By William Cass
When I was a little boy, I lived for a short time with my uncle’s family while my mom, his younger sister, spent a stint in rehab. He had a big house on a lake in a wealthy enclave of Detroit and stayed home most of the time, so I was never sure what he did for work. Besides his wife, who I remember as grim and generally invisible, my cousin, Gary, also lived there. I was nine at the time, and Gary was a few years older. He wasn’t happy about me moving in and treated me with open disdain. As a result, I avoided him and sequestered myself in the bedroom they put me in. The room had a small roll-top desk, antique and mahogany, that I loved and that my uncle had owned since before he was married. I was intrigued by all its little nooks and hidden crannies; for some reason, it felt both exotic and cozy to me. My uncle knew how I felt and held a similar affinity for the desk, and it created a kind of quiet bond between us.
My mother’s rehab stint, which was finally a successful one, ended after six weeks, and I returned with her to Cleveland where they’d grown up and where she’d secured a job in a halfway house. Even with our proximity to my uncle’s family, we had no real contact with them again that I was aware of aside from Christmas cards. My mother eventually ran several halfway houses in the area, and I matriculated through college there, too, before beginning my career as an elementary school teacher in an older suburb nearby. My brief marriage ended abruptly when my wife left me for another man, but I filled my time afterwards outside work as best I could with activities like long walks, baking, and trying to learn to play the clarinet. My mother passed away not long after my divorce, just after I turned thirty, and several years later, I received an email from Gary telling me that his mother and father had died, too, in a car accident.
“I located your email address on your school district’s website,” he wrote. “I remembered from one of your mom’s Christmas cards that you’d been teaching in Middleburg Heights. Anyway, I wanted you to know about my parents’ death and that my father left you that old roll-top desk of his in his will. I don’t have your home address, so I shipped it to your work. Hope that’s okay.”
I was at school during a lunch break as I read his message and sat back shaking my head when I finished. I frowned as I re-read it and wasn’t sure how to reply, so just typed, “Okay, thanks. Very sorry for your loss.” Then I logged off and stared out over the empty desks in my classroom. It was raining, I remember, the sound of it mingling with student voices from the cafeteria down the hall. I’d already began imagining which important items I’d store in the desk and how I’d arrange them.
When I was passing through our school’s front office a few afternoons later, our secretary pointed to a large cardboard box in the corner and told me that it had been delivered for me earlier that day. I saw that it had come from Detroit, tried its weight, and was able to carry it awkwardly to my truck in the staff parking lot. I got it into my house and unpacked it in my living room. It looked exactly the same as I remembered it, right down to its dark, faded finish. Even the dust accumulated in its corners appeared unchanged. I settled it against the wall in an open spot next to my wood stove, moved an extra dining room chair in front of it, and tried the lid. It opened easily, making the little ratcheting sound I recalled fondly as it did. But I was surprised to see that none of its contents had been removed. Those, too, seemed to be identical to the dim memories I had of them as a boy: stacks of letters in envelopes yellowed with age in the same slot behind a sliding false wall, rusted paper clips in a tiny dish, fountain pens arranged by size in a felt-lined drawer, old black-and-white photographs scattered under the leather blotter, and a smattering of other items exactly as I last recalled seeing them when I was nine years old. They retained, as well, the same musty smell that I remembered from all those years ago. Why hadn’t Gary emptied it before shipping it to me? Had he even looked inside it before doing that? Had he ever?
I took out a handful of the weathered envelopes and saw that they all had an identical return address in Toledo scrawled in neat script. As I read a few of the letters inside, a flush spread through me; they all expressed the undying love for my uncle of a woman named Rita. I rifled through the stack examining the postmark dates, which comprised a period of about a year before my uncle had married my aunt and then had Gary. All were unabashedly romantic; many included sexual references. There were more than fifty of them.
I turned next to the photos under the blotter. There was only a dozen or so of those, and each featured the same young woman. Some also included a younger version of my uncle with his arm around her or holding her hand. She was taller and slimmer than my aunt, very attractive, and always wore a smaller smile than my uncle did. A few had her name, Rita, on the back and dates that approximated those on the envelopes.
I finished studying the last of the photos, then sat back in my chair and wondered what to do. Sending the letters and photos back to Gary seemed somehow a violation of my uncle’s privacy. Similarly, I was reluctant to replace them with items of my own, then storing them away somewhere instead of the home they’d silently, and it appeared secretly, occupied over those many years. I didn’t remember anyone else in their family using that bedroom I’d been given in my uncle’s house when I’d been there, and I imagined him entering that room by himself from time to time, closing the door behind him, sitting at the desk, re-reading those letters, fondling those photos. After a while, I realized it had begun to rain again outside. I closed the lid on the desk, patted it once to be sure it was secure, and went into the kitchen to start dinner.
I did nothing about the roll-top desk’s contents except ponder for the next couple of weeks. I spent some time clearing space in the crate where I’d stored my ex-wife’s things after she left – lingering over the framed photos from our wedding, the few clothes that still retained her scent, the snow globe that I’d bought her for our last anniversary, the brief note from her that was waiting for me on the kitchen counter the day she’d left. There was room in the crate afterwards for the desk’s contents, and I considered the symmetry of a joint sanctuary of loss for my uncle and me, but in the end, to put them there seemed somehow irreverent. I thought, too, about not doing anything at all with them, but then the desk would serve nothing but an ornamental purpose for me to stare at in my still, silent living room. I did, instead, eventually read all of the letters and arranged the photos in the most accurate chronological manner I could manage; their abrupt ending puzzled me.
In mid-November, an idea finally occurred to me. I knew the prospects were unlikely that Rita was still connected to the return address on the envelopes or that, already in her mid-sixties, she was even alive anymore, but I still took a chance and wrote to her. I simply explained who I was, how I’d come to obtain the desk, about the letters and photos, and asked her if she’d like to have them. I was surprised to receive a letter in reply from her in just over a week. She thanked me for reaching out to her and said that my letter had been forwarded to her by a college roommate who still lived in the house she’d shared at the time. She said she’d love to take me up on my offer and was coming to Cleveland for the Thanksgiving holiday. Could she possibly, she asked, stop by to pick them up then? She included a cell phone number. I had nothing at all going on for Thanksgiving, so I sent her a text and we quickly agreed upon a time for her visit.
Rita was scheduled to come by at ten o’clock the morning after Thanksgiving. Overnight, Cleveland had its first snowfall of the season, only a dusting, but I’d made a fire in my wood stove and put on a CD of chamber music at low volume to soften the mood. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I found myself growing strangely anxious as the time for her arrival approached. I changed sweaters three times, settling on a heavy cardigan in an attempt to make my appearance as welcoming as possible.
The front doorbell rang at precisely ten o’clock. When I opened it, Rita stepped back to reveal an old station wagon parked in my driveway behind her. Though her hair was almost all gray and she stooped a little, I recognized her immediately from the photos: the pleasing, angular features, the thin carriage, the gentle eyes, the same small, sad smile. I asked her in, took her coat, and hung it from a peg on the wall. My entryway opened directly into the living room, and when I turned back around, I saw that she’d already taken a few steps towards the desk and was staring directly at it.
“I gave that to him,” she said softly. “It had been in my grandmother’s attic before she died. No one in my family really cared about having it.”
I felt my eyebrows raise and said, “That so?”
She turned to me with pursed lips and nodded. “Yes. Winter of 1971.”
“No kidding,” I said and pointed to the desk where I’d already pulled out the chair in anticipation of her arrival; I’d left the lid closed. “Why don’t you go ahead and sit down? The letters are still stacked inside. He’d kept the photos under the blotter, but I’ve arranged them on top of it for you.”
I watched her nod again, swallow, then go over to the desk and rub her hand, almost lovingly it seemed to me, across its lid.
“That lifts,” I told her. “It’s not locked.”
She lowered herself onto the chair, keeping her hand and eyes on the lid. I asked, “How about some tea?”
“All right,” she said. She hadn’t turned around. “That would be nice.”
I went into the kitchen and started the kettle, but didn’t turn it on high; I wanted to give Rita some time alone. I fixed two mugs with tea bags, then stood looking out the kitchen window into the backyard with its thin carpet of fresh now. It covered the mound of earth my ex-wife had used as a garden but that I’d left untouched since she’d left. The hummingbird feeder we’d bought together hung empty from a lower branch of the nearly bare maple tree in the corner; I hadn’t filled that since she’d been gone either. Just outside the window, the windchimes she’d made from sand dollars and fishing line dangled from the eave and tinkled gently on the small breeze.
Several minutes passed before the kettle began a soft whistle. I turned down the heat, waited a few more, then slowly fixed our tea and brought the mugs into the living room. Rita was turned my way with the stack of envelopes on her lap, but she’d only opened and gotten through a handful of the letters inside. She wiped at the corner of one of her eyes and managed one of her small smiles when I set her mug down next to the blotter; as I did, I could see that the photos had been sorted through.
“Thank you,” she said.
I sat on the edge of the couch across from her and held my mug under my chin. She left hers untouched and looked down at the letters in her lap. A log cracked in the wood stove.
“Well,” I finally said. “Looks like you found things okay.”
She nodded and sighed.
“So,” I said. “If you don’t mind my asking, what happened with the two of you? Back then, I mean.”
She blew out a longer breath, looked from the letters to me, and said, “We were in love. Deeply. I actually met him here in Cleveland through your mother while we were in high school together. She and I were close friends at the time, and I used to visit her at their home while he was still living there. Then he was drafted, went off to Vietnam, and we started dating after he returned. We were only together here a short time before he moved to Detroit to work with an Army buddy he’d served with and I started college in Toledo. But we still saw each other almost every weekend.” She paused and looked away. “For a while.”
I waited a moment before saying, “And then?”
She kept her head turned towards the wood stove and said, “He told me he was drunk one night, slept with the woman who eventually became your aunt, and she got pregnant. Both their families were Catholic, hers devoutly, so he did what he said he had to do: he married her.” She looked back my way and shrugged. “End of story.”
I felt a little shiver thinking back to how my aunt and uncle hardly spoke to each other. I thought, too, about how I’d only learned about my ex-wife’s affair in that short note she’d left for me. I watched Rita take the mug and set it on her lap on top of the letters, the steam from it curling upward. She didn’t drink from it.
“Wow,” I said, “and you never saw each other again?”
She shook her head. “Not after his last visit when he told me…what had happened.”
For some reason, a memory from when I was hardly more than a toddler invaded my mind of a possum who’d lived for a while under our back deck. It was one of my earliest memories, and my father was still living with us at the time. He wanted to get rid of the possum and had heard somewhere that it would not cross a line of flour sprinkled around its domain. So that’s what he did. The specific memory I returned to at that moment was of getting up late one night when I heard the possum outside, looking out my bedroom window, watching it in the moonlight nose around the line of flour, hesitate, then crawl away: expectations suddenly and inexplicably dashed. My father left soon thereafter, and I never saw him again.
Rita blew out another breath, set her mug down on the woodstove’s brick hearth, and said, “Well, I should get on my way.”
As I watched her begin shuffling letters back into envelopes in her lap, I thought about things that are irretrievable. She was more than twice my age, so I supposed that she had many more of those than I did, although I couldn’t be sure of that. Like everyone, though, her life had been filled with events – meaningful, joyous, regrettable, mundane – of that, I was certain. I became vaguely aware of the chamber music changing from one piece to another.
After a few moments, I said, “Why don’t you just put those back inside, close the lid, and take the whole desk? I’ll carry it to your car.”
Her eyes widened with a kind of quiet joy. “Really?”
I nodded, set my own mug on the coffee table in front of me, and stood up. She readied the desk while I got her coat. Then I hoisted the desk up against my chest like I had bringing it in, followed her out to her station wagon, and got it situated it in back. She closed the hatch, and we stood looking at each other. It had begun to snow again lightly.
“What exactly did my uncle do for a living?” I asked her.
She made a sound that was something between a small chuckle and a snort. “Fenced stolen property. He and his Army pal. Antiques. Mostly jewelry, but other things, too.” She gestured with her chin towards the desk. “He was going to sell that.” I watched her blinking become rapid. “Then he decided not to.”
I said, “I never knew that.”
She gave a small shrug. “We were all pretty reckless then. Your mom, your uncle, me. Your aunt, I suppose. Lots of young people were in those days.
“Not sure that’s changed much.”
“Maybe not.” She gave me another of her small smiles. “I still subscribe online to the Cleveland newspaper and read about your mother’s death. I’m sorry. She was a wonderful girl, a free spirit. So sweet.”
“Yes. I’m very glad she got her life straightened out.”
I made a small shrug of my own. When she reached out her hand, I took it, and she clasped her other on mine. She nodded once and said, “Thanks so much.”
I watched her car creep down the driveway in the snow and make its careful way up the street, exhaust bouncing off the pavement, until it turned at the next corner. The breeze picked up and the snow began to blow sideways, but I didn’t go back inside for several minutes. When I did, I stood staring at the space where the desk had briefly stood. At that moment, if I could have, I would have called or written to my ex-wife just to ask how’d she’d been, to see how she was doing. In spite of the way things had gone, I hoped she was well. But there was no way for me to contact her; I had no idea where she was or how to reach her. So instead I just stood looking at that empty spot against the wall listening to the wood stove hiss and the wood chimes knock together in the stiffening breeze outside the kitchen window.
William Cass has had over 200 short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines. He has received one Best Small Fictions nomination, three Pushcart nominations, and his short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, was recently released by Wising Up Press. He lives in San Diego, California.