For Word # 2
Otto gets up late on Thursday. The mail has already come. He puts on shoes and, rather than going directly downstairs to the mailbox, enters the study and sits down at his desk. He takes out a clean sheet of paper and for several minutes he gazes out the window onto the street and the sidewalk below, where numerous bicycles stand chained to trees and lampposts. An older man wearing a cast over his left arm walks along the storefronts, holding a cup of coffee. At the intersection he stops and drinks from the cup; he crosses the street and begins to move in the opposite direction. By now Otto is writing. When he has filled the page he folds it into thirds. He opens a drawer and removes a small notebook, examines it momentarily, selects and detaches a particular number of pages and slips them, with the folded letter, into an envelope, which he addresses and places in the pocket of his robe. He returns the notebook to the drawer and goes downstairs. The only thing inside of the mailbox is a yellow envelope with his name and address written in cursive on the front. Above the return address is the initial E. On his way up the stairs he unseals the envelope and reads the letter it contains.
Otto starts the bath water, and then he goes to the kitchen to put the kettle on. He washes his face thoroughly at the kitchen sink, dries his hands on the fabric of his robe, removes a tea bag from the cabinet, holds it briefly to his nose. It is at this point that he remembers the envelope in his pocket. He goes into his bedroom to dress, and when he is fully dressed he walks to the bathroom to turn off the water. The mirror is covered with steam—for no reason Otto traces the shape of an obelisk on the glass. Within the obelisk he can now see the reflection of his right cheek and eye. He returns to the kitchen, takes the kettle off of the heat and pours the water into the sink.
Someone must have come this morning and planted lilacs along the perimeter of the lawn. As Otto passes, a pale moth circles a cluster of tiny white flowers. He believes he can hear the faint sound of a helicopter. On his way to the post office he begins to wonder if he remembered to turn off the stove. Nearby, a woman with a stroller has paused to set her watch; the building across the street used to be a bank and, even though it has been unoccupied for years, the clock at the front entrance remains accurate.
After mailing the letter Otto goes to the library, as usual. He locates a particular book, from which he immediately begins making notes.
The following Wednesday begins well, and Otto gets a great deal of work done right away. After lunch he returns to the library and continues working throughout the afternoon, but as he is putting his things away, shortly before seven o’clock, he realizes that he has forgotten to prepare a reply to the letter which he expects to find in the mailbox at home. He takes a bus past the cemetery to the far north end of town, and then back again, and by the time he approaches the stop where he boarded the bus he has completed a new letter. A woman with short black hair is seated in front of him. The back of her neck has been shaved, but the hair has begun to grow in again, forming two parallel patches of gray above her collar. Attached to the right earlobe is an unassuming silver stud. Attached to the left earlobe is a sort of slender chain dotted at its top and bottom with two dark-red stones. Otto believes the stones may be garnet.
He finds an envelope in the mailbox, although it occurs to him at once that this is the letter which he wrote and mailed on Thursday. It has been returned. He goes upstairs and locks the door behind him, and without turning on any lights he walks to the study. He lays the envelope on the desk and looks out of the window at a couple who stand on the other side of the street. They’re having an argument, and the woman seems to be on the verge of tears. The man refuses to face her—clearly he is not indifferent, but he pretends to be. There is something in his hand. Every so often the woman turns to speak; each time she does her face becomes so pale and distorted that Otto is certain she will start to cry, and yet in each instance she turns away and seems to collect herself. For some time the man has been studying the object in his hand, and finally he lays it down on the sidewalk and begins to walk away. The woman’s face assumes a resigned expression and she comes forward and picks up the object. She begins to follow the man, keeping several paces behind. When he reaches the intersection he seems to slow down to allow the woman to catch up. They round the corner together and Otto can no longer see them. He takes out the letter which he wrote on the bus and seals it in an envelope, with a few more pages from his notebook, and then he takes a pen and copies out the address from the front of the returned letter. Above the address he prints the initial E.
Obviously the envelope was never opened. He removes the letter and the notebook pages, taking a moment to examine one of them by the light of the streetlamps outside.
He returns all of the loose pages to his notebook, and then he tears the letter into shreds, which he places inside of the envelope.
The lower desk drawer locks automatically when closed, and although he has never had a key Otto has generally been able to unlock the drawer with a letter-opener. On this occasion, however, he is having difficulty. There is nothing in the drawer—he has kept it empty in anticipation of the sort of difficulty he is having now. But he decides he would like to hide the returned letter there. For more than five minutes he attempts to manipulate the lock with the tip of the letter-opener, and then he inserts the blade several inches into the crevice and begins to pry backward and forward repeatedly. Finally the drawer slides open and Otto places the envelope inside.
He arranges the day’s notes carefully on the seat of the toilet, so that he can look through them while he bathes. In the morning he will not go to the library. He will spend the day at his desk, reading through carbons of old letters and, if he feels like it, composing new ones. If the telephone rings he will get up, as though he intends to answer it, but just before lifting the receiver he will pause and wait for the ringing to stop.
On Monday Otto has dim sum for lunch. He brings his notes to the restaurant, as well as two dictionaries, one of which he had to smuggle out of the library. He orders steamed chicken feet in black bean sauce, two sweet potato egg rolls and tea. But the tea is nearly cold, so Otto calls the waitress to the table. It seems that she only barely understands English, and while Otto explains what he wants she raises her brow and gapes. Finally she nods and takes the tea into the kitchen.
In his notes Otto has written the word syndesis. He looks it up in both of the dictionaries, and then he copies out the entry from the dictionary which he took from the library.
Before returning to the library, Otto goes next door for a beer. While he drinks he gazes out of the window, in order to deter himself from examining his own reflection in the mirror. Just outside there is a man with a dog. He converses with another man—a photographer whom Otto noticed earlier, studying the upper stories of an enormous brick building nearby. Every so often one of the men will make a rapid movement with one hand, to which the other man will almost invariably respond by closing his eyes briefly and nodding. Suddenly the wind picks up and the photographer’s toupee becomes detached in the front, rising and standing several inches above his scalp. The other man begins to laugh, and in a moment he is laughing so hard that he forgets to control his dog, which soon has one of the photographer’s shoelaces in its teeth. The photographer adjusts his wig and ties his shoelace. He does not appear to be embarrassed, although the other man is still laughing as he waves goodbye and moves away with the dog. Otto picks up his bottle cap and for no reason slips it into a breast pocket.
He works all afternoon and arrives home just as the sky is darkening. Wednesday’s letter has been returned. He removes it from the mailbox and brings it upstairs to the study, where he restores the loose pages to their place in the notebook and tears the letter to shreds.
He removes a sheaf of carbons from his desk and seals them in a manila envelope, on the front of which he has carefully written out the address from the returned letter.
An hour later he takes a walk, bringing with him nothing except the manila envelope and his house key. But he notes at once that the air is unusually cool, and he is at least six blocks from home when it begins to rain. While he waits under an awning for the rain to stop he notices a mailbox a few yards away, at the intersection. He approaches and drops the envelope into the slot, and then he returns to his place beneath the awning. When more than fifteen minutes pass and the rain shows no sign of letting up, Otto decides to cross the street and wait at a bus stop. When a bus arrives, he boards and asks the driver for a transfer slip and rides all the way to the depot. There he gets on another bus which brings him about a block from his building, and by then the rain has given way to a light sprinkle.
It is now nearly midnight. Otto pours a small amount of milk into a saucepan and sets it on low heat. At the dining room table he organizes the day’s notes and numbers the pages. When the milk has begun to simmer he pours it into a tea cup and turns off the stove. He goes into the bathroom, removes two pills from a small container and swallows them with tap water. Then he returns to the kitchen. When the wind blows he can hear the rain against the window. It is coming down harder again. He thinks of the lilac bushes along the sidewalk. When he has finished the milk he brings the cup to the sink and rinses it. In a few minutes he will put his notebook away and go to bed, but for now he looks over some of the day’s notations.
Otto spends Friday morning at home, preparing a new letter and selecting excerpts from his notebook. At noon he eats a sandwich, dresses and goes downstairs to the mailbox, where he finds the unopened manila envelope. He removes it and leaves this morning’s letter in its place. Returning to the study, he puts the manila envelope in the lower desk drawer, which he leaves open by about an inch.
He has an appointment in the afternoon. For money he has agreed to provide piano music for a small dance company. The music includes pieces from Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances, which the composer arranged first for piano duet. The studio is on the other side of town, so he takes a taxi. But the driver is moving so slowly that at one point during the trip another taxi actually accelerates and passes them. Otto arrives late. When he begins to apologize the instructor informs him that Elias, with whom Otto has arranged to play the duets, has also not yet arrived. Otto hangs his jacket in the entryway. Through the glass he can see the students, most of whom appear to be teenagers. A few are practicing, but most of them stand in clusters, talking. When ten minutes have passed Otto approaches the instructor and says that he can’t imagine what could be keeping Elias and that he is terribly sorry. She suggests that they begin without him, and so he sits down at the piano and plays his parts alone. It sounds peculiar, but the students seem to know just what to do. There is a Chinese girl near the piano, and Otto believes that she is watching him. Each time he looks up she averts her eyes. Like everyone else, she has tied her hair in a meticulous bun, but one black lock has come loose and while she dances it sways beside her left cheek and jaw. At a certain point she seems to brace herself against the edge of the piano, and as her leg rises behind her Otto can see that she is wearing dark-red shoes. She will eventually receive a mild reprimand for leaning on the piano.
When the session is over Otto approaches the instructor and apologizes once again—he tells her that if he hears from Elias he will have him call her. She thanks him and gives him a check.
He stops at a bank to cash the check. When he reaches the library (it is about five o’clock) he brings a few newspapers upstairs and reads the headlines. By the time he comes to the end, however, he has to admit to himself that he can remember almost nothing he has read, and so he goes back and reads through them a second time. When he is finished he takes the papers downstairs, returning with two dictionaries and the book about Lorenzo Lotto. But his things are not there—his notes and his books have disappeared. He concludes first that they have been stolen, and he is halfway downstairs to report the theft when it occurs to him that he has made a mistake and gone to the wrong floor. He turns around and walks upstairs again and finds his things just as he left them.
In one of the newspapers he read an article about a number of meteorites believed by scientists to have originated on Mars. Some of the rocks contain fossil traces which suggest that the planet may in the past have sustained life. In fact, one argument is that Martian bacteria, transferred by meteorites, might have been the origin of life on Earth. An important meteorite was discovered recently, although Otto cannot remember where. Later he will return to the newspapers in order to refresh his memory, and although he will go through all of them carefully from beginning to end he will be unable to locate the article.
He decides to work until the library closes. Over the course of the evening he gets up numerous times to find materials. The building is poorly ventilated, and he gets a headache. He swallows two aspirin, which leave an unpleasant residue on his tongue. The hours pass and, although he makes notation after notation from the dozen or so books which surround him—although he acknowledges that he is putting in a good day’s work, despite having gotten a late start—Otto is able to see almost no value in what he produces, and what strikes him as most noteworthy of all is that this is by no means a unique or even intermittent phenomenon. It seems to Otto that the value of the work can only be assessed—can only begin to be assessed—long after it has been completed and the occasions of its production forgotten. The only thing left for him, then, is to do the work—to see that the notations continue to accumulate—so that later he will have something to scrutinize and, if he’s lucky, to coax into some effective and useful arrangement. For the time being he has no choice but to place his trust simply in the accumulation of his notes. As always, he dislikes thinking of this—it makes the job harder—and so he deliberately puts it out of his mind.
By eleven o’clock he has stopped writing. All but two of his books lie open, but he stares past them, toward the window. He is thinking about meteorites. A man in his fifties moves from person to person, whispering that the library is now closed. When he reaches Otto’s table he smiles; Otto nods, closes the books and leaves them in two piles at the edge of the table. On the obverse page of his notebook he has written the following:
On Wednesday Otto wakes up before dawn. He is no longer tired. The sun hasn’t yet risen, but a pale light lies like a sort of film over the street. In the building across from Otto’s, one window is illumined by the light of a table lamp. He can occasionally see a figure moving quickly past the window, first in one direction and then in the other. It is the figure of a woman—she is putting her hair up. At once she pauses, and although her face is not visible Otto can see that she is removing bobby pins, one at a time, from between her lips. Confronted now with the accidental image of this woman—someone whom he doesn’t know and has never seen before—he finds himself unconvinced that his own form could ever be so authentic.
Last night he prepared another letter, including with it, in addition to passages from his notebook, pages of sheet music which he had written out himself. The sealed envelope is in the next room. He will mail it in a few hours. He makes coffee and more than once returns to the window. Presently the sun rises from behind a block of buildings and drivers begin to turn off their headlights. By seven o’clock the woman across the street has switched off the lamp in the window. Otto feels sure that she is no longer there.
He gets the mail—Friday’s letter has been returned, and on the back of the envelope the words stop it have been printed in large letters. Rather than going upstairs he walks directly to the post office. Near the entrance some pigeons are fighting over something. Otto turns to look and they fly away. He mails today’s letter and takes a bus to the library. But he is unable to concentrate, so he goes to a diner for breakfast. He drinks a great deal of water and thinks about his work. He tries to call up in his mind the particulars of the work which he would like to be able to produce before the end of the day, but it is no use, and he has a headache. When he goes to pay for his meal he notices that the diner sells small packets of aspirin. He decides to get used to the idea that he will do no work today. He will spend the usual time in the library, and if something comes to him he will write it down, but he will hold himself to nothing. Returning to the table he discovers that he has spilled sugar on the cuff of his jacket. He is able to brush away most of it, but some of the grains are embedded in the fabric.
his way back to the library Otto stops at a magazine kiosk. According
to one article, certain species of flounder begin life with eyes on the
right and left, like ordinary fish, but as they mature one of the eyes
actually migrates to the other side. A photograph shows a flounder, whose
right eye seems to be more or less on top of its head. Before leaving
the kiosk Otto copies the word pleuronectiformes into his notebook.
On the morning of Monday the 26th Otto is awakened by a knock at the door. He wraps himself in a blanket and comes out of his room. It is the landlady—she has brought up his mail. She doesn’t like to disturb him, but she will need to have a look at the floor tiles around the bathtub. Otto walks her to the bathroom, and while she examines the tile he goes back to his room and gets dressed, putting on the same clothes as yesterday. The landlady continues to study the tile while Otto brushes his teeth. He asks her what the problem is, and she tells him that it is probably nothing, but some of the other tenants have complained about water coming through the ceilings. She is visiting each residence to check the bathroom floors. In a while she rises and says that all appears to be in good order. The two of them enter the living room—Otto believes that the landlady will leave, but instead she sits down in a chair and sighs. She begins to talk about her son, whom she describes as a semi-professional boxer. She disapproves and is worried about him. He recently had a fight which left him with badly bruised ribs and a cut beside his eye which she is certain will leave a scar. The boxing began early in college, and although he was never very good at it he enjoyed it enough to continue; now, she says, he draws a very paltry income from prize fights, as well as a handful of bets. She laughs and admits that she once bet on her son’s opponent and won—she has never told him, although she thinks she will eventually. She has another son, a tax attorney, who considers boxing ridiculous, and who refuses to discuss the subject with anyone, especially with his brother. Otto nods and asks one or two questions, out of politeness. The truth is that he is thinking of something else. When the landlady goes silent momentarily Otto asks her if she would like some coffee. She thanks him and tells him that she takes hers with milk, and the two of them sit down at the dining room table. Otto has brought out a small box of butter cookies. Once again the landlady sighs and says that she is, in spite of everything, proud of all of her children. She loves them equally and has never understood how any parent could have a favorite child. Her husband, on the other hand, was an alcoholic, and she doesn’t miss him at all. He was once convicted of some form of larceny—she is not specific—and she believes that if he is not in jail now he is probably living somewhere on the west coast. She has neither spoken to nor seen him for over a decade. Otto excuses himself and goes into his room. He undresses and puts on new clothes. When he returns to the dining room the landlady is still sipping her coffee. It seems to Otto that all the time he has been away she has been thinking about her son the boxer. But when she sees him she smiles and asks him why he has changed his clothes. He tells her that the things he was wearing before were dirty. She is still smiling, and she looks into his eyes for several moments without speaking. Finally, after Otto tells her that he is only kidding, she looks away and takes another drink from her cup. After about ten minutes she says that she had better go. Otto walks her to the door and locks it behind her.
He brings the mail into the study. Of course Wednesday’s letter has been returned. He unseals the envelope and removes the notebook pages. He then tears the letter and the sheet music to shreds and places them inside of the envelope, which he drops into the bottom desk drawer with the others.
the library two men push lawnmowers fitted with enormous cloth bags. A
woman is planting shrubs near the entrance; she is not wearing gloves
and her hands are blackened. As Otto approaches, the noise of one of the
lawnmowers is loud enough to annoy him. He passes through the entrance
and into an abrupt silence.
Early Friday morning Otto dreams about the library. He is unable to find any of the materials which he routinely uses—he looks numerous times, on numerous shelves, and finally in exasperation he turns to face the dance instructor, who is suddenly beside him. When she smiles he realizes that she has come earlier and gathered his books for him. The two of them stand at the bottom of an ornate spiral staircase, and Otto believes that they will climb the steps to the upper floor; within an instant, however, he finds that he is now at the top (the dance instructor has vanished), although he has not set foot on the stairs. Next to the circulation desk is a confessional. He opens the door—his books are piled on a chair. At first he is relieved, but as he leafs through them he begins to discover that all of the pages are blank. Upon waking, he will remember feeling disappointed, even while still asleep, by such an opaque and unimaginative dream, and he will hope to have the same dream again so that he can change it.
At his desk he writes another letter—this will be the last. When it is finished he seals it in an envelope and goes downstairs. Monday’s letter is in the box. He mails the new letter and brings the returned letter to the study, destroying it and returning the loose pages to their place in his notebook, as usual. It comforts him to consider that once today’s letter has been returned the notebook will remain permanently intact.
It's raining again, so he decides to work at home. In the mid-afternoon he has stomach pains—he suspects right away that the egg salad which he ate for lunch may have been spoiled. He goes into the bathroom to vomit. It doesn’t help. He returns to the study and works very hard, despite the persistent discomfort, for the remainder of the day. He has a bowel movement, and by six o’clock it has stopped raining and he is no longer in pain. He takes a walk. As he moves along the street he can hear the water rushing in the sewers. He passes a rectory; an elderly woman stands at the front door, leaning on a cane and ringing the doorbell. He pauses to watch. The moisture in the air is so heavy that it is visible, and the fabric of his jacket becomes more and more wet. The woman rings the doorbell repeatedly, but there is no answer. Just as she turns around Otto looks away and begins to walk home.
The lilac bushes have been removed and a wooden fence stands in their place. When he approaches, Otto discerns at once that the wood is weathered; the whitewash, which has turned yellowish, is pockmarked with gray and dark brown stains, and weeds grow in close patches at the base of each slat. He walks directly to the landlady’s apartment and knocks on the door. But the landlady shakes her head when he asks about the lilacs—she tells him that she doesn’t know what he could be referring to, that that fence has been there since she first purchased the property, and who knows how long before that, and that he must be thinking of something else. He insists that there were lilac bushes growing there just weeks ago—once again the landlady shakes her head and apologizes for any confusion: it is a very old fence. Otto stands in silence for a moment and finally nods and says goodbye.
At home again he looks over the day’s notes and finds numerous mistakes. He spends an hour making corrections, and then he goes through the things which he had been certain of, to ensure that he has not been mistaken there as well. By the end of the process he has become so nauseated by the tenor of his notations that he has to make an effort not to throw them away.
On Wednesday Elias returns the tea bowl, which he has repaired. Otto can no longer find the flaws—they have been meticulously glazed over. Suddenly he feels irritated; he would like to break the bowl again, except that he could have no way to be certain that the clay would fracture along exactly the same lines as before.
There is a letter in the mailbox. Above the return address is the initial E. Otto concludes at once by the weight and thickness of the envelope that Friday’s letter has been enclosed. He locks the door behind him and goes to the study, where he reads the following.
He unseals the returned envelope and restores its loose pages to his notebook. Having carefully shredded the letter, he commits the pieces to the envelope, which he drops in the bottom desk drawer. This time he pushes the drawer closed completely. He hears the sound of the metal latch, and when he pulls the handle he finds that the drawer is once again locked.
For a brief moment he remains motionless behind his desk, nearly certain that he has succeeded in regaining something.
Many times throughout the day he returns to the mantle to examine the tea bowl. It is clear to him that he will not break it, but it is equally clear that he will go on feeling uneasy. He may even resort to covering the bowl with the handkerchief.
After dinner he goes downstairs and crosses the street. He removes a camera from the pocket of his jacket and takes a photograph of his apartment window, although he realizes almost at once that there is not nearly enough light. Workmen have painted bright white markings on the edge of the sidewalk—numbers connected by lines and arrows. Otto crouches and takes a photograph of the numeral 8. There is something in his breast pocket—a bottle cap. He takes it out and studies it for a short time before tossing it into the middle of the street, where it vanishes. He begins to count the shafts of light between window blinds and when he loses count he stops and listens to the traffic. He imagines a figure in the window. In the figure’s hands is the tea bowl. It may be that if he waits long enough, gazing upward at his window—if he prolongs the moment by a very precise margin—he will see a marshalling as never before of disparate circumstances, and by casting this moment in permanence he may finally stand on the perimeter of what has hitherto contained him. Above all, he is relieved that his letters have come back. A time will come when he will wish to read through his own words again—word by word—but for now he is content in having reduced a number of documents to a perfect silence. This silence is not an ending, but a particularity in which he hopes the words will go on to gestate. And when he reads the letters again they will at last have nothing to do with him.
Meanwhile his notes will accumulate. He will spend mornings and afternoons in the library—in the evenings he will take walks and late at night, before going to bed, he will put his notes in order—and carrying out these repetitions will as always constitute an old and dubious effort, even in the most difficult times, to resist the notion that the function of each day is to prepare him for the following day. A man with a lazy eye, wearing a dark-colored ascot and women’s shoes, approaches and asks Otto for money. Otto smiles and shakes his head. After all, he will go on to find himself surrounded by others, most of them strangers, and if they speak to him he will not fail to respond. He counts the bricks along the corner of the building, starting at the bottom and moving upward. As before he loses count. It begins to rain. In a short time the water is rushing along the curbs.