A wispy, ethereal cloud of steam slowly appears above my cup of coffee. As I marvel and admire its presence, though, I hear the harsh rattle of a doorknob. The door’s largely impotent chain sways erratically back and forth as my flatmate kicks at the door. Before I can get there to assist, she manages to shove it open, the door scraping a harsh moan on the ancient wooden floor of the entryway in the process.
She carries two armfuls of groceries into the kitchen, inelegantly dropping them on the table, though not so harshly as to disturb my cup and saucer. Per usual, she’s purchased little of real nutritional value; cartons of preprocessed cardboard-like food that fill the belly, but not the soul. No vegetables, no fruit, no meat; nothing of substance.
“Elizabeth,” I gently prod, “How do you expect to stay healthy if this all you eat?” I produce a sugar cube and allow it to dissolve slowly into my cup, stirring it with a silver demitasse spoon.
She glances at me, witheringly, then pointedly removes her apron from the steakhouse, draping it on the chair beside me with the emblazoned corporate embroidery showing. The response is clear: “I eat at work.” As I produce an overly theatrical sigh to show my acquiescence of her point, she glances at my cup of coffee, raising an eyebrow. I refrain from repeating the sigh, and instead reply, “Yes, I recognize the irony. Objection sustained.”
As she stows the groceries, such as they are, I glance at the clock. She’s worked yet another double shift. The job of being a hostess is taxing enough for someone as loathe to appreciate human contact as herself; the double shifts are starting to show in the circles under her eyes and the pinched look around her mouth. Before I can make another comment in regards to her health, though, I catch sight of a smaller plastic bag in the sack she hasn’t yet unpacked.
“Ah, fantastic!” I exclaim genuinely, startling her from her task of placing packs of noodles on the pantry shelf. “You’ve purchased more beading supplies, I see?” A hint of color rises in her face, and a shadow of a smile flickers by. She retrieves the bag and arrays the newcomers helpfully on the table for me to peruse. Her hobby of making jewelry certainly brings some color and light to our otherwise dingy household, and the amount of income it provides, while meager, is still a help. She’s been able to establish a growing clientele, but her erratic and overworked schedule has left her precious little time to spend on her baubles. In fact, I would wager she’s planning on exhausting a few hours this very evening working on them.
As she heads to the bathroom to no doubt shower off the remains of the day, I notice that she’s left her purse on the table, and her chequebook has slid out. Feeling rather guilty, I rifle through the pages; assuaging myself with the knowledge that I would prefer attempting to speak directly to her about her finances even less. After all, a gentleman does not discuss such subjects with a lady. The rent is due in less than a week, but her account shows she has nowhere near enough to cover that expense; nor the many other bills stacked on the tiny table beneath the telephone on the kitchen wall. Our home can be quite drafty, and while it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, her omnipresent cardigans and scarves certainly speak to how much it bothers her.
A plan of action, then. Elizabeth has provided me with more companionship than someone my age can rightfully claim, and there must come a time when everyone, even one such as myself, must let go of the ties to the past. The plan would require me breaking a house rule, though: I would need to enter her bedroom, which is normally off-limits to me, as it should be.
I wait until she opens her bedroom door, indicating that she’s once again decently clothed. I knock on the door itself.
She glances in my direction via the mirror above her dresser as she brushes her hair. Her brushing is whisper-quiet; there are some days when I feel utterly alone in the house, only to suddenly find her stringing a bracelet on the living room settee. She’s paused in her hairbrushing, an indication that I should continue to speak.
I do so: “Elizabeth, I’m afraid I need to ask you a favor. It’s an odd request, but please indulge me for now… I need you to move your dresser away from the wall.” This is no small request, because it is no small dresser. The massive piece of furniture hasn’t been moved in nearly half a century; of this, I am certain.
The dear girl lowers her hairbrush and, turning around, stares at me. “Yes, I’m aware of the oddity, Elizabeth. But you can certainly appreciate the fact that moving that beast is something that I absolutely cannot muster the strength to accomplish. And moreover, this will—ultimately—directly benefit you. I implore you. Please.”
She stares a moment more, then with a nearly ephemeral shrug, begins removing the drawers from the dresser, placing them on her bed, so as to make the behemoth easier to shove. I take advantage of the fallow time to rest in the hallway, preparing myself, both physically and emotionally. Soon, the heavy sounds of the dresser protesting across the floorboards, coupled with barely perceptible grunts and moans, beckon me to return. She’s managed to move one side of the dresser roughly a yard away from the wall.
“Perfect. Thank you, my dear.” I pause a moment before the next. “You may leave now.”
Her quizzical stare transforms, taking on a harder edge, as she is still breathing hard from her efforts. I can tell she’s about to lodge a form of protest, but I speak before she can muster it. That is, I don’t speak so much as impel; I regret having to speak in such a way to a lady. “Leave. The Room. NOW. Elizabeth.” The poor girl’s features for a moment return to a state of fear that I haven’t seen since she first met me; a regrettable moment as well. She quickly pads out the door, grabbing her box of jewelry wire on the way.
Now. I study the fading, peeling wallpaper, and find the ridges that are no longer as well hidden as they once had been. For most, the thin wooden veneer would not provide much effort to break through. I gather my strength and focus…
…The hole I’ve produced is sufficient. The effort has left me shaking a bit, but I’m not yet finished. I reach into the hole and pull out the box with the mother-of-pearl finish. I lay it on the ground. Etched in silver on the top of the box I read the words,
“To my darling Esther,
May these make you look even more radiant.
All my love,
—Maximillian, 22 June 1893”
Perhaps I’ve miscalculated. The effort to break open the hole and remove the box have left me unable to carry the box to Elizabeth. The raw emotion I feel at reading the inscription helps, but I am still reduced to shoving the box along the floor.
Out of the room.
Down the hall.
To the living room.
She is there. Working on a necklace.
She ceases her work, staring at the box moving across the floor. As it stops, she looks around, searching for me.
I take a deep semblance of breath, and speak. “I’m afraid, my dear, that I am unable to manifest at this moment. But this box is my gift to you. I believe you may be able to put the contents to some use. The pieces are quite old. They were presented to my mother at her début, and I in turn, offered them to my wife at our wedding. They would have gone to my daughter, had she survived the fever that took both her and her mother.”
Elizabeth picks up the box, opens it, and stares at the jewelry inside. I continue, though my voice fades, as I tire. “I hope that you are able to use these pieces in your own work. I regret that there’s nothing more I can offer as help…”
She closes the box and embraces it. She takes a deep breath, blinks slowly, and smiles. “Thank you, Max,” she breathes.