I didn’t mean to find the box. I certainly wasn’t looking for it, or expecting it, but it sat there in the back of the closet, a narrow shoe box faded black with a long forgotten department store name branded on its side. The dull thud of my grandfather’s hammer echoed around the garage that was underneath my feet, each smack an ache, and I wondered how I got here, how I was volunteered to pack up my grandmother’s sewing room, swollen with fabric, and needles, and sewing machines, and books. I can’t go in that room, my grandfather had told us. Every time I look inside, I just see her sitting there at the table, sewing machine on, her fingers movin’.
It had been three hours, and I didn’t feel like I made enough progress. Every box that I taped up barely made a dent in the flats of fabric that were tucked away in drawers. How could one person accumulate so much stuff? And so much stuff that was in various states of completion, waiting for their creator to return and finish that sweater, that quilt, that hat.
I tossed the packing tape to the side and edged around the dresser that had been shoved in the closet, my belly pressed against the side of it, my shirt caught in the lip of the drawer. My fingers scrambled over the lid, and I was able to drag it across the plush carpet with a finger, bringing it close enough that I could pick it up, free it from its corner.
I shut the door of the room, dimming the sound of my grandfather downstairs, as if I feared him hearing me shuffle through something I should not have found. The box was falling apart, the paper of the lid worn thin, the tape that had held it taut losing its stick. I sat on the floor and leaned against the wall.
The box was filled with envelopes and leaves of thin-lined paper, addressed to my grandmother, but written by a hand that was unfamiliar to me. The envelopes all had the same return address: Louisiana State Penitentiary. They all had the same series of numbers, 653028, where the name should have been. They were dated from before I had even been thought of, before my mother had been considered, and before my grandparents had ever known each other in the intimate way they one day would. Every slip of paper felt like a secret, like a hush in a quiet room. Dear Margot, Today was the same as yesterday, and yesterday I missed you just as much as today.
His handwriting was severe, his H’s harsh and neat, the O’s boxy and rigid. But when he wrote her name, the pen in his hand looked as if it took on a different task, as if each letter held more than it contained, an endless ache and impatient days and never-ending years of separation and wanting. He wrote to her about the shell of her ear, how it was smooth and soft as if it had been tossed in the sea, sanded down by saltwater and grit. He wrote about the dip of her palm, the way it was hollowed out and the lines moved across her skin like highways, intersecting and leading him off to different cities, to other places than a prison cell in the South.
He signed the letters Hank, and while I knew I could investigate this man’s life with the ease afforded me by the internet, I was deterred, because I felt as if the best parts of him lived here, forgotten in my grandmother’s sewing room, folded in neat creases, and piled in a shoebox. What if he was a violent man? What if he had known the heft of a gun, and enjoyed that weight? What if his fingers had done more than stroke the curls of my grandmother’s head? And what if she loved him in spite of that? His words held no menace, no threat of explosive emotion. The papers were heavy with desire, with wishful thinking about the next thing, the next thing which was only another letter and one less day to mark off on the calendar.
I read a few more but began to feel indecent, like I was peering in on private moments, though I couldn’t help but want the other side of the exchange, to see the flowers of my grandmother’s handwriting tense and unfurl on the page, in her words to this man that was not my grandfather. Who were you? I asked her, though I didn’t believe she could hear me. What was your life? What were you thinking, and what was I thinking while you were laying in that hospital bed six weeks ago, your body breaking down, and I was five hours away, sitting at my kitchen table, watching the remaining fragments of my marriage begin its slow death, and I didn’t visit until the very end, and by that time your eyes had become too hazy to recognize me, and I cried in my car on the drive home, partially because I knew it was the last time I would see you, but also because I was returning home to a great heavy darkness, a cloying empty space that I was beginning to drown in.
As I tucked the papers back into the box, all I could think of was the sickening craving I had for the softness of those letters, for someone to count the days until my body took up half of their bed, for the poetry of a disenfranchised lover that was relegated to the state issued leaves of paper. I pulled the door ajar and hovered in the hallway, and I heard the cracking of a beer can downstairs, the scraping of a chair against the tile, and the heavy drop of his body. I wanted to sit with him, and hold his big hands in mine, and find the deep lines of his skin, and say Did you know who she was? And who are you? What am I going to find in your closets when you die? And what will my children find in mine? And will they wonder if they ever knew me, like maybe I never knew her, and like maybe I never knew you? Why don’t we know each other, and are we just passing through, performing the role of family, only to die with a shoebox of another history kept separate from those who we have said we loved? And I wanted him to look me in my face, and tell me: I know you.