The Fiction of History by Jill Talbot
The front window of the duplex in Stillwater, Oklahoma, had been smashed by a brick that was still in the garden. Inside, the carpet had been stripped. I stepped around paint cans and lazy drop cloths while the stout, curly-haired manager assured me the owners would put in new carpet, paint the walls, and install ceiling fans in both bedrooms. Then she waved me out onto the porch. Maybe she worried that if I stayed inside longer, I’d change my mind.
With my daughter, Indie, starting Kindergarten in two weeks and the classes I’d be teaching at the university less than a month away, I signed the lease on the hood of the woman’s small navy truck. It was only then she seemed relieved enough to explain that the previous tenants, a woman and her small child, had left abruptly. “My God,” she said, sliding the lease into her binder, “there were toys everywhere. It was a mess.” I watched her look back toward the front door as if remembering what she had seen there, and before I could ask, she put her head down and shook it, her eyes closed in a gesture that seemed to be part prayer. I asked when the window would be fixed.
Indie’s father and I used to play a game called People History. We’d take turns picking out strangers in public—like the stiff couple across the bar, the man talking to himself on Pearl Street, or the girl who lived in the apartment above us on Elder Avenue. Most of the time, Kenny would be the one to pick someone and begin the story, and together we would weave an intricate, intriguing past. The story unfolded until it revealed how the stranger came to be at that place, that moment.
For four years, he and I lived in various cities and apartments, beneath and beside neighbors. Some had stories we knew, others we crafted from the fewest of details. The most mysterious was the girl who lived above us in Boulder. In the middle of almost every night, she vacuumed in a frenzy of geometric angles. I’m not sure we ever saw more than her brown curls poking out beneath the wool hat she pulled over her ears when she’d walk out to her car. This is what we knew: the wind chime, her white Honda, her phone ringing through rooms where she’d pace, and the sound of her hairdryer dropping onto her bathroom floor. Once, we heard Sinatra from her open balcony door.
On the day she moved out, I watched from the kitchen window. I collected the details so that I could later tell Kenny: her corduroy jacket, the blue suitcase she lugged down the stairs, the thud at each step. The way she slipped in the snow and envelopes from the small bag she carried spilled onto our shared porch. She picked up each one with shaking fingers, and I leaned back from the windowsill, sure she didn’t want a witness to her escape, which is what it looked like from where I stood. Our apartment felt emptier the day she drove away, and when Kenny came home hours later, his key in the lock was like a school bell ending recess.
In the duplex, Indie and I lived next door to an opera singer and a Marine. These were their stories: The opera singer wanted to graduate from OSU and stop working at Walmart. The Marine wanted to go back to Albuquerque, to the wife who’d kicked him out, but mostly he wanted to get through one night of sleep without seeing the roads of Afghanistan.
One of the last afternoons I was in Boulder, I sat on a bench with my father, in the hours following the final custody hearing, the one during which Kenny and I could not look at each other while we took turns on the stand. A friend of ours, the woman who’d introduced us years before, sat in the back row of the courtroom, and as we adjourned, she stood in a black dress and wiped tears from her cheeks with a quick sweep of the back of her hand and said, “I keep thinking of how this story started, and I can’t believe this is the way it ends.” It wasn’t ending, I thought—there would never be an end to this.
My father and I sat together looking down Pearl Street toward the mountains behind the Daily Camera building. It was his first time in Colorado, and after we sat for a time in silence, he said, “This is a beautiful place. You must really hate to leave.” I sighed, kept looking in the distance toward the front window of my favorite bookstore.
Indie chose the small bedroom in the duplex, but she never felt comfortable there. And after a few months, I stopped questioning her refusal to play or even sleep in it, because I could feel it, too. It was as if some tragedy had taken place there, and no matter how many times we rearranged the furniture or added a tie-dye wall hanging, a new white nightstand, or a
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