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It lingered in the air, a dead and sterile word made for whispers. Vultures fanned her hair with feather-duster wings. Up the dictionary's page ran her lean finger, wrapped in skin like pink parchment, and she found Andrews, Roy Chapman, digging in the middle of the Gobi, lifting fossil dinosaur eggs cracked and unhatched from their graves.

She folded the large, heavy book on her finger. The compressed pages gripped it with a firm, familiar pressure.

With her other hand, Miss Abigail Coates explored her face, vacant of any emotion she was willing to reveal. She did not enjoy her life. Her thin body gave no pleasure, provoked no surprise, spurred no uncontrollable passion. She took no joy in the bored pain of people in the streets. She felt imprisoned by the sun that shed a revealing, bleaching light on city walls and pavement, its dust-filled shafts stealing into her small apartment.

Miss Coates was fifty and, my God the needle in her throat when she thought of it, she had never borne a child; not once had she shared her bed with a man.

There had been, long ago, a lonely, lifeless love with a boy five years younger than she. She had hoped he would blunt the needle pain in her throat; he had begged to be given the chance. But she had spurned him. I shall use my love as bait and let men pay the toll. That had been her excuse, at any rate, until the first flush of her youth had faded. Even after that, even before she had felt dry, she had never found the right man.

"Pitiful," she said with a sigh, and drew herself up from the overstuffed chair in her small apartment, standing straight and lean at five feet seven inches. I weep inside, then read the dear Bible and the even more dear dictionary. They tell me weeping is a sin. Despair is the meanest of my sins—my few sins.

She looked around the dry, comfortable room and shielded her eyes from the gloom of the place where she slept, as if blinded by shadow. The place wasn't a bedroom because in a bedroom you slept with a man or men and she had none. Her eyes moved up the door frame, nicked in one corner where clumsy movers had knocked her bed against the wood, twenty years ago; down to the worn carpet that rubbed the bottoms of her feet like raw canvas. To the chair behind her, stuffing poking from its the middle. To the wallpaper, chosen by someone else, stained with water along the cornice from an old rain. And finally she looked down at her feet, toes frozen in loose, frayed nylons, toenails thick and well-manicured; all parts of her body looked after but the core, the soul.

She went into the place where she slept and lay down. The sheets caressed her, as they were obliged to do, wrinkles and folds in blankets rubbing her thighs, her breasts. The pillow accepted her peppery hair, and in the dark, she ordered herself to sleep.


* * *


The morning was better. There was a whole day ahead. Something might happen.

Afternoon passed like a dull ache. In the twilight she fixed her pale dinner of potatoes and veal.

In the dark, she sat in her chair with the two books at her feet and listened to the old building crack and groan as it settled in for the night. She stared at the printed flowers on the wallpaper that someone must have once thought pretty.

The morning was fine. The afternoon was hot and sticky and she took a walk, wearing sunglasses. She watched all the young people on this fine Saturday afternoon. They hold hands and walk in parks. There, on that bench; she'll be in trouble if she keeps that up.

She went back to the patient apartment that always waited, never judging, ever faithful and unperturbed.

The evening passed slowly. She became lazy with heat. By midnight a cool breeze fluttered the sun-browned curtains in the window and blew them in like the dingy wings of street birds.

Miss Coates opened her dictionary, looking for comfort, and found words she wanted, but words she didn't need. They jumped from the pages and would not leave her alone. She didn't think them obscene; she was not a prude. She loved the sounds of all words, and these words were marvelous, too, when properly entrained with other words. They could be part of rich stories, rich lives. The sound of them made her tremble and ache.

The evening ended. Again, she could not cry. Sadness was a moist, dark thing, the color of mud.

She had spent her evenings like this, with few variations, for the past five years.

The yellow morning sunlight crept across the ironing board and over her fanciest dress, burgundy in shadows, orange in the glare. "I need a lover," she told herself firmly. But one found lovers in offices and she didn't work; in trains going to distant countries, and she never left town. "I need common sense, and self-control. That part of my life is over. I need to stop thinking like a teenager." But the truth was, she had no deficiency of self-control. It was her greatest strength.

It had kept her away from danger so many times.

Her name, Coates, was not in the dictionary. There was coati, coatimundi, coat of arms, coat of mail, and then coauthor, Miss Coauthor, partner and lover to a handsome writer. They would collaborate, corroborate, celebrate.


She shut the book.

She drew the curtains on the window and slowly tugged the zipper down the back of her dress with the practiced flourish of a crochet hook. Her fingers rubbed the small of her back, nails scraping. She held her chin high, eyes closed to slits.

A lone suitor came through the dark beyond the window to stroke her skin—a stray breeze, neither hot nor cool. Sweat lodged in the cleft between her breasts. She was proud of her breasts; they were small but still did not sag when she removed her bra. She squatted and marched her hands behind her to sit and then lie down on the floor. Spreading her arms against the rough carpet, Miss Coates pressed her chin into her clavicle and peered at her breasts, boyish against the prominent ribs. Untouched. Unspoiled goods.

She cupped them in both hands. She became a thin crucifixion with legs straight and toes together. Her head lay near the window. She looked up to see the curtains fluttering silently like her lips. Mouth open. Tongue rubbing the backs of her teeth. She smoothed her hands to her stomach and let them rest there, curled on the flat warmth.

My stomach doesn't drape. I am not so undesirable. No flab, few wrinkles. My thighs are not dimpled with gross flesh.

She rolled over and propped herself on one elbow to refer to the dictionary, then the Bible.

Abigail Coates mouthing a word: Lover.

The dictionary sat tightly noncommittal in buckram, the Bible silent in black leather.

She gently pushed the Bible aside. For all its ancient sex and betrayal and the begetting of desert progeny, it would do nothing for her. She pulled the dictionary closer. "Help me," she said. "Book of all books, massive thing I can hardly lift, every thought lies in you, all human possibilities. Everything I feel, everything that can be felt, lies waiting to be described in combinations of the words you contain. You hold all possible lives, people and places I've never seen, things dead and things unborn. Haven of ghosts, home of tyrants, birthplace of saints."

She knew she would have to be audacious. What she was about to do would be proof of her finally having cracked, like those dinosaur eggs in the Gobi; dead and sterile and cracked.

"Surely you can make a man. Small word, little effort. You can even tell me how to make a man from you." She could almost imagine a man rising from the open book, spinning like a man-shaped bird cage filled with light.

The curtains puffed.

"Go," she said. She crossed her legs in a lotus next to the thick book and waited for the dust of each word, the microscopic, homeopathic bits of ink, each charged with the shape of a letter, to sift between the fibers of the paper and combine.

Dry magic. The words smelled sweet in the midnight breeze. Dead bits of ink, charged with thought, arise.


Her tongue swelled with the dryness of the ink. She unfolded and lay flat on her stomach to let the rough carpet mold her skin with crossword puzzle lines, upon which the right words could be written, her life solved.

Miss Coates flopped the dictionary around to face her, then threw its clumps of pages open to the middle. Her finger searched randomly on the page and found a word. She gasped. Man, it said, clear as could be next to her immaculate, colorless nail. Man! She moved her finger and sucked in her breath.

"There is a man in you!" she told the book and laughed. It was a joke, that's all; she was not that far gone. Still grinning, she rubbed her finger against the inside of her cheek and pressed the dampness onto the word. "Here," she said. "A few of my cells." She was clever, she was scientific, she was brilliant! "Clone them." Then she thought that possibility through and said, "But don't make him look like me or think like me. Change him with your medical words, plastic surgery and eugenics and phenotype."

The page darkened under the press of her finger. She swung the dictionary shut and returned to her lotus.

As my trunk rises from the flower of my legs and the seat of my womb, so, man, arise from the book of all books.

Would it thunder? Only silence. The dictionary trembled and the Bible looked dark and somber. The yellow bulb in the shaded lamp sang like a dying moth. The air grew heavy. Don't falter, she told herself. Don't lose faith, don't drop the flower of your legs and the seat of your womb. A bit of blood? Or milk from unsucked breasts? Catalysts. . . Or, God forbid, something living, a fly between the pages, the heart of a bird, or—she shuddered, ill with excitement, with a kind of belief—the clear seed of a dead man.

The book almost lifted its cover. It breathed.

"That was it," she whispered in awe. "The words know what to do."

Frost clung to its brown binding. The dictionary sucked warmth from the air. The cover flew back. The pages riffled, flew by, flapped spasmodically, and two stuck together, struggling, bulging. . . and then splitting.

A figure flew up, arms spread, and twirled like an ice skater. It sucked in dust and air and heat, sucked sweat from her skin, and turned dry emptiness into damp flesh.

"Handsome!" she cried. "Make him handsome and rugged and kind, and smart as I am, if not smarter. Make him like a father but not my father and like a son and a lover especially a lover, warm, and give him breath that melts my lips and softens my hair like steam from jungles. He should like warm dry days and going to lakes and fishing, but no—he should like reading to me more than fishing, and he should like cold winter days and ice-skating with me he could if you will allow me to suggest he could be brown-haired with a shadow of red and his cheeks rough with fresh young beard I can watch grow and he should—"

His eyes! They flashed as he spun, molten beacons still undefined. She approved of the roughed-in shape of his nose. His hair danced and gleamed, dark brown with a hint of red. Arms, fingers, legs, crawled with words. An ant's nest of dry ink foots crawled over his feet, tangling with heels and ankles and toes. Arms and legs fought for dominance up the branches and into the trunk, where torso and breasts and other words fought them back. The battle of words went on for minutes, fierce and hot.

Then—what had been a dream, a delusion, suddenly became magic. The words spun, blurred, became real flesh and real bone.

His breasts were firm and square and dark-nippled. The hair on his chest was dark and silky. He was still spinning. She cried out, staring at his groin.


"Yes!" she said. "I have no clothes for men."

A suit, a pink shirt with cuff links and pearl decorations.

His eyes blinked and his mouth opened and closed. His head drooped and a moan flew out like a whirled weight cut loose from a string.

"Stop!" she shouted. "Please stop, he's finished!"

The man stood on the dictionary, knees wobbly, threatening to topple. She jumped up from the floor to catch him, but he fell away from her and collapsed on the carpet beside the chair. The book lay kicked and sprawled by his feet, top pages wrinkled and torn.

Miss Coates stood over the man, hands fluttering at her breasts. He lay on his side, chest heaving, eyes closed. Her wide gaze darted from point to point on his body, lower lip held by tiny white teeth. After a few minutes, she was able to look away from the man. She squinted more closely at the dictionary, frowned, then bent to riffle through the pages. Every page was blank. The dictionary had given everything it had.

"I am naked," she told herself, stretching out her hands, using the realization to shock herself to sensibility. She went into the place where she slept to put on some clothes. Away from the man, she wondered what she would call him. He probably did not have a name, not a Christian name at any rate. It seemed appropriate to call him by a name like everyone else, even if she had raised him from paper and ink, from a dictionary.

"Webster," she said, nodding sharply at the obvious. "I'll call him Webster."

She returned to the living room and looked at the man. He seemed to be resting peacefully. How could she move him to a more comfortable place? The couch was too small to hold his ungainly body; he was very tall. She measured him with the tape from her sewing kit. Six feet two inches. His eyes were still shut; what color were they? She squatted beside him, face flushed, thinking thoughts she warned herself she must not think, not yet.

She wore her best dress, wrapped in smooth dark burgundy, against which her pale skin showed to best advantage. It was one o'clock in the morning, however, and she was exhausted. "You seem comfortable where you are," she told the man, who did not move. "I'll leave you on the floor."

Abigail Coates went into her bedroom to sleep. Tired as she was, she could not just close her eyes and drift off. She felt like shouting for joy and tears dampened the pillow and moistened her pepper hair.

In the darkness, he breathed. Dreaming, did he cause the words to flow through her drowsing thoughts? Or was it simply his breath filling the house with the odor of printer's ink?

In the night, he moved. Shifting an arm, a leg, sending atoms of words up like dust. His eyes flickered open, then closed. He moaned and was still again.

Abigail Coates's neck hair pricked with the first rays of morning and she awoke with a tiny shriek, little more than a high-pitched gasp. She rolled from her stomach onto her back and pulled up the sheet and bedspread.

Webster stood in the doorway, smiling. She could barely see him in the dawn light. Her eyelids were gummy with sleep. "Good morning, Regina," he said.

Regina Abigail Coates. Everyone had called her Abbie, when there had been friends to call her anything. No one had ever called her Regina.

"Regina," Webster repeated. "It reminds one of queens and Canadian coins."

How well he spoke. How full of class.

"Good morning," she said feebly. "How are you?" She suppressed an urge to giggle. Why are you? "How. . . do you feel?"

A ghost of a smile. He nodded politely, unwilling to complain. "As well as could be expected." He walked into her room and stopped at the foot of her bed, like a ghost her father had once told her about. "I'm well-dressed. Too much so, I think. It's uncomfortable."

Her heart was a little piston in her throat, pushing up the phlegm that threatened to choke her.

He walked around to her side of the bed, just as the ghost once had.

"You brought me out. Why?"

She stared up at his bright green eyes, like drops of water raised from the depths of an ocean trench. His hand touched her shoulder, lingered on the strap of her nightgown. One finger slipped under the strap and tugged it up a quarter of an inch. "This is the distance between OP and OR," he murmured.

She felt the pressure of the cloth beneath her breast.

"Why?" he asked again. His breath sprinkled words over her face and hair. He shook his head and frowned. "Why do I feel so obliged to. . ." He pulled down the blind and closed the drapes and she heard the soft fall and hiss of rayon dropped onto a chair. In the darkness, a knee pressed the edge of her bed. A finger touched her neck and lips covered hers and parted them. A tongue explored.

He tasted of ink.

In the early morning hours, Regina Abigail Coates gave a tiny, squeezed-in scream.


* * *


Webster sat in the overstuffed chair and watched her leave the apartment. She shut the door and leaned against the wall, not knowing what to think or feel. "Of course," she whispered to herself, as if there were no wind or strength left in her. "Of course he doesn't like the sun."

She walked down the hallway, passed the doors of neighbors with whom she had not even a nodding acquaintance, and descended the stairs to the first floor. The street was filled with cars passing endlessly back and forth. Tugging out wrinkles from her dress, she stepped into the sunlight and faced the world, the new Regina Coates, debutante.

"I know what all you other women know," she said softly, with a shrill triumph. "All of you!" She looked up and noticed the sky, perhaps for the first time in twenty years; rich with clouds scattered across a bright blue sheet, demanding of her, Breathe deeply. She was part of the world, the real world.

Webster still sat in the chair when she returned with two bags of groceries. He was reading her Bible. Her face grew hot and she put down the bags and snatched it quickly from his hands. She could not face his querying stare, so she lay the book on a table, out of his reach, and said, "You don't want that."

"Why?" he asked. She picked up the bags again by their doubled and folded paper corners, taking them one in each hand into the kitchen and opening the old refrigerator to stock the perishables.

"When you're gone," Webster said, "I feel as if I fade. Am I real?"

She glanced up at the small mirror over the sink. Her shoulders twitched and a shudder ran up her back. I am very far gone now.

Regina brought in the afternoon newspaper and he held his hand out with a pleading expression; she handed it across, letting it waver for a moment above a patch of worn carpet, teasing him with a frightened, uncertain smile. He took it, spread it eagerly, and rubbed his fingers over the pages. He turned the big sheets slowly, seeming to absorb more than read. She fixed them both a snack but Webster refused to eat. He sat across from her at the small table, face placid, and for the moment, that was more than enough. She sat at her table, ate her small trimmed sandwich and drank her glass of grapefruit juice. Glancing at him from all sides—he did not seem to mind, and it made his outline sharper—she straightened up the tiny kitchen.

What was there to say to a man between morning and night? She had expected that a man made of words would be full of conversation, but Webster had very little experience. While all the right words existed in him, they had yet to be connected. Or so she surmised. Still, his very presence gratified her. He made her as real as she had made him.

He refused dinner, even declining to share a glass of wine with her after (she had only one glass).

"I expect there should be some awkwardness in the early days," she said. "Don't you? Quiet times when we can just sit and be with each other. Like today."

Webster stood by the window, touched a finger to his lips, leaving a smudge, and nodded. He agreed with most things she said.

"Let's go to bed," she suggested primly.

In the dark, when her solitude had again been sundered and her brow was sprinkled with salty drops of exertion, he lay next to her, and—

He moved.

He breathed.

But he did not sleep.

Regina lay with her back to him, eyes wide, staring at the flowers on the ancient wallpaper and a wide trapezoid of streetlight glare transfixing a small table and its vase. She felt ten years—no, twenty!—sliding away from her, and yet she couldn't tell him how she felt, didn't dare turn and talk. The air was full of him. Full of words not her own, unorganized, potential. She breathed in a million random thoughts, deep or slight, complex or simple, eloquent or crude. Webster was becoming a generator. Kept in the apartment, his substance was reacting with itself; shut away from experience, he was making up his own patterns and organizations, subtle as smoke.

Even lying still, waiting for the slight movement of air through the window to cool him, he worked inside, and his breath filled the air with potential.

Regina was tired and deliciously filled, and that satisfaction at least was hers. She luxuriated in it and slept.

In the morning, she lay alone in the bed. She flung off the covers and padded into the living room, pulling down her rucked-up nightgown, shivering against the morning chill. He stood by the window again, naked, not caring if people on the streets looked up and saw. She stood beside him and gently enclosed his upper arm with her fingers, leaned her cheek against his shoulder, a motion that came so naturally she surprised herself with her own grace. "What do you want?" she asked.

"No," he said tightly. "The question is, what do you want?"

"I'll get us some breakfast. You must be hungry by now."

"No. I'm not. I don't know what I am or how to feel."

"I'll get some food," she continued obstinately, letting go of his arm. "Do you like milk?"

"No. I don't know."

"I don't want you to become ill."

"I don't get ill. I don't get hungry. You haven't answered my question."

"I love you," she said, with much less grace.

"You don't love me. You need me."

"Isn't that the same thing?"

"Not at all."

"Shall we get out today?" she asked airily, backing away, realizing she was doing a poor imitation of some actress in the movies. Bette Davis, her voice light, tripping.

"I can't. I don't get sick, I don't get hungry. I don't go places."

"You're being obtuse," she said petulantly, hating that tone, tears of frustration rising in her eyes. How must I behave? Is he mine, or am I his?

"Obtuse, acute, equilateral, isosceles, vector, derivative, sequesential, psych-integrative, mersauvin powers. . ." He shook his head, grinning sadly. "That's the future of mathematics for the next century. It becomes part of psychology. Did you know that? All numbers."

"Did you think that last night?" she asked. She cared nothing for mathematics; what could a man made of words know about numbers?

"Words mix in blood, my blood is made of words. . . . I can't stop thinking, even at night. Words are numbers, too. Signs and portents, measures and relations, variables and qualifiers."

"You're flesh," she said. "I gave you substance."

"You gave me existence, not substance."

She laughed harshly, caught herself, forced herself to be demure again. Taking his hand, she led him back to the chair. She kissed him on the cheek, a chaste gesture considering their state of undress, and said she would stay with him all day, to help him orient to his new world. "But tomorrow, we have to go out and buy you some more clothes."

"Clothes," he said softly, then smiled as if all was well. She leaned her head forward and smiled back, a fire radiating from her stomach through her legs and arms. With a soft step and a skip she danced on the carpet, hair swinging. Webster watched her, still smiling.

"And while you're out," he said, "bring back another dictionary."

"Of course. We can't use that one anymore, can we? The same kind?"

"Doesn't matter," he said, shaking his head.

The uncertainty of Webster's quiet afternoon hours became a dull, sugarcoated ache for Regina Coates. She tried to disregard her fears—that he found her a disappointment, inadequate; that he was weakening, fading—and reasoned that if she was his mistress, she could make him do or be whatever she wished. Unless she did not know what to wish. Could a man's behavior be wished for, or must it simply be experienced?

At night the words again poured into her, and she smiled in the dark, lying beside the warmth of the shadow that smelled of herself and printer's ink, wondering if they should be taking precautions. She was a late fader in the biological department and there was a certain risk. . . .

She grinned savagely, thinking about it. All she could imagine was a doctor holding up a damp bloody thing in his hands and saying, "Miss Coates, you're the proud mother of an eightounce . . . Thesaurus."

"Abridged?" she asked wickedly.

She shopped carefully, picking for him the best clothes she could afford, in a wide variety of styles, dipping into her savings to pay the bill. For herself she chose a new dress that showed her slim waist to advantage and hid her thin thighs. She looked girlish, summery. That was what she wanted. She purchased the dictionary and looked through gift shops for something else to give him. "Something witty and interesting for us to do." She settled on a game of Scrabble.

Webster was delighted with the dictionary. He regarded the game dubiously, but played it with her a few times. "An appetizer," he called it.

"Are you going to eat the book?" she asked, half in jest.

"No," he said.

She wondered why they didn't argue. She wondered why they didn't behave like a normal couple, ignoring her self-derisive inner voice crying out, Normal!?

My God, she said to herself after two weeks, staring at the hard edge of the small table in the kitchen. Creating men from dictionaries, making love until the bed is damp—at my age! He still smells like ink. He doesn't sweat and he refuses to go outside. Nobody sees him but me. Me. Who am I to judge whether he's really there?

What would happen to Webster if I were to take a gun and put a hole in his stomach, above the navel? A man with a navel, not born of woman, is an abomination—isn't he?

If he spoke to her simply and without emotion just once more, or twice, she thought she would try that experiment and see.

She bought a gun, furtive as a mouse but a respectable citizen, for protection, a small gray pistol, and hid it in her drawer. She thought better of it a few hours after, shuddered in disgust, and removed the bullets, flinging them out of the apartment's rear window into the dead garden in the narrow courtyard below.

On the last day, when she went shopping, she carried the empty gun with her so he wouldn't find it—although he showed no interest in snooping, which would at least have been a sign of caring. The bulge in her purse made her nervous.

She did not return until dinnertime. The apartment is not my own. It oppresses me. He oppresses me. She walked quietly through the front door, saw the living room was empty, and heard a small sound from behind the closed bedroom door. The light flop of something stiff hitting the floor.

"Webster?" Silence. She knocked lightly on the door. "Are you ready to talk?"

No reply.

He makes me mad when he doesn't answer. I could scare him, force him react to me in some way. She took out the pistol, fumbling it, pressing its grip into her palm. It felt heavy and formidable.

The door was locked. Outraged that she should be closed out of her own bedroom, she carried the revolver into the kitchen and found a hairpin in a drawer, the same she had used months before when the door had locked accidentally. She knelt before the door and fumbled, teeth clenched, lips tight.

With a small cry, she pushed the door open.

Webster sat with legs crossed on the floor beside the bed. Before him lay the new dictionary, opened almost to the back. "Not now," he said, tracing a finger along the rows of words.

Regina's mouth dropped open. "What are you looking at?" she asked, tightening her fingers on the pistol. She stepped closer, looked down, and saw that he was already up to VW.

"I don't know," he said. He found the word he was looking for, reached into his mouth with one finger and scraped his inner cheek. Smeared the wetness on the page.

"No," she said. Then, "Why . . .?"

There were tears on his cheeks. The man of dry ink was crying. Somehow that made her furious.

"I'm not even a human being," he said.

She hated him, hated this weakness; she had never liked weak men. He adjusted his lotus position and gripped the edges of the dictionary with both hands. "Why can't you find a human being for yourself?" he asked, looking up at her. "I'm nothing but a dream."

She held the pistol firmly to her side. "What are you doing?"

"Need," he said. "That's all I am. Your hunger and your need. Do you know what I'm good for, what I can do? No. You'd be afraid if you did. You keep me here like some commodity."

"I wanted you to go out with me," she said tightly.

"What has the world done to you that you'd want to create me?"

"You're going to make a woman from that thing, aren't you?" she asked. "Nothing worthwhile has ever happened to me. Everything gets taken away the moment I . . ."

"Need," he said, raising his hands over the book. "You cannot love unless you need. You cannot love the real. You must change the thing you love to please yourself, and damn anyone if he should question what hides within you."

"You thing," she breathed, lips curled back. Webster looked at her and at the barrel of the gun she now pointed at him and laughed.

"You don't need that," he told her. "You don't need something real to kill a dream. All you need is a little sunlight."

She lowered the gun, dropped it with a thud on the floor, then lifted her eyebrows and smiled around gritted teeth. She pointed the index finger of her left hand and her face went lax. Listlessly, she whispered, "Bang."

The smell of printer's ink became briefly more intense, then faded on the warm breeze passing through the apartment. She kicked the dictionary shut.

How lonely it was going to be, in the dark with only her own sweat.



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