Then, Now, Later, but Always

Elias then had blonde hair, not white, on his head and in his stubble.  Elias then rode horses in the midwest and traveled to South America to save the brown children from their own poverty, their own country, and their own people.  Elias now remembers Elias then as heroic and beautifully, tragically, romantically depressed.

Elias now closed the last cardboard box and wrapped it completely with packing tape so that nothing could fall out, nothing could climb in, and none of the movers could steal the things inside of it (though he knew they would try anyway).  The boxes were stacked, according to their weight — not size — along the hallway.  His watch ticked for Sergio and his crew to arrive and load the truck to Vermont, which was as far away from his niece that Elias could get while staying in the country (although Canada was starting to sound pretty good).  Elias looked at his gold watch tangled in the thick, white hair of his arms and calculated.  There was, indeed, enough time to go to the backyard before the movers came.

He stepped onto his dead lawn, took a small trowel from the bench, and walked to a tree that hadn’t born fruit nor flowers nor leaves in years.  His gardener, Xavier, had tried to remove the tree several times when he first noticed its trunk hallow and the dirt around it was dead and dry.  Each time, Elias had run out screaming at the boy.  “Get the fuck away from my tree!”  he shouted when the chainsaw started to rumble.

“But Mr. Walters, the tree is dead.  With a strong enough wind it could blow down and hit your house.  It’s a hazard, sir.”  Elias did not listen then, nor the other times he ran across Xavier with an ax trying to chop it down quietly, with subtlety, piece by piece.

“Do you really expect me to believe that it’ll fall?”  Elias shouted.  “It’s a fucking tree, for god’s sake.  It only has one job, and that’s to stay in place!”  Elias fired Xavier, and no other gardener had been hired to replace him.  The tree sat in his backyard with ax wounds, and his grass and flowers soon faded from vibrant greens to piss yellows, and finally into the the flat brown of the earth.  The plants laid still, just as they were, flattened by footsteps, without the bother of being ripped up and carried away to the city compost bin.

Elias now stood at the base of the wounded tree facing his house with his feet together.  He counted as he walked toward his screen door.  “One…two…three…four…”  on his fifth step he turned sharply and counted five more steps towards the shadowbox fence.  He stopped, knelt down, and dug.

Underneath the dead soil, the rocks, and a box that held the bones of his third cat — Draper — were clumps of tinfoil.  He pulled each one out and stacked them between his legs as he refilled the hole, tossing Draper in unceremoniously along with the rocks and dirt.  With care, he stuffed the tinfoil into a fanny pack that he kept hidden under his shirt.

Elias now kept his money in pockets of land in his backyard, wrapped in foil to keep it clean.  Elias later will hide it in the freezer, in the same foil that was tucked safely under Draper.

Elias now looked at his boxes, knowing without a doubt that he is missing rings and paintings and rare sculptures from South America, and knowing without a doubt that it was his niece Adaline who had stolen them.

Elias later would wonder what his missing art would have looked like in his Vermont townhouse.  Elias always had believed that the only way to be safe was to hide the most precious things away, like deep into the earth.  Elias now forgot what exactly he had buried and where, and artifacts remained scattered underground.

Adaline now had painted a tribute, a portrait of her estranged relative — her last relative —  in loving light, with blonde hair in the South American city he saved so heroically.  Adaline now had sent it to her uncle’s new place in Vermont, and it rested at his doorstep, waiting for him.  Elias later would scream when he unwrapped the package, and Elias always would watch his security cameras.

Then, Now, Later, but Always

What You Cannot Replace

“The spider is our pet now, children, but one we can’t touch.  We leave him in the corner above the lamp. And we don’t hurt his webs.

“Charlie, you do not blow on the spider.  Do you see how he jumps and wiggles about?  He think’s there’s a storm and he panics.  Do you want to make your pet panic?”  Mary looked down at her son.  Charlie huffed and crossed his arms.  His sister, Emma, kept her eyes trained on their new pet.

“Yes, Emma, we can name him.  No, we cannot name him Mommy, because that’s my name.  No, we cannot name him Daddy either.

“Charlie, let your sister decide the name.  You named the dog and the fish, and now we have two pets named ‘Charlie.’”

Emma thought for a while.  Though only a year younger than her brother, she was never quite as creative as Charlie was.  And here she was, with the important task of naming a new pet.  Charlie looked up at his mother.

“No, we cannot ‘just kill it’, Charlie.  Can you make a new spider?  No, I didn’t think so.  Don’t destroy what you cannot replace.”  Charlie’s eyes shot down to the floor.  He stomped his foot.  He could not name the spider, he could not touch the spider, he could not kill the spider.  The spider might as well have never bothered to exit.

Charlie turned his body and marched over to the couch where he sat, sulking and breathing heavily.  He stared at Charlie, swimming between rocks in the fish bowl.  Another pet he wasn’t allowed to touch.

“It’s okay, Emma.  Your brother is being a poor sport.  We’ll let him mope until he is ready to join us again.”  Emma moved closer to her mom, holding the fingertips of her hand and humming.  She stared endlessly at the spider, studying its thin, brown, branch-like legs, and trying to think of names outside of her family.

Emma’s mom was also thinking about names, or rather, one in particular: Roland.  If Emma choose any name but that, it would be okay.  It already belonged to a loved one.  Mary kept her head high, and was glad that her son was pouting on the couch and her daughter started so intensely at the spider that she did not blink.  It meant no eyes were on her, and unwatched, she could reflect.  Her memory worked in faded colors, like the old home movies she sometimes watched when she couldn’t fall asleep.

Though staring at the spider, she could see the room she grew up in, white, and its hardwood floor, glossy.  She felt the rug she was rolling up, stiff, and the metal from Roland’s cage under her bed, cold.  She enjoyed the pitter patter that his toes made wandering across the hardwood flooring.  He was smart, and she had taught him to grab ahold of her hand when he was hungry.  He’d grip her finger firmly, and she’d feed him a piece of bread tightly coiled into a ball.

Roland had come from her 4th grade teacher, who did not want to keep the pet rat in the class after school had ended.  Mary was very skilled at forging both of her parent’s signatures.

Though only 10, Mary had learned a lot that year with Roland.  It was true that her father normally knocked on doors, and it was true that she could quickly sweep Roland back into his cage and under the bed when he came to visit her.  But these truths were not absolute, she found out.

Without hearing the light switch flick on, without hearing footsteps in the hall, and without hearing the door knob turn, Mary was caught by surprise.  And so was her father, who stood at the doorway with a bowl of popcorn.  The bowl slammed to the floor, scattering kernels and warm popcorn .  Both of her father’s hands gripped the door frame at the sight of Roland running across the wooden floor, his feet slipping.

There was yelling, mostly from fear, and mostly from her dad trying to protect his daughter from such a dirty creature.

There was so much yelling that he could not separate his voice from hers.

So he did not hear her say that his name was Roland.

And that she was his friend.

Or that his favorite snack was bread.

And she did not hear the bones break.

But she saw the neck twist.

And she saw his kicking legs drop loosely beside him.

And learned that blood can sometimes seep from the mouth.

Emma finally took her eyes off the spider.  She gazed, instead, at her mom.  “‘Leggy’ is a fine name, Emma.  From now on, he is Leggy.”

What You Cannot Replace