Hands grab and thrust me midair. At first, I flail, trying to gain traction, but realize its futile, her grip convincing. The overhead florescent is glaring. I don’t recognize this room. A dusty ceiling fan hums an awkward buzz, stacks of paperwork and torn Amazon boxes clutter the desk. They pace, shuffling towers of sweaters, pillows, and shoes. The jingle of a dog collar tests my concentration. Sugar? No, that’s not Sugar, too small. A poodle?!! The dog picks up one of the toys littering the beige carpet. It chews, salivating and squeaking.
The woman clutching me speaks. Her voice is familiar, but I can’t place her. Her words, a garbled soup, she darts back and forth. I haven’t worn hearing aids in who knows how long. I mostly sit in silence, in the closet. Occasionally the door opens and I catch a beat or two of Fox. She narrowly avoids the exercise bike, the step stool, the chair, the stacks, that dog. WHO is that dog? A soft toy torques her balance, she pivots, clutching me tighter. Like a fulcrum, I feel secure in her hands.
“Hey guys, say hello to your father!”
They don’t hear her. More pacing. Dynamics. Fluidity.
Wait, I AM a father. She talking about me!
“HEEEYYY GUYS,” she quips louder, “say HELL-LO to your FATH-ER!”
Momentum. I teeter slightly. Strain.
Wait, I recognize that picture on the dresser. It’s me, it’s Sharon, it’s us. We’re so young. Our wedding day, 1964, Birmingham. Fran and Rick’s backyard. Sunshine. My parents beaming. The magnolia tree in full bloom. Azaleas. Freddy explaining atmospheric pressure to me, of all people, ha! Sharon was nervous, shaking with excitement. I held her hand, looked into her eyes and promised I’d love her forever.
I meant it.
“HI, DAD,” snickered the shorter bald man who stuffed Baggallini after Baggallini into a dark black plastic garbage bag.
Michael?!? Wait! Is that?
The taller bald man stops mid-task, smiles a big smile. I know that smile, that’s her smile.
Me, I’m more of a smirker.
Lyman approaches the woman holding me.
“Where was he this time?” he asks.
Noise. Barking. She speaks too fast. I can’t follow.
She perches me by the dresser. I am just out of reach, near the basket of remotes, cords, oxygen batteries, chargers and cable equipment. A tipped pile of mail-order catalogues. She’s a shopper.
Pausing, I survey the room for clues.
Lyman kisses the woman with red hair.
I know her. She tried to shake me down for my rub recipe. They moved in together just before I... Lyman always did everything backwards, you get married first, then you move in together.
Boy, I haven’t seen Michael since the wedding. He must be on shore duty. Where’s his wife? And the grandson I keep hearing about?
Lyman’s still wearing those crazy T-shirts.
Sigh...This is not how I would have chosen to address my sons.
They return to their tasks, wandering around the bedroom, dodging heaps of new unworn clothing, Target bags filled with brand new dog outfits, and dusty curios. Not the most efficient process here. Still pacing. All three of them trip on the wads of green oxygen tubing, kicking them out of the way. Why doesn’t one of them take the time and just roll it up? It’s not that hard. Get it out of the way. They’re not listening. This is exhausting, I may rest my eyes for a bit. I’m not sure what I’m doing here.
I wake to her voice. “Charlie, come here my precious boy!” A dog collar jingles. That voice. Soothing, comforting, irritating. Her pitch matching her mood. Sometimes I’d ignore her, assuming she was addressing Lyman, my namesake, the one who never followed rules or turned in his homework on time. Come to think of it, neither did Michael. She’d shout my name louder to get my attention.
I am a junior, my eldest, the third. I traced our lineage back to the Mayflower. Pilgrims. Never finished. It’s all on floppy disks in the office. I made personalized scrapbooks of our family tree and distributed them. That desk over there is new, looks cheap, not the oak one I built with custom shelves. The boys helped me. We used the lathe, the circular saw. It was a beauty.
Still not sure how I feel about the Pilgrims. They could have done a few things differently. I know I would have. My grandfather Guy was a Colorado state senator and owned a publishing company in Canon City. My father was a DuPont man. Now that I think about it, I don’t know if I’d change anything. I can’t. It’s pointless.
Sharon stands in the bathroom doorway, leaning on her walker. There she is. There’s my girl. She and the redhead are bickering. The redhead is holding, wait, let me count, 1-2-3...7, seven curling irons?! Hah, hah! Oh, I know. The boys watch. Sharon needed a whole room for her make-up. Used to drive me crazy. She’d sit in there for hours doing god knows what, but then she’d emerge a new person, beautiful. Those eyes. That smile. She had style, elegance, not a hair out of place. Then again, hair spray was a line item in our monthly budget. The other engineers at Brown & Root tried to flirt with her at office parties, but she was too shy, never noticed. She’s one of those women who didn’t know how beautiful she was, but I knew. I told her on our first date—Georgia Tech, my alma matter vs. Auburn, hers. She never believed me. Atlanta, those were happy days.
I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting on that shelf. Sometimes the housekeeper Elena slid hangers back and forth and swiped a feather duster around me. It tickled. I liked it when she sang. Never did learn Spanish. Only knew the most important— cerveza y carne asada, por favor. Barbacoa, now that’s a dish I should have tried on the smoker. I wonder who has my BBQ notebooks. I do miss moist Texas brisket. No need for sauce if the meat is done correctly.
Elena must be getting up there too. We put at least one of her kids through college by now. It’s nice to be out of that closet. That shelf was cramped and stunk. What do you call that nonsense, Febreze? Sharon was always spraying it. Then she’d shut the door and I’d have to sit for hours until it dispersed.
Sharon lost her sense of smell after the asthmatic attack. We were eating dinner. I smoked a pork tenderloin that night. The boys were home, no band practice. She started coughing and then Lyman panicked, said she wasn’t breathing, and called 911. It happened so fast. She had to quit smoking, which meant I had to quit smoking too. I think we were both up to three packs a day. The boys were always complaining, but that’s what everyone did back then. Even my mother smoked, a Camel with her Jim Beam. We saved a lot of money after we quit; it was around the same time the class action suits started. Big tobacco this, and big tobacco that. Don’t get me started on the bleeding heart liberals. Raising taxes is never a smart idea. Michael understood.
I continued to rest, which is all I do. Then somebody’s hands, I think it was the redhead, tried to stuff me into two, maybe three different boxes. None worked. Then someone had the brilliant idea to wrap me with bubble wrap and tuck me between what felt like a Bible and jewelry boxes. Maybe bells? None of it made sense. The light receded and it was dark again. The screech of packing tape sticking. The redhead obviously doesn’t understand basic mechanics. It shouldn’t be this difficult to get a clean strip. Amy! Her name is Amy, the photographer. That’s right. What Amy needs to do is refeed the line between the roller and the metal gate and adjust the tension knob. There’s bubbles. If I was packing this box, I would have done it very differently but this is what happens. After a lengthy process, you end up cramped in a plastic bag in a mahogany box. I always fancied myself on the fireplace in the den, near the muskets and our big Indian Chief painting, but I left too soon. Sharon was in shock, upset with me, upset with God. Never said goodbye to Michael. The tears in my sister Gretchen’s eyes. Surprised me too.
I wake to the sun. Clear and bright like the sunrises in Destin. Before everyone roused, I’d steal a few minutes by myself on the beach. The tides in synchronicity with the sun and moon, the rotation of the earth. Equilibrium, the ocean, is a perfect energy system. I forgot to mention it, but that’s a good place to scatter my ashes. I know, I wasn’t much of a swimmer, Sharon was the little fishy. Every visit, her father repeated the same stories. God, that man could talk. The whole family swam laps; Sharon and her swan dive. She’s the one who introduced me to the ocean. I’d give anything to take a ride on Freddy’s boat. Sip a few Bud Lights, smoke a Marlboro, watch the boys catch a snapper or two for dinner. Those were the days.
This closet is markedly smaller, but just as packed. How many clothes does one person need? Who needs five of the same color? The sun, natural light is a gift. I hear her wheezing. Compression, humming, a pattern. That dog collar jingle again. Her face. Something is different. She’s still in her pajamas. That grimace, she looks tired. She moves slower, her walker tangled in oxygen tubing. She huffs, labors. She sounds frustrated. Who is Siri? She talks to her a lot. I hear a doorbell, commotion, barking, vacuuming. A woman enters the closet. She’s short; that’s not Elena. She bumps me with a large plastic bin. Careful. Who is this woman?
Sharon squeals, “My pumpkins,” then clears her throat.
What on earth?
“Yes, si, si,” says the woman.
Pumpkins?! You’ll never see me get excited about pumpkins. Oof, decorations. It must be fall. Halloween was one of my favorite holidays, but not because of pumpkins. The boys and I built an elaborate display for the front yard on Tuliptree. A mechanized coffin, with a hand that popped out. Brilliant. We should have won “Best Yard in the Neighborhood.”
The redhead again, Amy. Sharon talks to her on the phone quite a bit, and that Siri. Where’s Sharon? Come to think of it, I haven’t heard her or the dog. It’s been quiet. More voices, Lyman’s. They’re opening drawers. Pulling out strange devices, I don’t want to know what that is. They’re inspecting her jewelry. That’s an 18 karat gold chain I brought back from Bahrain. Your mother loved gold. Where is she? That’s Michael, and another woman’s voice. Oh, her, she’s here. Nice of Julie to make an appearance. I told Sharon she was trouble. Where is this grandson I keep hearing about? Why is everyone wearing masks? This is strange.
Motion—speed plus velocity. It feels exhilarating. Freedom. There’s the Texas sky. Highway signs. What kind of music is this? This isn’t music. Hippies singing. Where’s the melody? Not my kind of harmony. Crying. Oh, this doesn’t sound good. My earlier assessment confirmed. Sharon passed. Eighteen years after me, odds were good considering all the health problems. Hope it was quick. Well, on the bright side, maybe I’ll see her soon. I see my parents from time to time, and Sugar. Boy, she was a beautiful dog. I missed her. I wasn’t much for crying. Now Lyman, he cried. Never saw a little boy cry so much. Made me uncomfortable, like I did something wrong. Sharon soothed him. I never remember crying myself. It just wasn’t in me.
Wait a minute! Wait, a darn minute! DO NOT PUT ME BACK IN THE CLOSET! What on earth? Another one? This one is tiny. I can’t even see a thing. There’s no light. What?!! Suitcases. Hats. Coins. Shoes. A humidifier. A sleeping bag. Belts. This one is chaotic. There is clearly no room in here for me. The door opens and a blanket is stuffed in between the suitcases. Something falls. It topples over my head. The door won’t close. Is that a clock next to me? Who organized this? None of this makes sense. Hands shove until the door barely closes. I went from bad to worse. This is for the birds.
The door opens and everything comes out. What in the heck? The door opens and everything gets rearranged, never the same twice. This is like that game, what do you call it...Jenga! The clock is removed and a blue-flowered something or other is placed next to me. We’re touching. I have a roommate now?
“Hello, Lyman. It’s me,” she says softly.
I know that voice. It’s her. My love. Hello.
“Don’t worry. These two are on it. We won’t be in here for long,” she says.
Obviously, because there’s no room.
“I heard them discuss Wilmington, Destin, Canon City, Maui,” she says.
That sounds expensive.
“It’s all our favorite places,” she says.
True. We’re together again and that’s all that matters, I suppose.
“So, is there anything I should know?” Sharon asks.
It’s not that hard to figure out. I’m here with you. Any contact with your folks?
Loud, jazzy music. Charles Mingus. Laughing. Footsteps. Pots banging. Garlic. Cats meowing.
Oh, to be young again.
“They call THIS music?” she says.
“Your tube amp sounds good,” she says.
There is that. At least he appreciates my handy work, but we’ll need to work on the music.
“Oh Lyman! You won’t even believe what he’s accomplished since you left. You just wait. And Amy too. You’ll be impressed. Just give it some time,” she says.
“All we have is time, isn’t it?”
“It’s relative, my dear,” she jokes.