It’s a cold February morning, and Howard Sellhausen is packing his few belongings into two shabby cardboard boxes. He’s upstairs taking the three books he owns off of the shelf. The shelf, which he installed himself, is sagging to one side, and Howard has strategically placed the books on the elevated end to prevent them from sliding down the slippery slope. He never got around to fixing the shelf, but it’s moving day, so now he doesn’t have to.
The three books he owns are To Kill A Mockingbird, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot. All gifts from Sandra.
The first two he tosses into the larger box labeled “Goodwill” in black marker. He pauses on the third one. His hand rests on the cover for a moment, then he opens it and reads the inscription.
T.S. Eliot is, without doubt, the greatest poet of the 20th century. You may find him a bit difficult, as some of his allusions are so literary, but I think you’ll come to love him.
He closes the cover and sits absent-mindedly on the cold, hardwood floor. He stares at the wall, expressionless. His face appears as if this recent memory might be reopening wounds, but Howard quickly rights himself; he stands up and shakes off his feelings. But he leaves the book on his mattress — it and the shelf are the only remaining furniture in his bedroom.
Later that evening he returns to his bed to sleep but is halted by the book from T.S. Eliot and from Sandra. He pauses again to stare at it for a moment, but this time, he gets into bed and cracks open the cover with the intention to read it. His eyes crawl down the table of contents — Sandra has starred her favorites for him to pay special attention to. He begins with Portrait of a Lady.
Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon
You have the scene arrange itself — as it will seem to do —
With “I have saved this afternoon for you”;
He slams the cover shut. Howard grips the book tightly in his hands, his face almost expressionless, but his quivering lips give him away. He hurls the tome at the door, and the old door rattles with a hollow thud. He snaps off the overhead light and dives under the sheet, fitfully and uncomfortably contorted until morning.
The next morning is chilly and frosty like Howard’s mood. He skulks around the empty rooms, tossing most things in sight into the Goodwill box. Only a few necessities like his cookware and steak knives make it into the much smaller box labelled “Keep."
He saves T.S. Eliot for last. On his way out the door, he shuffles over to the abandoned book and gingerly picks it up, as if the memories it contains might leap out to attack him at any moment. After another brief pause, he shoves it deep into the Goodwill box, then stomps outside and straps it onto the back of his motorcycle with several pieces of mismatched twine.
The ride to Goodwill is short. Howard yanks the box off his bike and dumps it on the doorstep in a heap of shredded twine. The people inside give him startled, then annoyed, glares, but Howard never looks back. He hops back on his bike and rides off in the opposite direction, away from the box, away from his old home, away from the memories that trail his exhaust and chase him in the wind.
Knives and forks clank against cheap ceramic plates. Sounds of dinner and food and chewing fill the thick silence. Sandra Clout looks up and eyes Howard across the small square table. He is staring into his plate of colorless pasta and she can’t see his eyes or his mouth or what they might be saying.
Most meals are like this. The time that passes in this sad excuse for a home is often bloated with awkward small talk and heavy silences that weigh on the roof, threatening collapse. It has been months since their conversation made it past the weather or the meal.
Sandra looks back at her own plate and pushes the pasta to the edges until there is a wide hole of light blue plate gaping up at her. If only she could burrow within it and sleep until this winter ended.
It was almost comical that Sandra was the one who cooked meals at home. Howard was a professional chef, which meant his cooking was phenomenally better than hers, but it also meant he cooked all day and refused to “work” at home. He never grumbled at her pitiful attempts at dinnertime, for which she was grateful, but Sandra also resented the fact that her husband was a chef at a five star restaurant, yet at home they ate Rice-a-Roni and microwave meals.
The clanking of knife and fork slowed down, and Sandra realized the meal was almost over and they had yet to say one word to one another. Desperate to maintain the appearance of civility, she blurted out, “So I heard something funny at work today!” a little louder than she should have.
Howard looked up, eyes and mouth still expressionless, but no longer staring dryly into his plate of pasta.
Encouraged by this acknowledgment, Sandra continued, “This guy at work, the guy in the office next to me, Sam, I think I told you about him before? He’s been there a few years longer than I have, but only comes into work half the time so we rarely see him.” Sandra saw Howard’s interest waning and began to panic. “Anyway, that’s not important. So, the funny thing he said, well, I mean it wasn’t really funny, like it wasn’t a joke, but it was funny when he said it because he hardly ever says anything interesting you know, because he’s never there in the first place to say anything, but, anyways, so, he said that there was so much rain yesterday that the streets downtown turned into big sheets of ice, like a giant skating rink, and the whole city shut down! Isn’t that funny?"
It wasn’t, and Sandra knew it, but she was desperate for words to fill the space between them.
“Wow,” Howard sighed weakly. He said the word not so much like a statement or a response, but like it had accidentally escaped his lips while he was exhaling.
Sandra stared at him for a moment longer, hoping that wasn’t his response in full. When it was clear he was done, she tried again.
“How was work today? Did you talk to your boss about that new dish you had for the menu?"
She could feel his lackluster response approaching, but her hopes were still dashed when he said simply: “No."
She blinked and a beat passed.
She knew she should stop while she was ahead (so to speak), but she couldn’t let this issue go yet again.
“I thought we had talked about you being more assertive at work — how you were never going to get anywhere if you let everyone else call the shots."
“You talked, and I heard you."
It was less an affirmation and more of an accusation. Sandra opened her mouth to have him hear her a little more, but closed it without speaking. She leaned back in her chair, admitting defeat. She could only pick this fight so many times.
She looked at the dent on the edge of the table and began to smile at a memory, but buried her grin with a grimace. Even memories that were once happy had been tinged with sourness and bitter nostalgia.
She stood up abruptly. “Don’t forget to run the dishwasher tonight. Remember, the plastic bowls go in the top drawer with the delicates"
Sandra didn’t wait for his response, but instead shoved her own dishes into the dishwasher and banged her feet purposefully on her way up the stairs. For the last few months she had tried to push their relationship back on the proper tracks, but this train was fully derailed now. She could dig in her heels no longer.
“Look at this disaster! I told you the bowls go in the top drawer!”
Shouting filled the small home at just before 8 o’clock in the morning.
“Now all these bowls are melted and these plates are ruined because you ran them on hot! I don’t have time to deal with this before work!”
Sandra stood exasperated over the steaming dishwasher.
“So don’t,” Howard replied, callously and carelessly. He eyed the mess with half his attention; the other half was distracted by the mail in his hands. “You forgot to renew the newspaper subscription."
Sandra was flabbergasted.
“What the hell is the matter with you? The dishwasher is a melted mess and you don’t even read the newspaper! Are you even listening to me?"
“Yeah,” he answered, again apathetic and emotionless.
Sandra paused, waiting for an explanation, an apology, some semblance of decency. But that was the end of his response. She could feel her heart racing and her hands trembling; the straw was about to break the camel’s back.
“So are you at least going to help me clean this up? Are you going to do anything? Or are you just going to stand there and let life happen to you?"
At this Howard looks at her. Sandra is pushing on a deeper issue, and she knows it.
“You never care about anything anymore, not anything that you do or things that happen to you, and you never once think about me or how I might be feeling. I wish you would at least fight back instead of just standing there, acting like I don’t exist. Is this how you act at the restaurant too? Is this why your dishes are never going to be put on the menu? I know you’re better than this, you never used to be like this, you used to fight—"
Howard takes a step toward her.
“Don’t tell me what you think you know about me."
He says it with such aggression and emphasis that for once Sandra is without words.
“What I do at my job and in my career is none of your goddamn business. Practicing restraint and patience is not a weakness, and waiting is not the same as doing nothing."
He examines her face for a moment, then exits the room as if that had explained the matter.
Thoughts flooded Sandra’s brain, but before she could sort any of them out, the one question that stood out from the rest was, waiting for what?
Knives and forks clank against the good ceramic plates saved for holidays and the Queen. The room is filled with warm light and cold feelings. For once, the table is stacked with beautifully prepared food; Howard makes an exception to his rule and cooks on special occasions so that there is edible food for holidays.
The scene is different now but the mood is the same. It is still just the two of them, divided by plates of food and unspoken arguments. Howard can feel the tension in the room and he enjoys it. He always enjoyed ticking Sandra off; that probably explains the mountain of pressure this meal is squashed under.
Howard selfishly enjoys his own cooking. Despite cooking for roughly eight to ten hours per day, forty to fifty per week, he rarely eats the meals he creates. If he’s experimenting in the kitchen (which he rarely does these days), he might sample a few dishes, but almost all his creations are hand-delivered to his superiors or to restaurant patrons. He is pleasantly surprised every time he remembers that he is indeed a fabulous chef, albeit hiding under the toque of a demi-chef de partie.
He looks over at Sandra and can see her visible discomfort. She has never been comfortable with silence, and Howard cannot understand that. He loves silence; to be silent, to live in silence, to say and hear nothing at all. Nothing makes him happier than to hear and say absolutely nothing.
Although he is pleased with the silence, he is uneasy; he can sense that Sandra wants to break the silence. He is surprised that she hasn’t done so already. He must be wearing her down. He grins in spite of himself.
Despite everything that has happened in the past year, and all the mixed emotions Sandra has about Howard right now, she is pleased as punch with the gift she is about to give him.
It even has the perfect story behind it:
One day, she was shopping downtown in the used bookstore, hunting for a copy of East of Eden to add to her bookshelf. She had already determined that they didn’t have it, but the poetry section had distracted her, and she was dragging her finger along the faded spines searching for inspiration.
Sandra had wanted to be an author once, when she was little. She had always loved to read, and when she was young she would rewrite versions of her favorite books, to fix the endings or have the characters make the decisions she thought they should have made. It was wonderful to create worlds where the characters did as she pleased, and to right the wrongs of those silly authors.
Poetry had captured her attention in high school. She found refuge in Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and T.S. Eliot when her lack of athletic ability and artistic talent left her friendless and full of free time after class. She had a large collection of poetry back at her parents house, but she had never kept up a personal collection in her new life with Howard.
Her finger landed on the spine of a collection of work from T.S. Eliot; The Complete Poems and Plays. Sandra decisively slips it off the shelf and buys it without a moment’s hesitation. Eliot brought her comfort in high school, and he could certainly do it again in adulthood.
As she was driving back home through the rain, she listened to the windshield wipers whisk from side to side and thought what a wonderful melody that would make if put to music. She wished she could make music. She wished she had given writing more of an effort, and not quit for a more “traditional” career that pleased her parents. She wished she knew how to reach Howard, wherever he was in his head.
This last thought gave her an idea. She looked over at the Eliot tome on the passenger seat, lovingly nuzzled against her plush scarf. What had brought her solace once in her life could do the same for her and Howard now. She smiled. She had found the perfect Christmas present.
Fast forward to today, Christmas Eve, as she is placing the carefully wrapped book under their sparsely decorated tree. Hers is the first present there — Howard no doubt has saved his Christmas shopping and wrapping for the last possible moment. Sandra kneels beside the tree and places her hand atop the newspaper-wrapped gift. She hesitates for a moment, fingers lingering gently across the faded paper.
This book will not save your marriage.
Sandra hears the voice within herself but pushes it away. She sits back on her feet and lets her hands fall slowly into her lap. She stares at the gift under the tree, as if trying to imbue it with the miracle it would take to transform her relationship with Howard into the fairytale marriage she wishes it was. The Christmas tree lights flicker, and Sandra softly cries.
Cover Image by Jodeci Zimmerman