If it weren’t for my daughter’s fever, I might never have talked to Susanna.
But we live in a world of rules, and the rule at preschool was no preschool if your kid has a fever. And that’s where it started, this strange set of events: my wife, wrapped in her ruby robe, holding our daughter on her lap and handing me the thermometer. It was a Tuesday. I rinsed the thermometer and fetched the children’s Tylenol. I held the baby and pressed a cold cloth to her flushed cheeks while my wife got dressed and poured herself a cup of coffee. She called in at work. Then, because the baby was sick and my wife would stay home, I didn’t have to stop at the preschool on the way to the archive, which is how I got there early.
And because I was early, I talked to Susanna.
Susanna was neither a friend nor a stranger. We shared the intimacy of a long wooden table. For weeks, we had sat side-by-side, never speaking. It was a relationship of warm indifference. She never looked up when I arrived late, yet I felt her company every day. I only knew her name from the register and from hearing the archivist call her to retrieve paged items.
Working in an archive suspends the rules of ordinary life. Under normal conditions, I would find it intolerable to sit in a wooden chair folded over documents and writing with a pencil for eight hours a day. But in the archive, we belonged to other worlds like time travelers who had left ordinary life behind. We were loathe to take breaks. One of our table-mates, Jefferson, carbo-loaded at breakfast so he wouldn’t have to stop to eat lunch. The rest of us slipped out to eat sandwiches from our lockers while standing in the hallway.
Each afternoon, I left the archive with a light head and sore back and a file full of notes on unbound paper. Each day, my timeline got fatter and the maps and stories more fleshed out. We were like vultures sinking into carrion, stripping and pecking the personal details of strangers from love letters, court records, documents and diaries right down to the bone. At least, the best of us were like that.
The best of us didn’t talk to each other except in the hallway before the archive opened, which is where I was that morning.
“You are early today,” Susanna said.
“It’s purely by accident,” I said.
“You should be more careful,” she said.
Susanna had a slight German accent, which I began to hear more often after that. As I said, we barely stepped away from our work long enough to eat a sandwich, but as days progressed we began to take that anxious ritual together. I told her about my research on the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho and that I was reading the papers of a war relocation officer.
She asked me how I became interested in Minidoka.
I told her that when I was a boy, my grandfather said something curious. He said: There used to be that place over there, as big as a city. But it’s gone now. You can’t find it on a map.
Over time, I realized that he was talking about the camp, at a place called Hunt, not far from where I grew up. When it was operating, it was the eighth-largest city in the state. And then it was gone.
“It’s never gone,” Susanna said.
That seemed like a German thing to say, and I told her so.
“Americans and Germans are different,” I said. “Americans have made an art of forgetting catastrophe. Not so the Germans.”
“Yes, from the state perspective we have a policy to remember, to expose everything about the war,” she said. “But our grandparents talk in riddles, too.”
Susanna was writing a dissertation on a 19th century British poet and clergyman named Gerald Manley Hopkins, whose papers were in the archive. She had a modest fellowship, which allowed her to rent a room in a house not far from Gonzaga. She said the cat who lived at the house had six toes. This was the extent of personal information that I knew about Susanna.
One day, while I was reading, she pressed her index finger on my elbow.
“Can you help me?” she whispered.
She pointed at a handwritten diary, at a word floating in smudged ink, making it hard to discern.
I studied it closely, careful not to touch it, then whispered each letter: o-s-c-i-t-a-t-i-o-n. She wrote it on a sheet of paper.
“I don’t know this word,” she said, more to the paper than to me.
I pointed at the door.
She brought her paper to the hallway, where she read the quotation out loud. “I have never felt anything so touching, so contagious, so overwhelming, as the spectacle at which I was yesterday present,” she read. “Some 40 young throats breathing out their very hearts and lungs in loud, ecstatic, volcano-like yawning. The tears rose unbidden to my eyes, and I felt a lump and a yearning in my throat: It is not well in general to speak of one’s own spiritual history, but here the glory reflects on others rather than oneself – I, too, had my moments of deep oscitation. O what a wondrous, unspeakable relief is this method of oscitation!”
“It’s yawning,” I said. “To oscitate is to yawn.”
Then, without warning, I yawned.
Then she yawned too, because it happens that way, sometimes, that you feel something coming, and you can’t quite control it.
I told her I feared my oscitation was not as ecstatic and volcano-like as one might like, and she assured me it was perfectly adequate and quite fitting to the rules of the archive.
I was mildly disappointed in her assessment. Adequate.
Not many days after that, as we were eating lunch in the hallway, Susanna announced that it was her last day.
“Tomorrow I am going to a funeral, and I return to Aachen on Saturday,” she said.
The first item hit me harder than the second. How could Susanna be going to a funeral? Who could she possibly know here?
I asked her who had died.
“I’ve never actually met her,” Susanna said. “But I’ve been living in her house.”
“With the cat?” I asked.
“Yes. You see,” Susanna said, “I arranged everything with the owner by telephone. But she called me a few days before I came and told me that she had to go to the hospital for a routine matter. She asked me to feed her cat. She said it would only be a few days.”
But the woman’s condition worsened with time. Susanna had asked to visit, but the woman insisted that she was getting better, and she didn’t want to meet Susanna for the first time looking so ill and not at all herself. In the meantime, a choir that the woman belonged to would meet at the house every Wednesday night to rehearse. And as the woman got sicker, different members of her family came to stay so they could visit her at the hospital. Susanna would come home from the archive some nights and hear the washing machine going. Or see fresh eggs in the refrigerator or hair in the shower drain. She seldom saw the actual people, only evidence of their having passed through.
Then the woman died.
The choir showed up to practice songs for the funeral. The woman’s parents came to select clothes for the burial. Susanna sorted the stack of mail.
I realized that when Susanna went to the funeral, she would be seeing the woman for the first time. I asked if I could accompany her. It seemed too strange a thing to do alone, and I imagined that I was her only friend. Perhaps Susanna thought so, too, because she agreed.
The next morning, as I got dressed, I thought the strangest thing I would do that day was go to the funeral of a woman whom I’d never met. But life can surprise you.
I kissed my wife. I took the baby to preschool.
I told myself it was a regular day with only an unusual interlude, yet I felt a twinge as I drove past Boone Avenue, past the archive.
Susanna was waiting in the foyer of the funeral home wearing a navy dress. It struck me I would never have seen her in a dress were it not for this circumstance. I wondered about her other clothes that I’d never seen. Her life suddenly became mysterious to me.
We passed together through the receiving line, the family alternately dabbing their eyes and grasping our hands. A few seemed to know Susanna. It was odd how natural it felt to be there with her.
The woman’s name was Corinne. We arrived at the open casket and studied her still, gaunt face. Susanna drew a deep breath, and I lightly placed my hand on the small of her back. She seemed to relax then, and we walked together to the chapel.
After the service, I offered to drive Susanna home. It was barely noon, and the sky was open and calm. We sat for a moment in the car. I felt unsure what to say.
“Do you want to see the cat?” she asked.
Indeed I was curious to see the six-toed cat, although it hadn’t been on my mind at that moment. I could see the big, smoky-gray cat sitting in the front window looking out at us.
I followed Susanna into the house. The cat had enormous paws, which suited his overall look as a large cat. He had the appearance of a dark cloud but the personality of a sunbeam. He purred and rubbed his head under my hand.
I asked what would become of him. Susanna said she did not know exactly.
Then, without warning, I moved toward Susanna. Or she moved toward me. I will never know who made the first move. But once it started, it did not stop; it was avalanchelike in its unfolding. We made our way to her room as a single animal, gliding, in my imagination, as ice skaters, but in reality more like an elk freeing a branch from its antlers. I was suffocating in the thought of death, of dust, and grasped after her to save me, to make me feel alive.
The thing was, I didn’t quite know where to put my hands. Legs? Hips? Back? I kept moving them around, never really committing to one, like a carwash. What was wrong with me? Perhaps it was the pressure of knowing this would be both the first and last time for us, a singular event that would divide the Before from the After.
I stayed with her for a while afterward. We didn’t talk. Why would we? Her bags were packed and parked beside the bedroom door. The cat sat in the hallway and licked his giant paw. Eventually, I took a shower and said goodbye.
The next day, a Saturday, I drove past the house. Susanna was gone; I knew this. The cat, too, was missing from the sill. The house was but a shell, as though none of us had ever been there. The sky beyond was a reliable blue, with clouds of white gauze in the distance, and calla lilies slanted away from the porch. In the air was hardly a hint of the ruin that was already on its way.
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