The In-Between Parts
Anthony Rocco Messina
The man wakes up in the desert. The static crests and valleys of the dunes remind him of the ocean tides, yet he has no recollection of when he has actually seen the ocean, which one he is most likely to have seen, or what his own name is.
He slaps the creases of platinum sand off his jeans and removes his long-sleeved button-up, leaving only a white undershirt saturated with sweat. Something at his feet stabs light into his eyes. The man stoops down and finds a key half-submerged in the sand. Seeing nothing else on the ground, he pockets the key and starts along the road.
For a few miles the landscape offers nothing but sand and heat, but occasionally he spots a cactus or hears a distant bird and thinks, yes, I am a part of something.
When you were five years old, your sister was kidnapped. She was gone half a day in total. Some teenagers at the arcade lured her away while your mom was across the street buying milk. The teenagers, high on crack, had no real plan. They’d targeted her in a moment of frustration, thinking it might be fun or it might be profitable or it might, for one moment, satisfy all the things they had been unable to satisfy in their lives thus far. Eventually they panicked and couldn’t decide whether to demand ransom, kill her, or let her go. In their hours of sloppy indecision someone noticed something amiss—four teens and a child skittering down back alleys —and called the police. The thing is, your sister was kidnapped. Kidnapped! You may have been too young to understand exactly what was going on but you knew it was something big. Something that didn’t happen to just anybody. Your sister, kidnapped! When you started taking creative writing workshops in high school, your family told you it would make a great novel, the perfect movie. They treated it like the thing that made you special.
And all you ever did was tell the story on a few dates in hopes of getting laid.
The narrow road, dusty and devoid of romance, gradually becomes draped in shadow. Afraid of being stuck in the desert at night yet knowing no other options, the man continues walking. Frantic whips of dust in the distance signal a vehicle traveling in his direction. He stands in wait. The vehicle idles on the road ahead, allowing the man to approach.
The cowboy in the truck, his hat stretching almost as wide as his shoulders, begins smacking his lips together as he waits for the man to speak first. It’s not until the fourth time the wet slapping resonates across the desert night that the man realizes the cowboy is composing a slow-building rhythm a single lip-smack at a time, an invitation to speak. But with no idea of where he has been or where he is going, the man cannot produce anything to say. He is even unable to come up with a joke or the name of a television show they may have both seen.
Content with the first movement of his composition, the cowboy rolls up the window and turns his gaze forward, preparing to drive off. The man realizes this is his only opportunity to ask for a ride, but is paralyzed by the idea that this is a journey he must complete on his own, that salvation is a thing to be achieved independently, and to receive assistance would somehow be cheating. This idea is accompanied by another, the thought that since he knows nothing about himself, any idea he has must be wrong. And panic overtakes him. The man lunges at the handle of the truck, slipping and falling against the side of the vehicle. A cold, hollow sound rattles out across the desert.
“Wait, please,” says the man from the ground. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Who does?” asks the cowboy.
He waits for the man to step away from the truck before driving off.
A standard shipwreck survival guide primarily contains instructions on how to obtain suitable drinking water, gather fish to eat, and use a rescue flare. It’s also not unusual to find a map of the constellations, story-making activities, tips for journaling, and blank, wide-ruled pages: suggestions on how to maintain sanity by keeping the mind properly occupied. The man does not know how he knows these things but he knows he would love to have one of those books right now.
The whispered footsteps of lizards scurrying across sand and the intermittent shriek of an owl replace the soundtrack of rustling wind the day had offered. He tries to remember things about himself: his name, career, hometown, ex-girlfriends, hobbies. Even fears and dreams. Since his encounter with the cowboy the man has found himself overwhelmed by loneliness.
He hears the prolonged whimpering of a wounded animal and walks toward it, leaving the road for the first time. The man walks over and down a dune to discover that the source of the sound is not an animal but a young boy. The boy tells the man that his rocket pack is broken, leaving him stranded in the desert. The man takes a look at the rocket pack, immediately recognizes the problem and repairs it in a few minutes. The boy hugs him in gratitude before donning his apparatus and streaking across the night sky.
“I guess it was that kid’s lucky day,” says a female voice. “A Mr. Fix-It who happens to speak Spanish all the way out here.”
The man turns to see a beautiful woman standing in front of the striated marble columns of a white building, the only structure in the immediate area. In his rush to assist the boy he must have completely missed sight of it until now.
“Was I just speaking Spanish?” asks the man, his legs stretching out in long strides until he stands with her at the entrance.
The woman nods.
“What is this place?”
“Don’t you know? It’s the library.”
She swings a door open onto a room so voluminous it would seem more like a sports arena if not for the books. Books from ceiling to floor. Spines of red, green, azure, dull Earth tones, and vibrant pastels. The librarian, standing in the foreground of this dizzying arabesque of literature, floats out in front of them like the focal point of a three-dimensional painting.
“You’re good with kids,” she says. “You must have worked with kids before.”
Yes, the man thinks, this must be who I am. I must be someone who has worked with kids.
The librarian stands patiently as he sets several volumes onto a table and works through them like meals. For breakfast Dickens, Steinbeck, and Twain. Afternoon tea consists of Salinger, Vonnegut, and Palahniuk. By that time he’s so fired-up he throws haymakers into the air and attempts to climb to the top row of the highest bookshelf. Thoreau settles him down. Whitman invites conjecture, Plath tears, and Hemingway some odd reassurance of strength and confirmation of futility in a world where everyone is full of holes.
Many of the books aren’t complete. A few pages have been clipped off the endless finale of Great Expectations, large chunks of Crime and Punishment have gone missing after Part III, and the dishonest weight of an edition of Ulysses reveals it to consist of only the opening chapter over and over again seven times. Other shelves don’t contain books at all, but DVDs of film adaptations, incomplete volumes of comics, portions of self-help articles, newspapers, travel guides for places he can say with some sense of confidence he’s never been to, and a deluge of hobby magazines covering everything from lacrosse to fly fishing.
As he continues his exploration, the man has the strange feeling that he’s not reading in the strictest sense, but connecting the dots, looking through photo albums of trips already taken rather than packing up and traveling anew. Regardless, every single text, from L’Engle to Updike, brings back something of a former self. Not a memory exactly, but a mood. A swirling, distant feeling of what it was like to be angry, joyous, and passionate, without being able to recall the things that brought him to those states.
“Is this all that’s ever been written?” he asks.
She laughs. “It’s all that you know of. But…” She pauses. “There is one more thing.”
In an unlit backroom no larger than a closet, she hands him a yellowing composition notebook. He rubs his fingertips across the corrugated cover, trying unsuccessfully to open it. A narrow padlock stretches underneath the print of the title, A Guide for Shipwrecked Sailors.
“Do you have the key?” he asks.
When she shakes her head, he tries the key from his pocket but it does not fit.
The librarian tells him it is closing time and leads him to the front door. He hesitates there for some time. He follows the curls of her hair with his eyes, the sharp angle of her cheekbones, and steals a glance at the curves of her body. The possibility of staying there with her had occurred to him the moment he discovered the place.
Smiling, he walks out the door onto a pathway that he also must have neglected to notice the night before. Either that, or it didn’t exist at that time.
“Just keep going that way and you’ll come across a town in no time,” she says. “But, I have to warn you, there isn’t really much there.”
The man thinks back to all that he’d discovered that day, the travel memoirs, history tomes, and encyclopedia entries.
“Is there anywhere?” he asks.
As he thanks her for all her help the library door closes with a click.
You don’t know where you were when you found out your grandmother died, the exact words your mother used when breaking news of the divorce, or the precise circumstances that brought you to the top of that stone wall the day you fell off it and shattered your leg, but you can recall the name of the first girl you’ve ever slept with. It began with an A.
She, of course, was not the love of your life, your girlfriend, or even someone you knew all that well. She was looking for your roommate, he was out. She was calm, but you were so nervous you fumbled holes into two separate condoms and ultimately proceeded without one.
The next day your roommate and his friends laughed at you for cumming in her belly button and, also, for probably having AIDS. You laughed too and then consulted another friend for help as soon as you could get yourself away from those other assholes. He took you to a clinic. You learned what a “steel-Q-tip” was. You thanked your friend for letting you confide in him and for waiting while the nurse extracted the necessary blood samples.
You’re not sure if it was real, but from that point on you sensed a barrier of awkwardness between the two of you. You eventually lost touch.
The man finds a congregation of people awaiting him at the entrance of the town.
“Who are you?” the townspeople ask.
“I don’t know,” says the man.
“An artist? A plumber? An engineer? We could use an engineer.”
“I might be a teacher,” says the man.
“Perfect!” exclaim the townspeople.
The man works in the town for years. He finds his job tolerable, if not ideal, and enjoys the rural atmosphere the small town provides. Eventually he begins dating a local woman. He comes to learn that she also possesses a small, locked notebook and a key that doesn’t open it. They try each other’s keys in each other’s locks to no avail, but ultimately feel closer after the attempt.
The man has some trouble making friends, and whenever he does manage to find someone with whom he shares interests, it seems inevitable that this person will leave town, chasing some woman into space or riding a dolphin across the sandy plateaus. Perhaps this is why the man and woman spend most of their time together for many years.
He often tells her he will marry her, but one day he realizes he hates the town, despises his job, which has long grown monotonous and, while he still cares greatly for the woman, begins to question if maintaining her presence in his life is worth bearing all the things in the town that make him miserable. One day he puts the key in his pocket, picks up his notebook and starts again along the road. He feels terrible for leaving the woman, but knows she would never have come with him, her life in the town being too important to her.
You sit at a bar and recount an anecdote, a drunken encounter with the police from the days of your youth, and find several of the patrons laughing along with you. Now would be the perfect time to press on, to gather up all the things housed inside you and liberate them. Tell these people about your grandmother’s funeral. The time you thought you had cancer and drove three hours outside of town to consult a dermatologist. Tell them about how you missed your best friend’s wedding because you just had to backpack across Europe that summer. Tell them about the women you almost married—how many were there?—the graduate programs you’d given thought to attending—Really, a doctor? A pastry chef? An anthropologist? You?!—the grandchildren you don’t have, awards never won, decisions never made.
To this point life has been nothing but a series of moments defined by their relationship to other moments. The summer after high school but before college. The semester before graduation. The job you had before you moved out of your parents’ house and the one you started after you moved to the big city. The time before the time you lived abroad. Segues and buildups. Rest-stops before the plot points hook into the action. The in-between parts. Every moment of every second of the existence of everything dehydrated down to not what you thought, felt, or did but the things you chose to remember. Long after everyone’s gone home, you find yourself gazing into this mirror. Admiring this puzzle of yourself. Attempting to find meaning. And failing.
Many years of desert roads and small towns have found the man old and desperate. At some point in his journey he discovered his name, only to forget it again. He met his father, only to wish he hadn’t. Eventually, he began the career that apparently he had strived for since childhood, only to become nostalgic for his schoolteacher days after two years.
The man stops at a bridge and looks at the thrashing rapids below. Imagining his future as an endless lifetime of wandering and indecision, several more chances to search for something that cannot be found, he prepares to jump.
The man removes all his clothes. He is so cold he shivers. As he hugs himself to keep warm, his fingers slide over an aberration in the flesh over his solar plexus. Sure enough, there is a hole in the man’s abdomen as tall and wide as a coin standing on edge. On the cracked planks of the bridge, naked in the dark, the man fumbles through his clothes until he finds what he’s looking for in the pocket of his blue jeans.
He inserts the key and turns.
Anthony Rocco Messina is an MFA candidate in prose at the University of Notre Dame (2016). His work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the anthology Taiwan Tales: A Multicultural Perspective (Lone Wolf Press).