us with nascent writerly ambitions and styles that might be best described as counterfeit. I was the only one to actually reach out and ask that he read my work, a message that went perhaps unseen but certainly unanswered, which I, with the guileless naiveté of eighteen, found utterly gutting.
I reread his post. A minor stroke. What did that mean? Did he now speak with a lisp, walk with a limp? I pictured him bumbling, gesturing crudely to household items for which he could no longer remember names. Everything he’d been, his mental acuity and mastery of language, undone.
And then, I carried on with my day. I made breakfast, watched television. Outside my window, a storm spread like an ink stain across the white sky. It had been three weeks since I’d lost my job at the art tech startup for which I moved around numbers, a decision my boss—former boss—had described as “a financial imperative.” Since that day, I’d awaited the windfall of early unemployment from my couch, knowing I could stay afloat if I ate my meals and took my entertainment at home, the happy byproduct being that I wouldn’t have to tell anyone I’d been fired. And they could keep whatever notion they had of me as a high-functioning citizen intact.
There are people who will say that twenty-five, and even twenty-six, is a very young age. But it doesn’t feel that way. Having been twenty-five (and now twenty-six), I understand that, psychically, it feels very old. Psychically, it feels as though you’ve been alive for a quarter century and have, in that time, gone from essentially nothing to a fully fleshed something with a universe within, and all that becoming has exhausted you. Yet still, you’re told, you have two or three more rounds of this. If you’re lucky. Twenty-five was made particularly onerous by its having been marked in my mind as a special age—the year in which I might finally encounter the wealth, success, and happiness I recalled being promised, though I was not sure by whom. Indeed, it came, then passed without incident, gasping by like a D train at a local stop.
And so, I would spend the final days before my twenty-sixth birthday in an empty apartment, avoiding friends and acquaintances and the question of what was next. Most days, episodes of prestige television scored my infinite scroll of smaller screens; an eerie synth as I swiped left and right, orchestral swells as I cast my resume into the digital blue. But due to the algorithm that both observes and prescribes one’s interests, the writer’s post remained obstinately pinned to the top of my feed, and thus the top of my mind, until three days later, when he posted again.
Overwhelmed by the outpour of love and support I’ve received from my village here in Phoenix. Former students, friends, family, friends of friends, I appreciate your messages. I’m up and moving again, using a walker. These past few days I’ve felt alert enough for visitors, and as my sister will return soon to Houston, I invite you, my village, to come over, drink tea, bring food, bring stories. My doctors say the company should help immensely with my memory, and my mood, if nothing else. R
Two days passed; I submitted my résumé to several senior data analyst positions I did not want and for which I was not qualified, the illusion of productivity applied like a daily salve. I figured I might die still updating my LinkedIn. The writer wrote again.
Thank you, friends, for taking the time to come by this week. My sister had the clever idea to set up the sign-up sheet below so that visitors can stop by on different days & spend time one-on-one. If this appeals to you, by all means, do sign-up. I look forward. R
I wondered about these visitors. He was known, even in tedious literary circles, as a distinctly melancholy man, a small-time curmudgeon in his late middle age. So who were these friends? Perhaps not friends at all, but fans, devotees. I pictured hordes of breathless groupies in Warby Parker wireframes. I couldn’t blame them. He needed the help, clearly, or he wouldn’t have asked. And if that was the toll they paid for his company, it wasn’t a high one. They wouldn’t get other chances to meet their heroes. And not just in a classroom or a bookstore, but in the rooms where he lived and wrote.
The eve of my twenty-sixth birthday I spent alone, on Facebook. In his most recent post, the writer had attached a blurry photograph of himself. In it, he wore short shorts and an oversized Michigan T-shirt. Face obscured in shadow and back slightly hunched, he took a step toward the frame. Back on my feet,the caption read.
I closed the tab and opened another.
You’ll know, if you’ve been, that Phoenix resembles a strip mall. Or, to be less generous but perhaps more accurate, the parking lot of a strip mall. Its houses are squat and square and a dull tan color, built to resemble the dirt that mostly surrounds them. For this reason, the occasional green lawn stands out conspicuously and betrays both the wealth and the ecological politics of its owner. The downtown skyline is maybe ten medium-high buildings that don’t so much scrape the sky as gesture generally towards it, and looking up, one is able to make out the city’s single striking attribute—a drawn curtain of mirage-like mountains at its outskirts, which dissolve at their peaks into the oily and glimmering sunlight.
I booked an Airbnb in a neighborhood called Encanto Village for fifty-nine dollars a night. I could tell already, from the photographs, that the sheets would be thin, that the art would be artless, and, indeed, that all the decor would have been selected precisely for its inability to captivate or offend the sensibilities of strangers. On arrival, I spent an hour unpacking and sitting amongst my things, then ventured out into a migraine of an afternoon. The sun glared with a punishing, almost biblical intensity, and each breath I attempted caught in my throat. The runway of stucco houses eventually gave way to a chainlink fence, which guarded the ticky-tacky of some lesser suburb. I watched two women with sand-colored skin sit in plastic lawn chairs and tilt their heads toward the sky as if inspecting a faraway mirror. Past them stood a stoic brick church, then a fairground advertising its upcoming gun show. When I finally came across a Starbucks, shimmering like a mirage in the distance, I ran to it.
So, this is America, I thought, restored to coherence in the air-conditioned room. I had done as little research as possible before buying a one-way ticket from New York to Phoenix, Arizona. In my email, bolded, was the name of the one person I’d bothered telling: So happy you signed up, the writer’s sister wrote. He’ll be expecting you tomorrow evening around 6pm : ) I really wish I could stick around, but I have to return to Houston!! My eldest is out for spring break, and it’s been a real nightmare for my hubby Terry. Roland’s doing much better this week. He’s up walking and is more and more himself each day!! I know a few members of the faculty will be keeping an eye on him as well, but it’s so kind of you to offer. Tell me, how is it you know Roland?? Were you one of his students??
Attached was a map on which she’d outlined in red the route from the university, where I’d claimed to be staying, to the writer’s home. By now, she’d be in airport security, dumping her cell phone into an industrial plastic bin. I saw no point in answering her. She’d only asked the question as a courtesy, a lazy attempt at diligence to ensure I wasn’t psycho, which, of course, I was not.
His house resembled all the rest on the block: a wide single-story stucco with a browning lawn cut through by a walkway. Hanging from a tall tree in the front yard was a tire swing, though he didn’t have children, and past it was the sort of front door that is common in television suburbs: its first layer a perforated fly-screen and its second a thick, cream-colored wood, rendered useless by the fact that it stood already open. “Hello,” I called into the dim atrium. A minute passed, and I repeated it. “Hello?”
At the end of the hallway, a dark form emerged. It hesitated, then began to move toward me, painstakingly, like a movie monster you know you could out-run. I almost did, convinced I had the house wrong. But finally, the fly-door flew open to reveal a man I scarcely recognized. With me down a doorstep, we stood eye to eye. He looked even older than I had imagined, the features of his face rattled off-center by the stroke or just time, giving him the look of a living room wall after a minor earthquake. But then, it was him. The writer. My writer. The same lake-water eyes that had watched me, from the edge of my bookshelf, come and go from my teenage bedroom and, later, my college dorm. The same hands that wrote the lithe, lean sentences I’d pored over so many times that the pages took palmy stains and began to stink of me.
“Hi, kid,” he said, irises murky green, as after a rainstorm. “You’re—”
“David.” I offered him my hand to shake.
“Come on in.” He smiled meekly as I stepped across the threshold and, looking past me, stared into the empty street. “No car?”
“I took an Uber.”
“Uber,” he repeated, as though I’d claimed to have arrived by broomstick. “But you live in Phoenix?” Somehow, I had not expected this. In the few emails I’d exchanged with his sister, she’d stressed that he was still reclaiming words. She’d portrayed him as muddled, too much so to question my motives for being there.
“No, I, I live in New York. I’m just in town for a while, uhm, visiting the alma mater.”
“Oh,” he remarked with sudden interest. “You went to the college then?”
“I did.” I didn’t, but it seemed to me an innocuous lie. I could have, after all.
“Well done. You know, I’m on the faculty.”
“Yes, of course,” I said. And then, in a stroke of genius: “Of course, I know. I was in your class.” His eyes narrowed slightly, analyzing my features like a laser-scanner in a spy film. Access denied, access denied. Suddenly, I regretted this second lie, which felt gratuitous, greedy.
“I apologize,” he resolved solemnly. Access denied. “I’m so sorry, I can’t recall.” He looked away from me, back into the street. “I’ve been losing things. All sorts of things, big and small. Names, events, a few years. It’s a fucking headache,” he explained, bumbling slightly, ashamed of himself. He wore tube socks which stopped bluntly along his pale shins, just shy of knobby knees. His legs were too thin for the body they supported, its ponderous stomach, so his reedy veins had worked themselves blue. “I’m sorry, kid, what did you say your name was?”
“David,” I reminded him.
“David. I’ve got a cousin named David. And what year were you in my class then?” he asked. “And which class, actually? I’m sorry for the questions. It’s, just, sometimes if I have enough detail, I can get the memory back.”
“Hmm, well, what year would it have been?” I considered, easing into my performance. “I must’ve been a sophomore, though perhaps a junior. Twenty fourteen? And uhm, it was just one of your intro courses. Anyway, don’t sweat it. I totally get it if you don’t remember. Honestly, I never wrote anything worth remembering.”
He smiled with teeth. I’d charmed him, it seemed, with my modesty.
A beat passed. “Come on in then. Sorry for the mess.”
I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but I can say it wasn’t this. As we passed through the cluttered hallway, past a wall of books that smelled damply of mildew, my anticipation resolved into a series of mundane shapes. An overworked coat rack, a puddle of shoes. The living room spread in two directions. On one end, his den, a collection of mismatched but comfortable leather, and on the other, an ash-wood and acrylic-countertop kitchen. The whole house had kept like a time capsule. One could still detect, in stagnant air, the remnants of years-ago dinner parties with English department colleagues and bad dates with PhD candidates and lonely nights without them. It was in the faint aroma of cigarettes sneaked and whiskey drunk, of sweat, tile cleaner, and laundry put off for weeks until tomorrow. “Sit anywhere,” he instructed as he sunk into a brown, cushioned chair like a pig into mud. “What brings you?”
I perched on the couch beside him. “Like I said, I’m just visiting. Been thinking of moving back, actually, and—”
“I mean,” he clarified with a smirk. “What brings you to my house?”
“Right,” I paused. It was a good question, one I had—like the basics of weather and topography—avoided examining too closely before making my way west. “Well, I saw your posts on Facebook. I’ve got nothing but time right now, and since I’m in town anyway, figured I could come by a few times, or I don’t know, whenever-you-want-really, and just help out.”
He nodded. “My baby sister wrote those. I suppose she felt guilty for ‘abandoning’ me, so she’s been inviting all sorts of funny strangers over to my house in her absence. Present company excluded, of course.” He grinned, then grew more serious. “You know that I can’t pay you or anything.”
“Of course,” I answered quickly. “Really, I just want to help in whatever way.”
He considered the offer. “I still can’t drive, so if you wouldn’t mind a few errands, I suppose that might be helpful.”
“Picking up meds from the pharmacy, groceries, that sort of thing. My sister has the woman down the street bringing by trays of soggy vegetables from time to time, but—” He fumbled for his next word, then surrendered, sighing. “You said you have a car?”
He wasn’t lying about his memory.
“Oh, uhm, sure. I can get whatever you need,” I offered. “I could even cook.”
“I don’t want to be a burden. If you don’t mind, just pull one of those cauliflower pizzas from the freezer and stick it in the oven.” I thought to say that it wouldn’t be a burden at all but realized I didn’t know what ingredients he had stocked, and, by then, he’d picked up the book that was previously splayed on his chair arm. It was a dense, important looking hardback without a sleeve, which, held up, obscured his face fully. Taking the hint, I walked away, into the kitchen, where his cabinets held nothing but boxes of black tea and a few bags of rice.
In the freezer was a stack of five pizzas from a brand called Skinny Linda. I pulled one out. On the box, a cartoon woman in a waist apron beamed above bubbly text that advertised the dish as having “low-salt” and “nonfat cheese,” along with the cauliflower crust he’d already mentioned. Even in the advertorial photograph, it looked tasteless. I sat on a wooden stool and waited for the oven to warm, crouching out of sight and feeling a bit stupid. Why had I come? The ticket, along with the four days I’d booked in the Airbnb, hadn’t exactly been cheap—a fourth of my severance, in fact. I eyed the oven as the nonfat cheese melted into a gooey, viscous puddle, bubbles forming on its surface. Still, I’d booked without reservation. It had seemed an obvious choice: leave the crowded solitude of Brooklyn to have what people sometimes refer to as an experience, by which they mean something outside the learned scale of the quotidian. I supposed I’d come for that precisely, experience, though my interest was more in his than my own: the urgency that emanated from his pages had seemed, at sixteen, like a spine to order my life around, a way to reimagine my own reality—the strangers in chat rooms, love poems I couldn’t send—as significant. Like him, who had come from nowhere, I would lead a great, big life.
I cut the pizza into six slices and laid it neatly atop a lap-tray I’d found in his cupboard, along with a glass of water, and cradled them both as I moved toward him slowly. The whole time he refused to look up, so that when he finally did, I was standing right in front of him.
“Here you go.” He looked quizzically, first at me, then the pizza. I placed it on the ottoman, then paused for a thank you. “I think I’ll go then,” I said when it didn’t come.
“Alrighty,” he said pleasantly. “Come again.”
He smiled, lines around his eyes. “I will,” I promised, then saw myself out.
The next day, I bought groceries from a fancy boutique market where a cashier in dungarees crinkled her brow reproachfully after I told her I hadn’t brought my own canvas bag. She overfilled two paper sacks—fat Roma tomatoes, thick ropes of fettuccine, a head of lettuce, a palm of mozzarella, and a sprig of basil I’d picked myself from an indoor plant—then rang me up for forty-six dollars. I was astounded, having assumed everything in town would be laughably cheap compared to New York, where I bought groceries on Flatbush from a market with everything-must-go discounts on their days-old produce. Reluctantly, I handed over my card.
Afterwards, I headed to his house with my haul and found his door again open. Nonetheless, I rang the doorbell, then after a minute, rang it again. On the third ring, he appeared as a shadow at the end of the hall and began shuffling toward me. As his face caught the sunlight, I could see he was smiling. “You came back,” he observed brightly.
“I said that I would.” The screen door swung open. He stepped to the side and allowed me in.
“I’m sorry, kid,” he said. “You’ll have to remind me your name.”
“David. You know, I’ve got a cousin named David.”
I nodded politely. “That right?” My hold on the bags beginning to slip, I reshuffled the weight.
“Come on in,” he said, hobbling back into the house. He eyed my bags. “What’ve you got?”
“Ingredients for a feast. I thought we could be Italian tonight.”
“I am Italian,” he responded matter-of-factly. I set the bags on the white tile as he fell back into his mud-colored chair. His book, the same from the day prior, rested gently on the bulge of his rounded stomach, indenting his skin slightly where his shirt rode up just above his dormant crotch. As he read, he maintained a stiff concentration, barely noticing as I began to wash vegetables and run water for boiling. This near surgical focus persisted even when I brought out a blender and used it to puree the tomatoes into a murderous pulp. I imagined that, were a demolition truck to bring down the front wall, he’d have only noticed the breeze.
I burned the bread, but the food came out fine. Smelling it, he finally set down his book on the plump leather ottoman and took his seat at one end of the table. I sat at the other. Between us hung a single bulb, several inches too low such that his face lit up at a gradient, with his chin as its best-seen feature and his eyes left in darkness just above the light’s wave. He took a bite, then studied it with a pained expression before swallowing. He took another. At no point did he comment on the food but carried on eating with a quiet urgency like the youngest boy of four. Between bits of small talk, we stayed silent, and every once in a while I stood to refill his glass.
As he finished his first plate and helped himself to another, he spoke. “So, what did we read in that class of mine? Anything good?”
“I’m trying to remember what would’ve been on the syllabus that year. Remind me, did you take my intro or one of the seminars?”
“Just your intro: a few stories, lots of poetry,” I answered, citing the course description I’d wisely Googled the night prior.
He paused, expression unchanged. “And twenty fourteen, you said?”
I nodded, impressed if slightly offended that he’d managed to forget my name while remembering that detail. Theatrically, I took one large bite and chewed it for a while. I couldn’t think of a single name. In college, at the elite New England institution I’d actually attended, I dropped out mid-semester from the only writing course I elected to take, the outsized confidence I’d forged in high school collapsing under scrutiny. There were real writers there, people who—at nineteen—had already managed to live lives meriting record. How could I compete with refugees, Olympians? I still wrote in secret, read widely, slept so many nights with his book in my bed. But the fantasies of literary fame from which I’d suffered young were clipped; I studied stats. “Feels like forever ago, but I remember reading a bunch of the greats. Contemporary stuff as well. Mark something or other—”
“Strand or Doty?” he asked. “I’ve taught both.”
“Strand!” I faked remembering. “That’s it. Mark Strand.”
“Ink runs from the corners of my mouth,” he mused without explanation. The words settled. He forked his noodles, and again we were silent.
“And tell me, David, was I any good?” he asked, in his eyes a look of earnest concern. “As a professor, I mean. I’ve never really known if I’m good at it. For years, I’ve thought maybe I’m meant to just write, but then—well, that’s not much of a living. And I’ve enjoyed teaching. I’ve enjoyed it, for the most part. Molding young minds, or whatever it is people claim to be doing. I’ve enjoyed that. I’ve had a few students go on to write good books, and that’s . . . well, that’s gratifying, to have helped in whatever way.” His eyes roved the room. “Besides, I’m always astounded by the generosity of my students. Like you, for instance, showing up on my doorstep and offering your time, when that’s so valuable to a young person. That’s some of the magic of teaching—watching young people learn to be kind. I wasn’t very kind as a young person. Didn’t realize I was meant to be. It wasn’t until years later that I learned about kindness, what it truly meant.” Eyes landing on me, he remembered himself. “But now I’m babbling,” he conceded, embarrassed. “All this to say, was I any good?”
His eyes had grown clearer as he spoke and now shone an ardent green, even in little light. “Of course, you were,” I lied. “You were great.”
Once, perched on the dorm room bed of my first real boyfriend, I recited my favorite of the writer’s poems. It was as cringe as it sounds. He hadn’t asked, nor expressed any interest in poetry. Still, I had a sense that the words, passing through me, would leave behind a residue—as cream through a sieve—that would force him to see me anew. I believed they had something to say about my body, my adolescence: a series of obsessions that had opened like ulcers in my stomach, robbed me weeks of sleep. He was a sandy-haired San Franciscan with PFLAG parents and, I suppose, very little use for the poem. When I finished it, he paused for a long time, then responded, simply, “pretty.” And it seemed to confirm what I feared about him, that he was fundamentally ordinary. But it deflated me also because I had picked him, and didn’t that mean I was also ordinary? I sat hunched with the book in my hands.
I stopped by the writer’s house with groceries the next two days, then took a break on the following. Not because I wanted to, but because his niece was allegedly passing through en route to Big Sur from Austin, Texas. That day, all day, I sat in my rental, first fiddling with the broken AC unit, then resigning to just sweat against the nylon sofa. Splayed out, I examined myself: my slender torso, pale skin now browning to beige, the tuft of dark hair that rounded my bellybutton and trailed downward, obscuring slightly the tattoo at my hipbone. Thinly looped scrawl, the name of his first book. Trace. I’d gotten it on a whim at twenty-two, figuring it would always be covered by clothes, but on rare occasions when people would inquire—the one-night stands who’d finger it cautiously, then ask if he was my ex—I’d answer only that it was a word I had always loved.
The TV flickered on and I scanned through its channels, eventually settling on a reality show that involved social media influencers competing to remake suburban teens in their image. It was a dazzling, maddening program, eventually won by my favorite of the influencers—a gay Black boy from Atlanta who delivered the show’s most memorable one-liners (“I’m from Decatuh where it’s greatuh” and “you bout to be the eighth grade’s baddest”) with the narcissism and charm rewarded by the medium. The marathon ended at sunset, and I realized I hadn’t had so much as a glass of water since morning. My lips were dry, tongue coated in a milky film. Before bed, I sent a message to my superhost, Brenda, requesting another week at the Airbnb—at least, I told myself, I wouldn’t pay another cleaning fee. Making no reference whatsoever to my earlier message about the air conditioner, she replied immediately: So glad you’re loving Phoenix – rock on! :p
I was relieved, then, to return to his house the next day. I had continued to sign up on the online form, still managed remotely by his sister, though no one else was competing for slots. Looking at the schedule, one couldn’t help but notice a perceptible drop-off from the first week to the second, and now, as we entered the third, it seemed as though the entirety of the English Department had unionized against visitation duties. In cards that arrived daily but were left mostly unopened, they sent their wishing-you-wells and get-better-soons but did not stop by for tea.
As usual, I rang his doorbell several times before he answered, squinting dead-eyed through the screen door before opening it. “David,” he observed, as if my name were a kind of weather. In the kitchen, a congregation of flies held Sunday church over a basin of unwashed dishes. The niece from Austin, it seemed, had cooked some sort of vegan chili, then left it to rot in a big pot when she went on to her next adventure. I didn’t ask permission but immediately began scooping it into the garbage disposal. It came out in dense, gelatinous globs that only went down with immense effort and left behind a scent so pungent that only chemicals could clear it.
Afterwards, I blended the strawberries and yogurt I’d brought with ice and honey from the cupboard, making a pinkish smoothie, which I poured into a glass for him. He looked up momentarily as I handed it over—then sipped, winced, and returned to his book. His indifference stung. And still surprised me. In truth, I wasn’t used to being ignored by gay men his age. As such, I’d assumed that my presence in his home—all vibrant youth and attendant lust—would penetrate the antipathy for which he was known, even if my kindness could not. “I guess I’ll leave then,” I announced loudly.
He frowned. “Leave? You just got here.”
“Yeah, but you’re reading. I don’t want to disturb you.”
“Well, you can read too, can’t you?” he teased. I felt myself smile.
“I can indeed. And you’re sure you don’t mind?”
“Don’t be absurd,” he said. With that, he returned to his book, and I studied the shelf in the hallway, pondering which selection would impress him most. If there was any logic to the organization, I couldn’t decipher it. His books spanned languages and centuries and genres yet lived alongside one another in a downtown blend: mournful Russian classics and chirpy American bestsellers and dozens and dozens of cheaply made chapbooks filled with poetry, good and bad. There were nearly twice the number of books intended for the space; they cluttered so tightly that removing one offered the sensation of tugging a tile from a Jenga set. I eyed a battered copy of East of Eden, on top of which lay two issues of MAD magazine from the year I was born.
“You should organize these,” I called absently into the living room. “Or I could, actually.”
I stepped back into the room, half expecting him to have died with an open book on his paunch, but instead found him staring straight at me. “You don’t want to do that.”
“I don’t mind.” I didn’t. If anything, it would be a massive relief, to have a real reason to be there. “Seriously. I’m totally type A, so this is exactly the kind of freaky shit I’m into.”
At this, he laughed loudly, eyes bright. “All right then.”
Within minutes, I was outlining a plan for approval. There were two sections of the bookcase, easily divided into poetry and prose. Then, I would alphabetize by the author’s last name, and by title within that. “Sounds very reasonable,” he affirmed, and with that, I began removing all of the books from the shelves to place in tall, neat stacks up and down the hallway— carefully, because each seemed a sacred and delicate thing, these texts which had taught him, occasionally marked on the inside cover with the fading sight of his name.
The project took all day and extended into the next, for which the forecast promised rain that did not come. All along the car ride over, the dogs played dead in their front lawns. They laid in scattered shade beneath trees and the hoods of parked cars, their mouths hung open, pink tongues dangling. His house, when I arrived, had the AC on full blast, but he was nonetheless covered in sweat. His was an acrid, meaty scent—one to which I became quickly accustomed, wondering only if he noticed my own.
I finished prose by noon, then set to work on his books of poetry. Hours passed. O’Hara into Olds then Oliver. And arriving at Plath, a seed of anxiety took. We’d just found our rhythm, each in his own domain. When I finished, would he want me gone? This anxiety dissipated when, while searching for a box in which to store the overflow, I stumbled into his coat closet. “Sorry for the mess,” he said from the kitchen table, glimpsing my awed expression. He was always apologizing for the mess. Always apologizing for everything. He was sorry he’d forgotten my name again and had to write it on a pink post-it near the door; he was sorry he was dressed in just blue boxers and a golf shirt; he was sorry the air was so hot, even in April, and that his whimpering air conditioner wasn’t equipped to handle it; he was sorry for all of it. Everything.
“You have to let me organize this closet,” I said.
He feigned hesitation. “If you must.”
Occasionally, as I put his things in order, we spoke. Or he spoke, mostly to fill the silence, palpable whenever he wasn’t reading, but also because it helped him remember things. He gave me some of what I wanted without my having to ask. The frayed copy of Dorian Gray, for instance, had been gifted by his lover—the one who’d died, the one he’d written about in ways that still broke my heart and against which all my small loves had been measured. He remembered clearly the day they met, August, in Rockaway—a seagull shit, salted air kind of morning—with the gays in their speedos atop beach towels in the only corner of paradise left for them. He’d spotted him, a slender ginger with nibbled nail beds, and in that moment he was ruined. Because after that, he couldn’t do much more than to be in love with him, and to lose him slowly, and to write about it for the rest of his days.
Other times, he lost words, went quiet. He’d stare blankly through the window at the afternoon haze, face slacked dumb, and I’d try to remember him as he was in the author photo on his book jacket: the bright young boy with the lakewater eyes. Him I was here for.
My desire for him was not exactly sexual, was not sexual at all. Rather, it was a desire to partake, empty-plated at the buffet, of experiences I knew from the work to be grand and romantic and tragic. He had been my age in the early eighties and so had watched as what was then called a cancer descended as plague, emptying out dancefloors and picking off first-borns one by one, cruelly and quite randomly, leaving him. I had spent my whole life on the internet, examining the torsos of strangers, and as such, resented or perhaps envied how he’d been irreparably marred by the drama and scale of that loss, even as I recognized the absurdity of my envy. Perhaps, he envied me also. That I was young, reasonably fit, and seemingly unencumbered, free to fly across the country and arrive on his doorstep.
Sunday, Monday, another Tuesday, I stuffed rejected books into boxes, paired mismatched socks, and ordered coats by their length and color. I did laundry, twice, filling Goodwill bags with the things that wouldn’t fit. All the while, I watched as he moved through his rooms, planting himself in various chairs and radiating an intensity I still hoped would impart, as if by osmosis, the emotional residue of a life. But more and more I was coming up empty: what appeared on his face to be deep thought could be revealed in an instant as confusion, boredom, hunger. What I was left with, having sifted through decades, was a series of facts of little significance: the length of his inseam and how he took his tea.
And then I found it. In a shoebox that fell swiftly from a teetering stack and crashed, spilling a puddle of loose-leaf paper across the closet floor.
“Everything okay in there?” I heard him murmur in the next room. I ignored him, crouched, and began shuffling the pages into order: Yield, the cover sheet read in 12-point font.
From the first line of the first page, I knew it was his.
It breathed of him. Gauzy diction, pulsing fragments like a lung in collapse. I sat, head darkened by a brush of hung coats, and kept reading, letting his voice engulf my own. Through the second, third, and fourth pages, I returned to the night when I binged his first book.
I recalled reading once, on a Tumblr called crushedveneer, whose html was a somber orgy of fine lines and Verdana, that Roland had penned just one book after the one he’d published. The blogger’s sister worked in publishing, she claimed, and the book had been passed by her desk for its ambiguous genre and relentless morbidity. But surely, she reasoned, someone else would pick it up. It would be published soon enough, celebratory cause for all the indie teens who followed the hashtag of his name. But the book never surfaced, and her page was itself deleted amid that mass millennial exodus from the platform.
“You okay in there?” he barked, more insistent this time.
“One minute,” I called back brusquely, as if he were my dad demanding me at dinner. I pictured him waddling over and finding me there, rifling through his pages. I pictured his rage. But rationally, I knew he wouldn’t enter. His voice was muffled, far, which meant he was seated in his living room chair, bearlike in his sedation. I opened the door to confirm.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, slightly breathless. “I—”
He offered me a rare smile. “I’m a bit hungry, David.”
It was already nearing eight. From the freezer, I pulled the last of his pizzas, Broccolini Pesto, which emerged from its compostable packaging like a marble slab—a textured, gestural green—and shoved it in the oven before sitting on his little stool as I had the first night, my face hidden from view. I scratched my ankles and stared as the cheese bubbled volcanically, and when the timer finally rang, I removed it at once. Looking up, he registered, with faint annoyance, that I hadn’t cooked from scratch. Nonetheless, he thanked me. Offering some throwaway about getting out of his hair, I took the Goodwill bags from the closet and left.
I did feel guilty, briefly, for taking the book with me, but I knew he wouldn’t have given it freely. He’d only just learned my name, really learned it—now said it confidently like someone he’d be sad to see go—but was guarded, still, about most things, those things more private than his skid-marked underwear, in a way that befit a man who’d published only sixty pages in a middle-length lifetime. Mine was an invasion, to be sure. A violation. But I wouldn’t do anything besides read them. He was so goddamn cagey, and why? If someone were to poach him, they’d surely be found and called out immediately. His style was so distinctly his. But then, it wasn’t known. Those who knew and loved his work probably numbered in the single-digit thousands—an easily beaten internet army, underfed on chai and meat-substitute. And, of course, other writers, some more famous, had already ripped him off—not the words but the feeling—had, in small ways, become him.
The night plunged below sixty, and as I stepped from my Uber, a brisk desert wind came over the mountains. Down the street, a pack of teenage boys howled from their skateboards, the mechanical music of wheels across asphalt. I shuffled my bags to the front door, then let them spill as I made haste toward the bedroom, finally settling under lunar lamp light with the manuscript.
The word “good” is small. His was a lifetime of desire—of boyhood and youth: the girls who’d warmed his blood beneath bleachers; that boy he’d almost drowned just to touch; then sex, real sex, like a revelation. Pure bliss in pits and pretzeled limbs. In rest stops and alleyways, in gas station toilets with ersatz doors; then in bars, first in secret (“she’s out there, son, but you do have to look”), then in clubs and in parties; then that boy from the beach, who’d become like a field to bury the longing. But, no, then hospitals. No, doctors. Waiting rooms. Other people’s funerals—you knew him, big sad eyes like a lemur, he’d once been so beautiful—a little black book like a mausoleum of lust; and then what? After the ditch, or the fire. What did you mean when you said the word “longing”? A dance track slowed might resemble a dirge.
I awoke the next morning with a sharp headache, as though I’d spent the whole night drinking: appropriate, as I could barely remember a word of the book I’d read, just a feeling, like a feast after fasting. In the bathroom, I ran the sink hot and soaked a washcloth in it, then pressed it, scalding, to my skin. I looked up at my face. Reddened by sun, it was nonetheless attractive: a symmetry of nondescript features made handsome in chorus. I let my eyes flit downward toward my chest, my taut abdomen, then my hipbone, where the word gleamed long and lean as a dagger.
He needed to know I’d read it. Not just that, but the truth of what he meant to me. I didn’t have to admit I’d lied; after all, I hadn’t, really. He had taught me, in his remote way, so much of what I cared to know. He couldn’t go on hiding. He owed it to us, to himself. This was the book that would wrench him from obscurity, afford the acclaim that—due to some misalignment of timing and taste—had thus far eluded him. Even late in life, he could rise, become known to everyone the way I knew him.
On the car ride over, I practiced what I’d say. I have something that belongs to you, seemed a needlessly threatening, if cinematic, opener. Alternatively, I could return the book from my bag to the closet, pretend to find it later in front of him. Arriving at his door no surer, I let myself in without thinking and found him sitting at the kitchen table, gently startled. He smiled hello and returned to the Tuesday crossword, which he seemed to be completing without difficulty. Quickly, I swept the closet for debris, then returned to the kitchen. Pots and pans gleamed celestially from the counter, which itself sparkled with a citric tinge. I wondered if he had any new laundry, but given that he’d worn the same outfit for days, I figured he wouldn’t. I could reorganize his cabinets (though that seemed a quick job), or mow his lawn; or, there was his bedroom, a pigsty I’d seen only in passing, but I knew he’d refuse. “What’s in there,” I asked, referring to the closed door opposite it.
“An office,” he answered. “Of sorts.”
Of sorts, as it turned out, was a euphemism for what it in fact was: a cartoon of a bureaucratic nightmare. By way of furniture, it had just a gray armchair seated in a sunny corner and one wooden desk along the wide window. But atop that and elsewhere in the room, every square inch was claimed by teetering stacks of loose-leaf paper, bound in little bundles by clips. Against the far wall, where the tattered carpet ended, were towers the height of toddlers. I walked over to inspect them and found that they were stories, their authors students he’d taught across the years: Lacey Goldman and Brandon DeWall, Carla Santina. Charlotte Towne, and Zipporah Anchorage, John Smith.
“I always keep my students’ stories,” he explained, slouching in the doorway. “It becomes interesting, occasionally, if someone goes on to really write or, I don’t know, become a politician, or a mega-church preacher. It becomes interesting to dig around in here and track down what they wrote when they were eighteen.” The papers were all dated and mostly piled with their kind. But in every stack were strays, stories from lost decades, twenty years of misplaced commas. He hobbled over and took a seat in the armchair, resting his tea on one such stack. It was perfect—one last clean-up. We’d spend the day together, and I’d warm him up further; then, over dinner, find a way to say everything.
We made a game of it: I’d read him the first sentence of a story, and if it was any good he’d have me carry on for a paragraph or two until— “Oh yes,” he’d recall, brow furrowed. “That one was written by a boy named Otis. I went to his wedding in Portland some years later.”
He shocked himself, and me, with his memory. To him, most of the names meant nothing, but he often recalled the stories with a startling clarity. “That one,” he nodded vigorously upon hearing the line, it is with great lunacy that we bury the dead. His transition lenses were opaque in the room’s trapped light, guiding eyes that saw, through the window, his classroom from over a decade ago. “She was sharp, not very handsome. Sunken eyes and two big front teeth like a woodchuck.” He carried on nodding, egging himself on. “I’d guess she’d have had to be about . . . two thousand and . . . five?”
“Six,” I corrected. He clucked his teeth and clenched his fist. Almost.
Like that, we pissed away morning and afternoon, reading the beginnings of stories as he extolled the virtues of writing he called good, which evidently was both “spare” and “urgent.” The air in that room was difficult to breathe. I thought, more than once, that it was unwise for him to sit there for the hours we did. But he seemed in high spirits, content to let his lungs fill like the rooms of his house. Dust to dust.
“How’s that story end?” he asked about one that began: There were sixteen cars in the car park, and all of them were his. I flipped to the last page: “He dies,” I answered. “How about that one?” he asked about another, first line: My puppy’s name is Hugo, which everyone thinks is a funny name for a pug. I flipped to the last page: “He dies,” I answered.
People were often dropping dead in these stories if for no reason other than that stories tend to require endings and death seemed as good a one as any—the easiest, in fact, because it forbade the possibility of a story’s carrying on, now that its subject had woofed its final woof. People were always dying and falling in love, far more often, I’d argue, than in real life, wherein everyone dies but not generally midsentence and very rarely do they fall in love.
The day slowed as the room went orange, the sun just beginning to set beyond the mountains. It was a dense color, liquid and waded-through. I was finishing another, penned by a boy named Biff, when he asked in an offhand tone, “I’ve been thinking, where’s yours?”
I looked at him. He was leaning forward in his chair, sun illuminating the bits of scalp visible beneath his thinned hair. “Excuse me?”
“What you wrote, it must be in here somewhere. We ought to find it.” He seemed pleased with the idea. A soft, self-satisfied smirk spread across his face like a boy, just kissed.
“Yeah, but we’re nowhere near the twenty tens.”
“I imagine they should be somewhere over there.” He pointed to the far corner. “You were twenty fifteen?”
“I graduated twenty fifteen,” I corrected. “I was in your class twenty fourteen.”
“Even better. Come on then, we’ll find it,” he said, this time quicker, cupping his pudgy fists with delight. “We’ll find it, then we’ll make some tea, and we’ll read it.”
“That could take hours,” I reasoned. “Besides, we’ve got a system. We can’t just skip to twenty fourteen.”
He scoffed. “I’m sure a cunning boy like you will figure it out.” What did he know? “Come on, I insist.” In those glasses, he resembled a flightless bird. In an instant, I considered all the days I’d helped him. All the small and many ways he’d already disappointed me, everything he still withheld. Who was he to make demands? I felt a hot rage warm my neck. I tasted bile. I’d cleaned his dishes and washed his briefs—he’d never said so much as thank you. The ruddy-cheeked ingrate. There was no getting back the boy from the book jacket, no returning the body he now lived in.
“I’m a bit lightheaded,” I lied. His eyes narrowed. Access denied. “All the dust.”
“Oh. Sorry, I—”
“I just need to step out for a sec.”
I felt his eyes on my back as I strode from the office, out of his view, past the closet and the kitchen table and the bookshelf I’d ordered for days, out into the dry yellow dusk. I could still feel him watching me through the window. I began to walk, headed forward and nowhere, speeding up as I neared the end of his block, where I turned onto one identical. Houses spread like church pews in the distance. The manuscript in my bag still burned with possibilities, ones I now knew he’d never seize, incapable of the sex and violence with which the pages still seethed. He’d had his chance and missed it; desire is a young man’s game.
It was finally that hour, the only one temperate enough to stand comfortably outside, when the day burns off the last of its oil and invites a cool wind. The hour when native Arizonians crowd the dirt and observe the coming night with a cautious, relieved look in their eyes, knowing tomorrow would be the same, only hotter. The hour that starts gold, ends blue, and takes with it what remains of the day’s promise. ■