A very short story based on the things left behind in one of my kitchen cabinets.
His wife left behind a mini-muffin tin, an aluminum cookie sheet and a tacky, scratched green metal tray decorated with an artist’s renderings of New Hampshire tourist traps. The Old Man in the Mountain, Clark’s Trading Post, the Kancamagus Highway—all etched in white. The scratches were etched in rust. In the kitchen of their old house, two tall and narrow cabinets flanked the stove, one of which she had forgotten to empty. They intentionally left behind an old upright piano. It was too expensive to move and they had no room for it in their new, small apartment. He had painted that old piano with a creamy white semi-gloss paint. A long time ago. He wondered if the new family kept it. It was very out of tune.
His wife was deeply distraught about the things she left behind. She lamented them and repeatedly expressed her distress to him, to their children, to friends over the phone. It embarrassed him—her bald and passionate grief over a muffin tin, a cookie sheet, a scratched old metal tray. And he couldn’t recall the last time—or any time—she ever made bite-sized muffins.
“You never even used that pan,” he said to her.
She looked at him hard. “Yes. I did.”
“When?” He was sincere, not combative.
“That’s not the point,” she said.
What was the point? In the face of what had been lost, what could these things mean to her. When he considered the missteps that had led to this end, they each seemed small when examined one at a time. But the accumulation was calamitous. A muffin pan? He thought this but had been married long enough not to say more. Who cares about a muffin pan? he wanted to say, but didn’t.
The new family had removed the big juniper bushes and rhododendron from the front of the house. It could not be denied that the plants had been terribly overgrown, but now the house held a naked, vulnerable look.
There were small children in this new family. Once when he drove by, he saw the new woman corralling them, one after the other, faces like bright new buttons, into a minivan parked in his old driveway.
For years, his sons played in the fort they’d built in the backyard. The fort still stood, the weathered wood dulled to a muted gray. His wife spent years worrying that one of them would fall to the ground.
“It’s too high,” she always said, peering out the kitchen window to the backyard.
“They’ll be fine,” he always said.
He was right—no one ever fell. But it was possible they kept the near misses to themselves.
He was no voyeur. Neither was it a kind of intimacy he was seeking. What then?
He gazed through the passenger side window as he drove slowly.
The feeling of what once was—the recovery of a precise sentiment—settling in his deepest tissue. Right down deep in his belly, seeping into his rib bones.
That was what it was.
The forsythia bushes that encircled the backyard were in bloom. From the street out front he could see the outer edges—they peeked from around the sides of the house. Pretty and cheerful every year, they made the backyard seem nicer than it really was. The dense foliage hid all the overgrown stuff he never managed to remove from beneath them. The accumulated fallen leaves of many autumns, the vines that had sprung up on their own. Also the discarded and forgotten toys that once belonged to his children with a fierce possessiveness, thought of as lost or forgotten altogether.
Blue jays nested in the forsythia. Not the same birds year after year but seemingly so. Although he knew this could not be true.
Blue jays are ferociously territorial. They have been known to chase cats, dogs and humans away. They mob owls who get too close. They are large, they are noisy. They are smart. And while those qualities could not be denied, his blue jays shared those same forsythia with cardinals. A spill of colors amongst the yellow and green. Bright and bold in the nakedness of winter over the setting of white snow.
It was just a muffin pan.
All that yellow in bloom now.
Just a pan.
He would not say such a thing.
Who was he to say.