George’s spice bottles stood in a perfect row on the back of his stove. He bumped the stove with his hip. The bottle of oregano teetered and tipped, the basil slid back against the wall, and the cinnamon shifted so it touched the cardamom. Much better. Today was an important day, and everything needed to be imperfect before he visited his mother and father.
George made a special effort to keep a comfortably-cluttered home. Dirty dishes were stacked in the sink. His sagging couch had an unraveling afghan sprawled across one arm. He never made his bed, and piles of dirty clothes littered the floor. He did his laundry on Wednesdays. A special day. He did clean his bathroom, however, because he was not a pig.
He was a slob.
His relaxed approach to housekeeping was how he honored his parents. He could not compete with their devotion to cleanliness, so he did the opposite.
When George was a boy, his father would pick up lint from the carpet. Not a compulsion exactly, more of a hobby, collecting the remnants of their lives: pills from the cheap cotton sweaters that George’s mother favored, bits of paper and grass, a pebble or two. His father would pocket his discoveries, leaving the gold-colored carpet flawless, like the rest of the house.
George’s mother was meticulous. The plates, cups, and bowls stacked in the cupboards of her kitchen, all matched. They had no chips. There were no orphans or misfits. There was a precise, measured amount of space between the furniture in the living room, and all surfaces were clutter-free and carefully polished. The dry goods were arranged in the cupboards according to type. Pastas. Soups. Crackers. Cookies. Canned vegetables. The refrigerator was arranged in the same manner. The top shelf contained milk and orange juice (never apple. How George had always wanted apple, or grape!) The middle shelf held meat and cheese, and the bottom shelf — sodas and beer. The produce drawer: fresh produce, of course.
Wednesday was laundry day. A special day for George. Years ago, on laundry day, George had come upon his mother as she turned out the pockets of his father’s slacks, catching his collection of lint and pebbles in the palm of her hand. George wondered if she viewed his father’s hobby as a criticism of her housekeeping. She’d held that week’s collection in her palm for a moment, smiling tenderly, before pursing her lips and blowing, the debris evaporating in the puff of her breath. Unnoticed by his mother, George had crept back up the stairs and disappeared into his room, smiling his mother’s smile.
Aside from this secret bit of rebellion, his mother cleaned constantly, but she could not stay ahead of his father’s carpet gleaning. She would vacuum constantly, because if she didn’t, his father would come along with his pincers; his busy thumb and index finger. Pick. Pick.
George realized early on that it was a competition of sorts — the cleaning, and the after-cleaning. George worried the day would come when there would be no lint or bits of paper or stray button to collect. What would happen if one of them actually won the competition?
He never took sides. He rooted for both of them.
George looked at the crumbs, lint, and bits of paper cradled in his palm that he’d been saving for this day. His father had died on Saturday. He had known it was coming, and it had, just three months after his mother had passed away. With her gone, the competition was over, so his father had decided to follow her. Wherever she was, she was surely cleaning.
George sprinkled his collection over the flat face of his father’s stone. He smiled as the debris found a home in the carved letters of his name, in the grooves of Loving Husband, and corners of Devoted Father.
The wind — his mother — would blow the gift away this afternoon, but George would return the next Wednesday with more bits and pieces. More pebbles. More lint. So his father could continue to glean, and his mother could continue to blow his collection away with a secret smile.
Hall Jameson writes in Montana, USA.