Samantha wore an apron to keep her clothes clean while doing whatever tasks Allen asked her to do. She was a good worker. Allen was happy.
While working Samantha pondered the shift in the wind, the heft of a particular stone, the bend in the youngest trees. She especially liked imagining ways everything in the universe might be connected. Some days she imagined she heard that very sound. Some days she imagined the taste. She was good at surprising herself. She was a good worker. Allen was happy.
One day, Samantha noticed something shiny peeking out from behind a cabinet. A tilt in the foundation explained its sudden appearance. Allen's property had begun to settle. The shiny something looked like a bit of moon, if the moon were cast in silver and very tiny. She wanted a closer look but the cabinet was heavy. Samantha threw her hip into it. She was a good worker. She was good at surprising herself.
The wall behind the cabinet was tiled with quarters. The coins were set in rows. Samantha counted sixty by forty. The rows were evenly set but not quite parallel to the floor. The overall look was a shield or part of a garment a knight would have worn. Samantha went from room to room. The hunt was on! She found pennies behind the rolltop desk, dimes behind the bookcase. Every coin faced forward. In the room where Allen stored old files, Samantha found nickels. She dropped to her knees and pressed her palms against them. They felt old and new, reasonable and rash. Allen came in. He wasn't happy.
Allen employed twenty-one people in his jigsaw puzzle company. Twenty worked in production. Samantha worked in the office. She was a good worker. All the employees wore aprons with a puzzle piece printed on the bib. Samantha’s apron was the only one with pockets.
A millet seed, round as a pearl, small as a droplet, fell from the wild birdseed bag and landed in the cat’s water dish. Samantha didn’t notice until the following morning while she was getting ready for work. By then a tiny pale green nubbin poked through the cover. Samantha made a home for it in a small pot filled with new soil. In a week the plant was four inches tall. In a month it trailed happily across her kitchen table. She staked it with bamboo. The plant produced tiny yellow flowers the day Samantha discovered Allen’s hidden coins.
Allen as an employer was generous with bonuses and predictable in his habits. Twice divorced, he had an adult son and daughter with their own families. He traveled frequently with younger women to island resorts whose names Samantha could pronounce because she made the reservations. The discovery of the hidden coins turned Allen into a puzzle. A challenging puzzle, with at least 1,000 pieces.
Frame pieces have one flat end and link up in four chains, two horizontal and two vertical, eventually connected by four corner pieces with two flat ends each. There is a feeling of satisfaction after the frame is in place, as if anything were possible. There is a feeling of unease, because now that vast empty middle has been marked out. Nothing to do then but go farther.
Samantha wanted to know what this was and why and had Allen done all the collecting and measuring and assembling alone, by himself, perhaps late at night when the office was dark, or weekends when the office was empty, and what was the total amount in dollars, and the weight, the weight must be substantial, what type of adhesive had he used, did he see it was really quite beautiful, like an art installation, provocative, mysterious, maybe even a little touch of madness but the good kind where you’re finally free, and why was it hidden, was that part of the point, and what was the point? What Samantha said was, “You’re sad. Or angry. Or both. I see both on your face.”
Allen. Second child to parents whose indifference was matched by their enormous financial resources. Indifference, or judgment. But how can a child fail? What set of standards and demands would two adults thrust on their offspring that so shook the child Allen’s soul? Allen’s sister married money. Allen married the family business. There was never a question that Allen would take over the puzzle factory. All that money and yet. All that power and yet. All that privilege. Allen.
Anger prevailed. Allen grabbed Samantha’s shoulders and shook her hard. Her head hit the wall, once, twice, again. She shoved back and yelled for him to stop. He did stop. Then sadness sent Allen racing to the employee restroom where locked in a stall he wept. Samantha fled, still wearing her work apron, the only apron with pockets.
Allen’s puzzle factory was operating at capacity, filling orders for forty 1,000 piece puzzles, twenty 2,000 piece puzzles, thirty-five 1,500 piece puzzles, fifteen 3,000 piece puzzles, ten 3,500 piece puzzles, and two 5,000 piece puzzles. This was more or less a typical week, given that it was early November. The days were shorter, indoor activities more appealing, and people were already shopping for the holidays. Edges, corners. A quarter million shapes and sizes, each of which locked into another and another until the picture emerged.
Each wrenching movement of Samantha’s frightened body in Allen’s furious hands shook the puzzle factory too. Shook it harder and harder. The building shuddered and quaked, tilting this way, then that. Machines spit out pieces faster, faster. Confetti tornadoes. A million cries for help. A world of molten sorrows. A quarter million pieces spinning like snow, falling like rain. Samantha crossed into the next town. The machinery seized up. The last piece fell. The sudden silence was stunning.
It was winter. The cold snatched at Samantha, snapped at her apron, quickened her step. It was definitely winter. Samantha kept going down the road. She had never walked this far before. Eventually she arrived at a wooden building that had once been a bookstore, a place where books were sold. The door was locked but a window was open. In fact, the glass was missing altogether. Samantha’s apron made a rasping sound as she climbed over the splintered sill.
A single room, all four walls lined floor to ceiling with shelves. Shelf after shelf, empty except for mouse droppings, feathery bits of dust, and three marbles. One marble was the color of the midday sky reflected in a placid sea. One was the color of a rainbow at dusk. And one was the color of the endpaper of A Manual of Chemistry, published in 1828. Samantha blew dust from the marbles and dropped all three into her apron pocket. The silence in the room was stunning.
The additional weight of the three marbles was too much. The pockets, already strained, gave way, releasing everything Samantha had accumulated over the years working at Allen’s puzzle factory. Some four thousand emotional reactions, three thousand seven hundred and ninety eight questions, forty nine accusations, countless ideas, and songs for a precocious child. For a moment Samantha felt as if she were drowning.
But she wasn’t drowning. What seems overwhelming at first often is exactly what is needed to move on. By the time everything settled to the floor, radiant with possibility, Samantha was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room like royalty surrounded by loyal subjects. On her lap the torn apron pockets looked like two, wide-open hands. Samantha sat very straight. Very still. Breathing and smiling, smiling and breathing. The day had just begun. The ache in her head and bruises on her neck were almost gone. She wasn't thinking about Allen or the work piling up at the puzzle factory. She had all the time in the world, she thought.
Filling the shelves with her apron pockets’ scattered contents took weeks. Samantha had meant to keep the categories separate as if the room were a library. But it hadn’t worked out that way and now the four thousand emotional reactions, three thousand seven hundred and ninety eight questions, forty nine accusations, countless ideas, and those songs for a precocious child were neatly shelved but all mixed together. The shelves were full. The floor was clean as a blank page. Samantha was exhausted. Was this joy, or anxiety, this flutter in her belly?
The shelves were full, the floor was clean, but the window frame through which Samantha had climbed still lacked glass. And the apron pockets dangled, barely attached, as useless as flags from a country that no longer existed. Samantha left the question of joy versus anxiety for another day. She procured sewing needle and a spool of strong thread. Once the apron pockets were secure again, Samantha called a glazier who came that afternoon to take measurements and give Samantha an estimate for the work.
For most of her adult life, Samantha had worked for Allen. With her shelves full, the window in place, and her apron pockets secure again, Samantha was ready to run her own business. She placed the OPEN sign in the window and unlocked the door. She imagined lively conversations, quiet browsing, the whisper of someone searching for something deeply personal. She was nervous. She was excited. She knew she wouldn’t always be able to find what was being sought but was ready to try.
Everything went beautifully for a while. People visited, some with children in tow. Inquisitive and friendly, they ran their eyes along the many shelves, stopping to examine something more closely. Each left with at least one new idea, a question or two, emotional reactions, and sometimes, a song. Only a handful were interested in the accusations, but they seemed the most earnest and Samantha felt connected to them. Her cash register filled, her heart knew peace. Then one day a man came in. He was slender, and not much taller than Samantha. There was an air of unease about him, as if he expected bad news. Tucked under his arm was a package the size and shape of a large book and wrapped in brown paper. He said it was for Samantha. She told him that wasn't possible.
The man held out the package. On it was her name in clear, handwritten print. Except for his sad eyes and quiet unease, nothing about the man seemed familiar. Possibility was a stranger too at first.
The man pulled the door shut behind him when he left. Samantha put the package on the counter. The wrapper came away easily, releasing an awful smell from a very old book. Mildew, grief, and something else. Something sad. Something wrong. Violently wrong. Samantha covered her mouth and nose but it didn’t help.