A Story by A. M. Kaempf
Art by Christian Blaza
When I returned from work I found a stranger sitting on my doorstep.
“You’re late,” he said.
The stranger shrugged and stood up to shake my hand.
“Have we met before?” I asked.
“Years ago,” he said. “You probably don’t remember.”
He refused to introduce himself or tell me the reason for his visit. After a few seconds of silence he said good-bye and walked away. Leaning against the front door—and left there, I presumed, by the stranger—was a thick brown envelope addressed to my wife. I picked it up and went inside.
The house was cold and contaminated by an unfamiliar smell. Windows that I kept shut were wide open; a light was on in a room I hadn’t entered for weeks; and sitting at the center of the kitchen table was a porcelain vase I hadn’t seen since my wedding day. The stranger had been inside of my house. He had walked through all the rooms and rummaged through the boxes in the closet of my study. He had made a mess of the papers on my desk, and, worst of all, he had left his nauseating scent lingering in the air.
I set the envelope on the kitchen table and poured myself a glass of gin. The telephone rang, but I didn’t answer it. I took a sip of gin and walked into the living room. Books had fallen from the shelves, they had been thrown by the stranger, tossed carelessly to the floor. They were scattered about the room, splayed open, their spines broken and their pages torn. I bent down and picked one up: an old volume of Ovid’s love poetry, beautiful when I’d bought it, but battered now, and defaced with blood-red ink.
I finished the gin and returned to the kitchen. As I set my glass in the sink I discovered that the stranger had placed a flower there—a lily, I think, lovely and white. I went to the telephone and called the police. “Never mind,” I said when they answered. “It doesn’t matter now.”
In the morning I went to work an hour earlier than usual. I arrived at the publishing house before it was open and had to enter through the door at the back of the building. I passed a homeless man dragging a plastic bag full of bottles and cans. He asked me for money, but I ignored him. I took the keys out of my pocket and opened the door. The homeless man hissed and spit in my direction. I hurried into the building, slammed the door behind me, and ran up the staircase to the fourth floor.
The lights were off and all the rooms were empty. I walked around for a while, exhilarated by my unexpected solitude. I stepped into the offices of my colleagues, sat at their desks, examined their things. Ms. Collins, our accountant, was writing a novel; I found her handwritten manuscript in the top drawer of her filing cabinet, hidden within a folder of esoteric tax documents. Mr. Mitchell, one of the new editors, had left a letter from his mother on his desk. I read through it a few times and learned several things that I had no right to know. (His wife had abandoned him, as it happens, and his nineteen-year-old daughter had moved in with a forty-six-year-old man. “You should never have dropped out of medical school,” his mother wrote. “You should never have married that awful woman.”)
At eight o’clock the other employees arrived. I went into my office and tried to work, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do. A few weeks earlier I’d missed an important meeting, and ever since then I’d felt completely unqualified for my job. But the papers piled up nonetheless; they rose in stacks from my desk, they spilled out of cabinets and drawers, they toppled from shelves and fell to the floor. I read through them and signed my name in the appropriate places. I put them into folders and delivered them to colleagues. If anyone asked a question about my work, I would smile, tell a joke, make an inconclusive remark. “You know how it gets this time of year,” I said to Martin, patting his belly with a rolled-up sheaf of papers. He nodded solemnly at these inane words and placed his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t work too hard,” he said. “Don’t forget to save some time for yourself.”
After work I went to the cemetery on 16th Street. I have never been scared of cemeteries, as some people are. In fact, I have always found them rather comforting. They have served as sanctuaries for me, peaceful places of silence and solitude kept safe from the chaos of their surrounding cities. They are the only places in which humans can look at themselves from the proper perspective. In cemeteries, death becomes a fact, not a fear. Time unravels itself at our feet, and the future, once a great mystery, arranges itself into the simplest of solutions.
I walked in circles for a while, searching for familiar names on the tombstones. I found the graves of my grandparents, my siblings, my wife. I nearly tumbled into a hole in the ground, at the bottom of which was a curious encampment: blankets and sleeping bags, wine bottles and library books. As I regained my balance a ragged black shape flew toward me. At first I thought it was a bird, but as it swept past my face I saw that it was merely a fragment of cloth caught in a gust of wind. It fluttered upward for a few seconds and then fell limply to the ground. In the distance, smoke drifted through the branches of a fir tree. I turned around and walked in the opposite direction, deeper into the cemetery, farther away from the filth of the city. And then, to my momentary dismay, I discovered the grave of an old friend, a man I thought was still alive. A month or two earlier, I thought I had seen him on the streetcar. I waved to him, called out his name, tried to reach him through the crowd. But he ignored me—and what else could he have done? He had been dead for eleven years.
After finding my friend’s grave I returned to my house and drank several glasses of gin. The stranger’s disgusting scent still infected the air. It clung to the walls and the ceiling, the countertops and the floor. It had seeped into the furniture, from which it would waft for years to come. I poured myself another glass of gin and went into the living room, where I stood at the windows until nightfall, watching the birds in the backyard and trying to summon the courage to open the envelope that was sitting on my kitchen table. Eventually I retrieved it and took it upstairs to my study. I read my wife’s name again and again, wondering about the man who had written it. I closed my eyes and tried to remember his face. It was untrustworthy, I’m sure, and somewhat misshapen: narrow eyes, reptilian nose, and a lower lip that hung slackly onto a diminished chin. What business could such a hideous creature have with my wife?
I wanted to open the envelope, but each time I tried to do so my hands grew heavy and my fingers began to twitch. At last I returned it to the table and went to bed. Perhaps in the morning I would have the strength to open it, or perhaps I would tear it to pieces without looking inside. It was addressed to my wife, after all—not to me. I had no right to discover her secrets, not when she was no longer around to keep them from me.