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Summer Stories: ‘Detritus’

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
By Kris Dinnison

‘Dad has a lot of crap. Peter dropped a cardboard box onto a stack already

three high. It swayed like a skyscraper in an earthquake. Peter shifted his hip against the stack, stopping the motion.

“Had,” Sara said.

“What?”

“Dad had a lot of crap. Stuff.” She pulled the packing tape dispenser toward her across the top of the box, sealing it with one tidy strip. The teeth of the dispenser sliced the tape off with a snap.

“Right, sorry. Had.”

“And be careful with those.”

“Why? I know I don’t want any of it.” Peter kicked a box near his foot, then bent, cataloging each one as he tossed it on the floor. “Two baseball caps he never wore. A bowling trophy from 1972. A shaving kit someone gave him: never used.”

Sara gathered the discarded things, cradling them. “I gave it to him.

“You gave what to him?”

“The shaving kit.”

“Oh.” Peter kicked the box again. “There’s nothing here worth keeping. We should just donate it all. Or better yet, haul it to the incinerator.”

Sara shook her head, hunching herself over the items.

“Why not? Why would we spend a week going through every piece of detritus Dad ever shoved in a drawer?”

“There might be … we might miss something.”

Peter looked around at the towers of cardboard liquor boxes, the worn furniture, shadow rectangles on the walls where the pictures used to hang. “I need some air.” He grabbed his keys, slamming the front door behind him.

Sara heard his engine rev, the sound of his tires crackling on the asphalt as he backed into the street. She let out a long breath, placing the items carefully back in the box. Peter was always leaving, a clean getaway usually. Every time he came back their dad had welcomed him with open arms. But this time Peter hadn’t made it back in time to be the prodigal son. Sara was the only witness to their dad’s death, and now to the objects that constituted his life.

She knelt in front of the box Peter had sorted through. “He’s right,” Sara admitted, digging through the box. “This one really is junk.” She grabbed the tape dispenser, but then removed the shaving kit and put it aside before sealing up the box.

Peter returned an hour later bearing a 12-pack of Czech Pilsner. “If we’re going through the rest of this stuff, we’re going to need a drink.” He popped a top off with his key chain and handed her a bottle. “I know you hate that soy sauce dark beer I usually drink. I hope this is OK.”

Peter was always doing that: remembering something trivial like the fact that she liked honey in her coffee or that her favorite ice cream was mint chip, and then catering to that even when it wasn’t his preference. Seeing him in person always threw off her carefully constructed version of him. She’d written him a script, but he insisted on improvising.

She took the beer, glancing at the clock. 11:30 a.m.

“It’s cocktail hour somewhere.” Peter tapped his bottle against hers. “Here’s to the old man.”

They both took a long swallow, and Sara felt the rush of the alcohol and the daring of a pre-noon beer flow through her. She sat cross-legged, leaning forward and clutching the beer in both hands.

“Do you think he knew?” Peter asked.

Sara picked at the label, getting hold of a corner and peeling slowly, trying to get it off in all one piece. “Knew what?”

“Do you think he knew … you know … that he was going?” Peter finished his beer and started another one.

“Did he know he was going to die? God, I don’t know, Peter.”

“But you were with him.” Peter took a couple long pulls on his beer. “I mean, did he say anything? About that? Or about … anyone?”

Sara gave the label one more gentle pull, removing it intact. She held it up for Peter to see.

“Isn’t that supposed to mean you’re a virgin or something?”

Sara wadded up the label and threw it at him.

“So, did he? Say anything?”

Sara turned the beer bottle in her hand. “Not really. I mean, he didn’t talk much the last couple days. Before that he mostly complained.”

“Sounds like Dad.” Peter opened his third bottle.

Sara glanced at the clock again: 11:47 am. “But he did ask about you a couple times right after he went in,” she lied. “Making sure you were on your way.”

“Really?” Peter’s voice was eager, like a child’s fingers grasping at an offered cookie.

Her face grew hot with her lie and with his hunger for it. His need irritated her. “Well, he always liked you best.” Sara put aside the beer she’d been nursing and pulled out a drawer in the desk beside her. Photos. She couldn’t do photos. Not yet. She pushed the drawer closed and grabbed two cartons, moving into the kitchen.

Peter followed her. “Are you kidding me right now? Dad barely tolerated me.”

“Stop it, Peter.” She drove herself around the room, placing knickknacks in the boxes without wrapping them. Ceramic duck salt and pepper shakers, a rusted flask, a Farmer’s Almanac from 2002. She sorted as she worked: keep and donate. She should have three piles: keep, donate and throw away, but she couldn’t stomach the image of her parents’ things pushed around a landfill by a bulldozer.

“Seriously, Sara.”

She shrugged. Taking the boxes back into the living room, she tackled the top of the desk: address book, a stack of rubber-banded Christmas cards, a plastic cup stuffed with pens and pencils.

Peter watched her, his left leg bounced frantically up and down. “Sewing machine leg” their dad used to call it.

“What the hell are you looking for anyway?” Peter said. “Is there some buried treasure Dad told you about at the end? Some secret inheritance you’re afraid we’ll throw away by accident?” He stood and walked to a pile of boxes in the corner. Holding his beer in his armpit, he dug through the top box, then tossed it aside. Repeated the rough search with the next, tossing it as well. He launched the third box with even more force, toppling two other piles and dropping his beer in the process. The bottle hit the edge of the tile hearth, shattering and spraying beer in all directions.

Sara spun around.

Peter looked at the broken bottle and then grinned at her. “Oops.” He started laughing.

“What’s wrong with you?” She grabbed a broom from the corner and pushed him aside. “Be careful.”

Peter stepped away from the mess as Sara bent to clean it up.

Peter grabbed another beer and returned to the chair. Neither of them spoke until she was satisfied all the glass fragments were cleared away.

“Remember the World’s Fair glasses?”

Sara dumped the broken glass in the trash bin next to the desk. “Yeah. Kind of a hard one to forget.”

“It was an accident.”

“Breaking one glass is an accident. Breaking a whole set in a week?”

Peter tried to hide his lopsided grin with another gulp of beer. “You covered for me, though.” Peter said. “You did that a lot.”

Sara sealed up the box from the desk, labeling it with a fat black marker.

“He loved those glasses.”

“Because she loved those glasses.” Sara pulled out the desk drawers one by one. All empty already except the bottom one with the photos. She sighed as she dragged it open.

“I don’t remember doing all this when Mom died.” Peter said after a while.

“You were too young.”

“I just remember laying on my bed reading. It felt like I was there for weeks.”

“You were. I just kept bringing you grilled cheese, tomato soup and cherry Zotz.”

“Zotz! I totally forgot about the Zotz!” Peter stared at his beer. “So, did you have to do all this then, too?”

“Some.” Sara looked around her, taking in the overwhelming bulk contained in the living room. “There wasn’t as much, just Mom’s clothes and jewelry and stuff. Dad was kind of wrecked. I tried to put away stuff that would remind him–” Sara broke off. “Maybe that was wrong. Maybe if he’d remembered he would have been, I don’t know, different?”

“I doubt it,” Peter thumbed through an encyclopedia. “Dad was a bastard from way back.”

“He couldn’t have been. Not always.” Sara shook her head. “If he was, why would mom have stayed with him?”

“She didn’t.”

“Jesus, Peter. She died.”

“Still. I mean how old were you when she got sick?”

“Thirteen.” Sara returned to the drawer full of pictures.

“So, you lived with him, what, three times as long as Mom?”

Sara shrugged. “He was different after she died.” She flipped through the pictures, hardly glancing at them. She knew she’d keep them all.

“If by different you mean even more of a bastard.”

Sara slammed the photo album she was holding into the box. “How would you know? You left!”

Peter stared at her.

Sara covered her face with her hands, leaving trails of dirt on her forehead. “Sorry. Sorry.”

He popped the top on another beer and took a long drink. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. “I couldn’t stay.”

“I know, Peter. I shouldn’t have– It wasn’t your fault. Dad just– it was all just too much for him.” Sara took a drink of her now-warm beer. “But he always missed you when you were gone, always asked when you were coming home.”

“Always hoped I’d changed my mind. Always hoped I’d grown out of it.” Peter picked up another photo album. “But every time there’d be this moment when he’d realize I still wasn’t a ‘real man.’ And that was my signal to bail.”

“Still, he was glad to see you. That’s something.”

“I’ve always wondered if Mom knew?”

“About you?” Sara fingered a framed photo of herself at about 6 holding baby Peter in her lap. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“I wonder if she would have minded.”

“She wouldn’t have. Not really.”

“I guess we’ll never know for sure. That’s one of the crappy things about them being dead.”

“That’s one of the many crappy things about them being dead.”

“We could always try a séance!”

Sara shivered. “Pass.”

“Guess we’re orphans now.”

“Guess so.” She handed Peter the picture of them.

He put down his beer and held the frame with both hands. “Where was this? I’ve never seen it.”

“On top of his dresser.”

“Really?” Peter examined the photo, taking in their awkward pose, the way Sara was hanging on tight so he wouldn’t fall. The way he seemed to be trying to squirm off her lap, trying to make his escape. “Can I have it?”

“Sure.” The tears surprised her, and she tasted salt through her smile. “You can have anything you want.”

Peter handed her a box of Kleenex. He looked at the picture again. “I think this is all I need.”

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