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Kevin Wilson

Book of You

She is surrounded by books she may or may not have read. Does she like to read? She assumes that she does. The house she supposedly lives in is filled top to bottom with them. She takes one off of the shelf: a screaming comes across the sky. Doesn’t ring a bell.

Nelson knows that she reads. That is the first thing he remembers about her. He was driving to work, through a green light, and then this woman. She was reading a book, standing in the street. And what he first thought, not the obvious question of why this woman was in the street, but rather: what is she reading? And then he hit her.

She starts with books that look easy, colorful covers. Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, Johnny Tremain. They are all filled with sadness; death pervades them. She moves on to war novels. They are straightforward and the death is expected.

No one saw the accident. The woman over the hood, against the windshield, pages fluttering in the air. He scooped her up, put her in the passenger side of the car, and picked up every page of the book, clutching them in his fists, running in circles around the car. She was awake, glassy eyed but not dead, at least that. He started driving to the hospital. It seemed like the next step in the equation: doctors, nurses, x-rays, tongue depressors. And then he thought of what would come next: policemen, inquiries, his driver’s license left on the table in his house. Her voice came, soft as if whispered, can you take me home? This began to make sense. Yes, he could take her home.

Sometimes she has flashes of the past when she reads. A poor line in a Mailer novel and she remembers sitting here in this house at some other time. She remembers a hazy image of herself and the light coming in from the window of the study, and she remembers thinking, this is a bad book. There is nothing before or after the memory of reading, only the act itself. It does not give her clues to her past life but she is fine with this. She cannot say why, and she would never admit it aloud, but sometimes she thinks it is better this way.

He slid his hand into her purse, checked the license for the address. When they arrived, he asked her is this your house? She had no idea. This, he thought, this is not good.

Nelson arrives after work with flowers and a first edition. He has been so kind since the accident, never makes her feel bad about her inability to remember. Sometimes she tries very hard, some memory that will make him happy. It is almost there, she can almost believe she remembers, but then Nelson will stroke her hair, open up the pages of the book he has bought her and reads. The memory falls away, back down inside of herself. She only sighs, rests her head on Nelson’s shoulder, and stares at the flowers in the vase while he reads to her.

She slept the rest of that day. He knew it was not the right thing. Head trauma and sleep didn’t go together. Still, she seemed fine. She had only a few bruises, some scratches on her arms and legs, a cut over her left eyebrow where she had hit the windshield. He cleaned her up, helped her into her nightgown, and sat beside her bed while she slept. He took the book she had been reading and began to reassemble it. He started with the first page, Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Some of the pages were smeared, torn, but he slowly put it back into the proper order. As he stacked the pages, he skimmed over the plot. Russia, adultery, scandal, misery. Sad, sad, sad. As he continued ordering the pages, he feverishly read over each one, wondering what would happen, hoping good would come for this woman, Anna. Finally, towards the end, around page 870, he read about Anna and the train station. The train, Anna in front of it, then under it. Things started to make sense to him, a sick feeling in his stomach. There was a bit more to read but Nelson had no desire to finish, only stacked the pages. When he finished, he took the book, walked into the kitchen, and threw it into the trash. He placed some garbage over it, pushed it further down into the can. When she awoke, he wanted no trace of the book, no evidence, no memory.

There are so many books in the house. The four walls of every room are covered with the spines of novels, like wallpaper. It seemed daunting at first, so much to remember, but she is moving through them faster than she would have imagined. There isn’t much else to do anyway. Nelson does all the shopping for her, the errands, the work. He feels guilty; she knows this. She tells him it is not his fault, but he doesn’t want to listen. She strokes his hair and says, you have been so good. He only looks back down at the book in his lap. Chapter Six. She listens.

After he threw the book away, Nelson began to search the house. In the drawer of her desk, he found her address book. It was nearly empty, the few names faded, the numbers crossed out and replaced with question marks. As he wandered through the house, he began to piece together the essentials of her life. No husband, no boyfriend, no living relatives, no friends, no pets. A job as a receptionist at a dentist office. A cabinet filled with bourbon and gin. A drawer of underwear lacking anything leopard-printed. Dozens of reading glasses scattered all over the house, left on tables, under chairs, in the shower. And the books, of course, everywhere. It was touching, the pieces that made her life. He was in a similar boat, he felt. Not Tolstoy depressed perhaps, but still, he found an easy familiarity with the details of her unhappiness. The solitude of a life alone, unfulfilled. He sat down on the chair beside her bed, ran his finger lightly over the bandage he had put over her cut. She was beautiful in a way, a librarian beauty that seemed serious and determined. He took her hand in his, squeezed it tightly, and then she was awake.

For the most part, she has stopped trying to remember. If it comes, it comes. She is happy. Happier than before? She cannot say. Perhaps. She would like to think so. Still, with each book that she picks up, she believes somewhere in a corner of her brain, this is the one. I will remember with this one. What else are books for but to tell you who you are? She keeps reading.

Where am I, she asked, who are you? He did not hesitate, squeezed her hand even tighter, and looked into her eyes. You are home. There was an accident. I am Nelson. I am your husband. I love you and you are safe.

While cleaning, she finds a book in Nelson’s dresser, hidden under his socks. Anna Karenina. She has not seen it in the house before, but there is something familiar about it. Nelson has marked parts of it, yellow highlights on the text. She flips quickly through the book until she reaches the end, the final passage boldly highlighted. …my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no longer meaningless, as it was before, but it has an unquestionable meaning of the goodness which I have the power to put into it.

Yes, he thought as he highlighted the passage, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

She has read almost all of the books in the house. Nelson brings more books home, perfect first editions, rare and covered in mylar. She wonders if it is time that she leaves the house, finds her own books. There is so much left to read, still so many books unknown to her. Nelson does not like this. He is nervous. He is afraid, she knows, that he won’t be able to protect her. It has to happen sometime, she tells him. Yes, he says, yes, I know.

Tonight, he brought home something new. He entered his new home, their home, with a handful of tulips and the new book. After dinner, they sat on the couch and she unwrapped it. A Bible, tattered and yellowed at the edges. What is it about, she asked, and he told her everything, most everything. He knew he could not do this forever, that someday she would remember. And when she does, will she stay? He will tell her, this he promises every day. Now he has decided. When he has finished, when Genesis has given way to Revelations, he will tell her.

She rests her head on his shoulder as he opens the old book. He reads, In the beginning…in the beginning. He stops, tries again, in the beginning. She picks up her head, stares at his face as he struggles with the words. In the beginning. She listens, knowing that this will be the one. She looks with something that can only be love at her husband and eagerly waits for each word, the story that will finally tell her who she is. In the beginning…

Kevin Wilson is currently a student in the MFA program at the University of Florida. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, and Other Voices

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