After my dad succumbed to lung cancer on December 15, 2003, my mom started playing what she calls “the garbage game.”
The garbage game is essentially an aggrandized version of beat the clock. Time runs out when my brother, who is now nineteen and living on his own, moves out of our dad’s house, either to live on his own someplace else or with my mom and her boyfriend, Dale, in Penn Hills. Her goal is chip away at the mountain of junk in the basement one Sunday night at a time until his move-out day, when we will leave the two-bedroom house on the rear of 204 Penn Adamsburg Road behind forever.
I was nineteen when my dad died; my brother, sixteen. We found ourselves suddenly living alone together surrounded by the residue of our lives with our dad. I began stumbling upon the less-obvious packed-away things after my dad died because then, it seemed okay to open the lockbox or dig through the piles of papers in the center drawer of the desk. I found things in three levels. There were the things I always knew to be there – the kind of things you save for no real purpose other than to say you have, like miss-stamped quarters that escaped the Philadelphia Mint and the Tooth Fairy’s silver dollars. There was important documentation – our birth certificates and Social Security cards. Then, I found the things that existed only in concept to me: my dad’s wedding band, pictures of my mother, pictures of mother and father on their wedding day, match books saved from their honeymoon in Aruba. The kind of things my dad only ever showed himself.
The box was filled with things like this – things I’d never seen before, but my mom knew the meaning behind. I found a necklace – gold, with a long chain. The pendant was a gold elephant, adorned with tiny cubic zirconium jewels up and down its legs and on the blanket slung on its back.
“What is this?” I asked her. She walked over to me, touched the elephant with the tips of her fingers hidden under long, mauve-painted acrylic fingernails.
“Oh, that probably belonged to your dad’s aunt.”
I searched around the box some more.
“Isn’t this dad’s wedding ring?” I said. I had fished a gold ring from my dad’s jewelry box. It had a black face and a diamond set in the middle. My mother sat in the blue armchair (the chair my dad sat in every day), watching a black-and-white movie on AMC. She is forty-seven; her hair would be gray, but she dyes it, renews its medium brown and highlights it with blonde. She loves old movies; her hair is cut short like Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At this time, since my dad got sick, I lived at home and commuted forty-minutes everyday to the University of Pittsburgh – my mom slept over a few nights a week.
“No, our wedding bands were gold,” she said.
I had never seen these rings. I remembered my mother’s engagement ring – slung on the neck of a ceramic swan when she did the dishes – and the huge black ring on my dad’s finger. I always assumed it was his wedding band. Turns out he kept it hidden in the lockbox with the rest of the remnants of their marriage.