This is the sixteenth chapter of my month-long work of fiction, NOV.
Same as yesterday morning. He awakes in this guest bed; he is alone. The evening was take-out food and wine, enjoyable conversation and word games. One slow shirtless hug and kiss. And then she retreated again. Click. One layer at a time. Strip-tease? Or -torment?
Does she even sleep there? She could as soon be heading down her Escher stairs to sleep elsewhere, or nowhere. He heard her sink, the brushing of teeth. After that? But he will not open the door and peek. He has a strong sense of propriety; he doesn’t go wantonly snooping. This is life, not someone’s novel. Right?
At least she has left toothpaste, a fresh toothbrush, and shaving supplies in the guest bathroom. Shampoo, towels. She may not have men’s shirts – except one artful one – but she is equipped for male visitors.
Who have brought their own change of clothes.
He needs to get clean underwear, at least.
Oh, and his shirt.
His shirt must still be hanging in her master bathroom, presumably dry by now. Her bedroom door is ajar, so he goes in. The Colville has its shirt back, apparently just as it was. Perhaps he hallucinated it. His shirt is hung over the shower curtain rod; he takes it and puts it on. As he is doing so he looks at the Escher print taking up much of the bathroom door. It may be in perspective when seen straight on, but it is flat; swing it and there is no depth. He lifts one sock foot to the first step and it bumps against the paper.
He goes to the Colville. Reaches for the shirt. Just flat paper.
He looks at the bed. It is tidy. He can’t tell whether she made it this morning or whether she never slept in it last night.
He eats breakfast, puts the key and the note with it in his pocket. He still has about $60, he sees. As he’s stuffing the money back into his pocket, he thinks, “Wait – what country is it from?” But before he reaches into his pocket to pull it out and look, he is distracted by a detail in one of the art prints, a just-so stroke on a Kandinsky. And then he does not think of the money again.
He needs to buy some clean underwear. He needs to buy some groceries. He needs to think about how he’s going to earn a living here. Or how he’s going to get home – not yet, but perhaps within the week.
Are they looking for him, back home? Is time even progressing at the same pace?
He exits the building and walks down the street. He may never catch the street names, but he can explore and map it in his head. He has time to explore. His spatial memory is good.
What he really wants is to know the way out. For when he needs it. He doesn’t want to be bound to this place if, when he chooses, he can be bound from it.
As he thinks this, walking a different street than he had before, he sees a set of steps heading —ergro— with a sign: EASTBO—. He looks across the street and sees WE—BO—.
Is that two blanks at the same time? A—o—ing. Dammit. He may be condemned to a hard-Scrabble existence if he can’t get control of his graphemes. Why couldn’t he go by so—?
How is he going to get aro— this, now. He needs to think of something fa— or it could spread farther. He surveys his surro—ings: —reet, so—s, —airs, gro—, fa— car ro—ing corner, —one…
That’s who he needs to find. He has to mange this carefully or he won’t even be able to think the word, the name, of the person. He pulls a piece of paper from his pocket and puts it —er the —one, and cancels the blanks out and moves the letters to get one there, and…
…looks up to see one there. In flowing chiaroscuro.
“You put a piece of paper beneath that rock,” one says. Beneath. Under. Rock. Stone. Thank you.
He pulls it and stuffs it back in his pocket. It was the note from Janet. Whose magic?
He stands up. “I’m happy to see you.”
One reaches out, playfully strokes his arm. “We were worried about you. Just a little. But then Janet said you were at her place. You can’t be any safer than that.” One starts walking over to a nearby sidewalk café.
“Janet said?” he says.
“Yes. We see her every day. We work for her. During the day.”
“You… You and any and Spoiler?”
One laughs a little. “Spoiler doesn’t work for anyone. Any is a librarian. I am a bookeeper.”
“Any keeps books, and you keep books.”
“We all keep books. That’s why we’re all here.”
He stops, grasps one’s right arm on the biceps and brachialis. “How do I get back?”
One looks at him with tilted head. “You don’t like it here? Now?”
One leans close, whispers in his ear. “It’s OK, honey. It has its charms but it’s a gilded cage. Tell me when you want to leave and I’ll tell you how.”
“Janet doesn’t know how,” he says quietly.
“Janet doesn’t want to know how. Janet doesn’t want you to know how.” One pulls back slightly, gives him an elevator look. “I don’t blame her.”
Which is intensely flattering. But what’s one’s game now?
He leans in. “If I choose a name for myself, do I have to stay?”
“If you don’t want to stay, why would you choose a name for yourself?”
“I have to be called something.”
“Well, then, I’ll call you something, if you don’t want to be Frank. And then you haven’t chosen a name yet.”
One walks over to a table, pulls out a chair. “Come on, something, let’s have a coffee.” One pulls out another chair and sits in it. And looks up at him as he looks back, scrutating. “You really are something. Sit. I’m buying.”