As May settled into her seat on the commuter rail she experienced a queasy deflation. Her back on the vinyl brought the anticipation of what was yet to come suddenly against the undeniable specificity of the present—she had left and could no longer weigh now against the possibility of leaving. This is what it must be like to say I do, she imagined. All that tangible planning to reach an abstract future that, upon arrival, reveals itself to be subject to the same gross particularities of every present already past. But May preferred to say I don’t; it was saying I don’t that had brought her here.
Here was a two-person seat, the seat next to hers guarded by her bag despite the relatively light traffic on the late afternoon train. The vinyl seats alternated burgundy and navy blue and were encased in tan plastic: the institutional tan that had, sometime in the 1970s, replaced black as the color of nothing. The rest of the train’s interior was covered in wood paneling. To her left was a window through which the bright, indiscriminate summer light shown on rocks and trees and metal corrugated buildings covered in inauspicious graffiti. When she was younger and had stared out at such spaces, usually then through a bus window, she would always imagine herself in them. She had never been able to sleep in transit and consequently traveled tired, but while sitting in relative comfort she would look out at a patch of shady grass and image herself napping among the potato bugs and used condoms, having achieved an oblivion there she could not manage in seats. At some point in adulthood, however, this fantasy of sleep had left her—not because it seemed any less desirable, but rather because her insomnia had in its persistence, like many plague-some traits, reified and become a part of her identity. It was not that she hadn’t slept but rather than she could not sleep and so her sense of self did not follow her gaze but remained fixed always behind it.
The canvas bag to her left had been carefully but quickly packed and contained only, in addition to her toiletries and one change of clothes, a book. She could no longer remember where she had gotten the book, or even if she had bought it or been given it, she only knew that it made its way some time ago into another bag and before she had read a single word, she was caught with it in a rainstorm. When May came home she immediately took off her wet clothes and threw them on the floor, but the book she placed carefully on top of a row of other books on her bookshelf to dry. Long after her clothes had been laundered and put away, however, the book remained where she first had laid it, wet and misshapen. Occasionally, she would run her fingers along its yellow pages, but it seemed always still damp. One day she had tried to cram it in with the rest of the books on the bookshelf anyway, but found there was not room for it on any of the shelves. It is a funny thing about bookshelves that eventually there will be this book, the book that is one too many. Other shelves are more forgiving. How many sweaters fit in a dresser drawer or plates in a cupboard, that is usually a matter of taste, but one day a bookshelf definitively just says no. And so the book lay there, insolently horizontal, until today, when she and it had left. Where they were going, May had not yet decided.
She thought maybe she would get off at the end of the line, but when a man asked the conductor which stop was Poughkeepsie he said, “You’ll know it’s your stop because if you stay on after it, you’ll be the only person here.” May had heard of Poughkeepsie and so decided to avoid it by getting off at the next stop. Nothing immediately distinguished this stop from any of the others; it was far away enough from the city to be a small town but not far enough away to be a quaint one. Before she could really look around she heard the driver of an idling car yell, “taxi!” The taxi turned out to be a dented minivan with tan upholstery the same color as the train’s and a “for sale” sign in the window. It smelled of beef jerky.
“Where to?” her driver asked.
“A hotel, I can’t remember its name. What’s in the area?” He pulled out of the parking lot reciting the names of well-known hotel chains while she looked about for direction. Several signs had been pasted on a nearby telephone pole and on one a row of words were still partially visible underneath a notice for a yard sale. They read: horror, wheel, …oberfest, and at the bottom, Newburgh, NY.
“It’s in Newburgh,” she said, “do you know where that is?”
“The only thing I know of in Newburgh is a bed and breakfast called Stonedell.”
“That’s it,” she said with relief and lay back in her seat again. The radio played a baseball game, “two nothing, Boston,” the announcer announced. They crossed the Hudson River and wound through several streets of two-story homes with porches and small lawns.
Stonedell was a Victorian set back from the road by overgrown trees. Its grey-once-blue turrets and crumbling red brick exterior simultaneously gave the impression that it had been more lived in than its neighbor’s homes and less—appropriate enough, considering its use. She paid the taxi and walked to the front door, to which was affixed a sign that read, “I’m sorry I am not here to greet you, but please call the number below and I will be with you shortly.” May called the number below and the woman on the other line told her that the door was open and that she would be there in a couple minutes. Amazed at this lax security and relieved to be able to see the place first by herself, May stepped through the front door into a small parlor. The kitchen, living room, dining room, and stairs leading to the second floor were all visible from here. Everything was either dark wood or floral patterned and other than a few signs to the contrary, like a metal rack by the door filled with pamphlets, it gave the impression of a private home. The kitchen especially—which was full of more dirty dishes and empty wine bottles than it seemed one would leave out when expecting company, much less paying guests—gave May the feeling that her entrance had been unwanted. She drifted among framed black and white, and brown and white photos of strangers with the pleasant feeling of an intruder until she came across a note on the table next to two sets of keys. “Thanks for the stay, I think there is something wrong with the toilet,” it said.
This note addressed to the woman who was to arrive shortly broke the spell of May’s voyeurism and made her instead imagine herself as a subject of scrutiny: she was suddenly aware of herself as someone who waited. When the front door opened an older woman shuffled through with a shoulder length white bob, a black spaghetti strap tank top, and a long black skirt covered in cat hair. She introduced herself as Helen and once she and May settled on a room—the cheapest, never mind it was on the top floor and didn’t have its own bathroom—Helen set about looking for the keys. After a while May offered that she had seen keys on the table, but then grew embarrassed as she watched Helen’s lumpy back while she hunched over to read the note. Helen, however, didn’t seem phased. She handed May a set of keys, “The room is at the top of the stairs and my knees are bad; do you mind showing yourself? My sister Hannah is usually here—she’ll serve breakfast at nine.”
May climbed the stairs. The doors on the second floor were all shut and there was only one door at the end of the next stairway, so she tried her key. The room was small and like the rest of the house, worn—but it looked clean. She put her change of clothes in the drawer and, after a moment’s hesitation, left her toiletries and book in her bag. The former she would put in the bathroom downstairs and the latter she would take out with her to find something to eat. After pressing her hand against the bed to test the mattress—it gave a disconcerting groan—she closed the door behind her.
Downstairs she asked Helen which restaurants she liked best in the area, but placid Helen had no strong opinions. When pressed for a recommendation, she described a diner, “back in the direction you came from.” After wondering how Helen knew where she came from, May decided to walk in the opposite direction the taxi had taken her. The yards grew smaller until, within a few blocks, she came to the projects. It surprised her to see projects here, as if the disadvantaged in small towns would somehow escape the fate of the urban poor, but this neighborhood seemed different from all the others she had known just like it in this one way only: it was absolutely quiet. Eventually her walking took her away to the water and a small cluster of restaurants, hair salons, and spas waiting for the wayward tourist. She wandered up and down the river, finally choosing a restaurant because it was the only one that didn’t have a reference to water in its name. She ordered a panini and tiramisu to go, thinking she could eat her food and read her book by the river, but once she found a spot—a long wooden bench she shared with couples and children—balancing her meal on her lap in the fading light proved task enough. She ate the panini greedily and the tiramisu mechanically, chasing the memory of hunger with the leaden feeling of having overeaten—a daily dull drama of desire and repulsion.
It was at this moment that May began to feel the first stirrings of panic. She shoved paper, foil, styrofoam, and plastic into her take-out bag and finding a trashcan, walked as swiftly away from the people along the water as possible. The walk up the bank was steeper than it had seemed coming down and she quickly grew winded. She walked through a different set of streets on the way back and becoming momentarily lost, felt calmer. When she walked back into Stonedell, it was dark and the house was utterly still. May walked up to her room and closed the door. Again.
She had noticed before that the wallpaper in this room was an ivory print mercifully without flowers but now, as she walked along the walls, she saw that two framed prints were of roses. She put her book on the dresser and sat on the bed with her back against stiff pillows stacked along the baseboard. Across from the bed were three small windows covered in lace curtains. The bedspread was a white quilt with embroidery that felt scratchy against her palm. Other than the dresser and the bed, the only furniture was a rocking chair.
May stood up and let her skirt slip to the floor. She crossed to the dresser and grabbed the book, bringing it into the bed with her. White veins ran across its black cover on the many places it had been creased or bent and the corners bowed up like a long smile. May felt hot, like the air was too thick to pull into her lungs. She got up and tried to open the windows but they were bolted shut. The book was in her hand. She didn’t remember taking it with her—she dropped it quickly onto the rocking chair. There was an ancient AC; it made a wheezing hum when she turned it on, but her hand in front of the vent couldn’t find the air.
She crawled back into the bed. It was hot, it was still, but the air from the AC slowly rocked the rocking chair. Or was it the book? May got up and turned the AC off and moved the book from the rocking chair to the floor. As she did, its pages felt damp again, wet with the rain. Back in the bed May felt bad—sometimes we feel bad, how do we know, she wondered, how do we know when something is really wrong? She didn’t want to leave the bed; she sat in the bed and stared at the floor. It was a wood floor with a threadbare carpet that reached within a foot of each of the walls. At first was hard to tell, easy to imagine she was imagining, but soon the spread of a puddle on the carpet visible beyond the edge of the bed was distinct and growing. “No,” she said, “no, no, no.” She jumped onto the floor; the book was wet, soaking wet. Soon it was in a pool of water—the water bubbled as it seeped into the carpet, smelling of crushed roses. May tore the quilt from the bed and heaped it on the floor. Rather than watch the water seep into the quilt she wrapped it around the book like it was toilet paper she was wrapping around a bug she intended to flush down the toilet. May picked up the bundle and jammed it into the dresser. Moving backwards, she stumbled over the bed. She kept walking until her back was against the wall at the far edge of the room. Water poured down the dresser doors. She watched the cascading water until her breath stuck in her mouth and made a wheezing hum. May’s mouth filled with water. It poured down her chin; to avoid opening her mouth her lips bowed at the corners in a long smile.
Hannah carried a tray with some toast and orange juice on it up to the top floor in the morning sun. The tray was a subterfuge really, for guests who slept through breakfast and were risking sleeping though check out time—it gave her something to meet them with after knocking on their door. There was no response to her knocking now though or to her calls. Concerned, she pulled out her key and opened the door. She opened it so slowly that at first she didn’t feel the object that the door moved along the floor, but when she saw the room was empty, she looked down and noticed the book. Hannah bent over to pick it up, its pages brittle to her touch. She put it on her tray and carried it with her down the steps.
This story is just as creepy as when I read it the first time! It’s deliciously subtle! At the same time, it’s so well written that I felt like I was right there with May in that room with that book.