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“Shit,” said Christopher, when the front door of a house sprang open early one morning in the town of Riverbend.  Christopher, who stood on a hill across the road, bent down now, scuttling backwards, rustling through the dry dead leaves, hiding himself further in the brush.  He watched a woman emerge from the Victorian house and stand on the veranda in a long white bathrobe.   She was a brunette, not a blonde.  She was tall and slim, not fleshy and curvaceous as he remembered her.   Squatting down on his haunches, stiff with the cold, Christopher wondered if he’d made a mistake.  Despite the shiny brass number on the door which identified it as #24, she might not be the right woman.  Had she passed by him in the street, he would not have known her.  Her dark hair was gathered up high in a topknot on her small, delicate head.  Her movements were clipped as she walked across the front porch to examine the fronds of a potted tree.  But despite all of this he sensed that the stranger on the porch was his Jenny.  He couldn’t say why it had to be Jenny and still it did.  Her posture as she stood holding the watering can, the attitude, the hand on the hip, the line of her cheek, the long neck, the way his breathing fluttered as she approached the front steps, as she looked up and down the road in each direction – he recognized her in his nerve endings.

What the hell was she doing, anyway?   She stared down at the lawn, tilted her head this way and that, as if she had misplaced something.  She hopped down the stairway, stooped, and retrieved an object from the stubbly brown winter grass.   It was a newspaper.  That was all.  She’d come out here to get the Sunday paper, and now she was turning, rubbing her arms in the cold, and running back up the stairs with the bundle clutched against her chest.

Christopher perceived each of her movements, snap snap snap, with the lightening speed of a lens and an aperture, though he had no camera, now.  He caught her only with his mind, and it was only his eyes that recorded her, capturing in a fraction of a second who she’d become.  She was the woman with the biggest house in Riverbend, the house on the corner of Bridge Street; the woman who had a satiny white robe and black pajamas with pink piping at the seams.  She wore narrow slippers and no socks.   He’d seen a glimpse of her skin: her wrists, her ankles, her face.  He’d seen her as she was, without make-up, in her nightclothes; he’d seen parts of her that had once belonged to him.

When the door closed, Christopher turned from the woman who’d wanted to marry him, wending his way back where he’d come from, through the muddy leaves and the exposed roots with their craggy gray bark, among the fir trees and the mossy boulders, carefully stepping over the rocks, in a pair of sneakers he’d purchased at the Dollar Store for 99 cents.  Following the stream, he hiked up one hill and down another.  Snow and ice dotted either side of the streambed.  A broken tree branch lay in the middle of the water, upturned.  It looked to Christopher like a ladder to the sky.  But the sky was not as he remembered it, and he was no longer clear on his purpose.  The sky now dwarfed him, shrank him to the size of a black ant.  It looked down upon him, vast and unforgiving.

Christopher was a stranger here, with no place to go.  The wind cut into his thin coat and gnawed at his hands, which he clenched tightly inside his pockets.  His sneakers, as if of their own volition, took the easiest route, following a footpath that had been made by some other boots there in the snow.  He walked for a long time, bothered by the orange and black posters that said: private property, no camping.  What shit-heads people were; this land was plentiful and wide, wilderness, without any houses or signs of human habitation, and yet some prick had to hang his little sign on the trunks of the trees: Keep off.  This is mine.
A half hour passed before he found a refuge.  In the wooded countryside, he spotted a lopsided vacant shack, its roof moldering.  He rammed the door with his shoulder.  The rusty chain held, but the door gave way, the soft, decaying wood splitting apart.  The chain gave him a half a foot of space to squeeze through.  The shed was empty, except for a couple of metal tool boxes, a bundle of yellow newspapers, a hoe, and a shovel.  It was only marginally warmer, but out of the wind.  It seemed entirely possible that he might die there, freezing, as he slept.  His face was raw from windburn and the spattered snow.  With two uncoordinated hands, swollen into numb mitts, he arranged the crumbling newspapers to make himself a nest.  He curled on his side, shivering, and covered his legs and shoulders with newspaper sheets.  Christopher drew his knees up to his chest and thrust his arms between his thighs, where he felt his own warmth, an inadequate but steady-burning furnace.  His eyes focused on the wall of the shed and the leaf-strewn dirt floor near his head.  He thought continually of Jenny, her face imploring him to do something that he couldn’t yet comprehend.  She wasn’t the way he’d expected her to be – the sheepskin coat, hanging open; the white robe under the coat; the black pajamas; the pointy slippers on her feet – all of it wrong for her, as if she had decked herself out in someone else’s clothes.

He held on to her image as his thoughts screamed:  It’s too fucken cold.  “Fuck shit, fuck shit, fuck shit,” he whispered, his teeth chattering.  Lying under the newspapers wasn’t helping.  The ground was frozen solid.  He sat up again, scattering the papers, looking frantically around the shed for something, anything – wood to start a fire, a knife to plunge in his chest.

“Jenny fuck fuck Jenny,” he muttered.  She’d both honored him and had disappointed him.  Had he expected her, these 25 years later, to be dressed in those torn, tight jeans that showed her fishnet stockings poking through the holes in the seat of her pants?  Had he expected her, after a quarter century, to be the obese urchin with the hungry eyes?  Had he hoped she’d remain forever young for him?

Some hours later, he had lost sensation in his fingers, nose and feet. He clutched his fishing tackle in his fist, but he couldn’t feel it.

Here was the thing that was bugging him.  He’d been compelled to come all this way to Riverbend, certain that if he found Jenny again, his destiny would be fulfilled.  And here he was in her town, on her private fucking property, in her shed.  And he knew beyond doubt that Jenny didn’t exist.  Jenny was his fiction, his creation, his protagonist.   He’d invented her in his imagination while the years passed in solitude at Triton.  Jenny was the girl with the broken front tooth and the crazy grin…the girl who never wore underwear…the girl who’d do anything with anybody, anywhere…the only person who’d ever loved him.  She’d flourished in his dreams but out here, in life, she’d ceased to be.

 

 

 

Mischief+Mayhem/OR Books

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Lisa Dierbeck LISA DIERBECK is the author of two novels, The Autobiography of Jenny X (Mischief + Mayhem/OR Books) and One Pill Makes You Smaller (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a New York Times Notable Book. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Dierbeck has contributed to such publications as The Boston Globe, Glamour, The New York Observer, The New York Times Book Review, People and O, The Oprah Magazine.

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