“THIS IS THE WINDOW she looked out of every day,” the tour guide with the white mustache says. Step right up, folks, and see that certain slant of light. Immortality looks like everyday stuff: chairs, doorknobs, Emily Dickinson’s white dress on a mannequin, protected by a Plexiglas box.
If you live in Amherst, I recently learned, your English class is required to go to Emily Dickinson’s house. You might look around at the old furniture with a sincere appreciation of the day off. But for some people who come here, it’s a church. You can see it when they get out of their cars, that they look up the driveway with a light in their eyes. They have come to worship.
“Just look out that window,” the tour guide continues, “and you’ll start to see what was inside her head.”
I look out the window and see trees. Trees were in her head?
“We’ll go inside her bedroom now, to see the window from which she lowered baskets with candies and cake for the children,” the tour guide says.
As if she were fishing for kids, someone whispers. Creepy.
I look to my left. It’s the student teacher from AP English, Mr. Tate, standing right next to me shaking his head, still looking like he just finished the surfing championship—with his golden tan and honey-colored curls. Just the two of us are left, standing in front of the headless mannequin. He’s so close to me I can almost identify the brand of his shampoo.
“I don’t think it’s right. Putting her clothes on display like that.” He turns from the dress to look at me, his eyes narrowed.
Were we having a conversation?
“I mean, she couldn’t even stand to be in the room with her visitors. She’d have conversations from another room,” he says.
I imagine Emily Dickinson, from the next room, asking about things. How’s the weather, Claire? Is your life like a loaded gun?
“It could be anybody’s,” I hear myself say quietly.
“It’s probably not even her dress,” I say.
“Of course it’s hers. And she would have hated that it’s there for people to see.”
I shrug. “It’s just a dress.”
Mr. Tate is staring at me. He seems to have strong feelings about the dress. “Are you … still upset about that discussion?”
I feel my cheeks heat up. “Discussion?”
“The other day in class?”
It was that poem. I can still hear the real English teacher, Mr. Perzan, reciting it. I close my eyes and I can see his furry beard just slightly open as he speaks.
“Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I say. “Still upset about what?” On purpose I blink my eyes twice. Then I concentrate on the Plexiglas that separates us from Emily Dickinson’s dress.
“I didn’t mean to argue,” he says, “about your comment. But most people…”
I hear myself let out some kind of sound—part laugh, part snort—when I hear him say “most people.”
It must be something about the sound of the snort that stops him. I don’t look over at him, but I can feel his eyes on me again, staring. Behind us, I hear the footsteps of large zoo animals, primates most likely—the type that like to stomp and drag their appendages, making their way down the stairs. They have found a reason to squeal over something I can only assume is highly amusing to primates.
Mr. Tate lets out a sigh.
“You mean, most people,” I hear myself say, “don’t think Emily Dickinson is funny? How is that even possible?” I do manage a voice that’s sincere—like I’m really asking. I manage to overcome overt sarcasm. “Come on,” I say, even sounding like I’m having a reasonable, friendly chat. “The girl in the poem is on a date with death. How is that not funny?” I make what I believe is a neutral gesture, one that indicates I am like most people. I watch my hand as it briefly glides through the air like someone else’s hand.
“I guess if you’re the type of person who thinks horror movies are funny,” he says.
I feel the hair on my arms rise. I squeeze my lips together.
“I mean, the girl in the poem … she’s cold … right?” he says. He seems to have a compulsive need to convince me of something. “And she’s being driven past a cemetery. She knows she’s being led to her own end.”
I continue to look straight ahead, to see nothing but the dress.
And then something—I’m not sure what—about the light outside shifts suddenly, like a curtain dropping over the sky, and the room is a new dim shade. Like it’s a moment from a different, gray day.
“She wants to—” I hear my voice say. “She’s making a decision to go with him. It’s her choice.”
“What?” He seems to whisper this. “What do you mean? Do you mean it’s her choice to die?”
Does he step backwards as he asks this?
I swallow. I glance in his direction. He does seem farther away. I take a quick, sharp breath. I let out a fake laugh. It wouldn’t convince anyone. “It’s like a cartoon,” I say. “That’s what I meant the other day. That kind of funny. No big deal.” I seem to be smiling, nodding, or I’m trying to anyway. I’m looking at him, or at least in his direction, but over his shoulder, out the window where things are blurred. My voice is even, so even it’s flat. “Anyway, forget it. We just see the poem in different ways.” Then I feel my feet start to move toward the door. I guess the rest of me follows. I don’t know what happens to Tate.
* * *
“Why do you need to empty those boxes?” I ask. “It’s better to have less clutter around.” My father doesn’t seem to hear me over the sound of his tearing tape off box tops. He is ripping dramatically, all arms and elbows. It’s a violent sound that makes me shudder. For some reason, I think of skin.
As I watch him peeling back the top of the box, all the world’s evil starts escaping and entering my bedroom. I can smell it.
I turn to my laptop. I type in Flying Elvises and shift the screen so he can’t see it from where he stands as I’m lying on my bed.
“Everything’s a mystery,” my father says. “Why didn’t we label the boxes when we packed? Now it’s all a surprise.”
“Surprises are bad,” I say, but he doesn’t hear; he’s ripping another one open.
Yesterday, three Elvis impersonators died skydiving in high winds. It was meant to be a stunt to advertise the opening of a club in Springfield. If the Elvises have expressions on their faces in the video, you can’t tell because of the effect of the wind on their cheeks. At first, they are showing off, arms and legs spread. One of them pretends he’s swimming. I am thinking that’s the worst part—the way they were having fun just before the end—and so I don’t hear my father’s question that ends in “cameraman, too?”
By now I see my father has managed to get a glimpse of my laptop as usual, in spite of the fact that it never makes him happy.
“Claire, must you?”
I turn to him. “It’s a cultural artifact,” I say. You’d think that as an archaeology professor he’d see that.
“It’s macabre,” he says.
“So many cultural artifacts are.”
His mouth is in a grim, straight line. I see him wince as the screaming starts on the video, and I turn back quickly and press the MUTE button.
“How did school go today?”
“Average,” I say. “Why do you need to empty the boxes anyway? All this stuff—it’ll just get dusty.”
I’m not sure in which alternative universe average in regard to high school could be good. “Some interesting—uh—people,” I say.
“You like it, then?”
I know it’s a question, but it sounds more like begging.
I look at the screen. This is the part where things get confusing, where you can see the geometry of the town far below: inside the street grid you can make out twin baseball diamonds alongside a blue public pool.
So that’s what you see when you fall to earth.
“We have enough stuff here already,” I say. “We don’t need the old things.”
“Time to move in,” he says, “and move on. We can’t live in an empty house. I know it’s not easy starting up someplace new in your senior year. But it’s only a year. Think of it that way. Count down the days. Get through. That’s all you have to do.”
I hear him attack another box and its tape. He takes a deep breath, inhaling what’s stored up in there. “Sylvia Plath. Anne Sexton. Randall Jarrell. Emily Dickinson,” he says. “You’re taking American lit, right? You might need—”
“I don’t have room for those,” I say, just barely looking up from my computer, where Springfield is silently flashing by, the blur accumulating.
I hear his feet shuffle. The sound echoes off the walls of this empty place.
“They were your mother’s—”
“I know what they are.” I switch to a new screen. “But I don’t need them, Dad.” My screen now has the picture of the nanny who was found yesterday in a dumpster in Boston—or rather, her torso was.
His feet do more shuffling. “Maybe we should do some exploring this weekend—get to know Amherst,” he says. “What do you think?”
The nanny was Swedish and loved baking, I am reading. She had been dancing all night in a shiny silver top.
“The college has a great natural science museum,” he says. “I can get us in after hours. We can have the place to ourselves.” And just in case I didn’t get the joke about his new job, he says, “I have connections there, you know.”
In the before picture of the nanny, her white-blond hair is being whipped around her face by the wind at the beach. Of course, the children have been cropped out of the picture.
“It could be fun, just us and all those bones and rocks … Have you unpacked all of your clothes?” he asks.
I hear hangers sliding on the pole in my closet. Is my father really browsing through my wardrobe? I also wonder, Where is the rest of the nanny? Where are her dancing feet?
“Do you have some other clothes somewhere? Don’t you have anything pink or yellow?” my father asks. I can hear the slow, deliberate movement of hangers against the metal pole as he examines my clothing, one item at a time. It’s a chilling sound.
“You only said black was out,” I say. “You didn’t say anything about requiring pastels.”
“You could use something bright. That was the problem in Providence, all that black.”
This makes me laugh—that black clothes were my biggest problem in Providence. “A guy broke our door down to get revenge,” I say. “It didn’t have anything to do with my clothes.” I remembered the house shaking. Was I wearing black that day?
Another hanger slowly scrapes across the pole. Note to self: Google torso—see if it means the head, too.
“It was all related,” he says.
“To my clothes?”
“This time we’re going to do it right,” he says. “You’re going to finish high school. Did you see that catalog I found … J. Crew, I think. Does that sound right—J. Crew? I put it on your backpack.” I hear him let out a deep breath. “You’re going to move on,” he says confidently. “Clothes are a start.”
I look up at him. “A glass of water looks exactly like a glass of acid,” I say.
He turns away from the clothes. “What?”
“Why does it matter what I look like?”
“You want this to work out, don’t you?” It seems like a genuine question. Like a mystery even he can’t seem to solve. “I’m just saying play along—get through the year. You didn’t leave the house for months before we left Providence, and now you’ve been thrown right into things. Maybe you could use some help? I have the number of a doctor,” he says. “Maybe some counseling—”
“Let me try,” I say, “by myself.”
He lets out a long breath.
“Can I try to work it out my way?”
* * *
Today Mr. Perzan, the real English teacher, is standing in the posture of a proud toy soldier. His suit, shirt, skin, and beard converge into the same shade of neutral. Only the textures distinguish clothing from person. It’s easy to dwell on this coincidence of color in a classroom that’s full of postlunch students, where the boys are sprawled out as if they are required to take up as much room as possible, like downed rain-forest trees, where the girls retract their elbows as you pass by. Like some rain-forest insects with a similar nature, even the most benign contact with them is taboo.
Mr. Perzan’s tan beard opens. “My life closed twice before its close.” The crystal-clear words lift into the air. He seems to have had some theater training, though those skills will be lost forever inside the rain forest. His past will die with him, here.
“What does Emily Dickinson mean—My life closed twice?” Mr. Perzan whispers to add intrigue.
Not one forest creature moves. The pretend teacher, Mr. Tate, is unfortunately seated facing AP English, at a student desk. Though he’s trying awfully hard to imitate a real teacher in his shirt and tie, he fits right in to the forest, and seems to be dozing off. Perhaps the surfing championship did him in.
“Hmmm?” Mr. Perzan hums. “What does it mean?”
I feel my jaw tightening. I hear nothing except scratching, and see the girl next to me doodling in her notebook—a mob of garden gnomes with pitchforks, who all resemble Mr. Perzan.
“How does someone’s life close twice before it really closes?” He’s using another persona for this question—a skeptic. He leans back. He makes his shoulders droop. “It’s not that whole death thing again. Is it?”
Still no response except the sound of pen on paper, etching in the details of many beards.
My eyes focus on the overly prepared football field outside, so bright green you couldn’t help but notice it if you were falling to earth. It could be the last thing you’d see. I take a deep breath. This seems to make a lot of noise.
“It’s not death,” I am surprised to hear myself say. “It could be disappointment … or betrayal or something. You know, she’s into the drama of it all. Saying that those things are like death.” Did I wave my hand through the air, too?
The pretend teacher has awakened. Even from way across the room I can see signs of life.
“Drama?” Mr. Perzan asks. He lifts up his chin.
“Well, Emily Dickinson’s life seems pretty boring,” I say. As I speak, I hear the forest begin to stir. My cheeks get warm. I continue anyway. “It was a small orbit.”
“A small what?” the pretend teacher asks from his corner. His voice is foggy from his nap. I can hear the forest creatures whispering.
“Orbit,” I say quietly, and the room gets silent again. “I mean, her world was limited.”
The pretend teacher is leaning forward, toward the forest. I watch his arm creeping toward the front of the desk. “Emily Dickinson’s life was limited to mundane concerns? Is that what you mean?”
The forest eyes volley to Mr. Tate. You can hear the sound of tree trunks shifting, dragging themselves across the forest floor.
“I’m not saying feeling betrayed or disappointed is mundane,” I say, “especially if you don’t know much about life.”
“You think they are on the same level as death?” Mr. Tate’s voice gets high on the last word. The forest lets go of a single, collective murmur. The front legs of chairs lift and bang down.
“For some people,” I say, though I don’t know why I do. I hear the forest wakelings start to chirp. I close my eyes.
“And that Emily Dickinson didn’t know much about life?” Mr. Tate is sitting very straight, his eyes very wide.
“I’ll have to stop the discussion because we’re out of time,” Mr. Perzan says.
I only just now notice that he has moved off to the side and is leaning against the whiteboard, his arms folded.
“And, Claire,” he starts, his voice sounding different again, more neutral and distant, “you should find out a bit more about that small orbit. See if it’s true.”
* * *
I finally find Emily Dickinson’s grave in the cemetery at the center of town, tucked behind a strip of stores and near an apartment building. Her gravestone is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. It says “Born Dec. 10, 1830,” and then it says “Called Back.” It makes death seem so lifelike. Calling to her.
I am thinking of what that might sound like, when I hear his voice. It comes from behind me.
“Hi,” he says. Mr. Tate, pretend teacher.
I glance at him. His face is red and sweaty, and his shirt’s been labeled AMHERST COLLEGE, in case they misplace him. He’s been running.
“Souvenir hunters still manage to climb inside to make rubbings of her gravestone,” he says.
I turn back to the grave. “Makes sense.” I mumble this.
“So you’re really doing it?” he says. “Checking out that orbit?”
Even though I try to smile, I feel only half my mouth curl up. “Why are you here?” My question comes out barbed. “Shouldn’t you be at a fraternity party or something?” I ask, staring at his shirt.
His mouth smiles. I notice his eyes don’t. “Shortcut. To my dorm— Oh, I get it,” he says. He points to the little wooden box on the grave, where people have left things. I can see a note in a ziplock bag, for protection from the rain probably. “You’re part of the club already, aren’t you?”
His tone of voice cuts me. He’s invaded my sector. Lifeguard/surfer, get back to your lookout post.
I scowl at him and then turn to the tombstone. “What club?” I say.
“What’s the measure of your grief?” he asks. I can’t tell whether he’s making fun of me or waiting for me to leap over the fence with some crayons and a paper bag so I can have my very own “Called Back” gravestone. He’s watching my face to see if I got the reference.
I take a deep breath. I grip the fence tightly.
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing Eyes—
I wonder if It weighs like Mine—
Ah, yes. But none of those griefs ever do weigh like mine. It would be hard to do that. I look straight ahead.
Lifeguard, shoo. Go home. “Fffff.” Air leaves my mouth as I begin to deflate. I’m already tired of this town.
“It’s okay to be in the club,” he says, leaning on the fence. “It’s not a sign of weakness.” His voice seems to come from high above me, even though he’s standing next to me. It has this way of coming down to my level.
I snort. “Lots of assumptions, Tate. You don’t really know anything.”
He starts to drop his wisdom on me. “I know what’s obvious—”
“That I’m another emo high school girl?”
“Very perceptive,” I say quickly, and turn to leave.
“Claire, I have some advice for you,” he says.
I turn around to see his chin tucked down on his chest and his eyes looking at me from under the shelf of his eyebrows. If he wore glasses, he’d have them at the tip of his nose and he’d be looking over the rim. It’s a look that says, “Listen up, I’m the head librarian.”
Why don’t I keep walking?
“Let me tell you something about senior year—”
I don’t know if it’s his tone of voice, so regulated and smooth—so certain—or the very idea that someone wants to tell me things about senior year, but a tiny rubber band in my head pops. I swear you could hear it ping. I feel the blood surge in my temples. “I already know plenty about senior year,” I blurt out. My head throbs. “How many times did you do senior year, Tate? It’s my second time—”
I stop suddenly and see his face now, the eyebrows lifting on his forehead. His head tilts.
I look at the gravestone. I imagine climbing over the fence and hiding behind it.
“Why? What happened?” he asks.
“What?” I close my eyes. I try to disappear, like a time traveler. There’d just be the slightest evidence of me then, a normal girl’s sweatshirt and jeans left behind on the grass in front of Emily Dickinson’s grave.
“Did you get sick?”
“Why didn’t you finish high school? Did you get mono or something?” His voice is matter-of-fact. He’s even half smiling—doing me a favor, filing my life under Average, or at least somehow within the range of Usual.
Why didn’t you finish high school? It’s a question I’m tired of answering, and I’ve been asked only once. This one time. It was a rough couple of years, I’ll write in my college essay. These people kept disappearing …
I know it’s possible I will be answering for the rest of my life if I don’t get through this year, possible I’ll have to tell the story over and over forever.
I stand up taller and grasp the metal fence bars. I hold on tight. How easy would it be for me to just say I had mono? So easy. Or to just say, “It’s a long story.” I look in his direction. But it’s not him I see. Instead I see my old friend. Richy.
It doesn’t stop hurting, I could say, but I don’t.
“I was a suspect in a missing-person case.” I’ve never said it out loud before. It’s like I’m auditioning for a play, forced to say someone else’s dialogue—not the part I want—and it comes out naturally insincere.
And, believe it or not, that’s just a small piece of the story.
“But … nobody can know,” I say. “I just want to get through this year without it following me around.”
Copyright © 2012 by Kathryn Burak
Kate Burak's stories and poems have been published in the Missouri Review, Western Humanities Review, Gettysburg Review and Fiction. She currently teaches writing at Boston University. This is her first novel.