Morning — it’s coffee and medication before thieving time from the new day. Albert shakes pills in his left hand like dice and looks out of the kitchen window to a yellow carpet of ginkgo leaves rimed with the first hard frost of the season. He obsesses over the whereabouts of his favorite book. He thinks perhaps it was filed away, buried somewhere in a dusty garbage bag or moldy cardboard box in his double-car garage — hunting ground for his three cats. The uncertainty makes him anxious and lonely.
Albert calls his sister, Sarah to stop over to help him go through his things in the garage. She arrives wearing a face mask. She pulls the lower edges of her mask downward, covering her crepey neck. “Really Albert, you have to start throwing things away. This isn’t healthy,” she says.
“I’m not ready,” Albert snaps. He lifts a bag by its twisted ponytail. He prods the black plastic skin and replaces the bag over the desiccated remains of a mouse. “Not in there,” he says, hoarding a wry smile. Sarah masks her annoyance. Albert’s wife Doreen would have labeled — everything.
It was a long death in too short a life. Albert’s wife died from leukemia, the end coming just shy of her sixtieth birthday. Remnants from their lives together were inelegantly packaged over the years by Albert: holiday decorations, small appliances, photo albums, books, board games, jigsaw puzzles, Doreen’s shoes, magazines, stacks of vinyl records and clothing.
“You can just buy a new book. Amazon?” Sarah talks through her mask.
“It’s a first edition. My notes in the margins,” Albert says. “Come out, come out wherever you are,” he calls.
“Why don’t you rent a dumpster and we can just empty each bag?” Sarah asks.
“I looked into that — too expensive,” Albert replies.
He slices open a random bag with a box cutter and inspects each object, arranging the contents in a circular pattern covering the damp space where the bag had been.
“Now we need a fresh bag, and then we can finally pitch it,” Sarah says.
“I’ll tape a note to it so I don’t open it again,” Albert insists.
“We’ll end up with mounds of bags with notes taped on them,” Sarah says.
Albert pulls a new bag from the black plastic roll and shakes it. The bag parachutes open with a pop. He scribbles his first note with black marker: 45’s, D’s shoes, dust rags, cookbooks. The mini 45 records were shiny new virgin vinyl back when Doreen inserted them onto the spindle adapter on her record player. Albert smiles as he remembers Doreen’s singing voice, her silly dance moves and the way they fell in love — fast and forever. The next two bags are labeled: Misc. The fourth one is split open with an autopsy cut. He reaches into the wound and pulls out a book. There, buried years ago between random, gilded pages of the anthology, is a folded piece of notebook paper. A faint odor of ink wafts from the frayed, spiral cut sheet. The poem he had written didn’t age well, written back when he wanted to slow the time he had with Doreen. Just one more day.
Albert has a recurring dream — he reads his poem to Doreen. They are sitting in the garage — garbage bags and boxes are covered in snow. She loves the poem, whispers it’s brilliant among the leavings. Albert pulls the duvet over his cold shoulders. The author of the remnant sleeps deeply — the inelegantly packaged remains press ever closer.
William R. Stoddart is a poet and fiction writer who lives near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Orchards Poetry Journal, Iris Literary Journal, Third Wednesday, The Pedestal Magazine, Adirondack Review and Ruminate Magazine.