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Objects in Space

August 25, 2011

One Sunday morning in spring, I came home from brunch to find a muffin perched on my door handle.

It was one of those huge chocolate chip muffins you buy in the campus cafes, the sort that freshmen eat for breakfast until they look at the ingredients and see “vanilla cake mix” listed first.  I lived in a mixed-year dorm full of unusual people and I could imagine any number of ways a muffin could come to be on my door handle.  Perhaps someone had paused to tie their shoes and forgotten to pick up their muffin again afterwards.  Maybe it was part of a scavenger hunt.  Someone could be playing a trick on me; I might bite in to it and find a surprise cleverly hidden.  The guy across the hall, who was fond of leaving his door open so his Fight Club poster could leer at me, might have left the muffin as placation. It could be a gift from the dorm ghosts — or a test.

The muffin fell off as I unlocked the door. I replaced it and inched inside my room, closing the door very, very carefully.

I was in and out of my room all day, going to the library, the quad, the park, dinner. Every time I came home or left, I maneuvered myself around that pastry. It didn’t fall again.  I don’t know what I thought would happen if I disturbed it, but I have read too many fairy tales to sign contracts I haven’t read or take food that is not mine. My roommate was gone all day; so was the guy across the hall, or I would have asked him where the muffin came from.

It was almost a disappointment to finally come back from the study lounge and find the muffin gone and my roommate calmly munching at her desk, the wrapper balled up in the wastebasket.  “That was for you?” I asked, and she said, “Yeah.  I wanted a muffin, and Mike said he’d bring me one. Did you really leave it there all day?  Why?”

I mumbled something about curses, temptations, and booby traps, and she laughed at me until I joined in.

Stories are so easy to make up.

Shoes worn down on the outside of the heels. Four stools labelled Dartmouth in a dorm in New York. A watercolor of a tulip, stuck between the pages of a used book. An oak branch in a grove of birch.  A too-shiny rock hammer.  A muffin on a doorknob.

We’re used to thinking of stories in terms of people and actions.  High school English saw us charting out plot diagrams: Here is the exposition.  The rising action.  The climax.  The falling action, the resolution.  There is the hero; he (always he) has a call to action, an old mentor, a love interest; he resists the call, is impelled to action, saves the world, returns home and marries the girl and lives happily ever after.  Or not.  The end.

I like to think of objects as the vessels that carry stories. Those worn-down shoes have seen so many places, and their wearer turns her toes out. Band members made off with the stools when they travelled to support the football team, lo those many years ago.  The watercolor was a gift, carried home between the pages of airplane reading and then forgotten. The oak branch made a sturdy walking stick, until it was abandoned in the grove at the end of the hike.  The rock hammer was a Christmas present and the winter weather precluded fossil-hunting.  The shoes will be recycled; people gather around the kitchen island on those stools; the watercolor hangs in my bedroom; the branch will decompose into food for worms; the hammer picked up dings and rust over the summer, and will dull yet more as its life wears on.  Every work of art, every footprint and bent blade of grass; the wear patterns on old steps, the dog-eared corners of books, the horizons of soil in grown-over fields: each suggests that once upon a time, someone did something and left a trace on the earth, one more leaf drifting down from the tree of tales.  The matter continues and so the story continues even after its protagonists have left, and the matter wears down to dust and the dust is blown in the wind and the wind carries the dust to the four corners where it nourishes the growing things and the crawling things of this green earth, and the salmon you are eating for dinner ate those crawling things in its turn and the cycle turns on when, after dinner, you go down into your basement woodshop and create something beautiful to give to your sister on her wedding.

Some of these stories might even be true. I’m pretty sure, though, that fairies would not have whisked me away to the otherworld had I eaten that muffin, even if my roommate did get annoyed.

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