Issue 23 / Fall 2020
Outside, it’s a typical Miami summer. Tourists have left the city. Throats gulp 100% humidity while sweat falls plump.
Inside, the house reeks sickly sweet. Shalimar and disinfectant. Febreze and bleach. Like desert mirages, the air undulates in waves. I walk with outstretched arms, zombielike, trying to discern what’s real and what’s not. Walking past your bed and bureau, my heart implodes. The sheets are creased with origami precision. A robe lies on the floor.
And there in the corner, scarier than any clown’s mask, is the Styrofoam head that propped your wig. There’s a face drawn with magic markers and a paisley scarf wrapped around its neck. Like Kafka’s cockroaches, the Styrofoam head lives forever. Only we disintegrate to dust.
Things hanging in your closet: The dress you wore to your wedding. The bar mitzvah gowns. The graduation suits. The hatbox where you stored your mother’s jewelry. Brooches the size of hood ornaments. A ring as large as the Pope’s. How we laughed. How we joked about the housekeeper stealing them—half-hoping the housekeeper would steal them—until she actually did.
The slippers you bought for the hospital. The bed jacket you never wore.
Things sitting on your bathroom sink: Perfume bottles. Antibacterial hand gel. Bobby pins. Q-Tips. A lipstick. An Altoids tin rattling with baby teeth. A pink soap shaped like a shell.
On the nightstand are bound stacks of children’s poetry. They’re the handiwork of an English teacher, a dramatist, a lover of books, a connoisseur of words. The poems have been lovingly curated and collated. Thin metal coils run up and down their spines. Some insomniacs play computer games, you confessed. I write poems.
As if you were casually passing a note in school or sharing a favorite recipe, you placed one in my lap. A tear dotted your cheek when you smiled. Remember to give them to your grandson. Make sure to tell your grandson Max that they’re from me.
The unspoken lingered like a ghost, brushing up against us, speaking the words we dared not say. For one day soon—you too would be a grandparent. One day soon—your children would also be married and have families of their own. This fact was as inevitable as rain, as certain as the seasons. But soon wasn’t soon enough. And even though your skin was gray, even though blue veins striped your arms and a portal punctured your chest, envy never tinged the pallor of your face.
Things lying on your desk: A lone stapler. A box of paper clips. A fist of rubber bands. A clutch of pens.
Things piled on your bookshelves: Term papers from college. Love letters from your husband. An album filled with newspaper clippings. A stack of birthday cards.
The hallway is covered top to bottom with photographs. Your parents looking appropriately stern. Your brother and sister laughing. Sepia-colored classrooms with wooden desks and upturned chins. No milestone went ignored; no event unrecorded. You were the mediator, the glue that held everyone together. Now, a large empty space looms.
Things crammed in the hall closet: An umbrella. A vacuum cleaner. A dustbin. A broom.
How you slaved over lists those final weeks, writing memos and reminders, compiling all the information you had gleaned. As if a lifetime’s worth of dos and don’ts could be condensed into a guidebook. As if years and years of instructions could be distilled into a drop.
Things you wrote to your husband. How to Pay The Bills. Appliance Directions. These are the Handymen I like to Use.
Each sentence was punctuated with panic while each command read like a plea. Your desperation was as tangible as the tick tock of the clock. How I both pitied and feared your desperation.
Things you wrote to your children. Worthwhile Graduate Degrees. The Best Law Schools. Supplies to Buy for Your First Apartment. Important Qualities in a Spouse.
Ricocheting off walls, I open doors and search under beds. I peer into black holes and probe through spider webs and clouds of lint. It’s like being a refugee in a foreign country or an orphan without a home. Every object feels displaced. I’m as lost as Gogol’s souls.
Things every household needs: A folding stool. A five-gallon bucket. A feather duster. A mop.
You wouldn’t believe how much stuff I threw out, you assured me. Then you opened a drawer, foraged around, and sighed.
Things kept in the kitchen: A lemon squeezer. A garlic press. A grater. A spatula. A slotted spoon. A serving fork.
When your hand grabbed mine, it was already cold. Another week, you insisted. Maybe another month. Another month of cleaning and I’ll be through! Then once again, you buried your hands inside the drawer. Then you shook your head and sighed once more. Whatever will I do? Whatever will I do?
As I fumbled for an answer, you narrowed your eyes. The task consumed you. It was such a relief to be consumed by a task. Each article was cradled in your fingers and examined. At one time, the items in the drawer were paired. A nut with a bolt. A lock with a key. But over the years, essential parts had gone missing. Halved, they lost their purpose—their raison d’être.
Things that are left behind: A single chopstick. A knitting needle. A wool mitten. A cufflink. A silver earring. A best friend.
The sun sliced through the window as I stood in your shadow and watched. Inside our minds, the calendar pages were flipping. We both knew that your chore would go unfinished. Is there ever enough time? And sure enough, the end, when it came, and took both of us by surprise.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories appear or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Arts and Letters, Catapult, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.