The Word Unspoken
By: David R. Topper
I’ve known her for over a year. A whole year. But I never thought about her that way. Well, really, I hardly ever thought about her at all. Except when I saw her in the store. Otherwise, she never entered my mind. Never, ever.
Until this last day – in fact, just the last few minutes that I was in her town. And it’s all because of the last three words she said to me. I can’t stop thinking about what she said.
But now I’m leaving, for good.
I’ll never come back. Too long of a trip and too expensive. If I had not received that grant to pay for the trip and the year, I could never have come to this town, with its rare art works in its small, otherwise run-of-the-mill, church. Arcane carvings and paintings that few are interested in, beyond me with my abstruse aesthetic obsession.
I came across this treasure in a small out-of-the-way town in a footnote in a specialized Medieval Art History journal coming out of Germany. An Eastern European immigrant, who settled here by accident – and who came with rare skills in this odd style coming out of the late Middle Ages – produced these remarkable works of art. Moreover, I was astounded that I could convince the grant committee of the uniqueness and importance of these images in this little church, so that they thought I was worth the effort – and they gave me the money.
Well, they got their money’s worth, since I am leaving this place with a 300+page manuscript sitting on my lap – as I ride in a cab, heading to the airport. And home.
But should I go back? If so, I’ll miss my flight, and it will cost a lot to get a later ticket, which I can’t afford on my meager small-town college-teacher’s salary. Stupid even to think of it. Forget it. Forget her.
Yet I can’t get her out of my mind. Those last three words, carved into my brain, like the rare carvings I am writing about in the bundle of papers on my lap.
I stare out the cab’s window. I imagine her again.
What do I know about her? Not much. She’s not pretty, but she’s nice. I could say unattractive, but with an engaging and likeable manner. She has no distinctive features that I can think of. For this reason, I can’t describe her face, for there’s nothing leaving a trace in my mind.
She was always available and eager to help customers. Every time I shopped for groceries and sundries – she was there. We only talked about the things at hand, never any small talk. Neither of us ever initiated it, I guess. A whole year, not much said. Yet, only because of my last visit to buy something to munch on during my flight home did she initiate the conversation with those three last words.
Which was also a question. Did I say that?
I spent a year in this town on a sabbatical from teaching Art History. It was a productive year. I not only finished the manuscript, but I found time to do some pen-and-ink drawings of the rare artworks, which the local bookstore gladly displayed. I think I’ll add them to the book on my lap, along with photographs I took. It will add a personal touch.
You know, I now seem to recall that one day she mentioned seeing my drawings and saying something nice about them. … Or, maybe not. Many town-folks came up to me in the street and said they liked my art. Did she?
Well, you see, she always wore a large, washed-out apron that covered her from the front, and otherwise wore a drab loose-fitting outfit hiding the rest of her body. It was all very unappealing, and it seems that her plain appearance never triggered any mental probing on my part. Not even me, who tried – without success, I’m sad to say – to make friends with some of the single women here around my age. A whole year, nada.
All the more reason why those final words keep haunting me. Oh, I really should put her out of my mind and focus on the trip to the airport and going home.
But those three words.
Well, really, she said only two words – but I inferred a third. I was sure there was a third word, unspoken – just under her breath. Trying to get out, but … or was it all in my head. Was the unspoken word just my fantasy? How to tell?
Let’s see. How did it all happen?
I went to the store to get a snack for the plane. It was about five minutes before closing time. Except for she and I, the store was empty. I tried quickly to get a bag of granola out of the bulk dispenser, but it wouldn’t come out. I banged at the thing and eventually the granola spurted out, much of it ending up on the floor.
She immediately rushed over, and—
You know, I just realized that I don’t even know her name. I keep calling her “she.” Cripes. … Anyway, she rushed over with a broom and dustpan, and in her polite way, apologized for the tricky dispenser.
As I walked to the cash register with my bag of granola, I reached into my pocket to pay. She was following me, and as I handed her a bill, she said: “Oh, no, it’s free, it was not your fault.” I wasn’t sure she had the seniority to give me something free, and it occurred to me that maybe she was absorbing the cost. Just as I was about to say something in thanks, she added, “But you can do me a favour.”
I was taken aback. Stunned.
“Oh?” I said, “Like what?”
I called this a question because to me it meant, “Will you draw me?”
Anyway, that’s what she said. “Draw me.”
Well. No, not really just “Draw me.”
It was more like: “Draw me—”
You see, she was looking me straight in the eyes, with her head tilted a bit, and her body language along with her still open mouth – well, it all made me believe that there was indeed a third word, yet unspoken, hovering between thought and speech.
As my mind filled in the third word, I apologized profusely that I was leaving town permanently, since my sabbatical year was over and I was going back to teach. Never returning.
Her look of disappointment mirrored my own deep regret of losing the chance to draw her. Especially if my conjecture was true. She wanted me to draw her—
Just maybe there was no third unspoken word. The extra word was only a figment of my imagination. Clutching the manuscript on my lap, I tell myself to clear her from my mind. Just forget her.
Then again, maybe there was something in some of my drawings at the bookstore that triggered her question. But how could they? They were mainly religious icons for devotional purposes. Of course, in the style of the time, the saints and other figures were often shown in various states of undress, as was depicted in my drawings.
Anyway, I guess, somehow, she came up with this idea of my drawing her, and she conveyed that thought to me partially in her words and partially in her demeanor. So, should I turn around and go back?
Oh, I can see it now. I stop the cab. We turn back. I meet her – whatever her name is – and we go to a room somewhere. I set up my drawing pad and ask her to pose as she wanted me to do when she said, “Draw me—”
Well, she looks at me and, from the look in my eye, she infers that I am waiting for her to disrobe and … and … and she freaks out, screaming at me that I completely misinterpreted her words. She immediately runs out the door and slams it contemptuously shut – leaving me to be the fool that I am. Also leaving me with a large airline bill, which I can’t afford.
After all, it was only in my head.
The moral of the story: let’s not go there. Done. Concentrate on going home with the manuscript. Back to teaching. Seeing who—
But she really did ask that question. “Draw me—”
David R. Topper is a published writer living in Winnipeg, Canada, who derives pleasure & satisfaction from writing, as well as sharing his writings with family & friends – and others, if they want to read his work.