Rumrill said: On a day when my employer still remembered his wife, he told me the story of how she and he had reacted to the news, conveyed by our neighborhood doctor, that she would not live to see the end of whatever season it then was when she and he had wended down their sovereign thoroughfares to his (the doctor’s) examination room. The Brocklebanks had walked through the snow or dandelions to consult the doctor on the subject of those pains which occurred regularly in that part of Mrs. Brocklebank’s body of which she had lately been given cause to complain.
He added: Or do I need to slow down.
Rumrill said: Husband and wife removed their boots at the boot-check in the doctor’s anteroom, a space sunk the depth of an upright man into the ground, this upright man’s head at the level perhaps of the second internode of an immature Taraxacum—in which a collection of other white- or red-faced townspeople were already seated in the smell of worms and melted ice. Doctors are privileged to enter into contact with all strata of society, grouped as it is in large part into families of different sizes, possessed of bank accounts of different sizes, and checkbooks imprinted with all manner of watermark.
He added: The image perhaps of a surmullet: the fish used, I’ve read, as a primitive sort of television by the ancient Romans, on account of the many vibrant colors it turned as it suffocated and expired in the air.
Rumrill said: Our town doctor, perhaps of a mind to see what colors Mrs. Brocklebank might turn as she expired, agreed to see her ahead of the other citizens in his anteroom, other patients who had been there longer but whose families were not yet friendly—or not yet friendly enough—with their friendly GP: a man in late middle age whose kited, crenellated ears these recent initiates into the ranks of the unwell found comic, which fact they marshaled the vigor to comment upon even as they felt their vis vitalis sapped by whatever symptoms they had trekked through our lurid streets to ask said comically eared physician to diagnose. Seated and frustrated with the sight of Mrs. Brocklebank ushered with conciliation into the examination room when by all rights these other patients should have preceded her, the townspeople scowled through their rheum in piqued accusation of the husband, abandoned, as he brushed or rebrushed the snow or pollen stains off of his two boots.
He added: With an east-coast newspaper.
Rumrill said: The doctor in no time pronounced Mrs. Brocklebank to be host to a disorder not uncommon whose name and other particulars escape me. He told her, in short, that the processes that constituted Mrs. Brocklebank, citizen and organism, had in their wisdom and for a change of pace decided to leave off their usual obligations and turn instead to the ingestion of this same Mrs. Brocklebank—a decision not at all characteristic of said processes, given that the perpetuation of precisely this Mrs. Brocklebank had been their one notable responsibility to date—and then build with those same resources that had once been devoted to Brocklebankian continuity some other item or function or entity that, unhappily, was not quite the triumph of design that was our Mrs. Brocklebank, whatever her flaws, not least her terrible posture, and would therefore in its construction end with the probably unintentional murder-suicide of both the tenuous concatenation still named, despite this metamorphosis, “Mrs. Brocklebank” (and which would, tragically, remain enough of a Mrs. Brocklebank throughout the procedure to be aware of and suffer through the untenability of this incomplete and ill-considered reconfiguration of said resources), as well as those very systems that had decided, for reasons of their own, to undertake this desperate improvisation.
He added: And which could not be reasoned with.
Rumrill said: How she did weep, I assume, this Mrs. Brocklebank, albeit without the awareness that this lamentation was itself a byproduct of those processes that had by then long since embarked down their sovereign thoroughfares upon the great adventure of her decease. How she did wail at the same picture window where later I would myself look out at the street to watch the poplars smolder.
He added: In attendance at her husband’s own inelegant disintegration.
Rumrill said: Mr. and Mrs. Brocklebank came to see that, having no relations alive between our neighborhood and Austria, there would be little profit in the pretense that Mrs. Brocklebank might continue to be a matter worth Mr. Brocklebank’s or indeed our mayor or grocer’s attention after her paraphrase, so to speak, from our town and world. They decided, husband and wife, that they would mourn her together there and then, while both were alive to enjoy it, rather than wait until this bereavement became a performance—symbolic, operatic—given by one person (Mr. B.) for no audience.
He added: If “enjoy” is the word.
Rumrill said: They removed Mrs. Brocklebank’s name from the shared bank account into which their life savings had been deposited, and which they were allowed by their bank’s board of trustees to visit at given times on work days, a privilege that stands as a clear demonstration of the board’s great good will toward its clients. The Brocklebanks then filed again whatever paperwork was necessary with our town hall to have their car registered in the husband’s name alone.
He added: If they had a car.
Rumrill said: They did what they could to act together as though Mrs. Brocklebank had not only received a death sentence from her doctor but had died there and then, and so had in the meantime taken her place in a hereafter that resembled nothing so much as precisely the same sights, sounds, expectations, and substances she would soon, in her coffin, or on her bier, relinquish. Mrs. Brocklebank was in fact suspended in an interregnum that could with accuracy be described as a life after death.
He added: A very practical afterlife.
Rumrill said: The Brocklebanks made the best of death, you see, inasmuch as it helped them to reconcile to one another, to become more efficient in their interaction, to appreciate one another, to mend fences, build bridges, and other no doubt significantly architectural turns of phrase beloved of Mrs. Brocklebank. The nothing that had in health been a burden for them to express one to the other now in sickness became a pleasure.
He added: Though substantially the same nothing.
Rumrill said: Brocklebank had already retired from watch-repair when his wife was diagnosed. His wife, however, who was younger than he, continued to work for several years after they had relocated to our town, and so left their house on average once per day and then returned to it usually in the evening.
He added: An equivalent number of times.
Rumrill said: Since I was never told what it was exactly that Mrs. Brocklebank worked at, in the when days she worked, we might for the sake of argument say that she was employed at an institution with whose workings I am familiar. My imagination, such as it is, can only stretch so far, and a painter of lacquer pen boxes would fall well beyond its purview.
He added: So, a librarian.
Rumrill said: But it isn’t as important to know what she did for her livelihood or distraction as it is important for us to understand that Mrs. Brocklebank would because of her employment have had ample opportunity before her virtual and actual demises to make new friends while she was away from her house, on her way to or from her job, or indeed at her job, for she must have had coworkers, perhaps friendly, perhaps not too dissimilar from those whose companies I was myself obliged to enjoy under the same or similar light fixtures. Mrs. Brocklebank might, for instance, before her pre-mortem reconciliation with her mister, have met a person with whom she could have carried out, if that’s the term—possessed, inculcated, digested?—an extramarital affair, due why else to the not-inconsiderable friction between herself and her stopped-watch husband, from whom she had only grown more distant as the years distanced them from their courtship on what amounted to another planet.
He added: Namely, Vienna.
Rumrill said: We know nothing about this putative lover of Mrs. Brocklebank save the degree of his or her likelihood, which would be a nice big high-rise of red on the bar graph I did not prepare to illustrate this point. Yet, by way of visual aids, it may be that I still have in my archives a sample of this hypothetical lothario’s rather impressive handwriting, which in its grace of line and proud but not ostentatious flourishes might remind us of a medieval copyist’s, executed in the light of whatever flamboyant and unintimidated sky would have been evident through his cell’s single window, hay dust insinuated into this close atmosphere by a poorly stuffed mattress, its innards partially prolapsed onto the floor, which is to say the loose and rounded cobbles our monk’s weak ankles daily essayed as they wobbled to and fro on necessary errands away from his bench with chorales of no less than fifteen cartilaginous clicks.
He added: Each.
Rumrill said: Unlettered Mrs. Brocklebank wrote letters to her friend, poorly, about mundane matters: stomach pains, sleeplessness, financial anxieties, and so forth. Her letters touched, that is, on matters typical for a husband and wife to discuss, had diplomatic relations not been cut off.
He added: And the embassies abandoned.
Rumrill said: That the content of Mrs. Brocklebank’s letters did not in itself seem to cry out, especially, for concealment behind the green radiator where I later found them, it might lead us to deduce, for one, that Mr. and Mrs. Brocklebank—before her abrupt gradation from civil to astronomical twilight, so to speak—spoke to one another very little about such mundane matters as would not otherwise be untypical to touch upon in casual conversation with one’s spouse. For another, that Mrs. Brocklebank and this probable extramarital person were intimate enough to find it commonplace to discuss between them such mundane matters as would not otherwise be untypical in what daily talk must occur I assume between a husband and wife.
He added: With carbon copies on pink onionskin.
Rumrill said: We need not refrain from the pleasure of further surmises, given the content of Mrs. Brocklebank’s radiator letters; for example that said letters or copies or drafts of letters had been hidden not because of their content, which after all was so innocuous as to frustrate any malevolent misreading we might want to imagine for them; not, that is, because there was any fear in Mrs. B’s heart that the neat little characters in red ink now static between those spongy, inoffensive strands of processed linen (suspiciously unsinged after who knows how many winters’ worth of Brocklebankian steam heat) might be read by her husband. No, they must have been hidden (if indeed they were hidden and not, say, lost) specifically because of the intimacy the letters implied must exist between Mrs. Brocklebank and her correspondent: devoted as those letters were to such nugatory matters as the progress of her radish crop in the backyard garden and then the inexplicable dreams she’d been having about nonexistent operas and the persistent, worrying pains she had begun to feel in this or that quadrant of her Austrian body and which she had not yet confessed to her perhaps autistic husband.
He added: (Or presumed husband.)
Rumrill said: Perhaps the letters had initially been kept in Mrs. Brocklebank’s drop-front secretary along with her other, less incriminating correspondence. Perhaps Mr. Brocklebank on a routine inspection of his wife’s papers had read through these letters, and had taken up the matter with his wife, indelicately, and only then did she hide them, in retaliation for his trespass, or simply in order that any additional letters which might be added to the cache would remain confidential, safe behind the green radiator.
He added: Or “safe.”
Rumrill said: Then again, as Mr. Brocklebank never struck me as the sort of husband who would confront his wife directly with evidence of her putative infidelity, particularly if discovered in this manner, Mrs. Brocklebank would probably have needed to figure out for herself that her privacy, so called, had been invaded. But Mr. Brocklebank would not, I suspect, have been the sort of person possessed of a memory so precise as to be able to return his wife’s most dear and secret things to within a centimeter of their initial placement.
He added: Even in those days in need of an amanuensis.
Rumrill said: Brocklebank always struck me, rather, as the sort of man who, in preference to an open confrontation, would give his wife (or employee) sharb jabs, little hints that he had discovered in their initial or perhaps second or seventh hiding place documents in support of the likelihood that certain indiscretions, be they amorous or financial, had transpired. I imagine that he committed to memory certain phrases from his wife’s letters, and then integrated these into his daily conversations with her on matters certainly no less quotidian than adultery but demonstrably of greater utility in their household—for instance the replenishment of their stock of rye bread and whitefish salad—so as to make evident to her, albeit without her recognition of this fact—no more, really, than a sense of disquiet—that he, Brocklebank, knew all.
He added: Though in reality he only knew that there was something to know.
Rumrill said: I would go on to imagine that Mrs. Brocklebank never did notice her husband’s little hints, not even un- or sub- or sur- or preconsciously. I would imagine, instead, that the old man’s plan miscarried, since, subjected to this use of her own words “against her,” Mrs. Brocklebank would most likely have found Mr. Brocklebank in fact marginally more agreeable than he ordinarily, at this time, was.
He added: More agreeable and more intelligible.
Rumrill said: And then, after some time had passed—enough for Mr. Brocklebank to see that his clever effort to undermine his wife’s confidence had been entirely ineffective—he even began to find that many of the purloined words and phrases he’d designated as little hints had spontaneously, and without his permission, infiltrated what he would before have considered his normal mode of discourse. For instance, if his wife had in one of her letters to her mysterious admirer made mention of a “lovely sunset”—whatever that means—Brocklebank himself now discovered that he had moved, and without any awareness of the transition, from the employment of such a phrase in spite to its use in inadvertent earnest.
He added: “From the window they saw together the lovely jade sunset behind the trees.”
Rumrill said: Brocklebank had made another unpleasant discovery, namely that there is no difference between the ironic emulation of a mode of thought and its development, as it were, naturally. One day, then, when he had found that he could no longer distinguish between the words he had assimilated from his wife’s thin blue airmail paper and the words he had till that time collected and deployed in the ordinary, unmalicious course of his life, he found it necessary to return to the drop-front secretary to which he had restored Mrs. Brocklebank’s letters after he had memorized them, in order to remind himself, through further study, just which of these habitual words and phrases had come from Mrs. Brocklebank and which from sources by contrast natural and guiltless.
He added: But the letters were gone.
Rumrill said: Brocklebank despaired that there would be no other way to cleanse his mind of the blue airmail words. “This Brocklebank,” thought Brocklebank, “the Brocklebank I have become, is no longer the Brocklebank of old, but a Brocklebank in whose libretto are included those words once hidden not especially well in my wife’s desk.”
He added: Inasmuch as the new Brocklebank could remember the old Brocklebank with any clarity.
Rumrill said: Brocklebank wouldn’t have given up, though; he would have innovated some way to purge himself of the words and thereby the thoughts and thereby the associations and interpretations and conclusions that he had so precipitately imbibed from the blue airmail paper—and which were now, unknown or perhaps unbeknownst to him, hidden behind the nearby and we must infer rather inefficient green radiator. He probably recognized that the only path open to him was to attempt to compose and then utilize as the required baseline a reconstruction of the letters (to the best of his memory) rather than the repurloined originals; to which end Brocklebank sat down one day at his wife’s drop-front secretary while she was away at work, and, finding her stock of blue airmail paper, used one of his wife’s red pens to begin his purification.
He added: Nothing simpler.
Rumrill said: He began tentatively, with the sorts of thing he supposed a first letter from his wife to her friend might contain. This letter would be necessarily guarded and unconfident.
He added: Timid.
Rumrill said: What things Brocklebank’s wife and her friend had gotten up to together—perhaps, thought Brocklebank, in the very stacks of the library where she then worked—to warrant the net gain in intimacy that manifested itself over the course of Mrs. Brocklebank’s one-sided correspondence needed to be decided upon in advance, by Brocklebank, if he meant to redraft the letters properly. What had gone on in Vienna in the years between two famous wars between many famous counties between our Mr. Brocklebank and a woman who would for reasons of her own thereafter sign away the surname given her by her parents—a man and woman who would themselves be spared the bother of growing sick and senile thanks to the expediency of murder—what went on, I mean, in these circumstances between two young Austrians, reckless, huddled together on a street I would not recognize at an hour I am not often awake to see, though perhaps interrupted before consummation (in the legal sense) by a policeman who thereupon showed them much unearned kindness (permission granted for them, dishabille, to return to their two family homes without official reprimand for this violation of the ordinance or ordinances contra public indecency)—this, then, represented the limits of what Brocklebank could imagine that his once-comely wife and her friend at the library had got up to in the stacks.
He added: Pretty tame stuff.
Rumrill said: Mr. Brocklebank returned many times to his wife’s desk to perfect with her ink pens and upon her preferred stationary the phrases he hoped would in time return his vocabulary and therefore habits of mind and therefore behavior and perception and neighborhood and town to the state of relative innocence, utopian in hindsight—such purity of habit and expression—that had obtained before the advent of the corrupting love letters. However, his ersatz correspondence, in the weeks that followed, achieved nothing so much as a refinement of the language Mr. Brocklebank so hoped to be rid of.
He added: Marooned in the gallimaufry of these latter stages of corrosion, he could remember only that he wanted to be in some way other than he now found himself, unable to access words that might describe even to Brocklebank sich selbst what it was he might have lost.
Rumrill said: Reliant from then on upon Mrs. Brocklebank’s reactions to his own assimilations of her usages to then dictate his future practice and therefore thought and therefore behavior, Brocklebank must when his wife eventually vomited and dropped dead have felt positively orphaned. He had been robbed of the confirmation of himself as husband to a Mrs. Brocklebank; that is, a machine that recorded her numerous treasured fatuities, and so produced in Mr. Brocklebank’s mind second- and third- and fourth-generation copies of her words and therefore actions, until the distortions soon overwhelmed the signal that had first set these echoes off.
He added: As parasites go, hostless.
Rumrill said: What was left of the unjealous urban Brocklebank was nothing much. A better solution was required.
He added: A widower’s strategy.
Rumrill said: So off Brocklebank went on his two legs to the house he thought might be the one to which his wife’s letters were never sent. The house he identified from her half-remembered envelopes was distinguished from the others on a street much the same as others in our neighborhood in that it had once been provided with a front lawn belonging in a general way to the Poaceae family.
He added: But since torn up and replaced by gravel.
Rumrill said: Brocklebank knocked at a door he was not unconvinced would yield to him the sight when opened of the person his wife had likely been intimate with before her diagnosis. He was disappointed if he thought there might be a reaction.
He added: The door neither opened nor made demands.
Rumrill said: As he would someday read was common practice in novels borrowed from the public library where once his dead wife might well have worked despite her age and illness—novels with many thousands of words pressed between their two covers devoted to descriptions of men who when confronted with unanswered doors try on manly whim to open them all the same, knobs or handles twisted with great force only to offer no resistance because left unlocked (the killer, sorry, has already made his getaway)—Brocklebank tried then on an irrational whim to open this door despite its reticence. The door, in turn—as it had read in novels wherein doors are confronted by impatient men possessed of manly whims and so creak in their hands ominously open—creaked then ominously open.
He added: Any objections?
Rumrill said: The space inside was dark. In the dark was an undistinguished man Brocklebank assumed must be he who had been so important to his late wife that she had never once mentioned him, the better to relish this secret association until such time when the ground of our quaint town would make unselfish room in its perpetuity to accommodate her bitter fats and marrow.
He added: I mean, if it was a he.
Rumrill said: When at last the figure replied to Brocklebank, it did not concede that there was anything out of the ordinary or even sinister about the presence of this very probably cuckolded and certainly unintived Austrian husband in its house. In fact, the figure spoke to Brocklebank as though Brocklebank had been expected, perhaps invited.
He added: Consternation.
Rumrill said: The figure would not even admit that Brocklebank was a stranger. The figure would not rise to shake Brocklebank’s hand or to call the police.
He added: Or do I mean “nor.”
Rumrill said: The figure in an accented voice addressed Brocklebank in such a wise: “You’re late.” Brocklebank, armed with only his own puny, now mostly flattened accent, found himself outmatched.
He added: Outgunned and mute.
Rumrill said: In fact, the figure went so far as to admonish Brocklebank for his insensitivity. Had not he (Brocklebank) agreed to take care of his (we’ll say) house and its many cats while he (this man) was out of town, and was he (Brocklebank) not supposed to have arrived to take up his duties days before this, and did he (B.) know how difficult, not to say expensive it would be for the man to replace his ticket, now voided—to find a new point of egress from our town?
He added: “You swine.”
Rumrill said: When at last one malnourished cat of the supposed many behind the walls and under the floors of this house made an appearance, its reaction to the presence of this not-yet-entirely-senile Austrian man was to attack him. Brocklebank for whatever reason felt smaller than this cat, which was no bigger after all than his dead wife’s forearm.
He added: Minus hand.
Rumrill said: The man who was not Brocklebank and who was perhaps blind or deaf or crazy or simply too polite to acknowledge Brocklebank as an intruder gave his interlocutor neither satisfaction nor relief. The cat, however—if indeed it was a cat and not perhaps a dog or infant daughter or hapax legomenon, and whose attack drove Brocklebank out onto the gravel lawn—gave back to the widower by shedding his blood the proportions of a man with every right to exist in or out of the big world of our neighborhood and town or even as far away as Austria.
He added: Albeit in flight.
Rumrill said: The cat, so to call it, accompanied its victim home. It hung from the torn skin on Brocklebank’s arm.
He added: A little flag of war.
Rumrill said: In agony, unaccountably terrified, Brocklebank managed to get home and close and lock the cooperative front door of his empty house behind him. He squeezed the neck of the cat until it opened its jaw, after which, thrown to the floor, it was docile and even friendly.
He added: “Is this what they mean,” wondered Brocklebank, “when they say ‘it’s better not to know’?”
ContributorJeremy M. Davies
Jeremy M. Davies is the author of two novels: Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy, the latter forthcoming from Ellipsis Press in 2014. He is Senior Editor at Dalkey Archive Press.