Suze Talbert stepped onto the sloping front porch clutching a chipped green coffee mug. She scanned the sky and found it wanting. There was not a brilliant palette of blues. Instead, the horizon threatened thunder and wet with a sudden drop in temperature. No matter, she thought, it was the day things had to happen. The porch had been a shelter for fifteen years. It could hold her goods and miscellaneous accessories if needed. Everything waited inside the heavy front door. She had worked for days but still was up late the night before. It was cargo, boxed and bound and set to go. Where, she had no idea. There were things, of course, she couldn’t stuff in containers; they were eyesores to her.
“Is it a yard sale? In November?”
Her mother tended to believe her girl was full of crackpot ideas, the main one being that Suze said she was a professional graphologist. Her mother thought handwriting analysts were hucksters; no daughter of hers should be making money that way. She was fading to pale, like mid-2oth century wallpaper that was finally releasing its hold, but her opinions held fast.
“No, Ma, it’s not a sale. I just want it gone. So it will be. Soon.”
“Is someone coming to pick it up with a truck and taking it to….?”
Suze waited. If she waited long enough, her mother would forget the question. It wasn’t kind of her but she didn’t want to answer and didn’t need a fuss. There her mother went, wandering to weather, and then they said goodbye. Suze would call her after it was all over.
Now she stood with steaming mug in hand but felt the chill creep into her long legs and significant hips, then latch onto her torso. The cold dominated the last several days, invading her Craftsman house. She shivered under the thin flannel robe and decided she may as well get dressed. But even as her body turned away, her head stayed still and her periwinkle blue eyes caught sight of, then remained on Carl. The neighbor boy leaned against his window, hands splayed against the glass as his breath fogged the surface. He moved over, looked up and down the street.
It had escaped her until recently how tall he had grown. Carl had brought over a half apple pie his father, Jesse, had made for dinner last week. She had peered through the peephole in the door, not sure whose spiky hair was jutting into her line of one-eyed vision.
“It’s Carl, Mrs. Talbert. I’ve got leftover chocolate mint pie.”
She’d stepped away, wondering if he could see her. She hadn’t brushed her hair. She hadn’t showered in three days, nor had she dressed unless you could call black yoga pants and a black hoodie being dressed. She’d been packing and sorting and weeping and piling things into the living room. The sheers had been closed for a week, but the drapes were open enough so that there was a filmy light that fell over the front rooms.
“Okay, Carl, leave it on the porch, thank your dad!” she’d called out, false cheer plumping the words.
He left with a shrug.
Carl’s father was one of those men who wanted to do good and so he did, yet he seemed disappointed when no one thought him heroic. Suze found him ingratiating at times. There was no denying Jesse was considerate, especially after The Last Night.
“TLN” (as she referred to it) was when Robbie took off in the middle of the night in the silver 1971 BMW sedan he’d bought last summer. She’d been asleep, face half-buried in her warm down pillow. She’d gone to bed with a screeching headache after their fight, wherein she accused him of never being home, anymore, and he retorted that he didn’t have quite good enough reasons to be home, anymore. Not reasons he could think of at ten o-clock after they finally faced each other with their lists of wrongdoings, ready for debate. A weekday night, the timing was off. That further fueled their battle. All either wanted was to fall into righteous sleep.
“I’m going to leave, you know. This isn’t the bargain we made! Good work and sex and money and a family and so on. The golden ring, yes! I certainly got the money and work down. You’re busy reading futures but can’t even read ours.”
“Bargain?” Suze was trying hard to stay in her chair. It’s a brass ring, she wanted to say, not golden. And one more fight is not that big a deal. “I thought we exchanged vows. Promises. Hopes wrapped in abiding love.” She pulled her baggy hoodie closer and crossed her arms. Her voice trickled to a small thing. “You know I don’t read futures. I analyze tendencies, traits, match people with employers and…anyway…”
His thin upper lip curled and she thought how much he resembled a coyote fighting over meat even though she wasn’t yanking it from him. She wanted peace but she had long ago settled for little wars littered with truces that gave relief.
“I’m not settling, anymore.” He got up from the sofa, bare feet softly slapping against oak flooring as he disappeared into the kitchen.
Suze waited to hear the refrigerator door but instead a cabinet slammed shut and she knew what was coming. She left the living room as he emerged, bottle and glass in hand.
“I’m not drinking with you and we’re done talking.” She backed up, hand on the stairway balustrade.
His narrow shoulders lifted and his jaw tensed, the strong, whiskered chin pulling in. His eyes gleamed anger. The effect was even more feral.
“Right. We’re both done. I’ll drink and you’ll sulk in bed and tomorrow we’ll repeat.” He unscrewed the top from an amber bottle and slipped past her and as he did, his arm brushed hers. It pained her, the heat of familiarity in even unconscious contact.
How could she have been so wrong? That’s what came to her when she was awakened by a motor revving at two o’clock. She looked out the window. He pulled out of the driveway with lights off. She knew without looking that he had packed a bag and his computer, gone for good this time. He hadn’t wanted to be married so much as promoted and supported as he got his start-up going. It worked for a while. Suze had wanted to believe in something much braver and greater than that.
Now, four months later she was surveying her neighborhood on a frosty early winter morning and Carl was looking at her from his house. She thought he and his dad would be surprised by what was coming next.
Across the street, Carl was telling his dad Mrs. Talbert had left the house before eight, even though she was still on the porch. It counted. It was Saturday; Carl was awake because he got up with his dad. Ever since his mom went to live another place a year back. They made breakfast and had coffee together. Carl used an ancient china cup with a silver rim, one his mom had found at a flea market. He doctored the drink with cream and sugar. He was nine but coffee was not a bad thing in the morning when you half-wanted to sleep more but you didn’t want your dad to be alone. Besides, it was fun to cook together and read the comics to each other.
He pressed his face to the window.
“I have a feeling. I think something might happen over there.”
“Where? Suze’s house? Doubt it.” Jesse put a heap of scrambled eggs on the table but was still frying sausage patties, grease splattering. He had tried to get things ready all at once but it wasn’t his forte. “I need toast done now!”
Carl waited until Mrs.Talbert stopped looking his direction and turned back to her house and vanished inside. Then he popped two fat pieces of wheat bread into the toaster and sat on a stool next to the counter. He liked his toast almost burned but his dad did not so it was tricky. He leaned his chin on flattened hands and waited.
“If Mr. Talbert hadn’t left, she’d be jogging every week-end like before. She never goes places now, does she?”
Jesse ruffled his son’s hair. “You worry too much, and don’t tell me somebody has to–you’re a kid and I prefer it that way. Suze can take care of herself.”
He wasn’t all that sure but he wasn’t going to talk about it with his son. There were rumors on the block since Robbie left her. Someone had said he relocated to California. Jesse thought, Good riddance. He’d not been much of a neighbor, working later than anyone else, not open to sharing tools, even conversation, disinterested in potlucks. He had come to one on New Year’s Day–and after twenty minutes begged off. Work to do at home. He knew how it went. His wife had disappeared, too, lunch or drinks with girlfriends and hunting antiques, her one passion. Or depression stalling her. Jesse was the one who had wanted to do things, explore more of life. Then last year she stayed on vacation in Costa Rica after he and Carl left. That was it. He agreed she could have their small condo there. It was the one place she wasn’t miserable. He missed it. Sometimes her. His son prayed she’d come back.
“I’m not sure, Dad.” The toast popped up. He took his dad’s and buttered it and replaced his own for more browning. “I’m really not convinced. She changed.”
Jesse glanced at Carl to make sure he wasn’t frowning, heading down the slope of sadness he sometimes slid down. Satisfied, he bent over and served two hills of salt and peppered, dilled eggs on their plates, then got the sausage before it caught afire from forgetfulness born of distraction. He loved this time with Carl.
Carl plunked down opposite him but looked toward the living room. He would be spending the day checking on Mrs. Talbert. Of that he was sure.
Out the front door of Suze Talbert’s house were carried two black folding chairs and a couple of paper bags of magazines, followed by a large box, a giant cloth bag of something soft (clothes, bedding), trailed by a brass desk lamp with a burgundy lampshade. Next came a russet plaid ottoman that had a matching wingback. She paused and swallowed a draft of a third cup of coffee, pushed her fine brunette hair behind each ear and re-did the short ponytail. She had put on a flannel-lined barn jacket but was already starting to perspire. She stacked three smaller boxes and lifted from her knees to avoid strain, then carried them out to the curb, next to the bigger boxes. Black plastic garbage bags were dragged out and released to the lawn. She’d been moving stuff for an hour. There was no telling how this would end.
It was a deep and wide front yard, bordered by hedges on the driveway side, a redwood fence on the other. It had been part of what drew them to the house. She was tempted to sit in the Adirondack chair. She was keeping that; Robbie never liked it.
“Must get out his bikes, too,” she muttered. “CDs, books: check. But need to dismantle study before someone pokes around business and investment volumes.”
The thought irked her. Why couldn’t he have taken his things by now? Didn’t he care enough about anything to call her even once? He’d left the hard work to her. In his charcoal grey-walled study, she pulled out remaining books. Stacking them in another box when she was seized with an urge to throw them. But they were books, after all. She worked with deliberateness.
“It’s a cleansing,” she had told her mother last night. “I have to rid myself of him. I’ll have to smudge the whole place afterwards, ring bells, call a healer.”
“Well, call someone for an estimate.”
“Didn’t you say you wanted to move, dear? This is about moving, right?”
Suze sighed so deeply she felt her lungs give a twinge. “Not now, mother. I am just getting rid of Robbie’s things. I’m not moving until… after the divorce. If then.”
“Well, call that junk man, Herbie something.”
She was calling no one. Not even her handful of friends, despite feeling so alone she felt she’d disappeared into space some days. Despite being overcome by the last vestiges of his presence as she packed, sorted and hefted things. She wasn’t feeling sentimental, but forlorn and upended. Tricked by life, taken by surprise by the twists and turns of her life. This was meant to be a two-by-two sort of adventure.
She should have known by his handwriting, angular, closed and hard to read. She had thought he might soften in marriage so that his memos and lists would reveal consonants that slouched a bit and become rounded, and the indispensable vowels would loosen at the tops, his crossed “ts’ become less saber-like. But they kept crunching along space like he did, emphatically smart, dauntless and proud.
No, she was doing it all by herself. Everything was going out since he hadn’t bothered with filing for divorce yet, just left his things as if she’d keep cleaning up after him. Well, he could come by if a neighbor happened to call him. Or not.
Carl yanked on his jacket, settled his baseball cap and slipped out the back garage door. Through the quiet back yard, to the grassy side area. He sat on a piece of firewood that had rolled from the half cord stacked against the garage. His dad was doing laundry; Carl knew he should clean his room. But first, other things.
Mrs. Talbert was dragging things out of her house. No one else walked over to see what she was up to but a couple of cars had slowed down. There wasn’t any sign and where items were placed didn’t make sense. Various shapes scattered on the lawn. Big garbage bags piled into sloppy mounds. Furniture looking strange in pale daylight. He wondered if she was getting tired but no, she kept going in and out, her arms full of things, hands gripping this or that, then letting all drop. He wanted to think it was a garage sale but who would do that this time of year? The sky was dark as the rocks beneath his feet and he thought it might rain a very cold rain. He stuffed his hands in jacket pockets and shifted. Here came those nice brown plaid throw pillows, the fat kind you sat on when watching TV. Carl thought they’d look good in his room.
Mrs. Talbert sat down on a big chair facing the driveway. She stretched, looked up at the sky. He was about to run over and ask if she needed a hand when a rickety van slowed down, stopped and idled. The driver, a guy about college age, got out.
“Yard sale?” he shouted over the roar of his van motor.
“Oh, no, it’s all free!” Mrs. Talbert shouted back and then was up and inside, returning with an ugly floor lamp and a metal sculpture of a horse and rider. She carried poster board declaring “Free” in red letters.
“All of it?” He reached into the van, turned it off, then walked around the yard. “Wow.”
Mrs. Talbert said something like “Take it away”, looked him over then went back inside. She emerged with a long coat, gloves and hat.
Carl walked to the front of his yard. The guy carried the big chair and ottoman to his vehicle, put them in back, then picked up the big pillows.
“Hey, those are mine!” Carl called across the street. He was shocked he’d said it but crossed over.
“Says who, kid?” the young man laughed and closed the back doors, got in the van and took off.
“Carl.” She looked at him as if he was the last person on earth she expected or wanted to see on the curb. “Can I do something for you?”
“I was wondering if you wanted help?” She looked sort of old now, he thought.
“No, thanks, son, getting it done.” She looked at him with her light blue, puffy eyes. “Maybe you should leave.”
The way she said it scared him, as if he’d better leave right then, except she was crying a little so her long eyelashes beaded up with big drops and her eyes got red. She wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“I’m trying to get things done, make it right. Clean out, start over.” Her voice got higher and tighter with each word.”Get rid of the detritus of the past! A nice, permanent break from a life of…unhappiness!” She threw up her hands to the sky, then let them fall.”You should go, Carl.”
But Carl stood his ground. “I get it.”
Suze moved the long, damp bangs off her forehead.”Really. You do?”
“Well, my dad and me got rid of mom’s stuff awhile back. Well, we shipped most of it to her in Costa Rica.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, yes, I suppose he would do that.” She didn’t feel as strong in front of this boy. “Jesse is a good guy.” She thought of the man’s handwriting on Christmas cards, generous and languid. She studied their house, then pivoted and left him there without a word.
Carl gazed over the piles. Many things were dark, expensive, fancy, a lot like Mr. Talbert. He didn’t know what to do, go clean his room or enter the house and see if she was okay or take home something he liked since it was free. His stomach felt suddenly jumpy. His throat was a tight rubber band and he might not be able to breathe if he didn’t do something. His hands were cold. But he waited. He stood by the garbage bags and looked down at his sneakers, shoelaces untied and dirty.
Is that what it was about, the endings of things, a bunch of garbage that no one wanted unless it was easy to haul off? Did this happen to all grown-ups, eventually? Life ended up useless as mismatched butter knives in their kitchen drawer, tarnished, bent and unwanted? It made his heart beat fast, the thought of one more grown up leaving. One more memory discarded. The idea that he would be a year older, then another year and another since he couldn’t stop time. Then what would he become and what else would he have to lose? What more could be taken from him?
Carl collapsed on the plastic bags and beat on them with his reddened, knotted fists. He felt their softness give way beneath him, the lifeless contents flatten. He kept punching and rough noises came from him like some mean dog, and he wished the bags were full of something harder so the hurt could be pummeled away.
“Carl? Honey?” She kneeled over him, hand on his back.
He hit the bags again and again, spit started to slip out of his mouth, salty streams seeped from his eyes and he hiccupped and couldn’t stop.
“Son! Dear God…Carl!”
His dad pulled him up and clamped him close to his chest so that Carl could feel his heart pounding against his, finding him. Suze stretched her arms around them both. It started to rain a fine, gentle mist and still they held on and on until Carl got quiet.
There were a few others stopping, taking things, putting them in cars, asking why that family was standing there like that. It made them uneasy–and all the great stuff, just let go?–but it didn’t stop them. Boxes lifted, bags dragged away. Furniture loaded. Even a dried bouquet of flowers, now damp, was salvaged. The lawn soon looked cleaner in the bleached light. Carl and Jesse and Suze left hand in hand, crossing one side of the street for the other, stepped into Jesse’s house and closed the door.