The parade of black, casseroles, gluey eyes, and lilting words ended. The house was silent and heavy, like a concrete fog seeping into each crevice and nook.
“Is mom going to be ok?” my sister asked.
“Yes,” I lied. Mom roamed the halls, looking for lost and hidden memories. She was sorting everything in the house into neat stacks, towers of remembrances. She pulled things out of the attic and plucked items from plastic storage bins, treasure hunting through time. There were hand paintings and clumsily sculpted bowls forged in kilns in one stack, dresses and ruffled socks in another, shoeboxes covered with bright colored construction paper, frayed t-shirts, and expired sunscreen in another. Our father had died and our mother was recreating our childhoods in piles on the floor.
“What can we do to help?” my sister asked my mother. She tapped one hand on her hip, keeping time with an unknown beat.
“Nothing, honey,” my mother responded. “I’m just cleaning up. Go enjoy some of the food left in the kitchen.”
My mother moved like a ghost, haunting and fluid. My sister waded through Saran Wrap and broccoli, squash, and chicken casseroles.
Our parents’ cat, Leopold, emerged wearing a red and white sweater. It was too big on him, and Leopold knew it. He heaved his hefty belly and orange and white legs down a hallway. I knew it was from embarrassment
“Why is the cat wearing a sweater?” I asked. “It doesn’t even fit him.”
My mother had disappeared as well, shuffling mementos of our lives in the laundry room. “I knitted the sweater myself. I read it was good to pick up new hobbies as you got older,” my mother responded, her voice simultaneously cavernous and fragile.
I walked down the hall, where my sister and I used to have bunk beds before we got too old and thought staying in the same room was uncomfortable. We used to race to the top bunk, slender and awkward legs flying and kicking. Then one Sunday my sister my fell, crumpling on the floor in a bruised and sobbing mass. Our father told us in his baritone, do-it-now voice there would be no more races to the top.
I opened the door and arrived, an intruder, into my parents’ bedroom. One side of the bed was unmade, containing the ruffled sheets and indented pillows that chronicled my mother’s restless sleep. The other side was crisp and smooth. It was covered in pictures of my father. Pictures of graduations and of their wedding and of my father’s unguarded face, neatly tucked into a military uniform, before he headed to war.
There was a stack of letters, snugly crammed into the original opened envelopes. A rubber band pinched the rows of letters together, making the envelopes spread out like wings.
I removed the rubber band and flipped through the browning envelopes and tissue-thin sheets of paper, etched with my father’s elegant handwriting. I had never known these letters existed. These were letters from his war to my mother. They were formal artifacts from a lost era. They began with introductions like “My dear wife” and “To my enchanting Madeline.”
The letters spoke of a foreign, unimaginable time. In 1941: “All the shops here are painting their windows black, trying to avoid being the next target when the air raid alarms sound.” In 1943: “Our ship shot down at least six bombers today, all of them hurtling at us, trying to crash into our ship and kill as many of us as they could.” In 1944: “I will make it back to you, darling. I cannot imagine a fate so cruel as having endured these last few years without seeing your smiling face again. It is you that keeps me alive and going.”
My mother walked through the doorway and sat down on the bed without a word.
“Dad wrote all of these to you?”
“Yes,” she said. “I kept every one of them. He was embarrassed about them, but I don’t think he would mind if you read them now.” She kissed me on the forehead and departed the room, greeting each memory she passed in the hallway.
I walked over to my father’s closet. Everything hung in its place, waiting for him to come home. I slid on a camel hair sport coat my father wore when he took my mother out to dinner on icy, winter nights. It made him look like a professor. The coat hung loosely on me, air and space protruding where elbows and arms should be.
I clutched the stack of letters and Leopold walked in, exerting great effort to hurl his rotund body on to the bed. I began to read the letters that embarrassed my father as the cat who was embarrassed by his handmade sweater stared at me.
My coat was itchy. It bunched up underneath me in protest to being worn by an imitator. “I don’t think I’ll ever grow into it,” I told Leopold. He laid his head on my lap, rubbing his whiskers against the camel hair, and purred.
Neal Suit is a recovering lawyer. He writes fiction and is completing his first novel. He has short stories published or forthcoming in Literally Stories, Mystery Weekly, and Boston Literary Magazine, among others. He lives in Dallas, Texas with his family and periodic writer’s block.