The Effortless Life of Paper
My mother wrote a number of scandalous best-sellers from our beachfront home in North Carolina, but published only one children's book, the failure of which coincided with my first birthday. Standing in my childhood home with my wedding a weekend away, I unearthed a copy of Jessica and the Note of True Love from an attic box while assisting Kristy in her last-minute search for something old.
"What is this?" Kristy asked. She gawked at the book, then laughed short and sudden, presumably at the title's childishness in comparison to Mom's more Peyton Place works.
I averted my eyes from the pastel-palette cover and said, quick as I could, "Classic example of a vanity project. Writers love to publish little stories with their children as the hero."
She turned the book over in her hands with an unexpected inquisitiveness. "This is about a Jessica. Do you have a sister I don't know about?"
"I was supposed to be a girl," I told her, feeling much like a sheep. "Then I was a boy, and it was a failure, and she went on writing about Heathcliffs and Fabios."
"So what's it about?"
"It's a book for little girls." She went to say something (possibly regarding gender roles), then stopped herself. "Jessica gets a letter in the mail. Supposedly, it contains the name of her true love. She opens it, and the note gets picked up by the wind, pulled away. And it's gone."
"Your mother has a tragic heart," Kristy mused, and kissed me hard, such a sudden burst of affection uncommon, but appreciated.
"So," I said when she ceased her assault, "the note keeps showing up, again and again, and she can't catch it. This keeps going on until she's grown up into this real beautiful woman. She chases the note one day, guess what, it leads her right to this handsome prince of a guy. They get married, yada-yada."
"Like I said, tragic." Kristy tossed the book back into the box, banishing the tome, seeming glad to be rid of it. I sympathized, yet felt the need to argue.
"But she marries a prince-guy," I said. "That's what little girls want. That's what you want. That's what you're doing."
"Yeah, and that's a nice ideal, but I bet that girl spent her whole life so attached to this note of true love, she never even went on a date."
Before I could argue the finer points of my mother's work, the phone deep in my pocket blared its ugly default ring-tone.
"Be right back," I told Kristy, seizing the opportunity to leave both the attic and my mother's commercial failure. "Bachelor party stuff." She threw up her hands, full of mock-frustration, and I descended the attic steps with my ear to the phone, forgetting to kiss her.
Brad's voice belched from the speaker, reminding me of college and bad decisions. "Edison! We need to get this party...partying."
"Brad," I said, smiling but keeping caution, "why is your voice growing louder the closer I get to my mom's kitchen?"
"There's a joke to be made there."
When I rounded the corner and saw him sitting on the counter, I couldn't have been more distracted.
"Dude!" he screamed, his voice still exploding from my phone, a dual assault. He raised both arms to the air. "I just got into town! Hug me!"
"Don't move," I warned him, taking one slow, planned step toward the counter. "I swear to God, Brad, if you move, all is lost."
"Holy shit," Brad said. His eyes grew wide; I knew he expected my next words to grant him a purpose in life greater than planning bachelor parties and conducting Netflix marathons using his step-sister's account.
The note sat on the counter between Brad's bottom and mom's breadbox. A small, square piece of paper, the two words embroidered upon its center tiny and distant, beautiful and illegible. An elegant golden border gave the appearance of an invitation to something grand.
"Don't move," I said again, another step closer, forehead sweat-ruined. Two steps and I would be there; with one, perhaps I could make out the words. "It's just to your left."
He turned his upper half to look, and an impossible wind arrived to carry the note up and out through the open sliding-glass door. I stood gaping-mouthed and idiotic, considering, for a moment, the idea of letting this mystery card float away forever; worry of the damn thing showing up in ten more years--and a hundred other worries, I suppose--set me out the door at a sprint.
"Are we running?" Brad asked when I tore past him. I heard him slide from the counter in my wake, landing hard on oversized feet. He followed, breathing heavy before we cleared the outdoor deck, yelling after me, "We're running, okay, we're running!"
The note drifted lazy on the wind, gliding without trying, and I pumped my legs across the deck, envying the effortless life of paper. My bare feet hit the beach and sank in to throw off my balance. The slip of white-and-gold hit a strong summer breeze, moving higher, faster, heading down the beach's length toward the boardwalk pier, and I ran.
Brad wheezed. My speed continued to build, and he fell farther behind, yet persisted. "Most bachelor parties have more strippers and less heart attacks, Edison!"
I only half-listened, struggling to breath, eyes on the wafting paper-piece and mind on its intermittent appearances in my life. The haunting white sheet would appear unasked-for and unwelcome on a shelf or counter-top or stuffed inside the morning paper, only to float away and out of sight on wind generated from nowhere, disappearing. I never mentioned the fleeting note to Mom, or to Kristy, or to a psychologist, because the idea was impossible. Yet every time the thin sheet made an appearance, belief seized me in a way implicit.
We followed my nagging note to the boardwalk without obstacle, and still the slip soared high above my head. A summer crowd filled the outdoor paradise of kitsch with out-of-towners and teenage locals, all of whom I weaved through clumsy and asshole-like in a t-shirt and gym shorts, garnering stares and vulgarity.
"Hey," said the tiny teenage girl with the dyed-pink hair working the surfboard-shop into which I barged. "You look insane. Are you insane?"
"Yes," I told the girl, and slammed my hands down on the cashier-counter between us, feeling and looking like a madman. Brad arrived behind me, panting needlessly loud. "Listen. A piece of paper just blew in here."
"Like, from the wind?"
"From the wind," I agreed, and wondered just how insane I did look, speaking loud to a young girl while my eyes bulged from their skull like a squeeze-toy. "Did you see the note? This is important. This is the most important thing."
"Is it like, for work?" she asked most irrelevantly. "Like, a document?"
"It's a note," I said again. "No, it's not for work, I told you, it's important." She blinked, and I produced my wallet. "I will give you fifty dollars if you find me that note."
"Why don't you just look for it?" she asked.
"Or we could go home," Brad wheezed. "Or I could drop you off at the hospital, and you could be crazy there, in a safe place."
"I need you to find it," I told Pink Hair, leaning forward on the counter, further unsettling her. "I don't think I can catch it."
"And I can?"
"Does it mean anything to you?"
"Then you should have no trouble catching it." I slammed the money down hard. "Fifty dollars. Please."
"You know," she said, like our conversation up to that point had never occurred, "I know you."
"That's great. It's nice to meet you again. Fifty dollars."
"You're her son. That old woman who lives in the house across the beach. The white-haired one who always walks down the boardwalk and yells at people." My blank stare did not dissuade her. "The one who wrote all those books."
"Yeah, okay." With every word my heart double-beated, knowing this to all be a pointless put-off of the truth: the note had gone, vanished upon leaving my sight as had happened before and as would happen again, and somewhere back in my crazy mother's house, Kristy sat alone, my fiancee attic-abandoned. "What does it matter, anyway?"
"Are you kidding?" Pink Hair smiled big with braces, looking like a child who had fallen into a vat of punk-rock styling by mistake. "That crazy broad is loaded."
Brad laughed in the background, useful as ever.
"You're gonna make some guy really happy and then really miserable," I told her, laying out two hundred dollars on the counter-top, along with a few assorted copper coins she immediately snatched up and dropped into the Take-a-Penny. "All I'm asking you to do is look around."
"Don't need to." She took the money and, with her other hand, held up a small, white note. "This what you're looking for?"
The text faced the cashier, so I saw only a blank slate. "You've been holding that the entire time," I told her, dumbfounded, part of my note-terrorized brain suspecting her to be some perfectly-placed instrument of whatever divine or devilish force had set the plague of paper upon me.
"Yeah," she said, still sly-grinning. "And you were holding out on me. Now do you want this? Is it worth the money?"
I stared into long-lashed eyes, cursed myself for thinking her anything more than a teenage brat, ignored Brad's background-blathering, and said nothing. Time failed to stop as she handed me the long-pursued paper and pocketed my easy money; its passage accelerated much like the wind picking up at inopportune moment to pull destiny farther away. I thought of note-escapes past, and of Kristy, and held a momentary hope some invisible force would blow my expensive treasure out to the ocean in the midst of our exchange. The note passed from her hand to mine. Brad came to the counter, stood to my left, and looked on with content confusion. I flipped the note over to reveal gold lettering.
My joy-scream emerged as a delirious howl; Pink Hair backed away in fear of my apparent madness hitting its peak; Brad whooped in turn, not having any idea why. I grabbed onto my friend's wide frame, grinning stupid, and leapt up and down like a child or a college boy, and everyone stared, but the delirium did not fade.
"What are we happy about?" Brad asked. He matched my idiotic smile and did his best to mirror my jumping.
"We're happy about everything," I told him. "Let's go get married. Let's go get me married. Jesus." I turned to Pink Hair, thanked the girl, and did my young savior the ultimate favor by leaving her place of work.
"Hey!" she called after us, wild and insulted. "You're not even going to take it?"
I said nothing, glee preventing courtesy, and left the note bearing Kristy's name to lift off upon another wind.
Brad, ever distracted, became sidetracked by a small shop near the boardwalk's beach-end promising temporary tattoos and puka-shell necklaces. I went on ahead, aware of my smile's unwillingness to fade, and no floating, fleeting slips of paper caught the corner of my eye.
When Kristy smiled at me from the beach, I loved her in a way forgotten, like when you see someone again the day after first declaring your love. Restraint was required to not bound down the pier's end with the hopping jump-step of a slow-motion film scene. I walked slow and standard, and, upon reaching the beach, found heartbreak on her face.
"Hey," I said, and went to hold her, and she stepped back. "What's wrong? Did Brad break something in the kitchen when I wasn't looking?"
She said nothing.
"Sorry we just vanished." The distance between us, though less than a foot, was widened exponentially by my inability to touch her, to hold her, or to mention the note, for even in wake of joyous news its supernatural presence tongue-tied me in a way speaking to Kristy never had. "We just--I needed to--I can't really explain it, but you should marry me anyway. Thanks for marrying me. Let's get married."
And she said nothing, and held up a tiny card of white with gold trim, and I wondered who Dennis Johnson could be.
Jonathan Persinger hasn't found his fleeting slip of paper, but he's been to the beach. His work has appeared in Cracked, the Avalon Literary Review, Quail Bell Magazine, Wild Violet, and Laser Time, and is soon to appear in eFiction and ExFic. He lives in Harrisburg, PA, where he works in PR/Editing.
Published by permission of the author.