art by Richard Gagnon
Where You End and the World Begins
by Sam Ferree
It took Penelope a week after moving into her apartment to realize that the man who was always sitting on the leather couch in the living room was her roommate. At first, she took him for an overly devoted evangelist. He wore a white, collared shirt, black slacks, and a blank nametag, and had an enormous, bushy beard. When he did not leave or try to win her over to whatever jumbled philosophy he believed, she began to see him as a fixture. There was a roommate-shaped indentation in the couch. He smoked as if the air was poison and his voice was a quiet bass. Whenever she walked by the couch he murmured incoherencies or, Penelope chose to believe, advice.
On the third day after she moved in he said, "There are no entrances. Only exits."
"So... I can never come back?" Penelope asked, humoring him.
"No. It just means you can do nothing twice."
The next day, he stood on his head on the coffee table saying, between puffs of smoke, "Dissonance. Caprice. Inconsistency. Impermanence. These are the sacred bylaws of living."
From the door, Penelope said, "That list was thematically consistent."
Five days later, Penelope was only able to open the door to her room when he shouted with the gravity of epiphany, "Yesterday never happened and today is already tomorrow. Just like every other day."
Penelope entered the living room and saw her roommate using his feet to pour Old Crow into his mouth. They had been living together for less than two weeks and already the apartment was littered with pizza boxes and plastic shot glasses. It felt like home. His room, at the opposite end of the apartment, was overflowing with boxes meticulously labeled "1940 Mickey Mouse figurine" and "Grand Canyon Ansel Adams doormat" and stranger things. His eyes were bloodshot. From the doorway, he resembled Rasputin.
"You sound more fatalistic than usual," Penelope said, sipping instant coffee from a Styrofoam cup.
"There is no fate," he said, inspecting a fresh cigarette. "There are only events."
"Hair of the dog?" Penelope asked.
"Yes," he replied and passed the bottle to her, cradling it in the instep of one foot. She pretended to pour generous thimbles into her cup before retreating back to her room.
A new client left a message on her phone at five that morning. She worked freelance finding people's lost possessions and tended to receive calls at irregular hours. Still groggy, she listened to a quiet woman leave a cryptic and uninformative message, phone number, and address. She always thought it odd how embarrassed most people were about losing things. People treated the event as if it were indicative of some major character flaw rather than what it actually was: spite from forces beyond their control.
Penelope called the woman back. "What can I help you with?" she asked.
"Well," the woman said, "this is… embarrassing and… unusual."
"I assure you," Penelope said, masking her impatience, "nothing is. What are you missing?" Penelope never asked, What did you lose?
"Well… my shadow."
Penelope lied that she had seen cases like this before and told her that she would drop by later that afternoon. After taking a few notes, she finished her coffee and went outside to clear the driveway of early winter snow.
When Penelope was eight, her mother lost her wedding ring. After days of searching in all the usual places, she fell into a deep melancholy and lost her voice too. It was not hard to hide either fact from Penelope's father since he was not terribly observant and worked long hours at the clinic. Penelope noticed, though. Every day for a week, she came home from school and found a trail of notes leading to her after-school snack and chores. Her mother lay in bed, staring at the wall.
"Momma? Are you sick?" Penelope asked.
Her mother wrote on a yellow legal pad. No, honey. I'm just sleeping.
"You're not sleeping."
I'm busy, honey, she scribbled with a little more force. Thinking up a sermon.
After a week, Penelope took a different route home from school and walked by the house where she had spent the first five years of her life. The wedding ring, a white gold band, was lying in the bottom of the mailbox beneath a pile of letters, bills, and advertisements addressed to the new owners. She placed the ring on her mother's dresser. The next day, her mother welcomed Penelope and her father home with infectious exuberance that lasted until Penelope got to middle school.
If her mother suspected, she never told Penelope. By that time, her "gift," as her mother called it, was well known to her parents. She could find anything someone else lost. This at least served to placate her parents' perpetual ire at her "disability:" gloves, hats, books, tapes, blankets, bags, stuffed animals, phones, keys, and bikes all somehow disappeared when she wasn't looking. Whatever she personally owned never stayed in her possession for long.
"You lost your coat again," her mother observed as Penelope came home one rainy day in elementary school.
"Yes," Penelope said, shivering.
Her mother gave her hot chocolate. "At least they're just things," she said.
"Just things?" Penelope repeated.
"Don't take that to your head. And don't lose that either. Come on." Her mother grabbed her keys. "Let's go to Goodwill."
The snow was a foot deep and the air so cold it hurt. Penelope spent thirty minutes clearing the driveway for her rental car. She had owned a car once. After that failure of judgment she rented or borrowed vehicles whenever necessary.
The new client's house sat at the dead-end of a street lined on either side by Victorian houses so heavily stylized she could not tell one from the other. The client's house, in comparison, looked bland. It was a two-story, baby blue, cookie-cutter house designed for an upper-middle class family. At the end of that particular street, it looked far from home.
Before Penelope could knock, the client opened the door. Their surprise was mutual. "I was… getting the mail," the client said.
"Oh," Penelope leaned over the box. "It's empty."
"Thank you," the client said. She wore a beige suit and subtle perfume. She was in her fifties, Asian, and willowy.
"Please," she said, "come in."
She led Penelope to a parlor room with two midnight blue chairs and an emerald green couch. The air was warm and smelled of Windex. The woman gestured slightly to one chair and sat on the couch.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice."
Penelope nodded. "When did you notice your shadow was gone?"
"About a week before I contacted you," the woman said.
"Did you notice anything unusual about it before it disappeared? Did it appear lighter or smaller than normal?"
"No." The client shook her head. "There was no change. One day it was there and the next it wasn't."
"Are you married?"
"Are you married?" Penelope repeated.
The woman shifted in her seat. "I am married. My husband and I are… estranged. He and I stayed together for our son, but when he moved out Rob left for Russia and has not been back since… I think he has a new lover."
"And your son?"
"He went to college at Duke. Now he works in LA."
"Do you talk often?"
"No. We both have lives."
Penelope asked her client to take her on a tour of the house. The woman showed her each room and told her about the furniture, the pictures, the dishes, rugs, and various ceramic pieces that decorated the kitchen, bathroom, and study. In the kitchen, she spent a half hour going over her wine rack that took up all of one wall. Washington reds were her specialty. When Penelope did not ask another question, the client selected a bottle and opened it. They sat across from each other at the stone island sipping from stemless glasses.
Her client said, "I don't go out in the day very often anymore. I'm afraid people will notice. I've become more of a homebody since the men left. It doesn't feel any different, not having a shadow… Only that I think about it all the time and I'm always looking for it."
Penelope nodded. From where she sat, even if the woman had a shadow, Penelope would not have been able to see it.
After the interview, Penelope found her roommate standing at the front door, arms crossed, staring at her with furious intensity. "We've just run out of Popsicle sticks."
"We have Popsicle sticks?"
"We had Popsicle sticks, but now there are none."
Penelope saw why. A titanic model of an ancient Greek galley stood half-finished on the kitchen table. It was made entirely of Popsicle sticks.
Her roommate said, "I thought I had enough, but I was wrong."
"Did you lose some?"
"I don't lose anything."
They went to an arts and crafts store and purchased several boxes of building materials. Then they went to the grocery store and her roommate bought Popsicles to share.
On the drive home, Penelope asked, "You never lose anything?"
"I never look for anything," her roommate explained. "There's no reason to search when everything you need is right in front of you."
"But we had to go to the store to get more Popsicle sticks."
"And there they were, right in front of us," her roommate said, speaking in a tone that reminded her of her mother's sermons.
At the apartment, her roommate wasted no time in diving back into his work. His whole world suddenly shrunk to the sticks and glue in his hands and the cigarette tucked between his lips. Penelope asked, "Will it float when it's done?"
Her roommate muttered, "It will embark on an odyssey when it's done. You can have it. If you want."
Even though she didn't have the time to sleep, Penelope went to her room and tried to relax. It was November and therefore most of her clients were university-related. She still had to find an old-fashioned professor's semester grades, a high school kid's parents' car--It's urgent, he said--the class notes from about a dozen students, and a little girl's golden retriever. After five minutes of lying in bed and playing shadow puppets on the wall she decided to go to the library.
After middle school, Penelope and her family moved away from Chicago to a small town in Wisconsin. The summer Penelope turned seventeen, her father lost his wedding ring and began to work longer hours. She didn't even notice until one morning she found him staring at a bowl of Trix, dressed in his suit for work, and poised over the bowl with a knife and fork.
"Dad?" she said, looking at the clock on the wall. It was four in the morning.
"Yes?" he said and looked at the clock, too. "Why aren't you in bed?"
She had just returned from her boyfriend's house. Thinking fast, she said, "Aren't you late for work?"
He looked around the kitchen, as if for inspiration or some cue. Eventually he said, "Yes," and left his bowl of cereal uneaten.
Penelope drove her parent's car for a day trip to Madison on the pretext of making a college visit. It took her three hours, but she finally managed to find her parents' first apartment, which was empty for cleaning between occupants. She broke in through an unlatched window and found the ring lying on the carpet of what she assumed used to be the bedroom. Upon returning the ring to her father's dresser, he took a week's sudden vacation and the family spent every day watching movies, playing games, fighting, making up, and making plans for a trip to London.
In Egyptian cosmology, the shadow, the sheut, is one of five parts of the soul. The shadow follows a person everywhere. It is impossible to be separated from one's shadow. How could this universal companion not comprise something essential to the human person?
Penelope read this and took notes. At midnight she decided she couldn't sit at the uncomfortable desk a moment longer. Confined spaces were not good for her. There was the ever-present fear that if she did not constantly monitor the world it would disappear.
On her way out, she looked in one of the empty study carrels and saw an abandoned red spiral notebook. She flipped to the first page and read the name of another client. On her way home, Penelope took a detour and stopped by one of the college dorms. At door 438 she knocked and, after a cacophony of groans and a thud, the door opened. A bleary-eyed freshman stood before her in boxers and a T-shirt smelling of pot, Easy Mac, and Axe.
"Yeah?" the guy asked.
"Your philosophy notes," Penelope said and offered the red spiral.
"What? Oh!" He snatched it from her and stared in disbelief. "Holy shit! Thank you! Here--come in and I'll get you your money."
The floor was covered in books and clothes. The walls were completely disappeared beneath a black canvas meticulously covered in pinprick points that she assumed were stars.
While he dug through his dresser, the boy saw her staring. "There's too much light pollution here," he said. "I need to see the sky."
He paid her and she walked home thinking how she could cover a room ten times that size with all her lost fabric.
When she was young, Penelope played a game where she sat something--a paper clip or a pencil--on her desk next to where she was working or reading, but just out of sight. While she worked she kept the object in the back of her head, willing it to stay. Every five minutes she checked if it was still there. The average time it took for the object to disappear was about two hours. Sometimes she found it later, by accident, and sometimes she didn't.