“No, no, no. Not that.”
Erika enters from another room to find her father’s hand shaking over a collection of cardboard boxes. “What?”
“That. That doesn’t go there. That doesn’t go.”
The floorboards creak all over the apartment as Erika moves from room to room. Wooden drawers grate open and shut. Newspapers and magazines thud on the floor. Closet doors sway this way and that. Piles are made. Boxes and bags are filled. It’s all happening so fast that Jack is having a difficult time keeping track of what each pile is for. What’s coming or going. What will be thrown away, given away, or loaded in the Chevy Tahoe and unpacked into his daughter’s guestroom, for now. Erika is younger and determined. She only has a four-day weekend to complete the task. Jack watches her breeze through the small apartment, from the bedroom to the study to the joint living room-dining room to the kitchen and back through. She’s like a storm rolling in, blowing things around in little tornados until they settle into their designated mounds. He watches this dance, keeping mindful of things he must stop the production for. “Not that.”
Erika’s eyes follow the line from her father’s index finger to a box of kitchen things they will take to Goodwill: cutting boards, a percolator, dishes, silverware, enamel canisters, a set of pineapple trivets from Hawaii.
“The mug,” he tells her.
“But it’s chipped.” She holds it out for him to see: a lightweight, ceramic mug with a relief of a cartoon alligator in a suit and tie and holding a briefcase. With a big smile the alligator extends a coffee cup in his free hand, as if to say, “Cheers!” Erika shows him how the rim is chipped and seems to be crumbling away.
It’s not the jewelry or antiques that concern Jack. Not the family Christmas ornaments or things neatly tucked away, the wedding china they never used, the silver. Not the box of childhood things. It is the everyday. The worn down and used. Smudged eyeglasses that sit crooked on the face. An accordion wallet with a makeshift strap to keep coupons from bursting out. Thinning blankets that smell like skin. Things that have been weathered by touch like stones in a creek smoothed over by running water. Underneath his shirt Jack wears Frances’s crucifix around a string (the gold chain that held it to her neck was too small for his). The features on the face of Christ have faded. The nose and lips are gone, but two tiny dark spots remain where the eyes were. No larger than a quarter, the figure fit perfectly between Frances’s thumb and index finger. She would hold it there between her seesawing fingers, gliding back and forth over the figure of Christ. When she was anxious, when she was happy, when things were quiet, when things were not, she would raise her hand to the charm and pinch it between two fingers—not so much in prayer, although sometimes, yes, she did pray, but mostly for the comfort of knowing it was there.
Erika sets the mug on the cluttered coffee table. “Ok, but you need to get serious about this. We don’t have enough room to bring everything with us.”
“I know, I know,” he murmurs, inching toward the dinner table, sliding forward one foot at a time.
“Use your crutch,” she says on her way back to the bedroom, where she lays out her mother’s clothes on the bed.
Frances turns the porcelain thing clumsily in her hands, confused, like she’s never seen anything like it before. “What’s this?”
“It’s a new mug,” says Jack.
She looks up at him with her pear-shaped face. Her skin is waxy and her eyes far away. “But why?”
“Because the one you use is chipped. I thought you’d like this one,” he chuckles.
She looks down at it, holding it in her lap between cupped hands. It’s heavier, more durable. She looks back up at Jack. “But the other one fits my hand so well.”
The chair across from Jack is empty. Sitting at the small dinner table, he looks around the apartment. It never felt as crowded as it does now. Everything has been removed from its place. Spare linens, quilts, and towels are stacked in his reading chair. Side tables are cluttered with various figurines and household ornaments, and the coffee table is covered with flat things like books, picture frames, and vinyl records. Cardboard boxes have overtaken the area by the door. In the boxes are things that must go.
Erika whizzes toward the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water. “I don’t know how you guys fit so much in here.” She is not used to the water pressure, and water splashes back at her from the sink. “Have you gone through any of this stuff yet?” she asks between swallows, hovering over him as she waits for his response. The dinner table is covered with things to go through. To the trash or to one of Jack’s keep piles—it needed to be decided. Newspaper clippings spanning decades: obituaries, wedding and birth announcements, pictures from the sports section of the school basketball team Jack coached, pictures from the war. Bundles of letters between Jack and Frances, between them and their families, their friends. A few stray photographs from the Pacific Islands. A postcard from Hawaii. Life and Look magazines memorializing John F. Kennedy on their covers.
“Is all of this necessary to keep? Do you ever look at any of it?”
“I’m sorting through it,” Jack says, pushing some things around the table.
Erika goes back to the kitchen and returns with a trash bag. She opens it for him and hooks it on the side of Frances’s chair. “Well, if it’s not necessary to keep.”
She looks at him and, for a moment, feels the weight of the task. She puts a hand on his blank face. How he’s aged, too. At the visitation she looked down at her mother’s body. Frances’s cheeks had swollen and dropped over time. Her features had rounded. Her nose looked more buttoned than Erika remembered it growing up, and her lips more ripe. Jack’s face, however, has sunken in. It seems hollow in the palm of Erika’s hand. His nose is long and narrow, noble. The hair on his head is a downy mess, and the antennae of his hearing aids look like little hairs sprouting out of his ears. His eyes wide like a child’s, full of wonder and curiosity and not-understanding. Erika kisses his forehead. Jack presses her hand into his hollowing cheek and kisses the inside of her wrist. “Get back to work,” he teases.
From the bedroom she calls, “Do you have any strong feeling about the jewelry?”
Jack looks at the mess sprawled out on the dinner table. His breathing is choppy. He takes in a deep breath and holds it, reserving it like a diver going under to examine rare fish. His hands brush over the various papers and clippings, over envelops, paled stamps, and photographs, softly, as if trying not to disturb them. He rises for air and breathes in deep.
He looks around the apartment. Everything had been so still for so long. It all had a place. It made sense. But now everything smells different, like the stale air of tombs opened. Like dust. The smell of tea and eggs is missing in the mornings. Frances conjured those smells for him. There is not the smell of Granny Smith apple candles burning. Those are in the donation boxes. The light is different, too. The curtains are in cardboard boxes. The sun catchers once stuck to windows are wrapped in newspaper in the kitchen (Erika will hang those at home). The lamps are standing by the door. It is an unforgiving, naked light.
With one large swoop Jack clears the table. Things fall over the edge into the open trash bag and onto the floor.
They honeymooned in Niagara Falls.
Neglecting his crutch, Jack creeps toward the couch, which, although it’s quite near the table, takes some time. He pushes some things over and wedges himself between the arm of the couch and a stack of winter coats. He listens to the hum of the busy street outside their building. Light filters through trees outside the window; its leaves are different shades of green. A squirrel scurries along some branches, looking. Jack reaches for the crucifix lying in the tufts of his wiry, white chest hair.
They always thought he would go first.
Frances peeks out the window to make sure he hasn’t fallen again. He waves the watering hose back and forth over the small garden they’ve kept for the last twenty-six years. It is hot out, and (his right arm beginning to tremble more from Parkinson’s) he waves the hose liberally, soaking his shoes, the bottom of his pant legs, and his forearms. He looks up at the oak trees towering over the apartments. “Where’s your crutch?” she rebukes from the back door of their apartment. “Look how much the trees have grown!” he shouts back. “Come here!” She steps toward him. “Look how much they’ve grown since we’ve been here.” Their spidery branches weave in and out of the space above them. “Do you see?” He looks at Frances, who is not looking up but rather mysteriously smiling at him. She reaches toward his chest and picks away a big black ant crawling in the chest hair creeping out of his shirt.
A motorcycle zips loudly by. Erika sets another box by the door.
“You ok?” she asks.
“Me? Oh, yes. I’m just here.”
She goes back to the bedroom to fill another box. Jack clutches the cross over his chest where Frances had picked away the ant. The cross fits between his thumb and index finger but not in the same way. His hands rest on his chest, but they’re not quite as soft. He presses his palm against his cheek, but it feels rough and sharp. He looks at the alligator mug sitting across from him on a stack of records. More than once, he attempts to hoist himself forward to reach the mug. He snatches it up and falls back, dropping it in his lap. He grabs hold of his belly to steady his right arm and lets out a little gasp.
He slides his fingers into the handle of the chipped mug. ●