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CNF

When Birds Devour the Breadcrumb Trail

by Tessa Mellas

Sometimes my husband didn’t see stop signs. Sometimes my husband didn’t turn off the stove. Sometimes he left his phone in a coffee shop bathroom, his book on a bus, his travel mug on a shelf in a store. I’d notice his hands bare on a windchill day and think, My husband has lost his mittens again.

On my thirty-seventh birthday, he texts me the picture of a toy organ he pulled out of an Iowa City dumpster, two octaves and six little buttons that make chords. The same organ sits on my bookshelf in Maine just under the L’s—Lahiri, Larsen, Lethem, Link. In some of the books on the shelf, our annotations sit side by side and trade adorations in the dark. My husband got the original organ for one of my Ohio birthdays. We had a handful of toy instruments. A red and turquoise accordion. A blue kazoo. Spoon castanets. A goosey piano horn. Now we are in the habit of finding exact replicas of things we already own. We cross paths with gently hidden objects whose acquaintance we already know. He texts, Found this in the trash. Weird to find it today. He texts, I’ll let you go. It wasn’t fair to write on your birthday. He says, I’m trying not to miss you. I’m trying to leave you alone.

For all of us, there are times when we gotta get out of town. So we get in the car and we go to a different place than the place where we live. Let’s say we go hours and hours away. We’re in a different place on a different sidewalk and we pat our pockets because when we’re out of town, we do this kind of checking, a checking for wallet and phone and keys. We pat our pockets and our hands fall only on denim and denim on flesh. We pat our back pockets. Nothing there. And we pause with our hands slapped to our buttocks, and we think, Fuck! I’ve lost the thing that opens the door to the car, big hulking machine that houses those six CDs I’ve listened to too many times and the reusable grocery bags and the roll of toilet paper I keep in the driver side door to wipe my nose. And if we’ve lost the keys, we might as well have lost the car because we’ve lost the means to go from here to there and how will we ever get out of this place and find our way home?

When my husband and I lived in Ohio, sometimes he forgot to say he was leaving the apartment to go somewhere else. I would emerge from the shower and find the apartment empty. Call his name. Pad from room to room. Peer through doorways. Duck outside. His bicycle missing. Call his phone. Its mechanical ring from the kitchen. The kitchen empty. Where did he go?

Before we were married, there was a time when I was having panic attacks and couldn’t get out of bed and he had to pick out my clothes. He said, We can’t do this much longer. Let’s just quit the fucking PhD. My therapist asked, What would you choose? The PhD or him? No question, I said. Him. I can’t lose him. But sometimes I did.

Of course, we lost the keys. The two fob auto-clicker thingamajigs that came with the Scion. He lost one, and I lost the other. Though really the one that I lost, our apartment seemed to swallow whole. I stopped home to grab something. Something upstairs. A book? A sweater? Ballet shoes? I set the key on the counter. And when I came back to run out the door, it had disappeared. Maybe the cat knocked it down the grate and into the furnace. I checked my pockets. The driveway. The nooks along the floor. I thought I’d find it when we packed the apartment to move away. We entered Maine fob-less. From then on, we just inserted a key in the door.

I went to that three-story antique shop in Ellsworth the other day with the man I’ve been dating almost a year. You know the shop, the one with all the panes of glass out front and something made of glass showing through in each pane. We were looking for a bench to go with the piano my office-neighbor gave me. We wandered to different ends of the store, and I found myself in a room with stacking coffee tables and hobnail lamps and Bakelite phones. A room like the one where we found the cowboy lamp for our cowboy poet friend and his baby. I’d been in that room with you in Ellsworth and Columbus and Cincinnati and Traverse City and Anchorage and Toledo and Maumee. I spotted a bench in the corner and sensed you there in the next room, looking through a rack of snap button shirts, and for a moment I almost called out your name.

These days, my life usually feels like my life. And I forget it is different than what it was for all those years. But in those seconds when I turn to find you and you are gone, something claws at my throat, and for a moment I panic because if you are not in the next room looking for a decades old shirt to robe your ribs to keep them in place around intestines and heart and lungs, then maybe the toy organ no longer buzzes and hums when you press its keys and maybe the books on the shelf have dissolved their own stories, too, and maybe all the keys to all the doors have disappeared down holes in the grate, knocked by the soft paw of a cat that will always wait in the window of a house that has mislaid its ghost.

Tessa Mellas
Tessa Mellas received the 2013 Iowa Short Fiction Award for her collection Lungs Full of Noise. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She teaches writing at the University of Maine at Machias, a college so far east it is the first in the nation each morning to see the sun. Figure skater, vermicomposter, vegan and tender of a fierce feline twosome, she relates to soil and snow.
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