Winner, New Ohio Review Nonfiction Contest
selected by Elena Passarello
By Gail Griffin
Featured Art: The Kitchen by James McNeill Whistler, 1858
It is Christmas night—or, more accurately, two in the morning of December 26th. I am on the small porch at the side of my house. My cat is in my lap. The door to the living room is closed. Every window inside the house is wide open, because the house is full of smoke—a vile, stinky smoke. The porch is winterized, but I have opened one window about six inches because of the smoke escaping from the house. And what I am saying to myself is Well, at least the temperature’s up in the twenties.
The cat is unusually docile. He knows that something fairly strange is going on, and he is cold. I murmur to him that we’ll be all right, over and over. With sudden, crystalline clarity I know that I am absolutely alone in the universe, except for this small animal.
Will it reassure you or just make the whole scene weirder if I tell you that the smoke is from burnt cat food?
Three Christmases before, my husband and I spent the holiday at a refurbished old log cabin we owned in northern Michigan. It sat at the very lip of the Manistee River, so close that it could not legally be built there today. Far too close. We were closing in on eighteen years in a relationship defined by geographical distances and disparate careers. After ten years working in Colorado, Bob had just retired and moved to Michigan, where I had lived and taught since graduate school. Finally! people said, and we concurred. And now we had this year—a sabbatical year for me—at our refuge up north. Bob happily threw himself into the unrelenting demands of the cabin, whose wiring and plumbing suggested Escher drawings. He immediately had seven cords of wood hauled in and began splitting it. I was generous with testosterone jokes, but I had to admit there was not the faintest chance that I would be cold this winter. Meanwhile, I had a book to write. I was still feeling my way past my mother’s death three years before. This year would be a great turning, a movement into a new life.
So we scrambled downstate to Kalamazoo, my home, to get married on New Year’s Eve, then scrambled north again. We waited out the long, dark winter, and in April, spring began to brighten the north woods and waters. One night early in May, as he usually did, Bob went out to bring in the bird feeders in order to foil the raccoons. I never saw him again. Divers found his body downstream; EMTs worked over him for an hour; he was gone. I found only his slippers—one on the upper bank, under the tree from which the biggest feeder hung, the other exactly where I knew I would see it: down on the muddy edge of the river, maybe ten or twelve feet below. The river was cold that night; I know because I went in after him.
I can wade grief, as Emily Dickinson said, whole pools of it. But not a river. A river runs and runs, and it has an undertow—the Manistee tried to yank me under too. This grief was like that: Trauma was its undertow. The irrevocable loss was pitiless, gruesome; the sudden shock and the rush of terror created another force altogether. My life exploded, suddenly, in the moment I knew Bob had gone into the river. I have felt alone often, powerless sometimes, and truly terrified maybe once before. But this time the unholy trinity came to me united, unmediated, unmasked, and when you look them in their naked, empty eyes, they enter you and lodge for good.
During the first year after the disaster, a member of the Widow Sorority that constantly materialized out of nowhere told me that, for her, Year Three had been the turning point, and so it was for me. The trauma factor diminished, and the grief that had been like a high water table just below the operating surface of my life sank enough to let me walk around.
That fall I had noticed that when I came downstairs in the morning to feed the cat, his dish was empty. Totally clean, crumbless. This is unusual. He’d never been a huge eater, possibly because he dined sumptuously outdoors, at least during the warmer months. He had always left a little kibble in the dish overnight. I was mystified: He didn’t seem to be gaining weight; I concluded that he’d simply decided the Science Diet he’d been lackadaisically consuming for eleven years was tastier than he’d realized.
Then one day I happened to turn on my oven. When you live alone, you use the cooktop and the microwave. Cranking up the oven to 350° to cook one pork chop just seems grandiose. So I hadn’t turned the beast on for a while. As it heated up, smoke began to curl from the lip of the door and up through the burners. Now, I’m not conscientious about cleaning the oven, which is to say I hadn’t done it in years. But the smoke filling the kitchen didn’t smell like the smoke of a dirty oven. It was a dank, burning smell. The smoke was rolling out into the dining room when I shut the oven off and threw open the windows.
When the oven cooled down, I opened the door. Around the oven floor were little blackened piles of what looked like dollhouse-sized charcoal briquettes. Or like burnt cat kibble. One pile in each corner, like ritual cairns. When I pulled out the warming drawer beneath the oven, more of them clattered down into the drawer or out onto the kitchen floor.
I looked down at the cat, who was sniffing the putrid air. Don’t ask me, he said. I was wondering where it all went. What, you think I crawled into the oven? I was a little freaked out: Something was afoot in my house (my safe harbor, my refuge) that I couldn’t explain, something that obviously involved a living—
The previous summer, I’d had a swinging pet door installed in the screen on one of my porch windows, as an antidote to the cat’s incessant demands. At first, it seemed like a wonderful improvement. But within weeks, a downside made itself apparent. I carried out a number of feathered or furred creatures that were either dead or likely to be. One summer day Cat brought home a tiny brown field mouse, quite alive, which quickly shot under a small cabinet. I quarantined the mouse on the porch and made several vain attempts to catch it in plastic containers. Eventually I propped open the cat door to give it a means of escape and went on about my day.
And forgot about it.
I think of myself mostly as a responsible person who looks reality in the face. But in fact we contain multitudes, as Uncle Walt used to say. Among my multitudes is a person who occasionally, when faced with a frustrating problem, walks away. And keeps going. When I didn’t see the mouse again, I happily concluded that it had gone out the same way it came in, through the cat door.
I now understood that as autumn closed in, the mouse had found in my oven the perfect winter lodging. Since it was never turned on, it was simply a large, dark, warm, dry, and undisturbed place to store the endless supply of nutriment that magically appeared across the room in the white ceramic dish every day.
I moved the oven, as well as banging on it. I shone a flashlight behind the adjacent refrigerator. I swept and vacuumed cat food from the oven. And once again closed the door and walked away. Of course, a day or so later, when I opened the oven door to check, there were three new cairns, and the warming drawer was rolling with pellets.
With a bolt of grief, I thought how much Bob would have loved this situation, or rather, loved attacking it. Like most men, he enjoyed an adversary, however tiny. I grew accustomed to the firecracker sound of mousetraps going off in his relentless war against rodents at the cabin. I would wince, feeling the little necks snap. When I protested that they were welcome to their share of the rice and Cheerios, Bob raised the stakes: They would eat through our electrical wiring! I used to watch conspiratorially as the odd mouse snuck across the living room, with Bob six feet away, absorbed in the newspaper. He insulated me from real moral choices: I could align myself with the victim while he shouldered the responsibility for eliminating the threat.
Now it was all on me. I thought of this little critter tearing around the house, tiny and alone and terrified. Was I anthropomorphizing, projecting my own bereftness onto a rodent? Of course I was. But I simply couldn’t buy the snap trap. Instead, I got a more expensive black vinyl tubular item that used leverage and peanut butter to trap the mouse, who could then be transported outdoors. Of course the peanut butter disappeared and the mouse was nowhere to be seen. Again I swept, again I vacuumed. Again, again, again.
Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result is said to signify insanity. Why did I not just call an exterminator? That this option never occurred to me suggests that I was in fact a little crazy. I’d like to blame it on my post-mortem state, but I was dealing with much more complicated problems than mice at work every day. So I must confess that among my multitudes is another person who, when the rock keeps rolling down the hill, switches off her brain, puts her shoulder to the boulder, and makes like Sisyphus. From Sartre’s perspective, that’s the essence of Absurd. But from the rock-pusher’s point of view, what she’s doing looks like survival.
After Bob, I occupied a new reality. Beyond the doors of my house lay a world so full of obscene and random horrors that only a fool would venture outside. Only when I was home, behind those doors, did I feel something like elemental safety. Life had violently betrayed me, with a specific kind of cruelty, and would have to go on without me.
The thing is, life keeps calling you back. People want to take care of you. They want to make sure you’re not alone—as if that weren’t exactly what you are. They want to include you among the living. Above all, they want to make sure you’re covered during that ghastly six-week ordeal we call The Holidays.
Intellectually, you can deconstruct The Holidays all you want. Morally, you can disdain the orgy of excess. You can roll your eyes every time Andy Williams insists that It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. But The Holidays is a tenacious and hydra-headed beast. Deep below the tinsel and overkill, formidable forces lurk, powerful tropes: childhood, the communal feast, the return of the light. If you are painfully alone in December, everyone else is the Whos down in Whoville, joining hands to sing, while you lurk up on your frozen precipice, pretending to despise them.
Now, add to the mix the fact that New Year’s Eve is your anniversary. Which you never got to celebrate. So what you want to do about The Holidays is to sit under a fleece in front of the TV with a bottle of Dewars and a cat on your lap, watching Johnny Depp movies and calling for takeout until the bloody year has turned and everybody stops shouting. But your beloved’s beloved sister insists that you join her crowd for Christmas Day. You understand—distantly, as one hears the doctor’s voice through anesthesia—that human connection is necessary. In spite of yourself, you seem to be about the grim business of continuing to live.
So, yes, I said, I’ll be there.
I could barely muster the wherewithal to buy a bottle of wine. I sat in the middle of the festivity feeling like wizened Scrooge at the edge of Fezziwig’s party: someone formerly part of the human community, now a ghost, a grayness at the margins. I couldn’t understand why no one spoke of Bob, and I prayed that no one would, lest I collapse in sobs. I kept floating out of my body, out of the picture.
With a sickening jolt I realized I had turned into Aunt Etta—my father’s aunt, who arrived from Chicago some days before Christmas, hair in a bun, tweed-suited, wearing black square-heeled lace-ups and always carrying a lace-edged monogrammed handkerchief. Husbandless, childless, clearly beyond the pale. Some avatar of hers haunts many Holiday gatherings. I’m sure single men of a certain age suffer through the end of the year, but the unconnected woman is, still, a culturally and socially distinct creature from her male counterpart. A woman of a certain age, alone, represents something gone seriously wrong somewhere. She is a spirit of Christmas Past, residual, a holdover, and of Christmas Yet to Come, what the young dread to become.
When Bob and I were a few years into our relationship, I began for the first time in adulthood to relax into The Holidays—precisely because Etta’s ghost had been put to rest. Together we’d dance through Christmas to our own tune. I was aware that one of the manifold ways I valued him was as a buffer against the terrible aloneness that lurks in the world, gathering in the corners of The Holidays. Bob made me feel fully part of the human family for perhaps the first time in my life.
In a heartbeat he was gone, and when I looked into the mirror, there she was, Aunt Etta, clutching a bottle of wine by the neck.
As the Year Three Holidays approached, I took a deep breath. As far as I could manage it, I would don my gayish apparel and show up at my sister-in-law’s place in the spirit of Christmas Present. I shopped for everybody. I bought wrapping paper and ribbon. I bought several bottles of wine. And I offered to contribute to the feast. A casserole, said my sister-in-law. Something with vegetables.
So on Christmas morning I got to work. Making sure the oven was kibble-free, I punched it up to 375°. Maybe the heat itself will drive him out, I thought, and the cat will get him. Hope is the thing with whiskers.
As the oven heated, it breathed smoke, but moderately. The stink was muted. The thing just really needs a good cleaning, I thought, but I can’t do that until spring, when I can ventilate the house. I cranked open one kitchen window, turned on ceiling and furnace fans, baked my casserole, and bore it triumphantly to the party. I drank, ate, drank more, laughed, opened presents with the requisite enthusiasm and watched them get opened by others. Don’t wallow, I told myself. There are lots more miserable ways to spend Christmas. How’d you like to be at the Gospel Mission or the Domestic Assault Shelter? Woman up. I reminded myself that “alone” is a highly subjective and culturally bound term; I mustered gratitude for being part of the family Bob had brought me into.
So then, whence the decision—by all legitimate measures insane—that I made around midnight that night? I can only conclude that it took more than I thought to pull off Christmas Present, and the effort left me slightly deranged. I like that word, “deranged.” Think of it as the opposite of “arranged”: I was out of order, jumbled. Despite the smooth and pleasant day I had passed, I was on some level a mess.
When I got home that night, I watched TV for a while. Around midnight I congratulated myself on another Christmas down and headed for bed. And then, with no inkling that I was making a strange left turn, I stopped in the kitchen and decided that the oven couldn’t wait until spring. It needed to be cleaned now. Tonight. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake tomorrow morning to a clean, smoke-free, smell-free oven? Wouldn’t it signify a new year, a new approach, out with the old, in with the new? It would. This is what I needed: to take control. So I cracked open the kitchen window again, punched the “Clean” button, and locked the oven door. Cat and I went up to bed.
But I couldn’t sleep. I kept my eyes firmly closed, trying to let my breathing deepen, but my alertness wouldn’t abate, especially because the smell was now wafting upstairs. Finally, after maybe forty-five minutes, I opened my eyes. Even in the bedroom darkness I saw that the air was thick. I turned on the light and found myself in a fog. I went downstairs into thick white smoke and stench. I could not see the other side of the dining room. The smell was ghastly. I turned off the oven and began yanking open windows. The clock read somewhere past 1 a.m. When all the downstairs windows were open I went back to the second floor and opened those. I switched on the furnace fan and ceiling fans as the cold night rushed into the house.
The cat seemed to be fine, following me around as usual, but I had a sudden, clenching fear: this miasma wouldn’t hurt me, but what about something much smaller? The cat’s vulnerability seemed urgent. I took him in my arms like a condensed version of my own anxiety and carried him out onto the porch, closing the door behind me. The porch windows were shut tight; a baseboard heater warmed the small space. I settled into a glider chair. The air was much clearer, but the smoke was rolling out under the door, rising like water. Nothing for it but to open a window out here too. The cat wandered around a little, confused, but as the porch grew colder he sought the warmth of my lap.
And there we sit, as you first met us. The house exhales its smoky breath, breathes in the winter night. This is when I give thanks for temperatures in the twenties instead of the teens or worse. I quiet down and sink into the moment: You’re safe, be still, just breathe, just wait. But I feel like a refugee in my own house. From my own house. The cat and I are trapped out here where we originally trapped the mouse (or so we thought), who has now driven us out. This is the last habitable corner of my house, and it’s getting colder by the second. My house, my haven in a world where a cold wind howls ceaselessly. Now even my house, polluted and toxic, has expelled me.
What about calling someone? Wouldn’t a normal person in such a situation call a friend? I think about it. But what would I say? I don’t know a language to make anyone understand my situation. And what would she do? Ask me to come to her house for the night? What about the cat? What is it I really need from anyone at this point? Everyone is too far away, worlds away. I scan my neighborhood and the field across from my house. Everything is dark. Everyone has spent their Christmas (except for the rabbi and his family on the corner) and gone to bed. They lie under comforters and blankets, breathing clean, warm air, with other people nearby. The cat and I are the only wakeful beings in the world. Or maybe we have left the world entirely.
In the Sixties, when space flights were always news and astronauts often ventured outside the capsule for some kind of maneuver, I used to imagine being cut loose in space. The horror wasn’t asphyxiation. It was being alone out there, left behind, floating unmoored in the cold, dark immensity. In the middle of this blue-black Christmas night, I am as far from the human species as I have felt in my life, and as close to the heart of despair. My earlier performance as Christmas Present was brittle and brief; this is reality. This is the Alone I have dragged around forever, as long as I can remember. If Bob were here . . . He was a fence around my life, fending it off. For the past two-and-a-half years I have managed to keep it at bay with hard work and good friends and weekly therapy; I have drowned out its howling with booze and TV and books and films and teaching; when I have felt it coming I have refused to look it in the eye. But tonight there’s no way around it. The smoke rising from an utterly ridiculous situation has driven me right into its arms.
I rock gently, cradling the cat, warming my hands in his winter-thick fur. I hold him as tightly as he’ll permit. “We’ll be ok,” I murmur. “We’ll be okay.” After an hour or so I can see the living room ceiling through the glass in the door. I unfold the cat and myself and re-enter my house. The smoke is mostly gone. I close windows, turn off lights. We climb the stairs again.
The next morning, the smell is a mild and quickly fading ghost.
A month later I am sautéing something when the mouse shoots out from behind the oven—exactly as the cat walks past. Mouse swings right and makes a good run for it into the dining room, but Cat has got this one. By the time I catch up, the neat little corpse is headless.
“Finally you earn your keep,” I tell the cat, gingerly enveloping the body in paper towels.
He eyes me. And yet, you begrudge me the spoils.
As it turns out, there are people who, for a very reasonable fee, will clean cat kibble from ovens. The one I find says he’s done this more than once, which makes me feel slightly less absurd. He quickly removes the oven floor and calls me to bear witness to what one mouse is capable of, which, I must tell you, is formidable, especially considering how much kibble I have previously swept and vacuumed, plus whatever the mouse actually consumed. Having discovered the perfect den, the mouse did not kick back and snuggle in. He relentlessly shored away sustenance against future famine. He found his safe place, but it wasn’t safe enough. It would never be safe enough. There is not enough kibble in the world, and the Cat always lurks.
Four months later, on a June morning, I was on the porch reading, drinking iced coffee, relishing the light filtering through the newly lush trees, watching the birds flutter around the feeder.
We were approaching the summer solstice, when light streaks the sky past 10 p.m. Silky air floated in through the windows, all wide open save the one covering the swinging cat-door, now permanently shut. Said door’s former user was outside, keeping the chipmunk population in check. How quiet and tolerant he’d been that night, curled into himself on my lap. Something in him had comprehended that this was where we had to be for a while, that it was best to be still and wait it out.
I recalled myself quavering in this chair, willing myself away from existential panic. That night had bloomed darkly into one of grief’s monstrous moments, a garish clown in a ghastly dream. These moments colonize you, convincing you that they represent some ultimate reality. When you wake the next day, or the day after, to a familiar world where things are the right size and don’t want to eat your heart, you are overwhelmed by relief and gratitude, even as you are still navigating rapids and rocks in grief’s river. I think this is why people who have lived out a traumatic experience often speak of a new appreciation for small things in small moments: it’s not that they’ve been chastened by life into settling for less; it’s that the glory of the quotidian emerges against a backdrop of surreality and distortion.
Of course I had been wrong that night, thinking myself alone in the universe. But of course I had also been right. It’s not that isolation and belonging are two halves of one truth; it’s that they are separate, coequal truths. That’s the hell of it. We are no more alone than one of fifteen sparrows crowding the feeder. We are as alone as one field mouse hunkered down in an oven.
That night in December, we had just crossed the winter solstice, the longest night. Even then the dark was beginning to draw back.
Gail Griffin is the author of four nonfiction books, including Grief’s Country: A Memoir in Pieces, which includes “A Creature, Stirring.” Her essays, poems, and brief nonfiction have appeared in Missouri Review, Southern Review, Fourth Genre, and other venues. She lives and writes in southwest Michigan.
Originally appeared in NOR 20.