Matthew Roberson ~ Kept

She set the bags on the steps and then sat.  A car passed and then anoth­er, and up the street the sound of kids play­ing car­ried and fad­ed.  The steps were dirty under her skirt, and she told her­self to get up, that she should get up, but she didn’t, she sat and hoped no one passed to offer help.

She’d let a man help her car­ry her gro­ceries home, once, because he’d been in nice shoes, but he insist­ed on tak­ing them upstairs, and into her apart­ment.  When she said no, he want­ed mon­ey for help­ing.  He didn’t give her bags back until she’d found five dol­lars in her purse.

The con­crete around her was chipped and crum­bled and had no rail­ings, just untrimmed bush­es on each side.  The side­walk was lit­tered with cig­a­rette butts and bits of paper.  People hadn’t cleaned up after their dogs.  Behind her, the build­ing was as untend­ed, and she wouldn’t look at it when she stood again, turned, and gath­ered her bags and pushed past the heavy door and into the wide lobby.

For now, she would sit and catch her breath and ignore the heavy feel­ing in her legs and the way her feet ached.  She would lis­ten to the chat­ter of chick­adees clus­tered in the hedges across the street, the way they hushed at some­one pass­ing and start­ed chit­ter­ing again when it felt safe. She would enjoy the sun.

Then, because she had milk in the bags and meat and cheese, and she’d already been a long time walk­ing home, she stood and gath­ered her bags, wor­ry­ing at the one han­dle start­ing to tear loose, and pushed her way through the heavy door onto the lob­by and then anoth­er door that led to the stair­well and moved up the creak­ing stairs.

The sec­ond floor was too high for her to climb.  Two floors had been too much even before she moved here, but there had been no choice when she need­ed an apart­ment, and now she couldn’t move down one floor, even if some­thing opened up.

She could, her son said, of course she could, but she knew she couldn’t, wouldn’t.

Her son said she could live on the first floor and in a nicer neigh­bor­hood, if she’d move again, take some­thing small­er, that he would help with the cost, but she need­ed two bed­rooms, she said, two bed­rooms and a din­ing room and a liv­ing room, at the very least, and she didn’t need his help, but thank you.  She knew help came and went, even with the best intentions.

So, she kept climb­ing the stairs to the short hall­way at the top, where she leaned against the wall, too tired to put her bags down and then have to lift them again, not when she would have to do it over to find her keys and turn first the dead­lock and then the door han­dle and then rest for a minute inside, the fan she’d set next to the front bal­cony stir­ring a lit­tle air.

A mildew smell rose in the sum­mer heat.  The weave of the cheap hall car­pet had torn and sprung in curlicues of fab­ric.  She felt dizzy and count­ed one, two, three, until she could stand straight and con­tin­ue on, open her door, let out a breath.

One at a time, she brought the bags in, set them beside her, and then she closed the front door and locked it and set the chain and lis­tened.  She heard the small hum of a tele­vi­sion from anoth­er floor.  She heard some­one shout from even far­ther off.  From her own kitchen at the back of the build­ing she heard the radio, which was always on, even though it was a waste and a cost.  Just what was play­ing on it she couldn’t tell.

She need­ed to sit again, but not yet.  She lift­ed one bag until it was cra­dled in her arms, the rough paper against her lips, her nose, and she stared ahead, down the path carved between the heavy fur­ni­ture to her left and right, a dark oak buf­fet stretched along the wall and a tall, glass-front­ed cab­i­net beside it and the cre­den­za along the oth­er wall, a side­board in front of it.  The fold­ed-down din­ing room table.  The tall book­shelves on either side of the doors to the bal­cony.  The tall grand­fa­ther clock in the cor­ner, whose weights she couldn’t reach to raise.  Side tables and the one, two, three, four, five lamps.  The rolled ori­en­tal rug snaked along one wall.

It was too much fur­ni­ture for the space, which was now a stor­age unit now more than a liv­ing room, so crowd­ed she couldn’t reach the floor, the base­boards, the walls to clean where dust and a fine grit of dirt tak­en over, stuck in place by humidity.

Her son had said to sell all of it.  Did it make sense to move a cof­fee table and end tables and lamps and a sofa and two stuffed chairs and side chairs and box­es and box­es labeled din­ner­ware in black mark­er?  She didn’t need any of this stuff any­more, and there was no room.

It’s not stuff, she said back before refus­ing to say any­thing else.  Those pieces were hers.  She had bought them one at a time, some­times only one a year or even longer between, to fill first an apart­ment, the one she’d shared with her hus­band, and then their tan house set between oth­er hous­es just like it on a nar­row street in a neigh­bor­hood a few blocks wide and deep and full of front yards and porch­es where fam­i­lies spent all spring and sum­mer and fall until the weath­er made it impos­si­ble, and, even then, a lit­tle longer.  The house had a small foy­er that held the grand­fa­ther clock, which the kids had wound once a day by rais­ing its heavy weights.  The cre­den­za she had admired in the store until her hus­band bought it as a sur­prise, it sat along one wall.  The ori­en­tal rug that cov­ered the floor of the liv­ing room just beyond had belonged to her own mother.

They’d lived in that house for life­times, she thought.

Her son had a life of his own now, and a family.

Her daugh­ter had moved away.

Her hus­band was gone, too, leav­ing her here, with what she’d kept.

Her son said she should live com­fort­ably, with room to move, and only what she need­ed, a bed, he said, and a dress­er, and a chair to sit and watch TV.  A kitchen table, he said, and what else, real­ly, which offend­ed her, though she didn’t say, oh, is that everything?

Now, though, fur­ni­ture filled the din­ing room and the liv­ing room, too, which she nav­i­gat­ed one step after anoth­er into the hall­way and past her bath­room and bed­room to drop the bag on her kitchen table.

She want­ed to leave it sit­ting, full, like she want­ed to leave the bag in the front room, to hell with what need­ed to be refrig­er­at­ed.  It was all she could do now to sit and lean back with a glass of water and the TV remote and turn on cable and let the news or a soap opera run and maybe close her eyes.

But no, she opened the refrig­er­a­tor and found space to fit the pack­age of ground beef and the small square of ched­dar that cost too much for a sim­ple piece of cheese, though she paid it, and the milk, and in the cup­board she fit cans and a tall box of pas­ta.  She left out the box of tea bags, to count, because there had been only 98, not 100, in the last box, which she’d tak­en back to the store.   Then, final­ly, back through the apart­ment, which seemed to have got­ten hot­ter, some­how, in only a few min­utes, and she retrieved the sec­ond bag to the kitchen, emp­tied it, and felt dizzy, and sat.

She’d for­got­ten to col­lect her mail from the box down­stairs.  She would have to go back and gath­er it and man­age the stairs again.  Sitting with a glass of water would have to wait, because the mail­man wouldn’t deliv­er a new day’s mail unless the box had been emp­tied from the pre­vi­ous day, even if it was just a let­ter or two.  He’d said it was pol­i­cy but said it so kind­ly it was clear he want­ed to know she was okay one day to the next, able to get the bills and fly­ers that showed up.  She didn’t know if he would come knock­ing if the box were full, or if he would call some­one, but she knew she would be embar­rassed to find out.

Again and again, she thought, this path through the rooms and back through the hall and down the stairs one side­ways step at a time and to open the post box to find what she’d found the day before, adver­tis­ing they mailed now that no one bought news­pa­pers, and then back up and through the apart­ment, out of breath, a film of sweat on her face to final­ly sit, and then stand to get a cold drink from the refrig­er­a­tor, and then sit.

Resting didn’t mean she couldn’t fold the gro­cery bags, one and then the next, into neat squares along­side which she set in even neater squares the sheets of the day’s mail, both piles which she would find space for, in a few min­utes, in the sec­ond bed­room, along­side the mag­a­zines stacked care­ful­ly and the box­es filled with oth­er box­es she had bro­ken down and the box­es filled with receipts and the box­es filled with old sweat­shirts and shoes and dish tow­els and the plas­tic bags filled with plas­tic bags and the old glass bot­tles and the cans she’d washed the labels from and washed once more and then stacked against the wall, and she’d lost track of what else she stored fur­ther back.

Jesus Christ, Mom, her son had said the one time she had let get him past her and into the room.

Language, was all she’d said, even though he kept talk­ing and talking.

If he couldn’t see that this was her life, then what could she say to make him understand?

He wouldn’t under­stand that it was eas­i­er to wash her clothes in the bath­room, in the tub, even though it meant kneel­ing on the hard tile, or that she didn’t mind hang­ing every­thing on the lines strung in her bed­room.  She saved the quar­ters that would have been tak­en by the machines at the laun­dro­mat, and she saved her­self haul­ing a bag there in one hand and deter­gent in the oth­er, and she didn’t have to feel ashamed that she was too old for that, for sit­ting on hard, plas­tic chairs in the com­pa­ny of peo­ple who smoked and talked too loud and seemed always to be laugh­ing but not hap­py.  What did she have to wash, any­way, oth­er than her under­things and dish tow­els and the bed­sheets once a month?

Not today, though, now, she would sit, and then she would broil a ham­burg­er on alu­minum foil and put it on a bun with a slice of cheese and some let­tuce and maybe fry some pota­to slices, if she had the ener­gy, and pour a cola over ice and lis­ten to the radio news and the jin­gles they played so often that she’d be hear­ing them even after she was dead, lying in a box, she said to her son, and he always said it wasn’t fun­ny, and that she would be around for a long time yet, if she would just take care of her­self, and she nev­er asked back when it would be her turn to be tak­en care of.

Behind her, past the door to the back porch, she heard wings flut­ter­ing and knew the pigeons were into the garbage she hadn’t had the ener­gy to haul down the stairs and into the bins and hoped the old­er man upstairs would be kind enough to car­ry down with his own trash, though he wouldn’t, he nev­er did, instead com­plain­ing to the build­ing man­ag­er about the smell and the birds mess­ing every­where and the rodents sure to be next until the man­ag­er warned her and threat­ened fines and then car­ried every­thing down him­self, com­plain­ing in a loud voice this was the last time.

After sup­per, she would relax, sit in the reclin­er and let an evening pro­gram run and have one glass of wine from the bot­tle her son brought, though she com­plained every time about the size.  Was she a wino to be drink­ing from a jug like that, she asked, and he always laughed at the word wino and just said it was more eco­nom­i­cal.  One glass, so she could put up her feet and drift off until it was time to wash up and go to bed, though what was the point?  She wouldn’t sleep but lie awake, lis­ten­ing to the old­er man in the apart­ment upstairs walk­ing and walk­ing god knows where, just back and forth, from the sound of it, until night offered a glow sig­nal­ing day was a few hours away and she punched at the ceil­ing with a broom han­dle and maybe shout­ed, or maybe only won­dered, what does a per­son need to do to get a lit­tle rest?


Matthew Roberson is the author of four nov­els—1998.6, Impotent, List, and the recent­ly pub­lished cam­pus nov­el Interim. He also edit­ed the col­lec­tion Musing the Mosaic: Approaches to Ronald Sukenick. His short fic­tion has appeared in Fourteen Hills, Fiction International, Clackamas Literary Review, Western Humanities Review, Notre Dame Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and oth­ers. He lives and teach­es in cen­tral Michigan.