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The Palest Ink, chapter I

Monday

The Bradbury Library was old, no doubt about it. Its edifice, unlike most fictional edifices, was not yet crumbling but certainly fell into the category of exurban disrepair. The cracks running in jagged lines across the plaster were rivers of damage, though any number of tributaries might be just beneath the surface waiting to erupt. It was nonetheless an information oasis in a tarmac and concrete wilderness, and walking through the library front doors each morning Yuri had the feeling of being connected to the world, or—at the very least—to the world as it was some 20 years past.

Yuri was glad to have access to the Hub; he was lucky and realised that the felicity in which he found himself was in sharp contrast to the conditions his brother Peter and sister Natalia lived in. In his job title of ‘Archivist’ he took an objectively unwarranted pride, and though he knew that this pride was most likely a manifestation of a beloved yet inescapable superiority complex, he told himself each day that his work—his archiving—was going to have a direct impact on their lives. One of these days, once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away. There was a boy, and—so Yuri thought—it just might be him.

Unchaining the bicycle from the rusting railings, Yuri got on and began pedalling. After several meandering seconds he hit a steady pace and the sidewalk began to cooperate with his tyres. The sheer evening sun made everything a little more palatable than usual, the meters and lampposts, bus stops and trash cans glinting at the edge of his vision. He stole a glance across the street at St Patrick’s, the stained glass windows out front as flat as the spirits inside.

Past the church and on the right hand side of the road was a park, scorched and mostly dying in the sun. Shopping Cart Man, a bedraggled resident of Watertown who collected in his eponymous carriage anything and everything he deemed to be of some value, was attempting to loose his rear wheels from a muddy corner of the quadrangle. His German shepherd gave a cursory bark as Yuri pedalled beside them, but soon the bicycle had reached the top of Main Street’s incline and was well out of view of the grey-bearded man and his companion.

Just off Main Street was Yuri’s apartment, shared as it was with Mr Yamgochian, sinking as it was into the sediment of its own foundations. In the knowledge that it was once the home of a great American writer Yuri found some solace, though most of his writings—like those of all but a handful of prolific scribblers from the previous century—were lost somewhere in an electro-magnetic ether. The plaque to the left of the front door was faded but still legible, proclaiming this humble New England cottage the ultimate residence of Samuel McCarthy. Yuri had scrolled through a short story of McCarthy’s the previous fall—he had come across it quite by accident at the library—and found it prosaic though, he supposed, perfectly literary.

The first floor of the building was Mr Yamgochian’s, brimming with the greasy, noisy tools he had maintained for a quarter century as a Master Carpenter. The Carpenter always added his honorific and Yuri always saw the words spring across his mind, capital letters and all. In the old man’s leathered face were the pockmarks of memory, but in his daily, manual labours he clearly took refuge from age and lost youth. As Yuri parked his bike in the hallway he leaned around the door jamb and called a hello to Mr Yamgochian before heading upstairs.

The hum of machinery grew duller and broader as Yuri contemplated the philosophical nuances of living above a Jewish carpenter. Coincidence, he thought, laying now and stretching out on his mattress. He drifted in and out for a moment, recalling pages of text swimming before him, feeling a brief stint of verbal seasickness before Watertown’s meagre streetlights, in tandem with Yuri’s senses, were temporarily extinguished.

* * *

Tuesday

Sylvia had a photographic memory.Manuscript

As far as she was concerned this was both her curse and her saviour. Ten years earlier she had been temping at a small, privately-held insurance company based in Boston, filing files and brewing brews for herself and for her colleagues during the day, typing away during the evening. When insolvency, and finally bankruptcy, reached the firm and Sylvia was out of a job it took two weeks for the sequence of 846 files that she had dealt with for six months and 8 days of her life to fade into sufferable background noise. A decade later she was indebted to her uncanny memory, the only thing worth noticing on her crumpled resume.

Sitting in what was once the children’s room of the Bradbury Library, Sylvia was on to page 53 of her most recent manuscript, one for which there was as yet no title. The last time she had tried to drag the lakes of her overworked brain for a clue, a word or letter, even the curve of a serif at the edge of her peripheral vision, she had succeeded only in causing a two-hour migraine which rendered the rest of that day worthless. It would come, as they always did, after much mental rummaging.

At 9.28 a.m., through the glass panels separating the children’s room from the lobby, she saw Yuri entering the library. He was wearing a checked shirt of red and white, jeans and a faded khaki jacket. The red of his shirt was the only element that changed over the course of a forty-hour week. From the library entrance to the end of the hallway where the front desk used to be, Yuri walked past the four windows to the children’s room. He then turned to his right and hopped up the steps two by two, fearful that they might collapse at any second, concertina into themselves and leave him stranded on the first floor.

Sylvia turned back to the glazed screen and keyboard. Her typing came always in a state of sub-consciousness, what her yoga teacher might term ‘Zen’ though the pragmatic Sylvia more likely considered a photographic kind of filing. As the letters streamed from some back drawer of her mind onto the old-fashioned keyboard and were impressed permanently onto the microfiche beneath the screen her thoughts ebbed around the Copley Square insurance office, her parents’ home in Newton covered in autumnal leaves, and her brother’s stacks of carefully numbered comic books. Meanwhile the microfiche typed itself into analogue existence:

The letter was in the red and white birdhouse mailbox at the foot of my steps. A woodpecker on top of the box attached to the swing arm was raised and even at that I might not have looked inside because I never got mail at the house. But the woodpecker had lost the point of his beak quite recently. The wood was fresh broken. Some smart kid shooting off his atom gun.

The letter had Correo Aéreo on it and, a flock of Mexican stamps and writing that I might or might not have recognized if Mexico hadn’t been on my mind pretty constantly lately. I couldn’t read the postmark. It was hand-stamped and the ink pad was pretty far gone. The letter was thick. I climbed my steps and sat down in the living room to read it. The evening seemed very silent. Perhaps a letter from a dead man brings its own silence with it. It began without date and without preamble.

Sylvia was a momentary freeze frame as a neuron missed its invisible bridge. Her hands began to peck at the keys in frenzy, producing text spaced out like a cut-and-paste essay from her college years. After several minutes she stopped and read back:

mountain town with a lake. There’s a mailbox just below the window and when the mozo comes in with some coffee I don’t know what, but he won’t let me out. It doesn’t matter too much as long as the letter gets posted. I want you to have this money done everything wrong as usual, but I still have the gun lives to live and I’m up to here in disgust with mine. Sylvia didn’t make a bum out of me, I was one already. I can’ to you, when all you have left is the gun in your pocket, when you are cornered in a dirty little hotel in a strange country, and have only one way out — believe me, pal, there is nothing elevating or dramatic long. Terry.

* * *

The Hub room took up almost the entirety of the second storey of the library. The floor lamps and solitary strip light created a glare on the windows and a buzz in Yuri’s head. He had to hop and glide around rudimentary connections snaking across the floor, grimacing good morning to the archivists hunched over newspaper reels or flipping through pages at their desks. Only a few spooling screens were visible, these featuring magazine articles on authors and their homes, or short stories illustrated with black and white photographs or monochrome cartoons.

The acrylic screen of Yuri’s reader had been dark when he took his seat. He’d flicked the switch on the left of his cabin to turn on the machine and wound the microfilm back several pages until he recognised some part of the hieroglyphs flickering in front of him. By the end of each day his stomach was nauseated, turning over in his abdomen as the result of hours spent scouring decades-old microfiche for something that might fill in the gaps on the library’s shelves.

Three screens back he came across the letter he had been scanning yesterday evening, faded due to endless microfilm reproduction and blurred at the edges, but with parts still legible in magnified font. At the top of the page was a smudge of dead ink, the author’s name erased like a bug on a window, the first letter of the first name perhaps a B, perhaps an R, perhaps neither of these. There was no salutation, and Yuri felt as though he might be the intended recipient, years and miles away from the mailbox that the original letter had once made its way to. He leaned forward and read:

Thank you so much for the bound copy (I should have said specially bound) of LG. I don’t really think my books are worth so handsome a binding and I have moments when I feel like hiding them – except that it would look rather ungrateful to you. I have visions as it were of some snooty character looking over my bookshelves and saying to himself: “Does this type really think his books belong in calf with gold edges and gold tooling?” However, what is a man to do?

Los Angeles has nothing for me anymore. It’s only a question [illegible]

On the next page a jagged scar tore across the middle of the screen, proclaiming the letter a victim of fire or a vicious tearing hand. A letter from R—or B— in LA concerning LG. Acronyms and anagrams, codes, symbols and ciphers. Yuri could not even begin to put this collection of words into narrative He recognised the strains of an insecure author addressing—whom?—a publisher? Perhaps a designer or distributor?

There was the image of a figure in a smoky room, his fingers clicking away at ivory keys in a futile attempt to connect with someone; but soon this averbal narrative, compiled hastily from so few clues, segued into a memory of Yuri’s father, hair thin as cobweb, legs brittle like a spider, his hollowed cheeks stretched tight over Slavic cheekbones. An ageing volume bound in hemp was open lengthwise in his lap and he was right-angled into the chair in Natalia’s kitchen. The smell wasn’t right, though. Heat, or rather humidity, hung in the air and mingled with grease, oil and the anachronous urban perfume of the automobile.

Kicking back from his desk, Yuri sprang up and over the Hub’s makeshift wiring, hopscotched to the end of his row of desks, around the balcony at the top of the stairwell and, two-by-two, took the steps to the first floor. He had to find a Scribe, someone whose memories were dammed up in the back of their skulls and—hopefully—just about ready to burst. At the bottom of the stairs he instinctually glanced around, turned left and back on himself until he entered the old children’s’ room.

* * *

Sylvia’s typing had stopped a half hour ago, and the disopprobrium of her five colleagues had been palpable for at least ten minutes. At 10.13 a.m. she saw a feverish jump followed by a six foot man taking the last few steps to the first floor and, happy for the distraction, she looked up to see Yuri heading into their sunlit room. He strode towards their cluster of desks and leant with the balls of his hands on the edge of Sylvia’s screen. At the corners of his eyes she could see creases of excitement, even in number though not quite symmetrical.

“My eidetic friends,” he said. “I have a question for you. Los Angeles, California. Author unknown, work begins with an L. Continues with G.”

A typographic flourish, a serif twisting from the end of a capital letter, drew itself in the shape of a treble clef across the dust jacket of Sylvia’s eyes. “Goodbye?” she asked. [continues]

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One thought on “The Palest Ink, chapter I

  1. Pingback: Merlin’s Keep « [untitled]

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