Volume 20, Number 2

Golden Jubilee

He doesn’t remember their 50th, and she’s got no interest in reminding him, so it’s a day like any other: she sits sorting decades’ stacks of family photos at a card table temporarily set up six months ago, her first retirement project, while he’s at his usual kitchen place, rearranging receipts and lining up pill bottles, checking his supply of batteries in one drawer, the supply of watches in another. She’s making albums for the children and grandchildren; he’s half-listening to the little television at his elbow with the volume on high while he considers how long it’s been since he mailed this grandson or that son-in-law a new timepiece.

They’re sitting on top of a ticking volcano; a fault line; melting permafrost; a time-bomb that one silver hair might detonate; bursting with junk they can’t give or throw away: his hardware, fishing equipment, boat motors; her holiday decorations, college scrapbooks and children’s musty-smelling, basement-stuffed toys. The appliances alone could be the death of them—spares of everything—some replaced before they broke, then stored, others bought to hedge the inevitable demise of those currently in use. Microwaves, toaster ovens, coffee pots, blenders, espresso makers, can openers, George Foreman grills. Sometimes, she tries to press one on a visitor: Would you like a knife sharpener? But the answer is always No. Everyone has everything they need.

It’s impossible to get to anything, anyway, and she promises herself to make an inventory as soon as she finishes with the photos: crumbling floor-to-ceiling boxes, neatly packed clear Tupperware islands three rows deep, hastily heaped utility shelves; it’s a pirate’s hoard, the spoils of 40,000 thieves, the unclaimed bride’s dowry. There are little corridors to wander, whose walls you touch on either side as you walk them single file with a flashlight, hoping to come out whole at the maze’s exit. Sometimes a toaster topples off a wobbling column, missing you by inches as you try to steady your breath, not disturb the still dank air.

The children plead. Give away what you don’t need, abandon this ziggurat with its perilous steps and move near by. But they don’t let go. They are modern Babelgyptians, these two, and when it’s time, they’ll descend into the treasure room, lie down amid its precious objects, and wait for the falling feather that will seal their tomb for fifty thousand years.

—Wendy Vardaman