By Janie Kronk
Paper hands skim stone. Dust clings to his fingertips, stowaway particles aching to be part of living flesh. “I’ll have to tell Rach–” Bert shakes his head. Four years and he still forgets.
He circles the archway—once, twice, three times. Admires rough quoins and mottled colors. He struggles to place these classical lines within the context of the plain brick building half-demolished on the site. He steps beneath the keystone holding it all together.
Blinks. Three flutters of lid and lash to clear dust from his eyes. He presses a hand to his face. He has never said he can’t believe his eyes; the eyes are never the liars. The tender membranes drink in light, but it is the brain which decides what that light means. He wonders if he’s having a stroke.
He stands in front of an old-fashioned apothecary, soda jerk in a pert cap behind the glass counter inside. Shops cluster like barnacles around a cobbled square. “SOCK DEPOSITORY” marches in gilded Helvetica across the plate glass of the establishment to his right.
Curious, he approaches the sock depository, meaning to ask for a phone to call his doctor. White tube socks pack the storefront from sill to ceiling. Flashes of color snake through the maul: ruffled baby socks, gaudily dyed knee highs, argyle aplenty. Bert pushes inside. The tinkle of the doorbell draws the attention of a frizzy-haired receptionist. She straightens, dabs her red nose, and sniffles into a fluffy white gym sock like a handkerchief. “Can I help you?”
“I was just wondering if I could–” His eyes flit around the outmoded lobby, from the piles of laundry in reception chairs to the wet eyes of the woman behind the desk. He forgets the phone. He forgets he may be having a stroke. “Are you crying?”
She waves her Kleenex. “No, just allergic to lint. Occupational hazard.” She extends her hand. “Stacey O’Kearn, Executive Manager, Brickland Sock Depository. Have you come to make a retrieval?” She wilts when Bert shakes his head. “Day after day socks pour in, but no one ever comes to make a retrieval. I managed to make three pairs today, though.” She presents the ballad pairs to Bert. “Since you offered, there is something you can do for me. I need an antihistamine and a muffin. I’d go myself, but I have to watch the back. We’re short staffed today.”
He agrees, moved by the moisture in her eyes even knowing they aren’t emotional tears, and finds himself two doors down at a shop called Nathaniel’s Notions. Inside, books overflow shelves, rise in pillars that clot aisles, and teeter on cafe tables. “Good day,” the shop keep approaching. “I’m Nathaniel, purveyor of fine volumes and curiosities, proprietor of this shop. What is it you seek today?”
“I came for a muffin.” Bert’s eyes scan a line of dusty globes above the shop counter, none of which conform to a modern day understanding of geography. “For–” he points next door.
“Stacey. Our Lady-of-the-Mismatched Socks. Only the most patient woman I’ve ever met.” He surveys pastry offerings in a glass case. “She’ll enjoy this one. Forgotten recipe of a family matriarch in Nebraska who’s begun suffering from dementia.” He wraps the muffin, a lemony-sweet smell wafting from the crinkling paper. “And what about you? Can I interest you in the Batman No. 1 we just received in our comics room? It was destroyed in a fire in Albuquerque. Huge blow to the collector.”
Bert frowns. “Why would I want a burned up book?”
The shop keep’s laugh is a small, embarrassed sound approximating a cough. “It burned in Albuquerque,” he says as though Bert is hard of hearing. “It’s mint condition here.”
“Just the muffin, thanks.”
“You’re sure?” Nathaniel gestures to stacks of paper and shelves of leather bound volumes. “We deal in a little of everything. Do you like music?” He rifles a stack of flotsam and pulls out a Bounty paper towel scrawled with musical notation. “Silver Sonata. Would have been a lovely piece if the composer had ever finished it. I have a—feeling,” Nathaniel winked, “ That it’s just the thing for you.”
Bert’s memory bubbles with words he’d spoken to Rachel two months before she died. You threw out my work? It’s taken me months to get that movement nailed down. Her reply, I was only clearing the table. It looked like trash to me. “I’ll take it,” Bert says.
Nathaniel’s fingers dance across the register keys. “Two dollars for the sonata. No charge for Stacey’s muffin–the woman is a saint.” He pulls a 1927 Vogue from beneath the counter. “Please take this to her as well. A token of appreciation for all she does.”
Bert pays with a five-dollar bill and holds his hand up for change. The register jettisons the money tray. Nathaniel fits the five into its slot then scoops his fingers beneath the tray. He opens his fist over Bert’s waiting palm. Sand piles in the crevices – love line, life line, scar from building model airplanes with his son Geoffrey in what now seems a lifetime ago – and overflows onto the counter. “What’s this?” Bert asks.
“Sands of Time, Brother. Only way we can make change.”
Bert wants to argue, but Nathaniel is gone. Bert throws the sand into the shrubs on his way out and crosses to the apothecary. He still needs an antihistamine for the frizzy-haired saint-of-socks. His hand tingles when he touches the door centered in its grand, rusticated archway. The door resists his pull, it’s weight out of proportion with its size. He slips through as soon as the opening is large enough to permit it. He pushes all his weight against it in an effort to pull it back shut. Facing out to the square with his hands pressed to the glass, he sees her. She is outside, book under her arm and sun on her dark hair. Each feature is rendered with dreamlike clarity – dark eyes, heavy brows, and the lines around her mouth which were never as bad as she thought they were. Bert pushes toward her, but the door has latched. “Hey,” he calls to the soda jerk, “the door’s stuck.” When he turns, the soda jerk is not there. Only a lot with a half-demolished building.
“Watch it, pal. You just came out of nowhere.” A burly man ducks past Bert, through the arch and is gone. Bert follows, but this time his reality goes with him. The arch is just an arch.
He returns home to find the house empty, Geoff’s worn army jacket—a memento of Rachel’s time in the service—gone from the hook by the door. Bert curses the crusts of bread languishing on a plate in the sink and the pile of laundry laying untouched by the washing machine. Rachel had never struggled with the generational chasm that separated them from Geoff, but Bert has felt it growing wider every year. Now here he stands, relying on literal breadcrumbs to trace his son’s comings and goings.
With a sigh, Bert sits at the baby grand in the living room. “Hello, old friend. This may not sound very good, but let’s give it a shot.” He reaches into his pocket for the sonata and draws out a handful of ash.
People draw around the arch like filings around a magnet. A murmur slides through the crowd each time someone walks through and does not reemerge on the other side. Bert passes under in turn, and this time does not question his health as he looks out at the airy town square. Oak trees droop over cobblestones, transformed by the noon sun into lanterns of chlorophyll and netted veins. At the end of the square, past a typewriter repair shop and a Blockbuster Video, a grand marquis twinkles, advertising a festival of films lost in the Warehouse Fire of 1937.
He pokes his head into the sock depository. “Sorry about the antihistamine,” he says.
She waves him off. “It happens. Outsiders leave and can’t come back again until the passing of midnight. It’s all very Cinderella and the pumpkin carriage.” She smiles. “You can make it up to me by helping with something in the back if you have a minute.”
Piles of socks mound like snow drifts in the warehouse. Dust motes clutter the light filtering through the clerestory. Every thirty feet, round portals interrupt the windows and periodically spit socks from their yawning orifices. Bert is lightheaded with the smell of dryer sheets.
“You know all those socks you can never find after the wash? As if they were eaten by the dryer?” Stacey gestures around the room. “I need help unclogging Vent 32.” They carry a tall ladder to the portal indicated, sending up a flurry of lint when they right it. Stacey sneezes. “I’d do it myself, but I don’t do ladders. I get terrible vertigo, and I can’t risk the fall. I hate to even wonder what happens when we leave this place.”
“Brickland, home of the Lost. And don’t be fooled by a pretty picture. Not everything that’s lost should be found. You’ll be tempted to go wandering when you visit—people always get struck with a bit of nostalgia for one thing or another – but I’d stick to the main squares if I were you.”
He works himself higher onto the ladder. “What’s wrong with a little nostalgia?”
“Comes with a price. What makes you think the good ole’ days were so good? Jim Crow. Polio. Those damn duck-and-cover videos. And those are just examples from my lifetime.”
“How long have you worked here in the sock depository?”
“Since I died in ’98. It’s tedious work most of the time, but there are perks. Sometimes people lose other things in the dryer. Pocket change. Expensive hosiery. I found these darling pearl earrings just last week.” She pulls her hair back to give Bert a peek. “And the location is good. I see everyone coming and going in the square. People come in to chat. I’ve gotten to know most of the town that way.”
Bert perks up, his arm in the vent up to his elbow. “Do you know a woman named Rachel? I saw her yesterday, reading a book by the fountain.”
“Rachel? Sure. She’s there almost every day. Sometimes reading, sometimes drawing. When she’s not there she’s at the Baths.”
“The Baths?” He attacks the vent with new vigor. The knot of clothing breaks free and lands in a pile in front of Stacey.
“The Baths of Caracalla. Down the street just south of the haberdashery.” She picks up the garment which had presumably been the cause of the obstruction and holds it up to her for size.
“Do you want this Metallica T-shirt?”
Bert jumps from the ladder and rushes out without saying goodbye. He follows Stacey’s directions to the Baths and finds an expansive building of creamy marble and basalt, grand arches inviting him to enter. He wanders from room to room. Bathers lounge in the perfumed steam, paying him little attention as he rushes past. He exits into a garden on the opposite end, and at last finds her reclining on the edge of the fountain wearing a modest polka-dotted bathing suit and floppy sun hat.
She props herself on one elbow as he approaches. The water reflects dancing patterns of light across her face. He can’t see her eyes behind the dark glasses. Is she surprised to see him? Has she been waiting, expecting him?
“I was wondering–” His voice catches. If you’ve missed me as much as I’ve missed you? If you’d accept my apology for not understanding how sick you really were? “Would you like to go to a movie matinee with me? The Man From Blankley’s is playing in the theater in the square.”
She laughs. “I’m sorry. Mr.–”
“It’s me. Bert.”
“Mr. Bert, that sounds very nice, but I’m spoken for. Newly engaged, in fact.” She sits up and folds her towel.
“Wait.” Is she playing a game? He holds up his hands in mock surrender. “You’ve got me. I’m not here for a date. You’re Rachel Jones the artist, right? I want to commission a piece. A big one. One of those that spans across three panels.”
Her eyebrows inch above the heavy frames of her glasses. “A triptych?”
“Right. I’ll buy you a root beer float and we can talk business. My treat.”
She laughs and tucks the towel under her arm. “Deal. I could never resist a root beer float.”
I know, he thinks. Just as you could never resist the hope you would someday be “discovered” as an artist, no matter how harsh the critics were.
She follows him into a nearby diner where they perch along a red tiled bar. Bert orders two root beer floats.
“Fifty cents.” The boy behind the counter accepts Bert’s cash and opens a tin box full of bills and assorted trinkets. He counts the money, stacks it neatly to the side, and places a small model of a bellows in Bert’s hand.
“What’s this?” asks Bert.
“Winds of Change.”
Rachel plucks the bellows from his palm and studies the way the pink crepe paper crinkles over a webbing of fish bones. “It’s pretty.” She turns her gaze to him. “You’re so familiar. Are you sure we haven’t met before?”
“Well, let’s see. My name is Bertram Cross. I’m a retired pharmacist and amateur musician. I have one son. . .and a wife.” He clears his throat. “At least I did, for many long and wonderful years. I’m widowed now.”
She presses a hand on his arm. “I am so sorry. What was she like?”
A fleck of milkshake stands on her lip. Bert restrains himself from wiping it away. “Fierce, loving, beautiful, kind–all the cliches said about a woman when she’s gone, but for her they really were true. What about you? Ever married?”
“No. Soon though.” She hugs herself and gives a bittersweet smile. “I still can’t place who you remind me of. It’ll come eventually.” She takes a long drink through her straw without breaking eye contact. “Oh!”
She places a hand just below her rib cage. “No. It’s a pain in my side. I’ve had it all week. I think it’s my appendix.”
Rachel, Rachel, he thinks. His lovely hypochondriac, worried over gangrene when she scraped her shin, and diphtheria when she caught a cold. Imagine his surprise when she self-diagnosed herself with colon cancer and turned out to be absolutely correct. Once she had beaten it, though, Bert slid happily back to a default of never taking her complaints seriously. He should have known better.
“Do you need a doctor?” he asks.
She finishes off her float. “No. Let’s walk. It might go away.”
They wander the streets in no hurry to get anywhere either geographically or in conversation. Neither mentions the painting Bert supposedly wants to commission. They play checkers with old men outside the drug store, and try on extravagant hats at the milliner’s.
A theatrical company has erected a stage for a performance in the square. “Let’s watch,” he says. Her eyes travel over his shoulder to the bookstore, and she pulls her hand from his, tucking it under her arm instead. “Nathaniel will be looking for me soon,” she says. “But I suppose I can spare another hour.”
They sit in the grass east of the fountain and watch the sun sink low and vanish behind the sock depository. The theatrical players position themselves by the light of gas street lamps. Bert reaches again for Rachel’s hand, and again she pulls it back. He notices her staring at the bookstore again and follows her gaze until he sees a familiar figure at the edge of the square, a lanky boy with greasy hair and a worn army jacket. Rachel raises a hand. The boy waves back, then disappears into the crowd.
“Who is that?” Bert asks, though he already knows.
“He comes to talk to me sometimes. He just asks me to call him Ace. Isn’t that funny?”
It isn’t funny to Bert. Ace is what she had called him when he was a little boy.
“What do you talk about?”
“Oh, you know. Girls, school, troubles at home.”
Bert molds his voice into a tone of casual curiosity. “Troubles at home?”
“It’s actually quite sad. His mother passed away several years ago, and he’s not very close with his father. Don’t get me wrong–he loves his father. Has some wonderful stories about him. But it sounds like the two have never really learned to talk. Do you ever feel that way with your own son, being in a similar situation?”
“I hadn’t really thought of it that way before.” Bert looks around the square, and though he can no longer see Geoff, he notices dozens of familiar faces in the crowd which has filled in for the performance. They are people from out there – visitors, like he and Geoff are. “It’s getting late,” Bert says when the last applause for the show dies down. “But I’ll come back tomorrow. Promise to meet me here.”
“Just don’t get the wrong idea. I told you. I’m engaged.” She presses a small blue flower into his hand.
He knows before it happens that the blossom will crumble to ash as he exits through the apothecary. He marvels at the size of the crowd gathered around the arch this time, and fights his way through the melee to his car. At home on Pickett Street, he picks up Geoff’s jacket from the back of the couch and hangs it on the hook by the door. In the kitchen, a plate of spaghetti waits for him on the counter, post-it note with his son’s writing stuck to the cling wrap. “Thought you might be hungry,” the note says.
Bert eats the spaghetti with an unfamiliar warmth in his chest, then sits at the piano for the second night in a row. His fingers run over the keys, stumble, and begin again. It doesn’t sound quite right. He closes his eyes and visualizes the sonata he had picked up in the bookstore the day before. He pushes from his mind the way it and the flower had turned to ash on this side of the arch.
The lobby of the inn is sublime: soaring Art Deco ceilings, polished wooden surfaces, frothing arrangements of tropical flowers. Bert and Rachel ride the elevator to the rooftop lounge. From the top, the twinkling marquis of the Brickland Theater is a mere pinprick of light. Bert spends the last of his small bills on iced tea and receives a further assortment of trinkets as change.
“I love this hotel,” Rachel says. “I stayed here my first night in town. At first, I was just glad to find someplace dry.”
He tenses, reminded of another past conversation. The car broke down and I had to walk through the pouring rain to find somewhere still open.
“You survived cancer, you can survive wet feet. Aunt Ed’s doctors are back. I need to go.” The last words he’d spoken to her. She’d beaten cancer only to die of pneumonia before she’d been in remission two months.
Bert places his glass on the table. “I want to share something with you.” He approaches the pianist at the far side of the rooftop. He has no bills left, but is able to tip him with a wad of silken string, The Ties That Bind. The man thanks him and, after a whispered exchange, relinquishes the bench to Bert and Rachel.
Her face softens as he plays. “So familiar. This music. And you—I still can’t shake the feeling I know you.”
“Maybe in a past life we were husband and wife. Maybe we grew old together and had a son and a little house with a lawn.”
She laughs. “And big oak trees and lovely paperwhites out front?”
“Just the lawn.” He surprises her with a kiss on her fingertips. “Stay here with me?”
She blushes and shakes her head. “I just couldn’t. Nathaniel.”
He bows his head to acknowledge her wishes and excuses himself from the piano.
“Wait,” she calls after him, the word popping like a cork from a champagne bottle. “Okay. But no one can see us together. Wait ten minutes, then take the elevator down and check into your own room. I’ll find you.”
Excitement swirls in Bert’s chest as he hands his credit card to the woman at the front desk. She hands Bert a small card which he first mistakes for his room key, before realizing it is made of paper and has no magnetic strip. A single, red dot the size of a dime hovers in the card’s center.
“What is this?” he asks.
“The Point of No Return,” she says. “Are you having second thoughts? Our policy is strict. No returns.”
“No refunds on the room, you mean?”
“No,” she says, tapping the dot on the card. “You don’t return. Once you check in, this will be your home for good.”
“You’re telling me if I check in here, I can’t leave? What is this, the damned Hotel California?”
I love this hotel. I stayed here my first night in town.
Point of No Return. “Excuse me. I need a minute.” Outside the hotel, Bert inhales the cool night air and sits on one of the street benches, hands trembling.
This is the place. This is where she had stayed the night. The question now, as Bert sees it, is whether or not he wants to stay too.
There are worse ways he can think of to spend his golden years. And what would he be leaving behind anyway? A lawn that is getting hard to maintain? A son who seems better off without him? Here he could watch over her.
Bert watches as the glowing windows of the hotel are extinguished one by one. When the last window darkens, he watches the stars. The sky burns with different constellations here, all the stars that have expired over the millennia, the last of their light long ago drunk by the thirsty atmosphere, the last of their meanings interpreted by the citizens below. The stars which still burned over the little house on Pickett Street – Orion, Ursa Major, and all the others he and Geoff had learned together on well intentioned but poorly executed camping trips – are nowhere to be found. Not even the North Star is there to anchor these thousand suns as they revolve in the night, spinning wildly out of control, and at the same time so slowly that their workings are mistaken for stillness by Bertram Cross on the street bench.
“You’re out late.”
Bert looks to the silhouette before him, mistaking the face for Rachel’s before the speaker steps into the light. “Geoff. What are you doing here?”
“Same thing you are. Checking on her.” Geoff sits beside his father, studies the sky above. “You know it’s back, don’t you? The cancer? She beat it out there. And what’s gone out there–” Geoff inhales deeply, does not exhale. “That guy Nathaniel? He’s taken her to a medicine man, a Voodun priest and an ancient Greek physician. They’ve decided to bleed her. To re-balance her humours.”
“Bloodletting?” Bert says. His voice grows louder. “Do they want to kill her? Give her an infection?” He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to comprehend what comes next. When he opens them, Geoff is gone, and he knows what he has to do. Although Rachel waits inside, Bert looks down the street one way then the other, and starts the walk back to the town square.
Rachel needs drugs–chemotherapy pills like the ones still sitting unused in prescription bottles in their medicine cabinet. He can’t take her to the outside world for treatment. Not if he doesn’t want her to turn into a pillar of ash as soon as they step through to the other side. He has to bring the medicine to her.
He crests a hill and the square opens in front of him, the sound of the fountain like music. He curses when he sees the darkened apothecary storefront and the block letters saying “CLOSED” on the placard behind the glass.
“I was hoping they’d be open too,” a voice says behind him.
He turns to see a halo of frizzy hair illuminated by the moon. “Hello, Stacey.”
“Hello, Bert. Nathaniel has been in quite a state over you spending time with his fiance.” She laughs. “It’s after hours, of course, but I was hoping there would be someone here to open up and get me a soda.”
“You can go inside? You don’t pop out into a construction site and turn to ash?”
“It’s just a drug store to me.”
They stare at the locked door, shoulder to shoulder. “Can I ask you a question?” Bert turns to her.
“Do you remember your old life?”
“Over time memories come to me, as they fade from the minds of others. It’s Brickland, after all. What’s lost out there is found in here.”
“Does that mean she’ll never remember me as long as I remember her?”
Stacey makes a small noise. “So that’s the way it was. You were her husband? No wonder you don’t care about pissing off Nathaniel.” She sighs and shakes her head. “I’m not sure what you have planned, but take my advice. Don’t take any offers to stay inside tonight. You’ll be safe as long as you wait it out here in the square.” She gives him a reassuring squeeze on his shoulder and is gone back to the depository, the door locked behind her.
Bert stoops and pries up a loose cobble from the square. He launches it at the apothecary window. The glass spider-webs and rains to the pavement. He punches out loose fragments, his fist repeatedly striking a soft barrier six inches on the other side. He reaches deeper, groping for the door lock, and his hand closes on something soft and warm. He smells sweat and fire. A strong hand grips his arm and drags him through the shattered storefront.
He is forced face-down against the side of a modern vehicle. Police flood lights illuminate an angry mob on the site of the razed pharmacy. Heavy construction equipment crawls between a parting sea of people. A triumphant silhouette, back lit by bonfire, dances on the top of the arch. An officer leans close to Bert and stares at him with wide eyes. Bert smells the garlic the man had with dinner.
“Punching an officer?” the man in uniform asks. He must have been standing right in the opening of the arch when Bert punched out the window. For the first time in his life, Bert is notified of his rights, folded into a police cruiser, and booked.
The arch was torn down the night of the mob.
“About time,” says the officer who escorts Bert from the station the next morning. “Public hazard. Someone eventually would have gotten hurt.”
Bert limps into the house on Pickett Street, heart low. He can see no way back to Rachel without the arch. Upon entering the den, he sees the familiar army jacket slung over the back of the couch and his stomach drops. He has been so worried about getting medicine to his wife that he hasn’t once stopped to consider whether or not Geoff made it out before the arch fell. Bert hobbles faster, not breathing, and shoves through the bedroom door at the end of the hall. His breath rushes out in relief. A lumpy figure slumbers there, covers rising and falling with his breath. Bert leans his head against the door jamb and watches his son sleep.
For once, the tangle of electronics and piles of laundry do not irritate him. He bends to pick up a quarter glinting on the floor beside a single white tube sock. No sense losing it in the laundry. Bert straightens, his mind alive. It’s not too late.
He rummages in the medicine cabinet, surveying rows of half-full bottles marked “Rachel Jones Cross.” He rattles them, counts pills and consolidates them into the smallest bottle. With a felt-tipped pen he prints, “Stacey–” and continues until the label is full.
In the laundry room, he removes the lint trap from the dryer. The bottle barely fits in the opening. He nudges it, and listens to it clatter as though it were falling through eternity. He holds his breath, sure that when he looks inside he will see the amber bottle lodged there. But it’s gone.
From here, he can only hope. He hums the Silver Sonata to himself as he drives into town, mentally reworking the second movement. It should be happier, he thinks. He parks alongside the razed lot, and sits on a bench to watch people comb through the debris.
One of the stragglers sits beside him. He shifts to give the newcomer more room, turns to smile, and is flooded with relief once more as he looks into the face of his son. Together they watch papers blow across the ground and sand swirl around heaps of stone.
“So,” Bert says at last. “What now?”
Geoff shrugs. His eyes are trained on something far away. “There’s a new bookstore over on
Fifth. Want to check it out?”
Bert nods. His son’s voice is like music. “That sounds perfect.”
About Janie Kronk
Janie Kronk is a writer, architect, and adult literacy tutor. Her work has previously appeared in The Petigru Review and in South Carolina Architecture. She lives in the Palmetto State with her husband and daughter, dog and cat, multiple fish, and a curiously active snail.