It was old—that much was obvious. A dark brown was creeping inward from every side and the paper felt hard, yet brittle—as if a decent flick of my forefinger would punch a hole straight through. The page had been folded in half—hamburger style, as I'd learned in kindergarten—and the crease was black with dust. When I unfolded it and laid the page flat on my kitchen table it released the distinctive smell of a used bookstore.
Why did I have to open it? I could have thrown it away like any other piece of scrap, but here I am now—thinking of nothing but the dozen or so words scrawled in ink at its center. I could have chosen any jacket at the thrift shop today, but I had to pick the one with a past, the faded brown leather one with a note inside its breast pocket whose words I have now committed to memory. Unable to do anything else, I read it one last time before trying to sleep: "I'm sorry, Mom and Dad. Please know this wasn't your fault."
It was signed, with love, from someone named Henry.
Work was shit the next day, as I knew it would be, and I could hardly focus on the spreadsheet laid out before me like a prison map. I was on my sixth cup of coffee when I decided I needed to study the note again. It was something to do, at least, something interesting—an adjective that I currently could attribute to nothing else in my life. That was my problem—Josie told me last week while we watched The Sopranos—that nothing interested me anymore, not even her. I denied that last bit, of course, but apparently my expressionless face gave me up like a rat. She hasn't been over since, and I've made no attempt to call her or even finish the episode we were watching.
Reaching into my gray briefcase, I felt the old piece of paper nestled between two overdue reports. I peeked over the top of my cubicle to check for encroaching managers. Seeing none, I pulled the note out and unfolded it on my desk.
"Please know this wasn't your fault," I read quietly to myself. I flipped the paper over and looked at the faded letterhead in the top left corner. Whatever logo had been there was impossible to discern, but the Austin, Texas address beneath it was not. I typed it into Google and found directions—only three hours away, according to the map.
There was something about the note that I couldn't get out of my head. Like a used car salesman, it wouldn't leave me alone. They could be dead now, for all I knew, but somewhere out there was a mother and father deprived of their son's final words. I pictured them sitting at home on a Friday night criticizing each other's indecision over what to eat for dinner, receiving the phone call that their son—their only son, perhaps—was no longer alive. Or maybe they were knocking on his door to remind him to clean the dishes, only to find him hanging in his room or sitting in the mess of his own slashed wrists. I didn't want to think about it anymore, but how could I not? I hated to admit it, but this was the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me.
I shut off my computer and packed my briefcase full of paper-clipped pages I cared nothing about. I put Henry's note into my starched breast pocket and grabbed the leather jacket off the back of my chair. I escaped. My managers would ask where I was going, of course, but I didn't care—I'd faked enough illnesses to weasel out of any situation. I was going to get the note back to Henry's parents.
The bus was empty other than the elderly couple seated at the front. We were halfway to Austin and I wondered if there would be University of Texas students on the return trip. I watched the bland scenery change outside from pasture to trees, from trees to pasture, and wondered who would ever choose to live that way in a modern world. They would probably think the same of me, though—working in a cubicle, taking public transportation, paying exorbitant rent on a place that barely contained the books I've yet to read and probably never will. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but my mind was racing. Who would I find at this address? Did the place still exist? Would I see boarded-up windows and a cow grazing on the lawn in front? I took four deep breaths and pulled the note from my pocket. I felt as if I knew Henry personally at this point.
I stepped off the bus at the corner of Slaughter Road and Interstate 35. Before the driver closed the door, I asked if he knew the area of the address, and he gave me the same blank look my father did when I told him in high school that I wanted to be a writer. The old couple that had been sitting at the front of the bus had finally gotten their luggage off and overheard my question.
"Where are you headed, son?" the man asked in a raspy voice before pulling a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. There was something about elderly smokers that I respected, their commitment to the thing that was surely going to kill them, each cigarette a middle-finger pointing up to the malevolent clouds.
"I'm looking for an address on Waverly Road," I told him, reaching for the note in my pocket before changing my mind. "Are you familiar?"
"Oh, yes," his wife answered quickly. "We know just about every street in Travis County, don't we, Gerald?" The man's brow wrinkled as he glanced quickly at his wife. He turned back to me.
"Yes, I'm familiar with the area. Lots of office buildings around there." He exhaled smoke above his wife's head, not completely missing her hair. "You here on business?" Gerald asked, pointing a liver-spotted finger at my briefcase as I set it down to pull the leather jacket over my shoulders. It had begun to rain thick, cold drops that painted the sidewalk dark.
"Yes, something like that."
It only took an hour to reach Waverly Road on foot. The elderly couple had offered to drive me there once their son had picked them up, but I wasn't looking for help or company—I wasn't interested in forced conversation. All I cared about was the note and where it would take me. Gerald was right, however, about the office buildings. Both sides of the road were lined with single-story brick complexes. FOR RENT signs littered the small strips of grass that stood between them and the pavement I wandered down. It was mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, but the empty parking lots I passed every few hundred feet made it feel like Super Bowl Sunday.
I found the address that was listed on the back of Henry's note—2311 Waverly Road—and felt the slick of my hands as I walked up the sidewalk. A faded sign above the door read Waverly Tax Advisors and I briefly thought of the work I'd left behind to come here today. I opened the door.
Inside was an empty receptionist's desk, wooden and cheap, holding a computer monitor the likes of which I hadn't seen since Clinton was in office. I rang the bell that sat on the desk and walked around the room waiting for a reply, taking inventory of the things around me and rehearsing things I might say to whoever might come. There were three chairs on each side of the small room and a coffee table between them. Magazines were spread across the table with scratched rectangles where the address labels should be. I was flipping through the covers when I noticed three framed pictures on the wall above the chairs to my left. Two of them were little-league baseball team photos, sponsored by Waverly Tax Advisors, but the third was a black-and-white picture of a family standing in front of a large oak tree. The man had one arm around his wife and the other around his son, a boy about fourteen years old with tired-looking eyes. I leaned in closer and noticed a printed inscription at the bottom of the photo: "The Kellum Family. David, Mary, and Henry."
No one ever answered the bell, but I did see a copy of the yellow pages behind the desk and was able to find an address for David and Mary Kellum. The gas station clerk at the end of Waverly Road was familiar with the street name and drew out directions for me on the back of a dirty coffee napkin.
"It'll take you about thirty minutes by foot," he said. "You want me to call a cab for you? Bus don't run around here."
"No, thanks," I said before leaving.
A blur of cars roared past on the freeway to my left during the first two miles of my walk. When I turned onto a street called Sycamore, things quieted down. I was in a residential neighborhood now full of old brick houses, chain-linked fences, and flags on doors. A few more turns and I was on Peach Run, the street where I would find the childless Kellum family.
Four deep breaths, then an equal number of knocks on the door. I could hear a television somewhere inside being silenced, then footsteps. I fidgeted with the sleeves of my jacket and tried to stand straight, something I never learned to do correctly. I looked to my left in time to see a curtain fall back into place behind the window, then a voice.
"Can I help you?" a woman asked from behind the door.
"Yes, ma'am, I'm looking for Mr. and Mrs. Kellum" I said, the words coming out like a question. "I've found something of theirs that I'd hoped to return."
A deadbolt shifted and the door creaked open enough for me to see the face of a woman who was not in the picture in the receptionist's office—like everything else in there, the yellow pages must have been outdated. She had an attractive, perfectly symmetrical face and brown shoulder-length hair with streaks of grayish-blonde throughout. She looked to be in her mid-fifties.
"I'm sorry, I think I have the wrong house," I said, both disappointed and relieved.
"I'm Amber Kellum," she said, opening the door a bit more now. A sister, perhaps? A niece?
"Oh I'm sorry, it's just that I was expecting—"
"Who is it, hun?" an approaching voice asked from behind the woman. The space behind her filled with a balding, spectacled man around the same age. I answered for her.
"I was looking for David and Mary Kellum. I found something that belonged to their son, Henry," I said, pulling the note from my pocket and taking a step forward. The man's eyes widened and scanned from my face, down my sleeve and into my hand. He said something softly to his wife before she turned and walked back into the house. Stepping outside, he closed the door behind him and reached out a hand out for the folded piece of paper. He turned it over a couple of times in his hands, never opening it but feeling the browning page between his fingertips as if to savor the moment. Then he did something that I never could have anticipated.
He ripped the paper in half.
Then he ripped the two halves into fourths, the fourths into eights, and so on until he had a fistful of confetti in his hand. Without meeting my eyes he walked past me down the brick walkway to a set of trashcans, lifted one of the lids, and let the pieces fall. He walked back to where I stood with a smile on his face and extended a hand in greeting.
"Hello, I'm Henry Kellum."
The night sky was clear outside the bus window and for the first time since childhood I was identifying constellations. There was Sagittarius pouring tea into the sky, Orion shielding himself from Taurus' charge, Hercules facing Draco without a hint of fear.
Henry and I went for coffee after he cooked me dinner that night. We talked about everything, from baseball to politics to our favorite Beatles albums. But most importantly, we talked about the note. He was seventeen years old at the time and was sure that this world wasn't for him, that he would never gain interest in the things that he should, that the unknowable pain in his heart would never go away.
He was ready to jump, he'd said, when a car screeched to a halt on the bridge behind him. It was Amber, his future wife, who found him there and convinced him to step away, to climb back over the railing and talk to her. She told him the usual things worth living for—the things he'd read in books and heard about all his life—but they were somehow different coming from her lips. She meant every word, Henry told me, and for the first time ever he was able to believe them. When he climbed into the passenger seat of her car that night to eat the first of a lifetime of meals together, he'd left his jacket behind—hanging over the railing of the bridge and, with it, the note that he was thankful his parents never had to read.
I held onto the sleeve of the jacket in my lap, turning the cuff inside out with both hands. Henry insisted I keep it, that he didn't want to worry about me without one on the way back.
I was still a couple of hours away from home and my forehead was pressed against the bus window. The glass was cold, but it felt wonderful against my skin. There would be work to catch up on when I got home, but I didn't mind. It was a beautiful night and I thought about the stars. I thought about the Beatles, the White Album, and how even their worst songs were still some of the best I'd ever heard. I thought about a suicide note torn to nothing in the bottom of a garbage can, and a teenage boy who found purpose in life behind the railing of a bridge. I thought about Henry. And I thought about Josie and finishing that episode of The Sopranos we'd started, the one where Tony finally comes out of his coma.
Title image "Old News" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.