Authors: Liz Moore
The Words of Every Song
For my mother, Christine
Many thanks to Seth Fishman, Jill Bialosky, Alison Liss, and Dave Cole;
to Bergen Cooper, Adriana Gomez, and Vani Kannan;
to Jessica Soffer, Alex Gilvarry, Peter Carey, Nathan Englander, Colum McCann, and my classmates at Hunter;
to Dr. Mark Davis, James Lawson, Chris Pohl, Dr. Matthew Rivara, and Jon Shehan;
and to Mac Casey, Christine Parkhurst, Stephen Moore, and Rebecca Moore.
• • •
• • •
The first thing you must know about me is that I am colossally fat. When I knew you I was what one might call plump but I am no longer plump. I eat what I want & furthermore I eat whenever I want. For years I have made very little effort to reduce the amount that I eat for I have seen no cause to. Despite this I am neither immobile nor bedridden but I do feel winded when I walk more than six or seven steps, & I do feel very shy and sort of encased in something as if I were a cello or an expensive gun.
I have no way of knowing exactly what I weigh but I estimate that it is between five and six hundred pounds. The last time I went to a doctor’s office was years ago and back then I weighed four hundred eighty pounds & they had to put me on a special scale. The doctor looked at me & told me I was very surely on a path toward early death.
Second. In my letters to you these two decades I have been untruthful by omission. For shortly after I last saw you a variety of circumstances combined to make it impossible for me to continue my academic career. About this—about many things—I have been unforthcoming. My references to former friends and colleagues are memories. I have not worked as a professor for eighteen years.
Last & most important: I no longer go out of my house.
Fortunately it is a very nice house & largely I am proud of it. I did not purchase it; it was bestowed upon me. It is 25 feet wide. Very wide for this block. & once it was very lovely inside and out, decorated very nicely, O this when I was a small boy. But now I fear I have allowed it to fall into a sort of haunted disrepair. Only scraps of its loveliness remain: the piano (I played when I was a boy); the bookshelves around the fireplace; the furniture, which once was what they call high-end, but at this point has been sinking slowly toward the floor for forty years because it has borne the weight of me on its back. There are nice things on the upper floors I suppose but I haven’t seen them in a decade. I have no reason to go up there. I couldn’t if I tried. My bedroom and everything I need are on this floor, my little world, & outside my window is the only view I need. The state of the house is one of the things I’m most ashamed of, for I have always loved the house, & sometimes when I am sentimental I feel the house loves me as well.
Because I no longer go outside, I have become very good at ordering whatever I need online. My home sometimes feels like a shipping center; every day, sometimes twice a day, somebody brings something to me. The FedEx man, the UPS man. So you see I’m not entirely a shut-in because I must sign for these things. And what leaves my house does so in garbage bags that I toss to the curb from my top step, very late at night, when it’s dark out.
There are companies now for everything. One for bringing you your books and newspapers and magazines. One for sending you supplies you might need from a pharmacy. Even one that lets you order your groceries online and then brings them to your house for you. An old-fashioned concept in some ways, a wonderful innovation in others. Once a week I select my supplies on their website. They have everything, this company—everything you could possibly think of. Prepared foods & raw ingredients. Desserts & breakfasts & wine & toilet paper. Cheese & deli meat & ice cream & cake & bagels & Pop’ems, little doughy confections that Entenmann’s bakes & then sprinkles with holiday-themed colors. Now it is October & my Pop’ems are orange and black.
A man brings my food to my home on Tuesday nights. I made sure to choose the after 5 p.m. option when I joined, which pleases me I like to think the deliveryman might believe I work all day and am just getting home. I’m very silly in this way! On the phone with customer service representatives, I casually mention family or work. How are you today, Mr Opp? asks the lady representative from Bank of America, and I sigh and say, Swamped. A little joke. In the same way, I delight in answering the door for my grocery delivery with a tie loosened about my neck and an air of exhaustion and world-weary distractedness. You can leave it just inside the door, I always say, & then walk into the kitchen, calling back over my shoulder little mundanities about the weather or a sports team. Once the boxes are all accounted for, I tip the driver with cash that I keep hidden in a drawer on my nightstand, on the inside of a hollow book. I obtained the book as a child—it was my prized possession, a hollow book!—and it has proven useful to me since. All the food I order for delivery is paid for by credit card on the phone. Tipping is the only thing I need cash for, so for a long time I have relied on the large store of bills that years ago I procured from the bank. I have no plan for when they run out. I never thought I’d need one.
The very very last time I went out of my house was in September of 2001, when I grew so lonesome watching the news that I opened my door and walked to the bottom of my stoop and sat on it, my head in my hands, for an hour. & I wished I had someone to talk to. It felt as if the world could end. Some very bad memories came to me one after another in a row. I heard what I thought was a woman screaming but that turned out to be peacocks that occupy the courtyard of a church near my brownstone. Then I hauled myself up and I walked to the end of the block, and then I walked one block beyond that, & then another, & then another. Finally I reached the corner of Ninth Street and Eighth Avenue, where two groups of women were standing in tight little circles, visibly upset. One young lady, holding a bewildered two-year-old in her arms, was crying and being heartily consoled by a friend. When I walked by them they hushed and looked. Beyond them I had a view all the way down Ninth Street toward the water & the horizon, and if I squinted and looked to my right I thought I could see black smoke rising into the sky, though I could not see downtown. Now I used to go into Manhattan quite a bit when I was younger & Manhattan was of course where I used to teach & although I didn’t like teaching I thought of my students and my former colleagues & prayed for their safety and well-being. I thought of you & felt glad your dreams of living in Manhattan had not come true. I was overwhelmed with sorrow and nostalgia—
self-pity and pity for others, which, in me, are often the same emotion. I stood until my feet could no longer bear my own weight and then I lumbered back, pausing seven times to catch my breath. The women were gone now and the streets were empty. At the bottom of my stoop I looked up to the top of my own twelve steps and vowed that I would not leave again, because you see I had no one to call, and no one called me on that day, & so that’s how I knew I did not need to go out of my house anymore.
Since that day I have been completely reclusive. Of course my natural tendency has been toward solitude from the time I was a boy, but for many years I had family & other people who kept me from shuttering myself in too tightly. I had you for a while, and people like you. But I am no longer in touch with any friends or relatives. My mother was dear to me but she died young. For several reasons that I will give you if you care to know, I do not speak to the rest of my family. Nevertheless, they have made me financially stable for the rest of my life & I do not need to earn money to be so. This too has helped me to get bigger and bigger & has allowed me to stay inside my cocoon of a house.
Now I spend each day in much the same way. In the morning I furtively collect the newspaper from its place on my stoop. I paid the deliveryman once to make sure that he placed it at the very top. I read all of the articles. I read the obituaries, all of them, every day. I cook or assemble feasts for myself. I wake up and plan the day’s meals and when I have something particularly good in the house I feel happy. I roam from room to room, a ghost, a large redfaced ghost, & sometimes I stop and look at a picture on the wall, & sometimes, in a particular corner or room, a memory comes to me of my past, and I pause until it has washed over me, until I feel once again alone. Sometimes I write to you. Sometimes a piece of my own furniture will make me stop and wonder where it came from. It’s a feeling of disconnectedness: I don’t know & I have no one to ask. Mostly, though, my house has grown so familiar to me that I don’t see it.
The evening of what has come to be called, on the news, 9/11, I wrote you a letter to inquire about your whereabouts & within a week I had a letter back from you. You said you & your loved ones were fine. Whether or not you have known it you have been my anchor in the world. You & your letters & your very existence have provided me with more comfort than I can explain.
These are the things you must know about me & this is my apology for the many years I have misled you by intent or omission. The slow descent of my health & the ascent of my reclusiveness have occasionally made it difficult for me to come up with suitable material for correspondence, & the fact of the matter is that I couldn’t bear the thought of an end to ours.
In spite of everything, at heart I am still the same
• • •
hen I had finished it I held the letter in my hands before
me & imagined sending it. Imagined very clearly folding it into sharp thirds & taking with my right hand the envelope & inserting with my left the letter. & then sealing it. & then inscribing it with Charlene’s address, which I know as well as my own. O you coward, you coward, I thought, if you were worth anything you’d do it. While writing it I had felt a sort of grand relief, to be unburdening myself after so long, to someone I cared for so deeply. It was the letter I had always imagined writing to her. But unsurprisingly I was too afraid to send it, & so I told myself that it was a selfish sort of honesty, the sort that Charlene didn’t need to be encumbered with anyway.
The events that prompted me to write it are as follows.
First, three days ago, the phone rang. I had been doing absolutely nothing & it gave me a very great shock. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I waited a few rings to let my breathing settle before I answered.
A voice came through the wires. “Arthur?” someone said. “Arthur Opp?”
Now I do not get many personal calls & my heart leapt at who it might be.
“Yes,” I said, I whispered.
It was Charlene Turner. I did not expect to hear her voice ever again in my life but O God I was very glad to. I nearly cried out but stopped myself. I clapped a hand over my mouth instead & bit the inner flesh of it.
It has been nearly two decades since I last saw her. The
in-person relationship we had many years ago evolved naturally into a sort of steady and faithful written correspondence. But over these many years, our letters have become inexpressibly important to me. An outsider might call us only pen pals but over time I feel I have come to know Charlene Turner as well as I have ever known anyone, & have tentatively imagined that one day we would see each other again, we would resume our relationship, & all in all it would be very natural & easy.