Scrubbing a Rocking Horse
From the Dear Me collection— the Diarmuid Cleary tales
In the days and weeks after the fire, he didn’t go back to the house much. Who could blame him? It was a disaster area. It wasn’t safe to go poking around disturbing things. The few times he did venture inside all it took was to brush against a wall to know it had been unwise. What lingered in the air after bumping into a seat cushion or a bag of trash was the kind of soot that tended to seep into lungs for an indeterminate amount of time. The risk of physical harm was just the right cover his psyche needed to avoid the ghosts it feared lingered behind every door.
None of his neighbors seemed to pay much attention to the fact that Diarmuid wasn’t around much. Well, except for Phil. He kept texting Diarmuid and asking when the place was gonna be “all fixed up.” Well-meaning but tactless, Phil wasn’t shy about wondering aloud why Diarmuid “never came around to check on the place anymore,” as if he had some stake in the continuing viability of Diarmuid’s home.
Besides Phil, no one pressed Diarmuid to know why he wasn’t wading through the wreckage on a daily basis. When he finally did return to the scene one sunny day a few weeks after the fire the woman down the street with the reedy voice, who Diarmuid hadn’t said more than a passing “hello” to in 15 years, walked right up and put her hand on his arm; asked how he was doing. Ordinarily, he was wary of such prying disguised as sympathy. This time, though, he was disarmed by the question — touched, even. After all, he mused, she might have been one of the many on the block that day who’d seen him shirtless and stunned, his face a patchy mix of carbon black and ashen white. Perhaps she’d seen him standing there spitting gobs of soot in the riotous aftermath of fire engines and first responders. And if she hadn’t seen that firsthand, then surely she’d heard how he was lifted onto the EMT truck by hulking men with life-saving machines and spirited away, sirens ablaze.
He never did post the ventilator selfies, though he saved one to remind him how quickly his optimism gave way to fear. Looking at that picture these days brings him right back to the OxiMeter’s relentless beeping — like a truck backing over the kitten of his innocence.
In time, the remediation crew came in and tore down the smoke-blemished sheetrock and cleared away the stalactites and spider webs of soot that clung to every corner. In their wake, a pervasive layer of dust covered the 15 years of stuff Diarmuid, his ex-wife, and son had accumulated: sneakers, action figures, end tables, air mattresses, a vintage rocking horse … wine glasses. People loved to give them wine glasses. Admittedly, Diarmuid and his ex were big drinkers, who had an uncanny ability to break glasses in numbers higher than those racked up at a year’s worth of Jewish weddings.
After the insurance adjusters came through and appraised everything, Diarmuid was compelled to return to the house to clear away the soot and dust from the stuff he wanted and to toss everything else into the outside dumpster. Gradually, the inside became less crowded with spectral reminders of life before the fire and started to resemble an empty shell waiting to be filled with new memories. Coming back became easier, too, as he hoped it would. But seeing the structure gutted to brick and floorboards caught him off guard. There were moments when he had to draw in more than the recommended dollop of unclean air to maintain ballast.
Every so often he’d catch a glimpse of some puzzle he and Robbie tried to figure out, or some board game they’d played (the cross-country, train adventure Ticket to Ride was a favorite). It made him feel as raw as he did on the street that day to think of all that now.
In fact, too much had been left behind after the split; all of it preserved like fossilized wounds in bookshelves and kitchen nooks. It was left to Diarmuid to dispose of it all, even before the fire sped up that process by making instant garbage of half of it. All the sifting, sorting, and saving forced him to spend time with unresolved feelings — dredged-up dust bunnies of regret. Often, a moment of wonder and delight was followed by a deeper, more lasting impression of just how much was lost … just how much was never coming back. He told himself it was necessary, this penance of remembrance. On certain days that didn’t seem entirely untrue.
“Will you look at this relic,” he said to the ghosts in the room. “Big Boy Toy Fund. What a find!” He shook it and heard the jingle of a few coins. “Hmm, not even enough for a juice box. Mommy and Daddy were such slackers, huh? Spent it all on fancy trips and bottles of booze.” He shook it again. “There’s probably not much more than this in the damn college fund.”
On that very last day before the demo crew returned, Diarmuid spent even more time with the 15 years of broken wine glasses and His and Her hand soaps. He recalled the meetings with the mediator and, prior to that, the ones with the marriage counselor — when there was still a glimmer of hope. What was his name, Beardsley or some such? Sylvie claimed Diarmuid charmed him, which is why Beardsley always took Diarmuid’s side over hers. And, then there was the bickering that got them there in the first place: the constant sniping and belittling; the casual cruelty. Pressing each other’s buttons. Pushing each other to the brink. Sylvie, demanding Diarmuid stop avoiding. Diarmuid, apoplectic on his knees, begging her to stop for the sake of the child. The way they both brandished the “D” word like blunt instruments to bludgeon, batter and bruise each other when all other words had lost their power to demean and destroy … had lost all meaning.
And then one day it was finalized — papers signed, everything roughly divided 50/50. She got the dog, half the pension, and Robbie. He got the other half and the car. The house? Well, it turned out it wasn’t so easy to divide that neatly down the middle. Sylvie got a job offer that took her out of state. That was the thing that set the divorce in motion, truth be told. But Diarmuid needed a place to stay. A decision was made: he’d either need to put the house in his own name or sell it within 6 months of the divorce, so the money could be divided evenly among them.
And then the fire happened: a Kenmore humidifier with a Chinese-made motor that, unbeknownst to Diarmuid, ended up on a recall list 5 years after he bought it. You see, it had this tendency to burst into flames. He was lucky he was home at the time and able to call the fire department before the blaze destroyed the entire basement. Still, the toxic smoke spread throughout the house and got behind walls, covered cabinets, ceilings, carpets, curtains, and, well, every permeable space. The house would need to be gutted down to the brick and floorboards, he was told. And so it was.
“Where in the world is a mask when you need one,” he said to no one in particular, as the sun illuminated specks of floating drywall dust.
He opened the utility drawer in the kitchen and saw that the box of N95 masks he’d purchased days before was empty.
Jeez. I guess the damn demo crew took all my masks.
Diarmuid stepped over old furniture and squeezed by bags of debris, sending more particles of calcite into the air. He made his way up to the second floor where the bedrooms were. He thought he might find a mask up there — if not one he’d left behind then maybe one the demo crew had. The second floor was less cluttered than the first, but still littered with potential hazards: loose floorboards with nails sticking out of them; a rickety door that nearly fell off its hinges when Diarmuid tried to nudge it ajar; bits of splintered wood that …
“Goddamn it! Motherfuc — ” he shouted.
Diarmuid had grazed his hand along one of the exposed 2x4s that made up the bones of the house and caught a sliver of wood in his finger. At any other time, in any other place, he’d pull it out with tweezers, run some hot water on it — maybe douse it with some peroxide or rubbing alcohol — throw a bandaid on it and call it a day. But the water was turned off and all the medicine cabinets had been stripped off the walls and thrown into the trash heap, along with their contents. Every remaining cloth or paper towel was covered in dirt or grimy soot. He had a sponge and a scrub brush downstairs, but those wouldn’t do. He needed something to stop the blood trickling out of his finger and, ideally, to clean and cover the wound.
He looked around the master bedroom and saw an open shoebox on top of a dark brown chair in the opposite corner. Inside it was a couple of smaller boxes and inside those a deck of cards, a charm bracelet, various sets of keys, and — “yes!” — a box of Spiderman Band-Aids. He opened it up. Two left.
He continued to sift through his wreckage-strewn mind palace and recalled a stash of household cleaners, disinfectants in a cabinet under the sink in the first-floor kitchen. He trotted down and darted into the kitchen. There it was: a bottle of rubbing alcohol. He poured some over his right index finger, blew it dry, and wrapped the Spider-Man bandage around it. Not quite MacGyver-level survival skills, but he felt pretty good about himself, nonetheless.
Now, what was I doing on the second floor again? Oh yeah, the mask!
He slalomed back through the obstacle course of junk and up the stairs, this time going straight to his son’s room. There, on top of Robbie’s anime books was a slightly sooty N95 mask. He started back through the master bedroom. Something in the squalor caught his eye: a little white book with a few pics crammed into it. He paused to take a closer look.
He slipped the pics out of the book, one by one. There he was on skis, mugging for the camera with a Zoolander duckface in a downhill racer pose. Hmm, Diarmuid wondered, was that Killington? Hard to tell. No landmarks. Only snow. No, I think that’s Andorra. That time Robbie got kicked out of the 10-and-under ski school because he convinced half the class to play soccer instead of learning how to brave the bunny slope. He chuckled at the memory.
More photos. The Charles Bridge in Prague. The house on Golden Lane where Kafka lived and wrote for a year. Sylvie with her grad school buddies. Her group was one of only a few applicants from the US accepted to a prestigious street art festival that drew some of the best performers in Europe. Robbie and Diarmuid missed their connecting flight from Paris. Diarmuid remembers sprinting and cursing while dragging a scared young Robbie behind him like a rag doll. They finally arrived late at night, frazzled and hungry. Diarmuid insisted the three of them move from the cramped, flea-bitten youth hostel Sylvie was staying into a nicer hotel somewhere in Old Town, a place where they’d ultimately leave behind a few more broken wine glasses.
The day of the performance was fun, though. Robbie threw himself into his job: handing out flyers and balloons to drum up interest in the show. Diarmuid took his role as a second camera person seriously, too. Even though Sylvie and her colleagues had brought along a professional photographer and videographer to memorialize their main performance in a cobblestoned square, Diarmuid got to pretend he was an auteur, too. He captured iPhone footage, cinema verite-style. Some of what he shot even made the final cut. He was proud of that, though he suspected Sylvie had something to do with that decision.
Diarmuid drifted from the sepia-toned past back to the dust-filled present. He put the photos back and closed the cover of the slim white volume. He wiped away a thin layer of soot and saw, on its cover, written in violet ink and nestled in quotes, the following words:
“To Dreams and To Nagic”
The word “magic” was misspelled, but the inscription on the first page was even more curious. In perfect cursive and in a different-colored ink than the cover’s title, the following was written, dated 1–14–2014:
Thank you so much for your wonderful dedication, time, and passion. May this book symbolize the beginning of a new chapter for you; you so richly deserve it. Thank you for being who you are.
He read it a few times. The words, the phrases, the date … all of it floated around in his head like pieces from one of Robbie’s puzzles. Diarmuid was aware of at least three Nastashas in Sylvie’s life. Which one wrote this, he wondered, and what did she mean by “your time and passion”? More concerning: What was meant by a “new chapter” so richly deserved? He queried his memory for the significance of Jan 14, 2014. The floating words stung like asbestos in the gutted room that was his mind palace. Think, Diarmuid, think! What was happening around that time in their lives? Google wouldn’t help. Facebook might if his phone wasn’t dead and the power in the house wasn’t turned off. Jan 14, 2014. It was at least a year before the first signs their marriage was in trouble. Eighteen months before the affair that forever sealed its fate. But this journal dedication threw into question the accepted timeline of events that led to the end. What was it that Natasha knew that he hadn’t known? Did she know about the end long before he’d sussed it out? And what else could “new beginning” mean? He felt lightheaded with a queasy feeling in his gut. A chapter in his life he thought long closed just blew right open.
His breathing inside the N95 intensified, fogging up his glasses. His thumb and bandaged index finger started to turn the page and then … stopped. If this was Sylvie’s diary he should close it right now, sight unseen. He should drop it in an envelope and mail it to her. He’d want her to do the same for him. He recalled that time, just after college and a few years before he’d met Sylvie. He stumbled on a letter his then-girlfriend wrote to a close friend of hers but never sent. It was filled with hopes and hesitations about her and Diarmuid’s future together. The fact that she wrote it in his journal — that she’d infiltrated his private fantasies and irreverent scribblings — made him feel ashamed and angry, at the time. It didn’t occur to him till much later that she’d probably wanted him to find it. Maybe she’d hoped it would start a conversation and he’d ask her not to go …
But this was different: an invasion of someone else’s private world, one that could throw everything he knew about their relationship — when and why it ended — into doubt. If this Natasha knew one chapter was over and a new one beginning that means his ex must have confided in her, which means she knew it was over well before the accepted narrative’s timeline.
There was no turning back. He turned the page.
Robbie’s block-style handwriting — the kind that irritated Sylvie because she’d wanted him to work on his cursive—filled page after page. Sloppy penmanship dogged Robbie throughout his elementary and middle school years, and it was in that context that Diarmuid understood the acidic joke staring back at him. It took a moment or two to land, but when it did Diarmuid laughed out loud. He felt an uncomfortable mix of pride and shame: pride that his 11-year old possessed a healthy sense of irony and snark; shame that the same 11-year old filled his mother’s journal with hate-filled rants against her.
Diarmuid skimmed through the pages and stopped on a drawing of a bearded man in a star-emblazoned shirt. It seemed to be a drawing of him. Diarmuid couldn’t recall ever wearing a shirt like that, but he had worn a beard for the better part of Robbie’s young life. The beard was a dead giveaway.
On the next page the following words were written (this time in fairly competent cursive):
What I’ve learned from my dad …
in the most elegant fashion
NOT TO GET MARRIED (sic)
’Cause my mom sucks
and dad is an ass
who hates his life.
Ps. FUUUUUUUCK YYOUUU
The words “fuck you” filled several pages of the journal. It didn’t take a Ph.D. in adolescent psychology to see this was more than just a well-adjusted kid acting out one time. This was Jack “all work no play” Torrance articulating bitterness and rage in block print rather than with a typewriter. Diarmuid knew Robbie hadn’t taken the divorce in stride. How many kids do? But Rob, as he liked to be called now, was 300 miles away and in therapy. Doing much better. Working on a horse farm, Diarmuid was told. Still, the weight of this prepubescent anger fell on Diarmuid like an armoire of mummified cadavers.
He left the little white book on the broken bed frame and went downstairs. When he got to the ground floor, he realized he’d left the mask behind. But it didn’t seem to matter anymore. He picked up the brush and started scrubbing the vintage rocking horse he’d taken down from Robbie’s room a few days earlier. Each scrub sent clouds of pixie dust into the air around him. The air was thick with it. No matter how hard he scrubbed he just couldn’t seem to get rid of all the damn spots … those dark, sooty spots that seemed to cover everything, everywhere. The toxic gook that had built up for years.
Someone was calling his name.
“Diarmuid? Are you in there?”
He scrubbed and sprayed indiscriminately so that dust, debris, and soot got into his eyes. Surely that was what caused them to tear.