They were taking apart the vacuum cleaner, Carson’s wife of less than three months inserting a hairpin from her chignon through the side of the disposable bag and pulling across sharply. Its contents—a penny, a button, some grains of rice, bits of Styrofoam—spilled onto the newspaper as if from the belly of a shark. The volume was surprising.
A film of fine gray grime covered her magnificent ruby engagement ring. He was a patient man. Sofia once told him that a friend of hers had said, “It’s impossible for him to love you more.” This was essentially true and pleased him, though he did not like to consider his love finite.
They talked about several subjects before landing on environmental responsibility. She was young, much younger than him and badly wanted to have opinions. Lately she thought his mother used too many paper towels and napkins.
“I know about this,” she said, rummaging and picking through the debris from the vacuum cleaner with the hairpin. “You should listen.”
Sofia was zaftig and dark, with eyes the deep, otter-back brown described as black in the Russian Gypsy folk songs of her youth. As they leaned over, their heads almost touched, and she fixed him with a certain intensity of gaze that often preceded her momentary exit from a room. His sister had blown into a full ashtray as a child. He was tired of the conversation already, and contemplated similar action. Instead he plunged forward.
“We’ve discussed your disgust,” he said, removing a small piece of wood, examining it, replacing it.
“Thirteen the other night alone, one for each course whether it’s used or not. Drying hands. Wrapping can lids.”
“I don’t have time to do the research,” he said, and he didn’t. “I don’t know, say, the true environmental cost of building a Prius. And I don’t want to believe anybody else’s research on faith.” This seemed reasonable, if tangential.
She’s mad as red ants, he thought. He said, “I try very hard to look at people on balance, and you are wrong if you think my mother is anything but a net positive.”
The ruby could easily chip, but he watched her hand without comment. It was much more ring than he would have chosen to afford had it not been purchased at an estate auction. He thought diamond engagement rings were a marketing campaign. His wife had once said she worried the original couple had been unhappy.
He stopped searching and waited until she raised her head. “My mother committed her mother,” he said.
They met while Sofia was a visiting scholar. She spoke impeccable English. When she was excited, though, her mastery lagged; when she dealt cards, for instance, she relied on Russian for counting. When excited, it was as though he could watch her think.
He’d been to Samara with her, walked along the Volga eating corn in the street and stared up at the Soviet architecture of the building where her grandfather, a war hero first, then a professor of literature, had been given an apartment by the government. Carson had looked down from the balcony, the sixth-floor balcony like a gangplank where she rode her bike as a child, to the crumbling courtyard where her teenage loves gathered the white fuzz of the poplar seeds that envelop the streets there in summer. They’d gather the fluff and spell her name in script and call and call into the night until she appeared on the balcony to watch them set fire to the first letter and watch the flame chase itself until the last was extinguished, exhausted, and the night was black.
She had traveled the world as an interpreter, but he knew it was there, to that city block, that she retreated in her mind when her English failed her. And it was that tiny shotgun apartment that had housed three generations for so long that she was thinking of when she told him, “My mother committed her mother, too. We all do and will. She lost years of her life caring for her.”
For a moment he wondered if it was more common than he thought.
They were looking for a two-inch strip of painted wood, comb-decorated to simulate inlay, from a Maine two-drawer blanket chest circa 1840. The side had an old repair, and the strip had come loose. It had been resting on top of the chest for a week, waiting to be glued. That morning it wasn’t there. He was a patient man. His wife was new to antiques. Money was new. The miscommunication of shared housekeeping was new.
He closed his eyes and waited. He knew he had won, if indeed it was an argument they were having, and if indeed something as base as winning or losing could be attributed to the knowledge he held over her then.
“No,” he said. “No, you don’t understand. She didn’t send her to a nursing home. My mother had her mother put away. Institutionalized. Declared insane. Shock treatments. She was in her twenties, and no one else would step up and do what needed to be done. She made the decision, and her mother never forgave her for it. Can you imagine the strength that took? I can’t. But I try to think of that when I see the paper towel is running low.”
His wife walked from the garage back into the house without saying a word.
She was right to do it, he knew. He’d heard all of the stories, turned them in his mind. But most often he pictured his grandmother on a stool, sitting on a stool for hours, days, watching and feeling watched.
Carson folded the newspaper around the contents from the vacuum cleaner, delivered it to the trash bin, and raised the garage door. The road was quiet for a Saturday, though in several hours high school students would be dumping empty cans and miniature liquor bottles in the ditch. He and Sofia would find them on walks. He regretted fighting with his new bride. It just didn’t matter. Nothing was that important. He had a stack of Saint Valentine’s cards he’d bought with the enormous ruby ring. The woman had saved them, banded together with ribbon. Most were Victorian; all were dated between 1873 and 1909. They had a beginning and an end, and yet, more than a hundred years later, he could hold them in his hands as she had once held them in hers. Some were die-cut, freestanding pop-ups, others were mechanical and turned with a wheel. In February he’d give the first one to Sofia, and then he had thirty-six more.