“Where am I to see you from now on, Madame?” he had said to her abruptly, with that strong passion which is so pleasing to women.
“Why, in the Bois de Boulogne, at the Théâtre des Bouffons, at my home, everywhere,” she replied.
~Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot
Annie Wilkins discovered a small bruise at the top of her right inner thigh. It was the near-perfect oval shape of a thumbprint and not even purple, just yellow with a hint of blue around the edges. If she had been mixing paints, it would be green by now.
The bruise had not come from her husband Howard, the quiet man with whom she shared a breakfast and a dinner table. Of that she was sure. Howard was a decade her senior in body, but infinitely older in spirit. She had loved him wildly at first, reaching out to him from the other side of the abyss to offer solace or, at least, entertainment. She had gladly married him and built up around him a world of magic and comfort, but over the past few years she had hardened to his timid bearing and his oppressive sense of his own history. He had etched his history over and over again in his mind until he had run out of space. His head bobbed and drooped a little when he spoke. Annie could feel the point up to which Howard loved her and could love her no further like a sharpness on her skin. She was still fond of him, but he made her tired.
The bruise had come from the man in the book stall, which was actually a tiny house on wheels set up at the Santa Monica Pier to sell maps and travel books to tourists. The book stall man’s name was Bennett Bettencourt, which sounded to Annie like something from a nursery rhyme or a bedtime story. They had made love, improbably and dexterously, in the back of the book stall three times now, and it was during this third time that she had sustained the bruise. There was barely enough room in that little traveling house for a bruise to be made at all.
In addition to tour pamphlets, street maps, and road atlases, Bennett was also known to beachside children as the secret purveyor of a magnificent assortment of adventure tales, comic books, phantasmagoria, and pulp. His collection of joke books was unparalleled, and to fill in even half of his mad libs would have been to write the great American novel. He sold the still-delicious but unfashionable Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, and the highly fashionable but risqué Lemony Snicket and Pseudonymous Bosch, from the back of the book stall in exchange for pocket money. Those who had no pocket money were allowed to borrow books from the inventory and swap them out once they had finished. Bennett had a special knack for matching the right books with the right kids.
Annie had first gone to Bennett’s book stall to buy a map of the town in which they lived. She had a terrible sense of direction, and although she had lived there for several years she still got lost. Her car was too old to have a navigation system, and she found herself unable to interpret the patient but bloodless guidance offered by her phone. It wasn’t so much that she couldn’t find her way home—the house where she lived was practically in the center of town, half-way between the boardwalk and the freeway—but that she couldn’t find where she was going, couldn’t remember which corner had a certain coffee shop or which block an antiques store she’d seen out the window while Howard was driving. She told Bennett she wanted the map in order to superimpose her own map on top of it, to mark the places she’d seen and wanted to visit, or places she’d visited and to which she wished to return.
Annie herself wrote and illustrated a series of chapter books for early readers with which Bennett was familiar. They featured a character called Anna Banana, a sentient fruit with a fluffy lapdog who gave French lessons to ambitious children in her fancy apartment. In spite of her obvious linguistic talents and comfortable lifestyle, Anna Banana was not snobby but warm and loving with her students, her neighbors, and all those who eventually fell within her circle of acquaintance.
Bennett claimed to have been raised on the road by traveling dentists, a story Annie loved and did not believe. His mother was the actual dentist, he said, and his father played piano and sang songs about why you should get your teeth cleaned. They had raised him in this itinerate way along with a sister, two years older, who now ran a bakery in the old downtown of a medium-sized Midwestern city. The bakery was in a converted warehouse and would make you any kind of cookie you wanted, if you placed an order in advance. Bennett had spent some time working there himself, before he had built the book stall from plans he found in a 19th century architectural textbook. He had tried it in several towns across the long Western coast before he’d settled, for a time, on the boardwalk of this seaside town tacked onto perhaps the country’s largest metropolis. He liked the particularity of its beaches where they were made not of sand but tiny, smooth pebbles that stuck to the bottoms of your feet like scales when wet. He had often discussed the merits of pebble-beaches versus sand-beaches with the children of his acquaintance. Bennett himself was a fantastic tale worthy of his own collection.
Annie did not wait for the bruise to fade to expose her legs in bed; she knew Howard would notice, but not question. Instead she agitated and pressed the bruise to prolong its life. She poked at it with her left index finger, which was smaller than Bennett’s left thumb. The sensation of the bruise reverberated throughout her body and wrenched at her chest.
Usually Annie slept in the big, soft bed with Howard, but sometimes she slept in the Rookery, a small round room at the very top of the old Victorian her husband had inherited from his mother. Howard slept lightly, when he slept at all, and his constant waking aroused in her a feeling of sadness. She did not like to sleep when he was in bed next to her, eyes open but unmoving. It made her sorry he didn’t know how to rest. Sometimes he would rise and go to the library, where he would slip a spy novel or a thin paperback Anna Banana book into a volume on the Crimean War or a biography of Lincoln, in case Annie should come in unexpectedly. When she needed a night of unbroken rest Annie would take her pillow up to the Rookery and curl into the daybed there, which had been Howard’s bed as a child. Good night, little Howard she would coo to herself and the empty room before falling into a long, deep sleep.
Bennett lived in a low-slung apartment building plastered with slate rock behind a wide driveway, with room enough to park the book stall. His apartment was on the upper floor and looked out onto the street. Annie had never been inside this apartment because he had a girlfriend there, a sour-cheeked librarian Annie knew from the public library. She did not know how long they had lived there, or even whether the apartment had one or two bedrooms. She didn’t know if it had carpet or hardwood floors, electric or gas appliances, curtains or Venetian blinds. Bennett offered almost no information about his life with this librarian, and Annie didn’t ask.
Bennett and Annie had coffee and sandwiches in a coffee shop she’d marked on her map. The old neon sign outside read It’s Good Coffee Time!, below which a magnificent old analog clock with gilt hands had stopped at ten minutes to three. The coffee was wonderful—rich and nutty, but light on the tongue. Annie drank hers black in imitation of Bennett, though ordinarily she would have added a little milk. She found it was even better here without it. Unlike most coffee shops these days, this one provided no back-story for its product, no faux tribal designs or photographs of lush Central American jungles. There were no motifs of Paris or Rome or Turkey to indicate the allegiance of the coffee’s preparation methods. None of the drinks had foreign names, and the cups were large and white or small and brown stoneware with saucers. Bennett, too, appreciated this lack of provenance. Apart from the designation It’s Good Coffee Time!, the shop was nameless.
Annie’s coffee-shop sandwich had turkey and soft cheese, and Bennett’s had ham and tiny pickles. These tiny pickles had a French name Annie could never remember. Bennett said this name with his beautiful mouth, but as soon as it escaped into the open air, Annie forgot it. She promised herself she’d look it up in the Cassell’s French Dictionary she kept at her desk for writing the Anna Banana books. Unlike her Continental protagonist, Annie did not speak French.
When the weather turned warm, Annie would stop by the book stall dressed as a tourist in a big floppy hat, sandals, and a sarong elegantly wrapped around her slim body. She affected a slight accent which was alluring but impossible to place. She questioned Bennett at length about high and low tides, the most picturesque beaches, the best shops for fudge and salt water taffy. The line of real tourists behind her grew impatient. Bennett smiled but did not break character. At last she would storm off with an armful of maps and a Winsor McCay anthology or a volume of American Splendor. Without comment amid a flurry of international objections, Bennett would pull down the rolling door to the book stall and slip out the back to meet her.
Under the oak tree in the backyard, Annie laid a picnic dinner for herself and Howard. A little breeze offset the warmth of the evening. She had brought an old comforter over which she’d spread a tablecloth, to protect their legs from the brittle pinpricks of fallen oak leaves. On the cloth was a summer feast: wedges of gruyère and sharp white cheddar, a crusty boule from the French bakery down the street, prosciutto di Parma from the Italian grocer’s, fresh green beans served raw and asparagus sautéed in oil and lemon, apple slices, cubes of watermelon, a bowl of shiny red strawberries, and the lemon bars for which Annie had suffered the heat of the oven to bake. There was Perrier in glowing green bottles and a white wine so dry it practically evaporated on the tongue, leaving only the sensation of effervescence.
Taped to the front door Annie had left a note for Howard which read, in purple ink, “Your dinner and I await. Check the kitchen counter for further instructions.” On the counter she’d left a sealed note in a purple envelope, onto which she’d drawn a strawberry and a glass of wine. Howard, in his neatness, opened the envelope with the letter-opener from the mug on the counter where pens and pencils were kept. “Do not be alarmed to find no signs of dinner around you. Meet me in the backyard under the oak tree.” And there she was, reading a collection of Little Lulu comics from the back of the book stall, the feast spread out before her.
Annie and Bennett discovered a junk shop in a dead-end alley. It was nearly as small as the book stall and run by a man who most closely resembled an otter—friendly, but slippery. The bulk of his wares had spilled into the alley in front of the shop: empty gilt picture frames, incomplete sets of embroidered table-linen in wooden crates, a rusty tanker desk covered in odd pieces of silver, china, and Fire King jadeite. Trinket boxes of all descriptions huddled together on the narrow surface of a walnut lowboy, next to which stood an enormous terra cotta pot filled with buttons. They could not imagine the tiny junk man having the strength to move this pot of buttons inside every night. Perhaps he left it out as a challenge to thieves—try to drag this pot of buttons away if you dare! Could you ever be satisfied with only a handful of buttons? Onto the seats of half a dozen mismatched chairs were stacked an old leatherbound set of the complete novels of Balzac, in French. Annie realized she had to have this set, and dropped her ordinarily-blithe manner to haggle the junk man down to her price. She and Bennett spent the rest of the afternoon carrying the set back to Annie’s house.
Annie surprised Howard in the library reading the original Anna Banana book at three o’clock in the morning. So little had he expected her that he hadn’t even bothered to hide it. She was wearing a black men’s cashmere sweater that reached almost to her knees, and nothing else. She came just close enough to warm her bare feet on the rug, then stopped. Annie regarded the spectacle of insomniac Howard seeking her at so late an hour in the guise of her infantile alter-ego, in a story for children. Slowly she advanced upon Howard as one might approach a wild animal in repose—curious but with caution. He still had not spoken. Gently she removed the book from his hands, climbed into his lap, and began to read aloud to him.
Howard was gone for the day and Annie invited Bennett over for tea and cinnamon toast. She spooned the loose black leaves into a strainer, screwed the lid on tight, and hooked the chain over the edge of the teapot. The teapot and its companion creamer, sugar, cups, saucers and plates were all from different sets of beautifully hand-painted porcelain. Although none of these pieces had begun their lives together, they seemed inseparable now in Annie’s kitchen. Annie arranged the tea things on the small round kitchen table. Bennett watched her precise movements with satisfaction. He watched her pour the boiling water from the kettle carefully into the teapot so it didn’t sputter coming out of the spout or dislodge the chain of the tea ball hanging from the pot’s rim. He watched her set four slices of soft white bread—two each—into the toaster oven. While they toasted she pulled a large apothecary jar of white granulated sugar from a cupboard underneath the counter, and a small jar of cinnamon from a high shelf. She retrieved the little cut-crystal butter dish from the dining room table.
The trick to making cinnamon toast, Annie explained, lay in the ratio of sugar to cinnamon which, in spite of the name, should favor sugar. Only a very light, but even, dusting of cinnamon was required. White sugar, however, should be applied liberally to the moderately buttered surface of the toast. Fortunately, the butter absorbed and disguised the sugar as soon as it was spooned onto the toast, so that liberality was nearly guaranteed. The light dusting of cinnamon should be added last. Bennett agreed that the toast was excellent.
Bennett and Annie composed a drawing of themselves having tea on Annie’s napkin, in which Annie appeared as Anna Banana and Bennett appeared as an affable potato. He had chosen to depict himself as a potato almost without hesitation, as though he had always known. Anna Banana was pouring more tea and the potato was beaming widely with a slice of half-eaten cinnamon toast in one hand. The drawing was only slightly obscured by smears of butter and toast crumbs.
Bennett took Annie to a little-known sculpture museum run by students at the state university. It was housed in an underground basement whose lights were always kept off—the sculptures were meant to be felt rather than seen. Silk ropes crisscrossed the basement at waist-level in paths for visitors to follow. The sculptures were arranged along these paths at a safe but reachable distance. There were soft, furry sculptures, smooth metal ones that seemed to have no edges, little round wooden sculptures that could be picked up and replaced again in some kind of bowl, tall scratchy sculptures that might have been hanging from the ceiling. There were sculptures so cold they could only be touched very briefly, and sculptures so large that their shape was indeterminate. There was one sculptured that made a sound very much like a laugh when you touched it.
Only a handful of people were allowed in the museum at a time. Annie cooed with delight as she encountered each new thing. Bennett had visited the museum before, many times, but still he found things that were foreign to him. The objects were shifted frequently, and new ones added. The students took great care in their arrangement. When they were outside again, Bennett revealed to Annie that he had made the bowl of little round wooden sculptures.
Annie baked a beautiful chocolate cake with snow-white frosting for Howard’s birthday, serving it with the coffee that It’s Good Coffee Time! sold by the pound. She had written him a little story on his napkin about Anna Banana teaching her students how to wish someone a happy birthday in French. She had even included pictures of Anna Banana, Howard, and the cake—which had five waxy red candles in the middle for Howard’s forty-fifth year.
After his birthday Howard went away for a week to visit his sister, and Bennett came to Annie in the old Victorian. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday he arrived in the morning and left in the afternoon; on Tuesday and Thursday he arrived in the afternoon and left late at night. On Saturday he stayed until morning. Annie could not fathom the logic of this schedule but was too pleased to question it. They indulged in all the domestic delights: running the heater, making grilled cheese sandwiches on the stove, taking showers together. Bennett admired the house—he knew something about that period in architecture. He admired the strange things Annie had added to the house, too: a large convex mirror in a gilt-wood frame hanging opposite the master bed, a 54-volume set of Britannica’s Great Books, a three-foot-tall leather rhinoceros that greeted entrants at the front door. Bennett caught every detail. The ghost of Howard’s mother looked on with disapproval.
They made love neither in the master bed nor in the Rookery, but instead in a downstairs guest bedroom which was never used. It was white and pristine with a lace duvet and pillows, the whole bed fat with eiderdown. Annie sometimes came to this room to read, but she had never before slept there. She remembered the lush softness of the bed and knew it would please Bennett. They rolled around in the beautiful lace duvet for hours. The sun fell across their bodies in patches through the massive pink bougainvillea growing just outside the window. They were the only two people left alive on earth. When Bennett was not there Annie lived in a daze—washing dishes, changing sheets, buying groceries for lunch or dinner the next day. Somehow these tasks took hours and by the time she was through Bennett was there again. She went to bed early and saw him even behind her closed eyes. On Saturday night they fell asleep entwined and met each other dreaming. On Sunday evening Howard came home.
That night Annie stretched herself out full-length across the blue velvet couch in the living room. The soft fabric warmed her cold skin. She shut her sad eyes tight and a pulse of feeling shot through her. She sank deeper into the cushions. The walls of the house creaked and strained. They leaned inward toward her. The whole weight of Bennett rested upon her small body, her blurred eyes and meandering soul. She tried to focus on either loving him in vain or rejecting him entirely, but both feelings eluded her. She was lost between delight and anguish. The click of the heater turning on and the sound of rushing air filled her with memories of sleeping in Bennett’s arms. She decided to write a new book.
Annie wrote an Anna Banana book in which Anna Banana travels to France to visit her family. There she meets and falls in love with a charming potato called Père Pomme de Terre, who owns a farm in Provence. His big truffle-hunting mutt scares Anna’s fluffy little lapdog. Anna is smitten and convinces him to come back to America with her to open a farm-to-table restaurant. He keeps the property in France, from which he receives shipments of the restaurant’s signature truffles. The restaurant earns its first Michelin star, a distinction Annie struggles to explain in the language of children. The restaurant is named Chez Pomme de Terre, which Anna Banana tells her students is French for “potato” or “apple of the earth.”
On a very cold day Annie went to the library where Bennett’s girlfriend worked. She scanned the front counter where the librarians sat, her little maw curled into a distinct frown. Bennett’s girlfriend wasn’t there. Annie went to the children’s section to look for the secret books Bennett kept at the back of the book stall, but hardly any of them were stocked on the shelves. She didn’t know whether they were all checked out, or whether the library simply didn’t have them.
Annie wrote a story for a prominent magazine under her literary penname, A.N. Wilk. In the story, a classical pianist is invited to play a prestigious concert hall in New York City. While playing she falls deeply in love with the grand piano belonging to the concert hall. She is so overwhelmed by this flood of affection that she becomes distracted and plays poorly. As a result, she is never invited back. She plays beautifully and expertly everywhere else and her career takes off—she releases a number of well-received albums, she tours Europe, but still she remains persona non grata at the prestigious concert hall. They remember her single poor performance and consider her subsequent success a fluke, mere hype with no actual talent to back it up. Using nearly all the money from her many concerts and albums, she buys a modest apartment in the upscale neighborhood near the concert hall. She holds season tickets to their performances and sees every show in which the grand piano is played. She stares at it from her seat in the dress circle. At such a distance, there is no way to tell whether the piano returns her affections. She grows old in that small apartment in the expensive doorman building, too old to play now even if they’d let her, and she dies without ever having touched the keys of her true love again.
Howard read the story when it came out in the magazine and imagined, incorrectly, that Annie had written it about him. Deeply moved, he opened the door to the Rookery slowly so it wouldn’t creak. He crouched down beside Annie sleeping in his childhood bed. He sat there a long time before the knowledge of his presence got through to her dreaming self. She opened first one eye, then the other. Howard’s soft, sad eyes looked back at her. With a sleepy smile she pulled the blankets back and scooted her little body to the far edge of the narrow bed. The windows were so high as to be curtainless, and the moonlight threw strange shadows on their blanketed bodies. Howard curled himself into Annie’s shoulder and fell asleep.
Bennett had also read the story in the magazine, although Annie hadn’t shown it to him. He already knew the transposition of her name. He carved a miniature grand piano and installed it in the sculpture museum. On their next visit, when Annie laid her hands upon it, Bennett told her to take it with her. Once they were outside, Annie realized he had painted the words of her story in miniature script onto its whittled surface.
Without the knowledge of the library staff, Bennett integrated his entire, magnificent collection of comics and adventure tales into the stacks of the children’s wing. He created a shadow Dewey decimal system with which he labeled them, and distributed a key to this system amongst his young customers. These fantastical books integrated themselves seamlessly into the library’s collection, so skillfully had Bennett created the counterfeit decimal code. He knew the children’s section was written off by most of the librarians as impossible to keep organized, and full of children besides. His patrons delighted in this new twist to the old secrecy. They appointed their own librarian, eight-year-old Jason, who had been the first to memorize the dummy system Bennett had created. In a solemn ceremony at the back of the book stall, Bennett presented Jason with his copy of A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics as remuneration for his new responsibilities.
Annie cashed the advance check for her new Anna Banana book. She packed a little bag of clothes and jewelry and loaded her books into the book stall one afternoon when Howard was away from home. She could already feel her time with Howard becoming one of the stories he told himself about himself. Annie, the funny young girl who broke my heart. Annie, she was always laughing but she had such strange habits. Annie, I can’t even bring myself to read all the interesting books she brought to my attention, even though I am so often alone and cannot sleep.
In a vision Bennett saw himself possessed of Annie in her entirety. He exchanged himself for her in one precise motion. Already he had replaced the local tour books with volumes of baking recipes, museum catalogues from all over the world, and every Anna Banana book. He installed two little brass hooks on opposite walls and bought a hammock for cat naps on the road. Within the hammock he had stashed the handmade quilt and massive silk pillow with which he had slept as a child in the back of the dentist wagon.
Annie climbed into the passenger seat of the Jeep that towed the book stall. She folded her left leg under her and laid a hand on Bennett’s shoulder, tucked his hair behind the curve of his right ear. Bennett’s glad smile shone in the bright light of the morning. His history melted away under her gaze. She had searched Bennett everywhere, but she could not find the point up to which he could love her and after which he could love her no further. As they drove out of town Annie pressed her finger into the spot where the bruise had been, leaving a faint red shadow on the creamy smoothness of her still-young skin.
E.C. Messer lives in San Francisco and Pismo Beach, California with her husband and four cats, one of whom has a bionic heart. She would like very much to know you.