The worst of last winter found us in the first-floor unit of an extremely undistinguished graystone, somewhere near the elbow of Independence Boulevard. Often I went outside and looked it over wondering what Red had ever seen in it. From a distance it looked like an antique refrigerator; from up close it looked like contractors had practiced on it. In the soggy alley one of the windows was shivered; someone had lined it with a cheap terrycloth blanket that was covered with Ayanami Rei in a series of provocative poses. When I took out the trash I was subject to her bored gaze, while her colors bled eerily across the white space.
What I remember most is not being there. I peeled a student ID off the floor of the bus and used it to get into the university library, which was obscenely cozy and open on holidays. I didn’t push my luck by trying to check something out, but I could pull from the bookstacks and read in the aisles nice and close, as it were, to the source. My favorite shelves were along an overhang that looked down on an office full of clerks, and whatever they spoke amongst themselves floated readily up to my nook.
Most of the library staff seemed to live eons out of the neighborhood. The streets and garages around the campus filled and emptied each weekday like a water clock. I liked to imagine that the daily fluctuation of weight on the land might strike a resonant frequency and eventually build up to a rupture. The younger librarians spoke of places like Avondale, Edgewater, and Humboldt Park, consistently about ten blocks shy of fashionable, whereas the old-timers’ vocabulary was riddled with the morose long vowels of Harvey, Dolton, Orland. One woman, as I came to understand, lived all the way across State Line and drove in every morning on the Skyway. I started keeping an atlas at hand in the stacks, and when she mentioned an unfamiliar town or landmark I would circle it on the page. These graphite stars in their constellation, extending well out of the world of the city’s public transportation, were unknown and almost literally unknowable to me. I took great pains to fill these blank spaces in my imagination with the fleeting details of roofers, live-in nephews, and Aldi supermarkets.
That winter was almost too cold for snow, but there was one week that nonetheless turned out disastrously icy. Everyone came in ten minutes late with shaking knees and voices, but no one could toe with the woman from State Line. On each of that week’s five mornings, I heard her clatter through the door with her various provisions, arrange herself in her high seat, and then, upon catching her breath, begin an account of her troubles. It was striking how nobody interrupted her, not even with so much as an “ah,” and it was striking how everyone remained silent for a good while afterward, typing with a respectful delicacy broken by a student worker’s rude and unrelated laugh. I quickly began to look forward to these chronicles, and now I regret that I was not able to record them.
What impressed me most was their adherence to form, the regular procession of the same dramatic elements in a fashion that I suspect ancient audiences would have appreciated. They began with a note of optimism (“I was out of the garage at five-thirty sharp”) and continued with a note of optimism sustained (“the plows had come through on time for once, so I didn’t have to dig out at the intersection…”). But then came the language of the lonely pilgrimage, of each person against the vastness of their sorrow, of the smallness of each car against the vastness of the traffic, of the small mistake ten miles ahead and the pitiless chain of consequences, which flowed back down the expressway, and into all its blocked-up tributaries, down the county roads and into the very carports of northwestern Indiana.
Suddenly came the collision. The damage was more or less severe (usually less, on account of the speed), and the other driver was more or less at fault, but always and suddenly it came. Here the narrator stressed the absurdity of being long in the company of someone who has done you ill, of sitting side by side with the offender in the motionless scrum of the exit ramp, trying to reckon the damage to one’s own car through the very mirrors of the damaging instrument. Many muddled looks were exchanged through cloudy windows, many words angrily mouthed but unheard. Through a mysterious alchemy of morals, the other driver’s shame was gradually transmuted into righteousness, his own sin forgotten in a growing conviction that the librarian was truly the one to blame. All this time the two of them continued to sit there side by side. Then came the memorable violent-colored phrase, after which some stories began to diverge: “…and then he got out of his car.”
The book slipped from my hand, and I wondered what time it was getting to be. Trailing off to sleep against the radiator that would eventually leave griddle marks on my backpack, I saw a vast highway set on stilts, reaching from a white place to a white place on a precarious irregular arc. Invisible the ground below, invisible the ends of the lines of cars, each one powered by small explosions, each one tainting the gassy air that recirculates through the dashboard heaters and then the drivers’ open mouths. And now Red and I come floating down on the wind, invisible to the commuters below. Moving in the medians from door to door, she consoles the hearts of the stricken with motions of the hand, so at least nobody need get out of his car. I, of course, have no such talent, but I can follow where she leads, generously distributing cheap terrycloth blankets to this stalled race of men, that they might line the shivering windows of their lives.