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Fred Anderson
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THE WAR AGAINST STUFF

by

Fred Andersen

 

          Warren could see the look on Debbie’s face before he even turned around.

          Beads?” Her voice conveyed disgust and incredulity. “Those don’t look like beads to me.”

          The long metal strips rattled as Warren stood them in a niche next to the boxes of engineered hardwood flooring.

          Corner bead. It’s used to form the corners on drywall.” He did not really expect his wife to understand. She neither knew nor cared the first thing about construction and materials. “They’ll come in perfect when we do the guest house. Guy gave them away. Practically.”

          I can see why.”

          With the corner bead safely corralled, Warren turned to leave but could not pass Debbie, who stood arms akimbo between where their daughters’ highchair sat somewhat precariously on his grandfather’s genuine cowhide ottoman, and the stacked barrels of pinto beans, rock salt and dried dates.

          I want to talk to you about all this stuff.”

          The hard lines of her eyes and chin told Warren this was serious. He groaned inwardly.

          We’re running out of room, Warren!” She wagged her hands, “This is Marybeth’s bed-room! She can’t even come home from college now because her bedroom has been turned into Home Depot. Or should I say the Ninety-Nine Cent Store? You even have extra empty containers.”

          Warren still hoped he could squirm out of this. “She can just stay in Jennifer’s room. Temporarily.”

          Why should she have to? This used to be a perfectly good bedroom. Over the years it’s just built up. The storage room, the trailer, the patio. Pretty soon there won’t be room for any of us.”

          Warren glanced down at the corner of his eldest daughter’s bed, visible beneath the boxes which contained almost every paper she ever brought home from school, an assortment of pictures and picture frames, and old National Geographics. “But these things are part of our lives.”

          These beads.” Debbie indicated the fresh stack of metal strips. “They’re not part of my life that I remember.”

          But we’ll need it soon. It’s part of our future.” He cut her off before she could object. “Yes, like the flooring, the windows, the cords, and the foodstuffs.” He had his frustrations, too. “Shoot, we could be using that food right now.”

          When I need almonds, I need a half cup of almonds. So I can dig through these unmarked boxes for a half hour, or I can go to the store and buy ‘em for three bucks.”

          She’d made a mistake right there. Warren flicked out his hand to the tub right on top of the carton of trash bags. He snapped off the plastic lid, and there gleamed clear bags of almonds, smoked and almonds, raw. “Boy that was tough.”

          She rolled her eyes. “You got lucky, that’s all.”

          I know it’s a little unorganized now. I’m going to start on it in the fall. Once I get organized, you’ll see, it’ll seem like it all just disappeared.”

          Debbie nodded, whether in agreement or resignation he could not tell. Didn’t much matter which. He loved his wife. She was smart, and still pretty, a good mother and a loving mate. But she just let this one thing bother her too much.

          With one last humph she turned and walked out of the room.

          Warren stepped into the small open area by the door, the foyer, if you will, of his daughter’s bedroom. He surveyed. It was true it could be better organized. He knew that. But for now he’d just move that new stack away from the window. And the three old weed whackers, the ones awaiting repairs, standing inches away from the pink ruffles of his daughter’s bed, that was a bit much. Especially since they hadn’t really been cleaned before being brought in from the shed.

          He worked his way over there and rearranged them so the new weed whacker, still in its yellow and black box, stood between the bed and the old dirty ones. He’d bought the two new McCulloughs at clearance, and McCullough One was currently on active duty, while McCullough Two waited in reserve. The others he would fix up and sell. Might even do that this weekend.

          Warren turned and glimpsed Debbie leaving the room again. Gone silently as a ghost. He hadn’t realized she came back in. Once those new shelves went up in the garage, most of this stuff would go out there. Then things would be a lot better.

                                                          ***

          The house looked a little cluttered, but smelled clean, almost bracing. Officer Greenway sat at the kitchen table opposite the woman. The space was a little cramped because of the big cabinet full of cookbooks and knickknacks that pushed out from the wall.

          This is the Missing Persons form,” he told her. “We’ll just go through it.”

          I guess I want him back.” She chuckled with forced cheer.

          Greenway gave her an encouraging smile. “I’m sure he’ll turn up, Mrs....”

          Debbie. Just call me Debbie.”

          Okay Debbie.” She was maybe forty, denim shorts, tan legs. Blonde streaked hair. And she guessed she wanted the sonuvabitch back. That was the thing about doing Missing Persons. Husbands disappeared, leaving lonely wives. Lonely and occasionally attractive. The wrong kind of policeman would take advantage of that—being the first in line, a figure of solidity and comfort, a crisp, blue uniform. “So. Last seen?”

          He went for a walk,” she said.

          What time was that?”

          Before I got up. I slept late. ‘Til six-thirty.” Debbie flashed a wavering smile. She had white, even teeth.

          Just never came back?”

          Her lips trembled. She shook her head.

          But you didn’t call the police right away?”

          I figured he was just out. I don’t know. Then his boss called me, and I realized it really was serious. We both called around. His car was still here. Then his boss suggested I should call you. I was scared to. Because, it was to admit. . .”

          Greenway couldn’t help but notice how her speech sped up as she talked. A sign of fear, stress, possibly lying. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re going to find him and he’s going to be fine. We take this seriously, because of his age.”

          She blinked, offended. “Why do you say his age?”

          I’m sorry, I assumed your husband was quite a bit older than you. You know, sort of wandering off all the time.” Jesus! How stupid do you have to be to imply something about a middle-aged woman’s middle age! “My mistake.”

          He’s only a couple years older than me.”

          Oh, well then, cancel that.” Greenway smiled in what he hoped came across as a self-deprecating way. “I do apologize. It’s just that when they’re older, or on medication, they get a higher priority.”

          She smiled at him gratefully, the insult forgotten. “Well, he looks older, and sometimes I wonder about his, well, his mental state.”

          Indeed. So this isn’t the first time he’s disappeared.”

          Well, he’s never disappeared before. He always came back.”

          Right. Okay.” Greenway made a note on the form: Wanders off. “Do you have any ideas?”

          Her face collapsed. She turned her head and stared out the kitchen window.

          Anything that will help us.” Greenway gave the woman his most soothing manner.

          The crosscut ditch,” she glanced up at him. “It always worried me that he walked by there. It’s a dangerous place. He could fall in there.” She stopped, overcome by emotion.

          Okay.” He did not want to say, we’ll take a look, because the only possible followup to that clause was, for your husband’s bloated and/or desiccated corpse. Three days in July, 112 plus every day, down in that weed-choked alkali drain. Better for everybody if it turned out to be the classic went-out-for-cigarettes-and-never-came-back. Then the report would get filed fast and deep in the Whatever File. Unless the guy cleaned her out. “Has there been any change in your bank accounts, credit card accounts? Any large withdrawals?”

          Debbie frowned. “I don’t think so. Not that I’ve noticed. He kept the books. The accounts, you know? We’re not wealthy people.”

          She was going south again. But she looked at Greenway as if to say, No! I will not cry! I will get through this!

          I’ll tell you one thing.” She flashed him a haunted smile below dead eyes. “If he tries to leave now, I’ll kill him!”

          Why do you say that?”

          Let me show you.”

          She led him through the den, which seemed to contain slightly more furniture than it could really hold. They went into the dark hall, and she opened a door.

          See what I mean?” She reached past him to flip on the light switch in the room. Her full, pink lips quivered briefly. “This was my sewing room.”

          Greenway peered in. The room was stacked from floor to ceiling and wall to wall with plastic tubs, cardboard boxes, and loose items. Down at this end of the house, Greenway recognized the bracing smell he’d noticed earlier. Machine oil. Most likely from power tools. Greenway didn’t see any tools in the room, but anything could be piled behind that first row of boxes.

          I lost the war against stuff a long time ago.” She said it softly, like a secret. The abandoned wives, not sure they even wanted the sonuvabitch back, but already lonely. She was close enough that he could feel her breath on his skin, in the vee of his open collar. An attractive, vulnerable woman. The open collar of his crisp, blue uniform.

           If it’s old stuff he says it’s part of our past. If it’s new it’s for the future. There’s more, back there.” She motioned further down the hall. “In my daughter’s bedroom.”

          That’s alright.” Greenway felt an odd buzz. Was he really getting the signal he thought he was getting? Come into the bedroom?

          Are you sure?” Denim shorts, sea-green eyes under black mascara.

          Yeah, really.” Greenway would not be the one to take advantage of this situation. He was happily married at last, to a girl who really understood him. So no chippy-chippy side-side for him. He turned and headed back to the den.

          He can’t leave,” she called after him in a soft, husky voice. “I am not cleanin’ this crap up by myself!”

          Officer Greenway was out of sympathy. There was nothing else to be done. Who could guess the secret grudges these two had built up in twenty years of marriage, the frustrations multiplied, the dreams fractionalized? The sonuvabitch was gone, that’s all.

          Getting ready to leave, he said “I’m sure he’ll turn up. Sometimes a man just needs to get away. To think. I’m sure he’ll turn up.”

          On the way out, Greenway passed a young woman with spiky blonde hair getting out of a car in the driveway. Attractive. Probably the daughter. As he got into his cruiser he watched her walk in, glad to be out of there. You didn’t want to get mixed up with anyone who lived in that packrat nest. People like that were weird and possessive and needy.

          Officer Greenway said a quick prayer of thanks that he was finally married, and didn’t have to follow strange women down twisted paths. He was married to someone who really loved him.

                                                          ***

          Debbie couldn’t carry the secret any longer. She’d barely gotten through the interview with the police officer. He had been very concerned, and sympathetic. Certainly he hadn’t accused her of anything. What stopped her from confessing was Warren’s voice in her head.

          Now Marybeth sat in the same place at the kitchen table. And Debbie couldn’t keep up the pretense anymore. She couldn’t even look her daughter in the face. “I think it truly drove me crazy, all that stuff. Not even him so much. It, the weight of all of it. The space. Sometimes I felt like that stuff was replacing the very air in the house.”

          Debbie glanced up. That crease between Marybeth’s eyebrows meant she was very concerned. Best get on with it.

          It was an accident. I needed to find Jennifer’s birth certificate and I was moving and hauling, and searching....” Debbie saw the moment again. Felt it. Frustrated, angry, tired. Just tired of it all. “And this big stack of crown molding fell down all around me. Hit me on the head. A piece gouged me in the shoulder.

          He comes up to me and says, ‘Let me get that for you.’ And I had that molding in my hand, and I just let him have it. It was just an instinct. But I was so angry, I—” She made a chopping motion with her hand.

          Oh my God!” Marybeth whispered. “Daddy!”

          I’m so sorry honey.” Debbie had never spoken truer words.

          They both broke down in tears, and cried for a long time.

          Finally her daughter looked at Debbie with those big, sad eyes. “But what, you know. What happened to him, to, you know.”

          Debbie sighed. “It may be hard for you to understand. I don’t understand it myself.” She glanced past Marybeth through the door into the den, toward the hallway. The back of the house.

          What?” Marybeth had the most fearful look on her face.

          Debbie stared down at the kitchen table in front of her. It was real maple. It needed a refinish, and then you could sell it for five hundred bucks. The voice was still in her. Warren’s voice. All the things you could do with this or that, fix it up, sell it, as soon as you got around to it. And Warren’s voice had told her not to tell the policeman. To hide her shame. That was the curse she would have to live with. Warren’s voice. “You know that big barrel of rock salt he had? For the water conditioning?”

          Oh no.” Marybeth’s hands slowly rose, as if to fend off a blow.

          Debbie nodded. “Well, now we have two barrels. One barrel is half rock salt.” Debbie’s vocal cords flapped like they were torn.

          The other barrel,” she whispered. “Well, that’s rock salt and . . . your father.”

          Oh, Mom!” Marybeth wailed.

          He was such a big part of my past, of our past. I just couldn’t bear to part with him.” Debbie was overwhelmed by guilt, but in her daughter’s face she saw a glimmer of hope.

           Marybeth reached to embrace her. “Oh, Mom, I understand. I really do.”


Fred Andersen is the author of Line in the Sand, a thriller in which assassins from a Mexican drug gang take on a janitor and a sixth-grade teacher and lose. Twice. He has also written two historic Hollywood mysteries, including the upcoming What's a Poor Girl to Do? His stories and articles have appeared in American Heritage, Imitation Fruit, Close 2 the Bone, and now, Yellow Mama.


fxandersen@msn.com


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