Skinny saplings throw shadows across sunlit asphalt. It is warm and blue and spotless and yet the street is empty. No cars, no bikes, no vaguely familiar faces anywhere in sight. It is noon-time twilight, the hours wedged between morning rush and evening crawl. Everyone else is at work, wrapped in business-casual or over-worn uniforms. He tugs at the collar of his polo shirt, the fabric stiff like new yet heavy with a mothball scent. What he walks through now is an unfamiliar world. It’s been sixty-years since he first donned his coveralls. Sixty years since his last aimless summer.
There was no watch. No cake. No break-room party or well-wishes. No congratulations on lasting so long. No uncomfortable jokes about abandoning the rest of them. Once the shift ticked off its final seconds he walked to the office as he always did on the second Friday of each month. He took the check from the girl behind the counter, she with the face that sometimes looks like hers but didn’t this time. The eyes were all wrong, too dark and small. Cheeks too round and over-blushed. He made one last stop at the bank full of ghostly smiles, nodding as a bleary-eyed teller wished him a great weekend. The social-security payments began to appear in his account the following week. It was a fraction of what he used to make, pennies promised to him from decades of funding nobodies. He’s since closed that account. The money is now purely a physical thing, crisp and fibrous and neatly stacked within a PO Box under the name of Roy M Larson.
Roy is a sack of failing flesh. The cancer ate his brain six years ago and now the rest of him is rotated so his skin doesn’t collapse. The family refuses to let him go. They wear hope like flimsy pins even though their patriarch can’t piss without a dedicated tube. They visit daily despite there being nothing to acknowledge their presence. He hasn’t gone out to visit Roy in well over a year, but does make sure to check the obituaries daily. There’s nothing there to say goodbye to.
Roy was his final friend. They had both served in The War, but were deployed to fronts so distant they might as well have been separate conflicts. What brought he and Roy together wasn’t shared experience but rather what wasn’t to be acknowledged. The wounds festering between them were separate and yet leaked a familiar stench, suffocating the room as the two gulped gin and roared about the state of the world today. Roy, like him, was a factory worker. Roy, like him, had a family one step above estranged. Roy, like him, was a practitioner of only when, even as his hair fell out and his joints swelled and the days took on a mirror-like quality. Roy didn’t have any ambitions of amending his past or creating new connections, his future was solely focused around the game of cricket. He had stumbled across it one night in the midst of insomniatic channel-surfing, and in the decade since had grown obsessed. His retirement plan was to dedicate himself to the game, but as his mind began to rot, he could barely grip a spoon let alone a three pound bat. Once hope spoiled, the rest of him quickly followed. Now Roy is a Roy that neither of them would recognize, a heap of spoiled meat waiting for metastization to chew the rest away.
When he finally arrives, he has to double-check the name and numbers on the mailbox. The house was never this blue. He can’t recall the color it’s supposed to be but a certainty lingers somewhere just out of reach, an image drawn in monochrome. Still, the peeling and cracked paint suggests the house has been this color for a long time. Patches of mold bubble the paint around corners and joints, staining the areas a darker shade. This color must have been his work, picked by her but laid with his hands. She would’ve loved this blue. She would’ve insisted on a blue matching the sky. He would’ve conceded because what else was there to do? The fights were always hers to win.
He wasn’t surprised to learn it was a stroke that did her in. There had always been too much free passage within her, every reaction a flood threatening to lodge something where it didn’t belong. What did shock him was that her funeral had passed without him having any idea. For days he walked the earth as if the person he was once closest with hadn’t ceased to exist. There was no obituary listing. There was no one to trade remembrances with. No final haunting in weak morning hours, an indefinable weight crushing fragile sleep. He’d still be unaware of her passing to this day, if not for the letter from Derek:
Mom has died…
No dear dad. No hope-you’re-well. No hint of rekindling a relationship. Informing him of the passing was simply a courtesy, a way to discharge guilt. Nothing is different now, Derek insisted. There’s still no invitation to the upcoming wedding. Father will continue to serve as only a genealogical title.
Derek was born as a means to mend, conceived in both the first attempt at pregnancy and the last intimate moment shared between husband and wife. There was an unspoken hope that a child, like a knot tied from strings of separate flesh, would bind them closer together. Instead, there was a completely new spark to ignite charge. Derek served as a both a reason and method through which to admonish one another. There were always new claims of what had to be done, frustrations over what should have been said but remained locked behind clenched teeth. Derek grew up believing that daddies had their own rooms, that dinnertime was subject to individual schedules. Derek only saw his parents stand side-by-side in line at the bank or at the service of yet another departed grandparent. Derek didn’t begin to understand the concept of intimacy until he was seven-years-old, when an asbestos scare at the elementary school brought he and his mother home to witness his father’s body tangled with some other woman’s. While Derek started to despise his father that day, his mother just began to express it unfettered.
He walks to the second garage window and wedges his fingers beneath the rotted frame. The window slides open without struggle, as if the tracks had been greased all these years. This was his escape route, a way of slipping out of the house when the interior became too much to bear. It was utilized so often that the memory of it, like the rhythmic pedaling of a bicycle, is embedded into his muscles. When he had sat down to write out his memories, this window was one of the first to be listed. This practice had been prescribed by his doctor as a memory-strengthening exercise. When he begrudgingly set upon it one rain starved August afternoon, it only took two hours before he realized that there wasn’t anything left to remember. A five-page stack of single-sided loose-leaf was the extent of what near seven decades of existence could muster. He knew it was too early to blame the plaques and tangles. This wasn’t the illness. The best part had never arrived, and now, with his condition, it never would. He made it an hour before taking the pages out back and setting them alight. It only took a few minutes for the flame to devour all its fuel. Afterwards, he kicked at the ashen pile, cringing when he saw the immolation had left the clover and crabgrass beneath largely unharmed.
He lifts himself into the window frame and swings his legs through, grabbing a piece of furniture to steady himself as he descends. He knows it without seeing it, the scratched and flaked lacquer of that ancient boudoir. It was always an ugly piece of crap but it was her mother’s, so here it remains. He turns, and as his eyes adjust to the faint light, the shadow mass at the center of the room gains definition. The detritus of a life spent collecting. Stuffed animals and cracked frames and gowns and books and furniture and quilts and broken appliances all too precious to toss. Instead they’re banished here to the garage, the forgotten chamber of remembrance. He was never the type attached to things, but objects were how she gathered herself. Items served as a sort of external memory, where simply picking up a wickless zippo would summon the vision of a humid teenage summer, skin quivering against mosquitos and human heat. An ugly purple coat never once worn, fingers catching pulled-wool-loops and recalling some long gone aunt. The rocking chair that was once kept in Derek’s room, it’s smashed wicker frame like a broken dreamcatcher spilling reminders of his earliest years. This heap of crap is her burial mound. This garage her true tomb. Pieces of she that remain, locked away here without her to call them forth. The memories are her stories, these objects are bones refusing to come to dust.
He pulls a cancelled credit card from his wallet and jimmies the corroded door-lock open. The kitchen is as stifling as it ever was. The sink full and the dining table littered with receipts, wrappers, and menus. Counters etched with knife marks and cupboard handles spotted with grimy prints. He quickly moves through the kitchen and squeezes past a folding chair haphazardly leaning against the open threshold. In the living room, he’s careful not to step on any of the take-out containers or empty soda cans littering the floor around the sofa. After checking the lock on the front door, he steps over a pile of ripe clothes and stands at the bottom of the stairs, looking up.
This was his, all of it. It was his and then it was hers, and now it’s Derek’s. The memories held here are only muscle, and with no one willing to work them, will eventually atrophy. There’s nothing here worth remembering, nothing that will be carried on past this bloodline’s time. So why continue to clutch at this shabby notion of a legacy? Scratch it off as a loss and let someone else have a try. Scrub clean every marking left before his form is wiped away.
At the top of the stairs he turns left and moves down the narrow hallway, avoiding floorboards he can vaguely recall as creaky. He runs his fingers across the dusty frames lining the wall, glancing at faces whose names refuse to surface. At the end of the hall he slows and presses his face against the door, feeling a residual heat against his cheek, the stain of something warm on the other side. He slowly twists the handle and pushes forward. Noon-light filters through lace curtains and clings to every mote of airborne dust, making the room appear as if it were a middling projection of itself. A set of gray coveralls is draped over a chair by the window, resting there like the limp husk of a person raptured.
Derek lies on his stomach atop the bed, naked save for a pair of oversized white briefs. His back looks like an abandoned construction site, littered with mounds and stringy hairs like coils of jilted wire. A frayed bed-sheet is twisted around his legs, halfway between jettisoned and embraced. Greasy black curls fall across the top of his nape. The hair is longer than it’s ever been. Is maybe longer. Might be. Another memory that can’t be trusted, a detail that could be long departed. There’s no point in trying to piece it together.
He picks up the coveralls and folds them over his lap as he sits in the chair. His thumb brushes at the name embroidered just above the breast pocket. Derek, simply, as if a single name. The first-shifters must nod to Derek as they congregate around the time-clock, never questioning what extends beyond the name threaded into his chest, never knowing how little the rest of it actually carries. If only Derek was all there was, if only it could make up for the flimsy foundation from which he sprung. Derek was doomed from the start. Too heavy a handicap. Too great a distance to make up. Derek is the last in line and the first to fall back. Derek is due to be married in six months’ time to Ellen or Emily or whichever one this happens to be. She’ll take Derek’s name and soon after she’ll bear something that can hold much more. The speck will swell and bloat and force its way into this world no matter the label placed upon it. A title that will have to be carried, propped up only by the charity of others. It’s a name that can’t stand on its own. A name whipped like a mare strapped to an empty wagon. A name that should’ve been buried long ago.
The air shifts as he stands, dust motes sucked into the spaces once occupied. He wipes his hands on his jacket and approaches the bed. The pillowcase around Derek’s mouth is spongy and gray. His eyelids flutter as if there were tiny insects trapped beneath them. Somewhere deep in the center of him, a gland twists and moans. If only his body would remain still throughout. If only the muscles were too weak to tense up, the throat too small to let out anything other than a gasp. Beneath this knot of hair and muscle is a creature that never asked for any of this, a bundle of nerves without name or purpose. A supple form at the center, expected to become something from nothing at all. Prostrate here, teasing at the edges of borderless space. This is correcting a misstep. Wiping clear a broken path. This is the only honest thing to do.
He reaches out. As his palms curve to the shape of Derek’s neck, he feels heat rise from the damp skin. When Derek’s body shudders he turns away, but a sharp sigh holds him in place. High pitched, fragile like a gust breaching a cracked window. When he turns back he sees arms and legs wrapped in plump fat, back smooth like the skin of an apple, hair soft and straight and golden. He blinks hard and the aged creature returns, snoring away like some hibernating cryptoid. Inside this thing is the heart of Derek. To reach the center is to shake off the excess, to peel back layers. It’s allowing the empty center a chance to expand. Surrendering to a legacy begging to be unmade.
About the Author: Adam Kaplan is a writer and musician living in Philadelphia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apiary Magazine, Sick Lit Magazine, and Aritzia Magazine. He is currently working on a novel about home, crust-punks, and techno music.