Sharon and I spent the morning re-organizing my kitchen cupboards. “Downsizing,” she called it. We tossed out a plethora of kitchen gadgets; a pressure cooker, a Dutch oven, and three small glass Coke bottles. “From the last century,” she said. Also, two knives with broken handles, a jar of wide, blue, rubber bands, at least a dozen candle stubs, and more chopsticks than either of us cared to count.
When I whined, “But that was my favourite,” Sharon set the vegetable peeler in the keep pile. When I moaned, “Riced potatoes used to be de rigueur,” Sharon tossed the potato ricer in the charity box, along with every piece of mismatched cutlery, and chipped plates, cups and saucers. Resistance was futile. Any hesitation on my part to “Why are you keeping this?” resulted in another discard. Sharon was practical, pragmatic, and persistent.
She packed the boxes for charity in the back of her pick-up, and we shared a quick hug and a love-you-too before she headed off. I figured she’d be back next week, begging to sort through my bedroom in hopes some juicy memento of my past would surface. Not on your life. Keeping that room sacrosanct left me feeling I had a shred of my life intact, even if it was only for the next few months before I shuffled off to the senior’s complex. I was on my last legs. I knew it. Failing heart, hearing, and sight. Yet, senior’s home or not, I still wanted to live with some pizzazz–to party, play cards, and have friends over for dinner, even if that meant I needed Sharon’s help.
After she left, I inspected our efforts. I opened cupboard doors and slid out drawers. I smiled. Every drawer cleaned and de-cluttered. Every countertop bare. Such a relief to be rid of items which held memories I no longer wanted to revisit.
I’ve lived alone all of my adult life, insisted upon it, but that didn’t mean I feltlonely. I always had a house full of friends and guests. I welcomed any and all. Sometimes, I thought my cadre of characters felt compelled to keep me going, as if my presence alone fulfilled their need for connections. To them, I was the woman who organized the art club, the lady who hosted the book club, the one who never forgot a birthday, an anniversary, nor a graduation. But I knew not one of them truly knew me.
Oh, they gossiped about me. I gleaned bits and pieces over the years, each one more outlandish than the last. I’d run away from an abusive spouse. I was tossed out by an upright family for an unplanned pregnancy. Once, I was in the witness protection program for ratting out the Mafia and assumed no one would ever find me here in this backwater town. To my everlasting delight, small-town politeness left friends too timid to ask and I never offered up one iota of my past. As the years rolled by, the question of who I had been, where I had come from, or what I had done, faded.
I moved to the porch and sat on one of my platform rockers. I thought I’d tarry awhile, but lingering lasted longer and longer as I mentally reviewed the items Sharon had carted away. Among the things I no longer owned were two fondue sets (Boy, those were parties!), three trays with loose handles (too precarious to use), a round wall clock I never consulted once the batteries died (why keep it), some gizmo to blend soups (I never made soup), and a mandolin crinkle cutter.
Why had I held onto that mandolin all these years? I knew why. I knew where it came from and what it symbolized. I knew why I had felt I dare never part with it. That mandolin conjured up visions of my father labouring and sweating in his restaurant kitchen, peeling and slicing pounds and pounds of potatoes, each of them a perfect crinkle cut, and drying them in well-worn tea towels before tipping them into the deep fat fryer. Whenever I caught sight of that mandolin, I could hear the hiss of fries hitting the hot fat. Smell the tang of salt.
Keeping the mandolin also reminded me of his cutting remarks, his ugly pleasure in verbally slicing and dicing each member of his family, and the terror of imminent danger whenever he came home drunk and back-handed my mother or crawled into my bed in the middle of the night. I had snatched up that mandolin the night I fled. On an impulse, I snatched it up and ran but not so far that I couldn’t stare, transfixed, as the fire burned the diner and my drunk dad passed out on the floor. I’d harboured this mandolin, this one remaining artifact, as a reminder of my egregious sin. All these years, I’d felt compelled to keep it jammed in the depths of my junk drawer like a lodestone, a tangible reminder of what I’d done and who I was.
I’d read, but never kept, the newspaper clippings about the fire from my hometown rag and the effusive obituary exaggerating the popularity of the diner and my father’s community service. All of it hogwash and malarkey. He’d only supported sports clubs to get their business; he’d never once attended a game nor funded a scholarship.
I also thought back to my life after the fire, the years of teaching grammar and, after retirement, a decade of initiating and organizing painting groups, spring planting parties, book clubs, and teas. I silently congratulated myself on the knowledge that some of my talented students had been published, a few artistic souls from my painting classes had gained a modicum of success, and many gardens now bloomed because of my zeal.
I was happy with the life I had created for myself and knew I’d only been able to do so by concealing my past, burying myself in a false persona. Nobody suspected what I’d done nor how I’d done it and, since my mother had surely died by now, there was no one left except me to acknowledge the smug satisfaction I’d felt when the flames had licked higher and higher up the side of that building. Those flames were my last view of that hellhole, though not the last savouring of my revenge,
Now, here I was. With the mandolin gone I was free of every last mote of hate and resentment.
I breathed a long sigh and gave the rocker a swing with the push of one foot. Tomorrow would be a new day; I’ll turn seventy-five. I was in no mood to hurry the day and gave the rocker another nudge, and another, until I drifted off, wrapped in the arms of a warm spring sun.
The next afternoon, Sharon arrived an hour before my birthday party. She set up my dining table for the potluck and refreshments that were sure to arrive. At least twenty or more of my friends had indicated they wouldn’t miss my 75th.
Mid-afternoon, I made my grand entrance. Impeccable, as always. My trimmed silvery hair crowned my sparkling blue eyes and framed my wide smile. I floated into the festivities like a fairytale vision, my ensemble in soft shades of pink.
I was inundated with congratulations, cards, hugs, and kisses. There were few gifts. Sharon had already informed everyone that I didn’t need more stuff, only more memories with loving friends.
“Thank you so much for coming.” I beamed. “I’m so glad to see all of you. And look at this table, simply groaning with goodies. I do hope you brought your appetite because I don’t want a bite left by the end of the day.”
We toasted with sherry, then swooped to the abundance on the table. That’s when I noticed the crinkle-cut French fries, front and center. I reeled, nearly fainted, and grabbed the edge of the table. Sharon, forever solicitous, noticed immediately and asked if I was feeling alright.
“I’m fine,” I said, even though that was a lie, “but I’d like to lie down for a minute.”
She ushered me through the crowd and stood watch while I slowly settled myself on my bed. She covered me with a light blanket before closing the door behind herself and padding down the hall.
The sight of those crinkle-cut chips had thrown me. I thought I had rid myself of ever seeing them or thinking of my father again. But I was wrong. An image of him crept into my craw. I heard my mother screaming, saw her fall to the floor where that drunk kicked her again and again. I felt nauseous with the smell of fat and salt as ugly memories of him pressed hard on my heart. I lay there and curled into the clear awareness that this was the end. I’d never see another day.
I felt no remorse for what I’d done so many years ago, but a pang of guilt arose over what I imagined my obituary would be: a glowing compendium of my virtues as the town’s celebrity host, organizer and supporter of so many well-loved activities. All of it would be poppycock, for I knew my obit ought to be a litany of my persuasive strategies, false pretences, and premeditated niceties.
Bette Kosmolak is an emerging writer living on Vancouver Island. She is passionate about writing, reading and art.