“In the Margins” by Eowyn Randall

Gus Feldin was re-reading The Hidden Faces of the Stars on his morning commute when he found the first note in the margin. Pressed up against the wall of the subway car in his attempt not to touch the person in the seat next to him, Gus was already sweating through his shirt. The note was a spot of chaotic color on the monochromatic page. The sight of it made Gus’s skin prickle. Alexander, the countertenor protagonist, had just finished his aria a sixteenth of a beat early on opening night; the moment that haunts him for the rest of the novel. Someone had written “Important thing isn’t lack of mistakes but ability to move past them,” in blue ink next to the paragraph where Alexander stands in the wings trying to stop his heart from pounding.

Gus stared at the cramped handwriting on page 27 while the train pulled into, and then out of, a stop, subtly rocking his body with the train’s movement out of habit. He owned this book. He hadn’t written that. He didn’t remember loaning the book to anyone; certainly not anyone who would write in someone else’s book. The rather trite statement continued to sit calmly on the page as Gus traced the curve of the letters trying to decide whether he recognized the script. It definitely wasn’t his.

Eventually Gus turned the page. The blue ink had bled through. It wasn’t the traditional blue of a ball point pen, but something brighter. Gus thought that John would’ve called it Robin’s Egg Blue, and John knew that sort of thing. There was a ghost of the words on the other side, the parts where the writer had pressed hardest most vibrant. He flipped through the pages, enjoying the tickling sensation against the pad of his thumb as they slid by in rapid succession.. No other splashes of blue caught his eye. He shrugged, one of the many gestures he performed over the course of a day to explain his behavior to an audience whose non-existence he could never entirely convince himself of, and resumed reading.

When the train arrived at Gus’s destination six stops later the only other marks he’d come across were passages he’d underlined or sketched an asterisk next to during previous reads. He’d flipped back to the unexplained note four times, and read it again each time.

“Important thing isn’t lack of mistakes but ability to move past them.”

The train stopped with three jolting shudders and the doors pulled themselves open with a wheeze. Gus shoved The Hidden Faces of the Stars in his messenger bag and disembarked feeling only mildly uneasy.

 

 

Before Gus Feldin read 20 pages of Hidden Faces of the Stars on his commute home he checked page 27. It still said, “Important thing isn’t lack of mistakes but ability to move past them” in cramped, blue, handwriting in the margin. It still seemed like an insipid thing to bother writing in a book that didn’t belong to you.

 

 

There was a Chinese take-out menu stuck to Gus Feldin’s fridge with a magnet his sister had given to him after her family’s last European vacation. It was shaped like the Eiffel Tower. When he reached for the menu that evening, it wasn’t there. Even though he’d been ordering from the same place for almost three years now, he’d never put the number in his phone. He dug through the drawer by the microwave—the one filled with old bills, and scraps of paper covered in notes he’d made while the phone was pressed between his ear and shoulder, and a lot of take-out menus. He turned up one for the Chinese place after displacing most of the drawer. When John had been living here this drawer was much more organized, and regularly cleaned out, but Gus was never sure when he’d need a piece of paper again.

There was a bright blue star next to the listing for orange chicken, the sort of five-pointed star rushed out in one continuous line that Gus had never mastered. Underneath the star it said, “2 orders.”

Gus hated orange chicken. He hated its cloying taste, which sat around in your mouth long after you were done eating it. He hated that it claimed to be an entrée while tasting like a desert. It seemed wishy-washy and desperate for approval.

Allowing himself just a moment for such foolishness—any longer and his invisible audience would start judging him—Gus compared the note to the handwriting he’d found in The Hidden Faces of the Stars. He didn’t go so far as to get the book from the living room. That would be absurd. He just stared at the curves of the ‘s’ and the wild loop of the ‘e,’ its tail veering up unexpectedly. The handwriting in his book was a lot neater than this. He remembered that. But maybe if whoever had written in his book had written carelessly and in haste this is what it would look like.

Gus tacked the menu to the fridge, placing the Eiffel Tower magnet in such a way that it covered the direction about how much orange chicken to order, then called and asked for his usual: Szechuan Pork.

Settling onto his couch with The Hidden Faces of the Stars he waited for his apartment buzzer. In the gutter of page 42, next to a sentence he’d underlined in pencil which read, “The snow crunched arrhythmically under Alexander’s gait and sparked in the glow from the streetlights, casting fractals into the sixteenth of a beat that was repeating in Alexander’s mind,” someone had written “Pathetic fallacy” in that same blue ink.

Gus had no idea what that meant. He remembered underlining the sentence on his second read-through because he’d liked the idea of snow sparking. And he’d wanted to look up fractals. He had a notion of what they were, but that notion didn’t seem to make sense within the context of the sentence. He’d never gotten around to it. He dogeared the page, wondering how he’d missed this note when he flipped through earlier. Maybe the way the words were crammed into the gutter had hidden them. Turning back to page 27, he dogeared that one, too.

The buzzer buzzed. He set the book aside and trotted down the three flights of stairs to fetch his dinner.

 

 

The next day Gus Feldin took the newspaper on his commute. After reading the headlines on the front page and the metro section and skimming two of the attached articles—he had to be careful about what news he focused on to make it to the end of the day without succumbing to melancholy—he turned to the crossword.

Almost half of the boxes were already filled with little blue letters.

The air rushed out of his lungs. He felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. This was today’s paper. He’d picked it up from the welcome mat in the hallway outside his door and pulled it out of its plastic bag less than an hour ago. He stared at the carefully inscribed capital letters and a burning sensation crawled across his skin. It took him a moment to realize none of the answers were right. Written in the boxes for 1 across was “CHICKEN” even though the clue was “Gut.” 11 down’s clue was: “King of the Fairies.” The letters in the tiny boxes spelled “FELDIN”

Gus dropped the paper.

 

 

Gus Feldin’s sister wanted to meet him for lunch.

Beth worked and lived only halfway across the city, but they saw each other infrequently. There was a sushi place she liked enough to occasionally make the trek across town on her lunch break—which was much less strictly delineated than Gus’s own—to meet him there. Somehow she was already there when he pulled the door open, even though she had farther to travel. Her red blazer gleamed in the bright lighting of the restaurant. She waved at him, the three metallic loops on her wrist glinting.

When he took the seat across from her she grinned even more widely. “So, how are things?” Sometimes Gus felt like she talked in italics, or some sort of font with curlicues where there should be serifs.

“Good,” Gus said, not even trying to match her level of enthusiasm, and then quickly expanding on his answer so as not to give her the opportunity to pry something else from him. “Work’s going well. We just got a new account—an airline, so filling out all those policies will be keep us busy for awhile. How are you?”

“Great. The work’s almost done on the house so we can get out of that awful apartment soon. I’m still surprised Taylor and Isabelle haven’t threatened to run away and join the circus or something.” She laughed. “Really, though. They’re holding up really well through this ordeal. Isabelle’s going to perform at the school talent show—something she choreographed herself!”

A server set down two nori rolls, an order of sashimi, and a plate of tempura. “I ordered for you,” Beth said. “I hope that’s alright.”

“Sure.” Gus didn’t understand sushi, so it was just as well, but that didn’t quell the spurt of annoyance that shot through him.

“Are you still seeing—what was her name? Liz?”

Given how quickly Beth had dropped this into the conversation it was probably the reason she’d wanted to get lunch at all. Gus had been worried this might be the case. “No. I mean, yes, her name is Liz. But no, we’re not still seeing each other. It turned out that we didn’t really have a lot in common.”

“Oh, Gus. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s fine. Really.” He stabbed the piece of nori roll balanced between his chopsticks into the soy sauce and it crumpled, leaving a cluster of rice behind when he lifted it out of the dish.

Beth reached a hand toward him, her painted fingernails and the lacquered tabletop shining the same way. “We worry about you being alone.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Oh, you know, me, Brad, mom.”

“I wish you and mom wouldn’t talk about me behind my back. I’m 36. I can take care of myself.”

“We know that. It’s not like we’re gossiping about you. We care, so it comes up.”

Gus rolled his shoulders and stared down at the slices of pink fish sitting on the table between the two them. He tried to come up with a way to shift the conversation. That was when he saw the blue smudge on the paper placemat under his plate. He shoved his plate over, the screeching noise it made when it slid off the placemat and onto the table loud in the mostly still restaurant. Written on the corner that had been hidden under his plate was, “every performance is a new story.” It was a line from chapter seven of The Hidden Faces of the Stars. The chapter he’d read yesterday while he was waiting for his take-out.

Gus’s breath caught in his throat.

“Are you okay?” Beth asked. “Look, I’m sorry if you feel like we’re prying into your life, but that’s really not what’s happening. Besides, why didn’t you come to dinner last month? If you had then we wouldn’t’ve even had the chance to ‘talk behind your back.’ I mean, you have to admit that maybe your life could do with a little meddling. Gus, really, I—”

“Did you write this?” Gus pushed the placemat towards Beth.

She looked down, allowing herself to be interrupted. “No. What it is it?”

“You didn’t write this?” He asked again, tapping his finger against the bright blue quote.

“No. Why?”

Gus leaned over and rummaged in his bag. “It’s a line from a book I’m reading,” he said. Popping back up he held a pen out to Beth.

“What’s this for?”

“Write that sentence.” Gus was pretty sure he’d recognize his sister’s handwriting. If he remembered correctly it was extravagantly loopy, like the way she spoke, but he wasn’t sure.

“What?”

He just pushed the pen at her again.

She shrugged, took the pen and wrote “every performance is a new story,” then pushed the placemat back at Gus. Her sentence, in black, sat next to the blue one that had smeared a little under the heat of his plate. They looked nothing alike. Gus grabbed the pen and the placemat and shoved them in his bag. The acute embarrassment he’d been managing to ignore climbed over his shoulders and slid toward his hairline in a hot wave.

She watched him for a moment, her eyebrows pulling together and then relaxing. He stared back, refusing to flinch under her gaze. Finally, with a shrug so subtle that maybe he’d imagined it she let his oddities go and leaned back in her chair. “We’re planning on going to Costa Rica this summer. The kids have their hearts set on Disney World. But I think they’re a little old for that now.”

 

 

That afternoon, in the waning hours of his workday—the hours Gus Feldin never managed to be productive in no matter how much coffee he drank, or water, or how many times he paced from his cubicle to the break room and back to boost his circulation—he Googled “handwriting analysis.” Anyway, he deserved a break. He’d already filled out more policies than usual today, as well as dealing with three claims that Ryan should’ve handled, would’ve handled, if he hadn’t left early to make the long weekend even longer.

The first hit was a website explaining that handwriting analysis was psuedoscience. Gus made a show of reading the three lines of quoted text under the URL so his invisible audience wouldn’t think him completely naïve, then clicked on the second site, which told him that the way his mysterious note-maker wrote his Es, all in one swift loop, was a marker of a confident personality who often acted without planning first. And that because the A was made in two separate strokes, one for the circle and one for the stem, this person didn’t have trouble compartmentalizing. Whoever had scrawled in Gus’s book could keep a feeling about work distinct from a feeling about a relationship with ease.

Gus realized after reading the fourth characteristic that matched up with some quirk of the handwriting in his book that he was trying to figure out whether they described John. He’d never seen John reading one of his books, and he didn’t think—despite John’s brash and somewhat careless nature—that he’d be so inconsiderate as to mark up a book that didn’t belong to him.

If John had read Hidden Faces of the Stars Gus wished he would’ve mentioned it. Ever since Gus had first read it, ever since it had first overwhelmed him in the same kind of all-consuming and unexplainable way a particular cloud scudding across the sun could, hitting him in the chest and leaving him clenching and unclenching his fists to contain a surge of momentum he didn’t know how to use, Gus had been looking for someone to share the novel with. Maybe whoever Gus shared it with would also feel shivers of longing just under his skin as he turned its pages and be able to explain to Gus why he did.

The office was emptying around Gus, and the sun must have set because he couldn’t feel its heat pressing on the back of his neck through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind him. The glowing clock at the bottom corner of the screen told him it was almost six. He bookmarked the page on handwriting analysis and shut down the computer.

Had John liked orange chicken? Gus couldn’t remember, if he’d ever known at all.

 

 

That night Gus Feldin tried to read a different book. Since finding that first note, every time he turned a page in Hidden Faces of the Stars a thrill of anxiety went through him. He’d decided that since his first search for the unexplained marks had been unsuccessful, he wouldn’t try again. The notes wouldn’t be any less distracting if he knew they were coming. If anything, they’d be more so. The point of reading the book was to read it, to take his time enjoying and absorbing it again. He wasn’t going to let this stranger turn one of his favorite novels into a scavenger hunt.

So Gus tried to start the most recent Stephen King that he’d picked up, figuring it would pull him in fast no matter what else was on his mind. He didn’t get very far.

Just on the other side of the couch’s arm, still in his shoulder bag, lay Hidden Faces of the Stars and who knew how many unread notes inside it. After re-reading the opening page of the novel in his hands four times, and not remembering a word of it any time, he tossed it onto the coffee table and reached for his bag and the book inside it.

He hadn’t read five pages when he found the next inscription. Alexander’s director, Kate, was talking to him about his character’s motivation, trying to give him something else to focus on so that he wouldn’t get so lost in his anxiety about the rhythm, so that maybe the music would become second nature while he focused more on his actions, letting the two go hand in hand. “Ignoring your problem won’t make it fix itself,” was scrawled next to Kate’s directing. The handwriting was getting bigger and less careful. Some of the strokes of the letters obscured the text of the book.

Gus flipped back to the other two notes, to make sure he wasn’t making it up. The first note was in careful, cramped print, the second slightly sloppier. This third one demanded attention, making the other two appear almost subtle.

Leaving the book open in his lap Gus stared at the wall across from him, thinking about the last time he’d shared his apartment with someone, when John had lived there. Mostly Gus liked the quiet of living alone, liked that whatever plate or spoon he needed was always clean, but sometimes the stillness was overwhelming. This was one of those moments. He wouldn’t tell someone else about the book, but he wanted someone to distract him from it. He wanted something besides another story to fill his head.

Beth said he should get a dog. He was away so much of the day. It seemed cruel to subject an animal to that much loneliness.

Gus and John had ended up sharing the apartment thanks to craigslist. Given how those things usually worked out Gus still found it surprising they’d gotten along as well as they had. It had always been a temporary arrangement. John was here for a work assignment, and as soon as that was up, he would move back to Chicago. So when the job was up he did just that and Gus—having been recently promoted himself—decided he could handle the rent on his own.

Opening the book again, Gus brushed his fingers over the blue letters, depressed into the page because they’d been written with such force, before he resumed reading.

It was two pages later that he came across another note. Gus wasn’t expecting them to be so close together, and so even though he turned each page carefully now, this one managed to take him by surprise. The first two had been chapters apart.

On the page, Alexander was walking through Central Park. The show was touring. Every performance had gone fine so far; not perfect, but solid. Tonight was the NYC premiere and Alexander couldn’t shake a feeling of doom. The sun was out, and the street performers, too. The earnestness of these people performing in the out-of-doors, making art accessible, even if they were largely ignored, wasn’t doing anything to alleviate Alexander’s almost crippling self-doubt.

Gus had marked this passage emphatically with an asterisk, drawing it large with the orange highlighter that had been within reach. Some of the crosshatches of the asterisk bled across the text, like he’d been creating an impressionistic representation of the sun the novel spent a paragraph and a half describing.

There was a blue arrow arcing from the bottom corner of the page, up through the margin, and pointing at Gus’s highlighter star. Written at the base of the arrow was, “I agree.” The last eight words of the sentence this statement sat next to had been underlined, the sentence that read: “He watched the woman with her scratched and dented violin, swaying in the park, playing a cover of some pop hit that Alexander recognized but couldn’t name, and felt like this song, missed notes and all, was more honest than any performance he’d ever given.”

Gus couldn’t remember whether he’d underlined those eight words. The line was done in blue ink, and most of Gus’s pens were black, but sometimes he’d find one on the subway floor and put it in his bag. He’d even carried around a red pen for awhile. Gus closed his eyes. Then looked at the page again, tracing each player in the complicated collection of marks: the swift line under the text, angling slightly down; the arc slicing up through the margin, as elegant and confidant as anything Gus had ever seen; his enthusiastic asterisk, looking like an over-eager puppy among the other notations; and those two words, “I agree.”

Gus grabbed a pen and wrote—with a hand that shook only slightly—“why?”

 

 

Usually Gus Feldin stayed in on Saturday mornings, made himself some toast and eggs sunny-side-up, and then listened to NPR while tidying up a little. Today he walked to the diner down the street. He didn’t take Hidden Faces of the Stars with him, or the paper. He ordered eggs sunny-side-up and wheat toast with a side of bacon and tried not to read anything in the restaurant. He consumed more coffee than was probably wise if he didn’t want to spend the rest of the day jittery and watched the other diners, wondering what their hand-writing looked like.

This was where he and John had met. They’d sat in that booth two forward and a row over from where Gus was sitting today and talked about what they were looking for in an apartment and a roommate. Gus had ordered eggs sunny-side-up and wheat toast with a side of bacon. John had eaten strawberry banana pancakes covered in more syrup and whipped cream than Gus had ever seen an adult consume. After forging through the getting-to-know-you small talk and shoring up the details of what they were looking for in a living situation they’d stayed for another coffee refill.

Gus scraped the last smear of yolk from his plate with the corner of his toast, and drained his fourth mug of coffee to the very bottom, before he pushed himself out of the booth.

There was a bookstore not far from here. He’d go read Hidden Faces of the Stars there.

 

 

There were two different copies on the shelf. Apparently they’d just released a new edition, with an introduction by the New Yorker’s opera critic, which seemed like a strange choice to Gus. Even if Alexander was a counter-tenor he’d always felt like opera was secondary to the novel. Secondary to something he couldn’t quite name, but still secondary. He wished they’d picked someone to write the introduction who would’ve isolated that important quality Gus wasn’t able to pin down. After staring at the two books for a moment, he pulled the new edition off the shelf. Something as different as possible from the copy sitting at home on his couch seemed preferable.

There was an over stuffed arm chair at the back of the store. Settling into it, Gus flipped through the book, trying to find where he’d left off. He read the last few pages of the chapter about Alexander’s meandering stroll through Central Park and started on the next.

None of Alexander’s fears about opening night had come to pass. Not only he, but also every other performer, had gotten through the opera without so much as a missed note—at least not one that Alexander had heard. There’d been a woman waiting for him at the stage door. Now, without any explanation, like this was a thing that just happened, though Gus would swear it wasn’t, Alexander and the woman were in his hotel room, drinking room service champagne, and the woman was giggling, her laugh “like the trill of a robin,” and falling against Alexander, “her warmth pressing into him through the layers of their shirts and making the hair on the back of his arms stand.”

The tips of Gus’s ears burned. He’d forgotten this part came next. Actually, he’d forgotten about this scene entirely. He didn’t want to read this in public. He didn’t want to read this at all. He didn’t skip forward though. The book was a whole and if he didn’t read any part of it he’d be diminishing the entire work. Gritting his teeth and trying to convince himself that his invisible audience didn’t know exactly what he was reading, his eyes skimmed over the detailed descriptions of Alexander and the woman’s foreplay. She was full of praises for Alexander’s voice, his artistry, and this was only making Alexander uncomfortable.

Gus snapped the book closed on his finger, marking the page he’d have to return to, and stared at his shoes. After a moment he managed to open the book again. They were breathing heavily, her hands everywhere. Gus couldn’t do it. He skipped forward a few pages. Alexander and the woman—had she ever been given a name? Gus wasn’t sure—were still engaged. He flipped forward a few more. She’d left and Alexander was lying alone in the hotel room, the sheets cooling around him.

“He leveraged himself off the mattress and staggered over to the window, feeling the champagne’s bubbles still dancing in his head. The drapes pulled back with a satisfying rattling noise and Alexander leaned his forehead against the cool glass. Each breath appeared in a mist and then faded away against its pristine surface. The disinterested chill of the city seeped through and rose goose bumps on Alexander’s bare chest. The headlights of each passing car played across the curve of his stomach. Staring at the lights of the city flickering until the horizon just on the other side of the glass they seemed as distant and unknowable as the hidden faces of the stars. A siren wailed up from the street below, its diminished fifth sending a shiver up Alexander’s spine. Nothing else this evening had—”

The pads of Gus’s fingers ghosted across the page, tracing the words that summoned Alexander’s form in front of the window. He read the passage again. When he turned the page he slammed the book shut. There had been something written in blue ink on the next page.

Gus sat, his mouth open, breathing rapidly through his nose, trying to believe he hadn’t seen what he’d just seen.

An employee stepped into his peripheral vision, “Sir, are you alright? Can I help you with anything?”

Turning to face him Gus felt as if his head wasn’t attached to his body, like if he didn’t move slowly it might float off, or fall to the floor. “You don’t, you don’t sell any used books here, do you?”

“No, I’m afraid not. Are you all right?”

Gus nodded, his head wobbling. “Fine. I’m fine. Thanks,” the last word was barely a breath.

After looking at him quizzically for another moment the clerk said, “Let us know if you have any other questions,” and turned away.

The book was a weight. Gus’s hands were shaking under the strain of holding it. He tried to get up and put it back on the shelf. He didn’t have enough strength in him to stand. The new cover was bright, where the old one had been muted. Rich red curtains were pulling back from a stage with a dark blue background covered in brilliant yellow constellations, standing exactly at the middle of the part in the curtains was the suggestion of a figure in reds and browns.

Gus opened the book, and carefully leafed through to page 96. The notation said, in more careful printing than any of the others had been written in, “more erotic than anything in the past 5 pgs.”

Gus closed the book slowly. He held it at an arm’s length and stared at it, resisting the urge to shake it, as if it might let loose a secret that would reveal the note-maker’s identity. He returned it to the shelf. He walked out of the store. He wasn’t going to point the note out to anyone else. He had a suspicion that whoever bought the book would never even come across it.

He walked back to his apartment the long way through the brisk air, meandering up and down residential streets. The wind tugged at Gus’s jacket persistently and he held it closed with one hand. When he made it back to his building he climbed the three flights of stairs slowly. The air inside felt suffocating after the chill outside. He pushed open his door and walked steadily over to the couch in the same deliberate pace that had been carrying him since he rose out of the overstuffed armchair in the bookstore.

He pulled his copy of Hidden Faces of the Stars out from under a throw pillow and opened it to the description of Alexander standing against the window, the light from the city caressing his form. In his edition the paragraph all fit on one page, finishing with, “Nothing else this evening had sent that sort of thrill through him, not the applause, not the caress of a strange woman, not more than half a bottle of champagne. It was only the plaintive interval of the ambulance siren, slowly fading into the tapestry of the city’s noise, that had made Alexander’s toes curl and his breath catch.” Because the whole paragraph lived on one page in this edition Gus didn’t have to turn the page to see the note in blue ink, it said the same thing it had in the bookstore, in the same bold and careful print, as if the writer had traced the letters more than once. Gus realized the page that held the description of Alexander standing against the window, the light from the city caressing his form, was the most worn in the book. It was the passage he’d returned to more frequently than any other. The note was right. Every note he’d found had been right, even the first one, as trite as it’d been.

Gus put the book on the coffee table and stared at his hands. It might take a little bit of work to find the right number, but he would call John.


Eowyn Randall

Eowyn Randall is a student at the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program. Despite having lived in the City of Bridges for half a year now she’s managed not to cross a bridge more than ten times.

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