I insisted the book ride shotgun while I sat in back. "After all," I said to my husband as he steered out of Providence, "who's worth more in this equation? Dollar value, I mean, not any sentimental crap. Me? Or the book?"
The book, it should be noted, was bound in human skin. Anthropodermic bibliopegy, Nathan had explained on an early date. This is the kind of thing I learn from him: Since the 17th century, kings and doctors have rebound books in human skin. If the magistrate in your dukedom convicted a murderer, why not use the hanged man's love handles to cover the court records? You have to watch out: Some have faked it with calf and sheep. But this book was honest Abraham, the skin as human as it comes. "Why don't you go with me?" Nathan had said the night before he drove the book two hours down 95 to the country's most esteemed conservator. "That book has always been your favorite thing about my job."
Nathan's eyes widened in the rearview, as if he were an animated heroine. "Will you please come sit up front?" Be gentle with me, he pleaded, in every slightest movement that he made, for I am gentle with the world.
I leaned forward between the two front seats and palmed the locked box that held the book. If this were a courtroom, I'd be perjuring myself on a volume called Dance of Death. I often asked to see it when I picked Nathan up from work. On each page, woodcuts by some famous engraver depict a hooded scythe-carrying Death positioned nonchalantly in daily scenes: Death as shepherd, Death goes to market, Death sits through Wednesday Mass.
Nathan held his palm against the vent, then fiddled at the AC. "It just doesn't seem cool enough." He pulled a thermometer from the breast pocket of his pale-green collared shirt and squinted at the tiny numbers. "It has to be cool like the library."
Brake lights loomed up the interstate. "Watch the road!" I said.
He grabbed at the wheel and the thermometer sailed from his grasp. It slapped against the gearshift and rolled below the pedals, out of reach.
"Do you think it was a choice you could make?" I said as we passed the first signs for Foxwoods Casino. "Like organ donation?"
"The skin is an organ."
"It could be cool, no? I'd consider it." I rubbed my palm over Nathan's cheek. "Just imagine. Your face in the hands of kings. Conserved forever. Isn't that what we're all so afraid about? That after we die we just disappear, leave nothing behind?"
"Bess," he said. "Please."
We'd spent the last year, year two of our marriage, trying for a baby. In any case, that's what Nathan thought we were doing. He wanted a baby. Look at how he burped my sister Alice's number three and number four over his broad shoulders. "Twins," he'd say, beaming. "You might have the right stuff for twins!" Alice would corner me by her dwarf ficus. "What is wrong with you? I saw pills in your purse, does he even know?" I didn't know what he knew, because he never said anything to me, not outright. I sometimes hinted at barrenness and Nathan — sweet man — passed no judgment on that ultimate of lady sorrows. Maybe he'd resigned himself to whatever I provided, like he resigned himself to drive with the dead man's skin up in front.
I was still taking pills, which surprised me as much as anyone. I always thought I'd be right there with Alice, pushing strollers through the park. Nathan would be a good father, and I'm no heart surgeon or rescue pilot or war reporter, no one so wild or important she couldn't stop to help some kid get through his day. I'd never said this to my sister, but I was beginning to think about pregnancy as a kind of invasion. I must have skipped class, some sunny day in high school, when they gathered us girls together and explained our part in the meaning of life. Love Nathan? Sure I did, but was love the same as some spawn of him floating and turning and flapping its gills inside me?
I reached for the cup holder, pinching the small silver key between my fingers.
"Bess, what is wrong with you? Please leave the book in its box."
"You have no idea what's wrong with me." I lifted the box into the back seat. Nathan shook his head in quick, nervous jerks, switching between the road ahead and me.
"What are you going to do about it?" I said.
He raised his palms from the steering wheel and then set them down again three times. He dragged his sleeve across his high, round forehead to wick away the sweat. "It's already too hot in here. Please leave it in the box."
I wanted to throw the book out the window. I wanted to stand up between the seats and shoulder through the sunroof and yell that I'd married a sissy. Maybe that would make Nathan drop the please from his words and just take charge of things one damn time.
I got more serious about Nathan the first time he showed me Dance of Death. His hands dwarfed the small book as he laid it out before me, like a giant might hand you the heart of a dragon he stepped on by mistake. Nathan is a bigger man than most. Not fat, but broad-boned. I thought I'd found a man who could make me feel small, fit me fearlessly in a single hand. Now, though, Nathan wasn't looming like I thought he would.
"Nathan, look!" I held the book up in front of the mirror, bending the spine so far that it almost opened flat. "Death and the cobbler!" In the engraving, Death in his black robe peers over the cobbler's shoulders.
"Bess, the binding!" He looked sideways again, as if hoping to teleport the book out of my hands. Traffic sped around us, cars sliding back and forth between four lanes. Nathan gripped the wheel until tendons popped from the backs of his hands. He hunched forward like an old woman, unable to take his focus from the road.
The book opened wide with no resistance. The binding stretched and pulled like dough. I found it easy to forget, as I often did, that this was all that remained of someone else's mortal body. We were skirting reservation land, the casino billboards already flashing and burning even though it was far from night. Not a single person on this highway had human skin on their minds, even though we were all wearing it. Not even Nathan, not really, since all that mattered to him was preservation.
"Nathan, can we stop? I need to go to the bathroom."
He sighed and twisted his wrist until he could read his watch. Plenty of time before the famed conservator rested his tools for the day.
"All right," he said. "And then will you put the book back?"
"Make me," I said, snapping it shut.
A bus with a Dead Man's Hand painted on its side pulled into the Mobil station behind us. I waved the book at the Aces and Eights. Yellow letters on the front of the bus read FOXWOODS CASINO! Before Nathan even set the brake, I flung myself from the car and headed into the convenience mart. Across the lot, older women debarked in numbers from the gambling bus.
I strolled between the racks of Slim Jims and sunflower seeds, pressing the book to my chest. Plaster lighthouse sculptures perched on craggy granite bases lined the shelves, crafted in a wide array of sizes, the highest three feet. Death buys a bandanna. Death, for the first time, chews on Turkey Jerky. Through the station window I saw Nathan stand to stretch his legs, which would be cramped in any human vehicle. He turned in a slow circle by the front passenger window, shaking out his calves in careful jerks.
In the bathroom, I needed both hands to unbutton my jeans, so I lodged the book under my chin, gripping it to my chest until my jaw ached.
"Death takes a pit stop," I thought, thumbing through the book while I peed. This is the kind of woman I've become. My sister stuffs her magazine rack with Ladies Home Journal. Christmas isn't Christmas without a dessert to serve in flames is the kind of thing you learn while shitting at my sister's house. Nothing adorned the walls of this bathroom except for a medicine cabinet above the sink. A dog-eared bumper sticker slanted across its mirrored door: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, GOOD LUCK.
People who purposefully abandon valuable books in interstate bathrooms shouldn't throw stones, my sister might say, if she saw me putting the book into the medicine cabinet. Once the cabinet door closed on the book, I washed my hands for a long, long time.
The next woman in line slipped in the bathroom before I left it. "Today," she declared, from somewhere below my shoulders, "I'm going to walk away with enough cash for a high-def TV."
"Really?" I said, "You know that?" But the bathroom door closed over any possible answer.
"Ignore Annabelle," said another woman outside, wearing rollers and a fur coat. "She judges her luck by which joint aches. Lumbar? It's all in, but ankle? Honey, don't even get off the bus."
Death rings out the slot machine. Death sees and calls. Casino-bound women crowded the hallway, and Nathan hovered beyond them.
"Bess," he shouted. "The keys! They're locked in the jeep." He slapped his forehead with a wide palm. "Thank God," he said. "Thank God the book's with you."
Fifteen or more grandmothers separated me from my husband, and in that distance I could feel my common meanness piled up, like so much brush I had to burn.
"I left it in the bathroom," I said.
Nathan turned away, pressing his palms into the sides of his head as if the world were a scary story he didn't want to hear.
"Excuse me," I said, banging on the door. "Can I get back in there?"
"What are we," shouted Fur and Rollers, "chopped kidney? You want I should bust in front of you?"
"No ma'am," I said. "But this is an emergency."
The ladies began to circle me. They smelled like catnip and freesia. I rattled the doorknob. I kicked and slapped.
"Emergency?" said a woman farther back in line. I could see her teeth lift slightly from her gums. "You bear five children, you lose bladder control, I show you emergency." A few women toward the back of the line were Chinese, and they, too, yammered at me in urgent and dismissive tones. I wondered if that calm and marginal 17th-century Death that appeared in my book would even know how to handle these ladies. I didn't envy his task.
They pushed me with their raisin hands away from the door. Annabelle emerged, her teal tracksuit a beacon in the dingy hallway. She clutched her quilted purse. Behind her I saw that the cabinet door sagged open, its shelves swiped clean.
She was less ignorant than I had been. She knew a thing of value when she saw it.
I unzipped the jacket of her tracksuit, praying to hear Dance of Death thud to the floor. I found nothing concealed, not even ketchup packets, my own mother's plunder of choice.
Annabelle cackled and smoothed her lavender hair. "You'll have to do better than that, child."
"What," I said, "do you want from me?"
I looked to the other women, but they waited in silence, as if for doctor's appointments or the express checkout lane. They let Annabelle name her price.
"Tell me a secret."
"I'm pretending to be barren," I said. "I don't know why. I guess because I want something that's only mine to know."
Annabelle lifted Dance of Death from her purse, pinching its cover between her papery fingers. "Interesting," she said. "But is it the kind of secret that can last?"
"Last?" I said. This time I did not lunge for the book. It looked right in her hands, and I wanted to earn it.
"I wipe the sauce from my Martin's face," she said. "Forty-seven years we are married. But what else? I write letters with a black jack dealer. He's 22. An Indian."
"You'll get too old for the pill," Fur and Rollers said. "It will stop up your blood."
"Sooner or later," said the crone with the failing bladder, "every woman wants a baby."
What I told her wasn't true, but standing there, the fluorescents buzzing above us, I knew it could be. "Once a month," I said, "I wear shades and go across town near the cooking school. I use my grandmother's name. Sometimes, when I'm supposed to be at work, I go there instead, this room I rent. Hello, Loretta, says the lady who runs the place."
"That's better." Annabelle laid the book in one palm and held her hands out to her sides, a scale not quite in balance. "But what do you keep in your secret room?"
"I don't know," I said. "We've only been married two years. Don't you think I have time to figure that out?"
"Don't wait too long," she said, serving me the book. "Your friend here wouldn't approve." Death comes back to momma. Death, that old peace bringer, learns for himself sweet relief. For some reason I feared that pages would be missing, so I thumbed through the book, the stale, dark whole of it, before leaving the truck stop for good.
At the diesel pump a man washed his windshield too slowly, and soap stained his glass. And then Nathan. Nathan brandished the lantern end of a three-foot lighthouse sculpture in his palms. As I have said, he is a giant man. And although he used its granite base as a battering ram, he did not have to haul the lighthouse with any real violence. He ambled around the Cherokee, breaking every pane.
"Triple A is two hours," he said, pausing by the driver side, letting the lighthouse linger in the air until he saw the book in my palms. "But we're still going to make it."
"You bet we are," I said.
The glass buckled under the lighthouse.
The Cherokee was going to be dangerous for a while to come. Nathan bought a newspaper to line the passenger side, and I sat there, holding the book to my chest. Shards hummed around the backseat as he rolled by the weigh station and onto the now empty midday road. I held the book so hard that a shirt button dug into my collarbone, marking my skin. But no button could trouble the book. It was tougher skin than mine, tanned and tried. Nathan seemed pleased by the lowered temperature inside the Cherokee. As we passed through Mystic the sky grayed, but it did not rain. The highway ran right over the sound at one point, and we tasted the salt. We should have done this from the beginning. We should have taken out the windows and let in the air.
Abigail Greenbaum lives and writes in Rome, Ga.
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