Now Reading: The Marks of Forty Years

Wren Long, August 2023

Today, I, and three strangers with whom I am well acquainted, went to a consignment store. It stands in a place obsessed with progress, though its product is the past. I had at first intended to buy a set: a white blazer and a pencil skirt. It was akin, I suppose, to a woman's business suit. The clothes reminded me of my mother; of how often, before school dances or award ceremonies, the two of us would browse her closet, sifting through dresses unworn since the nineties, until we found something perfect. Though unlike my mother's dresses, this suit didn't fit. The skirt zipper refused to budge. I returned the set, hapless. I didn't care that the skirt had been too small, but my mother's absence settled into my lungs and wouldn't leave. It was then that I discovered the basement, and I began to miss my dad.

The basement was small, low in light. Wood-paneled walls brought me back to a memory I may have imagined. I thought of my dad, his brother, and the nose and eyes that they share. I thought of campfires, on the shore of lake Erie, and wood cabins with screen doors and peeling white paint. I noticed a mechanical keyboard, circa 1991, on the mantle, and thought of the piles and piles of books in our old basement storage room. His library that I was free to borrow from. I remembered the old ID card which I found tucked away inside the closet of his home office. I thought of the life he had before I was in it, and the evidence which that life had left behind.

Overwhelmed by the memories, and longing for home, I turned towards the stairs, heading for the company of my stranger-companions. It would be a distraction, at least. Before I could climb the stairs, a handwritten word on a tiny paper tag caught my eye from across my room. “Typewriter.” I turned to get a closer look, and much to my delight, the rest of the tag was equally exciting: “vintage typewriter, functional, $50”

The money had changed hands in an instant, and even sooner the typewriter was placed carefully on the desk in my dorm room. Carefully I fed some paper through, and began to type. I hadn't been expecting anything, the typewriter, afterall had no ribbon in it. Nonetheless, letters were stamped to paper, the leftover drops of ink from the previous owner still remained on the typeface. I slowly tapped the word “hello” onto the keys. Of course, I was excited by my new typewriter, twofold for the leftover ink, so I searched for an exclamation mark. I found none.

Amused, I reached for my phone to call my dad. Partly to ask where the missing mark was, but mostly because I had finally found an excuse to call him. As it rang, I stared at the southern wall of my room. I wasn't really looking at it, but rather I was thinking of the dorm my father had stayed in when he was eighteen. Just twelve doors down, and forty years ago. On the second ring I began to tap idly at the spacebar, and watched as the paper bail inched to the side.

If my father hadn't told me he had lived in the room, nobody would have ever known. Each scratched wood panel or water stain is anonymous, and any small attempt to leave a traceable mark was now crushed under decades of bleach-white paint. The only clue my father had been there at all was his own recognition of it, and perhaps a ledger sitting long-forgotten somewhere in the corner of a library. Though, if nobody seeks out that information, what good would it do? If nobody recognizes the name Martin Long as their eyes pass over a yellowed page, have they even read it?

As the bail reached its right hand margin a gentle bell brought my attention back to the typewriter. I eyed the case it came in, noticing the frayed corners and well-scratched surface; a splotch of coffee dripped near the latch, and the three circular water stains which overlapped to make a venn diagram. It would seem the previous owner of the case had been in desperate need of a coaster. The owner of the case had been. Just as my father had been, eating, sleeping, and living in a room, merely twelve doors down the hall, and forty years ago. Someone, unknown, a ghost had been typing, working, laboring over this typewriter. Someone had been dripping coffee on the case or changing the ribbon. Somebody, though nameless to me, had been. Now, here I am, with their typewriter.

When my dad picked up the phone, his voice was like a beacon, shining up north towards me. We laughed about how antiquated a ¼ key was. He explained that to make an exclamation point, I needed to type a period, backspace, and then type an apostrophe. I described to him a book that I had been assigned for class. It was a book about longevity, about getting the most out of the end of your life, something college students didn't have a need for yet. My Dad laughed as I described the chapter, and recognized it immediately, “holy cow, that's Outlive by Peter Attia!” he said, “Wren I kid you not I was just reading that when you called!” He was right about the book, but the thought of him reading it ached. It was something a college kid didn't need yet, but my dad had been a college kid forty years ago. It was a book about getting the most out of the end of your life.

The sound of my father's voice became hard to hear, not for anything he said, but because I could not escape the dread that came with knowing I would someday hear it for the last time. Counterintuitively, this dread forced me to end the call. Politely, shakily, I said my goodbyes, and looked for a distraction in the typewriter. Both the apostrophe and period keys soon went dry from overuse, as every sentence was exciting when it was typed on an antique. Soon all the letters began to pale, as the ink was stamped to paper. I became acutely aware that there was only enough for a few words more.

Suddenly, I was a campus maintenance officer, holding a pail of white paint and a brush, painting over the black sharpie message of “Martin was here.” I was speaking with a stranger's dying breath. I, in a moment of overwhelming sentimentality, typed the only thing that seemed at all fitting. “Farewell to the previous owner. Thank you for this lovely…”

By the end of “lovely” the letters were totally gone, the only trace of them the dent in the paper. A mark so nearly invisible I had to hold it up to the light and squint just to be sure it was really there at all. Whoever they were, the nameless stranger who's hands had been where mine now were, was gone. Another margin bell sung their elegy. I stood up to leave the dorm room: to clear my head from the mourning of a stranger.

I counted as I approached the stairwell. “...nine …ten …eleven …twelve,” I froze, dolefully I looked at the door. My dad was there somewhere, just forty years ago.