by Jason Zippro
A few days after the funeral, his wife read one of the leather notebooks he always wrote in. There it was in black ink, as if the world condensed itself into just a few sentences and it all made sense.
She had been crying, and since before the funeral she had been flipping through the hundreds of books, journals, drawings, and files in his studio, thousands of memories all stored away in ink. He had been collecting things for years and even though he wasn’t old, he wasn’t young either.
“Fifty is just barely over half-way,” he said only a few weeks before.
His two daughters attended a college only a few hours away. They had always done well, and in secondary school on the days that they received their report cards he would look at them and always say, “Good job, but what did you learn?” He never expected them to tell him what they learned, but he asked so they understood what he thought of grades and about who they were. Those evenings they would leave the torn envelopes with their grade papers on the counter and go together to the grocery store and buy cold cereal and whole milk. One box for each of them. Then they would go home and eat cereal late into the night and watch a movie. “Cereal Parties,” he used to call them.
Cereal was a Christmas thing; normally it came with your stocking, along with a toothbrush, and a chocolate letter. But it also came on grade days and sometimes on the hottest evenings of the summer, when the cold milk was refreshing. On those hot summer days, all four of them would sit on the back porch until the sun set, late into the evening.
He sometimes helped his wife make their daughters’ lunches for school. They could tell whose sandwich he had made and which she had. One day when they pulled out their bananas, each one had their own name carved into the skin, brown and thin. After that they always had messages engraved into their banana skins. Sometimes it was just a line, others were whole poems, and other times he would leave them reminders for after school activities or weekend plans.
When they were in elementary school he would peel their bananas for them. Once he asked, “Did you know God put diamonds in the bananas?”
He held the peeled banana up to the light and close to their faces.
“Do you see the teeny little sparkles all over the banana?”
At first they didn’t see them, but he made them look harder, and when they saw the glistening moisture on the pale, spongy flesh, they giggled.
“You see? All those little sparkles? Every time you eat a banana you are eating God’s diamonds.”
They laughed, ate their bananas, and thought they were eating diamonds. Now, years later they still think about God’s diamonds when they eat bananas.
He didn’t talk very much. Mostly he was in his studio writing. Sometimes they believed that he loved his notebooks more than he loved them. Once, during lunch, after he had been locked up in his studio for the entire morning, they asked him if he loved them more than his notebooks. He smiled sadly, finished his sandwich, and hugged them both. He walked back to his studio and never closed its door again.
“In college he talked more,” his wife told the daughters, “he talked and talked and when we married he stopped talking and began writing.”
“He loves me, but just with fewer words,” she thought, and the words were usually whispered or written with delicate touches and soft tremors.
“In college he talked more. After we got married he wrote more often, and when each of you were born he cried,” she continued. “He cried and when he wasn’t holding you, or my hand, he was holding his notebooks, writing. Always writing. He grew more quiet at your births too, at your first step, and on your first day of school.”
“He grew more quiet when we went to college too,” one of his daughters said.
“Yes” her mother agreed, “but he loved me more intensely too.”
One Sunday when they were in high school he came out of his studio mid-morning while they were eating breakfast. He leaned down over the counter, propped himself on his elbows on the opposite side of the island, and smiled at them. He asked them if they liked the name Beatrice. They looked at him with confused faces, said no, and returned to eating their toast. He asked them again but this time pronouncing her name in Italian. They smiled and looked at their father inquisitively. He smiled back and told them a story about Dante, a man who had fallen in love with a Beatrice. Dante loved her so much that he made himself sick over her. One day, eighteen years after he had first seen her, she died. Dante was so sick with grief that he curled up in his room and almost died from starvation and sorrow.
“Dante finally recovered and wrote the story years later in a collection of poems he called The New Life. We know about Beatrice because he wrote about her. He immortalized her without her ever knowing it.”
He told his daughters that Dante had become one of the greatest poets in Italian history for another story he had written about a dream in which he descended through hell and climbed a mountain before Beatrice appeared to him and led him up into heaven.
“La Donna Scala, Lady of the Stairs, a personal angel who helps men come to God, but only if they admire her from a distance,” he explained. “He wrote to understand what happened and we read what he left to know we’re not alone.”
He reached out his hands and cupped each of their chins in his palms, smiled, then kissed his wife, and walked back to his studio.
At the funeral they had said many things about him. But none of that mattered to his wife. She loved him and after they had talked about him, she noticed she didn’t love him any more than she had before the service had started. She had sat on the front pew holding one of his black covered notebooks the entire service, reading it. She didn’t remember much of the service or the burial or the reception afterward, but she remembered other things, like the few words that he loved her with, and how they were only whispers and letters and pages now.
The funeral had gone smoothly, and now that it was over his wife felt that dark absence beginning to expand inside of her. She closed the notebook she was holding as her eyelids grew heavy. Eyes half-closed and cheeks taut from the dried tears, she breathed heavily on the couch.
A couple weeks later, after her daughters returned to school and the neighbors stopped coming, she sat on the white tile of his studio staring at the bright walls bathed in sunlight coming in from the large open window that was most of the eastern wall. The bookshelves were mostly empty now. All but a few notebooks and loose papers that shuffled in the early September breeze had been packed away. She reached down beside her and picked up one of the leather-covered journals and held it to her chest.
“We write to know who we are,” she muttered, staring off into the washboard-patterned shadows of the shelves. She pulled the notebook closer and felt her heart beating against it. She breathed the warm air in slowly. The walls slowly changed colors—orange than pink and finally a brilliant red—as she continued to sit on the cool, milky tile. Soon she slipped to her side, and placing her head on the soft leather of the journal, she fell asleep.