You Got What You Came For
But then it started to rain. Matthew had hoped to just stand there on the front step, as he always did, while the old man fetched his papers. The man’s wife emerged from the garden, the first drops of rain falling on the little pink and yellow flowers embroidered into her denim shirt. She was too old and too Southern and too polite, she said, to let a young man stand out in the rain. He would just have to come in and have a cup of coffee. He followed her inside.
On Thursday afternoons Matthew walked the sloping pathway leading to Dr. Fallon’s low, angular house. The first time he saw it, he thought it looked as though the house was burying itself into the hill. That day—the day of the rain— his girlfriend had driven him there. She leaned over the steering wheel as she slowed the car, gaping at the big glass box. He scoffed when she asked if Frank Lloyd Wright designed it.
“It’s possible, is all I was trying to say.” She was still bowed over the steering wheel, so bent into it that she and the wheel seemed to be becoming one.
“Sure, it’s possible,” he said, pulling the lock on the door up and down.
“Don’t patronize me. I was just saying. It’s a strange house.”
“I’m going to be late.”
He heard her lock the door behind him. When he turned around she was still looking at the house.
But there was no being late with Dr. Fallon. The first time he rang the bell, he stood— blinking at the sun made brighter by the glass of the house—for what felt like ten minutes. Finally the door opened and the old man stood there, actually looking much younger than 79. When he had seen his age in the ad, Matthew imagined a dying man, hunched and deaf. He studied his thin legs tucked into jeans and the scarf draped around his neck. The old man confirmed Matthew was the boy who would type his novel for 1 cent a word.
“It could end up being more than 70,000 words, you know, so you’re looking at $700 or more.”
“Yeah, that’s great.”
“Yes, that is great.” He let out a sudden laugh and smiled in this way Matthew had seen before—in those men who sat outside the grocery store talking to themselves, telling jokes for a world of their own. “The thing is, I forgot you were coming, so I just need a few minutes to gather everything together, if you don’t mind waiting.”
And then, as he would do every week after that, the old man left the door ajar and Matthew stood and listened to the sound of Chuck Berry moving through the house, hoping his wife wouldn’t look up from her gardening and try to say hello. The old man would return some minutes later, arms full of writing on different kinds of paper: clean lined sheets, the back of his wife’s physical therapy exercises, utility bills, grocery lists. On top of it all he would place a nickel for printing, despite Matthew having said it was free to print at the school.
The wife was making the coffee before he could even say yes or no to it.
“He’ll just be a few minutes, if you want to sit down.”
Matthew had been standing with all his weight on his right leg and moving his hand along the back of one of their kitchen chairs—those plastic, scooped, midcentury ones, theirs in a faded color that hinted towards a lime green. He sat.
“I’m sure you’ve probably realized by now that Charlie is a little bit all over the place when it comes to his work—I try to help him, you know, keep his things in files and remind him you’re coming to collect his papers for typing—but, well, you know.”
Matthew thought of the time, about a month before, when Dr. Fallon had presented him with a leather folder filled with napkins covered in writing. The napkins had page numbers—small almost indecipherable things. It took him two hours and three beers to lay them out on the floor of his bedroom in the right order. The old man had managed to write an entire chapter on those napkins.
She put out the coffee and opened the cookie tin on the table, carefully unfolding the wax paper and selecting two sugar cookies before wrapping the whole thing up again. With the cookies on their plates and the coffee poured, she struggled to grab hold of the sloping sides of the chair before lowering herself in. She talked about how nice it was to have a graduate student in the house again—going on about the parties they used to have in the sixties when Charlie himself was in school, and how even after, once he had his tenure, he would invite his students over for dinner, all of them sitting around in his study into the night, smoking cigarettes (because, she said, if you want to picture these times, you have to remember that every damn one of us had a cigarette hanging from our lips) and talking about what the end of century would bring for things like the philosophies of language and beauty.
“Of course, being sociology people, Charlie never really got much in response from them. He was always a bit of an outlier in his field. It was mostly Charlie talking and the others listening and nodding, you know, because here’s this up and coming professor and so they think listening is what they should do.”
Matthew broke his cookie into a few pieces and arranged them in different shapes on his plate.
“Wee Wee Hours, live in Detroit, 1963” the old man called from behind him.
“What was that, Dr. Fallon?” he said, turning in his chair to find him standing over the record player. He held up an album so Matthew could see its cover—a black and white image of Chuck Berry leaning so far forward with his guitar he looked about ready to fall over.
“Call me Charlie, please, for God’s sake,” he said, turning the album then so he could examine it himself. “Yes, Chuck Berry. Not everyone can do it live. He always could. Right, Pat?”
“It’s true,” his wife said, looking at the record player like it was the first time she noticed it or the music in the room.
“So, Matthew. Here you are.” He set down a stack of papers, their corners dragged together by a paperclip. He still held the album tucked under his arm.
Matthew pushed his mug towards the center of the table, smoothing the uneven corners under the paperclip.
“Well, don’t leave just yet,” Pat said, “Finish your coffee at least.”
He pulled the mug back in his direction.
Charlie lowered the music and placed the record down. “Yes, do stay. Actually, since you’re here, I was wondering what you thought of the book so far.”
Matthew thought of the napkins spread across his bedroom floor. The book felt old, just like the man. Reading it was like remembering a time when he read Hemingway, but that was just it—it was just the memory of it: the rhythm, the concision, the drinking, the fishing. “Honestly, I’ve been so focused on typing it right, I haven’t really been reading.”
The old man came over to the table, taking the chair next to Matthew. “But surely, you’ve been typing every word, so you have to be thinking about it in some way. You are in the Literature department, are you not?”
“That’s true, sir, I am.”
“Please, for Christ’s sake. Don’t call me sir,” he replied, breaking into that urgent and secret smile. “But if you’re a lit guy, you must have something to say about the writing? About where you think it’s headed?”
Through the wall of the living room— a wall made almost entirely of glass—Matthew could see a brightening sky. His girlfriend’s car was gone. He wondered if she had driven off to buy cigarettes. He imagined for a moment she had fallen asleep draped over the wheel, and she and the car had just rolled away for good.
“Give him a break, Charlie,” Pat urged. “He’s got enough work to do without worrying about if your book is any good or not.” She opened the tin again, pulling out a cookie with raspberry jam and handing it to her husband. “Let the boy go on his way so he can get to typing.”
Matthew again pushed his mug across the table. “My girlfriend is waiting in the car, actually, so I probably should get going.”
“Sure, sure. We don’t mean to keep you,” Charlie said, moving for the door. Matthew watched those legs again. He thought of the way fabric blows around a flagpole in the wind, and that seemed to be saying something about the legs— how they could be small but strong.
His girlfriend really had left. Matthew kicked his foot against the curb, raindrops still falling every now and then against a light sky. He texted her and paced the sidewalk. He didn’t want to move when he heard the old man call out to him. Didn’t want to turn and stand alone on the street there with him.
“Pat sent me out,” he said, pulling at each end of his scarf with his hands. “She wanted to make sure you were alright, since we didn’t see your girlfriend.”
“Oh, no, I’m fine. She’s just running an errand. She’ll be back any minute.”
Charlie didn’t say anything or make a move for the house, despite the rain. “Why is it that you don’t like my book?” he asked, taking a step closer to him.
The humid air was fogging Matthew’s glasses and he wiped them on his shirt before he spoke. “I didn’t say I didn’t like it. Only that I didn’t really read it.”
He let out that quick laugh. “Come on, son. I know you read it.” His eyes stayed on Matthew as he slipped his glasses back on his face. “It’s funny, you know. Because you don’t look a thing like me. But those glasses— it’s just funny.”
“I know I sound old saying this, and forgive me if it’s trite, but it is funny to see things like horn rims back again, that’s all.”
Matthew cupped his hands over his eyes to block out the rain. “Well, that is what they say—fashion is circular.”
“Look what I’ve done to you now, making you repeat a cliché because my point was that banal.”
“I wasn’t trying to say that. Only that I think you’re right, I guess.”
Charlie’s face was still. He turned back towards the house. “If you want to understand what I’m saying—and I mean now and in the book—you should look at our house.”
Matthew turned to face it. The whole thing was nothing but rectangles and gray and glass. “My girlfriend thought Frank Lloyd Wright designed it,” he found himself saying into the silence.
“Not a bad guess, actually. Around here when this house was built, every architect was trying to be Wright—whether they knew it or not.”
He pulled out his phone. She hadn’t texted him back.
“And there’s something there—your girlfriend thinking of Wright. To think of his hand in the structure of things, even now. That is what the book is about. How your girlfriend can look at my house and remember what she never even knew. I just haven’t found the right way to say it.”
Matthew lingered on Charlie’s face. His impossibly full head of hair at 79. The dent on the bridge of his nose—a shadow of a lifetime of wearing glasses. Horn rimmed.
“Well, I understand if you don’t want to wait in the house. I understand people forget how to act when they’re around old folks. But we’re watching through the windows, you know, just to make sure someone does come for you. But we won’t bother you anymore.” He started up the path, moving with lightness through the rain.
Matthew sat on the curb. He tucked the papers under his shirt to keep them from getting wet. He didn’t care if his girlfriend ever came. He didn’t mind the thought of just sitting there, wet and cold. He thought he might write a story about Chuck Berry and cookies with jam in wax paper and a house made with only one kind of shape. But first he would type the old man’s book.
Kayla Bloodgood is a graduate student at Duke University, where her research interests include twentieth century American literature, feminist theory, Marxism, and critical race theory.