The thing is, you never really know a person until after he’s dead and maybe, not even then. But you can sure tell a lot more about him from riffling through his leftover junk than you ever could from anything the goddamn liar ever said.
The thing is, people die, every day, and other people are left behind, and most of the time, like in movies and books and some parts of real life, those left-behind people are sad that their relatives have died. And even happy to plan memorial services. And nostalgic sorting a life into little boxes, this one for the homeless shelter, that one to Good Will, this one for the library, that one to the pawn shop. But I wouldn’t know what that’s like.
Honestly, there’s no point to separate boxes. Even the homeless can’t use this crap. The library certainly doesn’t want to infect all the other books with silverfish and probably mouse turds. Jesus, why didn’t somebody think to burn the house down years ago.
Under a fallen skyscraper of newspapers there are bones. They might have been still perfectly arranged under the papers in cat-shaped formation, a macabre shadow of the once-lovely creature sprawled in a strip of sunlight for an afternoon nap. But I forcefully shovel a heavy stack of the disintegrating pages into a garbage bag with my rubber-gloved arm, and the bones spread out and trickle down the pile like twigs in falling river. The papers underneath and around the bones are darker, almost black, where they’ve absorbed the decay. Beside the skull there are smaller bones. The cat had chased a rat into the room of the Newspaper City. The epic tussle had toppled the papers and done them both in. I wonder how long the cat was trapped there under probably two full years of daily newspapers before it died. I wonder if he noticed his cat was missing. I wonder if he even knew there was a cat in the house. Then the tears come, and I hate myself for them, and I’m glad I’m here alone.
I wasn’t surprised that he’d died. I was just surprised someone told me. Granted it was two weeks after the funeral, and now, here inside this dark house that faintly resembles the one I grew up in, I realize it was less out of kind obligation to a man’s daughter and more out of necessity. Someone had to come. Someone had to clean out the house, and I wasn’t the first person the realtor, Mrs. Beverly Mills, had called. I wasn’t even the fifth. But I was the only one left, and I just had to come because nobody else would and if I didn’t, the bank would bulldoze the house with everything inside, and Mrs. Mills just couldn’t stand the idea that important, valuable things might end up in the landfill, but she just didn’t feel right about going through it herself.
I almost didn’t come. Even after I told the realtor I would, I almost didn’t. But I knew stepping into this space, opening his drawers and his cabinets, touching his clothes, unearthing his secrets—it was all too personal for a stranger to do. If we define strangers by the amount of time they spend with a person, I was probably more a stranger than Mrs. Mills, but still, I knew, it had to be me.
Amongst the newspapers and the bones, I cry for a few minutes or maybe an hour, I’m not sure, telling myself it’s because of the cat. A cat died tragically in a newspaper avalanche, and nobody noticed, and it’s just so fucking sad. And really, if I think about it, the rat’s story is even sadder. At least the cat got a last meal. It’s for them I cry, and maybe that’s true for the first thirty seconds, but then, it’s not.
My tears run out, and I realize I’m sitting on a thin layer of newspapers on the floor, and I don’t remember getting down there or pulling off the yellow rubber gloves that now have black ink smudges on the fingertips. And then I notice the walls for the first time. They’re a dull orange that I know used to be much brighter because I painted them myself the summer after eighth grade, and I’m shocked, like absolutely stunned, that I didn’t realize Newspaper City was my old room until this moment. I look at a corner and think that’s where my bed used to be, and I wonder if maybe it’s still there and, as if I know the answer, I push myself up from the floor and step over the little bones and knock a couple more paper buildings over. Here, where the bed is, there aren’t neatly-stacked towers of browning newspapers, but a round heap of the glossy inserts with the ads and the coupons. It’s all colors, and then Big Rock Candy Mountain is stuck in my head the rest of the afternoon.
The bed is there though, underneath, with a moth-eaten comforter that may previously have been some shade of blue. And then I remember the day I picked it out, that comforter that was actually cream-colored originally, with little blue flowers, forget-me-nots, and I have to get out of this room.
I step to the hall and look into the den that was his personal closet slash hamper. There are separate piles of clothes, so they must be organized in some way that made sense to him, but I’m not going in this room either. I make my way to the kitchen, and there’s a smell. Well yes, there are smells of all sorts, all throughout the house but in here, it’s something familiar underneath the stale moldy air, something from childhood that I can’t quite place, but suddenly I remember the taste of my mom’s spaghetti sauce. Then I remember that time he came in the back door, bellowing before we even saw him, because Mom burnt the fish sticks. She’d burnt them so bad, the oven reeked of fish and charcoal for months, and now I can smell that too.
And once the floodgates open, I can’t stop the memories from pouring through, and I’m confused, at first, as to where they’d been hidden all this time, and haven’t I gotten past all this? Why did I ever think I was strong enough to be in this place again?
My sister knew she wasn’t, that’s why she didn’t come. My mother said something about being too old to make the trip, but she knew too. They knew what it would be like to be back here, and they were sensible enough to stay away. Why was I so damnably optimistic? Why hadn’t I been more afraid?
It’s not fair, after all the time that’s passed, the time that’s supposed to heal all wounds and that other bullshit about out-of-site out-of-mind. Tears come again, and this time I know they’ve got nothing to do with a dead cat because this time I’m angry.
When is the healing done, if not nearly two decades later, when? Can it ever even start when the disease is still there, silently festering, maybe even dormant, but not yet dead? It’s cosmic trickery, this emotional herpes, latent, lying in wait until the worst possible moment to sprout its red, bulbous, blistering heads. And meanwhile, how many other people am I infecting? How much damage have my own children suffered because of the things locked away behind my walls?
I didn’t know what I would find here, but maybe I expected some kind of closure. And I think I knew as soon as I started remembering things that happened in the kitchen that the only way out, or at least the best way, would be through. Instead, I call Mrs. Mills. I tell her I’m finished, that I’ve gotten everything important out, that the bank can smash the house to bits. She’s thrilled. I leave through the front door without even bothering to lock it, my car keys in one hand and the white skull of a cat in the other. Once I’m home, I put the skull in a box and tuck it away in the back of a drawer, and years later when I chance to come across it, I don’t remember where it’s from.
Copyright ©2017 by Angie Tonucci. All rights reserved.