Sunday, May 25, 2008

An Amy Hempel-style Story

When the knob of the drawer came off in my hand, I knew it was over. I had been looking for a picture—the one where he was standing with my pink umbrella—because I remembered loving the crinkles in his smiling eyes, and at the moment—for years, in fact—I didn’t love—hadn’t loved—anything about him, and hadn’t even looked for any crinkles in his eyes, smiling or otherwise. He never liked having his photo taken, so there were only a few, and they were hidden away with unused passports and expired library cards in stacks on shelves in cabinets and places like that—the kitchen drawer, where we kept the good scissors, the key to the safe deposit box, and all the department store credit cards we didn’t use. I had thought this picture special, though, so I had put it in the top drawer of my mother’s antique dressing table (not the maple one, but the smaller, darker one—the one I liked to think had been her mother’s, even though it hadn’t been, even though the one that had been her mothers was stocky and squat and inelegant, with a warped mirror I’d thrown away when we moved and relegated the dresser to the garage, where it still holds jars of nails and cans of dried-out markers and boxes of rubber bands and strings that he always refused to throw away). I had put it in a safe place, away from his angry hands. He saved everything impersonal, but rushed to destroy the tender things: photographs, poems, love letters. I keep an envelope full of withered roses from my high school boyfriend; anything like that he would have torn or burnt or simply left out on the curb, forty years ago.

My mother had bought the dressing table at a garage sale, I think, when they bought their first house. I remember its stern but voluptuous lines—Deco, I know now—sunk into some kind of acrylic carpet, low-pill and chemically scratchy, steel-wool silver-gray, and its weight’s impropriety against the paper-smooth sheet rock. Here, the walls are plaster, and I like to think that the hairline cracks add the kind of character that an old piece like this needs, the appropriate company. It’s legs reclaim their elegance against the dull herringbone floor. The knobs on the three drawers, simple brass plugs screwed into the pulpy wood, have wobbled now and then, but always remained reassuringly cool against the insides of my sweating fists when I tugged at them. But that day, the knob came off, with a sure and weighty plunk into my palm, and the drawer, stuffed with papers and bills and letters and desiccated lipsticks and powders and tubes of foot cream and Christopher with my pink umbrella—the drawer stayed shut. And I squeezed the knob in my sweating fist, and I shook my head, and I said to myself, “don’t,” but I did anyway.

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