PINNOCHIO (opening of an almost-novel)
There once was a man named Gepetto who lived with his loneliness every day. Loneliness slept in the corner and sighed and kept him awake. Gepetto became older; his hair grew in white, and his teeth wore down dull, and his ankles started creaking in the morning, and his lips that were once sweet and rubbery became feathery, dry, and rude. He had always lived alone, in a woodshop where he made his money carving clock cases and inserting the works to sell them. The aloneness of the shop wore into him, until he could not face the continuing mornings of the worktable, and the coldness of his carving blades. The windows were closed when he came downstairs, and he began to leave them closed through the day.
On the worst morning, he could not proceed. He had managed to the breakfast table, to the dresser, and down the stairs, but once in the shop, he was useless. Loneliness had died in the corner, and was stinking up the whole place. In the precise location of his blankest hopelessness, Gepetto was graced by one idea.
His feet began to move, twitched with the slightest energy, suddenly. They took him to his woodpile, and his arms decided to get in on the act, dropping his withered hands around the choices, and lifting a few pieces of wood. Without permission from his broken heart, his renegade hands took delights in tool and subject, and he was fashioning an arm. A leg. Two legs. Another arm, a torso, and, cradling in one hand and slicing with another, he carved a loved face.
With hinges and screws, he put the small body together. He took out vials of paint and gave the sculpture proper shoes, proper clothes. It took him a good hour to finish the face: nostrils, curly ears, a glib mouth, and open eyes, irises blue as Gepetto’s own.
In fact, he had begun at his morning hour, and when he could look at the creation with satisfaction, it was dark night. He knew no one was watching, and so he lifted the wooden doll into his bowed arms. “If you—“ he said, since no one was listening. He touched the tan, wood-veined cheek he had sanded soft. “If you were—“ he held it closer, and the cheek matched the curve of his poor chest.
I think the house was poorly designed. There were two gables in the top, Siamese twins. One set of eyes was Ellen’s bedroom, veiled in white gauze, and the other was her parents’ bathroom.
The front steps led up to a suggestion of a porch, with crude stone supports. No one ever put furniture out there, but sometimes someone sat on the steps.
The doorbell lit up, as if it had a soul, and when you pressed it, the chimes sounded lush. I rang it a few times before I left for San Diego—then I had a key of my own.
The house was built with sections of brick and siding. In the 50’s, the wooden parts were a hospital sea-green. In the ‘40s, the wood was a brown red, close to the brick. Finally, Ellen’s parents painted it white. The white of 1975 was bold in photos, but by the time I met Ellen, it had been blasted with dirty snow, autumn leaves, and clouds of pollen. It was the color of a Bedouin’s turban after a monthlong trek.
I met Ellen in the spring. Middleton has regular electrical storms in the spring, cracking the back of winter and shaking us all. The spring of 1997 was when I was finishing my undergraduate degree in the school of social work. I went to get a hamburger and read a textbook chapter, and Ellen was sitting with a friend of mine, in the table by the door. We all talked, and I didn’t read the chapter. Three weeks later, I saw her there again. I didn’t remember her name.
It was four years later, it was spring 2001, when lightning struck the house. This is how it burned: first the roof, which needed repair for a leak above the stairs. Then the attic started to get it, of course: Ellen’s unseasonable clothes, all her airy rayon and cotton sundresses, and leather sandals and t-shirts of every color, some with slogans, inside two yellow plastic bags. First the plastic had to melt, then the clothes could burn.
I think it spread to the master bedroom next because that leak in the center hall would keep the wood damp. It was also the easiest path because Ellen had spread out some sheets of aluminum and pipes, all stolen from construction sites, along the other side of the attic. Those wouldn’t burn well.
The master bedroom would go up in a rush: Ellen’s parents’ scrapbooks, her father’s collection of sheet music, and copies of the papers settling their estate, many carefully lettered in Ellen’s block writing.
The room Ellen and I slept in, that she shared with me, was on the other side. The windowsills, ceiling, and bookshelves were populated with her origami creatures, which all caught fire easily. Some dropped to the bed, and caught the blankets.
The downstairs burned, too: living room and piano, Ellen’s great-grandmother’s dining table, the pictures of vegetables framed in the kitchen, the dull-colored couch in the living room. Downstairs the trouble was the firefighters’ ammunition—everything ablaze was quickly asea.
We watched it burn, Ellen and I. Then I returned to California, this time to L.A. Ellen moved to the east coast. We didn’t see each other for a long time, though we wrote occasionally.