I sterilize an empty room. Wipe away scents of lavender perfume and kisses. Curse kids speeding on golf carts, runners pushing limits, horns blaring.
Someone always dies. Someone dies while I’m on the toilet or trying to make salmon and cucumber salad, with an even-numbered amount of cucumbers. Someone dies when I debate whether to give Claire Edgar a B-plus or an A-minus on her paper about Dr. Zhivago. Someone dies while I’m secretly waltzing to Tchaikovsky in the dark, strings and harps humming with hopes of spring and flowers among bleak midwinter.
Someone thinks playing chicken with life is living. And someone thinks running stop signs, teasing police, and driving for the sake of driving connote real living. That to be 60 means running backwards like you’re 20.
Someone thought all these things. Someone never listened to warnings.
Someone died trying to beat a train and going over 80. Someone came home in pieces, a hand, a broken wristwatch, stopped at four-twenty. A pack of crushed Marlboros, whose scent conveyed weary romanticism. According to her.
I was at the movies when it happened. I don’t want to even think of the darkness of the theater or the odd, delightful scent of armpits and popcorn. I don’t want to think of the fact that it was a movie about a man who interacted with history by sheer accident.
I package belongings. Dresses, jeans, and blouses are arranged by color, white, lavender, navy blue. Tomes of Cheever, Nabokov, Tolstoy, and Yates go in alphabetical order. Photos, nicknames, and smiles are relegated to the bottom. Chronologically arranged, of course.
She hated time. Sometimes, she set the clocks an hour slow. Or two. She said people were too busy thinking about schedules and that Chronos was our daily companion. Of course, she got fired from a litany of jobs, piano teacher, secretary, ticket-taker, waitress, bookstore cashier.
She’d have put the photos on top, arranged the dresses by aesthetic beauty, and assembled the books by thematic content. Drunkenness, divorce in the suburbs, then good old lechery and love for underaged children. I think that’s what she’d have said.
But this is efficient. Efficiency always wins. After all, I’m an English teacher. I dissect metaphors and symbolism. The green light in The Great Gatsby, the train in Anna Karenina. Everything has a reason for its existence.
Of course, a box collapses when I pick it up. A harsh rip. I should have known. Too many books and photos combined. Leaving space is vital.
Photos spill out, smiles rising to my mind. A crooked knowing smile on a summer’s day tells me to not think so much. An arm is wrapped around my shoulder, slender and graceful. There’s another crooked smile, wearing a pretty lavender party dress with polka dots. I’m laughing here too. I must be twelve or so. How long it’s been since I laughed.
“A man who doesn’t laugh, Nicky,” she says once, “is a miserable fuck. And that includes my own progeny. Don’t be miserable, sweetheart.”
A husky voice rises to my consciousness, a precise, little laugh. She’s laughing, because she thinks I value rote recitation over real knowledge as a teacher. But at least rote people don’t run head-on into trains. No logic, no precision in all that. Although at least in Anna Karenina it was a suicide.
“I can name every Romanov who sat on the throne,” she is saying, “but I can also think about the beauty of a sunset.”
I survey the ripped box. Some people test beyond the grave. Or so it seems. Some people see the grave as a dead squirrel on the road and keep on going.
I can’t help but laugh.
I can’t name the shade of purple at dusk, though I’ve wondered about that. Or what phase the moon is in or the nomenclature of various constellations. I can’t name what different types of crying.
Of course, I know Tchaikovsky’s entire body of work. I know that John Kennedy Toole killed himself because of a rejection and Confederacy of Dunces was published as a result of his mother’s assiduousness. I know that people have to get up and go to work, that however fun playing hooky is, consequences always follow. And I know that the world doesn’t reward laughter and whispered jokes, as much as I’ve stored hers.
Time to repack the photos and books.
But I can’t put those books back in the same order. No matter how I try, she tells me I’m too logical. Too neat. That word echoes. Neat, neat.
I stare at the books, the room expanding before me. I put Nabokov before Cheever this time. But would she want to start with the duplicitous Humbert? Or would she rather start with suburban malaise? Or is Revolutionary Road a candidate to go first because of the abortions and deaths? She laughed at the darkness in that one.
That seems fitting. Although I’m actually tempted to put Anna Karenina first.
But she’d say that was too easy because of the train connections. Subtlety, sweetheart.
I throw something on top. I don’t even know what it is. I don’t even look. Then another.
How vast this room is. Four blue walls. The smell of sterility and inevitability.
But beginnings always are.
What’s the logic in it?