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Reprinted from Harpur Palate, Winter & Spring 2018

 

Transgressions

 

Jerry Burger

 

The house at the end of Franklin Street is the third one he tries this night. A neighbor noticed him eyeing the first place, and the second house was closed up tight. But everything about this one feels right. No lights, no car in the driveway, and — most important — a For Sale sign in the front yard and a lock box on the front door. It’s getting late and a little cold, and Klee is relieved to find a window in the back open just a crack. He sees that a lot. Probably to keep the place from getting that stale odor he sometimes encounters. He slips through the window and is surprised to discover the house is still furnished. Not with a few rented pieces to make the place look cozy, but with real furniture, scratched and sagging from daily skirmishes with real people. It’s a lucky break. It means a bed to sleep on instead of the floor. However, he knows it also means the owner probably died recently. Most likely, quite suddenly.

Klee pulls a flashlight from his backpack and locates the controls for the furnace. Homes on the market always have power. He points the flashlight downward and is careful to avoid open curtains as he makes his way through the house. He decides to pass on what appears to be the master bedroom — a little too creepy given the recent death — and keeps moving until he finds what looks like a guest room. His flashlight pauses on the quilted double bed, the tired curtains, the hand-me-down dresser. There is a dusty smell that reminds Klee of the first rain of the season. The sense of abandonment is pervasive.

He arranges the flashlight on the nightstand to create a reading light then pulls his journal out of his backpack and turns to the dog-eared page labeled Transgressions. He enters the date in the left hand column followed by the word Stealing. Twice this week he took money from the drawer where his mother’s boyfriend tosses his change. Klee gives himself only one point for each incident. The amounts were small and would go unnoticed. And besides, stealing from Clayton is not as bad as taking something from his mother. He gives himself another point for the ongoing lie of not using his lunch money at the school cafeteria. He considers and dismisses a few minor violations, like the pennies he took from the tray on the 7-11 counter even though he didn’t need them. He enters a 3 in the right hand column and circles it. Well below his self-imposed limit of seven transgression points per week.

Klee finishes his homework — two pages in his Spanish workbook and one set of algebra problems — then pulls the plastic bag that contains his bathroom supplies from the backpack. Soap, towel, toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant. He does not yet need a razor. When he returns to the guestroom, he plugs in the small radio he’s owned since he was six. It is the last gift his father gave him, mailed a few days after Christmas from somewhere in Canada. As always, the radio is set for the talk show station. Klee turns off his flashlight, settles on top of the quilt, and lays his coat over his chest for warmth. The mattress — the first he has slept on in nearly a month — gives way to the curves and angles of his body, and Klee knows tonight he will have a good night’s rest.

Tinny voices spill out of the radio. Like most nights, Klee imagines they are coming from nearby rooms where other members of the household are preparing to go to sleep. Although he rarely listens to the words, tonight the show’s host poses a question that captures Klee’s attention: If you could have just one superpower, which would you prefer — the ability to fly or the ability to make yourself invisible? Callers split into equal camps, but for Klee the answer is easy. To observe without being seen. To learn about other people without revealing anything about yourself. Invisibility would mean power. Power and safety.

The first trace of sunlight stealing between the window blinds wakes him early. Klee straightens the quilt, washes up, and fills his water bottle. He eats a granola bar while checking the house for treasures, mindful not to take anything that anyone would miss. There is no food in the refrigerator except a bottle of salad dressing and some ketchup. No change sitting around in ash trays or on counter tops.

The house seems stagnant and sad in the daylight. The carpets are worn, the walls in need of new paint. Each indistinct room blends into the next. There are few indications of the kind of people who lived here, just a single framed photograph on a living room shelf. It’s a picture of a young couple standing in front of a white backdrop in a professional studio. The woman’s head is tilted slightly to one side. She smiles confidently, while the man stares straight into the camera with an expression of overbearing optimism. It appears to be a fairly recent picture. The frame looks new, and the clothing styles are current. Although they seem barely old enough, everything about the picture says the two people are married. They also are much too young to have died of anything except a horrible accident, a thought that causes Klee to turn away from the photograph.

Just as he is about to leave, Klee notices a metal box on the inside of the front door. He lifts the lid and discovers several pieces of mail. Probably delivered before the change-of-address request went into effect. There is an ad from a carpet cleaner, another from an oil change and lube service, and a postcard-sized calendar with a realtor’s name on it. Nothing he can use. But the box also contains a white envelope with a handwritten address. The ink is light blue, almost turquoise. The handwriting is delicate and a little ornate, with flourishes at the ends of words and capital letters a little larger than necessary. More drawn than printed. The envelope is addressed to Owen Callaway. The return address is simply a street name and number in Portland, Oregon. Klee holds the envelope close to his face — no smell — then slips it into his backpack.

He manages a quiet morning at school. When lunch period arrives, he makes his way to the solitary bench behind the gym where he pulls his lunch and his journal out of his backpack. He eats the peanut butter sandwich he made in his mother’s kitchen the previous afternoon, when he barely made it out of the house before Clayton came home. It has been more than three months since he last saw his mother’s boyfriend, since the day Clayton made it clear he didn’t want Klee hanging around. That first night, when he told his mother he was staying with a friend, she didn’t even ask the friend’s name. Nor did it occur to her that 15 was too old for a sleep over. By the third night, he stopped telling her anything, and she never asked.

He opens his journal to the page he has labeled GF. GF stands for girlfriend, but he uses the initials as an extra measure of privacy. Down the left-hand column are the first names of the five girls he has fallen in love with since seventh grade. The remaining columns include brief descriptions of each girl, all written in code (PBE = pretty brown eyes, NL = nice laugh). None of the girls knows her name is in the journal. None even knows that he has thought of her as a girlfriend. His interactions with them have rarely extended beyond a friendly smile or a short conversation about schoolwork. Once he and Madison, the third girl on the list, were assigned to work on an English paper together. They sat side by side in the library for nearly an hour. She wore flowery perfume that day, and her blue bra strap kept sliding out from under the edge of her blouse. Like most of the girls on the list, she has a boyfriend.

Klee thinks about entering a sixth name. Candice sits next to him in Spanish and for the second day in a row smiled at him and said Hola when she entered the classroom. Both days he said Hola back, which seemed to please her. He spent much of the morning imagining the two of them in situations he has seen in movies and on television. Candice smiling at him from across the dinner table. Holding hands while they do some window shopping. Going to parties where he meets her friends. When he immerses himself in these daydreams with Candice or with any of the girls on the list, the rest of his world disappears. For a brief period of time, the dread and humiliation that have come to characterize his life fade away. The taunts, the obscene insults. The comments and the laughter they know you can hear. If only he could find the right girl. None of it would matter if he had a girlfriend like Candice.

It’s almost time for class, and as he returns his journal to his backpack, Klee sees the envelope with the turquoise ink. Taking Owen Callaway’s mail was wrong. Even the dead are entitled to their privacy. A transgression point for sure if he keeps it, but he can still return the envelope unopened. All he has to do is slip it through the mail slot in the front door. But something about the handwriting calls to him, and he knows he will not let it go. To show respect, he opens the envelope in a slow and careful manner.

Inside he finds a single sheet of paper. It’s a letter, handwritten in the same turquoise ink. The folds are stiff and the paper unwrinkled, which makes Klee keenly aware that he is the first person to see the letter since it was sealed inside the envelope. The date at the top tells him it was written exactly two weeks earlier.

Dear Owen:

I imagine you are surprised to hear from me. I hope pleasantly so. I’m not even certain you still live at this address. I tried searching for you on-line, but I could find no Owen Callaway that resembled the one I remembered. So I decided to use good old snail mail as a last resort. Since I’m not sure this letter will even reach you, I’ll limit myself to just a few things I wanted to let you know. The most important is that I am no longer married. Be glad to share the details sometime, if you’d care to hear them. The other thing, which I suppose is obvious by now, is that I would like to get back in touch. Please understand that I mean by that only what it sounds like. I have no hidden agenda or plans beyond maybe hearing how you are and what you’ve been doing. If that sounds OK, you can write to me at the e-mail address below. Or you could send a letter to the home address I’ve also listed.

Fondly,

Briana

Afternoon classes pass slowly. Klee can think only of Briana and the letter. It’s as if he has stumbled upon a secret passageway, that he and Briana are connected to one another in a way no one else can experience. He tries to imagine what she looks like. She and Owen are probably the same age. Judging from the photograph in Owen’s house, that wouldn’t be much older than Klee is himself. Maybe five or six years’ difference. What kind of relationship did they have? She signed the letter Fondly, which is more than friendly but far from intimate.

When his last class finally ends, Klee makes his way to the library on Mariposa Street where he has to wait but a few minutes for one of the computer monitors to free up. He starts by creating a new account and is pleased to find that Owen27 (his birthday is the 27th) is available. He writes and rewrites the message he has been composing in his head all afternoon. He makes a few final changes, takes a deep breath, and reads the e-mail one last time before sending:

Briana

Sorry I did not get back to you sooner. I have been traveling. It was wonderful to receive your letter. I am sorry that you are no longer married. And, yes, I would be interested in the details. I have thought about you a lot and would very much like to stay in touch. I’m not sure what to say about myself, so why don’t you start? Use this e-mail address. It’s sure a lot faster than snail mail!

Fondly,

Owen

Klee breaks his own rule and returns to spend a second night in the house on Franklin Street. He needs to learn more about Owen Callaway. The clues are sparse, but every fact he can glean is useful. The clothes in the bedroom closet tell him that Owen was average size. Owen listened to country music, didn’t read much, didn’t smoke (no ash trays) and, if the pictures hanging in a couple of rooms mean anything, liked old cars. Someone planted a vegetable garden in the back, although that could have been his wife.

Klee studies the photograph of the couple at length. There appears to be a wedding ring, or perhaps an engagement ring, on the woman’s left hand. He guesses that Owen is older than she is, although only by a year or two. Klee scrutinizes the face for hints about the man’s personality. The closed-mouth smile seems genuine, the expression inviting. He seems like someone who would shower his wife with affection, notice subtle changes in her mood, be protective of her frailties. Someone a lot like himself.

There’s a message from Briana the next afternoon.

Owen –

I can’t tell you how happy I am to receive your e-mail. After a couple of weeks, I had pretty much given up hope that I would ever hear from you (either because I could not find you or because you had no interest in contacting me). I’m not too proud to admit it — marrying Dennis was a mistake. Funny how obvious that is now. But…

They exchange several e-mail messages over the next two weeks. Briana usually waits a day between receiving and sending, and so Klee does the same. He prints out and reads each message over and over and spends hours composing his replies. It’s a fine line he’s trying to walk. Forthcoming enough to show his interest but careful not to say anything that would raise suspicion. He comments on what she says – You’re so right. I also find there’s something about winter that makes me nostalgic — and offers general observations that anyone might make — Today was one of those mornings when I just felt like staying in bed. Little else in his life matters. Certainly not his classes. He starts to skip school on the days he expects a reply, spending all day at the library checking for messages every half hour.

Each e-mail he receives is better than the one before. And everything he learns about Briana makes her even more amazing. She looks for the good in everyone, even in Carla, the woman in her office who treats her poorly. She enjoys her roses, can’t watch scary movies, and loves the way she can see the mountains from her front porch. Her divorce left her with a lot of self-doubt, but she’s doing better now. No mention of a boyfriend or even that she is dating. There are no pictures of Briana anywhere on-line. But Klee knows that she recently started wearing contact lenses and that she weighs about 10 pounds more than she did in high school. She also seems to like what he writes. Once she called him insightful, and another time clever. Twice she started her message by saying how much she adored his last e-mail.

One night after re-reading all of her e-mails, Klee opens his journal to the GF page and adds a new name. Briana. Because he has little idea what she looks like, he leaves the rest of the columns blank. Yet he feels he knows her far better than any of the other girls on the list. From what he can tell from the e-mails, Briana has been divorced for a couple of months but was separated from her husband for at least a year before that. He’s not sure, but he guesses that she would be just about at the point where she is looking for a new relationship. Isn’t that why she wrote to Owen?

His connection with Briana is the best thing that has ever happened to him, but Klee knows that exchanging messages under the pretense of being someone else cannot last forever. Nor does he want it to. He has imagined a half dozen scenarios for where things might go from here and falls asleep each night playing out the possibilities in his mind. He has stopped keeping track of his weekly transgressions. Whatever decision he comes to about Briana will be far more consequential, will provide a more definitive measure of the kind of person he is, than all the transgression entries in his journal combined.

The next message he receives from Briana has a different tone to it. Instead of describing her day, she talks in surprising detail about her marriage and divorce. She blames herself as much as Dennis, although Klee thinks she is being too generous to her ex-husband and too hard on herself. She ends by reflecting on what she has learned from the experience:

Things aren’t always the way they appear. But I suppose we are all too eager to believe the dream, to live in hope. Failing to take action is one of my personal shortcomings. Too often we pass through life like we had all the time in the world, somehow believing the opportunities will always be there. You can’t imagine how long it took me just to send you that first letter. Shame on me for all the time I have wasted in my life, for all that I have lost.

Klee skips school the next morning and is waiting outside the library when it opens at 9:00. He heads directly to the computer monitors and quickly finds the Greyhound web page. It costs $122 for a one-way ticket to Portland. The bus departs at 4:40 that afternoon and arrives at 10:30 the next morning.

He waits until 11:00, when he is sure Clayton and his mother will be gone. He enters his mother’s house, removes everything related to school from his backpack and replaces it with two changes of clothes. He makes a couple of sandwiches and takes whatever food he finds that makes sense — an apple, a package of cookies, a small bag of corn chips. He moves to the tall dresser in his mother’s room where he knows Clayton keeps large sums of money. He finds $162 in bills plus a handful of coins in the top drawer. He puts the coins in his pocket and the rest with the $106 he’s already saved in the inside zippered pocket of his backpack.

The bus is unlike any Klee has ever seen. The seat backs are high, which keeps the passengers in the window seats hidden from view from almost everyone. He finds an empty row near the back and moves to the window where he also will be largely unseen. A heavy quiet envelops the bus when the driver closes the door and seals Klee and the rest of the passengers inside.

The warmth, the soft hum of the motor, and the gentle vibration of the bus cause Klee to drift in and out of sleep. He is visited by images of Briana as he has come to picture her. She is always taller than he is. She smiles only occasionally, but her eyes retain a look that reassures him that — no matter what — she will be there for him. They rarely speak in these imagined scenes, and if they touch at all, it’s only briefly. A hand on a shoulder or a brush of an arm. Briana’s hair is always long and amber and flows all around her. In some of his dreams, her hair grows and grows until it overwhelms all his senses and he finds himself embedded in the secure web of its silkiness.

He wakes with a start. The bus has stopped, and passengers are departing. His first glimpse of Portland is a little frightening. The streets are filled with people moving quickly and with purpose. Klee steps gingerly among them, staying on the edges and avoiding eye contact. It takes less than an hour to find the address. Briana lives in a yellow house with a small front yard. A row of rose bushes lines one side of the driveway. There is no indication that anyone is home, which is what he had expected for the middle of a weekday. There’s no place where he can hide and watch the house, and he doesn’t want to draw attention. And so he keeps moving. He eats his lunch in a nearby park and uses the directions he pulled off the Internet to find the nearest library. The plan — as far as he has worked it out — is to return to the house around 4:00 and to keep circling the block until Briana comes home from work.

He’s decided to tell her, when the time comes, that he is 18 and that he graduated from high school last year. Twenty might be closer to her age, but he doubts she would find that believable. The unresolved question is how – or even whether – to tell her the truth about the e-mails. If she adores the e-mails, shouldn’t she adore the person who actually wrote them? His inclination at the moment is to wait to tell her. Wait until after they become a couple. He imagines the two of them laughing about it, the entire incident drawing them closer together.

He returns to Briana’s neighborhood before 4:00 and selects a route and a pace that allows him to pass her house every eight minutes. He will not talk with her today. He just needs to see her. Knowing what she looks like will help him figure out what to do and when to do it. At 5:25, a small red car pulls into the driveway. Klee is several houses down the block and can barely see the back of the figure who steps from the car and enters the house. By the time he gets there, he can only stare at the closed front door. He replays the fleeting image in his mind while he continues walking his route. Clearly a woman. Bright blue coat. Average height. Short dark hair. Definitely dark. Not amber. And not flowing.

Twice over the next few hours he catches a glimpse of her through the front window as he passes the house. But the sightings are brief and blurry and provide no new information. It is dark and cold, and Klee needs to find a place to spend the night. He will return in the morning before she leaves for work.

Sleep comes in short bursts. The floor is hard, the house old and musty. He uses the few new facts he has to adjust his image of Briana. He pictures the two of them living in the small yellow house. Together they trim the rose bushes, eat candlelit dinners, and take long evening walks while her memories of life with Dennis and his memories of his old life dwindle into insignificance.

He wakes before the sun rises and makes his way through the chilly air to Briana’s neighborhood, where he resumes walking his familiar path. An hour later, he is passing on the sidewalk in front of her house — no more than 20 feet away — when the front door suddenly opens. The woman with the short dark hair steps onto the small porch carrying two empty water bottles. It takes Klee a few seconds to realize what he is seeing. She is much older than he expected. Twenty-five or maybe 30 years older. The woman sets the bottles on the porch to the right of the door. She writes something on a small piece of paper that she sticks on one of the bottles before going back inside.

Klee is frozen in place. A myriad of possibilities flood his awareness. After a moment, he approaches the house. Whether anyone sees him doesn’t matter. He steps onto the porch and leans forward to read the note on the bottle. The ink is not turquoise, but the handwriting is unmistakable. Quickly everything falls into place. The man in the photograph is not Owen Callaway. Most likely, it’s Owen’s son. Owen and Briana know each other from decades ago. She was probably married for decades as well.

Then the front door opens, and there she is.

“Who are you?” she asks. “Can I help you with something?”

The last sliver of hope that he might be mistaken disappears. There are wrinkles in her smile, loose strands of graying hair dip across her forehead. Surprisingly, the eyes match the shade of amber he had imagined for her hair, and despite his unexpected presence, there is charity in her expression. It occurs to Klee that these are the eyes he imagined each time he pictured the woman who wrote the letter, the approving eyes that drew him to Portland. He feels at that moment very much like a 15 year old boy, an awareness so excruciating that all he can think to do is to turn and run.

He has barely enough money to buy the bus ticket for the return home. The Greyhound departs at 6:45 that evening; he spends the day in the terminal. Most of the trip is a blur, a black window pane penetrated by occasional dashes of passing lights. At sunrise, he thumbs through his journal, stopping only a moment on the GF page. By now Briana will have forgotten all about the strange boy she found on her front porch the previous day. She will be upset, probably a little hurt, when Owen Callaway suddenly stops corresponding with her. But she will move on. She has learned from her divorce. She’s more willing to take action, less eager to cling to the dream. Better able to separate illusion from reality. He wishes her well.

Klee leaves his journal on the bus seat when he departs; the detailed entries, aligned columns, and circled numbers nothing more than useless mementos. A numbness settles over him as he walks through the cavernous terminal and into the bright mid-morning light. He stands motionless at the edge of the curb, stripped of the balm of his imagination, staring without connection at the jumble of people passing by, the multitude now impossibly large, compassionless and menacing.