The Woman in the Desk
The day should have been perfect; it was spring, the mesquites had put out new leaves and were beginning to bloom. Life itself had become overwhelming lately, though, so I took a day off work just to get out and to enjoy a change of scenery from the same four walls and fluorescent lights that made up my normal environment. It wasn’t working very well. I had driven through several of the small towns in central Texas, wandering in whatever direction my battered Ford Ranger wanted to go, slowing to eye the shops that lined the highway. The ones that caught my attention were the junk stores. Antique shops bored me and were almost always overpriced, no, the ones I sought were the ones that were piled from floor to ceiling with pure junk.
The trip had been a failure so far. Treasure hunting was merely an excuse. What I really needed was a hunt, a quest, and a project that would take my mind off of the sense of loss that had been building for the last several weeks and the constant foreboding I felt. Without awareness, I turned off the highway and stopped in front of a run-down looking house that bore a hand lettered sign that read "Joe’s Junk." As I pushed the shifter up into Park and reached for the door handle, my gaze fell on the side mirror and what I saw froze me for few seconds. An old face stared out of the glass. My visage was lined around the eyes and flesh sagged at each side of my mouth, forming a perfect set of parentheses. Thin short hair fluttered gently in the afternoon breeze and I noted that it had gotten even thinner since the last time I noticed. A wry grin formed even more wrinkles in my face as I silently remarked that I should have expected such thinning and the fact that my hair was now almost as white as my beard. It came along with getting old. Still, it was better than the alternative.
Life wasn’t fun. Over the past few weeks I had been forced to deal with funerals of people close to me, most of whom I had lost touch with as my life took me down different paths from the same routine in which the others had been stuck since our glory days of city athletic leagues. One in particular had hit hard. His name was Walt, and we had battled either side by side or against each other for years. It didn’t matter what the game was, if it involved a ball and sweat, we were there. It really didn’t even matter whether we were teammates or opponents, war was war, and games were always war.
A day of junking had seemed like the thing to do, the best way to forget, to put my life back into perspective, but nothing I saw all day caught my eye even after stopping in a half dozen stores in almost as many towns. So here I was opening the door of my truck as the sun reached the tops of the trees on the west side of the highway. The little shop sat near the edge of town, an insignificant building of wood that had not seen a coat of paint since Nixon was in the White House. From the outside, the shop had nothing to recommend it, but my hands had turned the wheel off the road anyway. Something was pulling on my spirit.
The door creaked and my nose was immediately struck by a wave of aroma that was made up of equal parts dust and memories. I inhaled deeply, pausing to turn a full circle just inside the door. Spinner racks jammed with books rubbed elbows with scarred shelves piled high with electronic gadgets that were outdated before George Strait had his first hit. Racks and racks of clothing, boxes of LP records and tables of tools competed for space with VCR tapes of movies long forgotten. I chuckled as I felt the weight start to ease from my mind. Here was a place where I could get happily lost.
“Well, young man, don’t jes stand there, come on in, and ya might orter shut yer yap before ya catch flies.” The voice came from stooped old man in a brown cardigan who was perched on a stool behind a glass counter filled with costume jewelry and long-dead watches. A couple of baseball cards had been carelessly tossed in among them, partly covering pocket knives and buttons from old presidential elections. The man was almost completely bald, but he could have covered most of his pink scalp had he chosen to comb out his eyebrows. A quick estimate told me that he had probably been around to vote for Kennedy, and possibly even Ike. His eyes danced in the glow of the desk lamp that sat on the counter, eyes that knew; eyes that had seen more living than most people had even read about.
I responded amiably and chatted for a moment until he grew bored and turned his attention back to the Mickey Spillane paperback turned face down on the counter. With no goal and only the faintest growling beginning in my stomach, I wandered the shop. Joe, the proprietor, had assured me that he had nowhere to go and that I could take all the time I needed. “Ophelia, God rest her soul, has been gone since ’05 and I got no place else to be.” He had also recommended a local café that served a great apple pie and passable chicken fried steak. I could take my time.
There were treasures here, mementos of youth, many of which I had owned myself at one time. It seemed like each one came with a memory attached, and as I let my thoughts be carried away, I could feel the heaviness of spirit begin to lift a little. I arrived at the back corner of the farthest room, and I was a bit sad to find that I had reached the limits of the shop; I had seen all of it. Of course I had only skimmed the surface, and made a mental note to return when I had more time so I could explore more thoroughly, but for now there was no more. I turned my feet back toward the front room, intending to speak to Joe again and then go try the diner he had mentioned, but something made me stop and turn back. A door. Behind a rack of old winter coats was a white door that looked like it had seldom been opened in the last few years, and as my eyes fell on it I felt the pull more strongly than ever. I froze, staring and wondering if the room that lay beyond was part of the public area of the shop or if it was off limits. Something called to me from back there, something old, some deep thing.
Joe solved my dilemma when he walked up behind me with two mugs of coffee, shattering the silence, “Let’s share a mug.”
After my heart rate settled back to normal, I nodded assent and thanked him, wrapping my fingers around the warmth of the mug. It made me aware that the temperature in the shop had become rather chilly. Much later I remembered that detail and thought it strange. The afternoon had been warm, and there was no air conditioning in the building, so I had been sweating inside the long sleeved denim shirt I wore. Joe produced a key ring and fumbled with them for a moment, finally selecting a small one that had become discolored to a deep brown by time. “I hardly ever come back here, but it seems like the place to be today.” His eyes held mystery and pain, and I couldn’t help wondering why. What secrets did the old man hold clenched tightly in his heart? How did they connect with the back room?
Following him in, I discovered a room that had probably been a bedroom in the house that now held the junk store. Another door, dingy and faded from what had probably been pink, stood ajar enough for me to tell that a bathroom lay beyond. Joe motioned me to an overstuffed armchair and a slight puff of dust rose from the cushions as I eased myself into it. There was another aroma mixed in, a faint hint of flowers. Taking a sip of the bitter coffee, I forced myself to not make a face while I examined the rest of the room. The ceiling was high, as were the ones in the rest of the rooms, and one window passed light from the outside. Through it I could see the yard and a pair of pecan trees, new leaves beginning to grow. A massive desk stood along one wall and a metal-framed bed along the other. The bed held an assortment of stuffed animals and dolls, and I inferred that this had been the bedroom of a young girl. It was the desk that kept drawing my eye. Completely clear except for a ledger, the wood was dark, and had once been polished but was now dim. I could count a dozen cubbies on the back panel above the writing surface, and several drawers below it, three large ones to the right of the knee hole, and four smaller ones to the left. Their handles were brass and just as faded as the rest of the room. It spoke to me of business transactions and homework assignments, and I found myself drawn to it as a moth to a flame, a slight sense of vertigo overtaking me for a moment.
I came to myself with a start as I realized that Joe had spoken, “You like it, don’t you? You can feel it. I see it in your eyes, it speaks to you.” He had set him mug on a side table and was leaning toward me, intensity pouring out of him. “She is in there.”
My mouth dropped open. Who? Who was in where? Did he mean in the desk? I tried to speak, but my throat was too dry and I had to swallow coffee to try to clear it.
He proceeded to tell the whole story, occasionally pausing to bring more coffee from the front room, It took a while, but the passage of time did not seem to matter. The story was a local tale that had grown into legend over the years; the story of star-crossed lovers. Once during his recital Joe brought in a bag of store-bought cookies and munched while he spoke. It was hard to tell whether a couple of hours had passed or as many days. I was lost in the tale of how a local boy, Henry, had fallen in love with Elizabeth Grace but had been forbidden to see her, so he left the little town and she herself had also been sent away. Years passed, and when the young man returned, he found her father living alone in the family home, now a bitter old man whose wife and daughter had both died. “The place sat empty for years until I got it from the county for the back taxes and opened a junk store. I found this room just the way you see it now, the way the old man had kept it after she was gone. This room is all that is left of her, and it is unchanged in all those years. I come here late at night and listen to her. She lives on here in this room, and she is restless; restless and uneasy, waiting and searching.”
I was puzzled. Setting my mug on the desk, I scratched my ear and asked, “How did Grace die? Why did you tell me her story? Don’t misunderstand, it is a fascinating story, but why me? I assume you don’t bring people here every day and share this yarn.”
Joe went on to tell me that Grace had died in a swimming accident shortly after she graduated from Baylor. Some friends had taken her to the San Saba river for a party, hoping to lift her spirits, but did not know of the heavy rains that had fallen to the west the day before, and the outing ended with her being swept away when in the sudden rise of the river. Her body was never recovered.
I could see a slight tremor in the old man’s hands, and he clasped them together, voice barely audible, “No, indeed I don’t. I’m dying. Cancer. It won’t be long now, and she has been in my mind more lately. When you walked in, her voice in my mind told me that you were the one.”
“The one? What one? What do you expect of me?”
“I want you to take her desk. She told me that you would understand.”
I must have look rather silly with my mouth hanging open again, because Joe chuckled and leaned back in his chair. I didn't believe in ghosts, but this whole thing was puzzling. I didn’t believe for a second what he said about the young woman who died years ago living on in the desk, but the old codger was so insistent that I finally gave in. We negotiated a price; I actually did want the desk, but not for any ghosts that might live in it, and wanted to pay more than Joe wanted to take. He kept insisting that it was what Grace wanted, and he felt bad about making money on the deal. We finally reached an agreement and I left, taking time to enjoy the food at the little café he had told me about. I was pleased to find that he was right. The meal was good and the atmosphere homey.
The next day I returned with a friend and loaded up my purchase. It just fit an empty place in my den, and I have to admit that it completed the room. In fact, it looked as if it had been there forever. It looked like it had found a home. My swivel chair just fit into the knee hole, so I set up my computer and cranked out a couple of thousand words. I was in the zone, writing without really seeing what emerged. When I came up for air and read it, I was floored. The story I thought I was writing was a tale of forest sprites, but when I read what was on my screen, it was a tale of love and loss, mourning and death. The last three lines were, “Find me. Find me. Find me. Please find me.” My fingers felt like they were on fire. I leaned back, staring at the screen, thoughts racing. What just happened? I let my hand touch the desk, and then jerked it back in surprise when I felt the wood vibrating. What was going on?
The room dimmed. Whether it was actually from the lights going down or just my vision, I don’t think I will ever know, but everything went dark as a soft, feminine voice crooned, “You must find me.” This time I was so frightened that I slammed the lid on my computer and scooped it up, fleeing the room and the desk. A long hot shower helped calm my nerves until I felt like I could finally sleep. I was wrong. Instead of the forgetfulness of dreams, all I found when I closed my eyes was the voice speaking in my head, urging me to “find her.” What that meant, I had no idea. Running my fingers over the spines on my bedside shelf, I picked out a book, but could not concentrate on the words. An hour later, I finally gave up and gathering my nerve, threw on a robe against the night chill and returned to my den and to the desk.
For a while I did not approach it, I simple stood just inside the doorway and stared, willing the inanimate hunk of lumber to give up its secret. It sat there as if mocking me, so I edged over, plopped into my recliner and kept staring, noting every detail. The devilish desk was about five feet long, with drawers on each end, three on one side of the kneehole and four on the other. On a whim, I eased over as if sneaking up on it, and tentatively reached out my hand. This time, contact with the wood brought no voices, so with a sigh of relief, I opened the first drawer, the top one on the right. Empty. There were a couple of numbers, faded almost to invisibility, scrawled inside it, but they made no sense. The second drawer was similar, containing nothing but dust, and so was the third. I began with the smaller drawers on the left, and found them the same way; they contained nothing. The hair on the back of my neck began to stand on end as I leaned back in the chair, pushing away a foot or two and simply stared at it and thought. A thought popped into my mind, so I thought of the bottom of the drawers; perhaps there was a clue hidden there. That made me laugh and shake my head, I had watched too many mystery stories, but I pulled one after another of the drawers free and turned them over, letting my fingers help examine them for any irregularities. Nothing. There was nothing there, but the feeling that I was missing something important was growing stronger, so I turned my attention to the back panel. It rose some two feet above the desktop and contained rows of cubbies just large enough to hold papers or perhaps ledger books. This time I rose and pulled the whole thing out into the middle of the floor and carefully ran my hands completely over it, then grabbed a flashlight and used it to examine inside the cubbies. Ha! At last I found something odd, well, something even more odd than the whole situation. Two of the cubbies did not look quite as deep as the rest. Without the aid of a light and a suspicious mind, I might have never noticed. A tape measure confirmed it; two of the cubbies did not extend as far back as the others. from the back of the desk, all was the same, so the difference was something in the back of the slots.
It took some figuring, but at last, I found that if I lifted up on one side of a divider while pushing down on the other, I could slide it out. Two more followed, and as I set them aside, I admired the workmanship and ingenuity. One questing hand reached to the back of the cleared space and my fingers encountered another panel which gave way under a slight pull. This time, when I looked in with the light, I broke out into a huge grin. There was a small book! Pulling it forth, I sat back in my recliner and simply let my hands hold and caress it. A sense of peace was filling the room and I relaxed into it, letting it settle over me. Eyes closed, I let the book speak, willing it to give up its secrets. It was about five inches tall and four wide, with a thick cover. I finally opened my eyes and saw that it was a diary. The cover was blue leather, now cracked with age although the hiding place had protected it from fading and from dust. An aroma of decay seeped into the air as I held it close to my nose, a smell of hope mixed with regret and despair.
I reclined in my chair and merely contemplated it for several minutes, wondering if I would be violating her privacy by reading it. There was no doubt that the diary belonged to Grace, secreted in the desk to keep it from the prying eyes of her father. A closer examination revealed the letters EG embossed on the front, down in the bottom corner. It was hers. Doubt flew away as I remembered the dream voice calling out, “find me.” Could this be what she meant? Was it her diary that she wanted found? It seemed reasonable, so I made up my mind, steeled my nerves, and turned the front cover.
The first page was dated January 26, 1937, and Grace wrote about her twelfth birthday party and the friends that came to celebrate with her. She had risen early and helped her mother bake a cake and clean house to get ready. The day had been a success, and the highlight had been receiving the diary from her favorite aunt. She wrote of seeing Henry, the boy from the other side of town. He had actually come to the party even though he had to ride his bicycle all the way across town. Her father had frowned, but didn’t say anything when the boy arrived. Grace thought he looked nice in his overalls, and had even worn a clean shirt even if it was a little ragged. The other kids didn’t talk to him much, and Grace herself was too shy to do so, but she did let him know she was happy that he came.
The next day’s entry was sad. Her father had scolded her about inviting ‘that ragged farm boy’ to the party. “He doesn’t fit in here,” he explained. Grace spent the rest of that Sunday afternoon crying in her room. Her father did not care when she explained Henry was a nice boy, smart and polite, and that she liked him. All the old man saw was his clothes and his home-administered hair cut.
Dawn was breaking as I turned the last page, and my eyes had been blurred more than once by the raw emotion that the young woman had poured out on the pages of her diary. She wrote of the trivialities and daily drama of growing into adolescence, the challenges of school and society, and the awakening awareness of the male half of humanity. Her friendship with young Henry had grown into a crush and then into love, but they could not see each other openly. He came from a poor ranching family and she from the upper echelon of the little town. Perhaps it was because the town was so small that her father was so adamant about her not seeing a boy who was beneath her station. They tried. With the help of friends, they found chances to see each other, but that lead to the inevitable confrontation when they were found out. They were both seventeen and in their last year of high school, and had borrowed a friend’s Model T to drive to the neighboring town for a dance. Someone told, and the old man’s solution was to pull Grace out of the local school and send her to her grandmother in Dallas to finish her senior year. From there she went to live in Waco for four years of college, only returning home a couple of times a year for brief visits. She never saw Henry again, but pined for him daily.
The last entry was from 1947, the year she graduated from Baylor University with a teaching credential. The entries had become less frequent over the last couple of years, but never lost the tone of hopelessness and futility. Her final words were “I will leave tomorrow to start my job in Austin. How I wish my Hank would be by my side.” I stared at the last page for long moments, feeing every ounce of her sorrow, then set the diary on the desk and closed my eyes, barely breathing in the silence of the room.
She came in my dreams, whispering softly, pleading, “I have waited for you, my love, I have waited. You look different in this body you wear now, but I recognized your soul the moment you walked into the room. Find me, please.”
I woke to the sun glaring in through the window of my den, and realized that I had slept until late afternoon. My heart was racing as I paced, pondering what I had experienced. The voice was quiet and I was alone with my thoughts. Why? Why me? I had never married in all of my nearly fifty years, and some people wondered about me. The truth was simple: I had never met anyone who could catch my heart. Oh, many women had caught my eye, and even some of my time, but I had never found that one special one. Now it was too late. I had always believed that my soul mate was “out there” somewhere, waiting for me, but not anymore.
I stumbled into the kitchen to whip up some food while I ruminated on Grace and the diary. I avoided the den the rest of the afternoon, instead driving down to the park by the river where I got out and walked along the bank. Finding a good spot, I sat on a patch of green under one of the tall pecan trees and watched the water bubble its way over the rocks and around the bend a few hundred feet downstream. Outside I was peaceful, but inside I was filled with turmoil. Why had she appeared? Why did she seem to know me? Was I her lover, reborn in a new body? I had never believed in such things, but this is a strange world, and there is much that humanity does not understand of realms beyond our five senses. I do know that I have always felt different, sort of out of place, out of time. I think that is one reason why I haunt the junk stores so often, why I find comfort in relics of the past. Perhaps some part of my spirit is yearning to find where I belong. I leaned back against the tree and closed my eyes, the late afternoon sun warm on my face. One hand strayed to the pocket of my denim jacket and I flinched when I felt something solid. I didn’t remember putting anything in there. It was the diary, so I drew it out and began reading it again. The more I read, the more connection I felt for this young woman who had died so tragically all those years ago. Her tale was haunting and by the time I turned the last page I knew I had fallen in love. A bitter laugh choked its way out of my throat, startling a pair of mockingbirds who had been dancing their mating ritual near the muddy water. Why now? Why after all these years, and why did it have to be someone who died seventy years go? The laugh finally trailed off and I stood, brushing a few leaves off my jeans with a wry shake of my head. No one ever told me that life was fair, and fate had often been unkind. Oh well, maybe this would fuel a good book or two.
I checked the ground around where I had been to make sure I left no trash behind and then turned toward the path that led back to the park. Before I had taken more than a few steps I froze at a sound from upstream. Curious, I padded back toward the water, and was surprised to find that the level had risen several feet while I was lost in my reverie. When did that happen? It was roaring now instead of babbling, the rocks covered completely and causing swirls and eddies. How I heard her, I will never know, but as I strained my eyes to see in the gathering gloom of the river bottom, a shriek rang out, suddenly cut off, then another a few seconds later. I heard random splashing as if someone was fighting the current; fighting and losing. That was when I saw her, a dark shape in the water, pummeled and tossed as she fought for control, face only above the churning darkness for a second or two at a time. She had given up trying to cry for help, and looked very much like she was at the end of her strength. I didn’t think. Quickly shucking my jacket, I took two running steps and dived into the roiling river, aiming downstream from where she was, fervently praying that I had chosen a path that would intersect hers. I had never been a strong swimmer, but my own panic fueled my body, propelling me more strongly than I would have ever believed possible. There was no time to look upstream, only to swim, and I suddenly fetched up head first against a submerged rock. It gave me a bit of support, so I put my back against it and turned, one hand darting out just as the woman was swept by me. I felt my wrist being gripped hard, so I pulled with all my strength, and soon I had her wrapped securely in my arms. I could feel her trembling from the cold, and my own shivers competed with hers. I breathed heavily for a few seconds while I look back across the stream, searching for the best path to take. It would be hard, but fortunately the water level seemed to have stopped rising. Pushing off from the meager security of the rock, I began to work us across the current little by little, trying to keep us both from being swept away. By allowing us to be partly carried downstream a hundred feet or so, I finally managed to grab a limb of a deadfall and pull us both into more sheltered water and paused to breathe heavily and let my strength return. She had both of her arms around me, clinging like I was a life raft in the ocean, but managed to used what little strength left in her legs to help us clamber awkwardly out onto the bank. I always kept an emergency kit in my truck, so I made her as comfortable as possible then sprinted up the bank.
My sprint was more like a drunken stumble, but I was soon back wrapping a blanket around her and starting a fire on the bank. She had turned on her side with her face mostly toward the ground, but I could see that her dark hair was long and that I had noted her old fashioned swim suit as I wrapped her. That puzzled me, but I put it aside. Soon the fire was roaring and casting heat, so I moved around behind her and propped her up, using a second blanket to dry her hair and face. I could see her in profile, and she was lovely, her face freckled from the sun, and her features delicate, a rounded face with a small nose and thin lips. Color was soon returning to her and her eyes fluttered a time or two and then opened.
At first she glanced around wildly, body still wracked by shivers, but as she calmed gradually and her gaze finally settled on me. I think we both gasped at the same time, and I felt my heart lurch as her mouth fell open and her eyes filled.
“You!” she cried.
I echoed, “You!”
My arms were still around her, but she squirmed around to face me and pulled my face down to her lips. After an eternity, she leaned back a few inches, green eyes burning into my soul, eyes that had haunted my dreams. Her voice was strained hoarse from shouting and from the water, but it was a symphony to me. “I have waited for you for so long, my love. So long. So very long.”
My eyes were wet with more than river water as I answered, “I am here, Grace. I have waited for you as well.”