Fiction · 06/15/2011

To Whom It May Concern

EXPLANANDUM

The details surrounding the blackout remain obscure.

What I can say is that thousands of people, by the third or fourth day of the blackout, were to be seen walking the streets everywhere. Businesses were closed. Houses stayed dark through the night. People sought social contact, but no one had any news. Gossip ruled. For some time, we all met and mingled in the streets, on the tree-lined sidewalks of our development, trying to see what progress had been made. Panic settled in around day five, and then we had a seemingly countless stream of bodies walking along the roads, cars spaced intermittently among the walkers like boats in a slow-moving river. Still, there was nowhere to go. Where was there to go? No one any of us knew had power. The phone lines were down, and had been since the power went out. The word from those who had contacted a relative was that the blackout was general across several states, and the news itself was unclear — perhaps more and more power outages existed and had yet to be reported. I sat for a time watching all this from my house, seated on the perch of my roof throughout the day and sometimes the night, catching what I could of the conversation of passersby, descending now and then to ask questions of faces I recognized as they wandered idly past. It seemed to me there was an answer to all this, and that answer could not be spoken. I did not know it any better than any other. But, unlike them, in the darkness of the first night, I had lost the only thing worth looking for, and I figured (the wisdom my mother had given me as a child, in the case we were separated) I would sit tight, and wait for my wife to return.

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SENSE DATA

I first met my wife at something called “The Lilac Festival,” in a place called Rochester, New York. White canopies lined the midway I walked beneath the wafting oleaginous smell of fried dough; the charred smell of Polish and Italian sausages; the pungent smell of the lilacs — a thousand bushes in bloom in the space of an acre. Fair skies overhead with weighty clouds and a dully-pleasing breeze. In the distance a local bluegrass band played, the lyrics almost unintelligible, blending with the tintinnabulation of the banjo. Sounds of crowds and the crowds themselves passed all around me, a disorderly line of bodies moving here and there across the small park.

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HOMOOUSIAN, HOMOIOUSIAN

Of course NYSEG had a different story, which was far from convincing, and yet accepted. NYSEG being New York State Gas and Electric. NYSEG who oversaw the power that ran throughout Western New York, that connected us all — almost invisibly — each to the next. The power we tended to forget. Whose glow shone nightly through our windows. Whose heat radiated bald patches in the snow. Whose sounds comforted us throughout the long dark. NYSEG whom — little did we know — we all had been trusting with so much, our very most basic existences, and yet whom we little cared for until the lights went out and would not come back on. Until the eerily sonic silence of the refrigerator’s no-noise echoed through our houses. Until the chill of even a moderately warm Western New York evening saw us huddling beneath blankets and around kerosene stoves. We had running water, but the showers were cold. It didn’t take long for this outage to register with a great many people as a very serious emergency. Many of my neighbors packed and headed off to shelters and emergency care centers reportedly overseen by the NYSEG staff and volunteers from the United Way. I stayed, wrapped in blankets and an old winter coat, sitting on my roof. Waiting.

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MEMORY

There is something inexpressible about the memory of a meeting. A woman bent behind a floral bush, her figure somehow impossibly clear to me before I could quite see her. I would come to know her face better than my own; I can almost recreate every part of her in my memory, build her whole ex nihilo. She was a slender woman, my wife, but with an expansive chest, wide hips and auburn hair that she wore in thick curls. Even hidden behind that lilac bush there was something so real to her. Something I knew would last, whatever that means. I did not know her name but I knew that I loved her. She was more beautiful that day than anything I had ever seen before, and the moment hung there in time as though it was all that had ever existed, all that would ever exist.

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COGITO SUM

You are not blind in the blackout; you have a momentary glimpse at the ultimate unknowableness of things, of all things, of that which is the case.

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SENSE DATA

You don’t always recognize a sound until you hear its absence. The refrigerator running. The sound of the furnace kicking on. The slight hum of electricity in the lamp beside you. The presence of my wife — recorded by even the subtlest noise — in my house.

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UNCERTAINTY

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: if we are to know some one thing, we must miss some other, and vice versa. If we wish to truly know some other person, for instance, we cannot know them without influencing them, cannot know them when they are gone. When we wish to know them as they are without us, then we have lost them, altogether, of necessity.

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FACT

It was when the power went out that I last saw my wife.

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MEMORY

When I first saw my wife, she was opposite a large lilac from me, her figure appearing between its various branches, her hair beribboned by the violet and plum and cerise blossoms, her hand reaching up, a latter day Venus, to cup one of the blossoms and draw its fragrance to her.

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REASON

NYSEG gave little time to my testimony, and quickly dismissed it, offering various alternate accounts, including shock from my wife’s unexpected disappearance. They offered it was my memory itself that was missing. They said these things not uncaringly, but with a studied professional compassion, a telephone operator’s version of bedside manner.

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ASYMPTOTES

When the power went out, we were sitting at the dining table eating dinner, I drinking from my wine, and she idly fingering her fork through her green beans. I lifted my glass to my lips, the lights went out. I can’t even recall for sure the last moment I saw her, the glass getting in the way.

Though we were sitting, as we had always done, at the same table, across the table from one another, we were remote, foreign, living parallax lives, even before the darkness came. It’s a simple paradox: you halve the distance to the goal, but thus can never reach it. When we think we are against someone, some other body, touching them, the truth is the edges of us are approaching within infinite closeness but in fact never touching. No two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. At some level, however microscopic, there must always exist some gap. When, in bed, I lie beside my wife, and our two bodies would seem to meet, that sensation is impossible: likely it is just a mental figment, our minds fill in the gaps, to make up for the space between us.

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MELANCHOLIA

For months, my wife had been depressed. It is hard to quite capture in words what it is like to live with someone who is depressed. Who has sunk behind some sort of scrim, through which you cannot quite contact them, cannot quite connect. It was as if she were daily fading from me, becoming just a shade of what she once was, a memory I could barely bring to mind, the aftertaste of something sweet. There was no source of her depression. Something beyond which I can speak of was there, in her, in her thoughts, and it started to take over. She stopped speaking, stopped interacting. Dragged about in a constant sort of morose mood. She cried often. But would not tell me why. I tried pretending this was not so, acting like we were okay, like everything was as it should be. I tried asking her often what was wrong, did she want to talk about it. I tried ignoring her. I disbelieved her depression. Thought it would pass. Broke down and told her she needed to seek counseling, we needed to talk again. I asked pointed questions like Is it me? Is it something else?

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INEFFABILITY

The darkness brought on by the blackout cannot be easily put to words. That may seem disingenuous, but it is true. All shapes lost their boundaries. The table at which we sat seemed no longer to be there, or rather, its place seemed indefinite. The glass of wine I had the moment before been drinking out of seemed to be no longer in my hand, seemed to no longer exist. I could hear sounds, but only distant ones — crickets singing, leaves rustling in the faintest of nighttime breezes — no sounds came from within my own house.

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PHENOMENA

Rain in sheets falling across the slick macadam drive. Pelting billet-doux of sleet upon the shuttered panes. Wind rocking the foundation, easing around the house like the sounds of a lover rising from the bed, rolling away. Skies crystalline grey with pendulous clouds, fenestrated by nothing but dim blue and a lachrymose grey. Painters’ paintings hung everywhere I looked, and yet no hand had rendered them. Dull poetries written for no one, never to be heard, as I alone await her, trying in ever more desperate degree to recall her, to see her again, to know where it is she has gone and why the world became so black.

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THERE ARE MORE THINGS IN HEAVEN AND EARTH THAN ARE DREAMT OF IN YOUR PHILOSOPHY

The problem with a company whose product is invisible and yet also necessary and practical is that they are not willing to see the world as filled with things unspeakable, magical, and real. Though the power did go out, the blackout was something other than the absence of electricity. It was a primal thing, a vision of some sort brought to many of us and not yet understood. We were all singularly alone in the blackout, no matter where we stood, or with whom. It was that complete.

I don’t know how many called out prayers in the dark hours of the night, how many wished to offer propitiation to some elemental god who could bring back the light, some latter-day Prometheus who would warm us from the chill of the black and empty nights.

I know that I was silent, listening to the silence of my wife, her absence.

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FACT

By the morning, my wife was gone.

In the darkness, I recall asking her if we had any candles; she did not respond. “In the drawer? A flashlight?”

I can recall navigating the darkness, which I then believed was my own house, simply without light. But I could in truth say nothing about the darkness: I knew no feature of it other than that I did feel myself to be moving. Objects were encountered — or approached but never reached — and some of the objects encountered and the motion I felt did match my mental map of the house, the spaces within it.

I could not find a drawer, however, and was unable for a time to know whether I was in the closet or whether I had moved to the hall; whether I was in my own bedroom, or still at the table. So complete was the darkness that I did not fear it, or relish it, or even wonder at it. I was simply enshrouded in it. Lost.

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COMPENSATION

For months, my wife had been silent. At first I naturally took her silence to be some kind of indictment of me, then I began to see the possibility that she was silent only for her inability to get out of her head. She would sit across from me during dinner, hidden as though behind something I could not see, as though an invisible wall divided the table, white space blocking her from me.

At first irritated and later lonely, I started talking as if for her.

“The stars last night were unusually bright, remote but bright and somehow comforting,” I said for her.

“I always try to trace the constellations. Map the empty space with points of light. The only constellations I know are The Pleiades and the Big Dipper.”

“The Pleiades,” I said for her, “are named for the Seven Sisters. I love the story: the youngest sister faded away after she married Sisyphus and became mortal.”

“It is nice to look up,” I said through an idle mouthful, “and see them. Always the same. Unchanging.”

“It is nice to know we are not alone that way.”

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MEMORY

My wife stayed behind the lilac as I approached, as though she did not see me. I knew she must have noticed me. I walked up very close beside her to make myself heard when I spoke. I believe I first said, “What do you smell?”

She laughed, and cocked her walnut-colored eyes at me in a light way, as though she were pleased and displeased by my approach at the same time. I wondered at this, whether to go on, but knew there was no turning back. The slightest hint of fuchsia was reflected in her eyes.

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NOUMENA

Not knowing where I was in the darkness, I also did not know whether I was awake or asleep for many hours. In my thoughts, I tried to decipher the sounds of the house to better understand where I was and where my wife could be. What she felt I cannot say, or whether she was truly there at that time at all.

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MEMORY

My wife leaned slightly over as she smelled the florid blossom, and smiled vaguely as she answered what she saw as my foolish question: “The lilacs.”

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TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN

NYSEG did offer the obvious in response to my claims: that my wife simply took the opportunity to do what she had long planned: to walk out, to leave. This would seem simple enough. It’s the Occam’s razor approach: since her disappearance in the darkness can be explained by her leaving, why ask any further questions?

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MEMORY

When my wife laughed, she often inhaled through her nose, and was given to occasional chortling. She laughed when I explained that the lilacs did not smell like themselves, but must smell like something else: that was how we knew things, by comparison. I asked her to compare the smell of the flowers: were they sweet, like honeysuckle opening, were they bright, like the smell of morning rain, were they intoxicating like ambrosia, sweet nectar of the gods? At this she laughed, and leaned her head back, taking her eyes from mine and letting her hand fall from the branch she had been holding.

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WHAT THE FUTURE BRINGS

Perhaps, I later thought, I did not lose my wife in the usual way, but rather was made to find her instead. Perhaps, I considered, I had lost her before this when I thought I still had her, and it was only in her absence that I could find her again. These thoughts and other contradictions would fill my mind for months afterward, stretching away from the first night of the blackout like a blanket of snow that fills all the countryside with an obliterating whiteness.

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FROM THE ROOF, MY CRIES RING OUT AS THOSE OF CHILDREN IN MEMORY

Alle, alle auch sind frei! Olly, olly all in free!

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RES IPSA LOQUITUR

Though NYSEG has publicly claimed there was no one at fault and no way they themselves could have prevented the over-usage of electricity across such a wide area, their culpability was of course clear. In response, they suggested it was a case where no one party could be held responsible and yet all were responsible as a whole. The guilt rested with no individual member, and yet all members together were the guilty party.

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WHAT, IF ANYTHING, HISTORY TEACHES US

God spared Lot when He smote Sodom, but it was Lot’s wife who looked back and was lost. Pillar of salt. Perhaps though God could not find enough — even ten, even one — good to save Sodom, Lot’s wife was filled with a forgiving love that allowed her to accept at once the good and the bad. Perhaps she looked back because she pitied all those God was punishing, perhaps she knew that all of us are at one and the same time both chosen and forsaken.

Orpheus retrieved Eurydice from Hades, but when he looked back to make sure she was really there, he saw nothing behind, no one following. Perhaps she had never been following him; perhaps he had been fooled. The only way for him to have her was to not know she was there, to not see her; to see her was to lose her. Either way, an absence.

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QUESTIONS LEFT UNPOSED

Did I make all of this up? How long ago was the blackout? Where have I gone since? Did my wife really leave, as they’ve said? Did I? Can it be said that I’ve lost her, if I myself am lost?

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AND THEN NOW

I sit still on the roof.

By now the electricity is back on and hums gently in the house beneath me.

Along with blankets, I wrap myself in an old bathrobe of my wife’s. It rests beneath my chin, pressed against my chest. The bathrobe still bears the scent of her, and I breathe it in as I sit. If I close my eyes, I can picture her from this smell alone. I can render her though she is not really there, I can see her face again, I can forget that she is no longer here with me. I do not know how it is I will find her again, how it is this scent will guide me anywhere from here. I am alone with the smell of her, the memory lingering behind closed eyes.

When I open my eyes to see again, the night sky hangs all around, obliterating all but the outlines of the familiar all around me. Above, the stars hold their places in the heavens. Above, the stars are still. Alone, I sit, searching for signs in the distant stars, whose light reaches me but does not warm me, whose light still fails to illumine all that darkness.

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Michael Sheehan is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and the St. John’s College Graduate Institute, and a former fellow of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. He was an editor in chief of Sonora Review and currently is an assistant fiction editor for DIAGRAM. His fiction and reviews have appeared recently in Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, and The Rumpus. He is at work on a collection of stories and a novel.