Finding a Book Under the Bureau You Keep Your Keys On
by Michael J. Rosenbaum
As you move toward another day, on your way to work, your hand absently, mechanically, swings over the top of the bureau that sits next to the front door of your apartment, meaning to grab the keys that are kept there. But in its haste to move on toward the door knob, your hand doesn’t completely close around the keys and they’re knocked to the floor. A shock goes through you as the keys make the kind of small, crashing sound that keys make as they hit the hardwood floor, and you stare at them for a moment, unsure—the routine broken (strangely, the hand has continued on and turned the knob and opened the door). Recovering quickly though, you bend over for them. But as you do, you notice a stack of papers under the bureau. Another incongruity. You drop to your knees and press your face close to the cool wood for a better look and you find that it’s not a stack of papers, not in the way you thought it was, but is a book instead. So you reach under, curious, mind whirling through the memory bank, trying prematurely to solve the mystery, even though the answer is only a moment away.
As you pull the book—thick layer of dust across the cover—out from its dungeon, your mind scores a minor victory by remembering the title before your eyes are able to read it, the series of journalistic pictures across the cover being the final clues needed: Evidence of My Existence. And immediately, though you’re still on your knees, by your open front door, you are in New York City. You are in a small restaurant in Greenwich Village that serves gluten-free, vegan-friendly food. You’re not there because you’re allergic to gluten or because you’re vegan, but because there are no restaurants like this where you live. Having already eaten and paid, you’re walking out the door with your partner, chatting about how amazing the duck—that of course was not really duck—was, when your eye catches this book on a shelf amongst twenty or so other books. Evidence of My Existence. The book says its title to you in a tragic and yet hopeful way, like a parent that has caught a child cheating at a game but seeks to guide rather than to punish. You pick it up and look at the cover. There’s a photo of men with darkly-masked faces carrying automatic rifles. There’s a picture of a naked man lying in the red powder of a foreign desert, his body caked in sand. Two small Buddhist children wearing the traditional robes of monks smile at you, a vast temple in the background. This book is a documentary of the life of a photographer. It is evidence of his existence and you know that you need to read this book because it will tell you something about yourself by telling you something about the world. You know this because you’re a traveler in this moment, because going to New York and eating duck that was not duck has brought you closer to something beneath your surface, the world’s surface. It’s not by any means the same as the dead body being carried by soldiers in one of the other pictures on the cover, but it has made that reality something conceivable. It means that just because there are not gluten-free restaurants where you are from does not mean that they do not exist, and if you can taste from them then you prove that you are real by acknowledging that they are real. It is a step. Seeing the pictures on this cover, not as news, seeing the people, not as statistics, seeing as evidenced by the author, is a step. Reading this book is the next step.
And so sitting now, on your knees, by the open door that leads to work, you wonder how this book got there. It’s been months, maybe a year, since that New York trip. The book had been left on the bureau as a reminder. How could it have fallen down there, unnoticed? Evidence of My Existence, sitting there as you went to work, as you went to the gym, as you went out to eat and to drink with friends. It, sitting there, hidden, as you grocery shopped and got oil changes and wrote checks to the credit card companies and sat in movie theaters and called the landlord eight times about the broken washing machine in the basement. Work—eight hours out of the day. An extra hour for commuting. An hour for grooming and maintenance: showering, brushing, scrubbing, shitting, wiping. Two hours a day for preparing food and eating—more if you go out and you have to go out. You have to go out with people to not come apart, to take a break. You have to go out and let someone else make the food and pour the drinks. This is life. Your fingernails grow, your driver’s license expires, your parents want to see you and sometimes you need to see them. You get weary. You get languid. You get shiftless. You get hungry. You get fucking hungry.
Your heart rate goes up as you think of what you want and what you have and what you do and what you do not do. And it is then that you remember that you had to be coaxed into taking the book. The restaurant owner, a woman of middle age with long salt and pepper hair and a forearm full of bracelets and a full-length, white, cotton dress who sat drinking wine with a friend in a then-otherwise-unoccupied restaurant in Greenwich Village, had seen you stopped in the doorway and had said the words, “Take it.” She had had to say the words “take it” because you were deliberating. You were thinking of all the other books you had that you hadn’t read yet and that were sitting in a pile on a shelf at home collecting dust and you were telling yourself that it might be unwise to add another to that stack, to add Evidence of My Existence. And here she was, middle-aged and saying ‘take it’. It was a ‘take a book-leave a book’ shelf, and so you told her that you didn’t have a book to leave but she said that was fine, she said that she understood.
This thought makes your heart beat all the faster now and you feel anger at her for a moment but the anger, the resentment, passes because so much time has passed that you can’t even call up a face in your mind to feel anger and resentment at.
You can feel your heart in your head, in between your ears, pounding like it wants out, like something trapped in a closet. You can feel time crashing. Someone is passing by your open door, on their way out of the building. You look up and he, a young boy, maybe ten or eleven, looks down at you, you sitting there on your knees holding Evidence of My Existence in your hands, which have fallen idly, listlessly, to your lap—the book moments away from dropping to the bare, hardwood floor. You see him as he slows his pace to better look at you. He is wearing a Yankees baseball cap and in his hand there’s a stick, like that of a broom handle broken in half, and you wonder where he’s going with that stick, what he needs it for. And just before he passes completely, past the frame of your door, you smile at him. He starts to smile, too, to smile back. But then he stops, his facial muscles going limp. And then he’s gone
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Michael J. Rosenbaum is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Texas at El Paso and is currently enrolled in the MFA Fiction Program at Texas State University. This piece previously appeared in The Rio Grande Review.