by Paul Fisher
He received at least one or two a week, and from all over the world. Often they had photographs attached or included, but they were always only photographs of the sights. He hated having to feel disdain for these wonderful things—the planet's richest landscapes, the majesty of castles and the expanse of the ocean—but every photograph felt empty. Rarely were there any people. One time, in a photograph of a fountain in Sevilla, Spain, he had seen a reflection in the water of a woman holding a camera. It was that photograph that he’d hung on the wall.
He had gone through five world maps just keeping track with pushpins where the letters had come from. He never knew of anyone who went through as many maps as he did. Fortunately, no one had noticed this odd consumption behavior of his. And certainly, he assured himself, it was not because they were not watching or because they were dim or irresponsible; it should be hard to keep track of someone doing something only once-every-other-year. He had no doubt, however, that if someone had noticed it they would interpret it as odd. But how ridiculous. Suppose they all knew, he wondered, would they even say anything?
“Weren't you just in here two years ago buying a map of the world?”
No. No person should want to say something like that. First of all, no one should ever want to admit to another person that he or she had been keeping track of their actions on such a scale that a behavior that occurs five times a decade had been observed and catalogued and was now considered a habit. Also, a statement like that needs a follow-up, and certainly one shouldn't want it to be an accusation: “What the hell are you doing with all these maps?” It would have to be playful, polite, as all salesmen were: “Gee, mister, you sure must like the world.”
That made him laugh.
Then he started wondering again, as he picked out a new map. He let go of the assumption that map buying is an activity that is already noticed because of its uncommon nature and wondered whether there was still a possibility that all of his purchases were noticed because he was an understood “regular” at this store. Surely he could recall all the times in the recent past he'd been to the bookstore. And it was not unusual, he realized, for him to be in the bookstore twice a month, or more, to make other less suspicious purchases. And, he realized further, there were two or three of the bookstore’s employees with whom he'd had short conversations about this or that book or author and who had come to know him by name. But he could not recall when those conversations had taken place; if those conversations had been before his last map purchase, he concluded, he might be in danger.
Danger? He laughed again. He shook his head and smiled at his own foolishness, at that easy mistake of assuming that everyone must be watching you and paying attention to you just because you are. But he stopped himself, realizing how silly he might look to someone walking by: he was just standing there by himself, alone in the map aisle, shaking his head with a dismissive laugh. He wondered what it would look like he was laughing at, which made him laugh harder, because he imagined somebody odd enough to be amused to laughter by a rolled-up map of the world.
It seemed she preferred Europe. She'd been nearly everywhere, but never spent more than a couple of months at a time outside of Europe—Western Europe specifically. But he hated to let himself become involved with this type of analysis, engaged in this thinking. He was not a detective. Back when he'd first decided to buy a map and track the postmarks, he had made it perfectly clear to himself that it would be for fun only, and that no attempt should be made to “find a pattern” or understand in any way what she was doing or why. He had tried, though, and no pattern could be found. At least no pattern existed in her routes: no one city that always followed another, or one country that always followed another or so on. And he had thought this dead end to be his much deserved reward for breaking his promise to himself.
He had gotten pretty mad at himself the day that he had this thought: Perhaps she has friends or family in Brussels; she spends quite a lot of time there. He was so mad that he didn’t eat for two days. But this disciplinary self-command, he would eventually admit, was unfruitful. It benefited him none at all. Even if the case could be made that it was important that he stick to his decision to restrict the level and type of his involvement in these letters, he knew that he had been naïve to believe that it was profitable to punish himself when he failed. Hadn't he arrived home from volunteering at the Veteran’s Hospital one day, innocent, when he found the first of the 1200-or-so letters waiting for him?
1254. It was 1254 exactly, and he knew that. He also knew how many per-week and per-month that was—all the averages. It was impossible for him to stay uninvolved.
One side of him would use the argument that he was, as he suspected, innocent and had never asked for any letters at all to be sent and that he should be allowed to do with them what he pleased. The other side, however, understood how many unproductive hours could be spent at the map and how given to obsession he was. And when these two sides of him would come together to do battle, it would last for days. He knew every rebuttal to every argument on both sides of the issue. And he was the one making every argument on either side so he, without work, immediately knew the weaknesses of any argument he presented to himself. And the battle continued.
He could not imagine, however, judging anyone else who might be in his same situation with the same harshness he employed when judging himself. But isn't that always the way? To whom much is given, he would remind himself, much shall be required. He quoted this often, but was rarely sure of its meaning. At first he used it to mean that, since he had been blessed with intelligence and maybe even a few talents here and there, he need not waste his time on letter-tracking. Someone else, then, might not have the same intelligence or talents and could engage in letter-tracking without consequence.
Soon, however, he began to realize something else. That same statement speaks of two things: endowment, or one's random circumstance, and one's return on the investment of that endowment. These letters were, as he interpreted them, part of his endowment. They were not the result of some other allocation or misallocation of endowments. They were chance, and chance alone. And if they were part of his endowment, it became important what he did with them—how he invested them.
He must've done something, though, to cause someone to elect him the addressee of these 1254 short, well-meaning and usually pleasant letters. But since he could not recall ever having met this person and was completely unaware of what action on his part had put him in this situation, he concluded that his participation must've been subconscious. Therefore, since it was simply an outpouring of his very basic self, it was close enough to being, quite simply, his endowment. And someone else's response to his endowment could not very easily be considered “a return on an investment of that endowment” since it was not his investment; it was hers. So these letters, he concluded, must be also considered random (or “ordered, but by some higher power,” which is as good as random) since they were obviously the result of the mixing of their two random circumstances.
But at what point, he would question himself, does one's personality stop being simply an endowment and become a choice? Of course, by “choice” here he simply meant, “the results of the use or misuse, whether conscious or subconscious, of ‘God-given' character.” The economist considers “human capital” an investment, but couldn't it also just be considered the obvious, expected result of a particular endowment? And the reason it became important was simple: at some point he met someone and had some impression on her that led her to begin writing him letters. He realized how crucial it was to know what impression he had made. Was it something of his that was “God-given” that had stuck with this woman? Or had she responded to something—some education, some type of understanding or some anecdote—that he'd acquired elsewhere, on his own?
This volley, once started, would go on for days.
He shook it off and walked over to the bookstore's historical book section. Occasionally there would be a book there that included reprints of hand-written letters from important historical figures. In a particularly weak spell four years ago, he had purchased several books on graphology. He almost always read them when stressed out or driven by a desperate need to indulge, and it always filled him with such self-loathing, though many would view the study of graphology as a very tame indulgence. Having read and studied the books many times over he commanded an impressive understanding of the subject and could analyze handwriting almost without thinking, so the historical documents and letters interested him.
He felt lucky that he could know just a little more about these important men and women (like Hitler and Earheart) than most could—and with the same resources. It was this way, too, with the author of the letters he received. He felt that he knew more about her than she had ever intended to let on. Whether or not she was intentionally withholding certain information about herself, his knowledge of graphology was, at least in some small way, one victory of his over her.
He was able to justify this involvement of his in the letters with the good news his analysis often reported. For instance, he had seen her handwriting (it was clear she was left-handed) rotate, over the years, from its backward slant to a more upright position. This pleased him.
She seemed, from her handwriting (as well as from her language and from the observations she often made in her letters), like someone he would like. He often felt this in the darkness of her stroke. She was full of energy and passion. Yes, he would have liked having someone like her in his life. She would have complimented him well with the upper loops in her words—he had none. Nathan was a realist; she was an idealist.
Whenever her birthday came around, she would mention it and jokingly suggest extravagant and expensive gift ideas. It became so he was ready for it every year. Her birthday was August 14th. She was a Leo. He hadn't known much about astrology or the zodiac before, but he'd purchased a couple of books from the bookstore and had brushed up some. This he didn't consider to be unusual or unhealthy interest in the letters, nor a waste of time. Plenty of people were very educated in astrology and it was not any obsessive desire that had led them to start studying; indeed many people considered a working knowledge of astrology to be very healthy.
He was glad to learn more about Leos, as it shed new light on her journeys. She was at the helm while she traveled, and not just along-for-the-ride. He was very comforted to find this out about her, as he'd often wondered what sort of child would gallivant around the world for so long with no clear purpose. He was reassured of her nature as a true Leo when she sent him a picture of a field of French Marigolds in Mexico. Leos love marigolds, he had learned, and that pleased him.
Herbert Hoover, Nathan thought, now there was a misunderstood left-handed Leo.
But there was one question that had always concerned him: If she were so stable, so healthy, why would she be sending two or three of these short and pleasant letters every week to a man she did not know? And certainly he would have entertained the notion that the letters were never intended for him had all the envelopes not bore his name—his name almost exactly, save a simple misspelling of his middle name that was very common. In fact, his diploma from High School had originally been printed with the same misspelling. That, he decided, could not be used as evidence that the letters were not for him.
Plus, she really seemed to know him well. Her mental image of him, Nathan believed, must’ve been quite accurate. It was not that she very often mentioned the specific things she knew about her reader. Who would do that? Who would write someone a letter and mention to that person that he or she had brown hair or had survived a spouse? This would seem, he believed, bizarre, and he granted her permission to not state things out-right like that. It was in the way she spoke to him where the proof lied: no one had ever spoken to him that directly. She had learned all about him in a conversation so short that he could not even remember it, she knew exactly how to speak to him.
And when he needed additional proof, he could just take out the first letter that began, “It may seem odd, my writing you like this...,” and be reassured.
Nothing in the historical books section of the bookstore seemed particularly interesting that morning and so he meandered toward the cashier's counter. It always seemed like defeat to him, finalizing purchases in a bookstore. Hundreds, thousands of books to read, so much to learn, and he was admitting, to himself and to the cashier, that he was done with all of it and he had no more reason to be there.
Nathan set the map down on the counter and waved a finger at the cashier. He hurried to the reference shelves, right next to the cashier's counter, and bent down near the language books.
“Any books on Flemish, you know, Dutch?”
“You-can-learn books or a to-English dictionary?”
The cashier leaned over his counter to help scour the reference shelves.
“Uh… there's a to-English dictionary right there,” he pointed, “but… I don't think we have any you-can-learns.”
Nathan had been unsuccessful at exactly matching up the reflection in the Sevilla fountain with any of the girls from the local high schools' or colleges' yearbooks. Close matches he had had enlarged and computer-enhanced (along with the fountain photo) and had hung up in his bedroom—they covered all four walls. He had found nothing. But in a brilliant daydream one day, he realized where else he might be likely to see that face again and he made some calls. International newspaper subscriptions were not cheap, so he decided that the Sunday edition alone would do. His first Het Volk was on its way from Belgium and, even though he was only looking for faces, he realized that some minor translations might be necessary.
Dutch-to-English dictionary in one hand and new map in the other, Nathan stepped out into the street. As he walked past the China Five Point Restaurant, he recalled the Chinese Zodiac placemat that hung on his corkboard at home. The day he had the idea to take the placemat home with him, he'd gone through all of the leather-bound photo albums where he kept the letters, in order, searching for a clue as to her age or birth year. She had given him no clues.
“One day she'll slip.”
If he were actually obsessed with the letters, Nathan argued, he would have flown to Brussels to look for her—he knew that she spent her birthdays there. He also knew that he could leave for Brussels on the 12th of August and return on the 18th for only $870, roundtrip. He also knew all of her favorite places in Brussels by the photographs and would know exactly what hotel to stay in—The Sofitel Brussels Toison D'or. But, he would remind himself, he had not done any of this, nor had he finalized any of these travel arrangements and, as such, he could not be considered overly-involved with the letters.
When he stepped into his apartment building, he stopped to check his mail. He was expecting his fingerprint kit to arrive any day, and his Sunday copy of the Grenz-Echo usually arrived on Wednesdays. It was fortunate that the Grenz-Echo offered an English edition, but unfortunate that it rarely contained pictures of locals. Perhaps, he had hoped, Het Volk would have more pictures of people.
He tucked the new map under his left arm and used his right hand to sift anxiously through his mail.
“Junk mail, junk mail...”
And a letter! It had been nearly twelve days and Nathan had been getting nervous.
“Yes,” he thought, “I've been worried, which is why I've been thinking about it so much.”
It was in fact, his concern for Audrey that had inspired his trip to the bookstore to buy another map. He had considered his purchase an act of good faith. Good karma and all of that. And it had paid off, he nodded to himself, because a letter had arrived.
But whose handwriting was this? This person is clearly no idealist.
Usually, he did not let himself open up a letter without going upstairs to his apartment and making a cup of coffee. If someone takes the time to write you a nice letter, he reasoned, you should take the time to read it properly. This letter seemed different, and it was:
I’m sorry I never actually wrote you like I said I would. My acquaintances here in Brussels tell me that Audrey had been writing you for the last ten years as her work took her around the globe. You never wrote back, though one of her fellow journalists tells me that she still believed that you got each of her letters, as they never came back undeliverable. He told me that sis ‘felt it in her heart' that you were reading her letters and encouraged me to write to you. You and Audrey always had a special relationship, didn't you, Grandpa? Whenever we talked, she'd bring up the last time we were in the states and got to see you, and she’d speak of returning again.
But it's in sadness that I write this Grandpa, especially since I have less faith than my sister did that you're out there still, reading letters. Audrey passed away eight days ago in her sleep. They don’t know yet what the exact cause was, but she had reported feeling ill when she returned from covering a story in...
Nathan's hand slowly took the letter down to his side and he leaned back against the wall. He closed his eyes, confused. The last ten years ran, over and over, through his head, different things standing out each time: his late wife’s funeral, the first letter, the visit from the doctor, the plumber’s reaction to all of the maps and pictures and letters kept carefully in plastic and covering every wall. He tried to piece it all together, but he could not. It was muddy. It was half liquid. It fell apart in his hands.
His brand new map of the world fell from underneath his left arm to the floor and bounced a few times before being crushed by the large print Dutch-to-English dictionary that followed it.
The doorman, Reggie, watched the map and the book fall and watched tears form underneath Nathan’s eyelids.
“Mr. Hayes, you okay?”
Nathan exhaled, “grandfather?”
About the author:
Paul Fisher is an editor at Haypenny.com.