Art by Matthew Richardson, created for this story (a different image was used in Granta.
“We’ll unpack my storage space,” he said. “I have things.”
“Yes, my love,” she said. “I have things too.”
“You have a duffel bag. You have clothing. You have a saltshaker shaped like a duck with a chipped beak.”
She cackled a very European cackle, pride and delight in her ownership of the lusterware duck, whose name was Trudy. “The sole exhibit in the museum. When I am dead, people will know nothing about me.” This was a professional opinion: she was a museum consultant. In Normandy she was helping set up an exhibition in a stone cottage that had been owned by a Jewish family deported during the war. In Paris, it had been the atelier of a minor artist who’d been the longtime lover of a major poetess; in Denmark, a workhouse museum. Her specialty was the air of recent evacuation: you knew something terrible had happened to the occupants, but you hoped it might still be undone. She set contemporary spectacles on desktops and snuggled appropriate shoes under beds and did not overdust. Too much cleanliness made a place dead. In Rome she arranged an exhibit of the commonplace belongings of Ezra Pound; chewed pencils, drinking glasses, celluloid dice, dog-eared books. Only the brochure suggested a connection to greatness. At the Hans Christian Andersen House in Odense, where they were mere tourists, she lingered in admiration over Andersen’s upper plate and the length of rope that he traveled with in his suitcase in case of hotel fire. “You can tell more from dentures than from years of diaries,” she’d said then. “Dentures do not lie.” But she herself threw everything out. She did not want any one to exhibit even the smallest bit of her.
Many stories trivialize things, material possessions, as being unimportant compared to people and relationships and memories. Of course, that’s true. But this story pays tribute to things – everyday things, not a special memento or souvenir or lock of baby hair, just routine stuff used every day – as a reflection, an abbreviation, of a soul, a time, a life. It’s as beautiful as it is surprising that it’s beautiful. And it touched me in a dozen sad, sweet, and tender places.
It’s a simple story. Stony and Pamela (pronounced pa-MELL-a) have been together three years, married, moving over Europe every few months for Pamela’s jobs as a museum consultant. They have plans to move back to the States, to Maine, “where Stony had accepted a two-year job, cataloguing a collection of 1960s underground publications; things printed on rice paper and Popsicle sticks and cocktail napkins.” But fate intervenes and delays this trip, permanently for Pamela:
She was still, as he would think of it later, casually alive. In two months she would be, according to her doctors, miraculously alive, and, later still, alive in a nearly unmodifiable twilight state. Or too modifiable: technically alive.
After her death, Stony delays the move to Maine and spends the summer in England mourning and drinking. He packs, but he’s unable to find the duck:
When he failed to find the duck, he remembered the words of the lovely Buddhist landlady in Edinburgh, when he’d apologized for breaking a bowl: “We have a saying – it was already broken.” Even now he wasn’t sure if we meant Buddhists or Scots. He would leave a note for the landlady concerning the duck, but of course the loss of the duck could not break his heart.
He makes the move to Maine at the end of summer, having negotiated with his prospective landlord to move into the rented house three months later than expected. When he arrives, he finds the house is not what he expected. It’s not a charming little Victorian, it’s a Sears, Roebuck kit, it’s filthy, and it’s full of junk: an old salad spinner, dozens of clay pots all the same color, paper posters and pages from magazines serving as art, a dirty rug, a ramshackle homemade platform bed, and, in the kitchen, dozens of supermarket jars of half-used spices aged beyond any possible use. When the landlady (whom Stony knows only through email and her daughter) is perplexed by his concerns and insists the house was cleaned in May, he throws out the spices and other kitchen garbage and moves the furniture, pots, and “art” to the art studio out back, since he won’t be using it; it was to be for Pamela.
He then goes about his work for the next nine months:
At work he catalogued the underground collection, those beautiful daft objects of passion, pamphlets and buttons, broadsides,. What would the founders of these publications make of him? What pleasure, to describe things that had been invented to defy description – but maybe he shouldn’t have. The inventors never imagined these things lasting forever, filling phase boxes, the phase boxes filling shelves. He was a cartographer, mapping the unmappable, putting catalog numbers and provenance where once had been only waves and the profiles of sea serpents. Surely some people grieved for those sea serpents.
He didn’t care. He kept at it, constructing his little monument to impermanence.
So many other wonderful passages appear, and it would be silly for me to invent plot-necessary ways to introduce them, so I’ll just list them as essential to getting the true flavor of this piece.
It was possible, thought Stony, that all American teenagers might appear damaged to him these days, the way that all signs in front of fast-food restaurants – MAPLE CHEDDAR COMING SOON! MCRIB IS BACK – struck him as mysterious and threatening.
It wasn’t grief, which he could be subsumed in at any moment, which like water bent all straight lines and spun whatever navigational tools he owned into nonsense – but a rational, detached thought: wasn’t that awful, what happened to me, one, two, three moths ago? That was a terrible thing for a person to go through.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, because after Pamela died, he’d promised himself that if anyone told him the smallest, saddest story, he would answer, I’m so sorry. Meaning, Yes, that happened.. You couldn’t believe the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention – as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin, and materialized only at the sound of its own name.
The summer comes, and Stony moves into another place, a modern place. He dithers for a while about whether he actually wants to move – he’s fixed the place up nicely, after all – but in the end, he does, so he moves back some of the essential furniture and leaves a note explaining where the pots, the art, the still-filthy rug, can be found. The landlady, Sally, calls almost immediately, since she’s decided to move back into the house. She leaves a series of messages: where’s her dishcloth? The bottom of the salad spinner? Her birth certificate, in the white desk that’s gone? And what on earth happened to the spices?
He goes to the house to show her how everything was packed into the art studio, and discovers the paper art is moldy and the studio smells of mildew; he explains he threw out the past-their-expiration-date spices and as he sees tears falling down Sally’s perplexed face, understands the awful truth:
But he realized he’d gotten everything wrong. She had not left her worst things behind four years ago, but her best things, her beloved things. She’d left the art, hoping it would bring beauty in to the lives of the students and summer renters and other wayward subletters….She loved the terra-cotta sun that he’d taken down from the kitchen the first day. She loved the bed made for her in the 1070s by that clever, wretched man her husband. She bought herself a cheap salad spinner so her tenants could use this one which worked so well. If Pamela had been with him that day nine months ago, she would have known. She would have seen the pieces of key chain and clucked over the dirty rung and told him the whole story. This was a house abandoned by sadness, not a war or epidemic but he end of a marriage, and kept in place to commemorate both the marriage and its ruin.
The New Yorker editors would strike this paragraph as “explaining the story,” but it’s just lovely, and it fits in this story that doesn’t try to be sophisticated and artsy-fartsy.
And as I said, it hit me from all directions. When people come into my home, they see the tumbleweeds of cat fur in the corners, the dingy walls, and of course a cacophony of books stuffed every which way into shelves of varying sizes and styles. If they dare to move a teacup on the hutch, they discover inside and behind it is an archeological layer of dust. Occasionally they’ll feel a crunch under their feet as their shoe crushes a stray speck of cat litter. Washable throws and blankets cover every surface a cat might want to sleep on, which gives things a motley effect. Yet if someone, say a maintenance worker fixing the stove, tracks in mud on his shoes or leaves effluvia from his labors, I’ll know it, and spring to clean it up while he’s still there, hoping to shame him into tidying up after himself. It rarely works, since to him, it’s just a drop in the bucket. To me, it’s alien dirt, and unwelcome.
And then there are attachment objects: A glass pitcher I suspect my then-husband broke on purpose (which is an absurd paranoia, even to me). I remember my unexpected sorrow when a hideous winter scarf, not at all my colors and bought from dire necessity under duress of the coldest First Night celebration in the history of the now-defunct New Year’s festivity, was ruined by water damage from a fire in a neighboring apartment; the scarf somehow grew on me, becoming more and more beloved for its ugliness and some other factors too complex to explain here. My mother’s wedding china, I’ve lugged all over the East Coast, wrapping and rewrapping, not because I love it or use it, but because, well, it’s my mother’s china, and in the spirit of grief as a reverse Rumpelstiltskin, all evidence of her existence was removed from our lives by my father upon her death when I was nine, so as to not upset me and my brother. My surreptitious “theft” of my father’s polo shirt, lifted from his hospital room after he died (I was in my 30s), I can’t really explain; I threw it out years later, when it lost its power.
And, silliest of all – during one move in 1990 or so, we’d left a pile of oddball stuff in the middle of the floor next to the piano for the last trip, and when we returned, it was all gone. Apparently the landlord’s handyman had “assumed” it was junk and had removed it for us, thinking we’d abandoned the apartment (along with a mahogany console piano which thankfully he couldn’t get down the stairs so was still there). Included in that junk was a twenty-five-year-old 12″ black and white TV my father had won as a door prize and gave to my brother and then, after he left for college, me, missing the on-off button, with a coat hanger for an (essential; this was a very old tv set) antenna. I could live with the loss of the winter coats (most were too small, and I’d been planning on bringing them to a Salvation Army bin), various trinkets, a woebegone but functioning vacuum bought for $20 at a (then) newfangled “videotape movie rental” store (we joked the link between videos and vacuums in one store was the letter “v”), and while I wished they’d spared my winter boots, I understood why they were considered trash. But the tv, which had been my friend for some very (very) bad adolescent years, that broke my heart. But notice this: even the trivial items were connected to stories, memories, emotions, relationships.
I’m fascinated too by how this story came about. In her Contributor Notes, McCracken explains the plot, though not the characters, was autobiographical: “[W]hat prompted the actual writing of it was a landlord-tenant dispute….I suppose I’m grateful that the story helped me understand them, but still, I would like to make it clear; my motivation was not connection, but revenge.”
There’s something there about the Buddhist law of opposites. Or maybe it’s the Scots.