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Knell Lettres
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Knell Lettres

This is a book column. So I’ll start with the book. The Quincunx, by Charles Palliser, comprises 788 pages of dense type, black-and-white maps, and family trees. Its dust jacket is glossy black, the letters marbleized gold. The page edges are rough, as though sliced through with a paper knife. That was standard procedure in the 19th century. Here, it’s affectation: The Quincunx was published in 1989. Publisher’s Weekly describes the story thus: “The protagonist, a young man naive enough to be blind to all clues about his own hidden history (and to the fact that his very existence is troubling to all manner of evildoers) narrates a story of uncommon beauty which not only brings readers face-to-face with dozens of piquantly drawn characters at all levels of 19th-century English society but re-creates with precision the tempestuous weather and gnarly landscape that has been a motif of the English novel since Wuthering Heights.” It sounds awful. But who knows? Maybe it’s a good read. My friend Rebecca Alm was reading it in 1991, when she stayed with us in Boston. An editor for Swarthmore’s alumni magazine, Rebecca was in town to interview a Harvard professor who had just written a book about cross-dressing. I never saw her crack The Quincunx the entire visit. After she flew home to Philadelphia, I found it on a bedside table. I met Rebecca in 1987, when we toiled together in the fact-checking department of TV Guide. At age 27 she looked the way I imagine Garrison Keillor’s Minnesotans do: broad of face and frame, placid of demeanor. You could imagine her in a dirndl and clogs churning butter, or sweeping the steps with a whisk broom. When she spoke she always sounded mildly exasperated, though she rarely was. Often I would come into the office with my sweater buttoned wrong (I get distracted), and Rebecca would cluck her tongue and fix me. A fellow refugee from a graduate English program, Rebecca loved Sherlock Holmes and fat Victorian novels. We fought over how she could stomach Gallsworthy and prefer Our Mutual Friend to Bleak House. She had a perverse fondness for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The Quincunx, I imagine, was right up her alley. I talked science fiction with her husband, Brad Snyder. Rebecca and Brad had met at the University of Chicago; they married in 1986. When I first met them their life still had that new-marriage smell. If you talked to Rebecca without Brad present she would matter-of-factly report what he would say if he were there, and Brad would do the same. They loved the ways each other’s minds worked. That year was a bad one for me, for all the usual reasons. I spent many evenings at their apartment, talking, watching TV, getting in the way while Rebecca tried to cook. Occasionally, when I was too depressed to go home, I spent the night. In the mornings Rebecca would pad around in her flannel robe and oversized slippers, serving strong coffee in ceramic cow mugs and making the day safe to go out in. In 1989 I married and moved to Boston. But Rebecca and I still spoke often, wrote often. Sometimes she visited, by herself or with Brad. It was on a solo trip that Rebecca left The Quincunx at our house. I never bothered to mail it back. In 1992, Rebecca and Brad had a daughter, Elizabeth. Her photograph is propped against my desk lamp. In the picture she is two years old, with uneven blond bangs and apple cheeks. She is wearing a Bert and Ernie t-shirt and clutching a stuffed brown dog that looks as though it has survived a lot of clutching. There is no word for the color of her eyes. Rebecca, Brad and Elizabeth died in a fire on the night of March 20, 1996. The cause was an overloaded electrical outlet. They were living in an apartment in Greenfield, WI. The next week they were going to move to a house—the first house they would have owned. According to the newspaper account, Rebecca’s body was found by the bedroom window. Brad was in Elizabeth’s room, by her bed. The emergency squad took Brad and Elizabeth to one hospital and Rebecca to another. I don’t know why they had to separate them, although they were dead by then so I guess it didn’t matter.
Brad’s mother called me after it happened. The next day I phoned the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and told the woman who handled back issues that I was trying to find an obituary of some friends who had died in a fire. The woman said, “Oh, do you mean the family?” For years I kept the issue on the top shelf of my closet, taking it down every few days to reread the story. One day the newspaper disappeared. I assume my husband removed it. Probably that was the right thing to do. I shelved The Quincunx alphabetically with the rest of my books. It sits between George Orwell and Dorothy Parker—more scintillating company than it deserves. Those uncut pages are wicked dust-catchers, so it is always furred in gray. Last October I e-mailed my friend Denise, who lives in San Francisco, to tell her I would be in town for a conference. Denise invited me to come along with her to a Day of the Dead party, an annual event in her social circle. She explained that the host—an artist—always erected an elaborate altar on which partygoers were encouraged to place a keepsake of someone they had lost. After the mole and margaritas everyone would gather round the altar, tell the stories behind their offerings, and pay tribute. So there it was. I would bring The Quincunx with me and leave it in a stranger’s home on the other side of the country. It felt ordained. At 4 a.m. on the day of my trip I laid the book in my carry-on bag and set off to make a 6 a.m. flight. It was still dark as I approached Logan, and several pylons were strewn around the entrance to the airport exit. I couldn’t figure out whether the road was in use or not, so I drove past and ended up in Charlestown. It took 40 minutes to get back to Logan (darkness, detours, zero sense of direction), and by the time I arrived it was very late. I hefted the carry-on over my shoulder. It was heavy. The thought of bearing something so heavy from that parking space all the way to California overcame me. I took The Quincunx out of my bag and left it on the passenger seat. When I got back it was waiting for me.

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