SINCE ACCIDENTALLY BEING LOCKED inside Carmody’s Used Books, I’ve slept badly. In the mornings I manage a bright if groggy farewell as my husband gives his suit pockets a preflight pat and the kids shrug into school backpacks. Alone, I pour myself more coffee and read—the newspaper, catalogues, reviews in the alternative weekly, passages of thick dynastic novels.
By noon I make some guilty excursion into usefulness. Today I went to Produce Parade and bought a carton of the spicy boiled peanuts the kids love. I also bought a ripe pineapple. Xavi, born in Hawaii, once taught me how to neatly breach the fruit’s armor and section its golden flesh with a few well-placed strokes of the knife. An exercise I may have forgotten in years of picking up grapes and baby carrots, edible straight out of the bag.
After dinner, folded towels over my arm, I watch Xavi at the bathroom sink in his shorts, the steam from the shower he’s just taken wrapping around us. In the mirror I try to catch his eyes, dark as the black sand of the island where his Portuguese ancestors wrestled sugarcane. A little romance might help reset the distance our busy life pushes between us. It might also help me with the other wooing I have to do, of sleep. Last night I lay awake and silently recited fragments of poems, as if to a reluctant lover in the dark.
Xavi lathers his face, and its tiredness and the white beard are like sudden age. The pineapple I bought is still on the kitchen counter. He doesn’t acknowledge the hand I lay on his shoulder, and after a moment I remove it.
He sighs when we’re in bed. “Can you believe that cat?” he says. “He’s like an addict.” Boxster, our tabby, finds curly phone cords irresistible. He has gnawed the cord of Xavi’s retro desk phone, a device evoking the days of captains of industry. Tonight when Xavi tried to call in a shareholder proxy vote, the voice unit at the other end wouldn’t pick him up, though he could hear the recorded instructions perfectly.
“Weird,” I say neutrally, not wanting to invite comparisons to my own hours of compulsive reading. In the two weeks since the bookstore entrapment, I’ve fibbed my way out of classroom volunteer work and carpool duty. The house is silting with undone cleaning. My history project is barely touched, even with the grant sitting in my bank account. I’m too busy waiting for a cosmic blow to fall, of which the bookstore incident seems only a premonition. While tiptoeing around, I revisit near-misses: the day years ago when Brian, just two, wandered down the block and was found near the retention pond by a couple out walking.
Then today, while I was buying the produce, Jane had a Girl Scout assembly that I forgot. What if Evelyn Jones’s mother hadn’t brought her home? I turn over roughly in bed, causing Xavi to jerk in the first stages of sleep. Early in our acquaintance he said I shook him up. I saved that compliment like a wildflower pressed between a book’s pages. How innocent I was, thinking that he and I would reach out and pluck life, never that it might pluck us.
At the Woodlands Historical Museum, Desdemona Wilson hands me a mug of cinnamon-laced coffee, as black and unsweet as herself, as she’s fond of joking. “Someone’s had a low ubiquity factor lately,” she says. The phone rings on her desk, and she slaps her hand over it like a cat pinning a mouse.
“I’ve been busy,” I say as she answers it. Getting back into my research is today’s foray into meaningful activity. I’ve missed the museum, a bony Florida frame house. It’s a block away from the county road, a stone’s throw from the town’s tiny historic district.
I’ve missed Desdemona, comfortably built and severely attired in a skirt suit, whose incandescent smile is rationed as strictly as Othello might have wished of his own Desdemona. A smile nowhere in sight six weeks ago, when I nervously unfolded my grant letter beneath her iron gaze.
I’ve since learned that my new friend is an industrial-strength dreamer, a diviner of the mysterious pattern of challenge and blessing woven by heaven and called providence. Desdemona, drinking her biting coffee from a mug inscribed Got Old Florida?, is constantly reading the signs. Providence has roused the city commission, with its hunger for light business, to look greedily at the museum site, but it’s also brought me into the equation. Desdemona is convinced I’ll smoothly take all “entry” she can find me on the period I’m writing about. My piece will win a prize. Not only that, it will be the perfect basis for an exhibit, a web page, and ultimately a vindication of the museum. Sometimes I’ve believed this, too.
Coffee in hand, I lug my laptop, which I’ve brought in my bicycle basket, to the back room. The incense of aged paper makes me nostalgic for weeks ago, when I knew exactly what I was doing. I listen a moment to the soothing tick of old windowpanes in the air-conditioner flow, then sit at the half-cleared desk to open one of Desdemona’s miracles, a weighty maroon volume of the Woodlands Ledger.
It’s the same paper that reported my bookstore incident, but these narrowly typeset pages are from October 1918, the month that the Spanish influenza epidemic killed 50 million people around the world. It hit Seminole County, then only dreaming of computer chips and Disney-fed real estate bonanzas, with dozens of deaths that I’ve logged so far.
I open files on my laptop, devoted to Cultural Context, Historical Context, Themes, and, of course, Victims. The night months ago when the idea for the project came to me, I had sat straight up in bed, almost clapping my hands. The universal reach of Spanish flu meant there was a local story just waiting for discovery. The swiftness of its striking—one fatal month in 1918 just before the armistice of the Great War—limited the time period I’d have to sift. My doctor father knows great disease outbreaks the way Xavi knows stock performance, and I imagined stimulating phone consultations. I almost called Dad in Cambridge, but it was late. When my husband drowsily asked me what was up, I told him. I was already thinking of the details I’d gather, the black-and-white photos of people ghostly in their Sunday whites that I’d pore over. The prospect gave me the pleasure I’d taken as a girl in mixing bitter chocolate with sugar and milk to make fudge, testing drops of the sweet boiling syrup in cold water.
“Death? That’s your great idea?” Xavi protested when I told him.
“No, silly. The triumph of the human spirit.” I had laughed and kissed him. Now I’m thinking of the times my rich brown roil of fudge scorched, or cooled into a gritty mess. And, as I sip my coffee, I think maybe Xavi was right, with his fine awareness of the shadows haunting his sunny boyhood island, the stories he’s told me of its sorrows and ghosts.
“Twenty-one fourth graders will be traipsing through here in an hour.”
I jump at Desdemona’s warning. She enters the room and picks up a square bottle that once held tonic brewed from celery grown along the nearby Saint Johns River. When the freeze of 1895 exploded the citrus trees like so many firecrackers, celery, a fast-growing backup, saved the day. Desdemona told me this.
“That thing that happened to you at the bookstore,” she says now, setting the bottle down. “Old Carmody ought to be locked up himself. Doesn’t check the aisles. Hides the phone. Deadbolts the doors—”
“Maybe it was meant to be,” I tease her, but my face feels cold. Nerves do that to me. By my second hour awaiting release, I could barely feel my icy cheeks. I couldn’t blame anyone, not Mr. Carmody who, unaware I was deep in a book as he closed up, left straight from his shop for a weekend at Pompano. Nor the police, who’d had trouble locating a locksmith, then turned up a character who so admired the odd make of the locks, relics from the store’s past life as a pawn shop, that he only reluctantly put up his tools to let the door be taken off its hinges.
It was, as the junior reporter who wrote up the story for the Ledger put it, “A Carmody of Errors.”
“Ever hear of Jacob in the Old Testament?” Desdemona says. “Wrestled all night with an angel and said ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’ I’d have raised some shout, I tell you. They’d have had to break down the door to save their eardrums.” Her eyes flare like embers in settling coals. It’s the look she gave me weeks ago when I read to her from my Victims notes. She said I needed to cry out for these dead. “So providence isn’t all about meek acceptance,” I had said musingly, at which Desdemona brandished a small, half-completed hooked rug she was making for an exhibit. “Tell me all the colors this will be,” she said, and nodded fiercely when I said I didn’t know, as if I’d answered my own question. “And this”—she had fingered a few crimson knots of fabric along a row of blue and gray— “is a cry. A scream, I would think.”
“Karen,” she says now, “you’d do better not to be so quiet.”
“Isn’t that better than making an uncertain sound?”
She laughs, her white teeth blazing. “Since when do you quote the Bible?”
I tap my finger on a 1918 newspaper ad urging readers to buy pocket Testaments for soldiers joining the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. I’ve copied three obituaries to analyze. I’ve picked over the classifieds (a good mule and harness for a hundred dollars) and pondered the ladies’ embroidery instructions. I’m both worn out and quivering with restless energy.
“I think I’ll do some field work,” I say.
“An interview?” Desdemona hungers for details of these, though they haven’t gone well. The subjects I’ve spoken with are elderly, and I have a voice that eludes most hearing aids. I also tend to flinch at my own questions. They have the ring of non sequitur when I put them to people who’ve lived through the worst convulsions of the twentieth century, for whom the epidemic may have survived as a mere twitch in their family history.
“No, the cemetery,” I say. It’s a beautiful day, and visiting local graves is on my task list. For a second I feel the macabre overtones of the errand. Then I think of my New England great-aunts, who visit churchyards as easily as they take tea in Cambridge living rooms. It’s an oddly comforting memory, their social inclusion of the dead, and it’s the nearest thing in my life to what Desdemona gets, I imagine, from sitting in a pew Sunday mornings.
As I head out the door, Desdemona hands me the museum’s digital camera. “For the exhibit,” she says, and gives me an unsmiling wink. “Give the bogeyman my regards.”
I haven’t had the flu in years. Early in my project, I prepared myself to write about the Spif—the local name for Spanish influenza. One afternoon I lay on my bed with a hot towel baking my temples, an ice pack tingling against my spine, Ace bandages stiffening my knees and elbows. While Boxster looked on with drawn-out blinks of cat bewilderment, I draped my chest with the centerpiece of the exercise, a cheesecloth bag filled with a hot, eye-watering paste of onions and rye meal I’d tracked down at Whole Foods.
With difficulty I reached for one of Xavi’s small dumbbell weights and set it over my breastbone. It got heavier and heavier. I closed my eyes and saw the shadows of the trees in the stark old photos I’d been cataloguing. Pine, loblolly, sun-eclipsing cypress and oak, I could feel them pressing down, as if I were one with the small figures whose features had vanished in the slow exposures that finely rendered leaf and bough. If you were ill then, you had little more than aspirin, purgatives, and faith. I sat up, coughing from the reeking plaster, and let the iron weight thud to the floor. Boxster fled.
On my way to the cemetery, I pedal through the Woodlands historic district. The live oaks branching above me have a disreputable air, like weathered old men with tangled beards of moss, mustering a forgotten courtesy to request dances of the few spinsterish Victorian houses. The brick-paved block never had much native grandeur, so new period construction and transplants such as the turreted Archer-Sloane house, moved from a site a mile away, fill it out.
I pass the Runcible Spoon tearoom, where just before my fateful trip to the bookstore, I’d sat sipping oolong and browsing my roll of flu victims. Earl Landon was a farm boy, Hannah Ford an infant. O.L. Ingram, middle-aged, proved career renewal isn’t so modern—he’d recently traded his railroad dispatcher’s desk for the cashier window of a bank. There was English-born Cecily Highbridge, daughter of the engineer who drew the city plat. Ormond Hill, a packing-house worker; Fred Preston, a druggist; Susan Vaughn, a seamstress. The Poulis family, Greek immigrants, and Minnie Billings, a black domestic. Then there were the boys away in the service, fighting in the Great War. I whispered their names. On this battlefield gone within, some fought just a day, some a week or two, I wrote of their random stalking by the Spif, while their families, ill themselves, hoped and prayed and descended into heartbreak.
I coast my bike into the Woodlands cemetery, hushed in the bright spring sunlight. The only sound, once I’ve set my kickstand on the eroding asphalt drive, is the rustle of the flag over the police chiefs’ memorial. The scent of mown grass comes to me like steeping tea.
I pat the memo pad in my pocket, hang the camera around my neck, and set off in search of Cecily Highbridge. Her name has accumulated particles of a life in my notes. She was brought home for burial after dying early in the epidemic, at Chattahoochie, the state hospital up in the Panhandle. This fact pulsated with romantic mystery. What took her to Chattahoochie? It had a tubercular division early in the twentieth century. But it was notorious even then as a mental institution.
The Ledger had only deepened the mystery. Cecily’s sister published a card of thanks that biblically mentioned “my sorrow of the past seven years.” “A Friend” wrote a tribute praising the flowers blanketing Cecily’s grave and recalling her “brave, fortitudinous young womanhood.” In the early days of my project, I imagined a lover for Cecily, a man from the North who tried and failed to make pay a grove, a hardware store, or a railroad job, and went home. The sister, Alice—a working girl, a typesetter at the newspaper—perhaps loved the same man, and that sent Cecily over the edge.
I had to revise my romance when Desdemona found me a microfilm of an 1887 county directory. It listed Cecily as a music teacher, over thirty years before the Spanish flu. She must have been nearly fifty at her death. That cooled my sense of pathos about her, as if she had hidden her age to cling to her position as the designated sweetheart of a small town.
That day had been a bad one for my project. An interviewee stood me up—at ninety-three slipping out of his room at the retirement home when I arrived.
On my return to the museum, I sat down hopefully at the microfilm reader and parsed the city directory, looking for the full name of O.L. Ingram, identified only by his initials in the space-stingy newspaper. And there was Cecily Highbridge, years before I’d expected to find her. I felt flummoxed. The people I was supposed to cry out for were either closing ranks against me or deceiving me.
So I had taken myself and my notes to the Runcible Spoon, and then, as a reward for my own persistence, biked over to the bookstore for the treat of browsing the haphazardly sorted inventory. I found an old paperback of Edith Wharton short stories and settled into a dusty armchair. When I looked up from “Afterward,” a transatlantic ghost story I remembered from high school, it was to silent aisles and a dimmed counter.
In the older section of the cemetery, the monuments lean off-square. They’re in all styles since those of the 1880s, from round-shouldered tablets to crypts like bare altars. A dilapidated lamb reposes on a stone about the height of a croquet wicket. I write some descriptions in my notebook. I think with vague guilt of Xavi, working while I putter. He’s always worked, ever since I met him. My other college boyfriends were morosely critical of what they called western hegemony. What I liked about Xavi was his refreshing lack of ambivalence about American prosperity. That and his dark somber eyes that would glow suddenly, like deep water catching the sun.
I actually fell in love with him when he couldn’t work, having fractured his right leg at soccer. After class I would walk beside him on his crutches to his place, where we ate mango and pineapple and kissed with sticky mouths. I taught him dominoes, the variety called chicken foot, and soon he was clicking down jumbo double-twelves and hooting when he sent me to the draw pile—the boneyard, as my grandmother called it. A cemetery is not a place Xavi would casually visit. He does nothing that would invite depression. He tells me it’s a luxury that he can’t afford.
I stop before a crumbling stone inscribed Gone, but not Forgotten and make a note on the clear untruth of its sentiment. When I look at the next plot, flanked by an arbor vitae grown ferally out of its gumdrop shape, I find Cecily Highbridge.
I take in her resting place. It’s anticlimactic. The stone is disappointingly modern, a plain square block with its face angled like a lectern. There’s an identical stone beside it. Cecily’s sister Alice lies next to her—the sister who attended her at Chattahoochie, then came home to her newspaper job before Cecily’s recovery was sure, and a few days later stood where I am standing. I swallow and close my eyes, trying to visualize that October day, the shrouding flowers, the ashen faces.
But I can’t, not on this warm spring day, not before these markers. They’re dateless, and the names in stark block characters lack middle initials. It’s as if someone or something wanted to erase any hint of the seven years’ sorrow in the newspaper, to wipe out any question of whether Cecily suffered first madness and then a freakishly deadly bout of a common illness. I can’t even tell when Alice joined her sister.
In the view screen of the camera, the stones’ tilted faces are featureless in the sun, giving off a light as flat and haunted as if painted by Edward Hopper.
Leave it alone, they seem to say. Leave us alone.
My hands begin to tingle, as if from the memory of a locked door’s resistance. I lower the camera. A chill runs down my spine, reminder of the panic that had washed over me in the bookstore. A state at odds with the open air of outdoors, it nonetheless touches my face with iciness, recalls to me my hurrying about the store, testing every opening in the block walls, including the window over the restroom commode.
“Ma’am? We’ll have you out in a minute,” the WPD officer had called through the gap between the plate-glass doors. But the minute stretched slowly beyond an hour, and my breath kept catching raggedly, as if the dumbbell weight of my flu research were resting ever more heavily on my chest. That was when I began thinking how I’d been playing around with the subject of death. Now it would turn the tables on me, quietly deadly as the biological specter I’d been writing an homage to, malevolent as the restless island spirits in Xavi’s stories. My calls home on the store phone went unanswered, and I had high-definition visions of my family lying motionless in the crumpled, upturned van. Or collapsing from E. coli in the burgers Xavi might uncharacteristically have gone out for. When I looked out at the small crowd of people outside, drawn by the blue lights, it seemed fearfully clear that they’d come to keep vigil with me.
A car speeds past the cemetery gates with a sound like a gasp. My hands holding the camera are trembling, as they had in the patrol car that bore me home from my imprisonment. Of course my dread was unfounded. Xavi, Jane, and Brian, home late from Brian’s ball practice and oblivious to my phone messages, were peacefully eating macaroni and cheese. Seeing them, I’d breathed again, long breaths such as you might draw after an illness, in the shock of the first sun you’ve seen since lying down to sweat and shiver and wonder if you’d ever rise again.
It had seemed like salvation. But it was clearly only a reprieve. I turn off the camera and walk back between the stones to my bicycle.
At home I down a glass of water and stretch out on top of my bedspread, wearied by my swift pedaling along the county road after retrieving my laptop at the museum. I left Desdemona evangelizing a visitor, as ever doing battle for the past. While—I felt it in the cemetery—the past is just as happy not to be fought for. Certainly not by someone like me, prodding strangers’ earthly demise to pull off some idea she had of a triumph of the human spirit.
The house, due to some combination of undone cleaning and the litterbox, smells like the flu plaster I made for my research, a futile, lonely smell. I get up and go to Xavi’s fortress of a desk. On his stage-set executive phone, I dial his number at work. He answers with his company name first, then his own. Not having thought of what to say, I clutch the receiver for a second, then tell him it’s me.
“I think I’ll quit my project,” I say. “You’re right. Death isn’t a great idea.”
“Hello?” Xavi’s voice comes back over the line. “Hello? Karen, are you there? I can’t hear you.” He clicks off by the time I remember the cat-bitten phone cord.
I go to get my cell phone, by the front door in my purse, where I’ve obsessively ensured its presence ever since the bookstore incident. With its small weight in my hand, I happen to look through the den door, where I catch sight of flat objects spread on the floor. I enter the room to investigate. The materials of a school project of Jane’s are laid out on the carpet. She’s been cutting things from magazines—photos, swatches of color, typeface samples. They’re to be glued on mortarboard in a Life Statement. Jane’s become expert at such work, since teachers are always assigning collages.
I sit down on the sofa with my elbows on my knees and contemplate the selections. Patches of blue sky, flowers, a racehorse in blissful gallop. A family with anonymous good looks, from an ancient women’s magazine, to judge by the shoulder pads of the mother’s business suit. They are huge, a fashion so strange that I have to smile.
“Who are you—Atlas holding up the world?” I say to the woman aloud. When I do, a sense of peace comes over me. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s hearing in my own voice the vast presumption behind such an idea. Maybe it’s the order in Jane’s careful layout, her patient, meticulous scissorwork.
I touch the phone beside me on the sofa. I want to call Desdemona. I want to tell her that I’ve felt a glimmer of the providence she talks about. The part of it that fends off disaster, God knows how often, in mysterious concert with the part that lets it unfold.
But no, I tell myself. I will discuss it with Desdemona in person tomorrow. Primed by her strong coffee, borrowing her certainty, I’ll go into the back room, and I’ll grapple again with the Spif.
Outside the window, I hear my children whir up the driveway on their bikes, their laughter like the fluid notes of birds. My phone suddenly trills, flashing Xavi’s number.
“Yes, everything’s okay,” I tell him. “I just felt a little lonely.”
“Lonely? We can’t have that,” he says in a gravely seductive murmur. He tells me he will be home soon.
Returning my phone to my purse, I think of how he used to say I shook him up. Like someone who would do that, I stride into the kitchen, where the kids are banging around in search of a snack. The pineapple is still sitting on the counter, crowned with its bristle of leaves like gray blades. I run my fingers over the fruit’s peel, an amazing pattern, rough and interlocked over sweetness.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.