Chapter Nine by Jon Alston


Illustration by Modita
Illustration by Modita

By the time Lenard Burgrum remembered what he intended to say, Helen was gone. She, like others, dissolved into the memory that Lenard continued to form about women, about life—about himself. About the universe in general. For Lenard, thinking beyond the stratosphere brought nothing more to his existence than God, Vishnu, Allah, or The Beatles. He saw the stars as molding dots infecting the perfect night sky; near black, the true absence of light, away from even the Sun’s ability to cast shadows. And like the others, Helen became another growth in his memory. A defect.

A misprint.

His high school teacher Mrs. Bachorde forced Shakespeare down his still developing throat. What else, but Romeo and Juliet for a pubescent teenager to consume. To love is to die. Or to kill yourself. Whichever comes first (“Suicide,” Lenard concluded after his dinner with Helen). Yet through those two-trite youth, he found a glimmer of hope:

 

JULIET

Yea, noise? then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger!

Snatching ROMEO’s dagger

This is thy sheath;

Stabs ROMEO

there rust, and let him die.

“Hell yes!” It never occurred to Lenard to read beyond this point. In his mind, after trudging about the horrific blunders the two “star-crossed lovers” stumbled through, Juliet’s final devotion to herself—to life—brought him such elation that he hurled the text across his room.

The weekend found him returning to the play, to Juliet, reading over and over those few lines: “This is thy sheath; (Stabs ROMEO) there rust, and let him die.” Each reading strengthened him; not content to wait around and be stuck: he wanted to do the sticking.

On the following Monday, he discovered—to his dismay: Juliet dead. Not only dead but slaughtered by her hands for the lying prick, Romeo.

Lenard found that all misprints—unlike that of Juliet’s success evading that peeping Tom—followed along a different path; inattention to detail. They were simple things: misspellings, words joined by forgotten space, lacking periods in places other versions displayed. Small; nothing so varying as Juliet’s life. Or death.

Sitting in the restaurant, pulling at the seam of the green tablecloth, Lenard stared at her empty seat. Hard black oak returned the gaze. It all felt so easy. Words form in the brain—somewhere—open your mouth, they come out. She had been there, rubbing her tight back against oak spines, two fresh shaved legs polishing the wood. And her thighs, gliding up to that firm but giving flesh on the seat, cushion to cushion. Then gone. Alone with an empty chair.

He smirked.

They were all misprints. Lenard set the type himself, checked for errors, inked, pressed the parchment leaving indentations in the paper; fingertips corresponding to his eyes. But, with each new page, a misinterpretation surfaced. Perhaps an expression or a misspoken word. A gesture misread. Too dissimilar in interests. Maybe a smell, the wrong cologne. What mattered was that he aligned the pieces out of order. Punctuation even sent them off. A period, he discovered, was very important to women, its simple placing altering the rotation of planets.

Lenard stood from the table, setting the napkin over his plate, another misprint to leave behind. Food abandoned, bill unpaid.

Outside the air was warm, unusual for the approaching winter. Clear sky, an occasional moldy blip disrupting the pristine night, Lenard sucked empty air to fill the imprinted shallows. A small bench waited to his right. And Helen.

“Oh, Lenard.” She looked away, toward streetlamps every twenty feet; perfect; in the exact spot designated for light. From light to light her head nodded. Lenard stepped around the bench and sat next to her. She folded the loose ends of her black dress under her left thigh, turning her knees toward the asphalt.

“Who’s coming for you?”

“A cab.” He looked at her knees, skin pulled over bone, wrapping her true story, the print he needed. A rewrite. He only needs a few minutes. Perhaps to brush her cheek, to catch a puff from her perfume, her breasts squeezed into his chest. Just to feel something, to feel her, to cover up the misspellings and poor diction and awkward details and . . . and all of it. The ink was still wet, there was time.

“My car’s just two blocks—”

“I remember.” She scrunched herself into the armrest of the bench. The pressure shook her hair, releasing a breeze of pomegranate and mango. He closed his eyes, seeing the words printing themselves, no hands, no pressing, just the pureness of language condensing against the cool pages, drawn to the paper out of nature, brought from her honesty to correct what he overlooked. With her eyes draining the night’s patience, Lenard reached his right hand across the bench’s back to twirl a loose red curl in Helen’s hair. The sentence he missed, the idiom unspoken, unknown to even her, where all that she was folded into molecular structures and died under repression, to redden and escape in hopes that they might be discovered. There, in her red tresses, were thin fibrous answers, beckoning for Lenard to complete what he started.

“What the hell? Lenard!” Helen knocked his hand aside, fingers together, and slapped his face; then stood.

She fled.


About the Author

Jon Alston

“The images we have in our minds will never bet the words on our tongues will never be the images in their minds.”

Jon Alston has an MA in Creative Writing. Good for him. He writes things from time to time, and sometimes people publish them. Good for him. On occasion, he photographs things (or people), and maybe writes about them; sometimes there is money exchanged for his services. Good for him. He is married with two children of both genders. Way to reproduce. He is the Executive Editor and founder of From Sac, a literary journal for Northern California. How about that? Currently, he teaches English at Brigham Young University, Idaho among the frozen potato fields and Mormons. Good for you, Jon.


About the Illustrator

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Modita is doing engineering in UIET, Panjab University, Chandigarh. She aims to travel
the world, and has becoming famous as an artist on her bucket list. Her Plan A is to make her parents proud and Plan B is to open up an Art Gallery. You can find her works on Instagram and her Facebook page.


Chapter Nine is one of the many amazing submissions we have received for the third edition of the literary collection The Machinery.

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