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Cleaning House

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How many people did it take to remove decades of belongings and memories from one house? It sounded like one of those light bulb jokes to Matthew, but there was nothing comical about this grim process. Sifting through his father’s old things, determining what to Keep, Sell, or Give Away (with boxes marked accordingly), felt like an invasion of privacy, an autopsy of a life that wasn’t yet over made even more morbid by the fact that Matthew was, as of last summer, forty years old. A life nearly half over. (“The big four-oh,” Alfred said, like a spy code name. Matthew often felt like a spy, silently watching as his life winded away, gaining little intel on how this could be possible.) To think of this cleansing happening to some future household of his, while he was carted away to an extended care facility or nursing home, made him shiver deep in his bones. Not the loss of the objects—he was not materialistic; at least, he tried not to be—but the reminder that nothing lasted forever, including him, his brother, and even their cantankerous patron.

“This is a nightmare,” Alfred said. Matthew sought his brother’s gaze, looking for a reflection of his own mortal misgivings, and was disappointed to see weary resignation to the task ahead. “Look at all this shit.”

He got his mouth from their father. Matthew didn’t care for swearing, especially the needless sort; Arthur himself had told both boys that it gave the impression the speaker was too uneducated to find any other words to say. Still, in this case it was sort of accurate: most of the stuff piled in this attic was worthless tat, and some of it didn’t smell the greatest. Matthew couldn’t remember if he’d ever actually been up here. It was always off-limits, because one parent or the other believed the folding staircase was dangerous. Now the tables had turned. Matthew and Alfred had ascended, while Arthur was banished to the kitchen with Peter enlisted to entertain him. (“I think I can manage a few bloody steps,” Arthur had practically growled. Very gruff, in his old age. Matthew was relieved when Alfred fought with him over it, because Arthur was quite incapable of stairs, and Matthew couldn’t bear to imagine what might happen if he tried to get up to the attic with only his pride spurring him on.)

Look at this.” Alfred held up some old something, a newspaper perhaps, devoured by time and mildew. Brown flecks were scattered across the surface. “This place should be condemned.”

“It’s probably just one mouse,” Matthew said doubtfully. “Maybe even a squirrel.”

Their father was disproportionately fond of squirrels, mice, any small creature that might make its way into the garden. Their mother had called them pests outside of his earshot, but he delighted in keeping a fresh bird bath, scattering seed and bits of crust, hanging suet in tiny mesh bags. He once made the mistake of mentioning that he’d seen a rat going along the line of their fence, and Marianne had screamed as if it had scurried across her feet. (“Rats carry the plague!” To which their father had replied with the worst of his misanthropic streak: “So do people.”)

“We’re getting rid of all these papers,” Alfred announced, and began dumping armfuls into a trash bag. “He doesn’t need newspapers from twenty years ago. The print is too small for him to read, anyway.”

He was one to talk. Alfred and Matthew both had gotten reading glasses this year. It was an addition Matthew suspected he’d needed for quite a while. How clear the world was now, up close. He only wished he could get some sort of lens that allowed him to see ahead, into the proper future for him, so he could dive into right choices instead of treading water for fear of failure.

“Hey,” Alfred said, “you know, you’re allowed to help me out, here.”

 

God, he hated being in this house. Alfred had no idea how Matthew could willingly live here, even if it was part of his typical saintly son routine. Alfred didn’t believe children were under any obligation to look after their parents once they were old. (“But they took care of us, when we needed it. It’s returning the favor,” Matthew explained. “They chose to have us,” Alfred replied. “We didn’t choose to have them. That’s the difference.”) In that sense, he didn’t blame Matthew for not doing anything with his life. He acted like he’d just been thrown headlong into an open ocean because, really, he had. They both had, as all children in this society had. They had no farm to work on, no hunting or gathering to do. No purpose to speak of, so they had to make one up for themselves. What a cruel, unspeakable burden to place on a child. It sickened Alfred, genuinely, the first time it occurred to him how truly unfair life was.

(“But none of this kept you from having your own kid,” Matthew pointed out, unhelpfully. “I’m a parent now,” Alfred had replied. “Do as I say, not as I do.” One of their father’s popular turns of phrase, downright impudent in Alfred’s Americanized accent.)

In his defense, Peter hadn’t been Alfred’s idea. Or Anya’s, though they’d agreed to take that to their graves. It seemed like the sort of information that would hang over the boy. Alfred was paranoid of fucking up his son’s head. It was the easiest thing. Parenting was all about happy mediums, but Alfred had never been good at those. He was more inclined toward overcompensation and impulsive binges. He did lose weight, with the divorce. One hundred and sixty pounds, in fact, but only twenty were his.

It was Matthew who’d called Alfred, the night Arthur was taken to the emergency room. (“He fractured his hip,” was the weary report, “he just got out of surgery a few minutes ago, they said it went perfectly.” Unfortunately, Alfred mentally added.) Every time Alfred received a call from a +44 number he hoped for the worst. How wicked Fate was, to snatch his mother away at thirty-two and let his father’s life drag on. The old man was like a cockroach, unkillable. So long as he was here, Alfred had to feel guilty for never flying across the pond to visit him.

Not that Arthur actually wanted to see him, anyway. All he wanted to do was gloat about what a successful career he’d had. Once, the questions had been about job interviews and applications and volunteering of all things—we’ve all got to make sacrifices, Arthur would say, as if he’d ever sacrificed anything, you’ve got to get yourself out there one way or another—and now they were about positions, raises, company cutbacks. It took Alfred right back to when he was a child, asking his father endless questions in the hopes of at last finding a query that received a simple I don’t know. An admittance of humanity, that was all he wanted, not for his father to plumb the apparently bottomless wealth of knowledge he’d accumulated on the most irrelevant topics. Knowing him, as soon as Alfred gave up on acting and went into business, Arthur researched it just so he could tell Alfred how to do his own job. It didn’t matter if his ideas were good or well-informed. That had never mattered between them. Pride mattered, and that was the only thing.

It galled him now, remembering how hopeful and ambitious he’d been as a teen. Good looks, strong voice, straight teeth. He had a face for cameras, so why couldn’t he be an actor? He’d kept it hidden from his father as long as possible, even when it turned into fights that he’d have to do something because he wasn’t living under this roof forever. (And, of course, here was Matthew, living under his roof after promptly going nowhere when he got his degree in English literature.) Now, Alfred didn’t know why his past self thought it would be possible to get anywhere in the entertainment business, where everyone knew you had to know somebody, without riding his father’s coattails. (“Oh, you’re Arthur Kirkland’s son?” said the smiling agent. “Do you know if he’s done any writing lately? The last film he wrote is one of my favorites.”) So it was over before it even began. He tried going by Alfred Jones, but it was a pitiful attempt at secrecy (perhaps acting wasn’t his forte, then). He would not use his father to his advantage. He could not rise to greatness to show his father he was in fact worth something while still holding Arthur’s hand to cross the street.

Moving to America had been more trouble than it was worth. The family hadn’t been much better. Arthur’s marriage hadn’t lasted long, but at least it hadn’t ended in divorce. Arthur was retired, he didn’t have to worry about house or car payments, and he had Matthew to clean and cook for him. If Alfred was in his position, he wouldn’t be so grouchy all the time. He wouldn’t be so goddamn ungrateful.

 

“Tea?”

Peter glanced up from his phone. Arthur was standing at the counter with a cane in one hand and a kettle in the other. Peter had offered to help him, but Arthur had insisted on doing it all himself. Hopefully he wouldn’t drop the kettle and send scalding water across the kitchen floor. Then Alfred would come running downstairs and yell at Peter for not doing anything to help, as if it was his fault this family was full of crazy people.

“Nah,” Peter said, then hastily added, “No thanks. I don’t drink tea.”

Arthur didn’t turn to look at him, but he shook his head to himself as he fixed a single cup for himself. Watching him pour just the right amount of milk with his shaky, arthritic hand was inexplicably maddening to Peter. How could Arthur handle that, living inside an animated corpse, watching his strength and abilities go down the drain? Maybe he had dementia and he didn’t even realize he was wasting away. That was probably better, right, not being aware of it? Peter was aware of it, and he wasn’t having a good time at all.

At last, Arthur sat down with a little sigh and curled his wrinkled hands round the cup on the table. “How old are you now?”

“Thirteen,” Peter replied, and wondered if this was another sign of dementia. His phone vibrated—his friends were texting him about the raid he was missing while he was stuck here babysitting an old person—and he ducked his head to respond.

Arthur sipped his tea, gaze flicking down to Peter’s flying thumbs. “Are you part of the vulture generation, then? Always hunched over, staring at a screen?”

Peter sat up straight. Arthur’s shoulders were hunched, too, but Peter had the good grace not to point that out. He always thought British people were supposed to be polite, but apparently not. “Yeah, I guess. I’m just talking to my friends.”

Arthur arched one thick eyebrow. “Friends are more important than family?”

“Yeah.” Peter’s phone buzzed again, so he didn’t look up. “Friends listen when you talk. Family just talk over each other and argue all the time. Rai—my friend—says family is overrated.”

Arthur watched him in silence for several long moments, then finally asked, “Would you like a biscuit?”

“You mean, like, a cookie?” Peter glanced up. If he and his father had one thing in common, it was food as the great motivator and equalizer. “What kind? You got Oreos?”

Arthur stared at him so long Peter wondered if he was about to nod off or perhaps start shouting and raving like a lunatic. You never knew, with old people. But his grandfather finally shook his head and said, “In the cupboard, there.”

Peter abandoned his phone and searched in the cupboard for anything cookie-related. Eventually he pulled out a small sleeve of something called digestive biscuits. Digestive? What the hell was that supposed to mean? Were these special old people cookies, like baby food? Was he even allowed to eat them?

Arthur was holding out a hand, so Peter gave him the sleeve. His grandfather set it down, withdrew one cookie, dunked it into his tea, and took a bite. Once he’d swallowed it, he said, “I wouldn’t doubt that no one’s ever told you, but it’s rude to stare, Peter.”

He looked away quickly. Why were adults like this? The older they got, the weirder things they cared about. Would one of Peter’s friends get upset he was looking at them? Never. And didn’t Arthur just disapprove of him staring at his phone? Where was he supposed to look? Now he understood why his father so dreaded coming here to see Arthur and this stuffy house.

But there was a memory in the back of Peter’s mind of coming here when he was just a wee tot, done up in a sailor outfit complete with ribboned hat, and sitting on Grampa’s lap while he read him stories. He had a lovely voice for it; when Peter was little and Alfred had decided to show him the Disney movies he’d seen as a kid, Peter imagined Grampa Arthur as the tiger from The Jungle Book. Polite, precise, and frightening. For a split second, Peter felt a pang of nostalgic longing. Where had that innocence gone? Why didn’t his family like him, now he wasn’t cute anymore?

“How is your mother?” Arthur asked, brushing crumbs from his fingertips with a napkin.

Peter shrugged. “Good, I guess.” He looked down, but not at his phone, just the scratched surface of the tabletop. “She said I could come visit once she got set up with her new boyfriend, but I guess that takes a while.”

Arthur’s brow furrowed slightly, but he only tapped his fingertip silently against the side of the mug, pensive.

“I don’t really care, anyway,” Peter found himself saying. “Dad works late every night pretty much, so I just get pizza and play video games with my friends. I don’t mind being by myself. I like it, sometimes.”

His grandfather’s face had neared a scowl of disapproval through the first half of his words, but by the end it had lightened again into something short of a smile. His eyes looked a lot greener when they were warm like that. “So do I.”

Peter regarded him curiously. “Are you, like, nervous? About going to the nursing home?”

Arthur stared down into his tea, breathing a long sigh. His expression shifted subtly a few times, lips pressing together. His voice was oddly raspy when he said, “There are a lot of memories in this house.” Then, abruptly, he stood and grabbed his cane. “Excuse me, I must go see if the cat wants to come in.”

Peter watched him shuffle out of the kitchen, then bowed his head to his phone. His grandfather hadn’t had a cat for two years, at least. Yup, he typed, def dementia.

 

Absolute ruddy nightmare.

How had Arthur let himself reach this point? He’d always said he’d kill himself before he got old. Jokingly, hyperbolically, but on some level he meant it. He did not want to be old. Who did? Waking in the middle of the night, putting in false teeth in the morning, buying a carton of milk when he already had one three-quarters full. (He’d only done that once, thank you, Peter.) And now he’d had the humiliation of the fall. He hadn’t seen the spot of ice near his front step, but how was that his responsibility? What good were the men who went round sprinkling salt? The young were meant to serve the old! Not that he’d done any serving when he was young. Scorn was about all he served up back then, scorn and the cockiness of youth: I’ll never die, why should I care?

Honestly, he still thought that might be true, in a twisted way. What once was a blessing was now a curse. Why couldn’t he have dashed his head open on the concrete when he fell, saved everyone all this fuss? Now he was paying for a nursing home—“extended care facility”, how pretentious—when he could have been using that money for . . . well . . . well, for instance, putting it toward a school fund for Peter. The boy had been so clever when he was a child, but now in this awkward intermediary stage he was single-minded at best and dim at worst. Why did he stare at Arthur’s every movement with such morbid curiosity? Probably expected him to drop dead at any moment. Scorn again, then, for the young this time round. Arthur didn’t have room in his shrunken heart for much else, these days.

Grief, of course, there was always grief. He stood in the living room now, looking down at the framed photograph of Marianne he kept beside his armchair. He was in the picture as well—they’d had it taken for their wedding—but he never looked at himself. It only fouled his mood, seeing himself in his prime. But his wife was preserved in time as a young, beautiful creature. Twenty-four? No, twenty-three then, good God. Times were different now, no one got married young anymore, and for good reason probably. Alfred’s had been there and gone just long enough to make a child they regretted, and Matthew’s long-distance relationship would likely lose its petals before it bloomed into anything greater. It was one big fat shame, the lot of it.

He gently touched the silver frame. He dusted it every day, one of the chores he could still perform with any amount of success. My dear, he lamented silently, how has it come to this?

All at once, he was consumed by dread. Would he take this photo along with him, to that cursed nursing home? (He’d been there for a tour the previous week. It reeked of the dying and was painted in a sickly yellow, and every lucid woman had made a point to have a go at him. Widower was evidently code for fresh meat and he was having none of it.) He was torn: to have Marianne there would be a comfort, but it would also taint her. She would never have to be in one of those places, so why should he drag her there? She could be in his thoughts, without the picture. It would break his heart to leave it behind, but he trusted Matthew to keep it safe.

Naturally, just then the arguing voices of his sons grew louder and Alfred and Matthew stepped into the living room. Alfred set down a box on the sofa, sending up a cloud of dust. “Dad, do you seriously need all this?”

Arthur squinted at the box. He had bifocals now, but he despised them for obvious reasons. “I’ve kept all my screenplays. It’s a record of my work. An archive.”

“Yeah, but they’re all movies,” Alfred said, barely hiding his bitterness. “They’re archived in the movies. And besides, everything is kept digitally now. Did you type any of these?”

“Yes,” replied Arthur stoutly. “I typed them all. On a typewriter.”

Matthew looked wistful, bless him, but Alfred scoffed. “God. You don’t still have that contraption, do you?”

“I’m sure it’s up there somewhere.” He never threw anything out anymore, probably just for the satisfaction of his eldest son’s irritation on this inevitable day.

“Well, you can’t take these with you, so I’m getting rid of them,” Alfred said decisively, closing the box. It must have occurred to him where they were, because he added, “Hey, why are you in here? Peter was supposed to stay with you in the kitchen.”

“I’m quite capable of walking from one room to another in my own home,” Arthur snapped. While it is still my home, he thought, and was taken by a terrible wave of homesickness. Decades, he’d been here, and he was losing it all. And for what? Just to go to a place where it was more convenient for other people to wait for him to die. How delightful.

As usual, Alfred was distracted from the current topic by another. No attention span to speak of (Arthur suspected that was one of the main reasons for his divorce). Alfred’s eyes were on the photograph, softened as they always were by his mother. “Are you taking that with you?”

Arthur thought back to all the things he’d entrusted Alfred with over the years. Every toy he’d ever been given was broken or lost. Every phone or device was smashed. He simply could not value his objects enough to hold on to them for any amount of time. To give him the picture was to destroy it.

“Yes,” he said, meeting his son’s gaze. “I am.”

The warmth left the blue eyes, his wife’s blue eyes. “Fine.” He hefted the box into his arms again. “I’m bringing down the bags of stuff we’ve filled up. There’s no room to move up there.” With that, he walked out. Arthur heard him say something to Peter, a brief argument, then something resigned from the young boy and two sets of footsteps on the fold-down staircase. When had family become synonymous with burden?

“You were so happy,” Matthew whispered, a hand lifted toward the frame but too respectful to touch. His eyes were peculiar, a pale violet, but he still resembled Marianne more than Arthur—in appearance, anyway. If Arthur cared to recall, his wife was careless with her things too, always throwing her clothes on the floor and leaving Arthur to retrieve and fold them. But Matthew had always been responsible and gentle and, most importantly, sentimental about the things that surrounded him. Matthew found the same tactile comfort in holding a book that his father did. And, though he’d never shown Arthur any of his work, he was a writer. Arthur knew he was: he recognized the suffering.

“Take it,” Arthur said, picking up the photo and offering it. “Put it in your car.”

Matthew accepted it with awe. As his fingertips traced the floral carving of the frame, Arthur looked at Marianne one last time. His arm was around her, hand on her waist just out of the shot; his other hand was in her lap, fingers twined with hers so the camera could see their rings. She’d been buried in hers. Arthur still wore his, had never taken it off and probably couldn’t now with the arthritis. There was a plot waiting for him at her side. It was all in the Will; he prayed Matthew would enforce it as he’d asked him to.

“I could bring it,” Matthew suggested. “When I come visit you.”

Arthur stared at him in surprise. “You’re staying here?”

Matthew nodded, something like tears glinting in his eyes. “This is our home.”

Arthur couldn’t remember the last time he’d hugged either of his children, and the photograph was in the way this time but he made do with a sort of sidelong embrace with one arm. Neither of them said a word—this feeling was beyond such frivolity, and besides, it was Alfred and Marianne who always needed to fill the silences—and neither of them wondered if Alfred and Peter would come to visit or if they would only be drawn back across the pond for the funeral. They just held each other and parted, Matthew went out to stow the photograph away, and when he came back in they sat down to have tea for the last time in their kitchen.

 

Above, through the attic window, Peter watched his uncle carry something quickly out to his car. After a pause, he put it in the trunk and went back into the house. Peter considered mentioning it to his father, asking what it was. That would probably start an argument, though. What was it Arthur said once, when Peter told him about Alfred’s anger? A chip on his shoulder. It seemed to Peter that it was his heart that had been chipped away. Peter felt that way too sometimes, like everything inside him was nothing but rubble and dust.

“Peter,” Alfred said, straightening and pushing the heel of his hand into the small of his back, “what are you looking at over there?”

Peter looked out the window again, imagining it now as lamplit nighttime, snowflakes falling, popping Christmas crackers and listening to Grampa read from an old picture book. What was it called, again? The Night Before Christmas? Or was that a song? He couldn’t remember. He’d asked Arthur if he could keep the book and it had gotten lost years ago.

“Nothing,” he replied, and weaved his way back to stand beside his father among pieces of the past.

 

The End.