The Precious Thing

By John Riebow

the wallet had no definite scent he could link to her, just the tangy aroma of worn leather and perhaps the faint trace of powder or makeup. The same with the purse; slim and dark, it was an object any middle-aged woman might carry, well worn yet serviceable, nondescript and impersonal. It looked sort of familiar, one of the handful she might possess. Maybe she had it at the mall the other day, when they went shopping for his sister’s fortieth birthday gift. The black leather gloves were definitely a Christmas present but were still secured together by a string and had not been worn. They lay flat, creased, never filled, twisted or altered by human fingers. They seemed small, like a child’s glove, but she assured him they were the correct size as she put them back in the box and slid it under the tree. That was the last time he had seen her with them. The gum, strawberry, was her favorite. The pack was half empty and there was another full one. She had taken to chewing gum, especially when driving, ever since quitting smoking two years ago. She liked the satisfying crackle of gum that hard candy could not give. The dentist suggested the sugar free kind, which she insisted tasted like a sour plum, but chewed dutifully to keep her nicotine habit at bay.

She did things she didn’t like. She was a realist. She was not afraid to say what she didn’t like, but was not one to let her displeasure leave things undone. She hated doing the laundry, yet it got done, carefully and efficiently. Driving the increasingly congested streets was a burden, yet one of the offending cars was hers. She had grown to despise her job as an accountant, which she had been doing for almost twenty years, but went to work and suffered through the repetitive months and intolerable insanity of tax season because she was doing what had to be done, carrying her weight on the team.

The small purple badge with the sunflower silhouette was not familiar at all. It wasn’t meant to be a broach, or ornamental, or mildly sophisticated; it was tacky, something more like a child would wear. He could not recall having seen her wear such a thing, but there was something about the flower that was vaguely memorable. The design seemed to be a logo of some sort. Sunflower. He was drawing a blank with the color, but the flower definitely meant something. He had seen it before, numerous times in fact, but where? Sunflower. He could see it, in yellow, on a white piece of paper. Sunflower. Yes, the header on the shopping lists she prepared on her garden club stationary. The badge was an access pass for the local arboretum, where her garden club met once a month during the summer to sell plants as a fundraiser for one of the other members who had been stricken with breast cancer. Sunflower. He had never gone to any of the sales and was not surprised when she came home with a new plant for their thriving perennial garden, which he helped her expand a little more each spring. It was one of the few gardening chores they did together, but he enjoyed turning over the soil, pushing the spade into the ground, stirring up life, while she pulled out the weeds, which were thrown on the compost pile. By autumn the pile would be ready to be mixed back into the ground, and it was an endless fascination to him to see how life seemed to perpetuate life. It was pleasurable to wheel barrows of mulch and watch her lovingly place the rich-smelling bark around the plantings. She was so careful, so nurturing.

The make up case, nail file, tissue packet and lip balm could have belonged to anyone, but the watch was more distinctive. It was silver, slightly tarnished, and the face bore the same sunflower emblem as the purple badge, except the background was white and the flower a pale yellow, under black Roman numerals. The watch had been a gift for raising the most pledge money from the walkathon in honor of Elizabeth Shank: five hundred and thirty-five dollars for fifteen miles through the State Park on a beautifully clear day the previous autumn. It was a small token of her selflessness.

He held the half-carat engagement ring in the modest setting up to the lamp. When it was twisted a certain way the diamond still sparkled as he remembered. He had been mesmerized by it at first sight, when the smiling yellow-toothed salesman assured him it was perfect, his young lady would treasure it for the rest of her life. It had been the most expensive thing the twenty-five year old had ever purchased, and required a five hundred dollar loan from his father, which had taken six years to repay. His hands were wet as he handed the money over and accepted the small box from the grinning man behind the counter. The exchange seemed hardly equitable; so much money for so little a thing, but his gushing mother assured him that the purchase was worth every cent he paid. “You have no idea what this is going to mean to her,” she beamed, perhaps recalling the thrill of her own engagement. His mother had been right.

He gave her the ring on the bridge that overlooked the marina, a summer evening eighteen years ago; terrified she was going to drop the precious token into the river below. It was humid that night, the back of his neck damp with sweat, tie stifling his sentiment, but he somehow managed the words. She giggled when he dropped to his knees but was soon in tears, overcome by the wave of his earnestness. Her hand shook as she pulled the ring from the box and he had trouble slipping it on her trembling finger. The diamond glittered under the lamp above, just as the salesman promised, and remained on her finger all those years, until it was removed at the hospital.

The wallet opened with a satisfying snap, much different than a man’s wallet, which opened silently, as if to add some manner of stealth to a purchase. A woman’s wallet boldly foretold that a transaction was about to take place, while a man’s was more discreet. Inside it held credit cards, an ATM card, customer appreciation cards from various supermarkets, the rent ten/get one free card from the local video store, the business card for the local garage, a Red Cross blood donor card, garden club membership card, a few ATM receipts. A zippered side pocket contained a handful of change. The fogged plastic sleeves, which a young person would pack with pictures of friends and family, were strictly utilitarian: they contained the car registration, the car insurance form, and her driver’s license.

He pulled the license from the sleeve and observed her pale oval face as the state hologram shimmered over her features. It was not a flattering picture. The face was hers but not hers, the faint smile giving little hint of the power of her boisterous laugh, the true depth of her eyes concealed in the poor light. Her light brown hair appeared to have been wind-blown and ineffectively straightened. She wore little makeup and looked tired, unfocused, as if the photo were taken early in the morning, when she was not at her best. She never had been a morning person, though he loved the unadulterated look of her face in the pale light of daybreak when he brought her tea in bed.

Her cup from that morning remained on the nightstand.

The call that came on his cell phone was completely unexpected. He had just gotten in from work and was preparing to take the dog for a walk. There was nothing more relaxing after a stressful day of work than taking their German Shepard, Fritz, for a long stroll through the quiet suburban streets that surrounded their stone Cape Cod style home. There was a sublime sense of connection during those strolls that quelled even the most potent anxieties.

“Is this Mr. Tasker?” an unfamiliar voice asked across as weak connection. “Mr. Ellis Tasker?”

“Yes.” He answered with mild annoyance, wondering how a telemarketer could have gotten his cell number. “Are you married to Mrs. Jeanette Tasker?”

The mention of his wife by name was a peculiar thing. Had she won something? His curiosity so overcame him that he had been unaware of his reply. “This is the St. James County Hospital. I’m sorry to inform you that there’s been an accident involving your wife, Jeanette.”

“My wife?” Had he heard right? Was this call a mistake? It took mere seconds for his brain to process the information, but time seemed to have come to a complete standstill. The sound of his breathing echoed like a stream of air rolling over the wing of an airplane in flight, and the room seemed suddenly dim.

“A car accident. I’m sorry to report that your wife has been killed.”

The voice went on to give further details and instructions with a mechanical empathy that left him almost senseless. He could barely mouth that he heard, he understood, that he would be there as soon as possible. Ellis Tasker sat at the kitchen table, hand numb from pressing the phone to tightly to his ear, and tried to absorb what he had been told. It was incomprehensible. They were just together, a few precious hours previous, and now…

Everything was hazy, as if he were submerged in a deep pool of viscous liquid that exerted pressure on every square inch of his flesh, compressing, smothering. He felt barely alive, as if in a chamber in which all but the indispensable amount of air needed to keep his body functioning had been sucked away into nothingness. The world, as it was know to him, was now a supreme unknown.

The young hospital attendant with the impassive face handed him a clear plastic bag containing Jeanette’s belongings after he identified the body. It was a cheesy sort of bag with red cloth handles, rather like the kind an old lady would take to the beach for holding a towel, a book, an apple, and sunscreen. It was not the sort of bag she would have used at all; it lacked the style that came to her so effortlessly.

He was surprised how peaceful she looked on the cold table. Her face did not belie any of the pain he imagined she must have felt in those final moments, and it seemed like she was just sleeping, waiting for him to bring her that next cup of tea. Her features were as simple and lovely as they had been that very morning. He reached out to touch her shoulder with the tip of his finger and was shocked by the rigidity of her chilled flesh. The sensation coursed up his arm like an electric shock, filling him with dark revelations. He signed papers put before him with little regard for what they contained and left the hospital, gripping the cheesy plastic bag to his chest, in a profound state of emptiness.

“You know something’s wrong, don’t you, boy?” Ellis questioned Fritz as the animal trailed him around the house with a forlorn expression on its face. “I don’t know how to explain it to you. I don’t know how to explain it to myself.”

Only hours since the call, the house was already feeling the poignancy of her absence.

“I don’t know about you, but I need a walk.”

It was well after midnight, following hours of telephone calls relaying the tragic news to family and friends, that he unceremoniously emptied the plastic bag on the kitchen table. The tumbling objects hit the wood with a pronounced clatter that shook him from a stupor, spreading out like wind-scattered leaves. Purse, wallet, keys, rings, watch, everything Jeanette kept on her immediate person seemed to be there, though what value they could possibly hold without her to posses them he did not know. He ran his fingers over the mundane objects, finding slight comfort in their familiarity. If anything, the watch might hold the last vestige of her essence; it had been next to her skin when it was warm and vibrant, but the metal was cold and lifeless.

“If not the watch, maybe the necklace.” He sighed hopefully.

But the necklace was not among the possessions, nor in the plastic bag with the red cloth handles.

It was hard to believe they had been married for ten years. He had been twenty-five when he bought the engagement ring from the yellow-toothed man, and now, at thirty-six he was getting a necklace to memorialize their decade together. He was at the mall jeweler, drawn into the store by the sparkling display add in the window. The room was brightly lit and everything seemed to glitter.

“It’s like being in a diamond mine,” he joked to the pretty young salesgirl wrapping the gift.

They spent the weekend in Baltimore, walking, laughing, visiting the aquarium, and riding water taxis back and forth between restaurants and their hotel. He passed her the box as they sat by the water’s edge at the inner harbor. The moon was three quarters full and bright. Jeanette gasped with delight as she took the thin gold chain with the series of dangling heart-shaped pendants studded with diamonds, and trembled as he helped clasp it around her neck.

“I love it. I’ll never take it off,” she promised and gave him a lingering kiss.

“Are you sure you want to go alone, Ellis? You don’t have to. I can go with you, or you can have them clean out the stuff for you. You don’t have to do it by yourself.”

“I want to go, Dad.”

He went on Sunday, hoping to be alone. The lot, adjacent to the collision center down by the river, was full of twisted wrecks he moved by impassively without much thought for the fate of the occupants, but the sight of her smashed Infinity brought a profound chill to his stomach. She had been a living, breathing, beautiful, loving thing when she got into the machine, and left it merely the husk of her earthly glory. The car had been sideswiped, the driver’s side completely crushed, the windows empty frames. Shattered glass had rained down upon her. He could only imagine the terror she must have felt in those final long seconds.

He managed to open the passenger side door with the key. Glass seemed to cover every single inch of the interior, but thankfully there was no sign of blood. Most of her injuries were internal crush wounds and there had been little external bleeding.

Groping through shards of shattered glass, he pulled maps from under the seat, coins from the change tray, CDs from the storage console, a DVD that needed to be returned from the glove compartment. Impassively, he opened the case to see that it was “The English Patient,” which they had watched on her final night. He had seen about half an hour before drifting off to sleep, and she told him the following morning how sad and moving the film had been. She always selected the movies; he didn’t care much what they saw, as long as they were together. Ellis felt a sudden and profound remorse for not having shared the film with her.

“I’ll watch this with Fritz tonight.”

He looked under the seats, lifted the floor mats, dug deep into the seatbacks, checked all the compartments and storage bins until his arms were coated with tiny bleeding cuts, scoured the trunk and spare tire well, but against all hope, the precious necklace was not to be found.

It didn’t make sense that it was gone. “She always wore it, always. She promised.” There could only be one reason why it was missing.

How could someone have taken something that meant so much to two people? How could they? He tried to be reasonable. Maybe it came unclasped in the accident, or the paramedic tore it off administering first aid. It might be on the floor of the ambulance, but more likely, been taken at the hospital by a nurse or orderly that thought it looked just too lovely to be on a dead person. He had to write a letter, file a complaint, but what proof did he have, and how could he be so disrespectful to the same people who had tried to save her life?

“I hope you have a conscience, you bastard.”

Ellis gave the car a vengeful kick and stormed away.

It had been over a week and he just couldn’t take it any more. Something had to be done about the dust, the clutter, the pile of unread papers. She would have hated having the house look this way. His mother and sisters had offered to help tidy up, but he didn’t want anyone touching their things, didn’t want the last echoes of her presence dissipated by anyone other than himself. He wasn’t ready to sort through her things; there was just the need to make things look they way they always did, when she was there.

The bedroom was the most difficult room to address because she had gone to work and left her nightclothes on the edge of the bed. They were the last articles she wore in their home. Ellis was hesitant to touch them, feel them, smell them, for fear of being taken to a place from which he could never return, but he couldn’t take another night on the sofa; his neck was killing him. It took all his strength to take the objects and put them in the hamper, to be addressed later, or never. He picked up the tea mug, a keepsake from their San Diego trip the year previous, from the nightstand and looked at the animal caricatures with muted sadness. It rained the day they had gone to the zoo, but it was a warm refreshing rain that they ran through with childish glee. They had been at their best on that trip, free of the burdens of everyday life, enjoying one another’s company to the fullest. He held the cup with the realization that it was probably the last thing her lips had touched.

The bed covers were tangled in knots, they needed straightening. Grabbing the top sheet by the edge, he shook it out briskly and heard the faint clunk of something falling to the floor. Probably the television remote again, he thought, and stepped around to pick up the fallen control. As he moved around the bed, he caught sight of the remote in its proper place on the nightstand. With heightened curiosity, Ellis Tasker probed the carpeted floor until his hand came in contact with a metallic object just under the bed. When Ellis brought his hand up he was surprised to find himself clutching the article he thought had vanished as she had done. A wave of excitement and relief overcame him.

Holding the necklace in hand, his mind was suddenly awash with a flood of memories. The night before her death they were making love, the chain pressing into his forehead as she leaned into him. “Can you feel how deeply you touch me?” she groaned. Her eyes were piercing, reflecting her hunger, her labored breath echoed in his ear. “We fit together so perfectly.” She removed the necklace with a laugh and tossed it playfully to the side. “You couldn’t make up an excuse good enough for those scratches.” She giggled, deviously, her hair brushing his face. It was so like her, so playful, so loving.

Ellis Tasker squeezed the necklace so tight that the diamond pendants made pale white impressions on the palm of his hand as he fell back on the bed and succumbed to the glorious pain of being alive.

——————-

John Riebow was born, raised and educated in Philadelphia, where he attended the W. B. School High School of Agriculture Sciences, majoring in Horticulture.  He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Landscape Architecture from Temple University, is a LEED-Accredited Professional, and serves as Director of Design for a design-build-development general contractor.  His work has been placed in Audience, Ensorcelled and Loch Raven Review.  He has been writing fiction, poetry and radio drama scripts for over twenty years and is currently working on a collection of his short fiction.


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