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This Condo is not a Home

Claire Stemen

The flower’s permeation did nothing to aid the cessation of death’s perfume; it was not a smell one inhaled intentionally, but it seemed ever creeping up noses. She wished noses could blink. She blinked her lashes and thought of the French word for eyelids — “les paupières” — and how it conjured an image of Pinocchio in her mind, dancing around in dust, some middle-aged man with cramped hands shoved into the space where a spinal cord should have been.

Among the blooms there sat a bouquet of fruit.

They bee-lined for it, remembering the potato salads and cold cut platters of the past week, something about pineapple daisies and strawberry stamens making them drool. Had she ever lusted after fruit this way? Had ever a ridiculous item seemed so appropriate? She caught herself thinking he would have wanted it this way as she bit delicately into honeydew leaf.

Wasn’t true, that bit, wasn’t true at all. She nibbled at the nub of her nail.

“This is so good,” crooned her cousin.

“Dinner is in ten minutes,” her mother clucked, nodding toward her brother and cousins. They looked indignant and flushed like tomatoes. “Get in here and help.”

The girls didn’t look appealing. They looked maudlin in their velvet frocks. All they needed were the glittery tights and it would be Christmas again. It would be Christmas again in some months.

She remembered him, some years ago. How he had pulled himself over to the Christmas tree, sparkling in the windows in the corner of their living room. She and her family had toiled for some hours to make the house feel homey, to feel different from all the other houses in the development. It was a ruse, not so cleverly disguised, a ruse they tossed tinsel over and called Christmas, though they all knew they were watching the decay of an era they had once dwelled comfortably in.

Still, this decoration spree pleased her. She looked forward to it, to playing holiday music, and maybe being put in charge of the railing on the staircase. This was her domain that day, some Decembers ago, and she had devised a sly way of working with what little garland she had, thriftily sticking some extra Styrofoam cranberries in places.

Her grandfather’s face glowed in the string of lights they wrapped around the fake fir, lines deepening where he smiled and furrowed his brow, the reflection in his glasses like a poorly shot film. Normally she wouldn’t have bothered to focus on the activity outside of her fervent furnishings, but something weighed the air and struck her as a moment of importance.

She feigned preoccupation and slid her attention to the corner.

He was placing a heart, albeit an odd-looking thing — hardly a valentine and hardly an anatomic copy — on a branch. Or he should have been, but he seemed stuck there, like the weight of the ornament was unbearable, insurmountable. Something about her mother’s face said that this was peculiar.

A stray cousin, excited about the event of this ornament, spoke: “What are you waiting for grandpa?”

“Would you wait a minute?” he snapped, not turning around. Her cousin sagged onto the couch, looking for a way out. She knew very well then, that this was something she should not be seeing. The heaviness laced his voice, filled his banal words with a deeper, cleaving sadness. Not just sadness, but… grief? She couldn’t place it.

“Dad?” her mother began. Her venture went unanswered.

And he sobbed. Just like that. His oxygen machine wheezed, the prongs in his nose a reminder that he was adjacent to illness, frightening for his grandchildren, unaccustomed to sickness, age, and decay. It was inappropriate to look, she thought, the way his shoulders collapsed told of an unprecedented release. This was not for her eyes, not for her ears.

She became intently concerned regarding a bit of garland further up the staircase where shadows gobbled her out of view. She hid there and clutched her knees; she felt afraid. An urge to burst into tears overwhelmed her. Thickness closed up her throat. She swallowed it the way one swallows a wave of pain.

Now the staircase, railing included, lay bare, hardly a festive pine, more a skinny birch. It was white, which made the house easier to sell. Her cousins weren’t in rippling velvet; they were wearing black, which did not suit them in the way it did sophisticated women. From the kitchen, her mother announced dinner. She tilted her head, watching a honeydew leaf slide slowly down a whittled stick of wood.

Claire Stemen is a writer and poet born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, which is a very decent city. She is currently living in Seoul, South Korea. Her prose has been featured in The Grief Diaries and Mulberry Literary. Two of her poems have been featured in Miami University's literary magazine Inklings. Her writing concerns our rich inner worlds and the changes we make there, imperceptible to those on the outside.

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