I pulled up to the cabin in my Jeep and cut off the engine, heaving a sigh of relief and just sitting a moment, taking in the familiar view of the log walls and blue lake and sky. Finally I got out and set to work hiding my tracks. I didn’t need any nosy parkers following my trail to the lake and interrupting my peaceful grief here.
I pulled a few things out of the boathouse before parking the Jeep inside and covering its shiny redness with a moldy blue tarp I’d found in a corner. Then I spent the next couple hours scuffing out my tire tracks for at least three hundred yards from the cabin. By the time I was done, I was covered in loose forest dirt and pine needles up to mid-thigh, and I’d wiped my hands and arms across my face so many times my skin felt tight with grime and cracked when I grimaced.
I wanted nothing more than to collapse into bed and sleep for a couple days, but once I got inside the cabin, leaving my crusty boots at the door outside and my crusty jeans at the door inside, the memories came flooding back to me, and I was wide awake and somehow refreshed.
The last painting my family owned done by my grandfather still hung on the wall in the living area, and his ashes still rested in an urn on the rough-hewn mantel above the fireplace. Even though he’d been gone since I was a child, and I’d spent more years here without him than with him, this was still his place, and stepping inside was like stepping into his warm embrace one last time.
The couch was covered in a sheet of clear plastic, but I could see the same old heavy blue-jean quilt lying over the back, waiting to warm me when it got cold again. Next to it, my dad’s worn armchair, wooden arms dark and shiny with decades of body oils. The rug my mom found in a thrift store and declared “just perfect” for our vacation getaway, our home away from home.
It was all perfect, and exactly how I remembered it. I walked further in, stripping my shirt over my head, careful to keep the dust and twigs inside the cloth, and froze when I reached the kitchen.
There was the yellowing Amana fridge, and held onto its face with alphabet magnets, a crayoned landscape made by yours truly at nine years old. The years had given me fresh eyes although the picture felt deeply familiar, and I saw my own potential as a stranger might have. Pride swelled briefly in my chest before I remembered that part of my life was put forever behind me with the loss of my wife.
I crumpled into a chair at the dining room table and cried for what felt like forever. I came here because she never had, because this was the one place that I thought I could live for a while without seeing her face every time I blinked, but I was wrong. I couldn’t breathe without seeing her face. She was my whole world, and now she was gone.
I cried myself to sleep at that table, and when I woke up I was in so much pain I could hardly stand. My joints creaked audibly, and my shoulders protested my efforts to put my arms down at my sides from where they had pillowed my head throughout the night. My back screamed in agony at my hours of poor, stiff posture.
I refused to turn the generator on, so I knew the water would be ice cold, but I stepped into the shower still in my bra and panties. I turned the knob, and the water was so cold I tried to scream and couldn’t. I knew hot would have been better for my sore muscles, but the massage of the pounding drops was better than nothing, and my skin grew numb after a few moments.
I got out when my teeth started to chatter, and, unable to face the bedroom alone, unable to face any bedroom alone just yet, I pulled the plastic from the couch and wrapped myself in the blue-jean quilt before collapsing onto the worn cushions. I shivered for a long time before dropping off into a slightly more restful sleep than I’d gotten at the table.
When I woke I was warmer, even though my short hair and the underwear I’d slept and showered in was still damp. I realized that I hadn’t brought my bag in from the Jeep, and so had no fresh clothing to put on. I slipped on a pair of the clogs that we’d always kept by the front door for running out to fetch more firewood and went to the boathouse in my undies. My family owned this land for miles, so I knew I didn’t have any neighbors across the lake to ogle my nakedness.
I flipped the tarp out of the way and pulled my duffel from the backseat. The tears threatened again, and I quickly covered her Jeep back up. God, I missed her so much. The pain in my chest felt like nothing could ever make it go away, like it was something I would live with for the rest of my lonely life. I smoothed the tarp over the back windshield and headed for the cabin, my right hand fisted against my chest to keep the pain from bursting out of my body.
I dropped my bag on the table just inside the door and considered how lucky I was that the bathroom was the first door down the hall, that I wouldn’t even have to pass my or my parents’ bedrooms just yet. I kicked the clogs off, nudging them back into their rightful place to the other side of the door, grabbed my bag, and returned to the couch.
I let my wet underthings slap the carpet beneath my feet as I stripped down, and I dressed myself in the first full set of clothes I pulled from my bag. Luckily enough, it was a tshirt and a pair of sweatpants. My hand rested on a pair of wool socks, but I decided against them, shoving them back, deep into my duffel. I slid the bag to the floor and curled up on the couch again, beneath the heavy comforting weight of the quilt. My mother would never know that I left wet clothes on her precious thrifted rug.
I knew it wasn’t good for me to sleep so much, but right then, I didn’t have anything but sleep to help my state of mind. I succumbed again, a willing victim of sleep.
This time I didn’t dream of her.
When the servant knocks upon the door of every single room
And the nightshade blossom does appear to you
Your scent lingers in the air like an aftertaste of guilt
From the day we beat upon the bucket made of tin
And its approximation of a drum began.
The knot of sadness rose up my body from my stomach
And I choked the fierce repulsive bitterness back down.
The rhino stayed by my side the whole night through
And I felt the carnal rattle of no future in my chest
As I learned loss makes a cynic of each and every one.
I hear echoes in the dimness where the colors disconnect
And the bluntness of your words cuts like a knife.
Now follow me on the long and winding road
Where your polar divinity is clearest crystal
And use death’s eraser on us all.
I felt off when I clocked out at work last night. It didn’t wipe the end-of-my-shift-screw-you-guys grin off my face, but there was still this tiny collapsing place inside my chest where things should have been perfectly normal. It didn’t go away when I got home, either.
I sat on the couch until four o’clock in the morning eating ice cream straight from the carton and watching YouTube videos on how to groom llamas, which is normally a surefire crowd pleaser in this household, thankyouverymuch, but it didn’t work.
I say I only sat there until four because that’s my best estimate of when I passed out and dropped the ice cream to melt onto my favorite rug. That kind of pissed me off when I woke up with a crick in my neck and my ice cream spoon rattling against my molars. The spot of warmth snuggled up in the crook of my knees told me that my cat, Amelia, hadn’t given up on me just yet, though.
I sat up and swung my feet to the floor, and that’s when I found the ice cream. I made sure to thank Amelia for slacking in the dark of night. She meowed and walked away. I always knew she didn’t care about that rug. She pukes on it nearly every day. This morning the only thing on the rug was ice cream, so I guess I should have counted myself lucky. But I didn’t.
I stood up and felt that hollow space inside my chest again, aching for attention, but I didn’t know what kind of attention to give it. It didn’t feel like loneliness, or panic, or anxiety, or depression, or any one of the hundred bad things I had experience with.
So I did what I rend to do in these situations.
I ignored it.
I stumbled into the kitchen to grab a towel for the ice cream, but first I opened the fridge and took a good slug of OJ straight from the jug. I don’t have a lot to do with plates and bowls at home. I do know how to behave in public, though, so don’t worry about that. When I put the orange juice back on the top shelf of the fridge, I noticed that I still had an egg carton sitting there, which was weird.
I could have sworn that I’d eaten the last egg a couple days earlier, so I pulled the carton out and set it on the counter. I didn’t bother to open it. The weight already told me that it was empty, that I’d simply been too lazy or inattentive to throw it away instead of putting it back into the fridge to tease myself with the promise of eggs.
I’m such an asshole sometimes.
Amelia meowed at my feet and rubbed against my leg, and I leaned down to pet her and noticed that she waws only announcing that she had recently vomited on the very edge of the carpet, millimeters from the much more easily cleaned linoleum. That cat, I swear. She’s going to be the death of me one day. Probably in some highly unusual way.
I grabbed the dishtowel from the counter and took a step toward the living room to clean up the ice cream, and that’s when it hit me. It was my damn birthday. That’s what that feeling in my chest was all about. Now that I’d realized it was my birthday, I did recognize its unique emptiness and flutterings of nobody cares-ness.
I tried to shrug it off. Nobody knew or cared about my birthday anymore. I had no family and no friends, and i wouldn’t let any of my coworkers get close enough to me to know if I’d worn the same shirt the day before. For some reason, this year it didn’t work. I tried to push the whole thing to the back of my mind and continued to the living room.
I scrubbed the ice cream stain for a few moments, my knees reddening from the rough carpet fibers grinding into the tender skin. Finally , I dropped the towel and turned to plop myself on the couch, where I dropped my head into my hands and sobbed. As usual, Amelia failed to come and offer me any hint of comfort. She watched me from the opposite corner of the couch, expressionless as only a cat can be.
Silvia stood outside the warehouse door, a thin ribbon of smoke trailing upwards from the business end of her cigarette. She lifted the butt to her mouth and inhaled, squinting her left eye against the sudden breeze that carried the smoke straight into her face. Her vision remained fixed on the small boy playing in the yard across the street.
The chain link fence protected him from stray dogs and strangers with candy, but it was unable to stop the chill wind from reddening his cheeks and pudgy little fingers as he dug determinedly in the large sand pile that dominated the yard. A small patch of red fabric covered the wear hole on the elbow of his hand-me-down jacket.
The boy was out in the yard most days that Silvia took her cigarette break, and she watched him build his sand castles every chance she got. He dug and dumped, dug and dumped, happily busy in his world that didn’t include her, even though she was thirty yards from him.
Silvia took a last drag, then turned the cigarette in her hand to make sure none was left. She flipped it around with practiced fingers and tossed it halfway across the street as she took one last hissing inhale of the cold winter air through her front teeth. Her eyes darted from the path of the cigarette back to the small boy, narrowing as she noted that he had disappeared from her view.
The breath she hadn’t realized that she was holding escaped her chest as he tottered back into sight from the far side of the small mountain of sand, and the tightness in her throat relaxed. She rubbed her right eye, trying to convince herself that a speck of dust had flown into it, but knowing in her heart of hearts that she had yet to be done grieving.
Claude pressed the door closed behind him, gently, so gently. The silence in his apartment was a heavy blanket that he came home to every night, once warm and comforting, now growing threadbare and itchy. He laid his keys softly in the wooden bowl on the table by the door.
Six steps to the end of the couch and a right turn. two steps and a left into the cubbyhole of a kitchen. A single glass from the cabinet above the dishwasher, a single paper plate from the neighboring cabinet. Claude stared at the paper plate a moment before returning it to the cabinet, his lack of hunger making the decision easy.
Ice from the freezer clattered into the glass, the sound shattering the silence with its knife-sharp assault on Claude’s eardrums. He cringed and weighed the bottle of whisky in his hand before twisting the cap off and filling the glass halfway. The grating of the metal cap on the glass bottle felt like fingernails on a chalkboard, but it was the price he paid to get to sleep at night. He tugged on the refrigerator door at the proper angle to keep the handle from coming off and topped off his glass with Coke.
The first sip was cold and bitter; Claude made the same face he’s made a thousand times before, wincing away from the taste, but compelled to return for more. He placed the glass back on the counter and leaned forward, eyes closed, his hands to either side of the glass, until his forehead touched the coolness of the cabinet door. The posture brought him no comfort, and he stood upright again. He took the glass with him to sit in his recliner.
A right out of the kitchen, three steps to the end table, and one more to his chair, soft and inviting. He sank down into its welcoming embrace and began to drink away the loneliness that threatened to engulf him completely in its darkness. Left foot, then right foot, he hooked his toes into the backs of his shoes and kicked them off, letting them fall to the floor, tumbling to rest against the base of the low coffee table that had never seen a cup of coffee.
And he wept, gently, so gently, fearing more than anything to disturb the blanket of silence under which he had lived for so long.
She rolled the dice and called him. When he answered, she started to thank him for the flowers, but the click of the disconnect was a padlock around her heart.
The moon shone down. She walked inside, slapping on the kitchen light and rummaging through the cabinets, but everything reminded her of him.
The peanut butter reminded her of peanuts that they ate while they flew to see the Pyramids.
She fled to their bed, and cried herself to sleep under the Southwestern blanket he’d presented on her last birthday.
That was probably the most editing I’ve ever done on something so short, just to get it down to 90 words, but I did it!