At first all he could do was lie on their sofa fist-scrunching her brick-red wool blanket to his nose inhaling the lingering traces of her linden soap, the amber warmth of her body. He’d stare at the solemn gray of the idle television where most evenings they had watched Jeopardy her shouting out “Who are the New York Nets!” or “What is Monrovia!” before he’d even opened his mouth

He got up only for the bathroom or to open the door to well-wishers who thrust enameled pans of lasagna or potatoes au gratin rich enough to turn a stomach into his hands, and he’d shove them into the fridge or freezer alongside all the others

He’d sit on the wooden stool in the kitchen, exhausted from so much kindness, from the sharp winter air roaring in before he could click the door shut again. He’d stare at his knuckled and creased hands–the ones that had turned these kitchen table legs on the wood lathe in the basement, sawed and beveled and lacquered this table top where she’d chop onions so fast and fine he’d say that if she was a lawyer in the courtroom taking down an opponent she’d get 500 bucks an hour.

She’d eye him slyly while her palms circumnavigated the globes of twilight-purple eggplants, smack them firmly to elicit some deep mysterious sound that told her if they were ready to be sliced spiced fried crisp and bubbled in parmigiana and garlic-basil-fragrant sauce. He’d smelled felt seen it all from a distance since she’d snap “Out Out” if he dared enter while she worked

He pressed work-roughened hands to his face, hands that had plumped the heft of her—breasts, buttocks, thighs, belly when it was round with the fruit of their love

He uses them now to open the rattly Frigidaire as she always called it, even though it’s really a Whirlpool. He grips each casserole, coaxes its contents cold, rubbery, stinking of grease and garlic into the garbage, runs the water steaming and harsh over red raw hands, scrubs each pan to gleaming then dries and sets it aside

He pulls her apron with its neat row of orange-billed geese over his head, hoping for a hint of her but it’s too crisp and clean to bear any of her scent. Still it curves around his body as it curved around hers the strings pulling tight around his midriff

With trembling hands he pulls out her favorite Wusthof knife—the taking-down-the-defendant one, carves away the bad parts of a miserable old onion then chops. Slowly at first, eyes stinging, then faster and faster, tears flowing freely now. One day he’ll master that 500-buck-an hour dice but for now this will have to do. This will have to do, Gerty, he whispers, this will just have to do

15 Comments

  1. Sarah Freligh

    Oh, this is such a moving journey through grief, Kathryn, from the first, terrible days afterward to the moment when life kicks in. And the details that show their backstory, their great and particular love, especially “hands that had plumped the heft of her.” Without those, how could we appreciate what he’s going through? I love that she’s a feast of a woman that, fittingly, he honors and celebrates with those concluding actions!

    I got tossed by the verb tense, the past, past perfect and then present tense. Think it’s simply a matter of deciding what the story present is and going from there. The simplest way might be to start in present tense– “At first all he can do is . . . ” — and go straight past tense for the memories, shifting back to the present for the story present gestures/actions. You’ll maybe need more of a transition to the scene at the end because it’s a break in what has been his routine since his wife’s death–something that indicates that shift in time as well as mood.

    Great work, Kathryn! Can’t wait to see this one out there!

    • Kathryn Silver-Hajo

      Yikes, navigating through shifting tenses does seem to be an issue for me–at least in these two stories! I’ll get to work on this as well as a more graceful segue at the end.

      Thanks so much for your supportive, helpful comments, Sarah!

      • Sarah Freligh

        That’s mechanical stuff, easy fix. The creative stuff, the story, that’s the hard part. And you nailed it–it’s all there.

        • Kathryn Silver-Hajo

          True! And I’m so pleased you like the story.

          Thank you so much, Sarah, for leading such a wonderful workshop. It was well-organized, welcoming, great resources, the participation was fantastic and that is partly because there are so many fantastic writers/humans in the group, but also because you fostered such a great atmosphere and communication! 🙂

  2. Mikki Aronoff

    Oh, my heart. “What Their Hands Did” – great title for this in-the-kitchen (heart of the home?) story of grief/loss and trying to recapture the essence of a wife using great sensual details, from scrunching the blanket to the tear-releasing onion chopping (and throughout) Shoving gifts of food into the freezer and trying to make the dishes they shared before – he wants to do it himself! Love the picture of her thumping the twilight-purple eggplants, his making of the table where she prepares the food. His fondling of the body (“plumping the heft of her”!) that bears the child they made together. I love ALL the grounding details. You’re so good at that. Especially love that you don’t end on the could-be-but-isn’t-maudlin outpouring of tears caused by the onion chopping mingled with his grief, but you give us an idea of a light-heartedness that probably kept them together so long…Wondering whether you will be deciding to put or not put periods at the close of each paragraph (as you’ve just used one). I’m thinking it works better with? Thanks for this beautiful story!

    • Traci Mullins

      You are masterful with sensory details, something I really want to work on. You’ve struck the perfect mood in this piece—the palpable sadness, the close-to-irritation at the well wishers kindness, then the purposeful action that moves him ever so slightly toward a future of his own. Love the title and the ending.

    • Kathryn Silver-Hajo

      Thank you so much Mikki, for all your wonderful, supportive comments! So glad you liked the story. Thanks for noticing that one lonely period. 🙂 Loved being in workshop with you, as always!

  3. Nancy Stohlman

    Love this phrase: exhausted from so much kindness,
    and: lasagna or potatoes au gratin rich enough to turn a stomach
    A really beautiful portrayal of what and how we hold on through loss. It’s not that he need homecooking, it’s that he needs HER homecooking.
    Using the onion at the end to get the tears flowing is just brilliant.
    I took away one of the sentences at the end just to see what it would be like to get there faster:

    Slowly at first, eyes stinging, then faster and faster, tears flowing freely now. This will have to do, Gerty, he whispers, this will just have to do

    Great job! xo

  4. MaxieJane Frazier

    Kathryn, what a nostalgic story that brings in lifelong love, again. Maybe this man and Myrtle should share cooking? One of my favorite lines, beyond what everyone else has said, is “He uses them now to open the rattly Frigidaire as she always called it, even though it’s really a Whirlpool.” The intimacy of using her language with the name giving us a sense of context for their cultural time period is such a perfect touch.

    • Kathryn Silver-Hajo

      Hah! Yes, maybe they should get together! So interesting that three of us had stories about death and grieving this round. For me I think it’s the time of year. My parents both died in the fall and my sister-in-law did as well. Thank you for your kind comments. I really enjoyed being in workshop with you MaxieJane!

  5. Catherine Parnell

    Kathyrn, This captures grief in palpable ways and I’m all in. But the verb tense switches tossed me about; verbs direct action in ways that can be a challenge to navigate. Please keep working on this as I hope it gets published!

    • Kathryn Silver-Hajo

      Thanks Catherine! And yes, I’ll be working on verb tenses for both pieces. Good luck and hope to see you in another workshop sometime!

  6. Suzanne van de Velde

    Apologies for horribly late notes….Kathryn — you offer a feast of a marriage here, with wonderful grounding details. I often wonder about those enormous casseroles left for newly single people, how could they not curdle and turn? I love how you manage to sketch the complexity of their relationship so deftly.
    — good to meet you in this workshop!

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