This is the preface.
There was a girl ten years ago in a coffee shop who was lonely. This was Carin. She pulled out a huge array of papers and fanned them out. She pretended to work.
Carin found a husband who was in the Marines and had homophobic dreams, and they were married. That was Jeff. Later, she left him, and a dented grey word processor, and moved to another town where she finished school in other coffee shops. She studied this time. She had a baby which she kept on a leash.
There was a garage sale advertised in the newspaper. I went. I bought the dented word processor for five dollars. The woman who sold it to me said it worked, that she wrote her thesis on it a long time ago.
He’s been sleeping in the tent for ten days, where it smells like plastic lining instead of the slightly sour strawberry skin behind her ears. He’s been taking long bike rides for ten days, since she left him for political science and gender studies, since he laughed and she left. The house has gotten progressively more his, and more empty, and more full of pizza boxes and Chinese takeout white cardboard cartons. He sleeps in a sweatshirt and sweatpants and socks up to his knees, covering himself from night air and backyard monsters that could get him. This is better than sleeping in boxer shorts and bare skin in her bed, letting her get him.
She started to hate him a little bit before they even got married, gave him a tight smile at the altar, all lips and no teeth. She saved the teeth for later, for the big angry grin that looked like sharks when they tear a chunk out of some passing tuna and smile and eat. She looked smug. He smelled like cheeseburger grill smoke and generic lotion.
Buried on my yard sale computer are Carin and Jeff. They were married once. I learn about Carin after I’ve met her, after she sold me this sun-faded grey machine, not much more than a typewriter. She said it works, that she wrote her thesis on it. She did not say anything about Jeff, and how she left him, and his bad poems, and his journals, detailed descriptions of making waffles, eating waffles, and getting annoyed at his neighbour who shows up uninvited to bottle home-made beer.
She didn’t look like the type of woman who would leave.
She looked average, with her kid on a leash. I wonder if Jeff has seen this house, on Busey and Race, deep in Urbana normalcy. I wonder if he has seen this child, if he would approve of the child-leashing, or whether he would comment on the philosophical implications of imprisonment at a young age, with mediocre prose. His journal entries are milk toast and boiled eggs thinking about paprika.
She sold me this computer for five dollars. I talked her down from ten. It was labelled word processor, and came with a faux leather case, a mouse with a bulky connection, and a battery pack that would look comfortable on a villain’s utility belt. It is heavy to carry, it carries like a briefcase for a mason, for a bricklayer.
Jeff does not mention wanting her to have his children in his journal entries detailing yard work and bedtime. The kids I saw at the sale are not as old as her 1990 thesis, as her times with Jeff must have been. These kids are Microsoft Word 1998 at least, not an off-brand computer with Windows 3.1.
The first time I opened it, a desktop screen showed briefly: bricks, a simple greyscale brick wall which I broke through, chipping away at Word Perfect files saved under names like journal2 and carin and weddingplan, files left behind. The next time I open the screen, instead of the brick wall there is a Paintbrush file, I LOVE CARIN written by cut fingers, by slit wrists, by a finger on a mouse. This JPEG file replaces the brick wall and I don’t remember changing it. The computer is haunted by Carin and has her political science essays interspersed with Jeff’s bad poems, saved in the same place.
He writes that he has nothing to write, except novel ideas that are not found in this file. He goes on to describe his dream from last night:
I was in a hotel room. There was a girl there who left, and I went to take a shower, when I got out of the shower there was an old man with white hair and a red face in tropical uniform. He was drunk and had a shiny face and he stared at me when I was naked. He dropped his pants and I could see his erection which was red like his face. I stabbed him in the gut with a pair of scissors. Then I woke up.
This file was named journal3. These files were sold to me.
The dream is abrupt and intact. After this, it is hard to like him, poor Jeff, who sleeps in a tent without his wife. The next is named carin:
Today I carved your name into a table in a coffeeshop. It was already scarred with other people’s names, obscenities, the crudest American flag I’ve ever seen. I danger of falling off, right where you would see it, if you had your laptop out. You would see it, and I would earn you back. Carving your name on a table. It’s so stupid. So small. It’s nothing.
There is no closure with this. He wrote in a journal, a laptop journal, from August 2 to August 7, 1990. Five days, he carved her name into a table, then nothing.
I drive past that house in Urbana, on my way to a softball game where the object of the game is to get to second base, which is a cooler, and chug a beer. We smoke cigarettes in the outfield. We run, careful not to spill. The oldest of us is 26 and we are not married, we are barely real, playing fake ball with these beers, with these smokes, with these popups straight into the pitcher’s hand.
This sad little laptop life is not mine. I run outside and suck down coffees, laughing at these files I inherited, bad poems detailing his wife’s ‘warm, sweet meat’, and pretend there’s no way anyone could ever read the files that I add to this hard drive; this computer is already obsolete and no one could inherit it. My teeth are grinding as I read.
Carin has written a paper on the Freudian analysis of sex and violence. It is an obvious first draft, full of typos and quotes with question marks next to their authors. But it is so bad, so drivel. Do I want to add more to this? Do I want to put more thought into these people who talk about guns as phallic symbols? I do. I bury myself in Jeff and Carin again. A detective studying what went wrong ten years ago. I treat them like celebrities, like their lives belong to me. And they do. Five dollars, including the faux leather case, attachments and personal histories. It is hard to know they live in my town, sending Christmas letters to their neighbours:
Happy Holidays from the Bowers: Carin, Jeff and Howard. No, we did not sneak a pregnancy past you; Howard is our dog. This is a quick letter extolling the wonders of married life, or at least married life as we have lived it since our wedding in May. Our European honeymoon was a whirlwind tour of Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria. In Poland we visited Auschwitz, yes the not very romantic death camp. Prague was our favourite, even though it rained on us almost the whole time. Carin is now working on her Master’s degree in Political Science. September through November were busy months for Jeff. I cannot tell you what was going on, but if you watched CNN in late November then you know what I am talking about. As a reminder, Jeff’s job is evaluating Anti-Submarine aircraft. We both hope your holidays are joyous, and the New Year brings good things your way.
I try not to grimace as I save my files in the same folder, on a dinosaur machine that has retained its memory, a fossil with disks for my revisionist additions. I could erase their files, save more hard drive space.
I scavenge out a pixelated portrait of Jeff. He looks like Art Garfunkel, watery eyes and blonde hair, wailing about his love melodically but sounding a little crazed without a partner to harmonise with. This is a Jeff without a Carin, without balance, a normal guy who enjoys yard work but has startling homophobic dreams of murder.
There is a detailed wedding plan, done by Jeff. The telling detail is the keg party on the beach the night before the wedding. ‘What is left of the keg can be used at the wedding.’ As gross as it sounds to have flat Icehouse served at a wedding reception (giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn‘t mean the church service), it is romantic to have a $500 wedding weekend on a California beach, with 35 guests maximum, 29 minimum. This list of invitees includes the ‘happy couple’.
I am that middle-aged woman in a bathroom who never leaves her apartment, who has groceries delivered, a weekly supply of cat food and peanut butter. I can’t tear myself away from my telescope, looking in old text files for when the marriage failed. I am anything but twenty and young and looking at a laptop life lived in 1990.
One file demonstrates Jeff’s desire to be a writer. He says ‘I want so badly to tell you a story. I promise that it is a good story, despite the words in which it may be written.’ This is the preface, saved under carin2:
Carin I really miss you. Last night I slept in our bed for the first time since you have left. The first thing I noticed was a complete absence of my wife. It truly was awkward. I stretched out my feet and that is when they found the socks at the bottom of the bed. Immediately the tears came. I miss you Carin. Slowly I began to work my way onto your side. In the middle of the night I awoke to find myself on the extreme Carin side.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerri Mullen is an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. She was in New Zealand for a little while, but is now safely cradled in the cornfields again. Her previous work includes shouting from rooftops at passersby, but that pays very little.