David Connerley Nahm
I. “The child’s daddy was a drunkard. He beat on the poor thing and it took sick. This was before anyone else was here but the few of us who, having crossed the Salt, were here.”
II. The young woman put her arm around the shoulder of the man, professor emeritus at a small college in rural Kentucky. A huff, a sigh. He was trying to finish a dollop of lingering research. That had been his hope. A work long gestating that he would not finish, though he did not know that. There was no sunlight in his carrel.
“Ready to go?” she asked and took his arm and they walked slowly through the library lobby out to the green lawn in full spring. The library looked nothing like it had when he first took the position at the college. A new door in a new atrium, new rooms of computer terminals and printers whirring out repeated white tongues, new steps winding up and up to rearranged rows of increasingly infrequently checked-out works. And all around new students arranged in various informal clumps, leaning and hunched and drowsing, their laptop screens having flickered black from inactivity as they dreamed or checked their cell phones. He remembered the original library’s marble floors and the renovations in the early 70s which replaced them with tile that resembled marble, and he remembered how the north wall of the library looked after it was scorched when a fire at the nearby fraternity house spread to it. A boy died in that, he remembered, and the library was closed until the school year was over. All erased, overlapping, crisscrossed aisles, everything moved for the sake of moving everything. He was lost often, seeking a shelf that was no longer there, but which he was certain he had just seen. He opened new texts and still saw old errors where no errors existed.
Paintings purchased from decades of graduating art majors—all now bank tellers and warehouse managers and estate attorneys—dangled by the doors. Putty gray sentries sounded if secreted folios passed through. They made no sound for him. All he carried out was all that he had brought in.
III. “We would sit up with it and watch. The windows were kindly like hollow points. The daddy was outside and we could hear him sending up those songs that none of us knew. Some other hymnal that we did not recollect. He hollered and raved but we stayed while that child slept.”
IV. When he was younger, not long after he began at the college, the man would go to the Starlite Drive-In a few nights a week. It was on the north end of town, near the mental hospital on the lake. This was after the hospital was closed by the state, but before it was reopened as a minimum security prison. The man would take in whatever junk flickered on the screen. It became the department joke. Are you going to write about Gort? They would say. He laughed to be part of the laughter, but began to work with his door closed. He was unmarried, so what he did shouldn’t have mattered to anyone.
Between features, the man sat on a picnic bench near the concession stand and watched the drive-in’s projectionist, an old man with a stoop and cheeks like empty sacks, smoke beneath the Maple trees. Flat cola, fingers buttered and salty. The projectionist stepped on the butt, returned to his cinderblock room, ran the first reel of the last film, and from those picnic benches where the man sat, he could have watched any number of softly rocking American made cars had he not been watching the skies open up and silver saucers of a superior race descend upon the Earth.
After the movies were over, he would ribbon around the pitch black roads, tracing out the old county as he’d read it in the letters he copied from an archive in Lexington. He read reams of material. He read and re-read and re-read his re-readings. But he never wrote. Letters, invoices, Bibles, affidavits, bills of sale, deeds of trust, mostly empty diaries. From the first whites in the area, from their grandchildren and great-great-great—
He cruised through the dark. The new roads and old roads, all the same, so it didn’t matter which way he went. Everywhere went somewhere else from where he was. The drive-in long since torn down. A new neighborhood stood there now and a gas station. The old projectionist certainly dead. Certainly lung cancer, mouth cancer, some cancer. Maples felled, speakers cut from their posts and carried away.
He stood in the library stacks and heard a young boy say, “The family, after they buried him, left all of the personality in the house. They cut timber to stay the bank, but what could that do? He was singing, singing and singing, would not stop the singing, the singing she’d heard for years and that he hadn’t believed. She had the ring of certainty as my grandfather said. The bankers still came and got most everything.” He wanted an affidavit on everything.
V. “The last nights, we seen something light on the child and we knowed it. The door would blow open and a piece of paper would flutter in onto the child. We could only hear the wind. The child’s daddy having gone quiet. I do not know what ever came of him. We looked in the Salt, in the Kentucky, in Dix for his body, but never seen it.”
VI. A well-off and cross-eyed man from the Louisville Historical Society never answered his letters and over time the strata of lost papers and faded notes in his office became unreadable and the polyphony of voices at department meetings became cacophony and he just felt tired. It was at this time he began to regularly check the card in the back of the one copy of his one book in the school library. Those three or so names. Those due dates long since dust. He also opposed tenure for a young faculty member for no reason that he could name.
He fell down a flight of stairs and had to wait for hours for someone to find him.
Once, he tried to explain the pile of papers to a student of his. “This happened a long time before there was a way between Crow Station and Louisville.” He didn’t remember what they said her name was, but it was something like running shards of glass over gutters with some holes in the last name. “Do you know what I mean?” Old homes like a fork in a skirt. She had to pass through the cemetery to that one stone because it had been calling her. “Every time it rains the spot darkens and I pluck my eyes upon it.” Red fingers picking despite what the ground is soaked with.
VII. “The paper did that three nights in a row and then the child died. The child, it was unusually pretty and bright. I remember that. We all talked about that. The promise of the child. At the time, those of us who were with it, I remember, it was the most important thing to us.”
VIII. Once a year, he had a class over to his house, toward the end of the semester, for a social event. In October. He told old stories about the school that reeked of bullshit. Every year, he would say, “And when they got back from the dance, the nails in the floor were pushed up. Inside they found a small room.” He’d never tried anything with any of the young students, even though there were many over the years, even the later years, that were drawn to something in him and would have gladly, he imagined. With the exception of one incident which would hardly qualify as ‘improper’ and which faded out as suddenly as it had faded in, forgotten not long after her transfer to another school at the beginning of the following semester, the days when he first began teaching and the days leading to his retirement were indistinguishable.
And he would say, “When they got back from the dance, where the two young women had been sitting in the stairwell, it read ‘Our place.’” Or he would say, “She heard the singing while in the shower, but when she asked the girl in the next room, she hadn’t been the one singing. She thought it was her.” Some lingered, nonetheless. Fallen leaves. Failures, red ink. Empty halls. Summers buzzing with lawn mowers mowing, the eternal struggle against the growing grass. The blades were set and they kept the world level. The drive-in was gone, the skies never having opened, and the surly old projectionist was dead. Probably a few of the young couples he’d watched rocking in their cars were dead as well, the cars having rocketed off the road late one night, out of the halo of headlights into the night to the sound of some saccharine pop song about endless devotion.
And he would say, “Touch yourself and the baby is marked. Don’t cut your hair for a year. If you think too much on it, it will die. To dream of it is a sign of birth. If a bell rings. If a bell fades. If you step into moonlight. Run up a hill. Drink some cool water from metal in the new moon.” There are ways out of everything. He fell asleep thinking about the beautiful bodies bloody in their cars, the radios unaware that the end had come.
He wrote, J subdued the Leviathan and tamed unordered emptiness into a field to harrow all of this out of. Hark.
IX. “I do not remember if it was a boy or a girl. I do not know if we ever read the paper.”
X. She came up behind him and slid an arm around and he looked up. In the old library which looked nothing like it once had. He said, “I’m almost there.” He said, “They stole Chaplin’s body and that’s not even the worst part, they finish your story and they decide when it’s time to change the reels and run the film in the wrong order.” Through the dim lobby of the library they walked, out of the young sleepers and endless production of plagiarized pages and out into the yard and waning day.
David Connerley Nahm lives in the mountains of Virginia where he practices law and teaches Law and Literature at James Madison University. His work has appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Trunk Stories, and Eyeshot. His first novel, Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, will be published in August of 2014 by Two Dollar Radio.