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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Loose Ends

Life, frequently truncated, and never neatly.

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Loose Ends


            Saturday morning’s slanted sun rays angled their way into Maura Denton’s bedroom, and she blinked, yawned, and sat up in bed.  The clock stood at 7:32.  Another three hours, and Rich would be landing at SeaTac International Airport; two hours after that, give or take, he should be pulling into their driveway, probably exhausted, after a four-day conference in Hong Kong. 
            It seemed longer that he’d been gone.  In their young married lives – now only of three years’ duration – they had hardly ever been apart.  Despite the continuity of their connection while he was away, via Facebook, instant messaging, and Skype, there was no denying that he was on the other side of the spinning world, his clock running a full fifteen hours ahead of hers.  His night, for the most part, was her day; while she was lying in their queen-sized bed, hugging her pillow for comfort, he was in the air-conditioned meeting rooms of his hotel in the bustling south China city.  It made her feel even more distant to think of it, as if they were on different planets, impossibly and irrevocably separated.
            Maura stood up, stretched, and slipped on her bathrobe.  She switched on her computer, got a cup of coffee (the coffeemaker having been filled and programmed the previous evening), and sat down at her desk.
            An icon popped up that said, “You have (1) message.”  She smiled, thinking that Rich must have IMed her from the plane, even knowing that she was probably in bed, sound asleep.  She clicked on the message.  It said:
            plane in trouble i love y
            That was all.
            Maura stared at the message, her coffee cup suspended, forgotten, in her right hand.  Her heart gave an uneven little gallop, and she kept rereading it, her brows knitting together, as if it were a phrase in a language she barely understood, as if reading it one more time would make its meaning suddenly clear, reveal that it didn’t mean what it had seemed to mean at first.
            She was still sitting there when the doorbell rang.

            The following three weeks went by in a numb whirlwind.  The recovery, first of the black box, and then the scattered remains of the passengers and crew.  The determination that the crash had been caused by a mechanical failure, not terrorism.  Rich’s memorial service, surrounded by his weeping parents, siblings, friends, coworkers.  Short, blank-eyed statements to news reporters, eager to gain the human angle on the disaster by talking to the families of the victims.  Maura was, through it all, unable to cry, so deeply in shock at this overturning of her life that she reacted like an automaton, doing what was necessary with what appeared to be determination, but was really an inability to do anything other than what she was told she had to do.
            All of this prompted many comments about how brave she was.
            When the memorial was over, death certificates filed, life insurance claims applied for, and so on, the furor began to die down.  And that was when Maura started to look for the loose ends.
            Because Rich was still there, around her.  His grave was only bare earth, seeded with grass, his headstone glossy and new, but his life’s end was still like a fringe of unraveled threads on the edge of a piece of cloth.  Some of them were easy, obvious; Maura emptied Rich’s laundry hamper into the washing machine, and washed, dried, and put away his clothes. She filed the papers he’d left in a scattered pile on his desk, neatened up the books and magazines that sat on the table next to his computer, took his bicycle from the front porch and hung it on the hooks in the garage, cleaned and put away the garden tools he’d used the day before he’d left. 
              Maura returned to work three weeks and two days after Rich’s death.  And every night she would come back to her empty house and look for more loose ends to tie up.  There was not even a child or a pet to distract her; both of those had been future projects, relegated to another time that neither of them had known would never come.
            After a week the loose ends were becoming harder and harder to find, and the search had become a driving obsession, a joyless, one-person treasure hunt.  She could not have answered, had anyone asked, why she needed to do this; she simply did.  Rich’s life must not be left like that, the tattered ends fluttering in the breeze, nothing neat, nothing closed, no playwright’s “Finis: Exeunt” to signal the closing of the curtain.
            But they were starting to be less simple to find.  She cancelled his subscription to Sports Illustrated; emptied the trash basket and recycle bin next to his desk of their meager holdings; threw away the remnants of the cereal brand that only Rich had eaten.  She went to the little workroom off the laundry room, and tidied up his tools, putting drill bits back into cases, rehanging hammers and saws, coiling extension cords and tucking them into place on shelves.
            Then she passed on to another room, her eyes scanning the furniture, walls, floors, looking for things that Rich had left unfinished.
            One evening she turned on his computer, and began to answer emails.  There were only a few recent ones; because of the very public manner of his death, just about everyone who knew Rich had been aware of what had happened before 24 hours had passed.  She deleted any that were obviously spam, unlinked his email address from a few listservs, and answered two emails from business associates who had evidently spent the preceding month living in a cave.
            “This is Rich Denton’s wife.  I’m sorry to have to inform you, but Rich was killed in a plane crash on August 24.  I’ll be deactivating this email address soon, but I wanted you to know what had happened.  Sincerely, Maura Denton.”
            Both emails were quickly answered with heartfelt condolences to the grieving widow.
            Maura deleted them without answering.
            She took down Rich’s Facebook account.  Its Newsfeed was covered with expressions of sorrow.
            From Rich’s college buddy, Hank: “I will miss you so much, bro.  You were the best friend a guy could have.  RIP my friend.”
            From his coworker, Lee:  “I can’t believe this happened.  You will be missed.  I’ll never forget you.”
            From a member of his evening basketball team, Jay:  “I’m devastated.  It’s so unfair.  You’ll never be forgotten.”
            Maura stopped reading, and in a couple of clicks, had erased Rich’s page.  Because, of course, he was being forgotten; one by one, everyone was returning to his life, getting caught up in the stream, and the thoughts of Rich were diminishing, his links to the living becoming thinner, more fragile, snapping one by one as the men and women who hadn’t died turned their minds to other things.
            It was the night that Maura shut down Rich’s Facebook page that she discovered his short story.
            It was entitled, “The Spinning Wheel,” and had last been updated on August 14 – two days before he had left.  She read, her hazel eyes empty of expression.  The story was set in 19th century England – a time and place that Rich had read a great deal about, and whose history had been the focus of a post-college, pre-marriage excursion.  The point-of-view character was named Matthew Lane, a poor man who worked for a baker in Kensington, and the first couple of pages were a description of his daily life, seeing people from all walks of life coming into the bakery to buy bread.  There was one, a young woman named Hannah, who took his notice; she was the servant girl to a rich family, and came into the shop daily, her eyes cast down, hair tucked under a neat white bonnet.  She seemed to be weighed down by something, something more than just her station in life could explain, and each day Matthew steeled himself to ask her what was wrong, and each day he didn’t.
            Maura was transfixed.  She had not known her husband wrote, and never dreamed that he wrote so well.  The characters and setting, the sights and sounds and smells, leapt off the computer screen.  Maura knew that sometimes Rich had been unable to sleep, and had gotten up and spent time on his computer; occasionally she would wake in the early hours of morning to find herself alone in bed, and hear the keys clicking.  She had always assumed that he was just websurfing, and momentarily wondered why he hadn’t shared this part of himself with her.  She wasn’t hurt by his reticence; she was simply astonished that her husband had had this wonderful, and hidden, talent.
            She scrolled the page down, and read:
            The baked bread set in baskets, doors opened as always, the heat and noise both rising as the morning ground its grimy way forward.  Women came in for loaves, chattering gossip, paying no mind to the young man behind the counter.  He was there, he would always be there.  Plenty of time to mind him later.  Matthew gave them no attention, either; he watched for one figure, one whom he knew would show up as the church bells tolled the hour of nine, as she always did.  And that day she did, and she was the same as always; but when he saw her that morning, there was something different in him.
            She stepped through the door, her shoes scrunching on the fine layer of flour and crumbs and dirt that persisted however often Matthew swept it into the street.
            “Good morning, Hannah,” he said.
            As ever, she did not raise her eyes.  “Good morning,” she said, and then paused, and blinked, as if unsure of what to say, as if she knew that on that morning, “Two loaves, please,” could not be the only words to pass between them.
            “I…” she began, and then paused, and her dark eyes met his, just for a moment, before they fell again.  “It

            And that was all.
            Maura said, under her breath, “No.”
            She scrolled down further, watching the blank space riding upwards.  Finally the blue bar on the side of the page bumped into the bottom margin, and would go no further.  There was nothing more.  He had ended in mid-sentence, probably that night two days before his trip, and had never gotten back even to finish the phrase.
            Maura closed the document, and leaned back in the chair.  What was Hannah going to say?  What was Matthew’s intention?  The whole thing had the color of a developing romantic relationship; but Maura knew that Rich, however tender and gentle he was as a husband and lover, had no particular fondness for chick flick plots either in movies or in writing.  The idea that the shy baker’s boy and the downcast servant girl were destined for a happily-ever-after ending just seemed implausible, given Rich’s personality.  There had to be more there.
            And why “The Spinning Wheel?”  There had been no mention of a spinning wheel in the five pages of the story that Rich had written.  Was it literally referring to the machine for spinning wool?  Perhaps the servant girl also tasked by her employers with making thread, although there had been no mention of this in the pages of the story.  Maura didn’t know if that was a common thing in those days, or what its significance could possibly be.  Or, maybe “The Spinning Wheel” referred more prosaically to a wheel spinning, like the wheel of a wagon or cart, or the wheel of a mill.
            Or perhaps it was a metaphor.  But for what?  For work, for the days rolling by, the world turning in its dreary, monotonous path?  But just as the sweetness of a fairy-tale ending would not be something Rich would write, neither was a dark, nihilist story, that life is pointless toil from birth to death.  Rich was a cheerful, kind man, who liked almost everyone and who was well-liked in return, who thought of the world as interesting and life as worthwhile.  Whatever the point of the story was intended to be, it was not that nothing mattered.
            Maura swiveled the chair around, picked up the telephone, and punched in a number.
            “Hello?”
            “Hi, Dave, this is Maura.”
            “Maura, we’ve been meaning to call… how are you?”
            “I’m managing.  How are you?”
            “It’s been tough.  You know.  Losing my younger brother.  You just never think that’s going to happen.”
            “I know.  Most days I still can’t believe it’s happened.  I wake up, you know… and expect to find out that it was all some dream, that I’ll go in the kitchen, and there he’ll be in his bathrobe, putting the coffee on.  It hasn’t sunk in, yet.”
            “Me either.”
            “Dave, I just wanted to ask you.  You and Rich were pretty close.  Did you know he wrote?”
            “Wrote?  Like, stories?”
            “Yes.  Well, one story, at least.  I was going through some of his computer stuff, and found the beginning of a short story.”  She paused.  “Well, I mean, it looks like it was going to be a short story.  Maybe the first few pages of a novel, I don’t know.  It’s not finished.  I can’t tell.”
            “No, I had no idea.  I mean, he wrote some stuff when he was in high school, but never seemed very serious about it.”
            “It’s good.  It’s really good.  So, he never told you about it?”
            “No.”
            “I was just wondering… you know, what he was intending.  Where the story was supposed to go.”
            “I guess there’s no way to know, now.”
            A sudden thought flashed through her mind like lightning, leaving a sizzling burn of white-hot anger behind: No!  That’s just not fair!  That’s just not fucking fair!  But when she spoke, her voice was modulated, calm.  “I really want to know how he wanted the story to end.”
            “If he didn’t tell anyone…”  Dave trailed off, left the rest of his sentence unfinished.
            Maura continued, in the same even voice, “I’ll see if maybe he talked to anyone else.  Maybe Susan, you think?”
            “I don’t know.  I don’t think he and Susan talked all that often.”
            “But maybe…”  Maura swallowed.  “Maybe?”
            “Yeah,” Dave said, but he didn’t sound convinced.  “Maybe.”
            “Thanks.”
            “Maura?”  He paused, uncertain.  “Why is this so important to you?”
            She didn’t respond for a moment, and when she finally spoke, she gave him the only honest answer she could.
            “I don’t know.  I really don’t know.  It just is.  It’s the only important thing right now.”

            Over the next few days, she asked everyone she could think of who had known Rich, whom he might have told about his secret avocation.  And not only did no one have any idea how the story was going to end – not one of them had known that Rich was an aspiring writer.
            Worse still, none of them seemed all that interested in discussing it.  Most shrugged it off; it was sad that he never had gotten to finish his story, but… well, he didn’t.  These things happen.  And since he had told no one about it, there was no point in wasting time trying to figure out the ending.  Rich’s sister, Susan, had summed it up the most succinctly.
            “Maura, you only have five pages to go by.  You don’t know if it was intended to be eight pages long, or eight hundred.  You don’t know if he even intended to finish it.  He didn’t tell anyone, and so there’s no way to know anything more about it.  Let it go.”
            But she couldn’t.  Each night she sat down at the computer, reading what her husband had written, her eyes reluctant to move into the blank space past the last word, as if hoping desperately that somehow, there would be more.
            There never was.
            The sentence was truncated.  Just like Rich’s last message; just like Rich’s life.  Cut off, hanging in space, a flailing bit of loose end that would not be tied down.  Maura looked around her, her eyes sweeping past the neat desk and empty recycling bin and closed file cabinet, and then back to the hanging sentence fragment blinking blandly from the computer screen.
            She gave a strangled, inarticulate cry of frustration, and flung the neat pile of books and magazines onto the floor, and then she covered her face with her hands, and screamed into her own palms.  It wasn’t fair.  She had to know what he had intended.  She had to know – and at the same time she couldn’t know, would never know.  Susan was right; the universe was made that way, filled to overflowing with loose ends that could never be resolved.  Everywhere in the world were the ragged edges of lives that would never be packaged, filed, cleaned, put away.
            When the storm had subsided, Maura turned back toward the computer screen, and looked at the page one last time, then closed the document.  She gazed at the file, titled “The Spinning Wheel.doc,” in Rich’s folder named “Personal Stuff.”  She clicked on it, prepared to drag it to the trash, to delete it, to wipe out the existence of the last trailing bit of Rich’s life.  If it couldn’t be resolved, cleaned up, then simply erase it.
            But her hand stopped, still holding the mouse.  She released the button, and the file gently dropped back into its folder.  And she moved the cursor over, called up her instant messenger software.
            She clicked “Contacts,” and then “Rich Denton.”  A screen, with Rich’s smiling face, came up.  A legend underneath said, “Currently Offline.”
            On the screen appeared his last message, typed frantically into the wifi connection that was still active as his plane was making its final, hurtling plunge into the North Pacific.
            plane in trouble i love y
            And Maura wrote into the text box underneath:
            I love you too.  Always.
            Her eyes finally spilling over with long-delayed tears, she hit send, and launched her message into the ocean of cyberspace, away and gone.

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