Butter and Egg by Joseph Michaels
He walked to the store and bought a gallon of milk. He went out to the grocery store and picked up the milk.
He stood up abruptly from his work at the escritoire, caught, for the moment, between the unfinished final sentence of the letter he was writing and this new and sudden impulse to move away from the desk. Checking, first, for his keys in his pocket, he went out to the store, and lingered in the aisles. He bought a gallon of milk, or it was, perhaps, a half-gallon. At the cashier’s station the older woman in front of him, dressed in a beige coat and rib-knit turtleneck, tucked, somewhat provocatively, into a pair of leather pants, held up the line asking the manager for quarters. The store was brightly lit, impeccably clean, and the woman gazed back at him, though why exactly he could not comprehend. Her hair was graying, and oddly lustrous. Outside, through the store windows, the weather had changed. The sky was low and pressurized, a gray tarp thrown over the city. “Is this all right?” he said to the woman, then held out the milk gallon, which was not a half-gallon, as if to rest it behind her items on the conveyor belt. Pausing for several seconds, awaiting the woman’s response, he looked up to see his left hand, caught, perfectly frozen, halfway between himself and the glowering sky.
Though he’d been drunk the night before, obscenely so, slurring his words and leaning heavily on the dark oak furniture in the second-floor walk-up of one of his wife’s friends for a somewhat provocative get-together, the exact occasion of which, whether a birthday celebration or a memorial party for the friend’s recently deceased brother, even now he can no longer remember, he awoke, nevertheless, his head shockingly clear, vibrant and full of purpose, and spent the early morning at his desk writing a letter to his father. He had almost finished the letter when he heard his wife, still asleep in the other room, stirring. There was a half-pot of coffee still left on in the kitchen, and, checking first for his keys in his pocket, he went out to the store to buy a gallon of milk. “I hope this is all right,” he said, walking back into the apartment and setting out the carton—a slim quart of half-and-half, in fact. His wife, unanswering, sat upright on the living room sofa, showered and coolly fragrant, wearing only a gray towel in a clumsy beehive wrap which, for all its sexless severity, could not quite cover up her hair’s liquid brilliance. The radio was on. Or so he remembers.
He was alone that day, working his way through the odd and mundane wreckage of his father’s house—or not a house, but an apartment, really, a second-floor walk-up in a filthy and now largely congested commercial neighborhood with frankly absurd property values which in no way appeared to reflect the gray and claustrophobic reality, the paranoid tension, that had filled up the lonely hours here and become the raw substance, he could only imagine, of his father’s life for the past twenty-five years. His wife was at work, or she was visiting at the hospital, assisting his father with the discharge paperwork. For almost two weeks now, the apartment had been empty: abandoned, frozen in time, with unswept floors and the cluttered implements of daily living laid out, ready for use, on the dusty surfaces. A glass of milk, still out in the kitchen, had become a green pudding, festive, almost, if not for its smell. In the bedroom closet, his mother’s clothes hung in garment bags—a beige wool overcoat, her shoe collection, or, under a mountain of his father’s old club ties, somewhat provocatively, he thought, a pair of leather pants—pristine museum pieces, hardly touched since the car accident which had first robbed his mother of her work, and then, finally, her mind, until she could do little but sit and stare, her skeletal cheekbones coldly glowing, or read aloud after dinner from a Gideon Bible their visiting nurse, a young Haitian girl of about twenty or twenty-one, had brought with her one day in the hopes of stirring the woman. He poured out the milk, then emptied the refrigerator and made a new grocery list. He debated vacuuming, but settled for sweeping instead, pushing the soft broom in delicate circles around the sitting area and jutting clawfoot legs of the lacquered coffee table where there stood a framed photograph he’d somehow never seen before of his mother and father and the Haitian girl on the outdoor patio of a seafood restaurant, his mother’s eyes lost in helpless fear and confusion, his father’s arm snug warmly around the smiling nurse. Checking his keys in his pants pocket, he moved to the doorway, then stopped short abruptly—a perfect statue, so to speak.
There had been no nurse when his father died, nor, before, when the moving van had blocked half the side street to take the old escritoire and one or two of his father’s best reading lamps to the expensive hospice care facility where the man had already been admitted and would, just as shortly, pass out of this world. All morning he’d waited for this van on the shallow outdoor stairs of the apartment building. There, on the red brick, he rehearsed his berating the movers—the loud “Finally!” he planned to receive them with, or the stentorian tones he would surely adopt, steering the men around the apartment, chastising them for the mud they’d tracked in. Yet when they finally arrived, he was only himself: a boyish statue, frozen to responsibility, when was he not? He let them lead a path down the hallway, then made a fool of himself when, at the front door, he fumbled his key ring, tried key after key, and, in a blind panic, remembered only too late that the spare key to his father’s apartment had been on the same ring which, not a week before, he’d handed over to the woman who was, he’d long ago realized, no longer his wife, then sat out on the curb with the file boxes of his own belongings, waiting for his own van, his own movers, to arrive. “Is there another job you can go to? Or can you take lunch now?” he said in the hallway. “I have to find the super.” He handed them a twenty just to go away, though he knew, feeling the damp bill slip from his fingers, that it was entirely unlikely he’d ever see them again. Downstairs, in the super’s apartment, a young girl of fifteen or sixteen, the custodian’s daughter, perhaps, answered the door. The super was out, he had work to do in another building, but the girl let him in, she was only the babysitter, and he waited on the couch, his hands in his lap, watching cartoons with an obese and friendly toddler who smiled at him generously and ate sandwich after sandwich, and drank glass of milk after glass of milk, while, in the other room, the older girl vented to her boyfriend on the telephone, speaking alternately in English and Spanish, the former in a hushed whisper, the latter in loud and punctuating epithets, about, he was sure, the outrageous and wild, the perfect inconvenience of his being there. Through a narrow doorway back into the kitchen, he heard the girl exclaim loudly, then slam down the telephone. She came out to the living room and turned off the TV. “Well?” she said, though he didn’t understand. “Well? Well?” Her arms were folded, her neck and hips cocked.
A dining room table, immaculately clean. Placemats, a tablecloth. A vase of cut flowers. The chairs around the table are hard and good.
Joseph Michaels is a graduate of Hamilton College and Columbia University. His previous work has appeared in Passages North, Litro, and elsewhere. He teaches English.