She dusted the home for the third time that day, going over and over from the table in the living room to the china hutch behind the dining table that they never used, up the bannister that climbed alongside the steps and across the few picture frames that she’d put up again the other week. Over the years, she had found different excuses to take each down one by one. They would start benign. She would calmly announce to Ashok as he was reading the paper or having his tea, “I don’t like my complexion in this,” or “Look how the paper is fading,” and take it off the wall with him barely looking up. Later she stopped saying anything aloud at all, instead silently reasoning to herself, Why is this birthday cake important? Do we even go to this beach anymore? Do we still talk to these people?
In this way, with the pace that the Earth shifts continents or builds mountains under the sea, she slowly erased any lasting visages of him from their sight. At the time, she saw moving on as inseparable from putting away. It seems eliminating record was as good as eliminating existence, or vice versa.
But, in the same way those frames had disappeared into a shelf in the closet, behind a box of saris that had torn or faded, they reappeared one by one. When Ashok was away, late into the midday when the house was still quiet and her head was dulled from a cup of warm whole milk, she felt capable to take another photo out and hang it up, both aware and unaware that her body was doing this. She would adjust it a bit this way and that, and then before her eyes could focus too deeply on his face again, she would go to the bed and fall into her afternoon nap, knowing when she awoke she could pretend it had all happened in a dream, like magic, and perhaps she hadn’t done such an act of skullduggery.
In the late evenings and early mornings, she would see Ashok pause, if only for half a second, peer into the wall, and then keep on with whatever he was doing – down the stairs to the table for breakfast, or after dinner from the table up to sleep. For him too, she thought, he hoped perhaps a lack of sleep had made him delusional.
But for Ashok, when he did see them, it was a surprise of realizing he had forgotten them entirely. He would stare and discern everything about the photo save for his face – whether the sky was night or day, whether the background was buildings or pasture, whether the clothing was for warm or cold weather. Like a puzzle, he would reconstruct each memory from the clues in frame, letting it return to the forefront of his head after so many years of banishment.
By the time Ashok noticed the walls around the house suddenly going bare, he had made his own approaches. He had his own photos, raw, radiated rolls of film stock that he’d accumulated from an overactive camera finger. He’d always been so terrible at taking them to the CVS to develop, the small pang in the back of his mind telling him that if it were done, suddenly that image was real for all to see, and would always take precedent over the favorable, desired snap he had in his head.
It didn’t end there. Little toys had gone into a box that he carefully covered all around with duct tape and put in a storage park somewhere off of Northern Parkway, far enough out of his way he knew he would never just go idly. Stacks of notebooks from school, handwriting that was started blocky and lumbering, turned wavy and elegant, and somehow deteriorated back to crude scrapes. These he flipped through passively, one day sitting alone on the floor of his closet, if he was reading the sports page, then tore the hardtack covers off and sent each ruled page through the paper shredder he’d borrowed from the office. These things, his wife watched him do.
What he’d done without her stead, on his way home from work one day, perhaps the only thing he knew she wouldn’t bring herself to do. He’d gotten off the highway and taken the back roads up north of the county out towards Pennsylvania, and then, coming out to a small brook that he’d passed many years ago on cold mornings for a job out in the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, he stopped the car and got out. The sun was high; it was August. A dry spell in the past week had made the air scratch his in throat with every breath.
At the bank of the stream, he took out of one pocket, a pair of scissors, and a cigarette lighter. Out of the other, a handful of more photos, but rather than Ashok’s own candids these were official documents of existence – a green card, a passport, a social security ID, a library card. Each had a profile photo, stamped, glued, laminated next to his name, and his date of birth.
He took a knee in the dirt, and ripped some of the dead grass out and into a pile. With quick, efficient snips the documents went into two, three, many more pieces, mixed into the grass like decayed salad. He lit the pile, and waited. It burned faster than he expected it to, so he sat a bit longer, and when he started coughing in the acrid heat, he got up, kicked the ashes into the running water, and walked back to the car.
The next morning, he bashfully approached Bill and handed back the cigarette lighter.
“I was wonderin’ where that went,” Bill said. “Where’d you find it?”
“I didn’t, I took it for the day.”
“You could’ve just asked, Ash.” A smile formed at Bill’s face. “Did you take up smoking? Finally?”
When Ashok didn’t answer, he handed the lighter back. “You can keep it. I got another one anyway.”
When Ashok didn’t take the lighter, he pulled out his pack of Kools, took two in his mouth, lit them, and handed one over. Ashok took the cigarette. The smoke was rough, charred, as he expected smoke to be, and took another puff, if only to stop himself from letting anything else out of his mouth.