By Tim Hanson
This Story Won First Prize in Our Contest
The second-floor linen closet held more than just towels and boxes of soap. There were keepsakes from vacations and long weekends, boxes full of photographs, receipts from our first few years of dating, and folders stuffed with poetry we’d written for each other in college.
After our daughter was born, my wife insisted on getting rid of the clutter, but when we attempted this arduous task, I protested each item’s removal. “You’re a hoarder,” she said, looking helplessly at the overflowing closet. She laughed about it, though, and when she closed the closet door, everything remained right where it was, her campaign lost, but that didn’t weaken the smile we shared as we headed back downstairs.
The last thing I want to do is get out of bed, but there’s nothing in the fridge, and a man’s gotta eat, so I drive to the grocery store and wander the aisles, starved but without appetite, as songs from decades ago play overhead, their singers and songwriters long since expired, and listening to that is so much worse than bearing the silence back home, so I grab a bottle of Jack Daniels and pre-prepared food and leave, carrying two bags full of things I probably won’t eat back into the parking lot, where the howling wind whips against my face as I head toward the car, and I think about finally throwing away the Christmas tree when I get home, but I realize it’ll just sit on the curb and rot, and I don’t know why I’m so anxious to get back home anyway, or why I don’t just drop the grocery bags now, close my eyes, and walk into oncoming traffic, or why I plan to drop the groceries first, why my mind insists on inserting this detail into the plan, and I wonder if there’s even enough room in my trunk for the groceries, and maybe I should just drop the bags anyway, remove the Jack Daniels, the real reason I came, and walk home with my coat open, a middle finger to this unrelenting winter, and drain the bottle on the way there. The path from store to car was set long ago, though, and I’m a slave to routine, no matter what happened last December, no matter if there is only one person to walk this path now instead of three, and sure enough, when I open the trunk, I see there isn’t enough room for my bags amongst the boxes of things from the classroom where I used to teach English and the cleaning supplies left over from working during the pandemic and a picture Maggie painted for me and…and…
Throw it away.
Or just leave it here with the bags.
But be sure to grab the Jack Daniels.
Maybe I’ll just empty the bottle right here and now and then drive my car into the side of the store, make it look like my wife’s car after the semi plowed into it, but a high-pitched scream steals me away from this thought before it becomes a reality.
Three cars over, a little girl is sobbing in her father’s arms as he tries unlatching her umbrella stroller, but he can’t see that his struggles are futile, that the stroller is broken. We actually had one die the same way last summer before we replaced it with this one, and if I still believed in God or fate or any of that nonsense, I’d see this as a sign, as something other than an opportunity to finally rid my life of at least one piece of clutter:
Give the stroller to this man, who naively thinks this is the lowest his day can get. It doesn’t need to rot in a junkyard. Just give it to him and be rid of it.
“Um. Excuse me?” Silence, save for the baby, and her cries rip something from the deepest confines of my mind, something raw and jagged that tears my throat on its way out. “My own little girl…um, she won’t need this anymore, and you’d be doing me a favor if you just took it.” It was my voice breaking when I said “girl,” one word betraying the lie I’m hoping to sell, that my daughter has actually outgrown this stroller, but it’s enough to bring light to those eyes slumbering in the black bags of early parenthood.
My mother was a hoarder, every object a chapter in our story together, and she loved to tell us those yarns again and again as we sifted through the memories she kept stored in the hallway closet. My father was also a hoarder, but in a different way: he held on to his feelings, filed them away, and then shut the door, never to show them the light of day. I inherited my own breed of hoarding from both of them, objects standing in for what I couldn’t say aloud. Yet when that father’s hand leaves his daughter’s arm and grips my shoulder, the door finally opens, and everything I’ve stored in that closet upstairs the last three months comes tumbling out.
“Hey. Hey,” he whispers, my father’s voice with my mother’s tone, and it’s enough. “I’m here. I’m here. Tell me what happened.”
The world blurs, the wind howls, and I sob into this stranger’s jacket, and somehow, I’m still clutching the grocery bags.