Jake wiped crumbs from my red lips then paid the café check. With my pinkie nail I wanted to fleck out the dark discharge shellacking the interior corners of his eyes. I’m going to live in Italy for a year. His phrase was the covenant to avoid saying what he couldn’t say, and I couldn’t hear. Two years earlier I had snaked my way around unpacked boxes scattered throughout my foyer and living room to answer a spunky knock at the door. Carrying a gift basket stuffed with a sweating wine bottle wrapped in a checkered bar towel, two stemmed glasses, a trio of cheese knives and an assortment of crackers and cheeses was Jake. A silver Rabbit wine opener peeked out at an odd angle from the rest of the medley.
Four houses on your left, the boxy white one trimmed in turquoise, that’s my place. Wagging his index finger in the direction of my chest he popped, Little chilly? I play for the other team. Downshifting his voice, as though right out of a movie, he added, I’m Jake, your welcoming committee. A swing in the back yard under a shady oak tree makes up for the frontal ugly of my house. He skipped off in the direction of the kitchen as I ran my hands over my nipples clad with a sheer cotton t-shirt trying to decide if I should grab a sweater.
Aware that I went to change clothes, he shouted Good negotiator. She swore she wouldn’t part with the bar stools. Tucked under the stone slab, with adjustable heights, and similar to the ones in Barney’s ninth floor restaurant, the stools helped cushion my departure from New York City to return home to care for Mom. I had insisted they be part of the purchase.
In two days time you can find the wine store in town and buy us a French Chardonnay. You’ll see—Jake stopped speaking as he took in my flip-flop from cleaning girl to urbanite: charcoal rag & bone cropped jeans, oversized Helmet Lang heather grey sweater, black satin Chanel espadrille flats, and Jill Platner earrings, necklace and layered bracelets. While twisting the corkscrew, he bowed his head in approval, poured the wine, took a sip, and then smiled large exclaiming Pretty good. Pret-ty pret-ty pret-ty good.
Darling you’re a keeper.
He reminded me of my fun-loving strategic backstage guys. All of them were older than me, yet I called them boys. As the development director for a modern dance company I was always around the dancers, the board members and the politics. My steady comfort came from the crew who kept the scene changes tight, maintained safety and transformed the stage into a world of possibilities. After the performances I stayed to watch the cleanup and see an entirely different production. Their hammer and nail philosophy understood that if you did your job right, for ninety minutes people could escape their daily lives.
During the first cocktail hour, Jake informed me that he came with the house and required soft shouldering. The second time, he let me know I needed plants and a good vibrator. Liven up the place. And yourself.
With sadness, I toss his scalloped edged sepia postcard of St. Peter’s Basilica into the waste paper basket by my desk and grab my car keys. In New York I would have paid my bills online. Here I look forward to the vintage bustle of activity inside the post office where I purchase stamps, kvetch about junk mail and read lost pet flyers. Afterwards I visit Mom at the nursing home.
The facility is not supposed to be depressing. Flower boxes are in the windows and the furniture is comfortable. Polished wood floors are warmed with throw rugs and dark, mahogany-stained baseboards make the place feel like a welcoming home. Yet the atmosphere reminds me of an open coffin anchored in place by side tables adorned with yellowed macramé coasters.
I have a leak.
Put them in a salad.
No Mom a leak. Dripping water underneath my sink.
You must have a leak.
I pick up my purse and lean to kiss her goodbye. Do you want me to walk you to the recreation lounge?
It’s a room full of strangers and someone’s always knitting. I don’t want to go there. I’ll read for a bit. You better fix that leak.
At the hardware store the soft scent of hard rubber and plywood permeate the air. Drips or spray?
Little drips. They stop for a day or two when I tighten the thing-a-ma-jig underneath.
Washer. Could be your washer is shot.
A handy woman are you? Could be a crack in the pipe, loose connection, or the valve needs replacing. You might want to call a plumber. Leaks can be an indication of larger problems. Sounds like a worn washer. Shut off the water supply to the sink before you start.
Are you a plumber?
Good with a wrench. Take over the counter, he yells to a worker sweeping the floor. Greg. Greg Thomas, Thomas Hardware, a family owned and operated business for twenty-seven years and counting. You married?
If that’s an offer I insist on paying.
My car is in the shop. I’ll need a ride. As he emerges from behind the register with a fire engine red toolbox, his Eagle Scout grin allays my fear of him being a serial killer. We walk out into a sun-filled day and I spot Mom standing by the front of my car. What are you doing here?
That’s not my home.
Nice to meet you. Greg. Mom looks at me for mooring. She has a leak. I’m going to fix it.
Mom, you can’t just wander off.
She points to her building and addresses Greg. I live there.
Do you spend time in the garden?
There’s a garden?
I built the gazebo in the back. Would you like to see it?
Thankful for Greg dealing with Mom, I head straight for the community director’s office. The facility allows residents freedom to walk the grounds, though I was assured there’s camera monitoring and my mother would always have supervision.
We’re very sorry, Ms. O’Brien. We’ll be more careful. Ms. rumbled out as in missing a husband.
The commotion of the day has taken its toll. On the way back to Mom’s room Greg motions he’s leaving. I coax Mom to lie down, stroke her forehead and whisper love you the same way she did for me when I made my first communion a week before Dad died in the line of duty. She drifts off to sleep.
Back at the hardware store Greg is ringing up customers. I pantomime that I need to pick up wine and I’ll be right back. Grape varieties arranged by countries bring up memories of Jake. To avoid crying, I pick up a six-pack. Before I threw it away, his postcard had made me laugh. Stopped for a cocktail at The American Bar at The Savoy in London before heading to Rome. The Sultan of Swoon was a martini man, then a Daniel’s man. TOLD TO ME BY VG. Condensation from his drink left an interesting inkblot on the card, like a willful wreath.
Jake knew I’d troll online to fact check VG who was Victor Gower, the head bartender at The American Bar from 1946 to 1985. Sighting Sinatra, he knew to make a classic Beefeater martini on the rocks with a shadow of vermouth and a lemon twist. The distance between bartender and The Chairman was implicit and the drink had to be made to perfection. The tips were always big.
He also knew my curiosity would be drawn to the faded encircled image. A cyber-click led me to a page where I read that a wreath symbolizes victory in death. Jake and I weren’t lovers but our embraces were electric. We chuckled about the same things and both of us were diehard Larry David fans. I wanted to hear him say Pretty good. Pret-ty pret-ty pret-ty good.
Where’s the leak?
Leading Greg into my bedroom, I point in the direction of the bathroom. The idea of being inside either of those rooms with him makes me uncomfortable. Beer?
On my way to the kitchen, he begins to whistle a weak teakettle trill not a melody.
I open the draw to pull out the beer opener and the Rabbit stares back at me. Everything feels off and unlike the way it was with Jake, my handyman. An irreplaceable evening long ago pops into my head, a time when I liked being with a man who made me feel special. I see candles in the middle of a table at a restaurant tucked away in a corner of the West Village and the special way he looked at me. The waiter taking our order asked if we were newlyweds.
We are. He took my hands and pressed them to his lips. Your hands are cold. Folding them into closed butterfly wings he blew on them. As I sipped red wine and savored raviolis stuffed with fresh ricotta and wild mushrooms, I mentioned was going to visit Paris. It wasn’t true and it didn’t matter.
Don’t go alone. Let me come with you. His words were free of heartbreak.
Stepping out into the driveway I look over at Jake’s place four houses away. His lights are on a timer to fool potential intruders. The day my moving van arrived he must have watched and reasoned I was a loner. There was nothing plural in a banana seat bike or a queen size mattress. Using dollies and hand trucks, in less than two hours, three men unloaded a life made in New York.
Much later in the evening of our first cocktail hour, I said to Jake Pick a box. I was feeling chirpy and in the company of someone I had no history with. We’d finished the wine and he’d already left and returned from his house with a bottle of Daniel Crochet Sancerre Rose.
My choice? Really?
Jake stared at the boxes marked kitchen items, knickknacks and artwork, and he must have known that every “FRAGILE” box couldn’t really contain only fragile items. He struck me as someone who wanted things to feel settled and, if given the opportunity, he would have unpacked everything, arranged the books on the right shelves, placed cutlery in the correct drawers and hung paintings where they jazzed up a room. Part of me even wanted to let him have a go at it.
He stepped into the foyer, returned with the smallest box marked mementos and handed it to me. Open it. I grabbed the small spade knife we used to wedge apart the hard cheese that Jake had included with the goodies he’d brought over.
Before I show you what’s inside tell me something I couldn’t possibly know about you?
Cancer. I have it. Jake’s delivery was dry, comedic. So I laughed, until the expression on his face changed. Diagnosed earlier today after being hinted at for a week. Type ‘how long does it take to’ into a search bar and autocomplete follows with ‘getting to Mars or the moon.’ Doesn’t that make cancer an alien?
Without looking up I struggled to unravel an excessively bubble wrapped package. Before Jake’s disclosure, I knew that I’d reveal myself to him. I passed him an image on a flattened piece of silly putty encased in an airtight acrylic frame. That was my Father.
Six months after my Dad died Mom piled his belongings into the living room—clothes, fishing gear and books hadn’t taken up much space. It was early morning and I yawn-asked what she was doing. Letting go. She left the room then returned with two smoking pipes he kept in the garage because she didn’t want them in the house. Dad called them his collection. Mom would joke and say Yes dear your pair of pipes.
I started to pull stuff from the various stacks until she stopped me. Holding onto your father’s things won’t keep him with us. She took his fly fishing vest from my hands and I raced out the backdoor as she called after me. I was a block away before I realized she wasn’t behind me and was probably collecting more of Dad’s things to give away.
My first communion celebration had turned into my father’s memorial. The pony ride he promised didn’t happen. Life at seven-years-old slipped underneath the crack of the door and walloped me as Mom was letting go. When I came back to the house a note was propped up against the flower vase on the coffee table. At Goodwill. I wandered around the emptied house.
In my parent’s bedroom I peered into their closet. Her closet. Shoes lined the planked floor, dresses were arranged by colors and scarfs replaced my father’s hanging ties. The dresser drawers accommodated her need for space between things. The night table on Mom’s side held her reading glasses, Dad’s mass card and the newspaper’s obituary clipping. His side was bare.
I took Dad’s death announcement to my room to read. They called him hero. No details about the shooting rampage where he was gunned down at close range were included. Instead it noted that he was an avid fly fisherman who used only barbless hooks. Mom and I survived him, it read, and donations to the Faces of Courage Foundation would be appreciated in lieu of flowers. The photo of him in uniform didn’t look like the man who read me the funny pages on Sundays. I took out the silly putty that I used to capture comic strips, weekly recycling it by kneading and rolling before patting it flat over the images I wanted to save. Sally Brown sticking her tongue out with the caption Happiness is catching snowflakes on your tongue was erased as my Dad’s image and pieces of his life story were immortalized on a pancaked surface of polymer.
Over the years Dad’s likeness has faded. I tried everything to preserve it.
Jake handed me back the frame. The once strong black and white contrast had softened to the vanishing tone of a pixelated number 2 lead pencil. Darling you couldn’t do that today. Newspaper ink is no longer transferable.
Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Longreads, Electric Literature, LARB, Bomb Magazine, AGNI, The Millions, Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, The Adroit Journal and elsewhere. UK’s Dodo Ink will feature her work in the 2020 anthology, “Trauma: Art as a response to mental health.”