The green and gold urn sat in an open cardboard box, the overhanging naked branches gliding off of its shiny surface as they made their way through Manhattan. Ken drove faster, not wanting to miss the next green light. The day began early for them because they picked up her mother’s ashes from the funeral home at 8 am, and would meet with the real estate agent and talk about the possibility of selling the home at 10:45. The interior rattled a little as they moved through SoHo and the sky grayed as rain began to fall. The number of street lamps became sparse as they inched beside Chelsea Pier caught in a throng of yellow and green Taxis. The nausea and fatigue began to set inside Harriet’s stomach and head. The funeral had been two days ago, though Harriet easily lost track of hours. When they returned home after the funeral two days ago Harriet went to make coffee, but instead she sat at the kitchen island with her index and forefinger poised inside the cup and looking out the window. When Ken had told her that her mother had been moved to a hospice a week before that, it had been two weeks of discovering herself frozen and finding the minutes had disappeared.
The house her mother still owned but had not lived in since Harriet was a child was slightly uphill, on the border between Bronx and Manhattan and cradled by trees. The Victorian home had become somewhat abandoned when her mother Linda could no longer muster the energy to restore it for sale. The money made from the sell would have gone to pay medical bills, but even as Linda, Ken and her daughter touched up paint on the crown molding and replaced fogged glass panes in the downstairs bedroom, they all knew a nearly million dollar home far the epicenter of the city and in the middle of a recession would be difficult to unload on anyone.
The air in the house was stale. Dust modes floated down the green-tinted shafts of light from the stained-glass-covered dark wood door. Ken opened the front-facing bay windows, letting in the chilly September air. Harriet placed the urn on the coffee table and pushed her hands into her coat pockets.
“Do you want anything to eat?” Ken said as he strode over to her, placing his hand on the small of her back.
Harriet didn’t respond, she wasn’t paying attention. Instead, she walked over to the tarp-covered armchair and pulled it off in a few jerky tugs.
“She loved this chair. She would watch Cheers and drink hot cocoa. It didn’t matter if it was winter or not,”
“Do you want to keep it?” Ken said, looking around the living room.
Harriet shook her head no and ran her fingers over the small hand-embroidered birds of paradise. “There’s a few credit card bills I didn’t know about. She had a few loans from Citibank to restore the house. Apparently shingling the turrets was very expensive and the new stained glass in the bay windows at the back of the house…” she trailed off and moved closer to Ken, feeling his breath on the top of her head. Racking up credit card debt was just like her mother. She was thankful it was in her mother’s own name and not in her name like her father had done when Harriet turned 18. He used it to get a statue for the backyard, thinking it would help sell the house. He began to pay it off but the payments stopped after four months.
If Harriet could have her way, she would keep the armchair, the box of marbles locked in a box the in attic, and the house but she could not bring herself to take Ken on his offer. The weight on her chest was too great and with the financial burden lifted she could buy new things. They would never amount to the old things and never fill her heart as fully but it would appease Ken to know she was making strides to move forward. He had been worried about her. He always worried about her.
Ken said, “I’m going to turn on the heat,” as he walked away. Harriet took that moment to loosen her coat and let her stomach breathe. The zippers and the non-stretching wool material of the coat could not have been good for the baby. The bump was mostly her own fat, if she were being honest with herself, as the little human was no bigger than a kidney bean. Knowing she was carrying a child was what made her focus on remaining calm, though most times it didn’t work. Most of the time she found herself under the covers with the calculator on her phone trying to soften the blow of all the numbers and percentages that spun in her head when she dreamed. The clatter of the heat turning on made Harriet readjust for Ken’s arrival. She pulled out her white blouse to accommodate her small bump.
“There’s some boxes filled with records and books Mr. Douglass dropped off.”
Mr. Douglass was Harriet’s former neighbor before they moved into an apartment in midtown. The relationship between her mom and father was beyond strained and it became explosive. If her mom did not move out, then her dad would have. Mr. Douglass had a son named Joshua around her age and they were friends until they had an argument over politics. Joshua was sexist, a trait he picked up from the guys at his school.
The box was soggy at the bottom and packed tight with 7-inch vinyl. The edges of the record covers where thin white tattered lines. The most used were in the middle. Some were shrink-wrapped. Harriet slid a worn record out of the box, pinching it with the fingers to get a hold. It was an beige and titled Post Marked Stamps with a small heart shaped stamp and a etched pine tree standing lonely at the bottom. On the other side was a framed picture of two young black-haired girls sitting shoulder to shoulder, their eyes blank. The first listed was Black in the Eye by Aspera Ad Astra. Harriet remembered when her mom bought the album from a dusty record store one year ago on a whim. The hair salon was full so they walked around to kill some time, linking arms and talking about their disappointment that Cane ended after only one season. The record was in perfect condition but packed haphazardly inside of a Rubbermaid bin marked $10 for 2 and $15 for 3. The cashier smelled of chewing Tabaco and something sharp. Harriet’s mother asked “What’s your opinion on this?” over her shoulder and he responded, “It’s from the Psychedelphia scene, you like you’re old enough to have seen the original thing so I don’t know if you’ll like it.” Harriet automatically registered the insult but her mother did seem to and instead flipped over the record and read the list of songs “Post from Disorder…Belated Blues…Nagarkot…Pincushion.” Harriet, unable to help herself Googled Nagarkot, it was a small village in Nepal. The books were cheap pharmacy romance novels, some with the movie poster as the cover. Many of the pages were dog-eared in her copy of Room. Harriet bought that book for her on a whim, feeling it would be disrespectful to visit her in the hospital empty handed. Linda was in bed receiving an IV because she was very dehydrated. The chemo made drinking and eating difficult for Linda.
“Hm,” Harriet said, rubbing her pants legs with the tips of her fingers. Ken knew that pose too well. Harriet had a habit of folding inward with her feet close together and standing too still when she had second thoughts or wasn’t sure how to say what she needed to say. Harriet stood the same way at Mount Sinai Hospital when her mother said she had decided to not go through chemotherapy.
“What do you need?” Ken said, walking closer to her side.
“I want to look around,” Harriet said “ before we start to talk about selling.”
Ken took her hand and they walked through the archway leading to the small library. Built into the wall were ceiling-high bookshelves and casewrapped and leather-bound volumes of poetry and literature. The most worn and loved copies sat on the lowest shelf. Her memories of the room were faint, but she could still smell the hot cider that was brought out on Christmas. “Every year mom would put up posters for a Christmas day reading of A Christmas Carol. Dad was always worried she’d attract crazies from the street but a lot of kids and their parent’s came. Some would bring food. It was always the best,” Harriet said.
Tears slipped down her cheeks and she wiped them away quickly. “Mom has a few first editions. We can start with that,” She walked to the bookcase on the left. Her mother loved Dracula. She had brought Harriet along for a last-minute vacation in the middle of October to take her to Wahpeton, North Dakota because an old woman had a mint-condition 1st edition copy. The town looked like it belonged in the old west with two long blocks facing each other—the nucleus of their existence. The red Childcraft encyclopedias would be the first on her hit list, the memories of 3rd grade science reports giving her hand a phantom cramp. Harriet’s dad helped with homework but the memories always caused a twinge of anxiety. He stood over her, mostly pointing at the things she spelt and computed wrong. Harriet rubbed holes into her paper and when the exhaustion would set in she would achieve a more incorrect answer.
“Hey.” Ken said. “We don’t have to do this today or even this month…”
Harriet wanted to get rid of things. She also wanted to keep things. Her rational mind also knew each penny mattered a lot and each copper disk would free Ken and her from the debt prison they now resided in. She was not worried about money until her mother became ill. At Hunter College, where she’d met Ken, it surprised her that some of her classmates couldn’t afford lunch everyday or they needed to take out loans to afford the measly 5k tuition. Ken was one of these classmates, but he didn’t worry as much. He was careful about money and only once did he bring up her wealth.
It was during their senior year in the middle of November when Linda told Harriet she wasn’t going through with chemo. Ken looked livid when Harriet told him in the waiting room and he said couldn’t understand why Linda would not spend money she had. Harriet didn’t have an answer and mirrored some of his anger, even going as far as to ignore her mother’s calls for a couple days. Latter she scoffed when her mother’s doctor said she had a treatment plan, as if no treatment was treatment at all. Harriet now cringed at these memories. The rain started up again and poured down on the unkempt shrubs in the backyard and further drowned the Kentucky grass.
Ken led her away from the books. The next stop on their tour was the study through the second archway via the library. It was empty due to the resurfacing they had started but didn’t finish four months ago. The floor was still covered with white and circular scuffmarks and small ridges of dust. Upstairs was her mother’s favorite room. The large, scalloped bargeboards were very noticeable and triangulated any sunlight. Cream-colored embossed wallpaper covered the walls and a closet covered in hand-painted slivery koi fish that seemed to circle and swim underneath the surface. Ken looked at the closet for a while, and his finger hovered over a delicately painted koi, unsure if he should touch it. Her mother wouldn’t have minded it. As a child, Harriet watched her mother paint and draw and then she would suddenly take up tiny Harriet and have her feel and experiment with the materials. Linda always advised to be careful but Harriet was allowed to feel with her fingers the differing textures of oil, tempera, and acrylic and watched the ripples formed by the addition of water to watercolor paint. Linda thought that through the multisensory experience of art that Harriet would develop artistic ability.
“She would have let you touch it,” Harriet said.
“It’s too perfect, your mother was very talented.”
Harriet wanted to add ‘our mom,’ and though it wasn’t official, her mother had considered Ken part of the family and nudged Harriet to get him to propose. She would often ask how he was doing and if he had plans for the weekend, things she would have never asked any of Harriet’s past boyfriends. People her mother didn’t like weren’t invited to brunch or church and certainly weren’t allowed in the family Christmas photo for the family Christmas card. Harriet wondered if Ken noticed the special treatment or if he thought it was how her mother treated all of her boyfriends. Ken was always there for both of them and would rub against her mother’s conservative political views, but though it irritated her Linda told Harriet she preferred his honesty. Other boyfriends laughed at all of her mother’s corny jokes. Ken only laughed when it was funny and if it were especially bad, he would tease her.
Ken, unlike Harriet, understood sooner why her mother chose to forego treatment and was not as fazed by Linda’s dark humor or the small wishes she made before her health quickly plummeted. The one that made Harriet most uncomfortable was the going away party. The cake and the candy and ridiculous amounts of food she shouldn’t have been eating made her dizzy and depressed, but Linda didn’t notice Harriet’s mood and enjoyed herself. Friends and neighbors talked for a week afterward. Some of the gossip was kind, and the other and more conservative side took offense and called the party morbid. Many things about the last few months were morbid but loyalty wasn’t something either Harriet or Ken took lightly.
Linda had been sick for a few months before she had been diagnosed. It started last summer. It began as an occasional stomachache and neither Harriet nor her father thought much of it. When Harriet’s father died months later from a heart attack Linda began to have difficultly eating and keeping food down. Both Harriet and Ken first attributed the loss of appetite to stress due to her father’s passing. Though Harriet knew how strained their relationship was it was not impossible that she felt loss. Perhaps even angry of not having the last word after everything he had put them both through. When Linda would go a day without eating and claim she was full, that was when Harriet made Linda go to the hospital. The waiting room was softly lit and the deep blue Saxony carpet looked like a placid lake. Harriet wished she melt into it and be sucked deep down into it tightly packed crevices. Ken placed his hand on top of hers, making her right palm sweaty. Her mother didn’t look worried, but Harriet noticed how frail-looking her mother’s hands were and how a mild breeze would make her shiver. She looked even weaker when she stood, her center of gravity seeming to have shifted onto her left leg.
Hearing from her mother’s doctor that she had stage 1 stomach cancer was at first a bit of a relief. She thought, “they’ll just remove it, she’ll have some chemo and life will proceed as normal,” but it was immediately shattered when she said she didn’t want chemo and the doctor told them about the possibility of it spreading. It was like being punched in the chest, hearing her mother was going to slowly die. Harriet watched Linda arrange herself as if she planned to leave immediately. She shuffled through business cards as if she had something she was retrieving for the doctor. The doctor’s eyes were slightly downcast as he spoke as he toyed with his blue and yellow Cymbalta pen.
After the appointment, Linda talked to Harriet as if she had not gotten the most horrifying news of her life. Linda dragged them into the gift shop. She bought water and shakily set a dollar and two quarters into the hand of the florist that was filling in, leaving a bouquet of lilies incomplete, the cellophane wrapping unsecured with ribbon. Ken lumbered beside both of them, his face red and lips pressed into thin pink lines. The first thing Linda talked about was the house and about finishing the renovations. The house was not lived in for six years since her father moved out. Renovations were started when Harriet was five but they were often left incomplete, a habit her father hated and often fought with her mother about. Harriet’s father also said the renovations were hobbies, no matter how ambition and/or dangerous they were.
In the car Linda told Harriet to take her to Lowe’s so she could buy nails. Harriet missed the exit twice, her hands shaking, veering the wheels just slightly to the right, and eyes watery. The cold air of the store temporarily moved her focus from her sadness to her pink chapped hands. Linda was offered help by a bored-looking old man wearing pants that were a size too big, but she didn’t need any help. She went to the hand-held tool aisle and filled the cart with a few boxes of 3 2/3 nails and 7-inch nails she told Harriet over her shoulder would be for the new door. Ken helped Linda shop, looking less upset than Harriet. In another aisle, as he was standing next to Linda putting an order in for tile, he texted Harriet that she should help her mom. Harriet stuffed the phone deep down inside her red wool coat and wandered around aimlessly until she found an empty aisle to let some tears flow.
They walked around the house a bit more, passing by one disheveled room after another and some rooms covered in tarp or large plastic buckets and bags of debris before pausing at Harriet’s childhood room. It was empty with the exception of an empty cradle, a bookcase, and a pallet of cherry wood to redo the floors.
“I don’t think it’s safe to be in this room without a mask, it’s not good for you,” Ken said. He hesitated a bit at the end and it made her more self-conscious. Harriet readjusted her shirt. She eyed the walnut cradle in the corner. The rockers were scuffed but with a small bottle of wood polish and some paint it would look like new. There was a slight crack near the heart shaped cutouts on the end. Harriet was told when she was six her cousin became over excited rocked the cradle too hard, tipping on its’ side with her inside when she was a baby. It was why she had small fleshy scar on her knee. Harriet’s phone buzzed in her back pocket and she checked her notifications. The real estate agent had sent a long-winded e-mail stating she could not take on the house due to it still being in the process of being restored and the fact it was on the market for close to eight years. Though she had expected, this Harriet wanted to cry.
“He doesn’t think he can sell it. It’s all about making a commission these days.”
“Please Harriet, don’t cry. It’s only been two weeks of trying. That’s no time,” Ken said, grabbing Harriet in his arms. Harriet pulled away a moment later, not wanting to cry anymore and worry him.
“Hey, I’m fine,” Harriet said “We can start talking about it now. I’ve got the papers and we can call to other places,” Harriet said. Her eyes stung and her olive cheeks were hot.
Nonetheless, Harriet walked out the room and Ken had to take larger strides to keep up with her as she walked to the kitchen. It was the only room in the house that was completely renovated. The silver appliances and metal kitchen island clashed with the antiquated furnishings and overall dim quality of the lights throughout the house. Ken placed the statements and bills and the stack of folders on the kitchen island. They sorted them a week ago by origin, the only act they were emotionally able to do at that point.
“Did you have any realtors in mind?”
“He sold luxury properties so we have to find some place similar. Close to a million dollars was put into this house. I don’t understand why he can’t try.”
“Maybe he’s intimidated,” Ken said, flipping through bills.
“Maybe we’re sitting on something worthless to the rest of the world,” Harriet said, her cheek resting on her hand. The feeling of nausea washed over her again, and she jumped down from the stool, nearly taking it with her. In a gasping and jerky motion she vomited into the sink. She washed out her mouth as Ken stood beside her, his hand rubbing her back.
“Harriet” Ken said. “Are you pregnant?”
Harriet stood, her hands clawed on the sink to keep her balance, and half-shook her head as she strained to not cry.
“We can’t afford a baby,” Harriet whispered down into the sink.
“If we sell the house—“
“This house is a wreck,” Harriet said.
“We sell our house and live here, we’ll have just enough to pay down more than half of the debt,” Ken said, stroking his hand through her long wavy hair.
“You’ve thought about this. Why didn’t you tell me?” Harriet’s’ light brown eyes were narrow and accusatory.
“I didn’t want to accuse you of being pregnant because you ate half my food.” Harriet laughed and a smile struggled to break across her tear-streaked cheeks.
“I can’t have anything to myself,” Harriet muttered under her breath “it’s not fair.”
“How do you think I feel?” Ken said “I’ve been starving for days now. Everyone in the house got to eat but me.” He led her back to the table and grabbed her small hands in his, kissing them.
He said nothing for a few moments and what plagued his mind was if Harriet would really keep the baby and if she thought it was worth the struggle. They were not married and had a limited amount of money. All of Harriet’s inheritance had gone to a year of chemo in a last minute effort to save Linda’s life. It bought them valuable time but watching how quickly she had deteriorated from that point on was horrible.
“I love you, Harriet,” Ken said. He meant all of her and that included the budding life inside her. He feared with all his being of losing another life and he could feel all her fear though her trembling hands.
“I love you,” Harriet said, her voice breathless.
The rain had stopped but rainwater continued to drip down the turrets and from the gutters. There was no sun, but only a hazy mist that blanketed the streets.