STORY: The Sensor

May 6, 2009

posted & written by caroline picard

The Sensor

Some teeth are more porous than others. His wife had had porous teeth. Before she died, her teeth had always stained well with wine. When they used to sit up late at night with a bottle between them—not often but sometimes—her teeth had distracted him. The way it looked like she had thin gravy in her mouth. The gravy came by way of light that caught in brassy tones around her lips. Her mouth looked bloody.
Hunger made him want to kiss her but with their shared maturity he had instead toyed with appetite, delaying its resolve, delighting in the knowledge that Edith would always let him kiss her. And the kiss was always better when his desire was at its peak. The kiss was better when the bottle was light. Without the wine the glass reflected green, a complement to their conversation that blew back and forth between them.
How he missed her mouth.
The old man blinked, his small eyes of small use, studying the floor by his feet where he imagined his life lay. “We are brave because we are innocent,” he muttered. Because he was an old man, no one heard him.
His teeth seemed to have no memory and he attributed it to his heart, which was likewise blunt and smooth. He didn’t often cry and when he did he didn’t remember. When he whistled he remembered his teeth. He often whistled.
The urn in the kitchen caught this morning light, which was plain and stark not brassy. The light was a mean vindication. The old man sighed and shifted in his seat. He had not expected his daughter to die. It was the wrong order. First his wife, then him, then and only then was any one else supposed to go. He wondered what made his body endure.
“Grampsie, do you want some toast?” he heard but did not reply. They thought he was deaf. He saw his granddaughter shrug out of the corner of his eye and watched a blurred pair of bare feet pad through his field of vision. Around the urn. Although it was the focal point, the old man watched the floor instead. It was enough to sense the ashes.
The urn was hard. Its shape had hollow implications but offered no invitation for prying. Uncle Pete was prying with Uncle Paul. They needed to open the urn to get to the ashes. The urn was tight. Uncle Paul had a screwdriver in one hand and a hammer in the other. Uncle Pete held the urn fast; Uncle Paul provided both leverage and instruction. He was the older of the two. The urn was sleek. It was difficult to grasp. The old man was sweating. He wiped his cheek. He couldn’t remember the color of his daughter’s eyes. He forgot, suddenly, the color of his own.
“Is Grampsie O.K.?” A hammer pounded and the old man heard a phantom echo but the urn was stubborn. The ashes on the inside whispered like the ocean, absorbing the momentum of Uncle Pete’s thrust, and chuckling the way that pebbles will when tossed by a wave. The men held their breath while the women chewed on toast. Small crumbs spilled innocuously to the floor.
“Is there any more of that jam?”

Shirley Temple sure could dance. During the depression the men without work used to sit in a theatre to watch the child enchanted by something forgettable. He used to love her. That little girl.
He wiped his cheek with his hand, making the same sound that the crumbs did when they fell. It was lighter than a whisper. It was the sound of a living thing without weight. He muttered again, “Tannin leaves a smart taste.”
“When you knock the screwdriver in, give it a turn, turn it, there—now try to wedge it, that’s it.” Some dust kicked up and Uncle Paul held his breath.
“I’m so scared he’s just going to knock it open and get her all over him.”
“Don’t they usually put the ashes in a bag inside?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t be too sure.”
“Does anybody want any cheese?”
“Careful, Pete.”
“Is there any more of that Chevre?”
“I’m scared his hand’s gonna slip with that screwdriver and he’s gonna impale Uncle Paul.”
“Don’t impale me Pete,” Uncle Paul said.
“Steady.” The hammer bumped again and the steel façade and made a deep sound. Tin exhaled with a breathe of smoke. Uncle Paul coughed.
The old man wiped his cheek again. He closed his eyes to shut out the urn with his child inside. His cheek was soft but the skin on the palm of his hands was course without feeling. The feeling had been worn down. He used to toy with his appetite. He used to think himself endless, and an appetite a petty tease. His appetite had been a garnish and then Edith died without him. It hadn’t been foolish when she started wearing dentures because the memory of her porous youth had been enough to stimulate his thirst, just as the memory of a finished bottle of wine could be signified with a single glass. In old age their stomach for drinking had waned. But when her ashes had been scattered three years ago there had been nothing left to stand in her place except the possessions she had left behind; possessions that seemed useless without her. After Edith’s memorial service, the old man went home and sat at the kitchen table, saying his name over and over again like a new and meaningless thing.
The old man looked at the urn in Uncle Paul’s lap. He pulled the vessel into focus, helplessly wincing with the next barbaric jab. The urn became a blur. He heard the dog scratch at the kitchen door. He heard his granddaughter rise to let the Shepherd in and shut his eyes before the sniffling tongue caught the crumbs that lay down there.
These things, these children, the dog, the house, the husband, the father: these things his daughter had left behind like Edith’s pots and pans.

At the community library there is no librarian. Librarians are extinct in older communities. Senior citizens don’t need them, so they either die off or become senior citizens. The community library is run on principle. If you take a book from the shelf you put another in its place. The old man likes to hold books, it being more difficult now to read. He’ll read a book eventually, but it takes patience. His eyes are small. They resist the influence of ideas. He is sure his eyes were larger once, but he cannot tell from the pictures because the pictures of his younger life are smaller themselves.
The community library is a good institution. The old man upholds its principles because he upholds the institution and with a book in his hand he is more likely to forget his own name and the way the air of his apartment swallows it up. He cooks to reinforce the pots and pans that seem weaker now without Edith. Sometimes he pours a glass of wine and lets it puddle in his mouth to solicit the ghost of appetite. And sometimes the book he gets through is bad enough that he cannot stand his ever having read it. He tears the cover off the book and throws the naked newsprint in the trash, safeguarding the eyes of any passerby who might innocently come upon the text with an inkling to indulge. In such cases he replaces the discarded book with a book of his own. His library has become smaller, his donations not as good as they once were.

“That’s it. We’ve done it.” The lid was pried open and the ashes settled and those that had sprung above the lip were lost.
“That’s it?” Grampsie’s granddaughter drew near the men and peered over the edge of the urn. “That’s it?” she said again, “That’s Mom?” Mindy was grey and loose and lay in irregular clumps.
“Is the casket in there too?” Bread crumbs from the girl’s toast continued to fall around her feet.
“Gram was so much bigger,” the granddaughter said.
“Mindy lost a lot of weight in the end.”
Grampsie got up, “If it’s alright with you, I think I’m going to take a nap now.”
“Don’t you want to come scatter the ashes?”
“Oh–” his voice wavered with the pitch of an old American film and Shirley Temple did a pirouette, “well, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. You go along.”

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