MUCH TO THE CHAGRIN OF HIS WIFE when she was still alive, Ian had never been one to sleep in. Neither of them had recovered the ability to drift off into REM sleep after a decade of developing incredible sensitivities to the nuances of Virginia’s breathing, and after she died Linda found refuge in sleep that made Ian envious. She could sleep away ten, twelve hours at a time, deep and undisturbable. Ian’s own training was prohibitive to long blocks of sleep, the kind that keeps one from feeling that they’re somehow dumbing down.
His interest in verbal and nonverbal human communication and his subsequent white papers to the Department of Defense on nonverbal tells of deception caught the attention of two federal agencies, and with the bestowal of his doctorate he was contracted to assist in intelligence gathering and analysis eventually gaining official General Schedule status as a bona fide civil servant with a security clearance. He had never spoken of his work, only showing symptoms of something highly stressing and exhausting in his behavior, both asleep and awake.
He was absent from Virginia’s living for long periods of time, leaving Linda alone to fend for Virginia. Ian felt guilty for being away and was constantly fearful that Virginia’s eminent demise would occur during one of his deployments. That fear nearly came true when her left lung collapsed six months previous to her passing away. The experience shook him up enough to reconsider his career path, but by the time Virginia died it was too late, though he was fortunate enough to be Stateside and at home with his little girl when she did. Re-prioritizing one’s life is cause enough for sleeplessness. Add to that a history of hyper-awareness, post-traumatic stress from god-knows-what, and a tendency toward obsessive compulsion, sleep never comes easy.
This particular Saturday morning was no different. Were he laying in bed he may have had more of a chance to doze, but he was in the hallway seated on the floor, his back to the wall that faces the doorway to the bathroom. Yellow light from the open adjacent bedroom door fills this space for the first time in years as it filters through the daisy drapes.
Macabre has a heightened meaning inside this hall bathroom. The bathtub is still soiled by Linda’s own diluted blood leaving a crimson ring from her bleeding-out. On the floor between the toilet and the tub are the artifacts of the failed rescue; empty wrappers of sterile gauze, discarded latex gloves turned inside-out and smudges from service shoes on a wet and bloody floor mostly obscured by the extraction of her body that was laid out on the floor for CPR. The most delicate item in the room was the empty wine glass still on its perch on the bathtub’s rim, stained deep purple at the bottom of the bowl of the crystal, much like the tub itself.
Linda knew well enough, even in her inebriation, that the femoral artery would bleed out quickly. She had a history of long baths and calculated that she might be long gone before her husband ever became suspect. She was right.
Ian stares into the bathroom. He sees the vanity, the rim of the Formica countertop, the mirror, the light fixture he replaced last Summer. He cannot see the sink from his seated position, and the toilet and tub are obscured by the wall. Regardless, he knows they are there. Well-intended offers to help clean it up have been turned away. Ian raises a bottle to his mouth and swigs the remaining whisky. He holds the last mouthful, lets it burn on the mucous tissue inside his cheeks and his tongue and then he lets it go down after a breath, exhaling once the whisky has cleared his throat. The fumes in his exhalation evacuate through his nostrils, his jaw clenches, his temples bulge. The sentiment from the grave is back and tears mark their spots again on the shirt he’s yet to remove since the morning he dressed for the funeral. It is not just grief now, it is anger, the vitriol he entertained a week ago at the gas station.
Inside the master bedroom closet a light turns on and Ian throws back its door and enters. He spreads his arms out wide and wraps them around the woman’s wardrobe hanging before him and he pulls the blouses and skirts and dresses and tops and pants from the rod, plastic hanger hooks breaking away, those that are more stout resist until they snap violently. He’s well on his way out of the closet before all the items are free and he dumps what he has onto the bed and returns for another load. Shoes, this time. Belts, the jewelry rack, the clutches and handbags and purses, all piling on the bed. He’s on autopilot, that trauma-induced state of mind that eliminates obstacles to survival.
IT’S THIS AUTOPILOT that takes him to the produce section of the grocery store where he shops, where they stack the empty apple boxes for patrons like Ian to take away. He’s filling a grocery cart full, carefully collapsing and arranging them to get the most in the load, oblivious to a familiar onlooker, the type that’s seemingly impossible to avoid in a small college town.
It never fails. Leave the house in whatever state exists at the time, no matter what time – for Ian this morning, it’s a state of a trailing buzz from a booze breakfast consumed to inhibit a plummeting and unrecoverable implosion of his heart, along with still being clothed in what’s served as both civilian attire and pajamas, unshaven, dental hygiene deficient, hair askew – and run into a familiar face. She’s a student from his Lying and Deception class this semester, from which, along with his other four preps, he’s been absent since last Thursday.
“We’re missing you in class. Are you coming back soon?” It’s Hillary. Even more embarrassing if Ian had the capacity to care at this point. She’s a senior, a student he’s had all four of her years at the university out of the five he’s been there, the career move he’d considered better late than never. She doesn’t know why he’s missed class. Ian asked his department secretary and Chair that his privacy be respected in this matter of his wife’s suicide. They’ve been able to cover his classes and quell curiosities, but Hillary is perceptive, not hard to do for most coeds on an aesthetic level since he looks like shit.
“Are you alright?” She asks.
“I’m good, it’s all good,” says the lying sack. Were she not emotionally concerned with the professor’s well-being she might have caught several of the nonverbal cues of both his instruction and more acutely, his deception – the break of his eye contact, the shift of his feet in the direction of an exit, the stoic paralinguistics. “I’ll be back on Monday.”
In the parking lot he rolls by mostly empty stalls, still a bit early except for geriatrics and apparently college coeds to be shopping this Saturday morning, and reaches his pickup where he loads the boxes in its bed. Back at full steam after the student interruption, Ian is engaged to a point of oblivion to any other influences around him, anything that could take him away from this extrication, his latest home improvement project.
One by one Ian removes drawers from Linda’s dresser and dumps their contents into boxes he’s arranged along the floor. Methodical. Bras, panties, pajamas, socks and hose, sweats, swimsuits, and lingerie, all of which he’d forgotten. He hasn’t seen this lace and silk in years. He’s sorted the pile on the bed, now all in boxes that are accumulating at the front door and he adds more, two at a time, neatly stacked. In the kitchen junk drawer he scoots the content around until he finds a Sharpie and then marches to the stacks and begins to mark them – LINDA, LINDA, LINDA, LINDA, the last label less legible than the first.
Two by two Ian loads the boxes into the back of his truck, a successful game of Tetris in the small bed of this Ford Ranger stepside. He pulls the keys from the pocket of his waning Chinos, mounts and starts his truck and pulls out of his driveway, slams the gear selector down and the truck lurches into drive, RPMs already escalating, the rear tires chirping under the torque leaving the little house on Glacier Drive.
He drives. The main arteries of his suburban neighborhood are beginning to fill with the weekend’s warriors. The Harley riders are the earliest, then the power stroking turbo diesel pickup trucks towing watercraft, ski boats – all of which the products of second mortgages – and then the minivans en route to soccer fields. While Ian’s destination is one also frequented on weekends, it is by far less popular than the open road, the lake, or the rec center. It’s a storage unit facility.
Fort Knox Storage is a maze of alleys, all looking the same like stairways in a very elementary Penrose effect, save for the numerical addresses of each red rolling door framed out by the buff brick of the facility. It is built on a slice of landlocked real estate behind the Corby Car Wash with an incline that made grading this plot and setting the cinderblock walls a feat of stepping down each alley every five or six units. Each ascending passage is bisected by a cement trough, a virtual skateboard luge were this facility not behind a gnarly fence and a pass-code protected gate, the width of which has been carefully calculated to accommodate two U-Haul vans parked side by side, but no more.
Ian’s truck finds his number and stops. He hops out and releases the chrome puck of a padlock, pulls the securing slide from its rest and raises the rolling door with the yellow nylon cord tied to the handle, exposing his ten-by-ten cache. Then he moves back to his truck, tailgate lowered, and two by two he unloads the boxes into the storage unit, stacking neatly beside other boxes, patio furniture, bikes and children’s furniture.
He closes this loop by stopping back by the grocery store scavenging more boxes and returning home. This time it is the kitchen, specific utensils, serving dishes, a set of pots, kitchen linens, stemware, a blender. Nothing is wrapped in newspaper or spare towels. There is no careful packing as if this were a move. This was still an autonomic extraction as if this all combined were a wisdom tooth with a dead root.
Next is the living area, its library of LPs and CDs. Two piles are created, one at random on the carpet, the other in a box. Decor is removed from the walls, knick knacks from end tables, the coffee table, the decorative shelves on the entry wall and the shelves themselves.
He stops. His breathing is heavy from the pace at which he’s been working, focused on packing each box to make the best use of space. His compulsion is a distraction from the nostalgia associated with every item he packs therein, a subconscious effort to truncate the urge to examine every object and recall its associated memory, its accompanying feeling, regardless the intensity of its value, because it will only result in ache.
He lifts his head from the box and he surveys the great room looking for what else needs to go. There’s the book Linda never finished reading, the coaster with a circle stain of red wine, a tissue tucked between the cushions of the divan. Into the dining area he sees the full china cabinet. The china was a wedding gift from his sister, a Villeroy & Bosch set for eight of Vieux Luxembourg, an elegantly simple design “a la brindille” of delicate blue florals on cream porcelain. Each dinner plate is upright in the cabinet with its accompanying salad plate, bread and butter plate and tea cup with saucer displayed before it. The set had been used nine times throughout the marriage and perhaps warranted a bit more than finding the best way to shove it all into a box. The breakfast nook still held the morning paper from the Wednesday previous, toast crumbs on the placemats and coffee mugs stained from their evaporating residuals, the last swallow no one takes from coffee brewed in a French press.
Ian then sees the family photographs that line the hallway. The family photographs. He hasn’t looked at these in years. They’ve just become fixtures like most everything else that adorns this space that he comes back to. This house is not a space that he comes home to. It used to be. It was for a time. One fixture hangs in a position on the wall opposite the door to the hall bathroom that used to confirm that notion. It’s an eight by ten black and white photograph, matted and framed in cherry wood, a portrait of mother and daughter, Linda and Virginia. Ian sees it for the first time in years. It’s become background, like the vestige of a birthmark in this corridor that loses any ability to be noticed. The photo’s contrast against the putty eggshell of the hallway wall is punctuated now with this family’s new diminished context.
He took this portrait, developed the film and made this print back when everyone in it was still alive. He stands before it, framed himself by the door to the hall bathroom. In its glass he sees that reflection of himself, superimposed over the matte photographic paper. He takes the frame down from the wall and upon it stacks the other frames holding a wedding photo, school pictures, a backpacking trip in Yosemite, a birthday party, graduation, parents, and a Yellow Lab service dog.
On the dining table he improvises two stacks amidst several other items waiting the same sort. One stack is built with the photos of her parents, of Linda and Ian with Half Dome in the background, her graduation from college, and the wedding photo. On the other, Virginia’s school photos, the shot of Ian receiving his graduate degree, Virginia’s third birthday party where she has cake oozing between her fingers, and the shot of Stella, Virginia’s canine companion.
This leaves the black and white portrait. Ian took this at a park. The two of them were backlit by the setting sun and light reflected off something else, enough to fill their smiling faces. It was at a time when Virginia was feeling pretty well, she was happy and so, too, was Linda, and Ian managed to capture this rare moment when the light of the afternoon and the emotion of being together mirrored each other.
There were similar photographs as well, but for the most part of his daughter’s life Ian had his hands full with a liquid oxygen canister, a portable oximeter, a suction machine, a diaper bag or Virginia herself rather than a camera. Virginia dipped her toes in the ocean during the summer of her sixth year at the cove at Stinson Beach and the summer of her last year at San Simeon. She was amazed at the movement of the water rushing in around her feet that then pulled the sand underneath them while she was suspended by her daddy. The toes on her feet would arc up and fan out in the limb’s efforts to respond to her brain’s autonomous reaction to pull her feet from the chill of the water using her muscles and the joints at her ankles, her knees and her hips, none of which had the capacity to respond to such impetus. It didn’t matter, though, for if she could have she would have missed the sensation of the earth being sucked out from beneath her feet, a tickling that brought a precious smile onto her lips. There were wonderful places on her body that did know how to respond to stimuli.
THERE WAS ALMOST ALWAYS AN UMBILICAL that connected Ian or Linda when they were out with Virginia and that, for the most part, consisted of a tube that connected a liquid oxygen canister to the cannula under her nose. Two liters was the typical requirement. Her oxygen saturation was monitored by a portable oximeter, what is commonly referred to in pediatric circles as an E.T. probe since the pickup device makes the finger of its wearer glow like that of the pop-icon alien. The lead trailed from her finger to a device that would display her pulse in beats-per-minute and in her oxygen saturation in terms of a percentage out of one hundred. Anything below ninety percent warranted supplemented room air, additional oxygen provided by the liquid O2. Virginia hovered around eighty-five on good days.
Not tethered, but always close at hand was a portable suction machine, a battery powered pump that created suction by pumping air out of a canister to which a suction tube and catheter were connected. One of many results from the insult to Virginia’s neurological system was her incapacity to swallow correctly, something most take for granted. Although assumed to be an autonomic function like breathing, swallowing is a learned behavior, the placenta is the classroom and amniotic fluid the practicum. She learned this well up to a point, starting around the fifth month of gestation. In her fetal state Virginia drank around thirteen ounces of water and electrolytes, lipids and glucose each day that constitute the fluid that surrounded and protected her unborn body. That amount increased as she grew in size. Her brain created a memory, a neural pathway of coordinating fifty different muscles to move fluid from the mouth to the esophagus. Her last sonogram showed that she was normally functioning right up to the day before she was born.
After that time, instead of swallowing down her esophagus, the swallowing reflex that normally triggered the established muscle memory would not fire, and instead of passing fluid through the pharynx down the esophagus, closing off the larynx, the trachea remained vulnerable in the process and Virginia would swallow down the wrong pipe into her lungs. This introduced fluid into her airway and she ran a constant risk of aspiration pneumonia. Whenever she sounded like a little Darth Vader, she would have to have her upper airway cleared out with a suction catheter to prevent aspiration. This tube would be passed either up her nose and down to her throat to trigger a cough reflex that would produce fluid, and the catheter would evacuate the fluid away from the upper airway, or the tube would be passed into her mouth, hitting the back of the throat, producing the same response, something Ian and Linda performed dozens of times a day.
Virginia’s parents would also provide percussive therapy, a gentle and consistent rapping on her upper chest and back on the sides of her sternum and spine with a little silicone cup. When the cup tapped down on her chest or back it would compress to create a percussive but painless impact to help knock fluid loose enabling her to cough it up. It is the same care one would render a child with Cystic Fibrosis.
IN A SPARE POCKET of the diaper bag and in each glove box of the McDaniel automobiles was a sterile wrapped DeLee suction device, an alternative to the portable suction machine in the event its batteries had failed and no twelve volt source was available. The DeLee device was operated by providing suction with one’s own mouth sucking in on one tube while passing the catheter side down the patient’s airway. Its design facilitated that once expelled fluids were caught in the catheter, the tube would deposit the sputum in a trap without introducing it into the mouthpiece.
Ian used this thing only once in Virginia’s experience. The two were waiting in the car while Linda did a bit of shopping. Ian held Ginny in his arms, playing with her when she suddenly sneezed. Superstition would serve this little girl well for when she sneezed her life would, indeed, become at risk, warranting more than a bless you. The back of her throat would fill with the fluid from the attempted evacuation of the sneeze and hang there precariously, threatening to flow back down into her trachea and drown her. She became immediately raspy. He flicked on the suction machine and it didn’t respond. It wasn’t charged. He then realized that the twelve volt adapter to power the suction machine through the cigarette lighter was in the other car. Ginny’s rasp was getting worse risking aspiration by the second, so Ian broke out the DeLee suction. He ripped open the package, placed the mouthpiece in his lips and the catheter tip into Ginny’s nose and started sucking as he pushed the catheter toward her cough reflex.
In the haste of the moment, Ian failed to recognize that he was holding it upside down. When Ginny coughed she produced copious amounts of clear, stringy phlegm with green striations punctuated with chunks of more mature formed nasal mucous not quite at the booger stage, one of which had clogged the tube passed into Ginny’s mouth. The intense increase of the pounds-per-square-inch suction of her daddy’s oral vacuum compressed the clog and set it free to rush through the tube along with all of the contents behind it through the catheter into the inverted trap and up the tube into Ian’s mouth, filling it completely. His reflex to this pulled the tubes out of his mouth and Ginny’s nose and Ian spat the ingested mucous ball all over the inside of the windshield and dashboard of their little sedan. In the seconds it took for the shivers and his own gag reflex to subside, he caught Ginny’s expression from below in his arms, that rare precious smile, not because it was funny, even though it was hysterical, but because he got a taste of what she went through every time she was suctioned.
IAN ROTATES THE FRAME OVER and places it face down on the table. He turns the clips that put pressure on the backing board out from under the frame and pulls the board away. The undermount is next revealing the photographic paper adhered with acid free tape to the window mat. He pulls the photograph free of the mat and peels off the tape. Every move is deliberate and steady. He turns the photograph over and rotates it, looking at it closer, cocking his head to find a line within it, a line of separation. Then at a point near the top right edge he grasps the image, thumbs and index fingers and slowly rips the paper, the tearing line guided by the torque of his hands, separating mother and daughter. The mother side goes to the first pile. The daughter side on to Ian’s.
As the day goes on the interior of the McDaniel home becomes sterilized from trace objects of living and more boxes are stacked into the back of the Ranger waiting their storage. He’s shuddered a bit by the notion that lifetimes can be contained in cardboard and loaded in the back of his pickup.
He’d racked up a few lifetimes himself, most of which are contained in dossiers, documented evidence bound with clasps. These two lives of his wife and daughter were different; their wedding day, the vacation on the Outer Banks, their first home, Linda’s defense of her dissertation, Ian’s publication, the pregnancy, the conversion of the office to the nursery, the delivery, the first day at school, the surgeries, the ICU, their last trip to Monterey where Ginny contracted her fatal pneumonia, packed away in boxes.
The only objects left inside are large pieces of furniture that will not fit in the back of the Ranger nor in the storage unit, along with enough trappings for Ian to get by. He’s kept his toiletries and personal items, what few clothes he had to begin with, a bath towel, hand towel and wash cloth. There is a mummy sleeping bag on the bed in the master bedroom, and enough items in a drawer and cupboard in the kitchen to serve one. Anything he has felt to be extraneous or harmful has been packed, another load of which he deposits at Fort Knox.