©Elizabeth Levett Fortier, 2015

©Elizabeth Levett Fortier, 2015

Water dripped slowly into the sink, almost covering the layers of plates and the workings from some large, plastic device that must certainly have been used to do something with food. A layer of brown spoke of the final rejection of someone’s coffee. It had lived too long and was finally tossed in with all the rest to sit and sulk. Empty soda cans and plastic cups gathered along the counter. The coffee maker still kept its little red-light vigil while the glass pot showed steam and the dark brown liquid waited to be allowed to cool whenever some faintly conscious finger finally switched off the heat. In a large crock-pot, reddish-brown meatballs bubbled in a thick and stewy afterthought. Why, why, why did someone always have to make meatballs whenever family gathered in memory of the newly dead? No one could possibly imagine eating. Surely the pathetic egg salad was proof of this to anyone who thought to notice it. Besides, it was much too hot today.

In the living room Cindy sat facing the television, phone in hand, talking, talking, talking. Rose bathrobe, towel, and layers of laundry around her, on a floral sofa. Boxes and more boxes lay everywhere in the room, open and showing off their useless contents – dingy cotton socks, video games, DVDs, a sack of pears (much too large to be sweet), a plastic tablecloth still in its package, more and more and still more stuff she’d never get to. On the floor at her feet were two bags – one full of used Kleenex tissues, one for paper to be tossed, eventually, maybe, by somebody else. She had a half-full, half-empty (two schools of thought) can of Sprite and a half-full, half-empty (all depends on your point of view) coffee cup. She asked for a large glass of ice water and I was a fool to bring it without taking something liquid away. (But you have to do something.)

The plants wilted outside. The cat had gone missing, no doubt hiding from the jarring truth of it all. Dressers were lined up along the living room wall. They had given up trying and were gagging out their drawers, disgorging their contents – more stuff she certainly hadn’t looked at or used in years. “I want to put all the fabric in that dresser but I don’t know where it is yet. I still have to go through everything.” Don’t we all? But she is ever the optimist, it would seem. We want to help her go through her stuff, but picking up any object risks the story she will have to tell, all the emotions, all the memories. “Why can’t she just get rid of all this crap? Doesn’t she know it pushes people away?” We choke down our frustration, our questions. She’s just like her mom was, we say to ourselves, and we can’t wait to leave. Maybe she does know. Maybe that’s why she does it. This possibility is like a fly; we shoo it away. She says she’s overwhelmed right now but we know it’s always been this way. We stew about her, talk about her, worry about her. Her husband is gone. Her young husband who took care of her, to our relief. Her young, sweet husband who got sick and then sicker after they moved into his mother’s house. After he lost his job. Everything happened. Everything always does.

Now he’s gone. And Mother Cleary wheels herself cautiously around the house, thinner than the thinnest old lady you’ve ever seen. She is delicate, sweet, and sad as she sticks out one narrow foot, stabilizing her three-point turn to avoid the glass, half full, on the living room floor. We worry that Cindy will lose her too, will lose the home she finally has. We worry that something will happen to Mother Cleary, or that her other grown sons will decide it’s time to sell the house on Green Ridge Road, the house they probably had fun in years ago when they were still in school. They were still young then, with no idea things would turn out this way, no idea the youngest son would bring home his wife – twenty years his senior and nearly twice his weight – and then die on the bathroom floor, leaving Cindy and her boxes and boxes to be overwhelmed and overwhelming on the floral sofa and the cat would go missing while the meatballs simmered.

The boxes are her planets. They remain in their perpetual inertia around the crockpot of her seething sun, her talking, talking, talking. Like the rolls of extra weight that cause the rose bathrobe to jut out behind her like a bustle, they are her electrons, their particular combination forming the expression of her elemental nature. They never waiver in their rotation around a nucleus of emotion. But she smiles and hugs us just the same every time. We drive finally away. We watch the sunlight caressing yellow hills dotted with occasional deep-green oaks and we wonder what to do.

©Elizabeth Levett Fortier, 2015

Elizabeth Levett Fortier teaches kindergarten in San Francisco’s Richmond District. A BAWP TC, Elizabeth also teaches at the Young Writers’ Camp during the summer. She is the author of Beauty Secrets of the Stars, a memoir of love and friendship, and is a visual artist, too. Elizabeth is also a songwriter, sings, and plays percussion in an acoustic three-piece group with her husband, David. Their music is available at www.dreamchairmusic.com. She can be contacted at dreamchair@yahoo.com

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