I enrolled in an intro English class at UWO this past semester and usually writing comes naturally to me. It’s safe to say that I was 100 percent challenged beyond my expectations. We read a fairly simple experimental novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino. If you haven’t read it, I strongly urge you to do so, but be warned. There are titled and numbered chapters- the titled chapters each tell a different short story that cuts off at an exciting point, and the numbered chapters are the main story. As a creative assignment, we were told to take a titled chapter and finish it. I chose In a network of lines that enlace, which begins with a professor filling in at a new university going for his routine morning run. Throughout his run, he hears a phone ringing in several locations and he finally answers one in an abandoned house. On the phone, someone tells him to save a woman named Marjorie from a particular location, or she would be dead within the next hour. He ran all the way to her only to be told that he was a bastard. Here’s the ending I wrote:
“You’re a bastard,” she says to me.
“What th-the hell is going on here?” I stammered. I look around the room now that my eyes have adjusted to the small bits of light shining in from the door. Her vomit covers cracked and decaying tile, the walls strewn with old and tattered newspapers. The smell of sweat and weeks-old garbage on the floor wafts into my nostrils and into the back of my throat, making me gag. My eyes water.
“Let’s g-get out of here,” I say and grab her by her arm. We continue walking down the sidewalk at a semi-jog/fast walk to avoid any attention from the neighboring houses. Marjorie kept up in my stride, red marks still appearing around the edges of her lips where the cloth was. Her eyes are red. I can’t tell if it’s from crying or from lack of sleep, if she were truly gone for the two days like the Clifford girl said.
Breaking the silence I said, “Are you going to explain what happened?” She looks down at the passing cracks and dandelion weeds in the concrete sidewalk with our continued strides. We stop. She looks up.
“You’re a bastard,” she says again.
“Yes. We established th-this,” I say, frustrated with her lack of cooperation and the stammering I get when I’m around her. I place my hands on her frail shoulders, tilting her chin to look into her eyes. I ask again what happened.
Marjorie tells me the last thing she remembers is the day before she disappeared before ending up in that room, bound and gagged. She was walking home from the library, one of my books in hand, her school work in her messenger bag slung over her shoulder. She was minding her own business, admiring the trees in the darkness, lights emanating bits and pieces of the sidewalk ahead of her.
“I could feel someone following me. Looking back, I know someone was following me. How else would I have ended up in that damn room?” she says, putting her fingertips to her wrinkled forehead, surrounded by curls of her mahogany-brown hair. Her messenger bag wasn’t in that wretched place, as well as the novel I gave her. What does that mean? Was it someone from my university, or rather someone from hers? Was it an outsider playing a cruel prank? I have to go back to the phone.
“I should get you b-back to y-your apartment,” I say. We start walking again, passing trees and houses, the fire numbers going back the way it was when I came; fifty-one, twenty-seven…
“Please don’t leave me by myself…” she looks up. There are tears in her coppery, almond-shaped eyes. I need to get back to that house where the first call came in. There has to be a coincidence. Maybe if Marjorie could see some of her surroundings, her memory might come back. I just nod, and keep looking forward.
We eventually reach her apartment, the tall brick building with other little apartments inside each window that faces the street. Vines are slung across some windows and into the cracked brick. I still don’t think it’s a good idea that I’m with her. This university doesn’t need a scandal, like mine. She unlocks the wooden door to apartment number 4A. I walk in behind her and look around. A small kitchen overlooks a couch and coffee table, a stack of books where a TV would be, displaying her general repertoire full of love, mystery and deception. Sliding doors are slightly open, leading to her roo. Marjorie walks to the kitchen, putting water into a black kettle to make tea. I sit down on the couch.
“What book did you have?” I ask.
She pauses, thinking. “The one with the white cover, but an image near the top right. It’s by Calvino. Is that something you gave to me?”
I think it is. But how can that be significant? I think back to my university, the books I’ve lent to other students there. I think Calvino was a large part of my collection. I vaguely remember one particular student who loved all of my Calvino books, so much so that he started stealing them from my office, following me back to my home to talk with me about the meanings and his interpretations…
A high pitch whistle from the kettle is let out, breaking my thoughts and letting Marjorie know her water is ready for the tea leaves.
“We need to go,” I say, standing from her sofa.
She looks at me. It looks as if her mood has changed, her eyes turning a darker shade, the lost look gone. She smiles at me with that trademark irony-filled smile all students at this university seem to have.
“Fine,” she says curtly, turning her stove off and the blue flicker of the flame disappearing with it, just like her mood, leaving a colder, uneasy air. She moves the kettle away from the hot burner, leaving it for later. She follows me out of her apartment, locking the door behind her. I need to go back to that house, first where Marjorie was tied up and then secondly the abandoned house with the deaf man, the paralytic, the suicide, the phone I answered.
I realize I’m still in my jogging stuff, dry from my earlier sprint to 115 Hillside Drive to get Marjorie. “Are you up for a jog again?” I ask.
“Yes,” she answers quietly.
We pick up our pace, starting at a slow jog, down Grosvenor Avenue, then Cedar Street, then Maple Road. Again, I’m back at the same houses from this morning, counting our way up to 115 Hillside Drive. We slow down as we approach the house. I didn’t take in my surroundings before; the house a beautiful shade of blue clapboard siding, red trim and a white front door. It’s hard to believe that inside lies the trash and desertion. We walk up the sidewalk and I take in the yard, neatly cut and smelling of fresh grass. I look over at Marjorie, who confidently walks to the front door, turning the round, brass handle. The smell of hot, old trash overwhelms me again as I put my hand up to my mouth and nose, Marjorie doing the same.
The house is still in semidarkness and void of any furniture, tender love, or care. There is an old fridge from the late ‘60s, the door swung open. There are newspapers everywhere, crinkled and slightly burned in some areas. As I look closer, I realize it’s The Chronicle, the student newspaper from my university. What the hell, I think. I see Marjorie move ahead to the room where she was, beyond a broken glass french door. The sofa is still there, striped with holes, the stuffing from the cushions pouring out of them.
She bends down to pick up the rag that was in her mouth and turns her upper half around to look at me. She’s puzzled as to why we are here.
“I need to see if there are any clues as to why they would take you and tie you up, Marjorie,” I say. “I… I c-care ab-bout you.”
She smiles. At least that is making her feel better. The small room appears even smaller with the newspapers tacked on the wall with scotch tape. I step closer, carefully going around the major cracks in the tile. Again, it’s The Chronicle. The paper has the headline in big, bold font; “Accused professor leaves campus, students questioning actions.”
It’s the scandal from my university. And now it’s here. I look at the paper next to it and it’s the same headline. It’s the same around the entire room. Someone is after me. I spin around to see Marjorie, staring at me. It’s still dark, but I see glints from other eyes in the room. I feel more people entering through the tiny doorway, into the small, tiled-floor room. I see students from my university, the girls from this university, that Clifford girl, Marjorie. All standing there. They take my books, ones that I’ve given all of them, and start lighting them with their pocket lighters. The flames engulf the pages, lighting their faces with their ironic smiles, all lined up in front of the door so I can’t escape.
They keep smiling as smoke fills the room. There’s no window. I can’t breathe. The room is going black. I’m about the lose consciousness. A phone rings.