Becoming James

by Madelyn Gunn

This is James Palmer’s house. There is his armchair, his record player, his flannel shirts hanging in the closet, his silverware, his frayed placemat on the little round dining table. His Budweiser in the fridge. His can of Campbell’s.

What was the harm in becoming James Palmer? No one missed Walter. Walter had only had Nora, and Nora is gone. The flannels in the closet fit so well, and it only takes a load of laundry to smell the same. James uses store-brand detergent.

Everyone calls him James. After all, the old caretaker who lives in that cabin is James Palmer, and he lives there taking care of the cabin. The neighbor calls him Mr. Palmer. He waves every morning from his porch, shrouded in dappled tree-shade, smoking his cigarette as children’s shrieking laughter streams out the open window. James waves back. The woman who sell him cans of Campbell’s and Budweiser calls him Jimmy. She smiles as she does.

The house is the same as it always was, everything arranged for James Palmer to live in. It’s difficult at first to learn where the silverware stays, how to sit in the armchair, but he learns. James cooks Campbell’s in the little red pot, pours it into the chipped white bowl, eats at the frayed orange placemat with his left elbow on the table. It wears a little patch. A white ring shows where the coffee cup goes. No coasters. Nora had coasters, and Nora is gone.

James keeps his work and his leisure time separate. James keeps a shed at the end of the white gravel road, full of tools and manuals. The things James uses most aren’t covered in dust. The white gravel road goes all the way down the mountainside, down and down until it hits the big black asphalt road. From so high up, it looks like a huge, swollen river. James had fallen into that river. He was getting the mail. Walter didn’t have his lights on.

James has a big bed with a quilt on it that looks like someone made it for him. The woman who works at the gas station thinks it’s beautiful. Diane. Her name is Diane. Diane says James doesn’t make love like he used to. James was never so kind before. She always leaves before it gets light.

James does what the caretaker is supposed to. He washes his face, puts on his flannel shirts that fit so well, mows the grass, trims the tree branches when they get too close to the windows. It’s cold, it’s been snowing for weeks, so James keeps the furnace going and lights up the fireplace. James Palmer likes to drink hot cocoa by the fireplace after it gets dark. He brings the quilt down from the bedroom and wraps it all around. Sometimes he thinks it smells like Nora.

There’s a little theater in town, with a big marquee. The bricks are crumbling a little, but it’s ornate and beautiful. James would like to see a movie there. He’d like to sit in the dark and eat popcorn. Maybe Diane can share it. But spring is coming soon, and the thaw, and all the little things that are buried under the snow will spring up like daffodils. Then James won’t be allowed to be James anymore. He’ll have to be someone else, and far away.

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