IRENE AND MICHAEL WERE SITTING on folding chairs, eating stale pizza from their laps, because the kitchen table was buried under a heap of junk mail and a blue porcelain bathroom sink.
“I’m going to call one of those decluttering services,” Irene said to Michael, laying down her reused paper napkin.
“Don’t do it,” said Michael. “I’d have to look at every piece of paper in every box before I could decide what to get rid of. You can’t expect me to throw things out without even knowing what they are.”
His mother’s bureaus and bed frames stood herded together in the dining room like patient beasts, topped with her hat boxes and cooking pots. Piles of newspapers reached almost to the ceiling, sandwiching a broken television that looked at least thirty years old. If she only had a better job, Irene thought, like the one she had when she first met Michael, she could pay off their real estate tax bill lying next to the toaster, the late fees adding up day by day. Things could change. Michael could rent space in a warehouse for his junk. With the house cleaned up, they could hire a nurse to take care of him without fear of being reported to the town health inspector.
“We don’t need the broken stereo equipment. Or all the plastic containers. I’m going to start getting rid of them.” She waved a rubber spatula in the air.
“No. The last time you tried to clean up, you threw out the photo of my mother in the straw hat.”
“I didn’t throw it out,” she said.
“Then where is it?”
She looked around at all the clutter. “It could be anywhere.” She hadn’t thrown it out.
“If it was up to you, you’d throw out her urn,” he said.
“I wouldn’t,” she said.
Michael’s thick-soled shoes made squishing sounds as he shuffled out of the room. He was in his mid-sixties, eight years older than Irene. Graying curls framed his narrow face. He wore an oversized Star Trek T-shirt that barely covered his stomach, where the tumors had been. His legs were frail from inactivity. On his wrist, a yellow hospital bracelet held printouts of his drug intolerances, dietary restrictions, and medical history. His lymphoma was currently in remission, but as a side effect of the chemotherapy, his kidneys no longer functioned, and he required regular dialysis treatments.
As Michael continued to grow weaker, it was harder for him to get around. Irene drove him to dialysis three times a week. Her back ached from pulling him out of the car. She was sure she would dislocate her shoulder again. Now she had to maneuver him out of bed, dress him, and, more recently, diaper him. Sometimes she wondered if he’d made himself sick on purpose so he could make more demands on her.
“I’M FROM STATE FARM,” said a well-dressed man in an overcoat. A storm was spreading in from the west. Lightning crackled through the rolling clouds, and the half-bare elms that lined Irene’s street tossed down their leaves like shredded paper. The man reminded her of the boss at the corporate accounting firm she used to work for. Recently she’d taken a job at a storefront tax-preparation outfit, a big step down but closer to home. “I understand we insure your house,” he said.
“That’s correct.” Irene exhaled slowly.
“It’s about a claim we approved for roof work. I need to verify that the work is complete, so we can release the payment.”
“The work was done last month. I sent in all the forms.” Michael had figured out that their insurance company would pay to replace their sagging roof, because it had been damaged in the last year’s hailstorm. Irene was happy to have a new roof, like those of the other homeowners on the street. Chicago’s leafy North Shore was a place she had never thought she would live. She had grown up in public housing on the South Side. Her apartment smelled of mice—her mom had been a food hoarder—and the plumbing made noises like old men’s stomachs. When she had visited other kids’ houses, she would breath in the leather smell of their father’s boots in the closets. She was always wanting what some other little girl had.
“I need to look at the work to make sure it was done according to State Farm’s standards. I can check it from the underside—in the attic.”
“Wait a minute. You can’t just come into our home with no warning.”
“I called twice to make an appointment, but no one answered. I don’t know when I can make another trip out this way.”
“Show me some proof that you’re from the insurance company.” For all Irene knew, he might have been sent by the town to check on the interior of their house.
The insurance agent drew his business card out of his pocket. “It’s your decision. I have to turn in my report in order for you to get the check for the settlement.”
She wanted to refuse, but she couldn’t. “Okay,” she said. How else could they pay the roofer?
She let the man into the kitchen. The odor seemed far stronger than she remembered: a reek of cantaloupe rinds, moldy bread, and a sour, musty smell that, somewhere in her brain, she knew was a mouse nest.
The insurance agent didn’t acknowledge the appearance of the kitchen. “If you could just show me up to the attic.” He tapped his clipboard with the eraser of his pencil.
“Walk along this aisle,” she said. The man stepped sideways along the narrow path that divided the foothills of crushed boxes of bills from the mountains of her mother-in-law’s rolled carpets, strewn with her high-heeled shoes. Once organized in pairs, they were now scattered everywhere. Sad lampshades, a broken file cabinet. “It’s up these stairs.”
She led the way to the second floor. Once under the hatch in the ceiling, she yanked on the rope that pulled the stepladder down from the attic. It dropped with the snap of a guillotine. Irene followed the man up. What if the insurance company refused to pay their claim? She and Michael would owe the roofer twenty thousand dollars, a sum they could never pay off. The insurance man shined his flashlight over the wooden beams that joined in Vs and made some checks on his clipboard.
“A nice, clean job,” he said as he came down the ladder. He assured her that they would get their check within ten days. Irene let out a long breath of relief. Between the crowded dressers and the sideboard, she led him back. His parting words: “You’ll be hearing from us.”
• • •
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ANN RUSSELL resides in Concord, Massachusetts. Her stories have appeared in Epoch, the Bellevue Literary Review, and Emrys Journal. She has been nominated for a Pen / Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.