A paper airplane drifted high in the sky above the field. I nearly crashed my bicycle, straining to follow its path as it circled above the treetops at the far edge. It held the wind beautifully, effortlessly. Pausing, it hovered over the field just as a seabird holds its position above crashing waves.
I slowed to a stop, feeling for the ground with one foot, afraid to take my eye off the craft lest I lose it in the clouds. Neck craned, eyes to the sky, I let the bicycle drop. I tracked the paper’s elegant flight, running this way and that like a boy as it slowly, slowly lost altitude.
As it made its final pass, it gained speed, careening across the field. I loped after it as it tumbled end-over-end and lay still.
I plucked it from the grass.
It was folded in a distinct design—squat and wide, with a hinged belly. It was covered in writing. I recognized Anna’s handwriting instantly, and that familiar ache that I both loved and hated coursed through me. I flipped the hinge and unfolded the airplane. It was a letter to me, though because it was a graffito confession, I wasn’t named.
The leaves outside my window rustle like dry paper. The cat, stalking prey in the yard, is a paper cat. The paperboy is a paper boy, the waning sun a lightbulb. I miss you. . . .
Fingers trembling, fighting tears, I put it in my pocket. I would read it carefully in the privacy of my room above the sail shop.
Through blurred eyes, I noticed that the field wasn’t empty: a group of wooden window frames sat in the center, propped against each other to form inverted Vs. Wiping my eyes with my sleeve, I went to examine them.
There were blinds set in each frame over thick stained glass, and the blinds were covered with Anna’s distinctive handwriting. They were drafts of letters to me. Almost all of the words had been crossed out, with more words squeezed in above, also often crossed out. I squatted in front of one, ran my fingers across a wooden slat, across her aborted words, sensing the struggle, marveling that her hand had been just here, pressed against this slat.
In the distance, a motorcar door slammed. Maddie Sampson, the grocer’s wife, was crossing toward me, head down, in black Sunday church dress and white gloves. Her Studebaker idled in the background, spitting grey smoke.
I gathered up the windows to take with me.
“What are you doing, then?” Maddie said as she approached. “I’ve just come to read those.”
“They were written to me,” I said defensively. I could see in her face that she didn’t believe me, but, reluctantly, she turned toward her auto, glancing back several times as I tucked some frames under my arm, clutched others in both hands, and struggled toward my bicycle.
I wanted to get to my room to read what Anna had written; to read the letters over and over until I had memorized them, especially to decipher the words that had been crossed out, knowing that those were the words she did not mean yet also meant most, the words that would nourish me, yet set me longing for her until I couldn’t eat or sleep, nor think any thought except of her.
The ride back to town was a struggle, the frames digging pink creases into my palms. I rested in front of Etta McKenna’s house, catching a breath and whiling away a few moments rereading the vertically scribed graffito on her white picket fence, listening to piano music drifting from the house. The graffito was the confession of a woman who had lost a child from her womb after tripping on a sheet dangling from her laundry basket and tumbling down a hill. How proud Etta’d been when she woke one morning to find her fence graced with a tragic tale, well and honestly told. I gathered up the window frames and pushed on.
In the white background of the railroad crossing sign, someone had squeezed a short love ode: I announce my love for Anca, who sold cakes outside the north doors of the paper doll factory. I’m far too late, I fear.
Up ahead, the side wall of the post office announced the start of Chester town proper. I smiled, thinking of the April day when Officer Darby had directed old Mister Scotch to whitewash that wall, which overnight had been covered with a blisteringly lovely confession from a man who ached with loneliness in a house packed with loved ones. Poetry, it was. Mrs. Daughtry came by as old Scotch was painting, and shouted that she hadn’t even read that one yet, and why would he be defacing a work of art in any case? When old Scotch told her Officer Darby was the hand moving the brush, Mrs. Daughtry had the police station packed with angry graffito aficionados within the hour. Precious little whitewashing took place in Chester after that.
Since the graffito confessions began last fall, people had taken to long walks through town, stopping to read confessions, discussing them with companions and passersby, quoting the pithier lines at the supper table. A talented graffito writer was held in higher esteem in Chester than the most fearsome batsman in the Chester Wildcats ball club, although, granted, no one knew the name of any graffito artists for certain, even if speculating on authorship was a favorite pastime.
I’ve heard a hundred legends accounting for the origin of the graffito confessions that have swept Chester, and met a dozen people who take credit for pioneering it. But all of them are wrong. I know who started it, and why. It began last September.
The familiar clink of hammer on chisel rang out over the rooftops, from Ben Chuck’s wood carving shop around back of Alton Tuckerman’s shoe store. It was far too soon after his heart attack for Ben to be working—as far as I knew he was still in the hospital, all the way out in Doverton. I dropped the main staysail I was working on in my shop and headed down the alley between Tuckerman’s and the drugstore, to Ben Chuck’s.
A half dozen life-sized cigar store Indians, set on mounds of dirt, stood watch over his sprawling work area, which was scattered with scraps of wood and piles of shavings. It was not Ben working, but a woman, and she wasn’t carving an Indian, or a grizzly, or anything else that usually came out of Ben Chuck’s wood shop—she was carving a wild stallion, its mane snapping in the wind, its front hoofs flaying the air.
The woman’s skin was the color of dusk, her lips full to bursting, nostrils flared like a winded colt. She was wearing men’s overalls that were far too big. Just as she caught sight of me, a train passed on the tracks set behind Ben Chuck’s Indians; we waited for the rattle and thump to fade in the distance.
“It’s absolutely lovely,” I said when it was quiet enough, “but won’t it block the sidewalk outside a cigar store?”
She burst out laughing. “I can’t find any Indians in these.” She motioned to the blocks of wood stacked haphazardly around the big rolling door of the shop. “There are horses trapped in most of them.”
“What will you do with all those horses, once you’ve freed them?” It was an effort to look anywhere but into her eyes. When I dragged my gaze to the stallion, or the line of chisels set out on a scrap of stained rug, it was like defying gravity; as soon as I relaxed, my eyes found hers again.
“Calliope,” she said, her smile mischievous.
“Ah! Yes, of course—I can see just where the pole would be set. It’s beautiful work. Stunning.”
She nodded, a blush blooming, clearly embarrassed.
“Really,” I said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re gifted.”
“Moving on,” she said. “So, what do you do?”
“I make sails,” I said.
“For ships?” she said, her eyes wide. “Is your shop nearby? Can I see it?”
“Absolutely.” I motioned ladies first, and we headed through the alley.
Her walk was music—cello and flute and shaman’s drum. As we walked she told me her name was Anna, and that she was Ben’s niece, come to look after his shop while he recovered. She waved away my inquiries into her hometown and where she learned woodworking in the same way she’d waved away my compliments.
Anna was delighted by the sails; she dug her way underneath the big staysail spread across the floor of my shop, laughing as she flailed her arms to and fro underneath.
“Why not swim with me, Samuel?” she said, and I did—I dove underneath the sail and the two of us laughed like loons.
We sat outside, winded, enjoying the crisping September air.
Some people speak in sentences, others in paragraphs. With Anna, every word mattered. I never knew what word would come next; it drew me into a world where time was canted like a fun house mirror.
It was a breezy day in fall, the streets painted with leaves, the orange of pumpkins on every stoop. Anna loved the pumpkins; she pointed them out, laughing her deep, dusky brown laugh. Inspired, I took her hand and drew her down Nightingale Way, to the edge of town and Farmer Pope’s field, the two of us running along the dashed white line.
“Where are we going?” she asked every few footfalls.
“You’ll see,” I answered. The contrast of our laced fingers reminded me of the keys on Mrs. McKenna’s piano.
As we neared Pope’s field I slowed and pointed. Anna screamed with glee and ran into the field. It was aglow with pumpkins of all shapes and sizes. She ran from one to another, hugging them and talking to them, pressing wet sloppy kisses to their waxy skins.
“Shall we go to the cinema tonight?” I asked, my heart tripping with spring love as I watched her.
Her smile slipped. She caressed the fat pumpkin she was holding. “No.”
“All right, then,” I said. “But why not? It’s a love story. You’d like it, I think.”
She shook her head slowly—sadly, I thought.
She shook her head again. There was something behind her eyes. Her cheek was pressed to the pumpkin, her smile lost. She wouldn’t say any more about it. It was Anna’s way, I was learning, to suffer silently. She shared only her joy.
She stood, the moment broken, and headed toward the road. Her walk had lost its music.
“Trust me,” I said. I hadn’t moved from the heart of the pumpkin patch.
She stopped. The light was waning, the pumpkins fading to ochre, the leaves whispering in a light evening breeze.
“I’ll see some piece of my life there,” she said at last.
I went and took her hand, urged her to sit on a fat pumpkin so we could talk at leisure. “I don’t understand,” I said. “You’ll see a piece of your life?”
“In the movie. Some of the movie will be stolen from my life.”
“What do you mean?” I brushed her curls. “Explain it in paragraphs.”
She rustled as if to stand, which would mean that she had said all she cared to on the topic, but then she wrapped her arms around her knees.
“When I was nine, I was struck by lightning, in a lemon grove behind my house. The force of it threw me across the grove, and it broke my back. But the pain was a fair price, because the strike turned me inside out, left me light as a feather, lifted like a cork on water.”
That explained why Anna never craned her neck, but turned to face things full-on. It did not explain why she didn’t want to see a movie with me. I waited out the silence. We listened to the crickets’ confessions for a time.
“Not a month later I read a book, about a nine-year-old girl who was struck by lightning in a lemon grove.”
“Are you saying someone heard about your accident, and used it in their book?”
She shook her head, stared at her fidgeting hands. “Even small things that no one else knows about are stolen. My dreams, arguments I had with my brothers as we walked the mud road. . . .”
I had no idea what to say. It was madness, what she was telling me, but I’d asked her to trust me, and I wouldn’t pull my trust out from under her now.
“It happens all the time,” she said. “Books. Movies. Songs.”
“How long has it been happening?” I asked.
“When my mother died, that was the first,” she said, her moon eyes filling with tears. “Later I read it in a book, about an orphan girl, just as it had happened.”
“How did it happen?” I asked, hoping the question wasn’t too personal and wouldn’t scare her silent, or come across as the curiosity of a ghoul.
It was darker now. I took her hand, caressed her knuckles with my thumb. She shut her eyes tight.
“Mother sang like a bluebird. My voice was reedy and tasting of too much air, but a grown woman must have a young one in tow if she’s to earn any appreciation singing in courtyards.”
She spoke quickly and rhythmically, her body rocking, tears beginning to squeeze from the corners of crunched eyelids.
“I can still hear her, hear that beautiful song that unleashed the coins, see the tendons stretched tight in her neck, her head lifted toward the wall of windows rising on all sides.
“Was it the birds’ fault, what happened? It was after they appeared, circling over the courtyard by the thousands, lending their tweets and whistles to her voice, that Mother reached a song no one had ever reached, a sound so pure and clear as a raindrop. But maybe it was Mother’s song that drew the birds, not the birds that drew the song, or it was a loop—song drawing birds drawing song drawing birds.
“There’s no doubt, though, that the song drew the coins. All the wealthy in their velvet apartments leaned out their windows to listen, and drop coins into the courtyard. The silver flashed in the sunlight as it fell, tumbling end over end, tinking on the cobblestone, rolling in ever smaller circles before lying still.
“When the coins began to fall I spread my arms, laughing with delight, my singing interrupted. But Mother took no notice. Eyes closed, she continued singing the song she’d reached, and the birds called their appreciation, and the coins rained down, thick on the ground, bouncing off my head and shoulders, cool under my bare feet.
“Their eyes wide with joy, the rich emptied their purses, and then burlap bags. I scrabbled above the rising silver tide when it covered my ankles. It sucked at my feet, like the sand beneath in-and-out waves at the edge of the ocean, and when Mother was buried to her waist I turned my face to the silver rain and called out Enough! The din of coins and birds drowned out my reedy voice and the coins kept falling.
“I tugged at Mother, but she was entranced, and when she finally finished, and opened her eyes, she was buried to the chest.
“She held me above the tide, urging me to swim, to stay afloat as the coins crashed down, a thunderous storm now, and when the coins covered her terrified eyes I screamed Mother! and dug for her, but the coins cascaded into the hole as soon as I dug it, and Mother’s hands pushed me up until they were gone in an avalanche of coins that had gathered against the side of one building and crashed over us like a wave.”
Anna stood, her cheeks wet with tears. “I don’t know who got all those coins, but it wasn’t me. They were the soil on my mother’s grave.”
Everything she was telling me had to be lies, but I didn’t believe she was a liar, so I had to believe she was insane. It was a beautiful insanity, and I loved it, loved these canted sensibilities and outrageous delusions, just as I loved the length and width of her fingers and the fishline tangle of her midnight hair.
“I wonder, sometimes, if the scenes I don’t recognize in a movie are things yet to happen,” she said. “If there’s a motorcar wreck, is that the moment of my death, played on a twenty-foot screen for all to watch?”
“Maybe it won’t happen if you’re with me,” I said. Perhaps I could cut through the delusion, I thought—share my steady stone mooring with her, just as she shared her wild magic with me.
She thought for a long moment. I fully expected her to refuse me.
“All right,” she said.
The sight of the theater lights banished Anna’s melancholy. The colorful fantasy that was the Roxy beckoned to us, bursting from between two nondescript red brick buildings like confetti. We ran the final block, squeezed through the brass door in a tangle of hips and limbs, oblivious to the stares of the other patrons.
We stopped at the blue marble candy counter, vases filled with pussy willows set at each rounded corner. Our eyes were big like children’s as we peered through the glass at the colorful candy boxes. Neccos for Anna, Cherry Bombs for me, then she headed for the stairs—it didn’t surprise me that she would choose the balcony, which was closer to the stars and an ounce like flight. I followed right behind, loving who I was when I was with Anna, wondering at how the lightning that had struck her coursed into me every time I touched her.
The stars on the ceiling of the Roxy twinkled in the boxed light that was dimming even as we hurried to seats in the back row.
The curtain rose; the projector began its click-click-click just over our heads. Anna dug into my box of Cherry Bombs, fished one out in a curled finger. It made a few trips around her mouth; then, too impatient to suck on it for long, she bit it in half, the sound like breaking ice. A moment later she was back in my box for another.
She laughed as I started working on her Neccos in retaliation. The Necco box was clutched between her thighs; on the way out of the box I stopped and put my hand on her knee. She closed her eyes; her inhale trembled.
I leaned and kissed her softly.
“I dreamed this moment,” Anna said. “I should feel guilty, but I don’t.” Someone shushed her from a few rows ahead. It was old Mrs. Young, who’d once been my fifth-grade teacher, glaring as if she might have a ruler in her handbag. Any other day I might have been embarrassed, but now it only set us giggling. We settled down soon and watched the movie.
My hand squeezing Anna’s knee, we watched Warner Baxter and Ruby Keeler fall in love. She was a schoolteacher at a private girls’ school; he sold sandwiches from a cart outside the gates. It was the perfect movie to see with Anna, and soon her head was on my shoulder. I thought it beautiful when Warner took Ruby’s hand and led her down a street, to show her something.
When Ruby asked where they were going, and Warner answered, “You’ll see,” something itched at me. Anna’s fingers tightened on my arm.
When they reached the end of the street, and a pumpkin patch spread out before them, my chest filled with ice. Ruby squealed with delight and ran into the pumpkin patch, spinning and dancing.
Anna sprung from her seat and hurried out of the theater. I followed, stunned, on clumsy legs.
I found her leaning against a lamppost, sobbing. I wrapped my arms around her, felt her wet face on my neck.
“I hate it,” she said. “I hate it. My life is my own to tell, or not tell.”
I couldn’t believe what I had just seen; my steady stone mooring shouted coincidence, but its voice sounded shrill and ready to crumble.
“You’re a magical creature,” I said.
“No, I’m not a magical creature! I’m a woman, flesh and blood.” She took my hand, and pressed it against her breast, right there under the light of the streetlamp. “I’m normal, except for this one thing.”
Anna was many things; normal was not one of them.
“I didn’t believe you. I thought you must be addled,” I said.
“I am addled.”
I laughed, and she joined me for a moment, then her face sank back to sadness.
I walked her home in silence—Anna grieved alone, despite my presence. “It’s my life to tell,” she said as we said good night; “I won’t let it be stolen.” She closed the door.
The next morning, a small crowd had gathered on the brick sidewalk at the crossing of Main and Orchard Street, by the train depot. Oren Habersham, his walrus mustache hiding the movement of his lips and his wide-brimmed hat the cast of his eyes, was pointing at something as a few others nodded at whatever he was saying.
I stopped in my tracks as I cleared the line of stores and saw what they were looking at. A line of boxcars that had been left to rest for the night on the second line of tracks was covered with writing. The conductor and brakeman were standing by the water tank, hands on hips, staring up at the boxcars. I shaded my eyes and read:
When I was eight, I collected seashells. When I turned ten, I decided to collect friends instead. Every time I made a new friend, I’d write his or her name in my notebook. I had two hundred and eight friends by the time I turned eleven.
The waist-high letters of the missive covered the first three boxcars. Other bits of autobiography were strung out across the rest of the cars.
I found Anna hard at work on a sea monster.
“You must be tired,” I said.
She smiled broadly, but kept working. “If my life is to be paraded in public, I’ll be the one to do it.”
I nodded, although she couldn’t see the nod because her eyes were on her work. “Will this stop your life from appearing in movies and such?”
“I don’t know. I think maybe it will.”
I imagined her intuition would prove correct. Who could possibly know the rules of this sorcery better than Anna? She put down her hammer and chisel and took me by the hand.
“Where are we going?” I asked, not a hint of irony in my tone.
“You’ll see,” she said, not a hint in hers either.
We joined the crowd for a spell, tsking and feigning surprise, echoing their talk of hooligans and what the world was coming to. Then Anna led me away, toward the north edge of town.
We walked nearly a mile, to Boddington Bridge. The steel beams facing inward were festooned with stories, memories, reflections, all in the same hand as the tales on the train.
The priest at my family’s parish once went through my closet, counting my shoes and chastising me for the sin of vanity.
Once in my sleep I reached the place where dreams are woven, and watched them well up into my mind like soap bubbles, until I was driven from the place by an angry cowled figure who told me not to mess with things I knew nothing about.
I saw my grandfather killed by the seashore, struck on the head by a falling coconut. One way I test the hearts of strangers is to tell them this and see if they lead with laughter or tears. Why is death by a falling coconut funnier than death by a falling brick?
Things I don’t like that most people do: tomatoes, magic acts, chewing gum, things that are blue.
“It’s made of steel salvaged from the giant Ferris wheel, from the 1893 World’s Fair. Did you know that?” Anna said.
“No, I didn’t know that.” It delighted me that she did. And made me love her all the more.
It was scrawled hurriedly, on the red and white striped awning of the five-and-ten:
My mother had to work as a whore when we were hungry.
Anna and I looked at each other in disbelief, then masked our expressions lest anyone understand the reason for our surprise.
It grew from there, until empty walls, awnings, even white space on circus handbills were in terribly short supply in Chester, and lone figures wandered at night, their heads bowed deep in thought.
Someone had painted a confession onto the sides of Leavitt Norton’s cows. There were one or two words on each cow, and because they had wandered around the pasture as cows are apt to do, the message was scrambled.
“Turn around so we can read you!” Anna shouted at one of them, leaning over the split rail fence while I rearranged the words we had collected so far on my notepad, trying to make sense of them.
I stopped worrying at the puzzle and looked off into the trees, realizing that, at that very moment, my life was perfect. The joy of it swept over me with such force that I laughed aloud.
Anna turned and looked at me, curious, and I kissed her. It was a long, long kiss that caused me to drop my notepad.
“I should feel guilty, but I don’t,” Anna said. She’d said the same thing when I’d kissed her in the movie theater.
“Why should you feel guilty?”
She shrugged and returned her attention to the pasture. I put a hand on her shoulder.
“Anna, why should you feel guilty?”
She didn’t turn around, but, finally, she answered.
“Because I’m married,” she said.
My life ended. I will never recover from this moment, I realized as I felt myself falling into a deep black hole. Anna turned, stared at me with big wet eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I heard myself say from far away.
“I didn’t know this would go so far. I thought we were friends. I didn’t know I’d fall in love with you.”
“Who is he?” I asked, hating him.
She shook her head, wanting to move on. I asked again. I waited.
“I married when I was too young. He was kind, and handsome, and accomplished. I thought that was all there was to love. No one told me there was much more.”
“Leave him, and marry me,” I said.
“I can’t. I made a promise, I can’t take it back.” Tears rolled down her cheeks, one on each side, two for each heartbeat. “I might as well douse him with kerosene and strike a match as leave him. He doesn’t deserve that.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Home.” she said. “Where his work is.”
Anna’s eyes were blazing with tears, alive and so beautiful. I looked into those eyes, and tried to imagine my life without them. If I were Errol Flynn, I would sweep her to my ship on a swinging rope. But I was not Errol Flynn. This was not a movie.
As we stood there, the cows wandering forgotten behind Anna, I realized that there was only one thing I could do that would not wreck me. I saw that clearly, as a condemned man sees each twist in the noose.
“I can’t see you any more,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Don’t say that.” She lunged and hugged me, so tight it squeezed my breath. “Don’t even say that.”
“If you can’t leave him, there’s no room in your life for me.”
“I’m not hearing you,” she whispered into my collar. “You’re not saying this.”
I didn’t answer. What answer could there possibly be?
I walked her home, past the prancing calliope figures made leering and twisted by the coming darkness, and we said goodbye, neither of us able to speak through our sobs.
She came to my shop each morning and knocked on the door. Our eyes would meet through the window, and I would shake my head, and we would cry, and she would go away. Then she stopped coming.
I thought she must have left town, though I didn’t know which day, because she hadn’t said goodbye.
Then I discovered a graffito love note, etched in the meat of a white birch in the park, her canted handwriting unmistakable. A few days later I found another, clutched in the teeth of a stray mongrel cub. Then another, and another. I spent my days scouting for these lifelines to my Anna.
Then the paper airplane, drifting against the clouds.
There was a knock at my door, just as I propped the final window along the wall of my room.
“Well, hello, stranger.” It was Millie the nurse, dressed in a smart plaid skirt and floppy hat instead of her white uniform.
“Hi Millie,” I said. I had opened the door only a crack.
“How about taking a girl for a walk?” she said. Millie fancied me, and made no secret of it. She was smart and kind, a blue-eyed chipmunk. It was time to move on, I knew. The sunsets came and went, but my sadness stayed. I had to let Anna go.
“I’m—working on accounts that really can’t wait. I’m sorry,” I said. “Tomorrow after work?”
“Just as good,” she shrugged, flipping her little palms up, then clasping her hands in front of her.
I returned to my paper airplane and window frames and read until evening—until my eyes were puffed and my sinuses plugged. I thumbed through the soiled, waterlogged magazine I’d found by the railroad tracks the week before: Lightning Strike Survivor, the cover shouted in silver lettering. How could there be such a magazine?
She was a magical creature. She was the wind. I watched for her all the time, imagining I saw her in the distance, coming down the dusty road.
And now this paper airplane graffito love note, and the window blinds, where she had suffered over the words that would go in the note. I flattened the heavy creases on the unfolded airplane and reread the last line:
This will be my last. I must try to let you go.
I folded it and put it in my back pocket. The graffito had been my last thread to Anna. How I’d clung to it. Now it had been cut.
I was in a mourning mood, and there seemed no escaping it. I grabbed my hat, threw my jacket over my shoulders, and headed to the movie theater. I had avoided it since the cows (as I labeled that day, the day my life ended), but the memories the theater would spark couldn’t possibly make me feel more melancholy than I already felt, and perhaps a movie could carry me away from thoughts of Anna, if only for a few hours.
I skirted the candy counter and sat in the lower section. The movie, with Helen Hayes and John Barrymore, was about a spoiled heiress and a soldier just returned from the Great War. By the middle, I considered leaving; thoughts of Anna kept drawing me out of the story.
“. . . you can’t make yourself feel what you don’t feel.”
The snippet of dialogue, spoken to Marie Dressler by her best girlfriend, caught my attention. It rang like one of the things I often thought when I was trying to convince the Anna in my head to spend her life with me. I watched the movie with a bit more interest. Somewhere along the way Marie Dressler had married another man, only to realize she was in love with John Barrymore.
There was a scene between Marie and John, a clandestine picnic in a field.
“I can’t. I just can’t,” Marie Dressler said to John Barrymore. “Edgar would die a thousand deaths if I left him.”
My fingers and the tip of my nose began to tingle. I stared, stunned, at the screen.
“Then I can’t see you any more,” John Barrymore said. “If you can’t leave him, then we’re just torturing ourselves.”
I squeezed the arms of the seat as if hanging on for my life.
John Barrymore left Marie and moved away. The movie stayed with Marie, who stuck by her husband, who was a kind but dull fellow who brought no music to her life. All of the light had run out of Marie’s eyes; at night she cried in secret, going through a hope box filled with photos and memories of John Barrymore.
Then one day, after what must have been a few years, Marie left her husband. It was a strange thing to happen in a Hollywood movie, because Marie’s husband hadn’t done anything to deserve to be left—he didn’t cheat, or hit, or treat her poorly, as movie husbands always did if they were left. Marie left because she didn’t love him, and couldn’t bear to live a lie.
She packed a bag and hopped the train to San Francisco, where she’d heard John might be living. She couldn’t find him, and took a job working in a cigar store.
One day, John Barrymore came into the store. There was a poignant moment of recognition, then John vaulted the counter, scattering tobacco displays. They kissed. They looked at each other in disbelief, then kissed again.
The credits rolled.
I padded up the red carpeted aisle, wiping fresh tears from my face as the lights came up. I was shivering, uncertain of what had just happened, of whether anything had happened.
There was a soft rustle on the floor behind me. I turned. Anna’s airplane lay on the floor, fallen from my pocket. I picked it up as others filed past.
I read the last line again.
This will be my last. . . .
I’d once asked if the graffito confessions would stop her life from appearing in movies and books and songs.
“I think it will,” she’d said, and it had.
This will be my last.
That line had filled me with such despair, but now, now it filled me with hope. I wanted to shout my joy at the stars scattered on the ceiling of the Roxy.
It was only a matter of time—suddenly I felt certain. It might be days, or months, or years; it didn’t matter. I ran out of the theater, my arms spread, and whooped at the real stars. I laughed and spun an imagined Anna around in an evening dance.
I sprinted to my shop, too bursting with energy to sleep, grabbed a fore skysail from the shelf, and spread it across the floor. I grabbed an ink cut marker from the supply drawer, and began my own long graffito confession.
I wrote until my hand throbbed.
A storm was coming—the pots and pans hanging outside Renear’s tin shop clanged in the growing wind. The milkman’s truck rumbled past—it must have been four or five in the morning. Still time to post my graffito confession before sunup.
Drops were pattering in the street as I leaned out my upstairs window and sunk moorings into the brick facing.
Lightning flashed as I stood on the roof and sunk more into the chimney sleeping through the summer.
When I’d finished, the vast sail snapped in a violent wind, tickling the windows on the opposite side of the street. My confession covered the sail, barely readable from the street. Except the final line, written in letters tall as a man.
I will wait for you.