Here is the first installment from my collection of stories In Love with the Dead. Like the serialized stories of old, I will be posting two sections a week, so get on board and enjoy the ride!
For reasons he couldn’t explain, people kept telling Bruce Lanzieri things that were none of his business: in elevators, in laundromats, in movie line-ups—wherever he went. It hadn’t always been so, and the first time it happened, he thought nothing of it. He was standing at the corner of Bank Street and Antique Alley, waiting for the light to change, when an old woman squinted at him through tortoise-shell glasses. “You look just like my brother Harry,”she said, sniffing the air like an offended cat. “He’s been dead now, 3 years.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Bruce replied, hiding his discomfort behind a sympathetic smile.
“We weren’t that close,” the old woman added, “never really got along.” She blinked a few times, and seemed to be done, but Bruce noticed a strange light in her eyes, a sparkle mixed in with a hint of anxiety. “It’s my fault, really,” she continued, her voice tinctured with remorse. “I always resented him because Mother thought he was the cat’s pajamas. So at night, after everyone was asleep, I’d sneak into his room and pour apple juice on his sheets.”
The next day, a woman with a blonde beehive mistook him for the high school sweetheart she’d never forgotten; then an old man with a parrot for a long lost friend he’d betrayed; then a man with a mole on his brow for a forgiven enemy. The reason, perhaps, for these optical delusions was that Bruce didn’t look like anybody in particular, thus he looked like everybody and was a threat to no one. It baffled him that even after these strangers realized their error, they divulged a secret they had never told anyone else. Soon they were approaching him in such great numbers that no matter what their shape or size, their age or even their gender, they blended into one non-descript being, as indistinguishable as a tree in a overgrown forest. At most, Bruce might remember an accoutrement or a physical oddity: the tortoise shell glasses; a red purse; a tie strewn with sunflowers; the startling mole, large and puffy as a nipple.
In the beginning, Bruce often wondered which came first, the wish to confess or his arrival at the traffic light? He no longer asked such questions. He accepted that he had been chosen by some higher power to receive their secrets, plain and simple, So instead of fighting it, he did what any reasonable man would do. Bruce quit his job as a schoolteacher to dedicate himself to his new calling full-time. He’d read somewhere that if he did what he loved, the money would follow. So he gave himself a title, and advertised on laundromat bulletin boards, in community papers, on telephone poles around the neighbourhood:
Bruce Lanzieri, Cryptotelist—Your secret is safe with me!
For one dollar the burdened could send him a secret anonymously, and in return they would feel, if not absolved, then at least relieved of carrying it around, afraid that it might slip out after a few drinks and ruin them. He provided his home address in these advertisements, and the secrets, with their accompanying dollars, began trickling into his mail slot:
Every time I walk on a subway grate, I pray it won’t collapse.
My husband’s twin brother is the father of our son.
I cheated my way through medical school.
Bruce made two piles on his kitchen table—one for the secrets, another for the dollar bills—which gradually grew taller as the weeks passed. Then, like a ripple in the ocean’s depth that gains strength as it travels towards the shore, the trickle became a tidal wave of mail. More than Bruce could read, more than he could count, more than he knew what to do with frankly. Mailbags bursting with longings, transgressions, wishes for revenge began filling up every room, floor to ceiling, of the small house he’d rented on his teacher’s salary. Soon it was difficult to get to the front door if someone rang—most often Murray the postman, who was none too pleased.
“Mr. Lanzieri,” he said one morning after he’d made three trips to his mail truck and was about to make a forth, “I got two things to say to you.” This was unusual as Murray generally dumped the bags on the stoop, rang the bell and was on his way before Bruce could make it to the door. He looked at the little bald man kindly, ready to receive his confidences. But Murray’s only secret was his lisp, which gave his advice the ring of truth. “You need to move to a bigger house,” he began, looking past Bruce’s body into the mailbag cramped hallway, “ and you gotta stop putting your address in them ads. This town is full of scallywags and crooks, and if they ain’t interested in the money,” he held an air mail envelope to the light, “they’s gonna want the secrets.”
Indeed, the dollar bill was visible through the thin blue paper, and so was the secret in its bold black letters. Murray shook his head as he went back for the last bag, and after Bruce dragged all four into the house he began the gargantuan task of opening the newly-arrived envelopes. With the stacks of dollar bills he extracted from inside, he bought a large house that was not on Murray’s route, for which the lisping postman was eternally grateful. The house’s six rooms, as well as the basement, both bathrooms and the attic, were immediately overrun by secrets, which multiplied and spread like jack rabbits. Bruce confined himself to the living room with its brown fold-out couch, and the adjoining kitchen, where he sometimes used the sink as a toilet. But since he lived alone, no one was the wiser, and from the letters he received, he knew he wasn’t the only one.
That was the saddest and most endearing quality of the secrets: so many were the same, but their owners were convinced that no other person in the history of the world had ever had sex with a cousin, regretted having children, or wished their spouse would never come back from war. And heaven help them if the husband actually got blown up by a roadside bomb, or the child fell through the window screen at a neighbor’s birthday party, or the cousin gave birth to a baby with a curly vestigial tail. Then they would flog themselves daily with a wet cat ‘o nine tails, a bamboo switch, a wire hanger, and might have done so indefinitely had Bruce not come along with his offer of respite for a buck. He was providing a valuable service, and in appreciation he was not only compensated financially, he was also sent a wife…