Words and Negative Space
At first he thought it a typo, a period superseding a word mid-sentence. But in the decisecond it took his brain to comprehend something off, the period slipped behind the last letter of the word just read. He figured a gnat, an insect the size of a clogged pore, one that landed on his reading material and quickly fluttered away.
The following morning, Gary Bicknell noticed movement in the negative space between the V-component of the letter Y. The word was crunchy, printed in blue squiggly letters on a box of cereal. The man rubbed at his temples. He rested there at the kitchen table for some time, the palms of his hands over his closed eyes. In the darkness of cupped hands, he blamed the aberration on exhaustion and working late the night before.
A week or so later, Gary was on the beach reading the latest issue of a popular science magazine. Light reading compared to the previous weeks of grading papers from his summer classes. And it was on the beach he saw it again, quickly blaming it on the sun’s glare or a grain of sand that could have picked up in the wind and rolled across the magazine. That was until the glare was gone and sand could no longer get through. Gary placed a towel over his head and the publication, still able to read from the orange light shining through the threads. And when he thought he saw it again, he rubbed his eyes and grabbed for a pair of sunglasses resting on top of the beach bag. Then he rubbed at the glossy paper as an artist would to smear and shadow graphite.
When Gary’s friend David came in from the water, he told David about the miniscule disturbances in his reading. And when Gary saw his eye doctor the following Tuesday, the goateed man determined them floaters. Shadows in the retina, more or less. Very common for people his age. But Gary knew floaters. He’s had them ever since his laser-eye surgery a decade prior. This was something different, he knew, but Gary wasn't going to disagree with the white-coat professional in that little exam room. So they shook hands and wished each other a good day.
Some years later, when Gary Bicknell—a professor now at Whaley University Department of Physics—submitted his article on the Letter People to the various scientific publications well read in his field of study, single-sentence rejection letters trickled into his university email. Those mailed back to him via the self-addressed stamped envelope that he sent paperclipped to the submitted articles were slipped into the plastic bin hanging next to his office door by way of the department secretary, Cindy Ferrera. More robust rejections were sent in response to his requests for filling calls for abstracts, posters, symposia. These at least thanked him for submitting. These at least provided words of encouragement, even if they were template responses.
One response came in late the afternoon Cindy Ferrera was out of the office with a migraine. The following morning, a dismal one in August, Cindy was feeling well rested and migraine-free, despite the weather. After sorting through the previous day’s mail and placing envelopes in the bins of the first three offices, she poked her head into the fourth office door in a passing effort to be friendly.
Be extra nice to weirdoes, her husband used to say.
But for Cindy that morning, it was more genuine than this. It may have been muted reds and yellows in the fog on the way to work that morning, or it could have been the blank-canvas feeling the beginning of the semester brought the faculty. Either way, Cindy was particular light on her feet, gliding through the hallway.
Poking her head through the fourth door on the left, she saw Gary Bicknell sitting crisscross applesauce, as Cindy liked to call it, with scads of papers fluttered around the small room. She originally planned to hand off Dr. Bicknell’s mail with a closed-mouthed smile, but instead, decided against it with his back turned to her. She took note of the heaviness in the room that overpowered the feathery warmth pouring in from the open blinds—the sun poking its effervescent head through the clouds now. And so likewise, Cindy poked her head out of the room unnoticed, feeling her three p.m. gaiety trickle away.
Even before Dr. Gary Bicknell’s obsession with the Letter People, his colleagues thought him a bit off-kilter, all the more strange being outcasted by the quirky physicists of the university. What originally got him in the door were two highly successful theses on dark matter detection. When his application for a professorship made its way to the dean of Whaley’s School of Science, Liza Grishin, and after narrowing down the opening to four candidates, the dean read through these two works, two of several cited in Dr. Bicknell’s CV, primarily because these were the two that were available for free online. Fifty minutes faded as she read the two works in their entireties, following lines and graphs with the stub of a pencil and nodding her head.
Upon hire, Gary Bicknell was warmly welcomed, but it didn’t take the veteran professors long to find Dr. Bicknell a bit too overbearing for their liking. This left Gary out of impromptu happy hours, weekend barbecues and the biannual Star Trek marathons hosted by Professor Moore. And for the two secretaries, Cindy Ferrera and the young redhead, Ashley McDonough, they teased Dr. Bicknell behind his back, primarily in reference to his strange demeanor and look of constant contempt. Eventually Dean Grishin took a disliking to Gary, too.
It started with a passing intuition, some out-of-this-world instinct. A hunch. Nothing specific exactly, just a newly formed feeling. For a physicist, she knew there was no concrete reason to feel that way. No facts. No data. But before scientist, she was human, and in an effort to ease her mind, the dean scheduled an impromptu one-on-one with Gary Bicknell to clear the air.
And she was hoping to prove her intuitions wrong.
Just as Liza Grishin began wrapping up their conversation, Gary Bicknell began rambling about a piece he was working on. For some time, he said. Said it had been submitted a handful of times, too, but he just kept revising it, and adding still. An ever-progressing incoherence, Liza thought. Something so far-fetch she figured it a joke at first. Microscopic entities residing in printed text? It sounded like bad sci-fi. But, of course, it wasn’t a joke. Gary was not one to joke she had learned.
Later that evening, Liza met with Dr. Ronald Ballas, her unspoken favorite professor of the bunch, and the one who might actually know what the hell was going on with Gary.
Oh, the Letter People, he said, laughing. This the first time you’re hearing this? Oh boy, he said.
In fits of depression, after digging through his scribbled notes on the Letter People, Dr. Gary Bicknell contemplated life led behind the inky bars of text. Serif fonts and the climbing of print as one would a rock wall. He imagined falling off the crossbar of a lowercase T as a young man could hanging lights from the roof, just as he had done in his early twenties. Broke three ribs while the sun was setting and everyone else was shopping.
He depicted the dark after the closing of a novel. The Letter People chewing their tiny fingernails until the reader opened the work again. He thought how light could leak through a page to the one behind it, offering a dim luminosity for the Letter People on neighboring pages, while the others were left stumbling blind, feeling around individual characters as a guide to get to wherever they needed to be.
To Gary, the Letter People were cognizant beings. They resided in physical printed pieces, and not, for instance, digital materials or blank stationery. The world in which they lived was a three-dimensional world like Gary’s, where they could move about in an sliver of space existing between typeset letters and the physical piece of paper. He used an analogy of architectural foundations and the spaces between walls that house wires and plumbing and such. A microscopic crevice, to use his choice of words.
He fantasized he was a Letter Person at times. A sort of morbid fantasy. For instance, when he fell over his niece's diorama one night visiting his brother, he thought of tripping over a semicolon or some other trivial symbol. When he slipped off a curb at the university, spilling coffee on his shirt, he envisioned stumbling off a sentence fragment or a word cut short.
He thinks: Can they travel between pages? To other nearby works? Does the opening of a book cause a temporary blinding of white? Do they build shelters behind each letter? If so, from what are they sheltering themselves? Do they have neighborhoods? Is each Letter Person expected to contribute to their twelve-point societies? By writing these notes, am I mothering more of these peoples? Are we all creators of sorts? Are we gods?
In the fall the following year, Sigh:Hence, a magazine of scientific mockery and satire, published a small article on the Letter People after Dr. Bicknell’s work was sent to them from an outgoing editor of one of the journals to which Dr. Bicknell had submitted his studies. The angle Sigh:Hence chose was insinuating the microscopic Letter People compared directly the microscopic manhood of the researcher. A frivolous Freudian joke and an angle not uncommon for the publication.
Despite her shaking-of-the-head reaction to the poor taste in which Sigh:Hence referenced Dr. Gary Bicknell, the School of Science dean was forced to take the matter seriously, for she was worried about the manic state her colleague was in, but also the fact that the satirical publication specifically mentioned Whaley University by name.
Between the release of this publication and the follow-up issue in the fall, Dr. Bicknell was put on administrative leave from the university. Some time later, at the suggestion of his mom and brother, he joined the Lakeberry Center, a private psychiatric facility. He willingly accepted the schedule of an unconfirmed amount of six-hour outpatient visits inclusive of various therapies and classes, while he spent his nights at home, unbeknownst to his care team, studying each piece of printed collateral he could get his hands on.
In the follow-up edition of Sigh:Hence, there was a letter to the editor from an unnamed colleague of Dr. Bicknell. Many assumed the dean herself after gossip traveled from the rumor mill president Cindy Ferrera to the physics professors, this being after Cindy stumbled in on a snotty-nosed and teary-eyed Liza Grishin in the women's restroom just hours after she heard about the whole Sigh:Hence scandal from Ashley McDonough, who heard it from Professor Tittle in Mathematics of all people. And in the poor humor of Sigh:Hence, the publication redacted a majority of the letter and left only a few characters uncensored. By linking these scattered details in sequence, readers quickly found the puzzle to read “phallic fail.”
Even this piece of material, this manipulated letter to the editor, was observed by Dr. Bicknell in search of more Letter People, wondering how they—the letter people—felt behind black bars of censorship. The actual writer of the letter, Dr. Ronald Ballas, spit at this computer screen after Liza Grishin emailed him a link to the digital version. And in a Greek accent that only came out in fits of drinking or anger, Ronald sputtered a single swear word and made the sign of the cross.
Gary Bicknell was discharged from the Lakeberry Center after just five six-hour visits. The psychiatrist in charge of his care, Peter Knox, thought the man of sound mind albeit an adamant belief in the Letter People, and in no danger to himself or others.
It’s not like I’m trying to prove the existence of the sasquatch, Gary said in his exit interview at the Center. I’m basically trying to prove the existence of a more structured, intelligent microbe. I don’t get why so many people think I’m such a nut over this.
The reason for Dr. Bicknell’s relaxed state during his time there was in part due to the clonazepam he began taking several times a day until he ran out of them not too long after. He found them in his cupboard that week, forgetting he had them. And although they expired a year prior, they worked just fine.
Okay, said the psychiatrist. I hope you prove everyone wrong.
Me too, Gary said.
On the way out, Gary felt particularly observant. He studied various license plates in the Lakeberry parking lot to see if he could see movement around the embossed letters. He stood just a few feet away from a stop sign and stared for almost ten minutes. Then he picked up a shopping list that had blown from a nearby shopping complex, took this to his car, where he sat with the keys on his lap, and unwrinkled the list. He studied it, watched the stillness of each letter, until a mark the size of a pinhead sprinted lengthwise across the paper and disappeared behind an entry for tissues.
Since that time, Liza Grishin’s waistline grew two pant sizes. The gray hair peppered around her ears was dyed dark. Her crow’s feet lengthened with deep divots. And on a evening with the moon fierce and full, she sat in bed with her longtime girlfriend, Bethany Park, with their backs against the headboard watching the final episode of Investigative Journalism before calling it a night.
During the one-hour finale, the focus was on Gary Bicknell, a man she hadn't seen in person for over a decade. He talked to the pewter-haired host about his early retirement from Whaley, his move to a studio forty miles south of campus, and the faithful focus on his studies. He said that each day he blogged from the local library on his thoughts and findings, slowly gathering a small but loyal following that deemed themselves the Observers.
From donations of his followers, Dr. Gary Bicknell told the host he purchased four high-resolution video cameras that documented single pages of text for twenty-four-hour increments. At this point in the segment, footage was shown of the live stream—though not live at the time in which it was aired—where Dr. Bicknell clarified that ever since the launch of the live stream, each second has been, and continues to be, recorded and catalogued. In order to never miss a moment of footage, loyal Observers watch—No…study, he corrected himself—the text on the screen for prescheduled amounts of time, wherein the Observers, from various locations in the world, search for minuscule movements on or around the text being recorded.
At one point, they showed footage the host called revealing. It was slowed down, zoomed in, and a bit blurry. All across the country people watched, although the ratings were particularly low for this program. But those watching were firsthand viewers of this so-called phenomenon. A smear of black that appeared and vanished behind a serif-set character printed on a yellowed piece of paper. And despite the evidence proving the tape was untampered, many found it underwhelming and unconvincing.
At the closing of the show, the host asked the audience to consider this: For as much speculation there is about the Letter People, scientists have yet to disprove the theory. Sure, many view it as outstandingly dubious, but imagine: every bit of text one reads harbors a society of freethinking beings. Imagine—
Jesus Christ, Liza Grishin said, flicking off the T.V.
Don’t let him get to you, Bethany said, and she gave Liza a light kiss before turning on her stomach.
Liza fidgeted and scooted herself further under the covers. She lay on her side and rubbed her fingertips across the spine of a paperback she bought earlier in the week. Words and Negative Space it was called, written by a Dr. Gerald Bradley, a pseudonym for a man she once knew.
Liza then looked over her shoulder to find Bethany on her cellphone, both in their own heads for the night.
Before turning off the bedside lamp, Liza casually rotated the book on the nightstand so the words on the spine faced the doorway. She then placed a torn piece of cardboard from her nightstand drawer on top on the book. Not a single letter in view. Even the piles of laundry had their tags tucked in. But as for the book, only the off-white of the three-hundred some odd pages could stare at Liza through the night, perfectly level, perfectly plain.
Adam Gianforcaro is the author of the poetry collection Morning Time in the Household, Looking Out and children’s picture book Uma the Umbrella. His poems and prose can be found in The Brasilia Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Kentucky Review, The Los Angeles Review, Sundog Lit, and others.