The words we leave behind

1. Ordered descent

On the wall by the stairs of my grandmother’s house she hung trivets of the kind you might find at a tourist trap. Rough cast iron, self-consciously old-timey, painted with whimsically tacky messages. Four of them in a line, so you could read as you descended:

Come in, sit down, relax, converse. Our house doesn’t always look like this. Sometimes it’s even worse.


I’m not a fast cook, I’m not a slow cook. I’m a half-fast cook!

When my grandparents packed up the house and moved into a retirement community I asked for the trivets, but it was only after she died that I noticed the penciled notes she had made on their backs: LT. END, LT. MID, RT. MID., and RT. END. Removing the trivets from the wall to paint, she had labeled them so they could be returned promptly to their proper position. Whimsical, but ordered. They are scattered now, one in my office, one in the kitchen, two boxed in a closet. But I like to think they will be reunited someday, and I will know how to arrange them when they are.

2. Best case scenario

Last spring my dog suddenly grew sick. On Sunday he was off his food; on Monday he was lethargic; on Tuesday he was dead. He stopped breathing six hours after he last chased his tennis ball across the yard, baying on its track. I wasn’t prepared to lose him.

The day after he died I found the sheet of handwritten notes I had taken during a phone call from the veterinary internist. I was meticulous, dutiful, or else I simply needed something to do with my hands. “Cancer—in liver, bloodstream,” I wrote. “Prob. elsewhere.” And, stupidly, “Chemo—days—4–6 weeks,” the best-case prognosis. The worst-case prognosis, as it turned out, was less than an hour. I didn’t write that down.

I neglected, too, to write down the name of the cancer. Something cytosis, but I remember that much only after hearing it a second time, in the hallway outside the consultation room where we saw his body, already cool to the touch. I have always been bad with names.

3. Possibilities

At a Starbucks in suburban Houston a young man struggles with the menu. Starbucks is the same everywhere, not only the coffee but the décor and the music and even the baristas, their cheerful cadence and All-American smiles, but its sameness is a subculture foreign to this lad. The barista, similarly young but coffee-wise, explains the possibilities. Too many possibilities. The boy is drowning in possibilities. He tries to look casual but I can see his panic reflected in the eyes of the barista. He hears “vanilla” and clings to it as to a life preserver, mouthing the word “latte” through parched lips.

When I was five I ran outside at the call of the ice cream truck and listened while the bored driver recited the flavors of freeze-pops. There must have been fifteen of them. I chose cherry because it was all I could remember. I vowed to listen more closely next time, but the ice cream truck stopped visiting my street. Thirty years later the hyopthetical glory of the forgotten flavors still teases me.

When the boy has paid for his latte and made his embarrassed exit I order my plain brewed coffee. I am traveling and not eager to get back on the road, and I wind up in a conversation with the barista. Only after several minutes do we notice the envelope creased and half-unfolded on the counter. It is an ordinary business reply envelope, but on its clean white back is scrawled, in loopy blue ink, Kristi, and a phone number.

“He must have pulled it out of his pocket with his wallet,” I say.

“Oh, man,” says the barista, and adds unnecessarily, “that sucks.”

He puts the envelope under the bar for safe keeping in case the boy remembers where he left it. I leave hoping he does. The list of venti pomegranate frapppuccinos and canteloupe freeze pops in our lives is long enough. I would hate to think of Kristi, whoever she is, becoming just one more possibility of which we can’t keep track.

3 thoughts on “The words we leave behind”

  1. This is an evocative triptych, and makes me think of half a dozen instances of scattered words. The words my brothers and I scrawled on the drywall before my father put the wood paneling over it — what were they?

    This morning, placing the scrap of paper that serves as a bookmark for the paperback I’m reading, I notice in my own frantic script: “$10 melody!” What does it mean? Expensive karaoke? A cheap whore? Or — it comes now — the Christmas CD delivered to my classroom five months ago by a student named Melody. All those holiday favorites, performed by our own choraleers.

    Can’t remember if I ever did pay Melody for the CD, like I was supposed to.

  2. In my room, in between the text books and notes and diaries in my bag, which rests on the floor by the stereo and the TV and a bunch of other bags- in my room is an empty notebook, where I am supposed to write interesting stuff like this. I think for now I’ll just live vicariously through your writing. 🙂

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