Jul/Aug 2014  •   Fiction

The Nature of Things

by Anne Fox

Image credit: Darryl Leja, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov

Image credit: Darryl Leja, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov

I have long believed within the inanimate dwells the power to communicate, yet only as an adult have I finally understood the desire and despair expressed in the crunch of gravel underfoot, the creak of an old fence, the sly whisper of morning fog, the dark gossip of papers shuffling over my desk. I want to speak of these events, but how, in our narrow-minded, rush-to-judgment society, and to whom? I suppose close-minded people surmise what they will about my window shades drawn against their inquisitive eyes, or my nightly walks, silent to them but not to me. In addition to my house, my elderly parents left an inheritance for me to cultivate my ideas and live as I please. I have rare knowledge, and a recent experience has induced me to consider welcoming someone into the haven of my sequestered, orderly world.

Last week a long-ago friend from out of town showed up at my door unexpectedly, noticeably heavier than I remembered her, though I didn't mention that, being nothing if not discreet. I invited her for an overnight stay. The next morning she ate a hearty breakfast and then, with what seemed like a forlorn backward glance, hastened away. Her strange, brief visit seemed no more than conversation punctuated by hesitancy and a sideways look at me, my covered windows, my triple-locked doors—almost with what seemed like envy. Puzzled and a little put out, I straightened her room.

I gave an angry shake to the stubbornly mute sheets on her bed and pummeled her inarticulate pillows to fluffiness. In a glum frame of mind, I wandered into my adjoining study, pondering my friend's odd behavior.

No sooner did I enter the study than I knew I had misjudged her. There before me on hangers on the closet doorknob were her slacks and blouse—a message so clear I couldn't ignore it. She had obviously left her clothing to carry on our abbreviated conversation, the blinds raised to let the sun shine on them (my error, failing to make clear my rules about privacy and drawn blinds). And even in that moment before I could lower the blinds, I thought I saw the flash of a face at the window.

Another look at the hangered garments, and a thrill surged through me at the slight billowing of the plastic bag draped over them. I didn't question the gesture, despite the disconcerting insouciance of plastic film. I am nothing if not nonjudgmental.

I reached under the plastic cover to stroke the navy-blue slacks, murmuring a welcome. Although crisp and smooth to the touch, boasting knife-edge creases, their stretch fabric did yield a bit. Surely they would engage in lively conversation, what with their intimate relationship with my recent visitor, whose generosity was visible in their measurements. But no warmth wove through the slacks, no expansiveness or breadth of expression. They maintained a cold, flat texture, a zipped-up, rigid obstinacy.

Behind the slacks, the blouse appeared pristine and restrained, with mystery emanating from the ivory-colored fabric. The subtlety of the soft curve from the collar to the shoulder led me to anticipate a song. After all, wasn't that blouse privy to the rhythm of my friend's heartbeat transmitted through the soft amplitude of her own bosom? But then—how can I say this?—silence assaulted me from the shadows of the garment. The blouse exemplified beauty manqué. Rich with pearl buttons parading down its front, it could have offered the fullness of itself, but no, it withdrew into hangdoggedness. Its sleeves, limp, indifferent, curved down to show its clear rejection of me.

The more thwarted my open-mindedness, my liberal views, the more annoyed I became. Though I'm not self-centered, I did expect an intimation of interest in me. But nothing. The two garments remained reticent. Or should I say hostile? Oh, yes, a casual observer might remark they were tentative about a new relationship. But when I saw the slight furl in the cuff of the slacks, I recognized rebellion. For what reason? Against what? Anger contended with patience as I struggled to quell my emotional reaction.

And making things worse was the plastic cover, its intentions transparent. It embraced the slacks and the blouse as though they were babes abandoned by an uncaring mother and left in the hands of an unreliable caregiver—me, unreliable? I am nothing if not reliable.

Silence prevailed in my study. Now what to do—tell my friend how miserably she had failed to create her presence in her absence? She had tacitly implied she wanted her clothing to stand for her but failed to consider their nature as indifferent shells. Or were they acting on instructions? I tried to cast that notion from my mind. Why think ill of my friend when she had tried to reach out? I am nothing if not reasonable.

The point of my friend's early departure has finally come to me. She perceives the nature of things as I do but is edgy about confiding in me. It upsets me she's wary about trusting me, of all people. But clearly her quick takeoff showed she intended the clothing to be an experiment she wanted to begin immediately. Was she testing me? Why would she test me? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Why her silence?

Setting aside these questions, I'll be tolerant and tell her what she could have left for conversation in her absence. In fact, wasn't she herself slow not to think of them—books, of course?—which immediately communicate, are innately vigorous and eloquent through sight and touch, even smell, make themselves at home with no effort, are warm in their embrace of a bookmark or even—regretfully, of course—a dog-eared page.

I'll convey my thoughts in the note I'm including when I return the slacks and blouse. Clutched by their plastic cover in a dark box, those two, though silent with me, will tell her a tale. How will she deal with their excuses, especially after she reads my report?

In thinking about her next visit, considering the unsatisfactory test she left for me with its intimations of challenge, should I appreciate she has a bit of spirit? If so, I can be more direct about communication from the inanimate than I was before her hasty departure. And I can't forget the melancholy of her backward glance the morning she left. If her reaction to what I share with her reveals she is worth enticing, I'll press her, draw her into my plans, let her know we are kindred spirits and must meld our ideas. That's when I'll suggest we can live together here in my home. She can't fail to see the logic of my offer. I expect her eyes to light up at the prospect of no longer being alone.

I'll immediately establish the structure of our arrangement—everyone needs structure, especially my friend with her weight problem—clarify the rules about the window blinds, about the locks on the doors, about the time and place of nighttime excursions, about interpreting the messages from the inanimate. I'll make her appreciate how the walls of my home will protect us from the dangers of the outside world, how she'll be safe with me.