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Know Me Know

by Steve Lohse

A story selected by Robley Wilson, Guest Fiction Editor.

Dear Paul Steadman,
          You don't know me. But I wouldn't write a stranger. I've been trying to write you in my head, thinking all the words, but this is the first time I've put anything down on paper. It's killing me, having to say something and not doing it. The truth is that I knew your wife. Before what happened. I was with her at my house on the afternoon of April 12. We were together. Like that. When she left I was lying on the couch and she said something and waved goodbye. She wore a yellow dress that you bought her, something she told me about. I was smoking a cigarette as she got into her car. I have no reason to believe that you knew anything about it, about us. At least you didn't let on. I guess that I was the last person to see her alive. Don't you think that puts me in the position where I should at least write a letter?

Dear Paul Steadman,
          You don't know me. But did you know that I once shook your hand? I even might have given you a hug — I mean I wanted to, I could have — but I didn't. I stood before you and you looked back at me with glassy vision. To you, I was just another person in the group moving slowly out the doors of the chapel, where everyone said something as they went past. Your eyes were red around the edges but you weren't crying. Isn't it hard not to cry in a roomful of crying people? It was hard for me that day and I didn't cry either. I said "I worked with Lisa," and shook your hand. Your skin was thin and dry like my grandfather's. Why should I recall that? I guess I just said my thing and walked past. I didn't say goodbye to anyone I knew. Nobody could understand why your wife was dead, what had happened, what sense it made in the grand scheme of things, and you were the center of attention as the living representative of her loss. Your eyes were red and your skin was dry. And do you know what? I was jealous of the attention that you were getting. I felt like I should have gotten some of it. Humans are funny, don't you think?

Dear Paul Steadman,
          You don't know me. It doesn't matter. I feel for you now, empathy, they call it — the first time in my life. I just wanted to console you on your terrible loss. I lost someone I loved recently as well. Perhaps we could get together. Perhaps there is something I could say.

Dear Paul Steadman,
          You don't know me, but let me tell you something:  I loved her. Your wife. And by saying that I don't mean to imply that you didn't. I only mean that we have something in common. Loss. And love. Even after this, I admit that I don't know anything about death. My whole life I've never had to find out. Until now, and I guess I've been lucky like that. Or not. Everyone will find out about death eventually unless they die first, which must be kind of fortunate in a way. I just want to say that I'm not writing because I think I can make this easier for you. In fact it's quite the opposite because I don't think I can. I don't have any insights into why people die, or where they go or anything. I don't understand any easier than you, but there I go thinking that I understand the way you feel. Because who knows! Maybe you have this thing understood. Maybe you're fine! But for me, and this being the first time, death makes me want to curl my fists. It makes me want to hurt and be hurt. That's all I know — that's all I'm able to put into sentences about someone dying. No — I know something else — I know that death hurts worse if you're still alive. It has to, the way I see it. Does that make any sense?

Dear Paul,
          My name is Jim Bellows. I knew your wife. My hand is shaking as I write this and I apologize for the penmanship. I am sorry also for the ring soaked into the bottom of the page where I stupidly set down my drink. And for the cigarette ashes smeared everywhere. I thought I could just brush them off. You deserve better, something neater, cleaner, clearer of thought. After all, this is not a time you wish to sift through a stranger's muddled shit. You have your own grief, your own loss, all the flower-senders to thank, the caterers to pay, the body to burn, and then the ashes to, well, what are you going to do about them, heh? Are you going to push them aside like the ashes on this page from a cheap brand of cigarette that I smear off with my clumsy hand? But see it, Paul? See how they rub right into the page? See how you can't get rid of the mess? See how it stays? From now on I'm not cleaning anything off of the page.

Dear Paul,
          You don't know me. This letter is difficult to write and I cannot tell you who I am. I have information: before she died, Lisa informed me that she knew you were screwing one of your students, a girl named Melissa, and that it wasn't the first time she'd caught on. I saw you at her funeral and looked across the crowd. I wondered if Melissa wasn't among the mourners. My point is not to incriminate or accuse you but to relieve you of some of your guilt, as there must be some. Your wife, with whom you made a vow, knew all along that you had done these things and she forgave you for it. She told me that she loved you for being human because she was human herself. Someday, she said, we'll get to the place where we can accept each other. I suppose she was using me as a therapist, and I suppose I was using her as a patient, that is someone to help. I was helping her, Paul, I really believe I was.

Dear Paul Steadman,
          At her funeral, Lisa's sister called her "selfless." I just want to say that I don't believe in selflessness. I don't believe it exists. In this world, nobody does anything unless they get something out of it. And it's too easy to point out that an altruist receives the joy of helping others, and that that counts as motivation enough, because most of the time that's bullshit. The people who really help others, who go out of their way to be of service, are the ones who don't have anything to begin with; they're the ones who need the most help. And these people — the ones who are such miserable wrecks that they push their noses into everyone's problems and try to solve them — won't let you help them if you try. They live in glass houses and know it. They want to be weak, because their strength and glory is all in their martyrdom. Helping them is hurting them. Where would Jesus be today if some Roman Soldier had helped him down from his cross, before he'd the chance to forgive the world for nailing him up? He'd be dead, that's all. Just dead. Like your wife.

Dear Professor Steadman,
          My name is Jim Bellows. I sat in on your lecture this afternoon. "Donne is Done: The Romance of Demise." It was a long speech and flourished with many arcane literary references. The students were really eating it up. They looked like they couldn't wait to get back to their dormitories and write poems about dying. I work in an office downtown. I didn't understand a word of anything you said.

Thank you.

Original art courtesy Rob Grom.

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Articles in this Issue

A Soul's Weight, by Mary Roach
Know Me Now, by Steve Lohse
Veterans, by Tom Bissell
A Field of Trees and Bones, by Kate Pickert
Circum-schism, by Grant Stoddard
Nutrition, by Benjamin Hart
Hospitality and Tourism, by Peter Olszewski
Horticulture, by Kathryn Small
Penmanship, by Jeff Steinbrink
Economics, by Robert Sullivan


Steve Lohse's writing has appeared in literary journals such as Stringtown and The Dead Mule. He is the former editor of Muzzle, out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and now lives with his wife and cats in Seattle.

Where loss is found.

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