for your audience's consideration
published in The Literary Review, Vol. 58 Issue 1
You can rarely anticipate the things that you'll miss when they’re over. We used to get letters, back in the day. Joyce would bring them up in waves from the mail room, bound with rubber bands. We'd be surrounded by them, in deckle-edged stacks on desks in offices. They would pass from hand to stack to hand, would be glanced at, sniffed at, frequently used as impromptu fans in the summer months. All of them saying: just let me tell the world this one thing! I owned and operated an ivory-handled letter opener, if you can imagine that. We would read the letters and wrinkle our brows thoughtfully. Or sometimes carry them out into the common area, laughing, saying Read this, read this, get a load of this guy… A couple of them we’d print. The rest were tossed into overflowing trash cans. Or recycling bins, starting in the '80s.
I kept this one. From an address in one of our more downtrodden neighborhoods came a handwritten letter that, at fifty-seven pages, was certainly of atypical length. Old and faded but forever an editor at heart, I will pare this down for you and probably take somewhat more than the usual liberties. It was a report from one Robert H., middle-aged divorcee, self-described as “lumpy”, whose exact job description evaded my understanding but had something to do with performing credit checks. He also sent out fliers, which were designed and printed elsewhere. The company could only afford to produce so many, so Robert would scan the client databases and decide who should get a flier.
The purpose of his letter, which only very gradually became apparent, was to describe to us a Supernatural Experience, thinking it may be of some interest to our readers. In this he wasn’t necessarily wrong, although we generally felt uncomfortable about publishing letters that could, for example, be used as evidence in a commitment hearing. Maybe Robert had been a reader of our infamous Sept 1991 investigation into whether or not the county was spending taxpayer money on dowsing rods. Maybe he interpreted this as an editorial signal that we were dipping our toes into the fringe.
We had our share of career lunatics who wrote weekly. Daily. They were our vanguards in the hinterlands, fighting the battles only they knew existed. Robert wasn't one of them, it seems. We had no record of ever receiving a letter from him before. And he was a gentleman whose only prior Supernatural Experiences, he tells us, were quite thoroughly banal. He fell asleep on the couch one night watching CNN but when he awoke the next morning the TV was mysteriously tuned to Telemundo... among other events falling squarely into shoulder-shrugging, who-gives-a-shit territory. This being the case, he endorsed no particular viewpoint toward the paranormal prior to the events of Jan 27, 1992, that day being the first he began to suspect that the courtyard of his apartment complex was haunted by leaves.
Trudging down the walkway after another Monday at the office and reportedly deep in thought, he at first gave no notice to the swish and swoosh of leaves about his feet. He was still angry at himself for not watching the Super Bowl the night before, ensuring that once again he’d have nothing to talk about with anyone at work. He ignored the leaves and wondered if he should bother reading about the game in today’s papers, thinking maybe people will still be interested in talking about it tomorrow. He ignored the leaves, until the persistence of their rustle—in blatant spite of the utterly placid, windless nature of the day—drew attention to the fact that no leaves whatsoever were visibly in attendance. It certainly was true that the courtyard was ringed with sugar maples, great grand trees that dutifully shed their leaves every fall. But the last of these piles had been carted away by groundskeepers some months back, off to some municipal leaf graveyard. In the courtyard there were half-inch stalks of moribund grass, a perpetually-unclaimed yellow lawn dart, and Robert, swaying. No leaves.
This is exactly the point at which I slid Robert’s manuscript back into its oversized envelope and set it aside. I didn't throw it away outright, probably because I was planning on sharing it with Joyce. I think I found it amusing. Not amusing enough to actually finish reading, mind you, but wasn't that the story of my professional life? The envelope landed on the corner of my desk, where it became the foundation for a stack of miscellanea and was forgotten for several weeks.
Work was soon to go on the back-burner, anyway. My wife Mary was struggling with liver cancer at the time. This was the first go-around, the easier one, when we were using the word cure. The morning of her surgery, we held hands in her hospital room and spoke in whispers so as not to disturb her roommate, a wizened female being with mustard-colored skin who moaned and wept.
“I love you, Mary,” I said, over and over again. “It'll all be okay.”
“I know,” she said, over and over again. “I love you too.”
“Tell me a story,” she said once. “Distract me. Make it a good one.”
“Okay. Well, I heard a good story recently. I heard about a man whose yard is haunted by ghostly leaves.”
“Oh my,” she said, and rubbed her hands. “Yes, tell me that one.”
I spun a tale about how Robert (renamed Hubert, a more entertaining name for my purposes) tracked down a disgraced Roman Catholic priest who “had some experience in these matters.” Father O'Grande was hunched down in tenement housing in New Jersey, in exile from the Holy See on account of his controversial practices. Upon hearing Hubert's tale he grit his teeth and nodded grimly, and pulled a travel bag down from the closet. Together they exorcised the courtyard in a tumultuous ritual, the priest hollering “The power of Christ compels you to make like a tree and leaf!” Mary giggled.
I took Mary home eight days later, and we were alive and hopeful and not too old, with years ahead of us before the second go-around, the harder one. She took to calling me O’Grande as a pet name. When I made it back to work a couple of weeks later, I dug out the envelope and resumed where I'd left off, curious to see if Robert would do me one better.
The leaves were swarming. Robert did not linger to investigate the phenomenon but rather fled inside, at which point he went about his usual routine exactly as though nothing had transpired. Which is to say: he prepared a microwavable dinner which was likely shades of brown and yellow, and then he changed into pajamas and finished watching a documentary about Mark Twain. He brushed his teeth and sat on the edge of his bed and read exactly two pages from the New Testament. He went through the house making sure the windows and doors were closed and locked, he double-checked his alarm clock, and then he went to sleep.
It is clear that Robert possessed wildly underdeveloped coping skills. He himself was aware of this, and compared this specific episode of avoidance to similar behavior he exhibited shortly after his divorce from one Laura H. (now Laura T., long remarried to some "drunk shitbag lawyer"). During that time period he lived semi-successfully under the self-enforced delusion that his wife was simply back in upstate New York visiting her mother and would be returning shortly. For weeks he continued to make dinner for two every night, until the added expense of this practice began to outweigh whatever psychological benefit he derived from it. He did keep buying the Bosc pears that she liked, replacing them when they rotted. A pile of celebrity gossip magazines accumulated on her nightstand, as the prior weeks' and months' gossip evolved into fact and history and was forgotten.
Leaves haunted the premises for a total of five late afternoons. Departing for work in the morning he would pass through the lawn unmolested and the world was in order. Returning home and standing outside the courtyard gate, he would strain his ears but wouldn't hear a thing unexpected, just minivans driving by and the neighbor's television. I rather hoped he would describe a dog barking somewhere off in the distance, but he did not.
He would cross the threshold, into the courtyard, and the leaves would rush up to invisibly whisper about his feet. The second and third days passed much like the first, with Robert skipping inside like a man on hot coals, panting nervously. In the small foyer he would catch his breath, while the ghosts audibly danced across his welcome mat outside.
On the third evening he ran out of toilet paper but was afraid to leave the apartment, so instead adopted an ad hoc bidet system with his detachable showerhead. He admitted to a prolonged crying jag at some point shortly thereafter, fueled by desperate self-pity. Of course it would have to be him, Robert, who was haunted by leaves. It would never have happened to Tom B., his boss, who was tall and young and didn't really give a shit which customers, if any, received the limited-edition fliers. It couldn't possibly have happened to his faithless ex-wife Laura T., or if it had then her hotshot lawyer husband would've sued the apartment complex into oblivion before taking her on an expensive celebratory Caribbean cruise where they'd have vigorous sex standing up in the shower. Robert finally fell asleep curled in a ball, and dreamt of Laura meeting him at the zoo, and she took him by the arm and told him how much she wanted to go see the monkeys, and he kissed her on the forehead.
He awoke on the couch with used tissues in his hands, the sun pouring in through the window. He was late for work. He reached for the phone and called his mother.
“Momma, it's me. It's Robert.”
“Robbie, it's... it's early here, you know.”
“I'm sorry, Momma.”
“The time difference…”
“I’m sorry.” He couldn't help himself and his voice cracked just slightly. “I wanted to ask you about something. I just wanted your professional opinion.” And it all came out in a rush, about the leaves. There was a fair bit of silence when he finished.
“That's all very odd, Robbie. Maybe you're coming down with an ear infection...”
“No, it's not like that. It's... you know. Very specific. Specific time and place.”
“Well I'm not sure. Maybe you should talk to somebody.”
“I'm talking to you. What's your opinion?”
“Honey, I'm a... marriage counselor. I don't really see... um... I don't really deal often with... Look.” She took a deep breath. “It’s probably nothing, Robbie. Remember when you when a child, and you would have the night terrors?”
“I don't think so.”
“Yes, of course. You would have these... fits, really. Screaming fits. That the man from the television commercial was in your room. Remember that? The oil change commercial? And I would have to turn on all the lights and sit with you and stroke your hand? You've always been a little high-strung like that.”
“I don't remember that at all.”
“Really? I would sit with you for... sometimes an hour. And hold your hand and sing, go to sleep, little Bennie... go to... oh.”
“Yeah. That was Ben.”
“Yes it was. I'm sorry. But you shared a room with him, don't you remember his night terrors? He was the most dramatic little guy.”
“Momma, I'm sorry for waking you. I have to go, I'm really late for work.”
“Well maybe you should talk with somebody, Robbie. I'm sorry I wasn't more helpful.”
“I love you Momma.” He hung up the phone and rushed off to work, where nobody had realized that he was two hours late. He still finished up on time because, as it turns out, Robert had no particular strategy for deciding who would get a limited-edition flier from the company. He just picked names that he liked, e.g. everybody named Samantha got a flier, nobody named Lance got a flier.
Coming home on that fourth day, Robert fumbled with his keys. He should have had them out and at the ready, but he didn't, and so he rooted around in his pockets with sweaty hands as the leaves whispered and flitted about. He finally got the door unlocked but rather than bolting inside, he surprisingly paused for just one moment, and another, until we could probably go ahead and describe this as lingering. God knows why. He'd previously written three paragraphs reviewing the Mark Twain documentary, but at this juncture chose not to reveal his thoughts. But we know that he stood at the door until the white noise of leaves in transit had calmed his racing heart. He didn't go inside. He went back out to the corner and took a bus downtown, to have dinner at a steak place where he and Laura had occasionally gone on special occasions.
He sat at the bar, which is how a solitary man manages to eats at an upscale restaurant without being too obviously alone. Since Mary's death, I also have become very familiar with the practice of dining at the bar. You order a drink and sip thoughtfully for a bit, until somebody asks you if you'd like to see a menu. You appear to think about it for a minute, and then say, “Oh sure, let's have a look.”
Robert proceeded to get really serious with his drinking. As the evening wore on, the young bartender asked if Robert might be wanting a cab.
“To be honest, I might just... I don’t know. Maybe stay at a motel. There's a motel down the street. Right?”
“There is, sure. But I can call you a cab, if you want.”
“Yes, but my home is haunted by leaves.”
“Say what now?” The bartender stopped wiping the counter and came right over. Thoroughly lubricated by domestic beer, Robert told the story while the bartender just nodded and nodded.
“What do you think?” asked Robert as he finished up.
“Well,” said the bartender with a friendly smile. “I think it is at least as probable as any ghost story I’ve ever heard. Maybe more so, actually.”
“Absolutely. You know, my mom said she saw a ghost once,” said the bartender. I like to imagine he was drying out a brandy snifter with a crisp white towel as he spoke. “My grandfather's ghost. Says it was the day after he died, and she was getting ready for bed... I was probably already in bed, I was like eight years old. And so I guess Grandpa was sitting there in a rocking chair in our living room. Rocking. Smiled at her and disappeared when she blinked. Or that’s what she says she saw.”
“Do you believe her?”
“Do I believe that she saw a ghost? I don't know. My mom's pretty normal. She's a high school biology teacher.”
“So you don’t believe in ghosts?”
“Nah,” he laughed.
“Then you don't believe she saw a ghost. She just saw... something. She was hallucinating.”
“I don't know,” he said. “There's not a way of knowing, right? But I wonder sometimes. You hear so many things, about ghosts and UFOs and people bending spoons with their brains and whatever. There's a million stories out there, right? We’ve got yours, and my mom’s, and my friend Martin thinks he was a Vietnamese prostitute in a former life… And really, all it takes is one of them to be true. If there has ever been a single ghost ever in all of history, then, you know... game on, the world is officially crazy.”
The conversation died out at that point. Robert finished another pint of the cheapest beer they had on draft, and the bartender called him a cab. It was well past sundown and the leaves were sleeping. He got into the bathtub and let the water run as hot as he could stand. He brushed his teeth, read exactly two pages of the New Testament, and went to bed.
On the fifth day, Robert forgot himself and five decades of mousy fear and stood barefoot in the corner of the lawn, out of direct sight of most of the complex's windows, and felt the leaves graze across his feet, like how his mother used to tickle his toes and send him convulsing. He would yell "leave those piggies alone, Momma!" when she would pretend to nibble on them. But leaves, just leaves. Upon closing his eyes the illusion was rendered utterly complete. Game on, he thought. He stood there until the sun went down, at which time the phenomenon quietly ceased.
On the sixth day, Saturday, there were no leaves. Robert sat next to the yellow lawn dart all afternoon. He went inside once to get some paper and a pen, and he starting writing. To the editor, for your audience's consideration.
I kept this letter and a handful of others, out of what I estimate to be a quarter-million that I read over the twenty years that I sat at the desk. There's no office anymore—the publication exists only in cyberspace. It is edited, to some degree, by a 32-year-old man with a business degree. It’s free to read but ads will keep popping up in the corners of the screen.
My assistant Joyce, as her last task for me, determined with Public Records that Robert H. committed suicide in 2007. He was survived by his brother Ben and his parents, Ella and Thomas. And he left behind a daughter, who must have been eight years old when he wrote. In all of those fifty-seven pages he had never so much as hinted at her existence.
The epilogue of his letter to us was seventeen pages of stream-of-conscious ramble, wherein all observance of English grammar began to disintegrate. Tales of leafy autumn evenings passed in Robert's life. His first kiss, in a ballpark at age 13 with a girl named Samantha, occurring on a windy September evening while leaves swirled and tumbled around them. The time in high school when, on a drunken nocturnal bet and wanting to make friends, he plowed his Pontiac through a gargantuan leaf pile on his next-door-neighbor's lawn and then madly squealed back onto the road, windshield wipers tossing leaves off in every direction. The night his wife had asked him to go for a walk with her, and after asking for a divorce, in the ensuing painful silence, how she'd bent down to pick a maple leaf from the sidewalk to awkwardly tuck behind her ear.
Robert sent his letter and then struggled for another fifteen years. I suppose it's just a matter of the days going by, one and then another.