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We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas

Simon & Schuster, August 19, 2014

“I can’t explain why I can’t give you more in this,” he said. “I just really don’t want to go anywhere. Have you ever felt like life was getting away from you, and people were lapping you and you couldn’t catch up? And if you could just stop the world and take it all in, and nobody would go anywhere for a little while, you’d have enough time to understand it? I wish I could do that. I don’t want anybody or anything to move an inch.”

Stacked brown cardboard boxes of various sizes lined the hallway, and Helen Rickfort, a lived-in sixty-eight, stood on a 12” plastic step stool, digging into what started over thirty years ago as the upstairs linen closet but morphed into the place where things got shoved whenever an unexpected guest visited or storage was needed for items that had lost their usefulness. Most of the contents were not for packing, oddly enough. St. Vincent de Paul would receive the old blankets, a macramé hanging plant holder, and a set of hot rollers. The rest headed straight to the trash.

Helen reached to the top shelf, the last one for clearing. She tugged at a ball of rags that filled the compartment, when a stream of multicolored strips sprung out like streamers fired from a party popper. She looked down at the mess and then back to the loosened swirl of fibers.

“To hell with it,” she said.

Helen tore into the bundled mass, pulling everything to the ground. A squirrely bottle of unopened golden shampoo, which had burrowed inside the nest, thudded to the hardwood floor, along with other miscellaneous junk that she would sort through from a safer height. Helen barely trusted her knees on the stairs let alone balancing on a platform, contorting this way and that. Her Cirque du Soleil days had pitched a tent hundreds of miles from worn joints in a body that languished shortly after the boys, Theo and Dan, graduated college.

Family and friends had offered their assistance, but Helen declined anyone the pleasure of seeing her leave. Theo, for one, had been insistent ever since Hal passed that the house was too big for her alone. Her youngest son never grasped that the house on Chestershire closed escrow as their—her—last.

“People move,” she said. “That’s life.”

Grabbing a stray rag, Helen stretched to wipe the surface of the shelf. Her heels lifted from the stool, as her arm bent further to brush lint forward. The stool made a short skid across the floor, but her footing managed to keep firm by the grace of God. Steadying with her left hand, Helen took the right hand to make a pass over the width of the wooden ledge. As she did, what sounded like sandpaper scratched the surface of the shelf. Curious, she peered into a dark hole.

Helen stepped down and pushed the stool further into the closet, hoping the adjustment would provide an adequate boost. Feet firmly returned on top, Helen’s right hand extended, as her torso twisted in the opposing direction, and her face pressed against the cupboard, along with her upper arm. Her hand patted around, until she felt something at the tip of her fingers. With a flick of the wrist, an envelope slid forward, dangling over the leading edge. She gathered her breath, before snagging the taunt for closer inspection.

“To Whom It May Concern” was penned in black across the front of the yellowed paper.

Unsure about breaking the seal, Helen sat down on the makeshift bench at her feet. She stared at the handwriting, which could have been familiar, not knowing if she was the rightful recipient. Laws protected against opening another person’s mail. So what if this parcel lacked a postmark. Privacy violations do not require a stamp.

Reasoning that at least a little longer the house and everything inside was hers, a finger poked underneath the envelope flap. The glue must have been old because the envelope peeled apart with a stiff crackle. A handwritten letter waited within.


May 29, 1979

Dear Owner,

Welcome to this house. I hope you like it. I sure did. My room was the one next to the bathroom on the other side of where my parents slept.

I didn’t want to leave but my dad got a job in Dallas. I’m going to miss my friends. I’m also going to miss the swing set in the backyard with the monkey bars. I used to hide in this closet when my sister and me played hide and seek. The first time it took her forever to find me because I curled up at the bottom, shut my eyes and fell asleep. My dad yelled my name really loud to wake me up. Kelly started looking in the closet right away after that so I had to find a new place to hide. Nowhere else worked as good.

Maybe I will come to meet you. If I don’t I want to make sure that you don’t break anything. Take good care of my house and treat it with respect like you always should to other people’s things.




Impressions skittered to mind: the sound of the blowing furnace warming drafty rooms in the winter, the first time she and Hal stepped through the front door, the fresh cottony smell of the laundry room, and removing those rusty swings in order to assemble a new jungle gym for the boys the summer Theo turned ten.

A powerful feeling of selfishness, which fueled her insistence to stay, infused with a sense of lost possession, took residence in Helen’s heart. Downsizing was agonizing because she had never imagined feeling anything less.

Helen re-folded the note and gently slipped it into the envelope. She brought the flap to her moistened tongue and patted the adhesive strip, which tasted surprisingly sweet. There was always a chance the glue would hold anew. The Owner climbed the stool one more time and, with a quick toss, deposited the parcel into its box. She kicked aside debris that had fallen between the jambs, in order to close the door, and a tired hand lifted off the handle to smear tears dry under her eyes.

Helen’s break was done. She had to get on with it. Movers were scheduled to arrive at 9:00 a.m. sharp the next day to collect her personal property.

All they wanted to do was move her things from one location to another. They had no idea that everything they placed in a definite spot brought her one step closer to disappointment.