Click. The file cabinet opened, and with it a long-postponed chore: the weekly cleaning. Well, he had intended for it to be a weekly cleaning back in January when he was high on ambition, but resolutions of that nature have a way of coming undone. But now, now he would do it. He squatted down in front of the gaping lower drawer, his knees cracking. God, it had been too long since he’d opened the thing. Dust had lined the creases between the pages of his old, barely begun journals. Most of them contained entries that began around the first of the year and picked up in July of the next, then died off as soon as he got a new journal. He had completely forgotten about most of them.
Seeing the extent of his chore, he pulled open the top drawer and peered inside. He ran his finger along the side of the folders so he could read the labels. Tax returns, magazine articles, pay stubs, birthday cards, and address books were filed away accurately, if not neatly. One file seemed to be full of scrap paper: a random assortment of prematurely yellowed napkin bits and post-its. The file was labeled “Joanna.” His hand started to move on to the next file, then faltered. He pulled it out and left it on the desk. He did not look at it for another week.
Seven days later, he noticed the file under a pile of newspapers. He opened it and began to arrange its contents meditatively on the surface of the desk. He stared transfixed, rearranging the papers as if trying to make things come out his way. It’s funny how quickly the present becomes the past, he thought, funny how the past can defeat you. It makes you think of all the things that could have done and never will, of all the mistakes you should have made. It comes back to you in a form so beautiful, so fragile, like the little glass figurines you were always tempted to crush underfoot as a kid, just to see what they would look like imperfected. Frustrated, he left the papers there.
Just three hours later, he returned to rearrange them again. And again. And again. Angrily, he picked up the last letter and tore it up. Frightened by what he had just done, he gathered the pieces, all the fractured conversations of a stunted relationship. He scrambled them together and stuffed them in his bare fist, then he thrust the bundle into the dying fire. The fire accepted them with a feeble burn. He sank into the sofa, relieved to have the whole mess behind him.
He returned to the file cabinet and completed his weekly cleaning with a clear conscience. Now, he thought, that whole mess was behind him. Now, he could really sink his teeth into this organization business. He returned to his task with an air of confidence, of renewal. First task: color-coding the paper clips.
He worked diligently for two hours. Yet…he couldn’t resist turning an idle eye to the fireplace. Again and again. The embers glowed and died, oblivious. Just like they always had.
He remembered his mother sterilizing needles in the flame of a match. She would do this every time she had to sew or dig a wooden splinter out of his scraped up childish hand. She took such pride in the calluses the work had worn on her fingertips. He remembered watching her press the tip of the needle against her toughened fingertip.
“See?” she would say, “Not a scratch. That’s what happens with time.” You can’t make the pain go away, but you can dye it pink.
Even as he surveyed the color-coded paper clips, the newly labled files, the heap of old journals in the plastic trash can, he couldn’t shake the memory. He went to bed early, hoping to drown his uneasiness in dreams.
In the morning he scooped up the ashes from the fire and stored them carefully in a jar.