small quiet distress

Minoru Yamaguchi
Minoru Yamaguchi


I do this from time to time, but I unearthed an old failed story fragment from my hard drive, so I'm just going to copy and paste it here.


Travis put off cleaning out the attic for six months, and after so long it was much harder to begin the job that it would have been at the start of things. Uncle Cliff had lived in a house with an actual attic, a room tall enough to stand in, with a solid floor instead of crossbeams and sheetrock. Stairs led up to it, and there was a lock on the door. Travis had looked into the attic once on the occasion of his first visit to the house, and then had put it out of mind. When he made lists before bedtime of things to do the next morning, he would sometimes write “C.’s attic – clean” at the bottom. This was a private joke, or a form of self-flagellation, since he knew he never did get to the end of any of those lists.

One weekend, having at last got around to the job, he headed to the house equipped with a box of heavy-duty trash bags and, of all things, a dust mask which Lucille had pressed on him in her loopy, too-concerned fashion. It showed signs of use. “I won’t wear this,” he’d told her, trying to grin it away, but he thought he might at least put it on for a while so as to please her later without having to lie. He let himself in, fiddling with the fragile old-fashioned screen door for a minute, not wanting to wrench it off the hinge.

It looked like Cliff had been an amateur woodworker; the attic was a forest of scrap lumber, with three half-finished table legs among the tools strewn on a desk. These Travis toted downstairs to pile up on the bare garage floor, where he would put everything that was to be hauled to the city dump. There were a few pieces that seemed near completion, a pair of unstained wall-mounting candle holders with brass fittings, things like that; upon inspection each revealed to Travis some blemish or incompletion: a missing spoke on the rocking chair under the window, things like that, which led him to decide that the easiest thing to do was to junk the lot of it.

Just as he hefted the last of the wood scraps onto the pile, he heard a car pull into the drive. Ducking his head down under the cracked-open garage door, he saw his sister Janet setting her steering wheel lock.

“Who would know this? Not Oscar or Tom.” These were their other two brothers.

“Dad would have known.”

Travis didn’t think so. “He never kept up on the family. We didn’t even know about Uncle Cliff for so long.”

“I wonder if Mom would have known.”

“Not by the end. She lost all that stuff. She knew me.”

“I know. I was there.”

Who had been there more? This had been the spark of an argument or two after their mother’s wake, which of her children had put in the most time with her after her mind, the vessel holding seventy years of identity, had begun to leak.