cleaning out

Dan Blockman had last cleaned out his refrigerator seven years before his death. Oh, over those 2,555 days he did threw things out when they created UFOs (unidentified fridge odors) and he made a Tupperware cauldron of vinegar and baking soda to wipe down the walls but he had allowed no heavy cleaning of the ancient side by side Whirlpool. “It hums,” he’d declare when one of his three daughters went near it with scouring intentions. “It hums. Leave it alone.” he’d say; mildly to his ears, grumpily to his daughters’.

“Humming” was high praise from Dan. It was what he’d said of his wife to church women who brought homemade casseroles and soft, speculative pats of condolence. “That Marilyn, she was a hummer,” he’d respond watching them stuffing in all the things he had to take out seven years before he died. After they had sat in the fridge — in their juices, in their labeled dishes– a month, he’d cleaned out the tuna casseroles, the stewed chicken in saffron rice, the prune and banana puddings. He’d removed metal racks, pried into the folds of gaskets, vacuumed the motor. When he killed the polished light bulb and leaned against the vibrating door, he was well pleased. The fridge was cleaner than when it had come and, save for a thick milk glass jug of water and three boxes he had found in the bottom crisper, it was empty.

He was pleased with the result of his effort but he was disturbed by what he had found. After paying for it with cash and seeing it delivered, he’d never had much to do with the fridge (or the kitchen) while Marilyn was alive. Having never paid much attention to the coffin size box — other than to remind his girls that they couldn’t cool the state standing in the open door or to be reminded himself that orange juice went into glasses — he hadn’t known the fragile windowed boxes were there. Not knowing what they were, he’d been ready to toss them in a garbage bag. A hasty look showed that they weren’t the pastries he’d expected to see and he’d slid them to a countertop out of his way for the cleaning. After admiring the way the inside of the box glowed after his work, he’d tentatively replaced them because they must have been important to his wife for some reason. He’d been unsure where they’d come from. Proms? Graduations? Weddings? Marilyn was dead now. A month dead and whatever they had meant, the memories were just as dead. It was pointless to keep them. He had reached again to throw them away and he saw his own hand without loose skin, spots and swollen knuckles holding these boxes. Recalled his once nimble but large and suddenly awkward fingers trying not to prick her through white cotton gowns. Felt his lips on her sweaty brow. Saw the appreciation she glowed with when he did not make her feel apologetic or guilty that it was not a boy. Each time he’d proudly announced, “Reckon we’ll keep her. She’s a hummer.”

He had left the boxes where they were. Closed the door and letting it support his grief, he had cried as he hadn’t been able to for the past month, as he hadn’t perhaps ever cried in his sixty-nine years of life. After his tears he could not say he felt better only washed out and as empty as the fridge. And as useless, for what was he to do? In that pause, before he had time to realize he was staring at the wooden block of kitchen knifes, the refrigerator had clicked. It had been silent through out the cleaning as if it was sulking like a hard working dog will after a good bath, and like a good working dog it had decided that perhaps it could like this cleanliness and its vibration behind him as if started to hum was like a lick on his hand. He could almost hear Marilyn’s laugh and her assurance that it there was no emptiness here after all. There was cool water inside and three boxes.

He had used the back of his work reddened hands to scrub away the dampness from his cheeks. He blustered and became embarrassed, made sounds like the refrigerator did three days later  just before it stopped cooling, stopped humming.

Back then, seven years before his death and a month after their mother’s, his girls had still been competing to see who could be the best caretaker of poor dad. He mentioned to the first one who called that he needed to see about the fridge that had stopped humming and by evening they were all there in the kitchen clucking around it like there had been another death. They thought he should replace it with something new and dependable. After all, that box had been around as long as they. He insisted it would hum again. “That one there just can’t stand a cleaning out is all.”

They could not understand his sudden attachment to a kitchen appliance. He could not explain his loathing to disturb three boxes.

A couple of repairmen later it did hum. Sputtered sometimes late at night. Wobbled on worn heels when slammed. Cleared its throat with ominous coughs. Farted out its backside and allowed noxious odors to slip out its cracks. But then, so did Dan. He could live with all that.

And he did for seven years. Dared anyone to approach it with anything more caustic than a soft sponge.

Then he died.

For seven days the refrigerator endured warehouse store casseroles and paper buckets of fried chicken. On the eighth day Janet removed most of what had to be emptied so containers could go back to mourners. Two days later Pauline came through with a realtor and found it warm. The next day Sandra was to wait for men to come to take it away.

The evening before that all three came to check closets, fold things to be donated, peer under beds for anything overlooked. They discussed saving the three corsages: once pink, yellow, lilac. They could not imagine what they represented; just dead flowers held to memories of vibrant life through ribbons. They did remembered seeing the boxes through the years. As little girls, they had not cared. As young teens they had sometimes peered in the plastic windows and imagined princes in their futures. Older, certain their stoic father had not given these old fashioned tokens, they did not want to think of their mother pinned by boys, and so had never asked. Young women, they no longer saw them behind the holiday stuffing of the fridge when they had come to visit home. Truly grown women, they’d had no reason to open the fridge unless it was to look for evidence that the folks were eating properly or to deposit essentials they had been asked to bring. Too old to be called orphans now, they set the boxes on the table as a centerpiece while they talked about other things that had to be done to close out their parents’ lives.

As they talked each had thoughts about the boxes. Pauline, the baby, thought perhaps they were left over from adventures her older sisters had without her. Janet, the middle child, thought they marked the deaths of some family members she had never met. Sandra, the oldest, could dare to imagine that her mother must have had lovers after marriage or many suitors before; it was a certainty her father had not given them for he had not been a romantic, thoughtful, flower giving kind of guy. Hadn’t even cried after their mother died. Pauline never even considered that their father had anything to do with the corsages or that they had been given to their mother; her sisters knew all about the flowers and just weren’t going to tell her until she begged and she was not going to give them the satisfaction of doing that. Janet just wanted to get home; there was a program on ABC she wanted to see.

The three sisters did not share their thoughts  about the boxes as they stood around the table. Sandra summed up their decisions as if from a bulleted list. Janet looked at her phone to check the time.  The corsages may have been forgotten if Pauline had not pointed to them and asked, “What about these?”

They were tossed out with what sustains old men; expired milk, curled baloney rounds, processed tapioca.



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