By Christopher Blackett
“Why can’t you tell me what’s wrong with him?” I asked Sarah as we drove to her father’s house.
She didn’t respond. She stared out the window, watching the stars as they hurdled past us.
When we reached a red light, she placed her hand on mine. She turned to me and smiled weakly. I squeezed her hand reassuringly.
“Have you talked to him about moving in with us?”
“Not yet,” she said, still watching my profile as we pulled into his apartment’s parking lot. Neither of us got out of the car.
“Do you want him to live with us?” I asked.
“He’s lonely,” she answered.
“That’s not what I asked.”
I turned to her. “Yes?”
“Yes, I want him to come live with us.”
Sarah keeps a framed photograph of her parents on their wedding day on our armoire. I stare at it every morning when I get dressed. He is wearing a tuxedo. She is in a wedding dress, her veil pulled back. They are both smiling at me. I never know whether to smile back.
She told me that it rained at her mother’s funeral. She never told me how she felt or whether she cried. All I know is that a girl and her father went to a wake, and that it rained.
I smelled cinnamon in the hallway when we arrived at her father’s apartment. She had told me that her dad liked to bake. It helped with the loneliness, she said.
She paused outside his front door and collected herself. He answered the door with his oven mitts on.
“Hi,” he said, smiling. Then he looked down at his hands awkwardly. “Sorry, I was baking,” he explained.
We shook hands, the glove wrapping around my fingers like a blanket. “Don’t worry about it. I like the look,” I said. The oven mitts were still warm.
He sat us down in his living room. The place was bare, save for several boxes in the corner. They were arranged in a neat cardboard staircase. The shelves and tables were cleared, as though her father were trying to have as little impact on the décor as possible.
I remember thinking, “Where are all the photographs?”
Sarah wrapped her hand tightly around my arm, her fingernails digging into my bicep. The last time Sarah held me like that was when we saw ‘Pet Cemetery’ together, curled up on my couch late at night. She didn’t like scary movies, so we stopped halfway through and watched ‘Fantasia’ until she fell asleep, her head resting on the nape of my neck. Mickey Mouse raised waves to the sound of her snoring.
“I have to get something from the oven. I’ll be right back,” her father said.
Sarah looked at me anxiously.
“What is it?” I asked her.
“I don’t know how to ask him.”
Her father came back into the room with an apron on, and Sarah looked down at the floor. He was carrying a tray of cookies. They were shaped like poodles.
“We call them snicker poodles,” he explained, putting them down on the coffee table in front of us. Sarah’s fingers danced around my arm.
“Sarah can’t get enough of these,” he said, looking at her.
“I haven’t eaten those in years,” she whispered to me. He couldn’t hear her, or maybe he just didn’t want to.
Sarah didn’t take a cookie. She sat there with a hand snaked around my arm, and the other one resting awkwardly on the sofa.
I took a snicker poodle and I felt Sarah’s fingers soften their grip.
“It’s amazing,” I told her father. He smiled.
“I’m glad you like them. It’s her mother’s recipe,” he said, sitting next to us. He smoothed out his apron and took off the mitts, placing them neatly by his side.
I gestured silently for Sarah to eat one. She hesitated for a second, and then shook her head no.
“She doesn’t have to eat them if she doesn’t want to,” he said.
There was an awkward silence as we sat there. Sarah’s gaze was averted, and her father was looking down at the carpet. Neither of them knew how to carry on a conversation with each other.
“How are you, Richard?” I asked him.
“I’m fine, Will. How are you?”
“Are you sure you’re fine? Your doctor called us the other day,” Sarah said abruptly.
“He did?” he said, his voice colored with embarrassment.
“He did,” I responded.
“What did he say?”
“He said you can’t live alone anymore. He said that you need to move in with us,” Sarah told him.
“He said that? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
I put my hand on Sarah’s knee. I felt her smooth skin. She was warm, as though she had just come from one of her late night runs.
“We’re just concerned. Your daughter loves you.”
“Dad,” Sarah said finally. She was looking at him pleadingly. I had never seen her with an expression that unguarded before.
The smoke alarm went off in the kitchen, as though to reinforce our point.
“I’ve got it,” I said standing up. Sarah nodded up at me approvingly. As I walked through the kitchen door I heard her tell her father, “I care about you.”
Smoke filled the kitchen. The oven was slightly ajar and on. I opened the window and turned off the oven. I switched on the fan and watched the smoke get pulled out into the night sky. The kitchen was finally cleared after a few minutes, and I walked back into the living room.
Sarah and her father were smiling. She had half a snicker poodle in her hand.
“Honey,” she said, her mouth full, “my dad said yes.”
Her father stood up. “It looks like you’re getting a roommate.”
“Glad to have you,” I said. “It’ll be nice having someone around who can cook.”
“I suppose I’ll have to start packing soon?”
“We’ll come pick you up tomorrow. Just pack some clothes and I’ll start moving the rest on Saturday if you’re fine with that. You and Sarah can spend the day together settling in.”
“I’d like that,” he said, standing up. “I’ll see you in the morning? It’s getting passed my bed time.”
As we walked to the front door I noticed Sarah turn to her dad.
“The cookies are almost as good as the ones she used to make,” she whispered to him as we left.
“No, they’re not,” I heard him whisper. “But I try.”
They smiled at each other. Every time their facial features moved, something tender was being said. I thought that she was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.
I shook his hand goodbye. He wasn’t wearing the oven mitts anymore, but his hand was still warm.
Sarah and her father hugged.
I am alone at her father’s apartment, packing up his belongings. He is moving in with us, and little by little we absorb his possessions like osmosis.
I found him looking at his wedding photo on the dresser one day. He had tears in his eyes. I like having him around. There’s always something to eat, and he’s started keeping an herb garden on our pantry windowsill.
I stand in his empty living room and stare at the cardboard boxes. The apartment doesn’t smell like cinnamon anymore. I never thought the place could get emptier, but it is much smaller without him.
I lift one of the tops of the boxes and find a stack of photographs. I start sifting through his memories, unearthing pictures of Sarah and her parents. She is standing ankle deep in the ocean, pulling a hat shyly over her face. Her mother is treading water behind her, her head bobbing up and down between the waves.
There is a photograph of her at her high school graduation. Her father is waving her diploma next to her. Her mother has been dead for three months. Sarah isn’t smiling anymore.
Click. A bulb flashes.
Someone captured the sadness with their camera.
I start going through a different box. There are thousands of other photographs. I scan Sarah’s face in each of them, and it’s like I’m looking at an array of stars. They are pinpricks of light, fading faster and faster in the past. I want to hold onto these memories. I want Sarah to hold onto them.
She is riding a pony. Her parents are walking next to her, staring into each other’s eyes. They are saying so much without even opening their mouths. This is the language of her family, I realize. This is how she spoke to her father.
I want to learn to talk like that.
Finally I reach the bottom of the box. There is an envelope addressed to Sarah. It is old and yellowing, but it has never been sealed. I open the flap and pull out a photograph.
Sarah is standing on a stool in front of the oven. She is leaning over the stove, stirring a pot. Her small feet are on their tiptoes. Her mother is wearing oven mitts next to her. I recognize them. I have only ever seen them on someone else’s hands.
I had only ever seen Sarah smile like that once.
On the back of the photograph someone has written, “I miss you.”
I put the photograph in my pocket and take one last look at the apartment before I leave. The room doesn’t look so empty anymore. I turn out the lights and smile.
When I go home later that night, I walk into our living room to find Sarah and her dad asleep on the couch. There’s an empty baking tray on the table in front of them, and crumbs litter the ground. The blue glare of the television is reflected across their faces. I turn the TV off and go to switch off the lights.
“Stop,” Sarah says sleepily. “Come here.”
I smile and walk over to her.
“Kiss me,” she says.
I lean down to her, and she slips her hand around my ear.
“I love you,” she whispers to me.
“I love you too,” I tell her, and she slowly falls back to sleep. I watch her chest gently rise and fall. Finally she starts to snore.
It’s my second favorite sound, after her laugh.
I turn off the light and go into our room. As I lay out my suit for tomorrow, I find that she’s replaced the photograph on our dresser.
Sarah’s mother and father are standing around her. She is nine, and dressed as a turtle. Her parents are beaming, one on either side. They look like they’re holding in laughter.
I take the photograph out of the frame and look at the back.
“Aesop’s Fable: The Tortoise and the Hare.”
I smile to myself and go to bed. As I go to sleep I look at the window.
The stars shine brightly against the curtain of night.