Jim got into his car and was going to finally read that letter. It was the odd one that snuck in somehow.
He had a collection of old letters and oddball books. The letters were ones he found in trash cans, in abandoned houses, hidden in books at yard sales. Some were yellowed and worn, some so torn up and water damaged as to be almost unreadable as though individual words for some forgotten years floated in mold and blur and filth. Others were antiseptically pristine as though just finished and floated through some benign, dull wound and tear in space and time.
He collected odd books like the collected obsessive writings that were thousands of pages of moving pencils, swatting flies and even hiring people to talk to about their day. He loved these and read them cover to cover over long stretches of time. He secretly hoped it would birth some interesting idea in him, the counterbalance to their dullness and detail. So far this had failed to happen.
He for a time in college even bought the smelliest old books he could find, pretentiously leaving them open at night hoping the little tiny dots of mildew and mold would lift on tiny drafts of air and ride up the cave of his nostril with parcels of some sentence or maybe even an idea to sit rotten in his sleep. He hoped a dream would suddenly brighten with Victorian color palettes as some bit of an old book arose as scent and stench into his dream with some chunk of narrative or flash of purple prose philosophy. It only made him once or twice cough awake.
He dropped out of college senior year. It was just not for him. He had books to read, a world to see, pasts to swim in like pools. Also his mom passed away that year, the machines finally failing her, the relatives visiting less and less out of things like being “busy” or “coming soon for sure (5 years passing…).
He another time in his life collected old yearbooks. It was fascinating to see college yearbooks from before he was born. They had proms and sang songs and the comparative innocence was almost a scent, so visceral. The Engineering programs proudly displayed outmoded machines long discarded, the proms alight with haircuts that never returned. Even the one from MIT had amazing images of huge machines working with electricity, steam and field measurements. He hoped that somehow this past being so out of touch would birth something in him, something again a spark from something beyond in time and usage as though held behind layers of transparent skin.
He once fell in love almost with a woman behind the sheen and skin of old photos. She was in 2 yearbooks from a long ago Harvard, her hair in a wavy bob, her quote being of a love of books like a lover, her achievements so impressive below her sweet and confident smile. He for a while dreamed of her, a slow rolling narrative over months amongst the noise of stress dreams and his odd jobs. He also once dreamt of photos all opening up like waterfalls emerging, and the precise weight and space and things of past along with their open spaces and mysteries in tandem forming a kind of ocean of past shored at the edge of the present.
He drove to a small farm town for the first time in 30 years to look at a soon closing store that had some rare books for sale and the highway opened a series of vague, dully lit childhood memories like some kind of low hanging fireworks opening into color and soon dying in a light drizzly rain. He remembered being bored where the small planes still sat at an aging small airport, he recalled playing with the dirt and rocks by the place that sold tractors with the same dull brown paint, something about trees, some brief flint against mental stone of that restaurant, then again nothing.
He stopped for gas and that letter almost whispered to him from the pile of old books in the back seat he hoped to sell or trade. It hung in humble lined paper from a corner of a book on car repair for a certain type of Ford in 1939 as though ready to blow away in a breeze and out of his life. It was not that simple. First of all, it was firmly held in the middle of that book , embraced on both sides by old sketches of carburetors with a flurry of jargon and fussy arrows. Second, it was something he promised himself he would not avoid. The old letter, found in a book at a yard sale across town against all odds was written by his mother.
He collected old yearbooks until it just sort of died in him. The distance of years and the novelty of past just wore down to a nub after a while. The parade of years and schools and moments held at a distance kind of filled in actually to him, not wore away or fell away as one might expect. These pasts are now in me somehow he thought that one night during a windstorm as the windows rattled and a tree branch scratched ugly against the front window glass like a fingernail. The yearbooks were thrown away as he found no buyers. They were just gone, again at great distance. This was somehow at times a feeling like emerging from a warm bath to Jim.
Driving again on the small old highway he saw the sign that it was only some 50 miles to his destination. Another flash of near stillborn memory: ice cream, hot wind, sadness, trees very tall, adults speaking slowly. Just like that the memory shard then again was silenced. He drove on listening to a radio station playing current songs by artists he had never heard of and it was a pleasing sort of noise, no aesthetics to meddle with, no lyrics to discern, a distance. A truck veered into his lane for a second. A bird flew low over the highway. A single cloud briefly took the sun from the sky to shadow.
He found the off ramp and pulled off to the store. The door was open and a few cars were in the small parking lot by a tiny old park. Jim grabbed his old books and looked at his list of wish purchases. As he did this the letter fluttered softly to the asphalt. He stared at it for one of this brief moments that feel inside stretched like a kind of taffy to hours. It skittered across the parking spot lines and he had to chase it, this breaking the moment of it being at a distance on the ground. He grabbed it the way someone cradles a small injured bird. He read the first lines as he had no choice, they were in his fingers now.
She wrote this letter to my aunt who is still alive. She gave this away. She is writing before her body failed her and words fled as did her voice. She is writing about my birthday. Her body soon after began to abandon her, fail her, her cigarette falling from her shuddering fingers to the bed, the cherry red end a tiny fire leaving a bruise shaped burn mark on the sheets like the wounds in the ground from lightning, her wheelchair a kind of sad sculpture across the room, her eyes deep with the weight of that fall, what it soon would surely entail.. Time has killed her letter by letter, surely there are others scattered across yard sales in towns I will never even have heard of. My mother is a ghost made of distance and lost things now and those ashes.
Jim took the injured bird of a letter and put it in his trunk. He swore to himself he would read it in full later. He would buy those books. Maybe again get some yearbooks but this time just to look at the teacher photos, a past he knew nothing of. A distance.
He closed the lid and as the lock sounded he again felt like emerging from a warm bath. This feeling too familiar led him to again open it, finally face the past that was his, not of strangers and words and books. The letter spoke of his 9th birthday, of her wheelchair, of hope and sun and as sad as it was feeling her words light up in some lost tiny terrarium of past he thought of not a single book, his warm tears a rain of her , and the breeze her loving lost to ash fingers caressing her son’s hair.