She bites her lip.
She says: You know, John Shade really did exist.
Excuse me?, I ask.
She sees no reason to acknowledge my confusion. His real name was Samuel Shade, she says, and he wasn't as distinguished as he was made out to be in the novel. Merely a humble poet-cum-professor, at an even humbler college in upstate New York.
The description in the book is impeccable, otherwise. He was exactly as distant, distracted; exactly as drab and despondent. Exactly right, down to his gait, his slippers, his air de coeur. Down to the insipid little wife he supported in that dreadful house. Down to the depths of his genius.
I'm sorry, I say, who are we talking about again?
She flashes half her teeth at me, but says nothing.
She turns around and begins fiddling with one of the small drawers, or seems to (she is blatantly trying to hide whatever she is doing from me), until with a surprisingly endearing yelp (it is not surprising that the sound she makes is endearing, it is surprising that she can still make me see her through such naive eyes) and a pull, she wrenches it open and stumbles back a step. The whole motion seems awfully unbecoming for a woman with her grace.
She turns back around, grinning from ear to ear, holding as gently as possible a set of index cards her hands threaten to crush with excitement.
I inherited them from my grandmother, she says, who spent ages thirty-seven to forty-five involved in a torrid affair with a certain esteemed and well-regarded author. As his parting gift, right before he left for Europe on the eighth anniversary of their first meeting (which Shade described in Canto I, she adds matter-of-factly), he gave her the cards he had kept so closely since Shade's death. He said they would do her more good than he ever would.
And with that, she says, he went to die without her.
She breathes and begins to shuffle through the cards, I still at a distance against the far wall, a veritable ocean of silver carpeting between us.
Here it is, she says, in a near-whisper. This one, this one is my favorite. She reads:
What moment in the gradual decay
Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?
Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism: other men die; but I
Am not another; therefore I’ll not die.
She looks up from the card, and the smile (the warmth) lingers for a second before her face falls. But it isn't because of me, not because of the stanza, it's something else, she's seen something that has her frozen this time, what it is I do not know but I know where, I look behind me and standing just outside the room, held up by one casually French-cuffed arm, resting on the door frame, pleased with himself and with whatever he's just walked in on, is the man we've all been waiting for.