21

As I pulled into the minimall parking lot, I noticed that blue painters’ tape had been used to seal our hole in the board. I wondered who could have been there after us.

I drove around to the back and parked the minivan next to a rusted Dumpster that hadn’t encountered a garbage truck in decades. I figured I could bust through the painters’ tape if I needed to, and I was walking around toward the front when I noticed that the steel back doors to the stores didn’t have any visible hinges.

I’d learned a thing or two about hinges thanks to Margo, and I realized why we hadn’t had any luck pulling on all those doors: they opened in. I walked up to the door to the mortgage company office and pushed. It opened with no resistance whatsoever. God, we were such idiots. Surely, whoever cared for the building knew about the unlocked door, which made the painters’ tape seem even more out of place.

I wiggled out of the backpack I’d packed that morning and pulled out my dad’s high-powered Maglite and flashed it around the room. Something sizable in the rafters scurried. I shivered. Little lizards jump-ran through the path of the light.

A single shaft of light from a hole in the ceiling shone in the front corner of the room, and sunlight peeked out from behind the particleboard, but I mostly relied on the flashlight. I walked up and down the rows of desks, looking at the items we’d found in the drawers, which we’d left. It was profoundly creepy to see desktop after desktop with the same unmarked calendar: February 1986. February 1986. February 1986. June 1986. February 1986. I spun around and shone the light on a desk in the very center of the room. The calendar had been changed to June. I leaned in close and looked at the paper of the calendar, hoping to see a jagged edge where previous months had been torn off, or some marks on the page where a pen had pushed through the paper, but there was nothing different from the other calendars, save the date.

With the flashlight crooked between my neck and shoulder, I started to look through desk drawers again, paying special attention to the June desk: some napkins, some still-sharp pencils, memos about mortgages addressed to one Dennis McMahon, an empty pack of Marlboro Lights, and an almost-full bottle of red nail polish.

I took the flashlight in one hand and the nail polish in the other and stared at it closely. So red it was almost black. I’d seen this color before. It had been on the minivan’s dash that night. Suddenly, the scurrying in the rafters and the creaking in the building became irrelevant — I felt a perverted euphoria. I couldn’t know if it was the same bottle, of course, but it was certainly the same color.

I rotated the bottle around and saw, unambiguously, a tiny smear of blue spray paint on the outside of the bottle. From her spray-painted fingers. I could be sure now. She’d been here after we parted ways that morning. Maybe she was still staying here. Maybe she only showed up late at night. Maybe she had taped up the particleboard to keep her privacy.

I resolved right then to stay until morning. If Margo had slept here, I could, too. And thus commenced a brief conversation with myself.

Me: But the rats.

Me: Yeah, but they seem to stay in the ceiling.

Me: But the lizards.

Me: Oh, come on. You used to pull their tails off when you were little. You’re not scared of lizards.

Me: But the rats .

Me: Rats can’t really hurt you anyway. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.

Me: Okay, but what about the rats?

Me: Shut up.

 

In the end, the rats didn’t matter, not really, because I was in a place where Margo had been alive. I was in a place that saw her after I did, and the warmth of that made the minimall almost comfortable. I mean, I didn’t feel like an infant being held by Mommy or anything, but my breath had stopped catching each time I heard a noise. And in becoming comfortable, I found it easier to explore. I knew there was more to find, and now, I felt ready to find it.

I left the office, ducking through a Troll Hole into the room with the labyrinthine shelves. I walked up and down the aisles for a while. At the end of the room I crawled through the next Troll Hole into the empty room. I sat down on the carpet rolled against the far wall. The cracked white paint crunched against my back. I stayed there for a while, long enough that the jagged beam of light coming through a hole in the ceiling crept an inch along the floor as I let myself become accustomed to the sounds.

After a while, I got bored and crawled through the last Troll Hole into the souvenir shop. I rifled through the T-shirts. I pulled the box of tourist brochures out from under the display case and looked through them, looking for some hand-scrawled message from Margo, but I found nothing.

I returned to the room I now found myself calling the library. I thumbed through the Reader’s Digest s and found a stack of National Geographic s from the 1960s, but the box was covered in so much dust that I knew Margo had never been inside it.

I began to find evidence of human habitation only when I got back to the empty room. On the wall with the rolled-up carpet, I discovered nine thumbtack holes in the cracked and paint-peeled wall. Four of the holes made an approximate square, and then there were five holes inside the square. I thought perhaps Margo had stayed here long enough to hang up some posters, although there were none obviously missing from her room when we searched it.

I unrolled the carpet partway and immediately found something else: a flattened, empty box that had once contained twenty-four nutrition bars. I found myself able to imagine Margo here, leaning against the wall with musty rolled-up carpet for a seat, eating a nutrition bar. She is all alone, with only this to eat. Maybe she drives once a day to a convenience store to buy a sandwich and some Mountain Dew, but most of every day is spent here, on or near this carpet. This image seemed too sad to be true — it all struck me as so lonely and so very un Margo. But all the evidence of the past ten days accumulated toward a surprising conclusion: Margo herself was — at least part of the time — very unMargo.

I rolled out the carpet farther and found a blue knit blanket, almost newspaper thin. I grabbed it and held it to my face and there, God, yes. Her smell. The lilac shampoo and the almond in her skin lotion and beneath all of that the faint sweetness of the skin itself.

And I could picture her again: she unravels the carpet halfway each night so her hip isn’t against bare concrete as she lies on her side. She crawls beneath the blanket, uses the rest of the carpet as a pillow, and sleeps. But why here? How is this better than home? And if it’s so great, why leave? These are the things I cannot imagine, and I realize that I cannot imagine them because I didn’t know Margo. I knew how she smelled, and I knew how she acted in front of me, and I knew how she acted in front of others, and I knew that she liked Mountain Dew and adventure and dramatic gestures, and I knew that she was funny and smart and just generally more than the rest of us. But I didn’t know what brought her here, or what kept her here, or what made her leave. I didn’t know why she owned thousands of records but never told anyone she even liked music. I didn’t know what she did at night, with the shades down, with the door locked, in the sealed privacy of her room.

And maybe this was what I needed to do above all. I needed to discover what Margo was like when she wasn’t being Margo.

I lay there with the her-scented blanket for a while, staring up at the ceiling. I could see a sliver of late-afternoon sky through a crack in the roof, like a jagged canvas painted a bright blue. This would be the perfect place to sleep: one could see stars at night without getting rained on.

I called my parents to check in. My dad answered, and I said we were in the car on the way to meet Radar and Angela, and that I was staying with Ben overnight. He told me not to drink, and I told him I wouldn’t, and he said he was proud of me for going to prom, and I wondered if he would be proud of me for doing what I was actually doing.

 

This place was boring. I mean, once you got past the rodents and the mysterious the-building-is-falling-apart groans in the walls, there wasn’t anything to do . No Internet, no TV, no music. I was bored, so it again confused me that she would pick this place, since Margo always struck me as a person with a very limited tolerance for boredom. Maybe she liked the idea of slumming it? Unlikely. Margo wore designer jeans to break into SeaWorld.

It was the lack of alternative stimuli that led me back to “Song of Myself,” the only certain gift I had from her. I moved to a water-stained patch of concrete floor directly beneath the hole in the ceiling, sat down cross-legged, and angled my body so the light shone upon the book. And for some reason, finally, I could read it.

 

The thing is that the poem starts out really slowly — it’s just sort of a long introduction, but around the ninetieth line, Whitman finally starts to tell a bit of a story, and that’s where it picked up for me. So Whitman is sitting around (which he calls loafing) on the grass, and then:

 

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full

 

hands;

How could I answer the child?. . . I do not know what

 

it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful

 

green stuff woven.

 

There was the hope Dr. Holden had talked about — the grass was a metaphor for his hope. But that’s not all. He continues,

 

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

 

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Like grass is a metaphor for God’s greatness or something. .

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. .

And then soon after that,

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow

zones,

Growing among black folks as among white.

 

So maybe the grass is a metaphor for our equality and our essential connectedness, as Dr. Holden had said. And then finally, he says of grass,

 

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

 

So grass is death, too — it grows out of our buried bodies. The grass was so many different things at once, it was bewildering. So grass is a metaphor for life, and for death, and for equality, and for connectedness, and for children, and for God, and for hope.

I couldn’t figure out which of these ideas, if any, was at the core of the poem. But thinking about the grass and all the different ways you can see it made me think about all the ways I’d seen and mis-seen Margo. There was no shortage of ways to see her. I’d been focused on what had become of her, but now with my head trying to understand the multiplicity of grass and her smell from the blanket still in my throat, I realized that the most important question was who I was looking for. If “What is the grass?” has such a complicated answer, I thought, so, too, must “Who is Margo Roth Spiegelman?” Like a metaphor rendered incomprehensible by its ubiquity, there was room enough in what she had left me for endless imaginings, for an infinite set of Margos.

I had to narrow her down, and I figured there had to be things here that I was seeing wrong or not seeing. I wanted to tear off the roof and light up the whole place so that I could see it all at once, instead of one flashlight beam at a time. I put aside Margo’s blanket and shouted, loud enough for all the rats to hear, “I Am Going To Find Something Here!”

I went through each desk in the office again, but it seemed more and more obvious that Margo had used only the desk with the nail polish in the drawer and the calendar set to June.

I ducked through a Troll Hole and made my way back to the library, walking again through the abandoned metal shelves. On each shelf I looked for dustless shapes that would tell me Margo had used this space for something, but I couldn’t find any. But then my darting flashlight happened across something atop the shelf in a corner of the room, right near the boarded-up storefront window. It was the spine of a book.

The book was called Roadside America: Your Travel Guide , and had been published in 1998, after this place had been abandoned. I flipped through it with the flashlight crooked between neck and shoulder. The book listed hundreds of attractions you could visit, from the world’s largest ball of twine in Darwin, Minnesota, to the world’s largest ball of stamps in Omaha, Nebraska. Someone had folded down the corners of several seemingly random pages. The book wasn’t too dusty. Maybe SeaWorld was only the first stop on some kind of whirlwind adventure. Yes. That made sense. That was Margo. She found out about this place somehow, came here to gather her supplies, spent a night or two, and then hit the road. I could imagine her pinballing among tourist traps.

As the last light fled from the holes in the ceiling, I found more books above other bookshelves. The Rough Guide to Nepal; The Great Sights of Canada; America by Car; Fodor’s Guide to the Bahamas; Let’s Go Bhutan . There seemed to be no connection at all among the books, except that they were all about traveling and had all been published after the minimall was abandoned. I tucked the Maglite under my chin, scooped up the books into a stack that extended from my waist to my chest, and carried them into the empty room I was now imagining as the bedroom.

 

So it turned out that I did spend prom night with Margo, just not quite as I’d dreamed. Instead of busting into prom together, I sat against her rolled-up carpet with her ratty blanket draped over my knees, alternately reading travel guides by flashlight and sitting still in the dark as the cicadas hummed above and around me.

Maybe she had sat here in the cacophonous darkness and felt some kind of desperation take her over, and maybe she found it impossible to unthink the thought of death. I could imagine that, of course.

But I could also imagine this: Margo picking these books up at various garage sales, buying every travel guide she could get her hands on for a quarter or less. And then coming here — even before she disappeared — to read the books away from prying eyes. Reading them, trying to decide on destinations. Yes . She would stay on the road and in hiding, a balloon floating through the sky, eating up hundreds of miles a day with the help of a perpetual tailwind. And in this imagining, she was alive. Had she brought me here to give me the clues to piece together an itinerary? Maybe. Of course I was nowhere near an itinerary. Judging from the books, she could be in Jamaica or Namibia, Topeka or Beijing. But I had only just begun to look.

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