a sketch about pitching life-markers

Jacob watched as her mouth crinkled into a full-lipped pout. He had always liked her lips. They must have given major delight to the men in her life. Maxine. He was never one of the men. Not one of the lip-sharing men, anyhow. He and Max were ‘buds’. Work buddies. Office mates for years. Friends into retirement.

Jacob could read her lips. Distaste. That’s what they were saying in response to the subject of purging. “Aw, c’mon Max,” he pleaded, “You know you have to clean out the place, get rid of the piles and piles of… ‘stuff’… if you want to sell the house.”

She looked askance, huffed. He tried again.  “It’s a good house in a prime neighborhood. It’s going be snapped up the minute you put it on the market. Families with kids are dying to find a place in this district what with the promise of free college and all.”

Maxine kept her face expressionless as she raised her two fingers of Single Malt for a delicate sip. Rattling the ice, she thumped the glass back down to the patio table.

“And besides,” Jacob continued, “You know that opening at Elysian Meadows won’t last long. You gotta move on it.”

Maxine carefully eased herself out of the lounge chair, lips clenched to squelch involuntary groans and walked to the childhood-keepsake wind chime hanging from the canvas awning and poked one of the rusted tubes to induce the familiar tinkle.

Jacob watched her eyes lose focus. Could tell she was recalling things he had learned over lunches and coffee breaks and boring times on the job—her childhood disjointed by her father’s frequent absences and finally divorce. Stepfather dissonance. Two marriages and several vaguely referenced relationships. However, thoughout, she had clung to this home, her outsized safety deposit box, repository for every receipt, warranty and greeting card over the past seventy-six years.

“Look,” Jacob tried again, “I know this must be hard for you.”

Maxine spun around and glared at him as if he were the bird eyeing the crumbs Gretel had left to find her way back home. He got it. Her paper trail—stashed in boxes in the basement, closets, the garage. It was her life officially documented with signed statements and postmarks and PAID IN FULL stamps. He sighed. “I suppose there’s no point in my offering to help you carry the boxes…somewhere. To maybe help you sort through and…carefully cull…”

“No,” she snapped. “I don’t need help. I need my stuff.”

Where to go next, Jacob wondered. It wouldn’t help to point out that her house could burn down tomorrow and it could all be gone anyway, not to mention when she dies.

“I always planned to write my memoirs,” Maxine said in a plaintive voice.

“Okay, how about this? How about if I arrange to have all your boxes put into storage—some place near the retirement home?”

“Why is it so important to get rid of things? They’re not hurting anybody here. Just leave it all alone, why don’t you?”

“Because your house has stairs and you have a bad hip and shouldn’t live alone anymore so you should sell your house and move into assisted living,” he blurted in one long breath.

Jacob couldn’t see her lips they were so tightly compressed. “Who asked you?” Maxine replied chin raised, the corners of her mouth turned down like a child told she had to eat her spinach. “Where do think we would be if everybody trashed their papers. How about museums and presidential libraries and research centers for historical studies? Huh? How about that?”

Jacob found himself losing his temper. “You’re not a museum curator, Maxine. You’re a hoarder. And unless all your goodies were catalogued and sorted, no one would be interested in spending their lives sorting out the trivia of your life.”

He felt immediately ashamed of himself as she sank into her chair, face slack as a deflated balloon. “You’re saying I’m not important enough to study. Well…Well… Maybe my grandkids or their children will want to know something about my life.”

Everybody thinks that, Jacob wanted to say, hopes that. But how many people would want a receipt for a washing machine from 1968? Or your particular photo of Mount Rushmore? Instead, he closed his eyes for the length of a sigh. Opened them to the faded awning and thought, I’ll have to stop by in a couple weeks to roll that up for the winter. Then he leaned over and squeezed his friend’s hand. “Yes, some day your family may want to go through your papers.” He watched Maxine suck her bottom lip, mollified. “So, now can I take you to lunch?”

Maxine smiled.

One thought on “Lip Reading

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