I hadn’t thought about the letter in years. It wasn’t until I was at the MoMA a few days ago that I saw a name that reminded me. Mallick Clem. It was an inscription on the wall. Mallick. Clem. The installation itself had not been substantial. Mallick had starved a cat to death in a bucket painted like a can of tomato soup. The Warhol reference I got, but the poor cat? I guess I just don’t understand modern art.
The name Clem, though, rattled awhile in my synaptic nerves. Then it came back to me. That curious incident with the letter. Clem! That had been the addressee. One Raymond Clem.
Years back, someone slid a coffee-colored envelope (that’s coffee with several dollops of cream) through the brass mail slot on my door. The slot was a relic of a bygone era; I’d kept it installed because it reminded me of a noir. The detective finds a mysterious package – a letter, a record, a key, a falcon. It starts the whole damn thing. I’d kept the slot out of a love for mysteries. You might say I’d prepared.
The envelope was folded into a rhombus, the edges treated with an adhesive. The paper, as I mentioned, had a Coffee-Mate Hazelnut Creamer quality to it. There was Raymond Clem printed on the front. No return address. Who was this Raymond fellow? I knew of only one Clem at the time – Virginia Clemm, the child-wife of Edgar Allan Poe. And we’d only made acquaintance through an acrostic. You might have read it: A Valentine by Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe. A vestige of a lighter age.
In the right corner of the envelope was a red stamp and a postmark for 1851. More than a century before my lifetime. What an odd find!
I took the envelope into the study (really, a collection of boxes and papers – contracts, leases, receipts, maps, my Literature degree in a crumpled ball – I hadn’t even secured a desk yet), pried it open, and pulled out the letter. The letter and – I trembled with excitement – a key! The letter was equally old, lighter in color, inked. And the key was one of those we call a skeleton key, although its bow was in the shape of a golden bug.
The letter itself seemed to be calling for a conference at a particular place at a particular time – today, in fact. This year, too. It made some odd requests and mentioned a great number of people whom I suspected had long been dead. No one was mentioned by name but by cryptic titles. “Ah! Bring the man with the little hands, Do not forget him!” the letter read. And surely, “We are in want of the exarch, He minds these kinds of things. Haste! The exarch, we must have him, too.” Included in the letter was an address, and I pulled out maps on my phone only to find — it was the location of Saint Hald’s Cathedral down by the Home Depot. Well, of course, I thought. If you are to plan a party a century in advance, choose a place you’re sure will be standing.
The letter’s parting remarks gave me frank instructions: “Take a carriage, bring those requested, and the letter, the key, and coin for the toll, and a warming fear. When that fear is brought to boil, it will be too late.”
Unfortunately, the youthful are somewhat easily distracted. Having work in the morning, and having already spent plenty of time in the realm of enigma, I put away the articles. Later that evening, I spilled beer on the envelope and its contents, and threw it all away.