My father would be arriving at six-thirty; after stopping for provisions, I had seven hours to prepare for his visit. I mapped out the remainder of the day: I’d clean the place properly for once, and I’d prepare a decent meal for my father: a chicken dish he used to make for me, with sides of baked potatoes and salad, and some homemade dessert. I stood back, surveying my small kitchen, trying to figure out how I’d get all the dishes ready on time. I needed to keep moving; too many thoughts competed for attention I didn’t want to give any of them. My gaze fell to my most recent haul from the liquor store. I had a few bottles of single-malt scotch I’d been saving for a special occasion. Surely unemployment qualified.
Fortified by the drink, I prepared the marinade for the chicken, preheated the oven, and conducted a quick assessment of my space. I’d let over a week’s worth of dirty dishes, beer cans and pizza boxes accumulate in the kitchen and living room. I emptied the dishwasher, which didn’t take long, as recently I’d lazily taken to bypassing the kitchen shelves entirely and just taking a clean dish from the machine whenever I needed one. Of course, this had left the shelves free for me to store paperwork of various sorts that no longer fit in the drawers. I tossed all of that on to the coffee table and committed myself to going through every page and keeping only what I needed. Two hours later, the kitchen smelled of chicken, my recycling bin was overflowing with hand-shredded papers, and a small pile of bills and receipts that had survived the cull were back in the drawer. I stood back to assess my handiwork, and whatever sense of accomplishment I’d felt faded at once: my apartment looked exactly the same as it had before. I helped myself to another scotch.
The drawers finished, I cleared off the coffee table, wiped it, and then set a small pile of books and magazines on its corner. I stuffed Dowry and Harsha’s note in a drawer in the bedroom. I’d tackle the kitchen after I finished cooking; no point doing that quite yet. The bathroom, though, I could handle now, so I scrubbed the toilet, sink, and floor to gleaming. Next I grabbed a laundry basket that I’d half-emptied over the course of the week, as it had been serving a similar purpose to that of my dishwasher. Other than socks and underwear, I’d never quite worked out which of my clothes got hung up and which got put in drawers, let alone which drawers contained which articles of clothing, so I decided upon a system on the spot, figuring I’d probably forget it the next time I went to get dressed and end up having to fish around for shirts and pants. For a brief instant I wondered why I was doing this, and in that instant, thoughts of dealing with unfiled paperwork and dishes and articles of clothing were replaced with thoughts of Manny Thomas – I assumed it had to be him – phoning me at my father’s house to speak to me, and at work…for some other purpose. But what? I closed my eyes tightly. Just cook and clean, I admonished myself. You’ll have plenty of free time next week to think about other things.
I needed to sweep the living room floor, but first I needed to pick up the stray papers and clothes that I’d dropped there over the past two weeks. I returned a shirt and pair of jeans to the bedroom, and found I’d already forgotten my new system. To hell with it, I thought, and stuffed the outfit into the first drawers I opened that could fit them. Back in the living room, beside the coffee table, was an old grey sock that I didn’t recognize; probably a stray that had made its way into my basket last time I’d been to the laundry room to collect my clothes. And suddenly, entirely without warning, my failure to keep strangers’ clothing out of my apartment took on an enormous significance, a symbol of my inability to manage the most banal details of my life. No wonder I was no longer employed. Returning a single sock to a lost-and-found basket two floors down seemed to call upon a reserve of energy that I no longer possessed couldn’t fathom possessing ever again. And if I couldn’t do that, how was I going to find another job?
I stood frozen, sock in hand, for a stretch of time that seemed to last for an instant and for an eternity. When I realized what I was doing, I stuffed the sock in a drawer with the mated pairs, and returned to tackle the rest of my apartment and dinner.
At half past six, my father arrived to a sober daughter, a model apartment and a restaurant-quality meal. We spoke little over dinner: he told me about a conference a graduate student of his was organizing, and I told him of my work week: nothing new on the database for the seed co-op, and I’d spent the bulk of the past week testing another team’s project, as things were pretty slow in general in the office.
“Sometimes that’s not a bad thing,” my father remarked.
“No, it’s not,” I agreed.
“Any more trips planned?” he asked.
“Right now they’re not planning to send me anywhere,” I replied, and cut short the topic with a forkful of chicken.
My father nodded, satisfied, and went back to his potatoes.
The evening’s game of gin was competitive: I played with a focus I’d summoned for the first time in weeks, the cards consuming all of my attention. When I found my mind straying, I had only to remember my father at his kitchen table a week earlier, crippled by grief and anxiety that I’d brought about and that I alone could quell. Tonight, that was absent, and I knew I’d lose if I let anything distract me from the game. In a few hours, I’d have all the time in the world to wallow in self-pity or confusion or whatever else people in my position tended to wallow in. I’d find out soon enough.
In the end my father won by a hair, but he congratulated me on a good game and took his time loading the dishwasher. I handed over his coat with a similar lack of urgency, and wished him a good night and a safe ride home. And then, just like that, I was alone with a spotless apartment, an empty calendar, and thoughts of a stranger I’d met only once and wondered if I’d ever be able to forget.