The Love Letters Of One Edgar Allen Poe
By Tom Burkett
The blaring, trillion-watt bulb over Ms. Thorton’s classroom door screams: STAY AWAY, CHRISTIAN THOMPSON. DON’T YOU DARE APPROACH THIS DOOR, CHRISTIAN THOMPSON. I would knock it out, but lucky for my nemesis, a metal net protects it. From my hiding place, crouched behind the leaves of a Bird of Paradise, I scan the hallways, the library, the math building. No janitors. No teachers working late. I sprint to the door, slide the letter underneath—the light shrieking IT’S HIM, IT’S HIM, IT’S HIM—then charge into the parking lot and hurl myself behind a rooty oak. One more search for janitors. They lurk in doorways, concealed in shadows. Don’t see any. Knock on wood. If one sees me, I’m doomed.
No one knows I’m the Letter Writer. Mr. Alvarez, the V.P., would expel me so fast if he found out. The missives I deliver each week describe how wildly, how recklessly, how infinitely in the extreme I love Ms. Thorton. Here’s what I do to hide my identity from my beloved, which I will continue to do until she is ready to embrace me. (And one day she will!) I write each epistle in the voice of my all-time favorite, ass-kicking author, Edgar Allen Poe. (How else could a 15-year-old like me have picked up works like “nemesis,” “missive” and “epistle?”) To pen tonight’s letter I imagined I was the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a story I know verbatim. (“But why will you say that I am mad?” The best line in American lit.) I wrote I could hear all things in heaven and in hell. I detailed the sounds of the underworld—Ms. Thorton squealing as I chopped her up and buried her under the floor of my house. The sounds of paradise: the slosh of my lips on her dismantled body parts. Ms. Thorton may be taken aback, but only on the first read. On the second she’ll see how thoroughly I identified with “The Tell-Tale Heart” narrator that in my letter I had become him. By the third she’ll adore me for my imagination.
Edgar Allen Poe is why I read. No writer can yank my brain inside out like he does. Seeing the world through the eyes of psychos, how could that not be riveting? And if there ever was a time when I identified with lunatics, it was after I became a teenager. Isn’t that why adults call us “crazy teenagers?” I’m a crazy teenager in a way no one knows, not even my dad—the one who sees me at my most demented. And guess who introduced me to Poe? Ms. Thorton. She has an Edgar Allen Poe action figure on her desk, and every Friday—the day we exchange the super engrossing “Literature for Young Minds” anthology for “Tales of Mystery and Imagination”—she wears gargoyle earrings, black lipstick and a silver nose ring. As soon as I reveal myself, I’m getting a nose ring and letting Ms. Thorton do the piercing. I imagine in bed we’ll pierce our lips, necks, belly buttons, nipples. I also imagine we’ll act out Poe’s characters. Ms. Thorton does the voices perfectly. I do, too. I practice at the bathroom mirror when Dad’s asleep.
When I enter the class the next morning, I can tell Ms. Thorton hasn’t yet developed an appreciation for my letter. Yet, I say. She’s obviously only read it once. Her expression mirrors last week’s, when I wrote how I would wall us up together and to ward off hunger we’d dine on each other’s organs. Her chin juts and she’s biting her lower lip so hard I hope an incisor doesn’t puncture her porcelain skin.
During independent writing time, my partner, David, whispers, “Why’s she acting like a total bitch?” I intentionally use more run-ons than David and turn some of his into compound sentences. He’s the lowest in the class, and to further disguise myself, I turn in assignments at his level. “She looks scared,” I say. The bell rings. Talking erupts, outdoor voices, kids slipping spiral notebooks in backpacks. “Maybe she’s mad,” David counters. The word “mad” yanks me into the “Tell-Tale Heart.” I can’t resist: “But why,” I boom, theatrically finger-thumping David’s chest, “will you say that I am mad?” We laugh, and as we sling our backpacks over our shoulders, I catch Ms. Thorton’s eye, long, black lashes, green iris, crooked red streaks. Has she been crying?
“What did you say, Christian?” Brows lowered, hands on hips. Her face twists into anger, sympathy, frustration and rage. I’m astounded that one expression can hold so many emotions. “I had a feeling it was you,” she yells. She scrambles toward me, banging knees against desks, kicking past backpacks, forefinger aimed at my head. “In my gut I knew it.”
I know what I have to do: Drop to my knees, say I’m sorry, that I didn’t mean to scare her, that she’s the best teacher I’ve ever had, the only person since Mom died who makes me feel worthwhile, who has the ability to understand me. Instead—I’m the biggest imbecile—I run. I elbow my way out the door, jam past the English buildings, between the woodshop and metal shop, through the bungalow maze, past the cafeteria, the vending machines, across the baseball field, the soccer field, over the chain link fence, into the weeds between the school and the drainage ditch. I crawl under a scrub oak, pebbles and roots jabbing my stomach. It seems the whole school’s chasing me, screaming maniacally, eager to wrestle me down. But as I peer between leaves, rubbing dust from my eyes, spitting dirt, I see no one. Then what was all the screaming? The sound of panic in my ears? I sit cross-legged, sweaty arms coated in dust. A twig probes my neck. My heart beats in my head. It’s nine-thirty in the morning, according to my Swatch. I picture the scene in the office: Ms. Thorton and Mr. Alvarado calling my home, leaving an authoritative message on the answering machine. Because of this phone call, I have to forget Ms. Thorton and focus on Dad. I can’t go home until he’s in the right condition.
I lie on my back and watch the clouds, letting a rock dig into my spine (I deserve the pain). A cumulous cluster drifts toward the school. It looks like a collapsed mansion, and I think of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” another story I’ve read a million times. Though my own house didn’t splinter and collapse into a lake, it tumbled when Mom died and Dad sunk into depression, lost his job, sold our two-story and moved us into the apartment in the scary neighborhood. And in a peculiar way, which I never think about until I need to, Mom still lives with us. Kind of. It’s hard to explain.
At noon I cross the drainage ditch and eat at Burrito Hut #4. I meander to the park near my apartment building, climb a tree, wish Ms. Thorton would stroll beneath so I can explain the letters. But she never comes here—too many drug dealers and the lake smells like rotten asparagus. As the streetlights turn on, I climb the roof of our building, five stories up, peer over the edge, watching for Dad. He steps off bus 174 at 6:23 p.m. By selling the house and both Explorers, he paid off Mom’s medical bills but still has to find a job soon. Last month he used the Visa to pay off the Master Card. When he returns home each evening, he tells me he’s been job searching. I think I believe him. I want to.
He hobbles toward the building, slow steps, eyes on his wingtips, blue button-down untucked in back, tie loose, hair falling off his bald spot. He’s bulky, hunched, taller than most doorways when he stands straight. I take after my mom, slight, narrow, soft. He tosses a cigarette in the street. The butt glows on the asphalt. A pick-up crunches it.
I picture Dad climbing the stairs to the third floor. He never takes the elevator—his way of punishing himself, I think. Everyday he says he could have done more for Mom. He says I could have done more, too. I hope Ms. Thorton (after I reveal myself) will help me figure out what more I could have done. I imagine Dad opening our door (number 306), checking the answering machine, hoping for a job interview but groaning as Mr. Alvarado explains the “gravity of the situation.” “Gravity” is Mr. Alvarado’s all-time favorite word. If I could have erased the message, I would have, but Dad has the only key to the deadbolt. Dad probably mutters just what the goddamn hell he needs now, then yanks open the fridge, the photos of Mom flying off.
He grabs a Miller Lite. Soon vodka will stagger from the freezer. Ten o’clock will see Dad snoring on the couch.
A cool breeze cuts over the roof. My stomach gurgles. I climb down, linger at the taco cart behind the Arco. “Dos. Pollo, por favor. Hace muy frio, no?” I amble toward the building, peering at the headlines in the newspaper stands. The drunker Dad is, the better. The more likely the phone call forgotten. The more likely he’ll need me.
Number 306 is at the end of the hall. The floor creaks, the carpet brown, stained, dried gum splotches. Corridos seep from 304. The singer—I make out the Spanish—croons that Luis-The-Crazy-Eyed-One was shot dead in Tijuana.
Imagine Edgar Allen Poe writing about Tijuana. The “Cask of Amontillado” set on Avenida Revolucion. There must be a truckload of cadavers walled up in cellars along that street. Imagine talking with Ms. Thorton about Poe and Tijuana, about replacing Amontillado with tequila, pondering in bed—between lovemaking sessions—what the thousand wrongs could be.
I put my ear against our door. A police show on TV. My key slides into the doorknob, turns, pushes. The deadbolt’s unlocked. (Luck’s with me, knock on wood.) Poking my head in—slowly, very slowly—I relax when I see Dad slumped on the couch, feet on the armrest, toes poke through navy blue socks. The coffee table huddles nine Miller Lite cans, an ashtray with a burning Lucky Strike. I ease inside, close the door, slide the deadbolt into place. The floor creaks, Dad grunts, head raises, flops down, one arm on his chest, the other dangling on the carpet, knuckles grazing the vodka bottle lying on its side. I have to act right away. If he wakes, he’ll remember the answering machine message—and there’s no doubt Mr. Alvarado called—and realize how late I’ve come home. Then he might loose it. He never lost it when Mom was alive, but at her funeral, from the corner of my eye, I saw him change. His forehead creases deepened, his mouth tightened, his eyes narrowed. It’s a vivid memory, as if I witnessed rage colonize him. Now I never know if he’ll break down sobbing or take it out on me. Check out the yellow bruise on my shoulder. The knuckle of his middle finger buried itself there three weeks ago.
As I turn off the TV, I get my voice ready. I sit on the couch armrest, on a strip of duct tape, my jeans an inch from Dad’s bald spot, the brown freckles, the dandruff flake stuck between two hairs, casting a tiny shadow. A hair strays over Dad’s forehead. I wipe it back into place, greasy, cold skin. I take deep breaths, squeeze my eyes, lower my lips to his ear.
“Ready for bed?” I whisper in Mom’s voice. “Honey.”
His hand surfaces from the carpet, knuckles brush my cheek. “Come down here, baby.” His voice is thick, hoarse, hard to hear. Inaudible, Poe would say. I kneel on the floor. A dense thumb traces my chin.
“Bed time, sweetie,” I whisper.
A hand slides behind my neck and tenderly nudges me down. His eyes are closed. When our lips meet, I closed mine, too. A long kiss, beer, chicken, tobacco, saliva. My nose sinks into his mustache, hairs against my nostrils. I muster all my concentration to become Mom, moving my lips with his, returning the pressure. As we separate, he nibbles my lower lip.
“Let’s go to bed.” I use Mom’s breathy, cheerful voice. Pulling his arm over my shoulder, I tug him off the couch, his armpit wet on my neck. When we reach the bed, I roll him under the sheets, pull the spread to his chin. I turn off the nightstand light and step backwards, pause, take another step. The floor creaks, Dad mumbles, squirms, raises himself on his elbows. I freeze.
“Lie down with me, baby.”
“In a minute,” I whisper.
His arm reaches for me, the gold wedding band glinting in the light from the window. I take his hand—I don’t want to but feel I should—and caress his finger tips, the nails jagged. He grabs my wrist, pulls me toward him. An arm laces my waist and hoists me onto the bed while another presses my head onto his chest. He holds me there, mumbling, rubbing my back. My ear flattens on chest hairs, skin warm, sticky, smells of sweaty shirts. His heart beats steadily. Fingertips trace my cheekbones, play with my earlobe, track my lips.
“You’re an angel,” he mumbles. A thumb feather-dusts my eyebrows, the bridge of my nose.
“You’re an angel,” I whisper. Fall asleep, I command telepathically.
He chuckles. “You’ll be here in the morning?”
“Of Course. I’m your wife.”
“My wife’s dead.”
I stiffen. Don’t utter a sound. The wrong word and the back of a hand could snap my nose. A long, frozen silence. Close your eyes, I coach myself. You’re Mom. You’re Dad’s wife. You want to spend every night for the rest of your life entwined with him.
“I’m with you now.” When I say it, part of me really believes I’m Mom. Another part cringes, waits for a smack to send me flying off the bed.
“You’ll be here in the morning?” A pleading voice. “Please say ‘yes.’”
Muscles uncoil. “Yes, yes, yes. Sweetie.”
“You’re an angel. If you’re not here in the morning, I’ll kill myself.”
“I’ll be here.”
“I’ll kill myself.”
“I’ll be here.”
Fingers caress my cheek. Dad has smooth hands. He was an engineer at Caltrans.
“I’ll really kill myself.” His chest heaves, the hairs crunching under my ears, my cheek sticking to the skin over the ribcage. “Jump out the window. Thought about it. A lot. One step. One step away, the end.”
I rub my cheek against his chest, trying to make him feel cozy, like when a cat kneads you. I’ve never wanted to kill myself, even when I miss Mom so much I feel I have nothing inside, even when I feel Dad would be happy if I inexplicably vanished. How stricken do you have to feel to want to end your life? It wasn’t his fault I was getting in trouble and it wasn’t his fault Mom died. He loved me when Mom was alive. He’ll love me again if he gets past the depression. How do you get past depression? I have to do more to help, make him feel good enough to fall asleep, to forget about Mom, the phone call, our cruddy apartment, to make him hope the next day will be okay.
I ease onto my knees, straddling his chest. I scoot toward his head, lean over his closed eyes, his gooey lips, his mustache hairs curling into his nose. “I’ll be here all night,” I whisper.
I think how wonderful Dad would feel to have Ms. Thorton kiss him, how cozy and electric, how it would make him want to live. I’m Ms. Thorton, I tell myself, and then flatten my lips on his. His lips spread, press against mine. Arms circle my back. I hold the kiss, saliva pooling, warm nostril breath, the soft moan, the throat vibrations. I think over and over, I’m your angel.
When his lips quit responding and his arms droop, I slip off the bed, back peddle to the door. I pause and I stare at Dad, his head tilted to the side, eyes closed, chest rising and falling. I feel so electric, so heroic, but in a tender, intimate way. Maybe this is what a surgeon feels like after suturing up the heart of an infant.
In the living room I listen to the answering machine as Mr. Alvarado explains “a parent conference is urgent.” I erase the tape. The next three hours I spend writing letters. The first one is to Ms.
Thorton in the voice of Christian Thompson, underachieving student. Things got mixed up. What letters was she talking about anyway?
The second is penned in the finely honed cursive of one Edgar Allen Poe, explaining that an innocent has been accused of the author’s deeds. Further, the letters’ author expresses his sincere regret if he has been the agent of the slightest discomfort, for he understands there have been instances when his imagination triumphed over decency. A humble request follows that the beautiful and compassionate Ms. Thorton call upon the depth of her humanity and refrain from furthering the comprehensible but, alas, incorrect accusation that a pupil in her literature class was involved in the composition of the letters of l’amour.
I sign it: Your Servant, Your Admirer. Then, a postscript: Ms. Judy Thorton can expect more letters to follow. For the author will take measures, extreme measures—indeed, any and all measures necessary—to ensure no beloved abandons him again.
Tom Burkett lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son. He is an admirer of Edgar Allen Poe and does have an Edgar Allen Poe action figure.
Photo "Soul Master," courtesy of Vincent Duis, Niles, Michigan.
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