When Ellen landed at the tunnel’s end, she noticed, under clouds of soot, a lone rowhome. It appeared like the thousands across the city – three stories, all brick, cornbread-yellow shutters. Each window was dirt-coated or bathed in shadow. What was it doing here, in the ruins of an old subway station? As she edged closer, she saw that a luminaire mounted to a roadway light illuminated the dusty red outside. She knocked on the door. A streak of dirt came off on her glove as she turned the knob.
The lights were on. A smell of damp brick rushed her. A plum loveseat faced a fireplace. A walnut-brown book lay face-down. On its spine, in silver lettering, the title read, A Victorian Affair. The author’s name was British and noble-sounding. Ellen crept over and hoisted the book.
It felt odd thinking about it later, but in the minute she paged through that book – a novel, over 800 pages, with thin margins – Ellen grasped that it contained only one character and one scene. That was of a man in old fashioned clothes taking steps through a meadow. That was it. On page 14 the grass was described in lush and endless detail. A thick stack of pages later, the book was still going on about the ant colonies devastated by the force of the man’s landing.
Then she heard a tock behind her. It was from another door likely, a bedroom. She opened it. In the dark, Ellen saw a body on the mattress. It was a bald, shirtless, white man. His gut bulged. One hoop earring glimmered. His lips appeared dry, pinched. His bloodshot eyes stared up at a clicking, failing, ceiling fan crawling at a snail’s speed. There was no stench of death, only the smell of musty basement.
She ran from the house with the book in her bag. Disappeared back into the strange old tunnel and exited into the new subway station.
Ellen boarded the train she was supposed to have taken home from her job when the tunnel had caught her attention.
After several counts of slow breathing, she decided to take the book to Hadley. It was a big decision: they hadn’t talked in a year. She was excited to have something to show him after all this time.
The campus big box bookstore where Hadley worked glowed within a suburban style shopping center.
Ellen waved to Kelly at the register, but Kelly didn’t wave back.
Hadley was talking to a young teenager who was using his chin to hold open a canvas bag. The teen tucked a white book inside. Evidently they were just finishing book club.
Hadley’s face had rounded in a way that made him look less waiflike, but he was still attractive – above average, in some respects. The young man looked satisfied. Hadley took his hand off his shoulder. She waited for the teen to leave. Then Ellen approached Hadley.
“Hi,” she said.
His eyes widened, “Hey, Ellen!” he said. “I had to – sorry, that poor guy’s just lost his Dad. H-how’ve you been? Did you come for book club?”
“Oh…no.” She hid her fidgeting hands behind her waist.
She told him about her new part time job and how she had to take the subway downtown to get there. Then she came to the reason she’d sought him out. “I wanted to show you this.”
He eyed it as if it were a pinned butterfly. “A Victorian… Oh.” He was about to reach toward it, then paused. “Is it…rare? You want me to get gloves?”
“Yeah, go get gloves.” She touched his sleeve. “I’m kidding.”
She gave him the book and he cracked it open to a random page. Then turned a few more, and then flipped a stack of pages to almost the last. His smile spread.
“This is funny,” he said. “I feel like I’ve heard of it – But I’ve never seen anything like this.” He leaned toward the words. “I thought I remembered more things happening than just a man…walking across a field.”
“Hang on.” He disappeared past the water fountain, into the hallway she remembered leading to the break room. When he came back he clutched another book to his chest.
At first she thought he held one of the Henry James novels with the Edward Gorey covers: a quintet of 19th century wealthy-looking white folks posed on the front.
“Alright,” said Hadley, “So we have two copies here of A Victorian Affair. This copy, from the vault, it’s a story of a Claims Adjuster for the East India Corporation, having an affair with a banker’s wife, if I have that correct.” Hadley didn’t even flinch as he said this.
“And then here, this copy you brought from…where’d you say you got it?”
“Bookhaven,” she lied.
“From Bookhaven…it appears to just have one scene. A guy – who knows if it’s the protagonist, the Claims Adjuster, taking steps through a…meadow…for the entire book.” He flipped pages. “Is it a printing error?”
“No…the rest of it…it is written. It’s just the one scene’s expanded to the whole thing.” He flipped her copy over, opened it up and started reading again. “Ha, I like all this hyper-focus on this thistle on his leg.” He read aloud: “Now completely befouled, the bottom left hem of his trouser sent…tremulous quivers and swept sideways the green orb, leading it all in a matter to converge with lustrous vermilion poles of grassland lawn….” He flipped forward. “Goes on for pages!”
They stared at each other.
“And…Elle, why’d you bring it here?”
Because I wanted to see you again, jerk. She looked at her shoes. Then she spied, half-tucked under the couch, the cover of the white book. “I…wanted to suggest it to the book club?” she said.
He grinned. “Seriously?”
“What? Is it…too avante garde?”
“No, no, it’s funny.”
“What’s the group like now?”
“It’s a solid crew. Diverse for once. Intergenerational. I think they’d dig it. I could plead your case. Could you pick up, say, six more copies? Of that weird, experimental Woolfy edition?”
She stopped him when he pulled out his fabric skateboarder’s wallet to repay her. Nostalgia hit her, even though the wallet was too young for him, and the same color as a dryer’s full lint trap.
Ellen packed pepper spray and found herself at the City Hall subway station again. She waited until the platform emptied, then snuck into the rail well to find the tunnel. She was glad it was still cold enough for gloves. She pulled them on, held her hair back against her neck and crawled into the tunnel.
She arrived at the clearing formed by collapsed concrete walls and girders. This time she inspected the rowhouse’s perimeter as much as the rubble would allow. A sepia subway map was tipped sideways from the old station platform.
When she opened the door, eight copies of A Victorian Affair lay stacked at the loveseat’s base. Were they there before?
Ellen exhaled after completing each soft step from the front door to the fireplace. She picked up the books and eased them into her canvas bag. The books made her bag bulge. Then she whirled to face the closed door.
A weird feeling of, for once, a need to move forward stopped her. She inched across the bristly carpet. She gently elbowed the door. It stopped with a clank and she saw with horror the door had nicked his belt buckle. The man stood there in the doorframe with his jaw gaping. She saw the worm-pink striations in his mouth. Her heart throbbed as she watched his hulking, motionless frame. She might’ve screamed – she wasn’t sure. Behind him, the ceiling fan wavered a little faster. She looked at his legs – one was slightly lifted, frozen in mid-step.
She called Hadley’s job that night to see if she could drop the books over at his place. It was bold of her. But there was a hangover of confidence in her life now which, up to then, had been dormant. Then there was this vast pause for Ellen to say I’m sorry. But Hadley said, no, he’d be alright. Hadley lived by himself now, in a one bedroom apartment in Graduate Hospital. He said it’d be ok if she stopped by for a moment.
But when she made it upstairs to his landing, he said he had something funny to show her.
She handed him her heavy tote of books. “Funny?” she said. She hoped this wasn’t one of the many tricks he’d come to play on her, like the broken snow shovel, the call from the collection agency in Virginia, or the myriad others from when she worked at the big box bookstore.
But when he led her into his popcorn-smelling living room, there on his coffee table, on top of a New Yorker with a dollar bill cartoon, was a VHS. On the cover were seven well-dressed characters staring at a dandy around an ornate streetlight. The characters all had expressions of gloomy responsibility hinting toward shame.
She had not been aware of A Victorian Affair BBC Miniseries.
“Where the hell did you get this?”
“A library in Bakersfield interlibrary loaned it to me. Only copy in the States.”
They settled into the loveseat and ate the popcorn and watched the series. In the months after Ellen had started at the bookstore herself, the prize to all their rivalry was what appeared to be a functioning relationship. That was far enough in the past that sitting together on his loveseat now felt raw. Still, she could tell the movie had no extended walking-across-a-meadow scene. There was a Bank Examiner, and there was the Bank Examiner’s wife, and the Claims Adjuster. The movie was black and white and Ellen had trouble keeping her eyes open.
When she awoke to the credits, Hadley was turning the rough final pages of a copy and chuckling. “I love all this attention his sleeve gets.” He shut it and gazed at her with bedroom eyes. “I couldn’t wake you. You know you’re cute when you sleep.”
“Don’t kiss me,” she said. “I bet my mouth tastes terrible.”
But they kissed anyway. Then they took off their clothes.
She waited until he was asleep and then she left. She had known she would leave right after. She wanted to impress upon the world that she was a new person, she made decisions, and she acted on them, rather than forever dealing with the soldiers of panic and what-ifs.
It had rained, and the city was all glossy grays and blues as she biked back home. When she made it back to her apartment it was three a.m.. She saw on her answering machine she had a missed call from him. She would wait until she brushed her teeth to call him back; she’d enjoy making him wait.
He picked up on the last ring. Something was wrong with his voice. He spoke in a strange muffle.
“Crrrrrnnnphhhhh.” His voice roared and glitched.
“Hadley?” she shouted.
She tried calling him three more times in the week that followed, and once that Monday. It especially infuriated her on Monday: it was the night of the book club.
She settled at a cafe across from the bookstore. She ordered green tea and at the sugar and milk station poured in cream and shook in two sugars. She was not going to worry about Hadley. She stirred the tea, watching the cream coalesce when a tap touched her shoulder. A row of three customers stared. The barista said, “Miss, are you done? You’ve been standing there for four minutes.”
The second incident happened at her table when she cracked open A Victorian Affair. She’d opened the book on a lime green Post-It she’d written “Theme of Beauty/Natural World = Violence,” on. She read the first sentence of a two-paragraph selection then scrunched her nose.
No longer did the novel talk about a cluster of dandelions detonating in the wake of the man walking by. Instead, the protagonist spies a couple lounging under a dogwood tree, and waves. He introduces himself as a Claims Adjustor for the East India Company.
At the register she asked Kelly if she’d heard from Hadley. Kelly actually stopped bagging to tell her that no, nobody had heard from him all day which was strange. Kelly had asked the other workers and supervisors. He was rarely a no-call-no-show. Ellen took the escalator upstairs to find two women already arranging chairs in a circle around the couch. Her copies of A Victorian Affair peeked from under their seats.
More people arrived, including the teen who’d lost his dad. Kelly soon brought up cookies in Fresh Fields wrappers. Eventually, Ellen couldn’t keep saying, “Let’s wait for stragglers” anymore.
“So, what did folks think?” she asked.
At first, the only sound was a plastic bag rustling. A younger woman, whose striking red hair Ellen remembered liking, spoke: “I’ve never read anything like it.”
An elderly woman nodded. “It felt as if it were a still life,” she said. “As though I were walking through a showing of Delacroix, or Morandi.”
The woman who wore the Ramones sweater at the last meeting peered into her lap. “Parts of it made me cry,” she said.
Ellen said, “It sounds like you had a strong reaction to it.”
“I’ll admit I didn’t get it at first. But once I dug into it, all the emphasis on what he’s seeing, the feel of what he’s walking on…. you pick up on those moments in your own life.”
“I thought so too. Like I was meditating,” answered a woman in fuchsia cat’s eye glasses. “I’ve been reading it to Martin before he goes to bed,” she said. “He just…drifts off.”
Ellen nodded dumbly. She wanted to stop the meeting. Then the entire book club stared at the teen member. “It looks like you want to share something with the group, Parker?” The woman with the glasses asked.
He nodded. “The part about the horse chestnut…it moved me. On page 236.” So they all turned, and in a thin reedy voice, he spoke.
Something was wrong again. As the boy went on about the horse chestnut’s barbed, stubbly scalp, Ellen’s page told a different story. In the meadow, the Claims Adjuster and the Bank Examiner faced each other with pistols. The moment of death drawing near, the Bank Examiner’s wife sat in her horse-smelling carriage and caressed her swelling stomach, where the Claims Adjuster’s baby was taking shape. It was ridiculous. After Hadley took her to the clinic, his story was the only one her fellow workers believed.
Then the elderly woman cackled, “I’d never known so many words for green existed. It truly is a painting with language.” The group was all talking at once.
Ellen ran downstairs to Kelly at the register. She knew where he’d eventually look for her.
“Look,” said Ellen, “I’m going to tell you something very important. I need you to listen. When Hadley gets here, he’s gonna be off. He needs to come find me. He needs to go to the tunnel in the renovated City Hall stop. He’ll need to keep walking past the platform, past the tracks until he’s found it. He’ll need to crawl. I know there’s a St. Ides bottlecap and a green bag of sour cream and onion chips. That’ll be his halfway point. He’ll see a rowhome in a clearing. That’s where I’ll be.”
Kelly gawked at her. “You want me to tell him all that?”
“And you’re going to disappear from us again, huh?”
Ellen speed-biked back to the subway station. She found herself thinking about the fate of the Bank Examiner’s wife. Hadley’s checkmate, after that and the fact he was married, had been that he’d made everyone believe he’d been the victim. It was ridiculous. She scuttled through the tunnel so fast her knees ached.
She wondered why she’d been powerless back then to counter with an obligatory defense. She hadn’t even been able to bring herself to tell Hadley’s wife at the time.
And when she came to the house with the highway light shining on it, she saw, from the window, the bald man. He sipped from a ceramic mug on the loveseat. Ellen couldn’t believe he was moving – it was like watching a museum skeleton come to life.
She burst inside.
The door to the bedroom was open, the ceiling fan whirring at the correct speed. The string from his teabag whipped around. He sipped his tea and then squeezed a stream from his teabag. Then he lowered the mug onto an end table and sneered at her.
“You!” she said. “I thought you were a corpse! Why didn’t you try to stop me? Now they’re out circulating!”
His tongue whipped to catch a dot of tea under his nose. “I tried. But you were moving too damn fast.”
“Who the hell are you?” she said.
The man stood. “I’ve been here for a very long time. They built this station over my home. They didn’t care a shred for my wife, or son. Then it was just me here. I’m still waiting for them.” He stood up as if he were hatching. He lumbered over to the closet. “Luckily I’ve found these.”
She followed close behind. “My h-husband will be here any minute!” Ellen said.
He pulled back the bifold door on a rickety track. Hidden by a trench coat, sitting underneath racks of wire hangers, lay six stairsteps of books. They were all walnut-brown, all with silver lettering on the spine, all A Victorian Affair.
Then the door, faster than anything she had ever seen, flew open. There stood Hadley, unshaven, eyes bulging, chattering like a kid. Ellen decided he must have known what was going on, since then Hadley slowed his speech. “Elle let’s go,” he drawled.
The bald man growled, “I’ll duel you for her, mate.” He disappeared into another room and strode back out carrying two rifles.
“Elle, what, is this?” said Hadley.
Ellen had backed herself into the loveseat and sat down heavily. The man handed Hadley one of the rifles.
The two men aimed at each other, the fireplace centered between them. Ellen sat in the loveseat with its odor of sodden brick caressing her slowly swelling stomach where Hadley’s baby was taking shape.
Perry Genovesi (he/him) works as a librarian in Philadelphia, USA. He serves his fellow workers in AFSCME District Council 47 and plays in the empty arena rock band, Canid. You can read his published fiction in Dream Pop, Home Planet News, Conceit, and collected on tinyurl.com/PerryGenovesi. He dreams of directing a Old West movie shootout scene where, instead of drawing pistols, the first cowboy to shout I’m sorry wins. Twitter: unionlibrarian