‘Lady Cero’s Letters’
This lady, whoever she was, had a wasteful hobby. She would pack her suitcases, drive to her local airport, buy a plane ticket to some place she’d never been before, check the bags then skip the flight. Yes, she’d make sure to not put her actual phone number or address on the tags tied to her bags. She’d try to skip tying on the tags entirely; but should the checking agent point out this oversight, she’d write a false number and address on the ticket, tie it to the handle of her suitcase.
The point of the whole thing was to send these bags filled with her belongings to places she never had much of an interest in visiting. Every conceivable city in every conceivable country. She’d read somewhere years ago that bags that went unclaimed were eventually sent to a small town in Alabama, where they were then auctioned off to local bidders. It was with this in mind that she’d buy whole wardrobes then stuff them helter-skelter into suitcases bought secondhand. She’d put them together like care packages, each with their own set of shoes and pants and tops and such, sometimes women’s clothes, sometimes men’s (sometimes both). Care packages to the Mundane Unknown, to very specific parts of the world she couldn’t see much less accurately imagine.
With this in mind she’d write a brief letter to hide among the clothes in those suitcases. No two letters were the same, but each bore variations on the same basic theme, which on the whole ran like this:
By now you’ve opened this suitcase and have noticed the skirts and jeans and shirts and shoes and, here and there, jewelry; and if you’re really enterprising maybe you’ll have guessed my approximate size and shape. Height, waist, length of leg, et cetera. By the style of the clothes you’ll probably hazard some guesses about how I look and walk and what kind of job I must work and what kind of company I keep. I’ll have provided you with all the raw materials for conjectures about my tastes and habits, so doubtless you’ll be tempted to form some conclusion about my identity. What’s that, you might ask. It could be this is just so much Latin to you. So, let me tip my hand a bit.
Mystics of a Christian ilk were once said to define the presence of divine intelligence in the material universe through a catalogue of the many instances and evidences of its absence. Call it an anal-retentive search for the godhead. That Jewish seer of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz The Son, once said of this: “What is laid upon us is to accomplish the negative; the positive is already given.” So to provide a little homebody koan on the matter, to aid you in accomplishing the same, I’ve sent this suitcase out into the world, specifically to __________ (enter city here), in the hopes that you might find it. Doubtless you’ve bought it at auction. In Scottsboro, Alabama—clearinghouse of lost luggage.
Since we’re strangers I’m compelled to make this letter as personal as possible. Such distance between us, there’s some need to make up for it. Perfectly natural, for some reason, to relay the most private information to people who don’t know us, who have no sense of the context for such utterances. For example: I’m deeply unhappy. Or: I’m overjoyed. Hardly much to go on, so how can you judge whether such admissions bear any relation to the truth? Yes, you have been happy at times, and other times you’ve been held under your own thumb in despair. So it’s safe to assume, we have that in common. Though I’m no stranger to your emotions, still, I’m a stranger to you.
Here, it seems, we’re far out in the Fabrication Zone, where facts blend with anecdotes. Where the veracity of what I’m telling you is hopelessly bound up with my skill as a raconteur. Here the real question isn’t, ‘Do you believe me?’ But: ‘Are you curious?’ If I have your attention, that attention is truthful. It’s everything you need to know about me. And me, you.
So, the Austro-Hungarian Empire has already won mention, so let me bring notice to another one (the world, devoid of divine intelligence, it seems, has had to give rise to empires, to make up for it): The Ottoman Empire. I don’t know who you are, much less why you are, so have no sense whether you have extended ancestral roots reaching as far back as the Ottoman Empire; so, in case you don’t (or do, but aren’t aware of it), let me tell of it.
Under the reign of the sultan Mehmed IV, there was a man named Souflikar. For five years Souflikar held the title of royal gardener. Which means: he was the court executioner and, in that duty, killed an average of three people a day, from the beginning of his term until its end. Some of the condemned were given the privilege of competing for their life, i.e. were given the option of participating in a footrace against Souflikar, through the royal gardens. The finishing line was marked, ominously: the spot in the garden where those condemned to death by the sultan were executed. If the condemned won, they would be offered reprieve of banishment. If they lost, Souflikar would kill them as he killed all his victims: by strangulation, with his bare hands.
This would be a horrible thing to write, if it weren’t true. But alas, it’s true. It’s the kind of account which readily stands above all human endeavors as metaphor. After the First World War, didn’t other, smaller empires step in, break apart the Ottoman Empire into countries of their own devising? And aren’t those countries crumbling yet again, into even smaller, more divisive parts?
Yet is this such a bad thing? For too long there has been such a worship of largeness, it seems the smaller things have begun to assert their influence.
Hence this business of me packing and sending these suitcases out into a carnivorous, chaotic universe. It’s a little joke I like to play on the game we’ve grown to depend on. I pay for the tickets, but I don’t fly! I pay just to check these belongings of mine, submit them to a long list of flights and layovers. Though I go my own way, back into hiding, into the fold of a safe oblivion, in a way these suitcases are taken care of. The check-in attendant weighs them, prints out stickers to tie around their handles. He or she sends them down a conveyor belt. They’re grabbed by people far deep in the airport’s interior, who then pile them atop other bags on a trailer. The trailer’s then driven onto the tarmac, the suitcases loaded via conveyor belt into the belly of the plane. The plane takes flight, leaves me behind entirely. And when the plane lands and the bags aren’t claimed, an agent will call the number on the tag. And if no one responds, a letter will be sent to the address. And after a certain number of months, should the bags go unclaimed, they will be sent to this town in small-time Alabama. A crowd of people will gather once every month to bid on the bags, in hopes of striking jackpot--some expensive or rare item contained therein. The contents, of course, will have already been searched for any identifying belongings of the owner, anything with a name or number on it. They will as well have been pilfered of their more valuable contents by the staff of the airline’s Lost and Found department. The letters will be left untouched in most cases. The envelopes will be opened, of course, in case they contain money. But the letters? Left unread. To read them would only reward human curiosity, and who has time for that? And here you are now, reading this, the products of so much labyrinthine travel. Knowing nothing about me except what can be inferred by the suitcase’s many belongings.
You assume: a woman. You guess: age 25-45. Correct, correct. You may even go so far as to conclude: Caucasian, blonde. To which I’d say: wrong, brunette. But could you take my word, really, in that correction?
Undistracted by the looks of me, the obstructions of biography, maybe we can achieve some kind of authentic exchange. If so, let me put forward a story someone once told me. A little something about the truths disguised by distances.
There was a man, maybe I knew him, maybe I didn’t. He flew to Cuba from the Yucatan in a small propeller plane. Rough-going in the worst way, that flight. It should be said, this man was a musician, a guitarist. On word from a local club owner he sought out a man who was allegedly a master craftsman of a kind of three octave guitar popular in those parts, called a tres.
This man arranged to have the master craftsman build him a tres from scratch. The man disassembled part of his house, to free up enough materials to make one! Took a few days but the tres came together beautifully. When strummed, it sounded crisp, bright, but with a stinging resonance. The sound was, the master craftsman joked, “very much lived in.”
What the man hadn’t taken into account was the difference in air pressure between Cuba and Ohio, U.S.A.. The winter cold, et cetera. One day, weeks after returning to the States, he noticed the guitar had bowed and splintered. Now I guess, the man said, you could call it a cero! Later when renovating the guest room of a house he’d bought, he took apart the ruined guitar and dropped it into a crawl space he would smooth dry wall over. I recount this not to add a bit of dramatic color or milk your curiosity for fresher enigmas, but to tap into the heart of something I’ve often wondered about: do we live, each, comfortably in the future tense of some freshly destroyed version of ourselves? And is there some future as well that will draw on our own dissipations, to take shape, knowingly or unknowingly? And if this is the case, how frail and odd it is, that people often make use of others for the sake of drawing portraits of their own strangeness and cruelty. Portraits of control, you could say, portraits in the flesh. Isn’t it enough to have a face and one face only and not make use of other people’s faces, to break their noses and eyes and jaws and foreheads, for the sake of rearranging them into some stunned, malformed vision of oneself?
To be honest, this is why I seek to tell the truth from a hiding place of my own choosing. Anonymous, I won’t have to make concessions, I can be myself. Oh, and you? Can you do the same, reading this letter? We hold onto what we can, we secure a small hold with one hand then the other. I can hear you say it: ‘There’s this woman out there in the world (but is she a woman?), writing to me (but didn’t she write this without knowing me?). She seems fairly intelligent (or is that mere rhetorical skill--after some practice she’s been able to mimic the moves of real intelligence?). She’s telling me that this suitcase I’ve bought and opened is a ruse, put together for purposes of reaching me, a kind of message in a bottle set afloat on a sea of contingency. She’s laying bare the contents of her mind, imaginatively (not the same as laying it bare confessionally). Here she is, a voice whose contours are outlined inch by inch, sentence by sentence, but which doesn’t resolve into any definite shape. Its final shape is just this impression it leaves, a loose one, of briefest intimacy. Unknown to unknown, the old classic business. One house torn down and fashioned into a kind of musical instrument. Then sent across a vast distance only to be torn apart again, to provide materials for the building of another house. The briefest fleeting impression could live in it, infancy to old age, in a second’s passing. One. Two. Tres. Together and apart, as you’ve read this, it’s been lived.
You’re you. I’m me.
We’ve lived it.
Kyle Coma-Thompson is the author of the short story collections The Lucky Body (2014) and Night in the Sun (2016).
The lead image is Robert Frank’s ‘Suitcase of Tulips’ (1950), © 2018 Joseph M. Cohen (New York, New York)