“The Consequential Effects of Practiced Penmanship”
by Marc A. Criley
Time cracks and uhrbuchs rustle. I look up from a half-penciled illustration.
Willy Arnold stands outside my bindery’s one way glass door, stock still. Right side profile of a stone hard face, ashen in the dim light. This is not his normal day to visit the past. Willy wears a suit. Gray or black jacket, hard to tell in the gray-green of the corridor. White shirt? Or a pale, sad, pastel? Tie, dark. He cuts left, stumbles–too fast. Catches himself on the uhrbuch shelf, recoils as from a red-hot stove. He recovers, his seventy-seven-year-old pride pulling him together. Willy strides down the hall–tries to stride. Within a half-dozen steps the aches and pains fracture his poise. He breaks stride, teeters, recovers. Limps past where the cancer got Ardelle. Ignores the uhrbuch–page after page of watercolor and indigo–chronicling his and Ardelle’s Yangtze river cruise.
He slows by the war books, fighting the urge to turn. His hands ball into fists, then Willy steels himself and walks on. A few steps further he slows again, stops to face the shelf of backwards-shelved books. After a minute he gently, so gently lays an index finger on one particular uhrbuch’s fore edges, brushing the pages of his lost daughter’s birth. A frisson ripples through him as he is inundated, invigorated in the flood of love for daughter and wife. For a few minutes Willy forgets the pain I penned for him scant steps to his left.
Twenty-five years. Oh. Twenty-five years ago today. I take a deep breath and lean back, pencil frozen in my grasp. Oh Willy, you don’t need to do this. Willy steps back and turns to face me–as if I’d spoken aloud–looks past the already penned years of love and loss. He takes a step, a hand’s count of years. Another step, more years beat by. He brushes his fingers along the uhrbuchs–flashes of experience, burning emotions, so ignorant then of what is almost upon him. Reaching the war books, Willy stops, confronts them head on.
He rocks back on his heels, raises a hand before the shelf, fingers clenching and unclenching. He lurches forward, jams his hand–an open punch–against the chronicling of the enlistment, deployment, second tour of duty, seventeenth patrol, ambush, firefight, sniper shot, medevac, KIA certification, military transport, Dover Air Force Base transfer, transit to Lansing, visitation, funeral, and burial in the family plot of US Army Captain and beloved daughter Lily Ann Arnold. Muffled whitespace rumbles the shelf of uhrbuchs.
I don’t think Willy even realizes he’s trying to gap an uhrbuch, to spread it open, reach in, step through, change the past. “Oh Willy,” I murmur, knowing he can’t hear me, “the elasticity is gone. There’s nothing left.” Twenty-five years, plus all the little tweaks, compacted year on year, render the past immutable. History only bends so far. Willy lost his strength, lost his chance.
Wheezing breaks the silence, his whole body heaves, he gulps huge breaths. Something cracks in the outskirts of my awareness. Willy’s body shudders with wracking sobs. His hands fall to his side. His knees buckle. Willy catches a shelf with his forearms, slows his slumping to the threadbare carpet. He settles, kneeling, head down, heaving a breath when he thinks to.
“Excuse me sir? Are you okay?”
I start so violently my pencil skitters off the desk.
Just outside the door, opposite Willy’s shelf of uhrbuchs, stands Ayleen Davis. Widowed, 82, three months since I last saw her. I didn’t see her step into the collections.
Willy doesn’t move, his shoulders freeze in mid-heave. A second later they slump. He twists ever so slightly.
Ayleen takes a few uncertain steps down the corridor.
Willy turns his head, open palm brushes his tears. Runs his hand across the top of his head, smooths down what’s left of the rumpled gray. “I’m sorry ma’am,” he rasps. “I’m sure this isn’t appropriate. I’ll be going.”
Ayleen pulls up short. “No,” she says, “that’s okay. I don’t, I don’t work here.”
“Me either,” he rasps, “I just come here to…remember.” The wartime uhrbuchs, indifferent to the conversation, loom above him. “Sometimes it’s not such a good idea.”
“Ah,” Ayleen says, taking a step back. “I see. I’m sorry for your loss. I won’t disturb you further.”
“No, wait,” Willy says, “give me a moment.” He slips sideways to get off his bent legs, gets a grip on the lower shelf. “This may take a minute.”
“Let me give you a hand.” Ayleen strides towards him with a steadiness belying her years.
“Thank you, no, that’s kind, but I’ll manage.”
“Nonsense, it’ll take you all morning to get up. I got my late husband Desmond–God rest his soul–in and out of a wheelchair for ten years and off the floor too many times to count. I am a stout woman.” With that she squats down behind Willy, slips her arms under his, clasps hands at his chest, and levers him to his feet. She holds steady while he regains his footing. Once he’s stable Ayleen releases her grip and steps back.
“I don’t like to be so forward,” Ayleen says, “but I do not hesitate in times of need. I think, though, with all due haste that I need to introduce myself as Ayleen Davis of Meridianville, Alabama. And whom might you be?”
“Uh, Willy,” he says, then sniffs hard, wiping his eyes with the backs of his hands. “Willy Arnold. Thank you. From East Lansing. In Michigan.” He blinks at Ayleen.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Arnold. I’m going to call you ‘Willy’ if that’s all right. And I am glad to be able to lend you a hand on this sad day of your remembrance.”
“Thank you,” Willy says, slow to notice her extended hand, finally taking it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Eileen-”
“AY-leen,” she corrects.
“So you’re from East Lansing. Spartan country. Got a granddaughter in the band about to graduate up there. Small world. Gave me a Sparty welcome mat last Christmas–pickin’ at me. She’s a dear. But I am Roll Tide born and bred.” Ayleen sports a jangling pair of charging bull elephant earrings–eye catching even from this distance. “Now I know you have no desire to go conversing with a total stranger on this hard day of yours. But I have a lot of questions about this place, and I would bet that you would too. And I’ve never met anyone in here before.”
“Me neither,” says Willy after a pause, not quite fully shifted back to this present. “And yeah, I do. Questions.” He pulls out a handkerchief, blows his nose, muffling it as best he can.
Ayleen goes on. “Then let’s share what we know–but not today. Being’s we’re just a stitch in time away from my house and yours, let’s meet back in a week when you’re feeling better. How does ten o’clock sound?”
“Uh…,” Willy says.
“Wait, Michigan’s in that ridiculous Eastern time zone, isn’t it? I don’t know how y’all put up with eleven o’clock news. So, eleven o’clock in the morning your time, ten o’clock mine. So will I see you next week? I would love to be able to talk to someone about all this.” She waves up the corridor, vaguely towards me.
He takes a couple breaths, says, “Yes, yes Ei-. Ayleen. Yes, next Tuesday, eleven o’clock my time. I would like to talk to you, talk to you about this place.”
“Wonderful,” Ayleen says, “I’m looking forward to it. But for right now…” Ayleen grabs a strap at her waist and pulls a fanny pack around to the front. Unzipping it, she takes out a small sandwich bag. “You take these,” she says, “they’re homemade PB and J cookies, and the J stands for ‘jam’. It’s muscadine, and I might add it’s from my backyard. Now don’t refuse me, Willy, I have plenty more at home.” She presses the bag into his hand and whispers, “I always bring a bite to nibble on when I come revisit the kin. They were quite tedious at times. You take these cookies and get yourself a glass of sweet tea, sit in a sunny place, and enjoy them in memory of the one you lost. Grief and loss are best tempered with fresh cookies and sweet tea, Mr. Arnold,” she says, laying a hand on his arm. “And I do speak from experience.”
Willy’s eyes water up again. Ayleen firms her grip, begins guiding him back to the present. Three or four halting steps along he says,
“My brother’s grandson plays for Michigan State. He’s a center, a sophomore.”
Ayleen smiles and nods. “I expect you’re very proud of him.”
“Yes,” Willy says, pausing to wipe away tears. “We are. He’s been the backup, but we’re pretty sure he’ll be starting this fall.”
“Well what’s his name then?” Ayleen asks as they resume walking.
“Calvin. Calvin Arnold,” Willy says. “Goes by Cal, of course.”
“Well I’ll be watching for Cal,” Ayleen says. Smiling and rolling her eyes, she adds, “And I thought I was done watching those Spartan games.” She turns her head aside a bit, then whispers, “My granddaughter’s in the band, as I said, so I look for her. But don’t tell her I said that. But now I promise you I’ll keep an eye out for your grand-nephew.” They halt just outside my door.
“Thank you Ayleen,” Willy says, nodding at her arm still holding onto his. “Thanks for the help.” He puts on a weak smile. “And the cookies.”
“Well, you take care now and do what you need to do,” says Ayleen, “God bless you, enjoy those cookies, and next week we’ll talk football and you can tell me everything you know about this place.”
Willy nods. “It was nice meeting you.” He turns to the shelves, shoves the present aside and steps through. The uhrbuchs ruffle close behind him.
Ayleen turns around, crosses her arms, looks at my door, at me, like she sees right through the one-way glass. A moment later she steps off ten years or so into her past. Drifting a hand over the uhrbuchs she says, “Desmond, I just met another one of you damned Spartans. You made me promise to move on after you’d gone, so is this what you had in mind?” She lays a finger up against an uhrbuch, closes her eyes, and smiles.
Willy is dead. Choked on a hot dog. A damned hot dog. And two days before anybody noticed. I pull the pen I’d used for his and Ardelle’s China river cruise. Cross his final t’s and dot his final i’s.
I will not leave Willy’s no-show unexplained. I’ve attested Willy and Ayleen for decades, and they deserve better. I could ask permission for a willful encounter, but I already know the answer. Rejected, with no explanation. Uhrbuch encounter protocol is: No contact. None whatsoever. Protocol is very clear on that point.
So why bother asking?
Yes, so why bother asking.
I hand sewed and glued Willy’s final uhrbuch two days ago, a twenty-four page chapbook. It rests on the corner of my desk. Earlier today I clipped the card sleeve inside the back cover. The index card is ready to go, in my pocket. All that remains is initialing, sleeving, and shelving. But I am not done accruing “sins” for which to beg forgiveness.
At the crack of 9:55 Ayleen, wearing an ivory button-down blouse tucked into black slacks, steps into view. Five minutes early. Two straight-backed oak Shaker chairs–built by actual Shakers–are in the corridor. She steps forward, takes in the scene. A single pearl necklace drapes her neck, and a pair of reading glasses hang from a red and gray lanyard. A houndstooth patterned handbag is crooked in her arm. Ayleen sets the bag on the nearest chair, then crosses the corridor, flashes a glance at my door, straightens her collar.
I take a deep breath, pocket the uhrbuch, snick open the latch, swing the door out. Ayleen starts, steps back as I emerge, then stands her ground. I clear the door, close it behind me.
“Do you work here?” she says, eyebrow raised above an eagle stare.
“Yes, ma’am, I do.”
She leans towards me: “What is this place? What’s it for? What do you do here exactly? How many people work here? Are Willy and I the only ones that visit?”
I raise my hands in mock surrender, try a small chuckle. She’s having none of it. I drop my hands. “I’m breaking a number of rules in talking with you right now,” I say, “because asking permission…” I wave off the rest.
“Is easier than begging forgiveness,” she finishes, nodding. “Who makes these rules? Are there more people back in there?” She shifts to see around me, squints at the door. “What’s all back there? What do you all do?”
“Ayleen,” she says.
“Ayleen. I need to talk to you about Willy Arnold. Please sit down.”
She gives me a once-over, then moves to one of the chairs. Picks up the handbag and sits, clasping the bag in her lap. I slide onto the other chair.
“Has something happened to Mr. Arnold?” she asks. “Did you people do something? Did he break some unwritten rule of this place?” Waving a hand at the uhrbuchs she says, “Though with all these books I sincerely doubt there are unwritten rules.”
I pause, chew my lower lip for a moment, then take a deep breath. “No, Mrs. Davis. Willy had an accident a few days ago, two days after you met. And unfortunately…” I release a sigh. “He passed.”
Ayleen sets back–almost imperceptibly exhales, deflates a little.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She pauses, looks down at the bag in her clasped hands. “Got no chance to get to know the man.”
“I know, and I’m sorry about that.” I draw Willy’s final uhrbuch out of my side pocket, turn it end over end a couple times. “I’m really not supposed to do this either, Ayleen, but I wanted to give you a glance at who he was.” I hold the book out to her. She hesitates a moment, sets her bag on the floor and takes the book. “Where he met you is four pages in from the end.”
“Is this like my uhrbuchs?” she says. “Will I relive… as him?”
“No,” I say, “it’s like you’re at his side. You’ll sense it, but only the subject elicits.”
Ayleen strokes the unmarked paperback cover, flips it around. “I’ve never seen the spine of one of these,” she says. “Why are they shelved backwards?”
“Mechanics,” I answer.
She frowns. “There’s no title.”
“You don’t need a title to tell you what’s in it. If it’s yours, that is.”
“And you write these?”
“I pen them,” I say, “chronicling life events.”
I purse my lips, rock my head from side to side. “Sorry, I can’t.”
Ayleen leans back and sighs. “Well you’re just a fount of information. What do you call what you do?”
“I’m an uhrchivar.”
“Uhr-, um, close enough.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
I gesture down the corridor. “As far back as I can walk.”
Ayleen studies the gloomy hall, then tilts her head, looks back to me. She searches my face. Finally raises her hands a few inches above her lap, then claps them back down.
“Fine. Well, let’s get back to Willy. I know he has a brother and other kin, or rather had, and that he’d lost someone close.”
“That was his daughter, twenty-five years ago last week. A war. And he lost his wife a few years back. The brother took care of Willy’s arrangements.” I omitted the delay.
It’s silent in the gray-green gloom.
“I need to send a card,” she says. “Can I have the brother’s name and address?”
“Um, sure, of course. I’ll need to get it from the bindery. Just be a moment.”
I stand up, head to the door. Ayleen leans forward, clutching Willy’s uhrbuch, her eyes locked on me. I smile, unlatch the door, slip through, latch it behind me.
Stepping back into the corridor barely a minute later, Ayleen’s standing before the shelves, elbows-deep gapping a very recent uhrbuch.
Over her shoulder she says, “Misplaced my reading glasses, and was hoping I could take a quick look back to see if I could find them.
Didn’t think you’d be back so quick.” She pulls her arms out of the uhrbook. It ruffles closed as she sits back down.
“You haven’t altered very much of your past, have you?” I ask.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Gap elasticity. Most people can’t wait to start fixing some little things, and just like that the historical elasticity is gone. And once gone it’s gone. Since you can still reach into your past, you must’ve left yours pristine.”
“I believe my past made me what I am today. And I am pleased with that. I am confident in what I am. And I am confident in the choices and actions that brought me here today.”
A stout woman, indeed.
“Oh, thank you,” she says as I hand over a piece of cardstock inked with the brother’s name and home address. She takes the address card in one hand. The other is empty.
“Ayleen,” I say, frowning, “where’s the uhrbuch?”
“Oh it’s right here.” She reaches into her handbag and pulls it out. “I need my glasses to read, so I was going to take it home with me. I hope that’s okay? I’ve never returned a book late in my life.”
“Ayleen, I’m sorry. Uhrbuchs absolutely cannot leave the collections. Some rules I’ll break, but not that one.”
She sighs. “That’s alright, I understand.” After staring at the book for a moment, she hands it back to me. “It’s just as well. Prying into another’s life, even with permission, is just rude.”
“Thank you for understanding.”
I take the uhrbuch, pull its index card, retrieve a pen from my pocket. Laying the card on the book, I initial it, then flip open the back cover and sleeve it. I walk over to Willy’s uhrbuch shelf, slide it in at the very end. An odd rumble echoes into the past.
“You have well-practiced penmanship, you know,” Ayleen says behind me. “And I know it when I see it. Forty-two years I taught English and penmanship–you have a crisp, regular hand.” She nodded and added, “There’s a power in that.”
“It is effective,” I say, nodding, still perplexed about that rumble.
Ayleen starts to say, “Did you–”, when time cracks right in my face. I jump back.
“What the… ”
A slight, older man in a rumpled suit steps through a seam into the corridor, which rustles closed behind him. I stare at the new arrival, mouth agape.
No. Can’t be. Willy’s brother? No. Willy.
He startles when he sees me, then spots Ayleen.
“Ayleen. Hi,” he says. He puts on a crooked smile and looks back at me. “Am I late? Who’s this?”
“Hello Willy, it’s very nice to see you again. You’re looking very well.” I turn to Ayleen. A suppressed grin twitches the corners of her mouth. Were she a cat, there would be canary feathers at her feet. “This is the uhrchivar,” she says, gesturing at me. “The one that runs this place.”
I turn back to Willy. He’s bewildered. I step past him, retrieve the uhrbuch I’d just shelved, pull the card. My initials. A bit of smeared ink even. I leaf in a few pages from the back.
I look over my shoulder at Ayleen, at her shelved uhrbuchs.
I returned with the brother’s address, found Ayleen elbow-deep in her past. Six days deep. One day before Willy choked on that bit of hot dog. She’d lost her reading glasses she’d said. No. No she hadn’t. She’d arrived with them hung on that red and gray strap. Ayleen gapped into her past right in front of me.
I was gone maybe a minute. Long enough to open a gap, an uhrbuch-sized gap. Something a stout woman could do.
Willy says, “I’m sorry, but could someone explain what’s going on?”
“Oh Ayleen,” I say, trodding back over to the empty chair and dropping into it. I can’t quite look at her. “Forgive me.” I grip the uhrbuch in both hands, tense up, snap the binding. The crack rustles down the corridor, reverberates into the past. An exhalation, of pressure relieved, sighs back. Unbound pages flutter to the floor.
Ayleen and I sit alone.
“Ayleen, Willy is dead. Five days now. I told you.” I look up, meet her eyes, “As you read for yourself.”
Ayleen shoots to her feet, sets fists on hips, aims that piercing steel gaze I’ve sketched for decades at me. “He was fine. He was standing right behind you. Right. As. Rain. He needed a friend. I’m old. He’s old. We could’ve talked football, grandchildren, TV shows we remembered. Maybe lost loves, maybe even… ”–Ayleen drew in a breath, her eyes glistened–”…something more.”
“Willy has passed, altering an uhrbuch doesn’t change that. History and memory would come unbound. His brother, nieces, nephews, that boy Calvin, they were all at his funeral. They remember him. You remember him. And that will have to do.”
Ayleen broke eye contact, turned her back on me. She fiercely strode a dozen years into her past, spun around, raised a hand to an uhrbuch. “I’d like to be alone right now if you don’t mind. Bless your heart, just go.”
Marc Criley has been an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction for over forty years, and finally decided that he ought to try his hand at writing some. Marc wanders the hills of north Alabama with his dog on the weekends, and works in the tech industry by day. He figures he’s going to die with two hundred books queued in his Kindle to-be-read folder. Find him at http://kickin-the-darkness.