From RERUNS 2/Jack in the Box
I am here without wife or woman, your guide and reporter, a hostage to the habits of rerunning the dead past in the cause of waking from the dream. —RERUNS
PART ONE (Dreams of Molly)
It was not the same. It was all the same. I was in Italy sitting at my desk in a luxuriant Villa writing the story of my invented life. I was in a bed in Brooklyn dreaming I was in Italy at the Villa Mondare, which was a made-up place in any event, writing the first sentence of a fictional memoir. My wife, who was no longer my wife, who had left me years ago for greener pastures, was in the bathroom dyeing her hair (back to its original dirty blond) so that I would remember with regret what she looked like when I let her get away. I kept asking her if she was done to which she would say, “Any minute now,” but hours passed without her emergence. After awhile, my impatience dissipated. I reinvested my concentration on the first sentence of my new book, a sentence so important in the scheme of things, it produced near-unbearable anxiety just to be in its presence, a sentence that, if it were doing its job, which was to segue between the distant past and the relatively near past, would probably need to resist conclusion indefinitely. I heard the toilet flush in a secretive manner as if evidence were being destroyed. “Is everything all right in there?” I asked.
“I’ll be out before you know it,” she said.
I had always been impatient. Everyone who knew me knew I had a history of impatience. Anecdotes abounded, whispered exaggerations. As soon as I started a piece of writing—story, novel, memoir, poem, shopping list—I felt driven to complete the job. I wanted to be where I was going the moment I conceived of taking the trip. And yet more often than not the trip itself, the daily skirmishes with the page, had its own grudgingly acknowledged pleasures.
I returned to my chore. (Was she coming out of the bathroom anytime soon or not?) The sentence I was contending with stalled. Plagued by distraction, I wondered if all of the scholars at the Villa Mondare had a former wife (or mate) in the private bathroom adjoining their accommodations. There was something in the brochure, which I had glanced at in passing, about providing each scholar with everything he would need to complete his project. Was Molly, if that’s actually who it was in the bathroom—I had not seen her yet—intended as a kind of recovered muse. I decided to ask her when the time was right how she happened to be in my bathroom (and not someone else’s) at the Villa Mondare…
“If you went away for thirty minutes,” she called through the closed door, “I’ll be out when you get back.”
“Why can’t I just stay here,” I said.
“You know why,” she said, “and don’t pretend you don’t. It’s virtually impossible to get anything done when you know someone impatient is standing at the door waiting for you.”
I retreated from the door and returned to my desk, working silently on my recalcitrant sentence, adding a word here and there while barely touching the keys of the selectric typewriter I had been issued. Then it struck me that Molly would know I was still there because she hadn’t heard the outside door slam closed.
So I tiptoed to the door, opened it carefully and closed it with enough noise to wake the building.
“Are you back already, Jack?” she called through the door. “That’s so like you. It’s not 30 minutes yet.”
So I left my room, joined my shadow self, on a time consuming walk, returning 31 minutes after Molly’s original request. The night had been quiet and uneventful except for the painter in residence painting from nature in the apparent dark. We exchanged grunts when I passed her.
“Time’s up,” I said to Molly.
“I’ll come out,” she said, “but you’ll be sorry. What I’m doing takes longer than anyone knows.”
“I’m willing to be sorry,” I said.
And still there was no sign of her.
“If you promise to look the other way,” she said. “I’ll come out.”
“I’m turning around,” I said, hoping to sneak a glimpse over my shoulder.
It was only after I turned all the way, that I heard the bathroom door open. “When can I look?” I asked.
“You can turn around when I tell you to,” she said. “Deal?”
I nodded my agreement, used the time standing with my back to her trying to remember what she looked like that fateful day 15 years ago when she announced it was over between us…No image offered itself.
“What happens, Molly, if I turn around?” I asked, eager to see her even with the unattractive plastic bonnet over her hair.
I meant to keep my part of the bargain, but the extended silence intensified my curiosity. I sensed her shadow moving stealthily in the direction of the bed.
I turned my head warily, barely an inch, then turned back quickly, catching a glimpse of red dress as evanescent as a flash bulb explosion.
Perhaps I’d seen nothing, but my expectations, minimal in the best of seasons, glowed with promise.
In the morning she was gone. I had actually written the line in nuanced anticipation an hour before she left. “Do you remember me?” she asked. She was sitting on a stool on the other side of the room, her face in shadow. I leaned forward, strained my neck to get a better view. She offered me a right profile, removed her plastic cap, shook out her hair…
“Of course,” I said. To be honest, I was not absolutely sure. “Could you come a little closer.”
“If you know me, you’d know me anywhere,” she said. “Anyway, I’m feeling a little shy.”
The wall switch controlling the overhead light was behind me and to the left. I reached back over my shoulder, hoping to flip the switch before she was aware of it happening. I tried unsuccessfully to turn my head and keep her in sight at the same time.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “Why is your hand behind your head like that?”
The voice struck a chord or perhaps it was what she said. Though embarrassed at being found out, I didn’t dissemble. “I was looking for the light switch,” I said, returning my hand to my side.
“That’s so sneaky,” she said. “The terms of my residence in your quarters—read the small print in your contract—is to be in the shadows of the room during working hours…If you turn the ugly overhead on, I’ll have to leave. Is that what you have in mind?”
I had nothing in mind beyond determining whether she was the real Molly. The voice was passingly familiar, though it lacked authoritative context or perhaps I had willed the voice’s more or less familiarity. “What happens after working hours?” I asked.
The question seemed to trouble her and she offered me the back of her head in exchange. I repeated the question or the question repeated itself and I got the same answer, which was no answer at all.
“It was good of you to visit,” I said, which produced a muted sardonic laugh.
Eventually, I left the room to go to lunch (or was it dinner?). Eventually, I came back from dinner with two dinner rolls wrapped in a napkin for my temporarily disappeared guest. Eventually, I reread my opening sentence in progress, which ran two pages without conclusion. Which seemed to have lost a few words in my absence, a sentence with no memory of its past and with fading hope of a future. Eventually, I accepted the fact that she was gone from the shadows of my magisterial room. Eventually, I felt abandoned so I gave up my unresolved sentence to search the grounds.
While I was gone, I worried about finding my way back, which produced paralyzing anxieties. Circumstantially, I found myself behind the avant garde visual artist working at her easel in the unyielding dark.
“Getting what you want?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “and go away.”
“You didn’t happen to notice a woman perhaps wearing a plastic cap over her hair go by?”
“Someone went by about an hour ago,” she said, “but it was too dark to see who it was and besides I was working, which let me remind you I still am.”
I spent the rest of the night in the hallway of the Villa in the vicinity of my room, no longer sure which door was mine, trying to remember the first words of my sentence.
I must have entered the nearest door because when I woke up at first light I was in an unfamiliar bed in a room much like my own though conspicuously different.
I knew the room wasn’t mine because the pieces of under-clothing dangling over the odd pieces of furniture strewn about were female apparel.
I thought it might be fun to write in a room that had an erotic subtext though I worried that the prospect of real sex might become distracting.
Moments after I locked the door someone knocked and I left the bed to answer it, realizing on the way that I had nothing on but a t-shirt that extended six inches below the knee. The clothes I had been wearing—my writerly outfit of workshirt and jeans—were nowhere in evidence.
I thought whoever had been there had gone away while I was looking for my pants, but momentarily the knocks returned with renewed persistence.
“Come back in ten minutes,” I said to the intruder behind the door, hoping to be fully clothed when whoever it was claiming my sanctuary returned to displace me.
H ours passed without further incident. After awhile my circumstantial quarters achieved the status of long-term familiarity. Molly had a late afternoon cameo in my borrowed bathroom only to disappear again as a way of gaining my attention.
It couldn’t be said that she was always missing. It was that she tended to be absent when I longed most to have her around. I told her as much but she remained skeptical or indifferent. She kept redyeing her hair, never getting it quite the right shade of dirty blond and was almost always in the bathroom when I needed to use it. I tended to pee on the grounds in the dark, noted by the visual artist who kept her own counsel, while perhaps including me in her black-on-black nightscape.
As much as I liked being at the Villa, as much as it seemed the best home I’d ever known, I knew I couldn’t stay there forever.
I had lost my letter of instructions but memory reported that I had three or four more days allotted me. The unfamiliar case I found in a corner of the room was already packed with odds and ends in anticipation of my eventual eviction. When I asked Molly if she was staying on to be the muse of the resident coming in to replace me, she said, “Funny, I thought it was you who was supposed to be my muse. Does this look like a man’s room to you?”
I couldn’t say that it did without lying inexcusably…
That’s what happens, I suppose, when you find yourself occupying a room with women’s clothes strewn about—you lose your sense of place in the world.
So I went out into the hall to look for my old room, knocked on a few doors. Various residents I knew only from a distance answered my knocks, invited me in for a drink or not, seemed at home with themselves.
There were two more doors left to investigate and I approached the first one warily in the hope of discovering a more productive strategy, my fist in the air withheld from the door.
The door abruptly opened and I was confronted by a woman dressed in black, who I imagined I recognized as the painter of nightscapes. “Yes,” she said, “this is or was your room, but as you can see I’m here now.”
I wondered out loud why they hadn’t given her her own room when she arrived.
She stepped aside to let me go by. “They did sort of,” she said, “but then one day I discovered someone else had taken it when I was out doing my art so I commandeered the first unoccupied room I could find. We could share it if you have no other place. I tend to sleep during the day and work at night so we shouldn’t get in each other’s way.”
I looked at my watch. It was on the cusp of nighttime, and she would be leaving in an hour, she said, to do her art.
Everything else in the room, I noticed, was mine except for three black canvasses prominently displayed, two on the wall, one alongside the wall opposite the bed.
I accepted her offer and went back to my sentence as soon as she left the room. It was a little different from how I remembered it, but also less hopeless, more susceptible to ultimate resolution.
Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.