The Things We Leave Behind

“Do you think he was a narcissist?”  Katie asked.

She was wearing shorts rolled up at the thighs and thongs, and a y-back shirt with a sweat stain up the lower back.  Her long dark hair was pulled back in a pony, and she was leaning a large mirror with a gilded frame against the wall, and frowning down at her reflection.  She had spent the morning helping me wrap and cover and move my dead father’s more valuable belongings in bubble wrap and bed sheets.

I glanced over at her reflection and shook my head.

“Never struck me that way.  He was a lot of things, but never really vain.”

She tossed a sheet over the mirror, and I watched it billow out and float down, the fabric softening the sharp edges.  She shrugged.

“Odd thing for that man to own.  Fancy.”

I knew what she meant.  My father was not an ostentatious man.  I nodded absently, and went back to taping boxes shut.

*

We had lunch with the door open, letting a meager breeze play down the hall and through the rooms.  I chewed my sandwich, and watched the whisper of air move loose strands of her hair.  They lifted and waved, and settled, and in between bites, she would absently smooth them down.

I looked at her, and thought of my father’s relationships.  He was terse, and cold.  Sometimes, he would drink, and it would bring him to the edge of violence, but he never raised a hand, at least to the women that shared his bed.  I remembered the way he shuttered physical pain the same way he shuttered emotions.

He had a way of subsuming people to his will.  Sometimes he bullied, sometimes he cajoled, and sometimes he just broke them.  In the end, they did what he wanted.  He could be brutal.  I remembered scars and bruises brought on by hard, calloused hands.

He was deeply flawed, and yet, somewhere in there, there must’ve been more to the man, because there had still been women, and a family.  I’d loved my father, maybe in the way that a hostage loves his captors – a Patty Hearst sort of reaction to trauma; Stockholm of the heart – but I hoped to God I didn’t share any of his traits.

In the middle of those thoughts, Katie caught me looking at her, and winked.  I grinned back.  Then, we were finished with lunch, and we got to our feet with aching backs and aching knees, and went back to work.

In the hall, the sheet had fallen from the mirror, and as I went to cover it, I thought I saw, for just a moment, a dark smudge in the bottom corner, like a stain on the glass, or the reflection of someone in the room behind me.  I shrugged it off, and dropped the sheet back over it.  I wondered how my dad would feel about that stain, knowing how he’d taken meticulous care of the things he’d owned.

Katie cursed from the other room, drawing me from my thoughts for the second time that day, and I went to see what the matter was.  She was standing in the den, a puddle of glass and water at her feet.  Small flecks of white drifted in the puddle, and led to a broken globe with a wooden pedestal.  The plastic skyline of Chicago stood out from the dome, and water seeped into the soles of Katie’s thongs.

She was looking down at the broken snow globe with a look of annoyance.  She looked up when I entered the room, and her face shifted to one of apology.  She gestured to the mess on the floor.

“Sorry.  I was trying to wrap it, and it just kind of jumped out of my hands.  Must’ve still had mayo on my fingers.”

I shook my head.  “No big deal.  Dad had about a thousand of these things.  They’re worth about five bucks apiece, and he never really made a big deal out of them.”

I left the room, and grabbed a towel and the broom.  When I returned, Katie thanked me, and I watched her as she soaked up the water and shuffled the broken pieces into the dustpan, then the trash.  I watched as she hunched over, the play of muscles in her shoulders, the way the hair clung to her neck.  When she stood, I flushed a little, hoping she hadn’t caught me looking.

“Thanks,”  I said.  She smiled again.

I turned to go, back to the living room to finish boxing the last of the paintings.  I paused in the hall.  The sheet was off the mirror again.  I picked it up from the floor, and lifted it to cover the mirror, looking around for some tape to fix it in place.  In the mirror, that stain had grown larger; was the shape of a man in a dark brown suit.

He was indistinct, still too far away to see fine details, but I could see him.  He was wearing a homburg, and his face was a smudged fleshy blur with two dark pinpoints for eyes.  His mouth opened, a dark slash in the pink flesh.  I heard his voice in my head.

Disappointing.  You can’t let these bitches rule you.  You can’t let them break your possessions.  It starts there, you know.  They break your things, and then they break your will.  They think because of the pink slash betwee-

            I didn’t let him finish.  I threw the sheet over the mirror, and found a roll of tape.  I taped the fabric down, my hands shaking, and then slumped against the opposite wall and closed my eyes.  After a few minutes, I felt the air change, and smelled sweat and something sweet.  I looked up.

Katie was standing over me, a smirk on her lips.

“Getting a nap in?”

“Sorry -”  I cleared my throat.  “Sorry, I was just – headache.”

Concern crossed her face and creased her brow.  “You okay?”

I smiled.  “Yeah.  Fine.”

She turned to go, and caught sight of the mirror, wrapped in tape and sheet.  She looked down at it, hands on her hips, then back at me.

“Well.  Afraid of it getting away?  Here, it’s on there all cockeyed.  Let me help.”

She started to unwrap it, and I watched, unease growing in my belly.  I couldn’t tell her to stop.  She’d think me insane.  Maybe I was.  It’s not every day that your dead father comes to life in a mirror.  She finished, and pulled the sheet free to resituate it.

He was closer, and I could see the disapproving expression on his face, and the ring on his hand that he was using to gesture with while he spoke.

See?  She’s doing it.  You might as well be neutered now.  Maybe next time she’ll change your diapers, wipe your ass.

The sheet settled back over him, and Katie never batted an eye.  She didn’t see him, then.  Didn’t hear his invective.  For a moment, I wondered what I had happened to cause this.  Had I breathed in too many fumes from the cleaning chemicals?  Had I smacked my head?  Heat stroke?  Whatever it was, it wasn’t going away soon.  I’d have to learn to cope.

Katie finished taping the sheet off, and turned back to me, a smile on her face.

“There, all set!”  She looked down at her watch.

My father must’ve been closer, because I could hear him through the sheet now, though a bit muffled.

Checking the time.  Checking ’til when she can leave you and clean you out.  There’s a solution, you know.  You can stop this.  End it.

            The impression of a knife, long and sharp and silver, flashed through my mind.  I pushed it away with a mental effort.

Katie looked up.  “Head feeling okay?”

I nodded.  She leaned in and planted a kiss on my forehead.  “I have to run.  Yoga at four.  See you tomorrow?”

I nodded and kissed her back.  She was soft and warm and tasted of sweat and honey.  Then she left, and I was alone in the hall, an afternoon breeze pushing dust across the floor, and lifting the edges of the sheet on the mirror.

I looked around, and decided we’d done enough for the day.  I looked at the mirror, and decided it needed the trash.  I picked it up, and lugged it out to the car, tossing it in the hatch with little ceremony.  I was a little disappointed when it didn’t shatter.  I closed the car, locked the front door, and went home.

*

I looked at the mirror wrapped in sheets, leaning against my living room wall.  I wasn’t sure why I’d brought it home, or why it wasn’t in the trash.  Maybe it was because I’d seen my father in it.  Despite the venom that had come out of him, he was still my father.  Time and tide hadn’t changed that yet.

He’d been silent for some time, and I wondered again if I’d imagined it all.  Curiosity propelled my fingers, and I found myself pulling at the tape, and then the sheet.  It came away in a billowing puff of air, and I dropped it to the side and looked in the glass.

He was there, still in his brown suit and homburg, his gray hair peeking from beneath the brim of the hat, his dark brown eyes clutching at my face.  His lip curled up in a sneer, and his voice assaulted my mind.

Disappointment.  You were always weak.  And a bit stupid.  You never planned, never looked ahead, and never were cautious enough.  Now look at you.  Spineless, cowering under a woman’s skirts.

            “”Shut up -” I started to reply, and was interrupted by a knock at the door.

I listened.  Katie’s voice came floating through the wood.

“Hey, it’s me.”

Redemption.  You can make it right.  Let her in.  End it.

            Again, that vision of a blade flickered through my mind, and I found myself making my way toward the kitchen.  I forced myself to stop with an effort of will.

Weakling.

            She knocked again.  “Kevin?”

WEAK.

            Pain blared through my head with the force of that thought, and my vision disappeared in a wave of blackness.  When it passed, I was standing in the kitchen, groping for the knife block.  Once again, I forced myself to stop, to turn away from the knives.  Instead, I cast around for something heavy, and found the sharpening rod.  I pulled it from the block, and stalked to the living room.

The doorknob rattled, and the old man started in on me again, his voice like nails on glass in my mind.

You can do it.  Make me proud.  End it, and take control of your life.

            I threw the sharpening rod into the mirror, and it shattered, a thousand pieces scattering on the carpet.  The sound was loud, like the crash of a wave on rocks, and from the hallway, I could hear Katie slipping a key in the lock.

I looked down, at the shards of glass on the floor, and wondered how I would explain it.  The old man was looking back at me, a thousand disapproving faces, and a thousand pairs of angry eyes.  I heard his voice once again, a cacophony of discordant sound that raked at my ears.

DO. AS.  I.  SAY.

            I was in the kitchen again, and Katie was coming through the door.  I saw her turn the corner, and felt the knife in my hand.  I heard her footfalls on the linoleum, and saw the light play on her skin.  My legs twitched forward, and I could hear the old man laughing.

I sobbed, and drew the knife across my throat.

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