House of Glass
On Jen Glass's Saturday to-do list, she scheduled an hour to visit the apartment her father died in, and another for the morgue. Only half an hour for the funeral home, since you could make just about anything go faster when you were willing to write a big check.
And Jen was willing. With every passing mile of frozen fields, every tinny song on the classic rock station, every time her sister snapped her gum, she was growing ever more willing.
The to-do list was written in her neat handwriting in the fabric-covered notebook in her purse. On the page before were the notes she'd taken at the parents' association meeting. On the page before that, a list of tree services that had been recommended by friends. Both of those lists were written before she knew her father was dead. But according to the police, he had been dead for several days when the landlady found him. So it was entirely possible that while Jen wrote down "ArborWorks (Margeurite) ask for Gerald," he had already taken his last breath. When she was sitting in the library at Teddy's preschool, writing "teacher appreciation, Thursday, two dozen cupcakes (carrot? cream cheese frost?)" his corpse could well have been beginning to smell.
Tanya always made fun of Jen's listmaking, so she had kept this one hidden away. But what Tanya didn't understand was that when you wrote a list, it forced you to organize your thoughts, so when the time came to act, you didn't waste time on false starts and dead ends. A list could make an unpleasant task go more quickly. And this day, attending to the details of the passing of a man Jen hadn't seen or talked to in almost three decades, couldn't go quickly enough.
They reached Murdock in the early afternoon, after a stop at a roadside Subway because Tanya had a coupon. She paid for lunch. Jen was paying for everything else, and that knowledge sat between them like a screen that muffled what they wanted to say. But it was an inescapable fact: being a Calumet housewife of a global management consultant—even a laid-off one—paid far better than being a single mom with a high school education and a call center job.
Jen exited the highway when the phone app told her to. There wasn't much to look at. A couple hundred miles north of Minneapolis, the land was flat and gray. Murdock had no visible means of support, no smokestacks or office parks or hospital complexes. A cluster of motels and fast-food restaurants gave way to a depressing little town that spilled out on either side of a straight-shot four-lane road littered with strip malls and auto shops. Jen estimated that a quarter of the businesses they passed were boarded up.
"Jeez, this place isn't much," Tanya said, yawning. "Guess Sid didn't exactly move up in the world."
The phone took them into a neighborhood of shabby bungalows. Sid's apartment building was a run-down two-story sandwiched between a vacant lot and a squat little cinderblock bar whose neon Budweiser sign struck a jarring note in the colorless afternoon. No one had bothered to shovel the sidewalk leading up to the apartment building's entrance after the last storm, and the snow had melted unevenly, dirty banks of it giving way to icy patches. One of the units still had Christmas lights up around the window; the strand had come loose from one of the nails and dangled against the building.
Tanya dug the keys out of her purse. The management company had overnighted them to her. Monday, they were hauling away whatever was left in the apartment.
"Ready?" she said, opening the door.
Jen steeled herself to face the residents they might pass in the hall. She imagined men in old wool coats, old ladies with cats for company and the TV on all day long. But inside the building it was empty and still, the carved wood moldings and newel posts in surprisingly good shape. Someone in the twin cities would pay a bundle for them, Jen couldn't help thinking. Up here in the sticks, people didn't know what they had.
"One-oh-one." Tanya read the numerals on the doors. "One-oh-two. Where the hell is apartment one?"
"Can I see?" Jen took the keys from Tanya. The little round tag had a number one printed clearly on it.
Tanya glared at her as she took the keys back. She was older, by almost a year, and even though they were in their forties now, she still sometimes seemed to need to be in charge. "Satisfied? Maybe next time trust me to read a number? I bet it's downstairs."
A narrow staircase at the back of the hall led to the basement. It smelled of both mold and bleach. There was a washer and dryer up on blocks, splintery plywood cupboards with padlocks. The light from a naked bulb overhead and a few narrow windows near the ceiling wasn't enough to cut the gloom. At the far end of the basement was a door set in unpainted sheetrock that blocked off the rest of the basement.
"No way this is a legal apartment," Tanya said. She tried the key, and the door opened.
Inside, the odor of bleach was stronger, but there was another faint smell underneath, ripe and horrible and somehow sweet. So that's the smell of death, Jen thought.
The apartment was a single room. A bank of cabinets and a sink anchored one wall; a tiny bathroom and closet were built into the other. A high, cobwebbed window looked out on a dead shrub. There was a bookcase, a table under the window covered with a patterned cloth, a soiled couch facing a television set on a pressboard console. A bed stripped down to the mattress, which looked none too clean.
"I bet he died in the bed," Tanya said. "Otherwise the sheets and stuff would still be on there."
"Um." Jen felt faintly nauseous. "They didn't say when they called?"
"They hardly said anything when they called. I think it was just some secretary or something. She was like, when was the last time you saw your father? I wanted to tell her to shove the death certificate up her ass."
"Tanya," Jen said reprovingly. "She didn't mean anything."
"How do you know? You weren't there."
Jen let it go. They were both on edge today. Tanya just said whatever she was thinking, a trait that had always gotten her into trouble. Jen had learned a long time ago to think before speaking, to filter out the emotions first.
Tanya picked up a glass that had been sitting on top of the television and inspecting the contents. "There's nothing in here that's worth anything. Look at this. The Salvation Army probably wouldn't even take it."
"Well, then I guess it's good that we don't have to deal with it."
"I asked the management company if there was a security deposit," Tanya said, putting her hand on the metal headboard and giving it an experimental shove. "They gave me the runaround."
Why are we even here, Jen was thinking, but she knew the answer. For her, anyway. She had to see the room, the place where Sid had lived, to believe he was truly gone. She had to feel his absence, the emptiness that he left behind.
And there was the curiosity, too. That faint uneasiness—was it hope? Dread?—that there would be some clue to who he'd been, or more specifically, who they'd been to him. Some evidence that their lives had once been tangled together.
Tanya moved briskly through the room, opening cabinets, picking up papers and CDs from the shelves and examining the covers, flicking through the half dozen shirts hanging in the closet. Jen stood near the window, watching. A yellowing newspaper was stacked on one end of the couch. A chipped bowl holding loose change sat next to the TV.
"Found his cash," Tanya said, holding up a plastic baking soda container. She shook out the bills and counted. "One eighty."
"There's nothing else here you want to take back with us," Jen said. "Is there?"
"I guess not." Tanya looked around, frowning. "I guess I just wanted to know if he had pictures of us. Of Mom. Anything, from then."
"Are you disappointed?"
Tanya shook her head. "Not really. I guess I'm almost relieved. But I just had to see it for myself. Like, if he'd secretly saved things from then, it would be like part of him was still alive. And not in a good way."
"Yeah, I know what you mean."
"Oh, wait." Tanya reached up on the closet shelf and took down a faded cardboard shoe box. She brought it over to the table and dumped out the contents. Papers, mostly. She flipped through them. "Central Valley Tool and Die...it's just HR stuff. Benefits, employee handbook. These look really old. Wonder how long he even worked there?"
An envelope fell out, two words written in black ink on the outside. "The Girls." Jen didn't know until that second that she knew her father's handwriting, that the memory of it had lodged fast and hidden all these years.
Tanya shook out three pictures. Two were their school pictures from year before Sid moved away: shy grins, their hair curving out in Farrah Fawcett waves, sleeveless cotton shirts revealing thin suntanned arms. The third picture was of the whole family, much earlier: their mother in the middle, Jen no more than six or seven and wearing a sundress printed with anchors. Sid with a mustache, looking out of the frame, scowling with impatience, as though there was somewhere else he needed to be.
The afternoon held no more surprises. Forms to sign at the morgue, where it turned out that they were not required to view the body. A brief tug-of-war at the mortuary until Jen gave in to the pitch and bought their cheapest urn for the ashes she had no intention of ever claiming.
It was dark by the time the checked into the Doubletree. Their room had a view of the parking lot. The heater cycled on with a vengeance, something rattling deep within.
"Is it okay with you if we do room service?" Jen asked. "I really don't want to go back outside in that."
"I've got something better," Tanya said, setting her overnight bag down on the nearest bed. She unzipped the bag and pulled out a bottle of wine, and then another. "I even remembered the corkscrew. And check it out. Snacks."
Jen feigned enthusiasm. She knew Tanya was just trying to contribute, and she didn't really need anything more than the canned nuts and snack mix. While Tanya was setting it all up on the nightstand between the two beds, laying out a hand towel for a tablecloth and pouring wine into the plastic cups, she called Ted, but there was no answer. She took off her makeup and changed into her pajamas.
"Wow, look at you," Tanya said, when Jen came out of the bathroom. She was lounging against the pillows in her bed, watching television. She picked up the remote and shut it off. "Got big plans later?"
Jen looked down at her pajamas, a silky navy blue set that Ted had given her for Christmas. "These aren't anything special," she said, blushing.
"Seriously? I don't dress like that unless I'm getting some action." She grinned, her teeth pink from the wine. She was wearing a faded T-shirt over sweats. Her cup was almost empty.
Jen got into her bed, pulling the covers up over her legs and took a sip of her wine. She was always embarrassed when Tanya talked about the men she was seeing. They never lasted long and they were never anywhere near as good as Tanya made them sound when she first met them.
"I feel like we ought to drink a toast to the old bastard," Tanya said, and it took a minute for Jen to realize that she was talking about their father. "Only, I can't think of a single thing to toast him for."
Jen raised her cup, reaching across the space between the two beds. She was going to say May he rest in peace, but something stopped her; she had never seen Sid at rest during her entire childhood. He was always on the move, fidgeting, pacing, coming and going.
Until Tanya called, Jen had barely thought about her father in years. Sid Bennett was often away from home when his daughters were young, disappearing for days at a time. Later he took pipeline work in Alaska and his absences stretched to months. When he was around, he wanted little to do with two solemn, skittish little girls, and spent his time antagonizing their mother instead until she finally told him not to bother to come back.
And then the summer that Jen was thirteen and Tanya a rebellious, sullen fifteen, their mother got sick. Sid started coming around again, looking for an opening, wooing her with smooth talk and cheap flowers when he needed a tank of gas or money to tide him over. She was unable to resist, the cancer rendering her silent and listless. He might have persisted right up to her death, but a bar fight landed him in the hospital for a long stay at the end of that long summer.
When he was released, he headed north, ending up here in Murdock. They only found out where he was when the court tracked him down after their mother died, but by then Jen and Tanya were settled into their aunt's basement, a solution everyone agreed was better than trying to extract any support out of Sid.
"He never got in touch with us, not once," Jen said, after they both drank.
"That never seemed to bother you before."
"It doesn't. I mean, I don't know what I would have done if he had. It's just that now he's dead, I'm realizing that it's like he never aged, for me. I never saw him get old."
"I guess it was too much to hope that he would have gotten remarried. Left someone else to deal with all his shit." Tanya's voice was bitter.
"At least it's all done. After today we don't ever have to think of him again."
"So we just walk away." Tanya sighed. "I guess at least we got a night away from the kids. Speaking of which—what's Ted doing with his big night to himself?"
"Working on the bathroom, supposedly."
"He's still not done?"
Jen grimaced. Ted had been laid off for almost six months, and the renovation project was supposed to keep him busy while he looked for a new job, but lately he hadn't done much job searching or renovating. In the last few weeks there had been several times when he went out "for supplies," and came home empty-handed. "He swore he was going to get a lot done this weekend."
"Good luck with that." Tanya laughed. Jake's father left when he was a baby, and she took a dim view of men in general, other than the brief infatuations at the start of her relationships. "With his wife and kids gone for the weekend? I bet he went out and painted the town."
"I guess..." Jen said, more morosely than she meant to.
Tanya looked at her keenly. "Hey, I was kidding. Everything's okay with you guys, isn't it?"
"No, no, it's fine. Just, you know, I wish he'd find something. It's hard having him underfoot all the time."
Tanya looked at her doubtfully, picking up the bottle. "Here, give me your glass."
As Tanya topped off her wine, Jen couldn't help thinking of the little slip of goldenrod notepaper Ted had tossed in the tray on his dresser along with his change. The feminine handwriting that wasn't hers, the initials SEB in a curvy script at the top. On it, Sarah Elizabeth Baker had written "Thx tons, Tuesday 2pm Firehouse xoxoxo."
Sarah had been his assistant before he was laid off. She wasn't gorgeous, but she had a knowing, sensual way about her that was hard to miss; she could make a Brooks Brothers blouse look like an invitation. At the Christmas party, when she'd had too much to drink, she'd kissed Ted on the mouth when she said goodbye.
None of which necessarily meant anything—except that Ted left Flores Martin months ago. And yes, for a while there was a weekly bundle of his mail, delivered with one of these little gold notes paper clipped on top.
But there hadn't been mail from work in a long time.
Jen wondered if she could tell Tanya about Sarah, But Tanya would be too quick to turn on Ted, too quick to castigate him for crimes he might not have even committed.
So Jen drank her wine and changed the subject, and when the bottle was empty Tanya opened the second one and they made a good dent in it before Jen finally turned the light out. They mumbled their good-nights just like all those years ago when they shared a bedroom and a bunk bed. Tanya was asleep in minutes, her breathing even and deep. Jen lay awake for a while despite the blurry wine buzz, thinking about Sarah and her glossy hair, the x's and o's at the bottom of her note.
When Jen finally slept, her nightmare had nothing to do with Sarah or even Sid. She dreamed the red bird, its beak opening wider and wider, its screams ever louder, uncoiling and unfurling until there was nothing else.
© Sophie Littlefield