Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fiction: Letters to Chelsea By Oscar Connell

How is it that the passing of time can warp our lives into something unrecognizable? I've always marveled at the concept of time and its ability to change things, despite its being conceptual and intangible. As humans, we are temporary, pitiful things that haven't the mental strength to comprehend longevity. The cruelty of it all is that in this vast world of ours, there is nothing that equates to permanence. The only commodity that endures is this invisible force that turns the pages; time. I am no stranger to the wear of time, and over the years I have seen my life devoured by its gluttony. Time has no regard for anything save its own monstrous appetites. My childhood, my adolescence; they are both a colorful blur with only a few vivid images protruding from the dust of my memories. Memory, the flawed mechanism that it is, provides us not with recollections of things passed, but with unreliable snippets of a life that may have once been; its nature is unsteady, so we can never really be sure of what has transpired or where we've tread. How quickly and assuredly its strength wanes. In the twilight of one's years when one has amassed a lifetime's worth of cherished memories, this mechanism has a tendency towards infarct.

I made the acquaintance of a young woman named Chelsea several months ago. At least, I think I did. I'm not entirely certain. She vanished soon after we met and the circumstances surrounding her disappearance have left me to wonder if I ever truly met such a person. The mechanism has a tendency towards infarct. With each day that passes, I am forced to consider the possibility that I may have spiraled into madness over the past months due to a passing fancy.

The modern world is a place desolate of compassion. It is difficult for a man of my advanced years to find even the slightest warmth in people. Indeed, I have toiled on in quiet solitude for the bulk of my days. With no family or friends to speak of, I have lived from day to day on government funds and kept to myself. Ages ago, I was wounded and disfigured in the war. Because of this I have been able to live off of a government pension and I have never once had to seek out proper employment. The trade-off however, leisure in exchange for my vanity, hadn't been a fair one. Having established these facts, where then, I often ask myself, were the lines blurred? I can narrow it down to the events of a single night.

I met Chelsea on my way home from the supermarket. A delightful collaboration of unparalleled beauty and deceitful propensities she was as I saw her waiting at the bus stop in the rain. I shuffled through the downpour to take a seat upon a wet bench near the sidewalk. It was then that my tumble down the slope of complete ruin began.

The seat of my pants grew damp as I plopped down on the bench. The rain was steadily growing stronger. The shoulders of my jacket were dark with rain by the time the beautiful young stranger at the bus stop allowed me a space beneath her large umbrella.

“You'll catch cold,” she said with a smile.

From my seat, I looked up at her as though I were Judas looking upon the crucified Christ. Those green eyes of hers were pure and natural like the dense forests where the Greeks once frolicked with their lustful, half-naked gods, and were every bit as impenetrable, too. As I reminisce about her now, I wonder if she was a mere parody of a human being. She may have been too perfect to be the real thing. Where could such a woman possibly come from, and what exotic processes were responsible for bringing her into this world of ours?

I said nothing for a long while. The bus slid to a stop and the two of us boarded. She took a seat across from me, and her placid gaze locked onto mine; she was silent and wise, like a statue of Buddha. I rummaged up the nerve to speak.

“Thank you,” I said. “That was kind of you.”

“It's no problem. Please, think nothing of it,” replied the angel of kindness, maintaining her saintly profile all the while.

“Quite the opposite- I think the world of it. It's a rare thing these days, for someone to have good manners.”

Her head bobbed in an agreeable nod.

The bus was empty save for the two of us. The raindrops smacked the steel carriage with quick, fervent jabs. The pounding of rain, the squealing of old brakes and the grinding of a tired engine provided a backdrop of discord for the amicable conversation that ensued between us.

We chatted until the bus came to a stop outside of my apartment complex. I stood up and prepared to exit. “Thank you for your kindness, and for the insightful conversation as well.”

“My name is Chelsea,” she replied, standing up. “And this also happens to be my stop.”

We maneuvered through the rain and into the apartment complex. Transfixed by the way the raindrops clung to her raven hair, I found myself rambling on. “I haven't a lot to offer you, but if you aren't busy tonight, I'd love to have a chat with you over some coffee.”

“That sounds lovely,” she said while closing her umbrella. “Would you mind terribly if we went to my apartment, though? I'd like to dry off before I catch cold. It's upstairs- the third floor.”

“No, not at all.”

She walked me to the third floor and led me to unit sixty-three. “Please, make yourself at home,” she said as she set aside her coat and umbrella. “How do you take your coffee?”

“Just black, thanks.”

I set my groceries down and took a seat in her living room. The doilies on the tables were all perfectly centered. There wasn't a speck of dust to be seen on anything. She had good taste in furniture; wicker chairs forged of rattan with plush, embroidered cushions. An olive green sofa with a soft cashmere throw, a vintage record player. She brought me a cup of strong black coffee. The china was old-fashioned; a periwinkle cup with a matching plate, which was white with flecks of subtle cornflower blue.

She retreated into the depths of her apartment, and when she returned she brought with her a towel. “Please, dry yourself off.”

“Thank you.”

She took a seat across from me. The light of a tall lamp flashed across her green eyes from time to time and lent them the liveliest quality. “How's the coffee?”

“Wonderful. Colombian?” I guessed.

“Yes, it is.”

The two of us talked for hours, although the contents of this long-winded conversation escape me somewhat. I know that I talked to her about my past; about my upbringing and the war that had scarred up my face. I spoke of my day-to-day life and the lack of interaction I had with others. I think I said something along the lines of: “It's been so long since I've had a quality conversation with anyone.”

“I know how you feel,” she sympathized. “There are times in this city that I feel like a ghost among ghosts. The world these days is not conducive to conversation; to honesty, to decency, even.”

“I'm glad we see eye to eye on that. It sounds cynical, but there's no denying the reality; the world is full of distant folk these days. I often long for the past, when people knew how to communicate and treat one another.”

“As do I.”

“Lived in the city long?”

“Most of my life. And yourself?”

“Probably about twenty years. Well, come to think of it, probably more like twenty-five.”

“I see,” she said. “How do you like it here?”

“Everyone's got to have a home, I guess. And how about yourself?”

She paused briefly before answering. “I feel as though I'm bound to the soul of this city.” Her eyes locked onto mine as she spoke and the vacancy in her gaze sent shivers through me.

“And why's that?”

Again she paused. “It's my home. I've grown to overlook its flaws and see it for what it is. It's like you said; everyone has to have a home. This is mine. I've never had the heart to leave it.”

“I see.”

“You seem tired,” she said, cocking her head to the side.

“Do I? It's past my bedtime, I imagine. It's no problem, I feel fine,” I assured her.

She smiled. The image of that smile crept into me, where it would nest behind my eyelids and ignite a fire within me every time I closed my eyes. After taking this delightful smile of hers as an eternal memento, my memory was smeared across the canvas. It was as if this image of her overlapped my every thought. In that room, with a floor lamp casting a dull glow, I found her invading my mind, treading about my reason and crushing it into a fine powder underfoot, where it was replaced by utter fascination. She lingers there still; her presence, every bit as arresting.

As time passes by you begin to have trouble recalling things. One's memories fade, and all but a few things end up forgotten. The mechanism has a tendency towards infarct. Those things that remain, those experiences that stick out, are the things that go on to define us as people. When I awoke the next morning however, my memories of this night began to evaporate. I could scarcely recall anything but scant bits of our dialogue and the encounter at the bus stop that led up to it. A dream? No, it had been too real for that. I could still hear her pleasant voice ringing in my ears.

I woke up in her apartment; apartment sixty-three, outstretched upon the living room floor. My groceries were still beside the door where I had left them, but the apartment was devoid of everything else. Chelsea was missing. No umbrella near the door, no shoes in the closet. The rattan furniture was nowhere to be found. At some point in the night, I had lost consciousness. Now, there was nothing remaining of her, and I was shaken to my very core. I explored the entirety of the apartment, but found nothing indicative of its being lived in. I opened the door; sure enough, the number on it was '63'.

The experience had been too vivid to be a dream or illusion, I was certain. There was some sort of logical explanation to be found in all of this. I wandered slowly to my apartment and put my things away. I revisited her apartment later in the day, yet it remained empty. The baffled, depressing twilight of my life began that morning.

It is said by some that men create ghosts- ghosts borne of their suffering, to tame their pain and loneliness; hallucinations forged in an effort to salvage what little sanity may remain in the mind of a lonely man, or an effort to introduce a brief spark of happiness into an otherwise miserable life. My grandmother used to tell me a story about a beautiful ghost that haunted mountain caverns abroad. The spectre would sometimes venture into the civilized world to entice men and steal their hearts before returning once more to her place in the mountains.

“Why would she do that?” I would ask my grandmother.

“It's hard to say,” she would respond with a sly, toothy grin and a look in her eye as though she were straining to find some sort of reason. Her eyes would narrow and she would continue, always saying the same thing. “Perhaps this spirit enjoys mingling with the living. It's as close as she can ever come to being alive again.”

I had to know if she was real. Her beauty, her manner; they were of the noblest sort. She was the sort of woman who could reinstate my hope in the human race; living proof that traits such as compassion and kindness had not been filtered out of the human archetype over the years. More than that however, I just had to know that I wasn't going senile; that I hadn't just imagined everything and woken up in an empty apartment.

I spoke to my landlord about apartment sixty-three and he assured me that it had been vacant for quite some time. “It hasn't been rented out in a year or so, why?”

“I'm curious,” I told him, “about that apartment. Could you tell me if a woman named Chelsea has ever lived there?”

“I'm not really supposed to do that...”

“Please allow me at least the name of the tenant. It couldn't hurt, right? This is very important to me. You know that I'm not one to cause any trouble. This is a personal request, I beg you.”

He massaged the bridge of his nose. “Tell you what, I'll look into it. I'll let you know what I find.”

“I'd appreciate it.”

The next day, the landlord left a note under my door.

Turns out there was a Chelsea who lived up there- though it was long before I started working here. Thirty-four years ago, when this apartment complex was first opened, a 'Chelsea Morrison' became the first tenant of that unit- but you didn't hear that from me.


It didn't make a whole lot of sense. If Chelsea Morrison wasn't a current tenant, then how could she have entered that unit? What reason would she have to return after thirty-four years? Not to mention the fact that Chelsea Morrison would have to be at least fifty or sixty years old. The Chelsea I had met was a great deal younger than that. The name Chelsea is somewhat common; it was possible that the Chelsea I met was a totally different person who had never lived in this apartment complex, or that she had given me a false name. This seemed more likely. They probably weren't the same person, the Chelsea I had met and the one who had lived in apartment sixty-three thirty-some years ago. But how had we been able to get into that apartment if she'd never lived there?

The next thing I did was look up the name 'Chelsea Morrison' in the phone book. Sure enough, I managed to find the name listed, with a local address and phone number. I tore the page from the book and posted it on my refrigerator.

The next morning, I walked to a pay phone and called the listed number. No matter how many times I dialed it however, a recording kept going on about how the number had been disconnected.

I did more research on the listed address, and found that it was located across town, close to the university. I didn't want to frighten her or cause any trouble, and so I refrained from paying her an unannounced visit. I wanted to go about this very delicately. I chose to make a plea to her through the mail. I wrote Chelsea a letter and mailed it to the listed address.

Dear Chelsea,

I have a lot to say, and yet the proper words escape me. Isn't it odd how that happens? You live your life, feeling like a perfectly articulate person, and yet there are times when the words just won't come. I'm the gentleman you spoke to the other night. Do you recall? The two of us went to your apartment and had a conversation. I'd like for you to know that I was immensely pleased with our little chat.

My life has been a tad bit confusing ever since the two of us spoke, however. Although I'm unable to pinpoint the cause, I've felt off ever since that night. I suspect that you may be able to help me clear things up. I was able to find your address in the phone book, and I thought that this would be a more appropriate means of contacting you than a face-to-face visit. I would not be so bold as to show up on your doorstep; I am loathe to become a nuisance. If you have no interest in further dialogue with me, then please let me know, and I will be certain not to disturb you.

Thank you again for the coffee the other night. I haven't enjoyed anyone's company so much as I have yours for many, many years.


-Julian Metzger

It was a brief blurb, but I thought it a nice way to break the ice.

I waited for four days, and when I didn't receive a response, I began to grow weary. My memory of the night with Chelsea hadn't returned; my encounter with her was still as hazy as it had been upon waking up in her empty apartment. I waited another day, and when there was still no response from her, I decided to write her another letter, just in case the first one had been lost in the mail.

Dear Chelsea,

I'm sorry to bother you again. I wrote you a letter five days ago and I wasn't sure whether or not you received it. It's presumptuous of me, to say the very least, to think that you'd respond to me quickly. You're probably a very busy person. However, considering my current circumstances, I feel it important to establish some sort of contact with you. I'm hoping to clear some things up, and I ask that you respond in some way. I apologize for being so forward. If you did not receive the last letter, it's possible that it was lost in the post.

If you would be so kind as to reply to this letter, it would be greatly appreciated. Even if your response is stern and you want nothing more to do with an old fool like me, I will accept it. I simply ask that you reply.

I hope you are doing well. As I said in my last letter, I found our little chat the other night to be most intriguing, and I look forward to sharing another conversation with you, so long as you'd be willing, of course.

P.S. If I have been mistaken- if there has been some sort of mix-up and the two of us have never met, then please let me know. It is possible that these letters are not meant for you, Ms. Morrison, but for another woman named Chelsea and that I've just made an error. If this is the case, I apologize! Please let me know if you're receiving these letters in error.

Take care.

-Julian Metzger

I waited around for the mailman each day, hoping to receive a response from Chelsea. Each time he came however, I returned to my apartment disappointed. I didn't know what to do with myself. My mind was bubbling over with uncertainty; had I gone insane and dreamt up a beautiful woman to obsess over? Had I just imagined the whole thing? I resolved to be patient. I waited for the mail each day, and when no letters came, I told myself that there was always tomorrow. I continued on in this fashion for a week-and-a-half. I came to the realization however, that time was slowly falling away. I was faced with a hole in my timeline, and bits of my sanity were slipping through it, undetected. I had to get a response to keep myself from falling over the edge entirely.

Dear Chelsea,

I really hope you're receiving my letters. They haven't been coming back to me in the mail, so I know that someone must be getting them. I can only pray that it's you. I suppose that I'm nagging you now, and I am intensely sorry to be such a bother to you. Ever since we met however, I've had some questions; about myself, about you, and about our meeting. My memory doesn't seem to want to cooperate where you're involved.

It's true that I'm getting old. Before you jump to the conclusion that you're receiving letters from some senile old man however, I urge you to listen to what I have to say. Things just haven't been adding up, and I've been writing you in the hopes of getting everything squared away. I need some sort of response from you to know that I'm not going crazy, Chelsea. I mean, we did spend the night together two weeks ago, chatting about a great and many things together, didn't we?

It sounds absurd, I know. It sounds like I've lost my mind, and I fear sometimes that I truly have. I woke up in your apartment that morning; apartment sixty-three, and found that all of your belongings were missing. There was no trace of you to be found there.

I hope that you can forgive this silly old man for his odd letters, and also that you respond and put his soul to rest. I don't think it's too much to ask- even a simple 'leave me alone!' would be sufficient! Please, I beg you to acknowledge my letters. And if it turns out that you're receiving these letters in error; that you aren't the Chelsea I'm looking for, let me know. Please respond as soon as you are able.


-Julian Metzger

Another two weeks went by with no response from her. I'd sent three letters, and received none so far. It was terribly demoralizing, and I often thought that it might make more sense for me to forget about her. But then, I'd recall the impregnable mystique of her eyes and I'd realize how important it was to my sanity for me to substantiate our meeting.

A month went by and there was still no response. The urgency of the matter had snowballed in that time, and I was on the verge of pulling my hair out upon finding the mailbox empty.

I began to sit patiently near the mailbox in the afternoons, conversing with the postman every time he came around. He'd see me sitting on the stoop of the apartment complex, rain or shine, and talk to me for a few minutes before continuing along his route.

“Julian, how are you?”

“Just fine,” I'd tell him as he approached with his fat sack of letters.

“I'm afraid there's nothing for you today, my friend.”

“Ah, I see. I more or less expected you to say that. There's always tomorrow, I suppose.”

“Yes indeed,” he'd always reply. “What is it that you're waiting for? What could be so important that you would wait out here everyday for me?”

“I'm waiting for a letter. Nothing special.”

“Goodness,” he had a habit of saying. “You're a patient man. Who are you expecting a letter from?”

“Just a lady friend of mine. I have to wonder if it hasn't gotten tied up in the mail somewhere.”

“Well, that's inclined to happen from time to time. I'll keep an eye out for it,” he'd assure me.

“Thank you. I hope your route goes quickly today. Take care.”

There was something in the way. There was something about my mind that simply got in the way every time I tried to think about her. I wasn't feeling like myself at the end of spring. There were squirrels gnawing on the wires in my brain; the signals were crossed. For the first time in my life since infancy, I knew what it was like to be feeble. The spring came and went in silence, even after I had sent such dreary notes as this one:

I have come to know the frailty of the human mind, and its degeneration is swift. I can't remember what I ate for breakfast this morning. The emptiness in my gut seems to suggest that I may not have eaten anything at all. I can't remember something so simple as that, and yet how the memory of you still fills this empty head of mine and stirs me with melancholy. Do you see what it is that you're doing to me with your silence? You're robbing me of what little happiness I have left in this world. Is it too much to ask that you just send me a response? For God's sake, just send me a letter and convince me that I'm not going crazy.

The landlord approached me with a stern expression. He told me that the lock to apartment sixty-three had been tampered with recently. “You asked me about that apartment a while ago, didn't you? You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you, Julian?”

I lowered my gaze. “No, I'm afraid I don't.”

“Well, I should hope you didn't have anything to do with it. You've been living here a while. I imagine you know our policies.”

“Yes, of course. I'm no hooligan, Mort. You know me.”

He grunted and returned to his office.

On a particularly sunny day when I was probably looking a great deal more haggard and forlorn than usual, the postman urged me to pay the post office a visit. He thought it a wise idea to ask the clerk there if my letters had indeed been delivered, and whether or not the recipient's address was still current. I walked there in the early afternoon.

“How can I help you?” asked the clerk from behind the counter.

“I've got a question for you about some letters I've been sending. I just want to make certain that they've been delivered. You see, I've been writing to someone I know for a few months now and I haven't yet gotten a response.”

“I see,” she replied. “What's the address? I'll look it up for you.”

“1214 South Main St.”

“Alright, just a moment.” She wrote it down and disappeared through a pair of double doors behind the counter. She returned a few minutes later with my answer. “Are you sure this is the correct address, sir?”

“Yes, I'm sure. Well, it's what I found in the phonebook, anyway. Is there a problem?”

“Who have you been sending letters to, sir?”

“Chelsea Morrison.”

“I see,” she said. “Our records indicate that Chelsea Morrison is deceased, sir.”

“Excuse me?” I gasped.

“Yes sir, I'm sorry. Our records indicate that she is deceased. It seems that your letters have been confiscated and destroyed here at the post office. You see, this is our protocol; it's what happens whenever we process mail that's been addressed to someone deceased. I apologize for the inconvenience, sir. I'm afraid that this happens more often than you might think.”

“It's not possible. There's no way that's the truth,” I muttered. I withdrew for a moment, wiping away the perspiration on my forehead with the edge of my handkerchief. The other patrons in line behind me looked on, annoyed. I faced the clerk once more. “Could you... could you please check again?”

The look in her eyes was pained. “I'm sorry, sir. There are other customers, and I've already looked once. The result, I'm afraid, won't be any different. I'm very sorry to have delivered such sad news to you. You have my condolences, sir.”

“But... it isn't possible!” I shouted at her.

She grimaced. There was no placating me.

“Please, please check again. I don't believe you. I can't believe such a thing. If... if it is true, can you give me the date of death, then? Can you tell me if she died within the last few months?”

She stirred with a start, as though she recalled some piece of vital information that had been withheld. “Although it isn't common, I have heard stories about living persons being added to this list in the past. I can't be certain about this particular person, but it is possible that there's an error on our list and that she is still alive.”

My eyes lit up. “Is that right?” She had told me exactly what I wanted to hear. With that statement, she had given me some hope to latch onto; some motivation to maintain this unhealthy obsession further. It was as though she said: “I've got good news. You might not be crazy after all.”

“Yes, it has been known to happen. I would advise you to investigate the whereabouts of this person in more depth, sir. The chances of it being an error are not very high, however it's within the realm of possibility. Have a good day.”

I left the post office and began walking to the address I'd found in the phone book. I took a bus across town to the university. From there, I walked for nearly an hour before I found the house. It was a small, run-down house with newspapers in place of windows and cobwebs in every corner. It was clearly abandoned.

I explored the dirty interior of the house, which looked as if it hadn't been lived in for at least a decade. There was garbage all over the floor; a few old syringes, empty snack food wrappers, used condoms that had probably been used by young, daring teenagers in acts of illicit, though passionless sex. There were pieces of broken furniture in every room. Broken chairs and other such pieces past their prime glared at me from all directions. It was as though they'd been left behind to convey that this had, at one time, been a place where people lived, perhaps happily; like a battered, timid housewife, who struggles to greet her husband with a smile upon his return from work.

Sitting on the dirty carpet of the living room, I wept. What a stupid old man I was, wasting what little life I had left on such ridiculous pursuits. As I sat there, grasping at handfuls of my tears, I realized that I had nothing left. With my mind's capacity for memory dwindling, it wouldn't be long before I was left staring death in the face, senile and horrified.

“It's as close as she can ever come to being alive again.”

I thought I saw Chelsea standing in the corner of the living room, peering out the window in a lovely summer dress. Upon wiping my eyes, the image disappeared. It probably hadn't been a genuine vision; it had almost certainly been a mixture of my tears and longing for sanity, the two of them having come together to cast a comforting illusion. But there was no comfort to be found in phantoms or memories anymore.

There was nothing preceding the present time. I hadn't fought in a war. There had been no beautiful stranger at the bus stop. There had never been an apartment sixty-three, furnished tastefully with cashmere and rattan. I had been born, I had lived and I would subsequently die in the abandoned house right at that moment, and all at once. There was only Chelsea, standing at the window, pushing away the curtains and looking out over the garden with a calm smile pressed upon her lips and a glimmer in her eyes. That glimpse was proof enough of her existence for me.

Wiping away the tears, I stumbled out into the street. There were things to do; time to kill and letters to write. I had invested far too much of myself to turn back now. Chelsea wasn't dead. I wasn't going senile. I had merely been looking for the wrong Chelsea; Chelsea Morrison was not the Chelsea I had met that rainy night so many months ago. It was so obvious. My only option was to continue the search. I'd send her a few more letters and plead for her response. She had been so kind; it wouldn't be long now. Perhaps tomorrow I would get my reply! I would find Chelsea to keep myself from falling through the cracks. It would take time; probably every last moment I could spare. It would be worth it, though. The two of us would be able to have a good laugh about the whole thing once I found her. She'd thank me for my letters and she'd comfort me and remind me that, in fact, I wasn't going crazy.

I'm not going crazy.

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