Rooted in the western United States in the decade post-9/11, the book follows a young writer and his wife as he attempts to write the follow-up to his first novel, searching for a form that will express the world as it has become, even as it continually shifts all around him.
Pop-up ads, search results, web chats, snippets of conversation, lines of code, and film and television stills mix with manuscripts, classical works of literature—and the story of a man who wakes up one morning without any memory of who he is, his only clue a single blank document on his computer called themystery.doc.
It was one of those plots where you wake up and you don’t know who you are. You feel like you’ve been through the mill. Your head aches. Your ribs ache. Your arms ache. Your hands, your fingers. Everything aches. You know you did something—or somebody did something to you—but what that was now completely escapes you. You’re awake. And it’s like you’re still coming out of a dream. And you wait a little while for the facts of the matter to settle in your mind. Who, what, where, when, why… You know, like everyone knows, that coming out of a dream can be a confusing time. Sometimes it takes a while for the dream to split off and fade away. You’re in a familiar room but you don’t recognize anything. The bed seems like it’s your own but you think it’s someone else’s. Or you think you’re somewhere other than you are. That’s all perfectly normal. A transition from one state to another. Well, this dream splits, it breaks off, it fades, but nothing takes its place. Just the ache. And a girl at the closet stepping into a skirt, saying:
“I’m super late, so I’m gonna drive, OK?”
I couldn’t see her well. She was just a blur. I groped around the bedside table for a pair of glasses that weren’t there.
So I lay back, watching the blurry form as it dressed. Tall girl, short stylish hair, platinum blonde, a good figure—that’s about all I could tell. A small room. Modest. Curtains closed. A sound like an airplane going over.
She zipped up her skirt in the back.
“How are you feeling?” she said.
“I bet. Too much time on that ladder.”
She left the room. The old hardwood creaked beneath her feet. I heard her voice from the other room.
“I had to change my number, remember? New one’s on the counter.” She came back in. “OK?”
She sat down on the bed. Dark blurry face. Her light hair like a corona.
“Why don’t you take a break from scraping. You’ve still got a month of summer. Take the day off. Why don’t you go back to your book? Do some writing. You get so grumpy when you’re not working on it.”
“Yeah. Maybe tonight I can read some more.” She leaned forward and kissed me.
Pretty face. Almond-shaped eyes.
“Your glasses are in the bathroom. I borrowed them, sorry. There’s coffee in the kitchen. And a smoothie in the fridge.”
“You all right, babe? You look kind of dazed.”
Instinctively a person knows that if he wakes up in a strange place with a strange woman calling him babe he should just go along with things and pretend he’s in control of the situation, that everything’s fine. Things go wrong quickly when you share information with strangers who say they’re your friends.
“Did you hear the cat this morning?” she asked.
“It was howling something terrible. It sounded like it was in our back yard. Probably that fat orange one I always hiss at. I’m surprised you didn’t hear it. It was pretty horrible. Sounded like it was being eaten by wolves. I hope it was. Well, I wish I could stay,” she said, rising from the bed. “Remember when we first moved here we used to stay in bed all morning?” She sighed. “I miss those days.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
“I’m really sorry about last night. I think I must have been enchanted or something.”
“Give me another chance tonight? All right?”
“Call me if you need anything. Don’t call the old number, though. Remember, call the new one.”
The door closed. I heard her run down some steps and another door slammed shut.
The car started up and backed down a long driveway.
I got up. Went into the bathroom and found the glasses. Put them on. Looked at myself in the mirror. Well, that seemed right enough. The face was mine. I knew that much. So then the problem couldn’t be me. I poured a cup of coffee and went into the living room. A couch, a chair, a lamp, a table. I looked out the window. The house was small. A house of similar size across the street. Two rows of modest, pre-war bungalows. Maple trees in bloom. On the porch was a ladder on its side, a tarp, a little table, a broom, a pile of light-colored paint chips. The front lawn was dried out, yellow. I went into the adjacent room. This must be my office. A desk in front of the window. A laptop computer. Old metal bookshelves. Books stacked on every surface. History, philosophy, fiction. Post cards and old photos stuck to the bookshelves with magnets. A drawing by a child of some sort of rainbow-colored craft—bright vibrant colors covering every molecule of the page—and little round balls—smiling faces. An old green couch. A black throw pillow. A metal trash can, empty except for balls of gum stuck to the inside. A yellow chair. I sat down. Hit the spacebar. The computer started up. The black screen flashed and then a white sheet stared back. Nothing on it.
The title of the document was themystery.doc. It was the only thing open.
It was all very suspicious. I know when you wake with your memory lost you’re supposed to believe everything they tell you. You’re supposed to blindly fit in with your surroundings. To trust the legitimacy of all that’s been laid out before you. But I was quite sure I had never been in this house before. I had never sat in that chair. I didn’t know who those people were in the photographs, I didn’t know what child had drawn the picture. I lifted it up. On the back an adult had written in yellow crayon: “The Bus”.
The phone rang.
I got up and passed through the little bathroom, back into the bedroom. In the still-dark room I could see a gadget glowing on the dresser. I picked it up. Pressed the talk button.
“I forgot to tell you the sewer guy’s coming to snake the drain today.”
“The sewer line. It’s all clogged up because of the pine tree roots, remember?”
I didn’t know what the heck she was talking about.
“Right,” I said.
“He should be there about eleven, I think.”
“The checkbook’s on the coffee table.”
“You’re not very talkative this morning.”
“You’re not still angry with me, are you? You can’t believe anything I said last night. I told you. It wasn’t me. I was enchanted.”
“What did you say last night?”
“Hmmm,” she said. “I should get off the phone now. I don’t like talking while I drive. You get distracted. That’s how people end up driving off bridges. Knock on wood.”
“Where do you work again?”
“Where do I work again? Babe, I think you might still be asleep.”
“Right. Yeah, that’s it. I must still be asleep.”
“You just stay in bed today. I think you need a break. Stay off that ladder. You just stay in bed and read a book or something, OK? I better go.”
We hung up.
I was wearing a white t-shirt and red boxers. The house was very warm. I found a pair of shorts on the floor by the bed and put them on. They were green army pants that had been made into shorts. I took my coffee out into the back yard. There was a patio there, a couple wicker chairs that didn’t match. One of them had no seat but a rudely cut piece of plywood had been plunked down with a little cushion on top that was too small for it. There were tarps and old sheets lying over the flower beds. The house itself was pink—pink or peach—that was the color. But everywhere I could see the gray/brown of old cedar shingles. The house had been scraped, and it must have been a terrible paint job that was being scraped off because a third or more of the observable house was down to the wood. I rolled my head around on my neck. It was tight and sore. My head still hurt. Everything hurt and just looking at the house made everything hurt more.
The back lawn was just as dead as the front. It seemed whoever had been living here had decided to let the grass die. It was a good-sized yard. There was a weird-looking orange bundle lying there in the back. I put on a pair of flip-flops that fit me perfectly and walked back there.
Near the back fence, an obese orange cat was lying stiffly, its tongue sticking out the side of its mouth. It had a leather collar and a round disk hanging from it. Without touching the cat I moved the disk so I could read it.
I went inside and turned on the phone, compared the number that had last called me with the number the girl had written on a pad of paper in the kitchen. They matched.
A doodle of a fish with a smiley face had been drawn in a quick, smooth hand below the number.
“Hi, babe,” she said.
“I think I know what happened this morning.”
“What do you mean?”
“Olive,” I said.
“What olive? You hate olives.”
“Not olives; Olive. Don’t you know who Olive is?”
I could hear the girl sigh into the phone. “Babe, I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I have a lot of work to get done.”
“Olive the cat. Is dead.”
“The big orange cat?” she blurted. “Gladys’s cat?”
“Who’s Gla—? Yep, that’s the one.”
“As a dormouse.”
The next thing I heard was a bit disturbing because it was the sound of gleeful laughter. “That must be what I heard this morning!” she said giddily. “Its death throes! Oh, joy! Joy!” Then she said something about how that will teach it to go to the bathroom in her blueberry beds. Who was this woman? “Thanks for telling me, babe, you really brightened my day.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do with it?”
“I don’t know. What do you do with dead cats? Put them in the trash, I guess.”
“I figure I should alert its owner, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I suppose. How did it look? Gross?”
“I wonder how it died.”
“I should get in touch with Gladys,” I said. “How should I reach her?”
“I don’t know, how about with a ten-foot pole?”
“You don’t get along with Gladys, either?”
“I would get along with Gladys if she would stop trying to give me advice about lawn care. I’m trying to save water. Besides, we’ll start working on the garden when the painting’s done.”
“Sure,” I said. “That makes sense. Well, I suppose I’d better go talk to this Gladys.”
“This Gladys? OK, but you might want to wait awhile. You still sound really spacey.”
“Yes. Certainly. Of course.”
“See, that’s what I mean.”
There was a shed at the back of the property. It was unlocked. I found a pair of branch cutters and used them to snip off the deceased’s leather collar. It was a tricky business because I didn’t want to accidentally snip the cat. I took the collar and walked down the side driveway. The whole side of the house was in the same condition as the rear as far as paint and scraping was concerned. Whoever had done this had made it look legit. Poor bastard, I thought to myself. The scraping had obviously been done with a little hand scraper and a heat gun. The gun blew hot air which loosened the peeling paint and then it was up to the scraper to get it off. It was a small house, but no small job. Perhaps whoever was trying to make me think this was my house had hired a team to do it, in which case it could have been done in a day or two, depending on the size of the team.
The front of the house had yet to be scraped. I could see why anyone living there would have wanted the job done. It had been painted that pink/peach color and nothing else. No trim or accent colors, so the little house had the appearance of a nondescript pink blob. None of the details of its design or architecture were showing. I wondered what color it was going to be.
I stood on the sidewalk looking back at the house and chewing a piece of gum I’d found in the pocket of my shorts. I was distracted by an old woman next door. She was standing in her driveway sweeping. She saw me and smiled.
“Good morning! Looks like the scraping’s coming along. I can’t wait to see what color you two have chosen. I hope not gray. But I’m sure it’ll be beautiful. Your wife is so styli—”
“Gladys?” I said.
She stopped smiling and looked at me funny. “Yes?”
“Then I have some bad news.”
I walked over to her so that I could deliver the bad news quietly and in a soft voice, and no sooner had I stepped from my yard into hers than I heard a loud snarling which instantly turned to barking and I turned to see an angry dog bolting in my direction. I leapt back, then seeing it was just a fat corgi I readied myself to kick it like a football as soon as it brought itself in range. But it turned out the dog was tied up on a line and couldn’t quite get to me. “No, Brute, no!” said “Gladys,” in a voice that wasn’t chastising at all, and which while assuming a negative position paradoxically revealed something in the order of approval.
The dog stood off a distance growling under its breath.
“What’s the bad news?” said Gladys, looking concerned.
“The cat? It’s your cat, isn’t it?”
“No, that cat belonged to a man who lived down the street. He had two cats and he didn’t want to take them when he moved, so somehow he got Vel to adopt them—this was right after Gerald left for the home—but then, well, as you know, they had to take her away because she was hiding in the bushes and snarling at passersby and—have you heard anything? Is she still in the mental hospital? Carol was telling me she chased you with her hose? Is that true?”
“That’s a good question, Gladys. There’s a lot I’d like to know.”
“Well,” said Gladys sweetly, “Carol heard that Vel thought your pine trees were killing her with pollen. So after she sprayed her house from top to bottom she started spraying yours. Then when you went out and asked her to stop she accused you of stealing her windows and putting them on your house and then, well, according to Carol she chased you down the driveway spraying you with the soaker attachment. It really is a shame that you had to share your driveway with Vel for so long. I used to see her wandering into your back yard all the time. I guess she had become convinced that there was a body buried back there. At least that’s what she told the ambulance driver when they took her away. You know she spent all her time in that house watching true crime shows and the Home Shopping Network. And she hoards. She has for as long as I’ve been here—almost forty years. But I think if you had one of those antiques shows come to her house they’d find some real treasures! Why, some of those old silhouettes must be worth a thousand dollars apiece! Do you ever watch the antiques program?”
“Never miss it,” I said.
“Did you hear they’re coming to town next month? My friend Mavis has two tickets and she’s giving me one. I’m going to take an old Indian pestle I found at a junk sale and see if they will carbon date it for me. At least I think it’s a pestle—Tim down the street says it may be something called a lingam.”
The dog had not stopped growling.
“I don’t think your dog likes me much.”
“Oh, Brute? Don’t take it personally; he growls at all men. I think in his first home there was a man who used to hit him. A dog remembers. But as far as Olive goes, she’s not really my cat. It’s just when they took Vel away no one was feeding the cats anymore, so I started leaving food out on my porch for them. Now the other one has run off somewhere, but Olive is still coming around.”
“Well, Olive won’t be coming around anymore. I’m sorry to tell you that Olive has kicked the bucket.”
“Oh, dear. She died?”
“In my back yard. And very loudly, I might add. Apparently the woman pretending to be my wife heard a bloodcurdling scream this morning. I can only assume it was Olive dying a horrible death.” I handed Gladys the collar. “My condolences.”
Gladys clucked her tongue. “Oh, that’s terrible!” she said, taking the collar. “Where did it happen? In your back yard, was it?”
“That’s what it looks like. Unless the body was moved.”
“Was she attacked by something? I know we have raccoons.”
“I don’t know how it happened, I’m no vet. But I thought I should let you know.”
“Do you want me to come get her?”
“I’ll take care of it, Gladys, no problem.”
“Well, thank you. Do you think I should send the collar to the man who owned her? I got his address from Tim after Vel was taken away. I wanted to know if he was going to come back for the cats. He never wrote back.”
“Yes, I think you should send the collar. I’m sure he’d like that.”
I went back inside and after a short search I found a large plastic shopping bag. I put Olive in it. Tied it. And deposited it in the garbage can.
I went back inside and drank the smoothie the girl had left me in the fridge. It was banana and strawberry, very tasty. I walked around the house examining items, picking up a stuffed frog here, a bowl of pine cones there. On the mantle was a large green cookie jar in the shape of a stern-looking owl. I lifted off his head and looked inside. Toy animals of all kinds. I put his head back on.
“Boris,” I heard myself say. That was its name. How did I know that?
Footsteps. I turned to the window and saw a woman walking up the porch. Her bedhead hair and t-shirt with the cartoon dinosaur were unmistakable. It was Gladys. She knocked on the door.
“Come in,” I said, and stepped back, motioning for her to take a seat.
She seemed surprised, but stepped in, looking around the room with wide eyes like a kid in a candy store.
“Have you not been in here before?” I asked.
“Not for eight or nine years,” she said. “There was an incident with some renters who started a fire. When the cops left Carol and I came in and had a look around. Have you ever noticed the burnt floor in the basement? They were making meth and I guess whatever they were cooking it in exploded. One of the renters was pretty badly burned.”
“Have a seat,” I told her. “Can I get you a drink or something?”
“Oh, no thank you. I just came to give you the address of the man who owned Olive in case you’d like to contact him, yourself, for any reason.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Gladys,” I said. “The cat’s already in the bag, so to speak.”
The room was sparsely furnished and nothing matched. There was a plush captain’s chair that had stained arm rests and scratch marks, probably found somewhere with a FREE sign on it. The couch Gladys was on was nearly as dingy as the chair and the springs must have given because she was sinking noticeably into the center of it. She was swiveling her head all around to make mental pictures of every item of décor so that she would be able to call it all up later, in future conversations with other neighbors. I was afraid she was going to throw out her neck.
“Gladys,” I said.
“How long have I lived here?”
“Let’s see… You bought the house a few months after the renters with the pit bulls left. So, I suppose it’s been almost three years.”
“And what is it that I do for a living?”
She chuckled. “You’re a writer!”
“Have I ever published anything?”
“Of course! You signed my book for me. Don’t you remember? You wrote: For Gladys, thanks for the tips. I will do it your way next time. I remember well because neither Carol nor I could figure out if you were being serious or sarcastic.”
“What was the name of my book?”
“The name of your book?” She laughed. “Are you playing a prank on me?”
“I know it probably sounds weird that I’d ask you all these questions that I already know the answers to. But let’s just consider it as an exercise I’m doing for a book. OK?”
“That sounds fun! Your book’s name is In Complete Accord.”
“In Complete Accord. Odd title. And did it sell many copies?”
“I don’t think very many. I know I bought one.”
“Now my wife, what does she do for a living?”
“You’ve told me before that she’s a graphic designer.”
“And what’s she like? Trustworthy? Nice? Devious? Shady? How would you describe her?”
Gladys thought about it. “Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve never been able to get to know her very well. I know almost everyone on the block because I’m always out watering or sweeping and I talk to people when they walk by, and that’s how I get to know them. But I can’t say I’ve ever had a very good conversation with Eva. It seems like every time I try to strike up a conversation with her she remembers she has something on the stove. And yet,” mused Gladys, “I never seem to smell any home cooking coming from the house.”
“So that’s her name is it? Eva?”
“And what’s my name?”
Gladys suddenly burst forth with: “Well, your real name is Daniel, but for the first three months you lived here you had me calling you Corky!”
“I had you calling me Corky?”
“Yes, and I was very cross for a long time with you, because every time I would talk about you to people I would call you Corky and they would say Who’s Corky? and I would explain that it was you—the new couple: Eva, the designer, and her husband Corky—and they’d say, His name’s not Corky, it’s Daniel! and I’d say, No, it’s not, it’s Corky!—and when I finally figured out you’d only been having a bit of fun with me, well, I was pretty upset about it. And I even talked to Eva about it over the fence in the back. I said, Do you know your husband has had me calling him Corky all this time? and she apologized and said you are a very imaginative man but that you get bored very easily and that I shouldn’t take any offense and I started to give her some advice about how to check her arbor vitae for spider mites when she suddenly remembered she had left the iron on and had to rush inside.”
“And how does one check for spider mites?” I asked to humor the woman.
“You take a white piece of paper and you place it flat inside the bush—or the tree, rather—and then you shake the tree and take the paper out and if they’re there you’ll see them crawling around on the page. They’re small and red. And they can wipe out an entire block in a single season.”
“Good to know,” I said, rising to my feet. “Well, thank you for stopping by, but I should be getting back to work now. I’m sorry for having you call me Corky.” I opened the door.
“How’s the book coming?” she asked. “Is it almost finished?”
“I imagine so,” I said. “By the way, what’s the book about? Have I ever told you?”
“Oh, no, it’s top secret. You never say the first thing about it. Whenever I or any of the other neighbors ask you just say it’s a really big book, that you don’t know when you’ll be done because you never put timelines on things because it’s better to let it be whatever it wants to be—which I’ve never understood—and what else do you say? Oh, yes. That you may not be making any money but that it’s a very rewarding experience.”
“Sounds like a cop-out to me. And how long have I been working on this book? Have I ever told you?”
“Well, your last one came out when you were young—twenty-six, I think, which probably explains all the profanity. And I know you’ve been working on this one since then. So it must have been something like…eleven years?”
“Eleven years on the same book!” I exclaimed.
“How does a person work eleven years on a book and not finish it? What’s my work schedule? A minute per day?”
“Well, you tell people you work on it from the time you wake up until you go to sleep. And that you don’t have any friends or hobbies or belong to any clubs (I don’t think you even vote to tell you the truth) and that you have devoted your entire life to working on it.” She lowered her voice. “We all just figure you have writer’s block and are too embarrassed to say.”
“Yeah, I don’t blame you. Eleven years working on the same book sounds like madness. Have I ever told you the title?”
“No. But once you called it a post-post-neo-modern mystery story. But I don’t know if you were just feeding me more Corky.”
“Thank you for the information, Gladys,” I said, escorting her down the slanted wooden steps. “I promise you I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”
“The bottom of it?” she said. “Is there something wrong?”
“Oh, yes. There’s something definitely wrong.” I walked her to the lawn and she headed for her house. “Wait, Gladys! One more thing!”
She turned around.
“I didn’t get a very good look at my wife this morning,” I said. “I didn’t have my glasses on. She’s beautiful, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, she’s very beautiful. Everyone says she looks like a model.”
“And the way I look now,” I said, spreading my arms wide so that she could see my old t-shirt and baggy shorts. “Is this how I normally look?”
“You mean how messy your hair is?”
“Well, I wasn’t meaning that, but yes. And my attire.”
“You always look pretty much the same,” said Gladys. “Although when it’s colder you wear long johns under your shorts.”
“So then the question is…what would a girl like that be doing with a guy like me?”
Gladys thought about it for a while, but at last could only respond with a shake of the head and a smile. And a:
“I suppose it really takes all kinds.”
From theMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh, courtesy Grove Atlantic. Copyright 2017 by Matthew McIntosh.