by Ken Brosky
When they come to see the stove, they inhale a simultaneous woosh, the kind of sound that only comes from air moving into the lungs through a constricted trachea, just a hint of a vibration in the back of the throat. They saw pictures of the stove — I posted three in my advertisement — but pictures don’t do it justice. Six gas burners. Brass knobs. Black stainless steel. A warming cabinet. A gas oven. An electric broiler.
I run them through the specs like I’m selling a car. I tell them the gas oven is great for food that needs high heat along the bottom. The electric broiler can be used to bake naan, if you’re into that sort of thing. The warming cabinet can get up to 250 degrees, enough to slow-cook ribs. I add this because the husband almost always comes with the wife. Before they show up, I use Windex to clean the exterior, wiping it down the way other forty-something men wipe down their convertibles.
The questions have differed with every interested buyer, but this couple hits all the standard ones.
How old is it? Five years.
How did you pay for this thing? I turned my car into a Lyft for two years to pay it off. Two years of driving shitheads around Chicago in the late evening, after long days installing satellite dishes. Two years of cleaning up vomit, stocking water bottles, and making conversation with strangers.
Could we carry it out ourselves? No, you’d need more help, and probably a moving truck, too. When the stove first arrived at our house, it had come in this massive wooden crate, like something you might find stored away in the secretive warehouse of antiquities at the end of that Indiana Jones movie. It had taken four months to arrive from France. Before I could stop her, my wife Mary ripped the wood apart with a crowbar. She unpeeled the plastic wrap right there in the driveway, tears in her eyes. We tried to move it. I couldn’t lift the goddamn thing an inch. It sat there in the driveway, taunting us.
Mary called her brother and father to help. It took three of us to get the stove into the kitchen.
Now this wife and husband — I see their rings — are stepping closer, cautiously as if the oven door might snap at them. Any problems? No, I say, but that’s not entirely true. It wasn’t until we had the gas and electrical connection hooked up, until we had the stove slid into its place between our custom cabinets, that we learned the ignitions for the gas burners didn’t work. Mary and I sat on the floor and cursed the gods. So close. So fucking close. Then: magic. Mary the technical writer, the part-time ACT tutor, found the loose neutral wire behind the stove and fixed it, she fixed it, and suddenly we had fire.
We could cook food once again. Our last stove had died five months ago. An old electric thing with a yellow exterior and a heating element that went nuclear one evening — suddenly sparks had come shooting out of the oven compartment like fireworks. I told Mary if she was serious about becoming a chef, she needed something proper. A canvas for her art.
Why are you selling it? The husband usually asks this question, looking into my eyes, suspicious. But the first time a prospective buyer had asked, it had been the wife, she’d been alone, her husband at work in Chicago, and she’d been standing beside the stove with her fingers gently brushing each brass handle. I’d been standing near the countertop island that divides our kitchen neatly in half, my sweaty fingers gripping the smooth granite. I told her about Mary and I began sobbing. I fell over. I fall over when I cry real hard, I don’t know why. Then the wife had done something so unexpected. She’d knelt beside me and held my head on her shoulder. I cried harder.
We need the money. That’s my new answer. This particular husband — mid-fifties, clearly older than the wife, balding, wearing a dress shirt with his consulting company’s name emblazoned on the breast pocket — needs more. We’re moving out, I add. The house is too big. We lived beyond our means. He doesn’t need to know the whole story. He doesn’t need to know that I’m alone. That I’m living in a house Mary’s family owns. That they want me to leave so they can sell the property.
This couple leaves, but with an encouraging level of interest. The moment they’re gone, my anxiety ticks up a notch. It’s like the pressure gauge on a bicycle pump, and I’m pushing down on the pump as hard as I can to get the needle to rise one more pound per square inch. I need to leave. I go outside and get in my car. I pull out of the driveway and follow the empty country roads for a while, no direction in particular. I drive past fields of dry soy the color of goldenrod. A combine is harvesting one of the fields, its side pipe spitting the beans into the bed of a truck traveling alongside.
I used to scream at my wife sometimes. Not at her, but in my car, alone, when I was angry about something that I couldn’t explain. I don’t know why I can’t put my anger into words, and I don’t know what else to do with it except talk to this imaginary version of the person who’s in the wrong. The anger always feels so right. Unreal, too, because my mind creates my idealized target. But it feels so good to let everything out. I never did this with Mary in person. I could never have just let it all out in front of her. This anger is raw and private and it hits the windshield like an unfortunate lighting bug.
Grandpa used to talk to himself. He used to shout at no one when he was out in the garage. It’s why my sister left the moment she turned eighteen. I wasn’t allowed to cry when she left. Hold it in. Show you’re tough.
At night, I sleep alone in a queen-sized bed. It’s cold because I’m keeping the heat low and the blanket is thin. Mary liked thin blankets because she liked turning the heat up at night. There’s a small blood stain on her side of the bed, underneath the sheets. Years ago, her period had started unexpectedly and she’d been so embarrassed. But I thought it was funny and I didn’t care. I teased her about it.
The next day, I found a note inside the refrigerator. It read simply My husband did it. You can’t joke about this, I told her, because if God forbid you ever go missing the police always suspect the boyfriend. This isn’t funny. But she just smiled wryly in the way she sometimes did when she knew she had the upper hand. The notes continued, hidden all over the house, and they always made me smile. But after she was gone, I found one hidden away inside a dresser drawer for winter clothes, and one behind a neglected bottle of aftershave. As if she was still there. And the notes weren’t funny anymore; they were haunting and painful, a memory that didn’t fade.
Another couple arrives in the morning. They’re dressed really nice and that gives me hope. They’re lesbians; the taller of the two asks the questions and examines the stove and sometimes her eyes travel to the little shelf built into the wall next to the stove, where Mary’s cookbooks sit in a neat row. These aren’t half-assed cookbooks. They contain the kind of hardcore recipes that require caramelization and deglazing and maceration. The taller woman recognizes the names of the authors.
The other buyers didn’t understand why anyone would spend so much on a stove. Mary didn’t want a fancy wedding, so I bought her a stove instead of an engagement ring. We joked that it was an engagement ring that could fill our bellies.
Do you cook? Yes. I have one amazing dish: sirloin steak. I start in the cast iron pan on the burner and then I finish it in the gas oven for just a couple minutes. Liberal amount of butter and kosher salt. Side of Brussels sprouts caramelized in the broiler, tossed with olive oil and honey and bacon bits.
I stop talking. It hurts so much, thinking about those dinners. Sitting in the kitchen and watching the sun set over a field of corn that stretched to the horizon, burning the tassels with a fiery orange glow.
The tall woman makes a lowball offer, the kind I’d already received from half a dozen husbands. I have to turn it down. My feet want me to take the offer and run. Run away and pretend distance is all I need to get through this. But the rest of my body says no, we can’t, we can’t because the heart is broken. There are too many good memories in this stove and the mind can’t purge them all. It doesn’t want to sell for any price.
They’re discussing it now, as if I’m not there. The asking offer is high, but the stove is perfect. It looks so good next to the oak cabinets. They’ll need to tear out a cabinet in their kitchen. They’ll need to get a new countertop. But the stove is so beautiful. Think about what you can cook. Oh, honey, you could have your family over for Thanksgiving. Christmas. You could cook for ten people — put the finished dishes in the warming cabinet, cook three different sauces at once. That’s freedom.
We cooked together, I tell them. It sounds desperate coming out, and I hope they understand that this is as close as I can come to begging. I wish Grandpa had taught me what to do with all these feelings. I wish he’d taught me to be vulnerable. I want to be vulnerable here. I want to be honest. I want these women to know that this wasn’t just a stove; it was this place where my wife and I could be together and share our passion. We cooked together and we ate together, every night, and then I did the dishes and we could lay together on the couch and just be. Time was ours. We controlled it, manipulated it, stopped it if we wanted, and burned it so hot we didn’t even notice it escaping in the steam.
What do you do when you’re sad? I ask them, and they shrug and look at each other in a way that indicates, of course, this is an insane question to ask. But to my surprise, the tall woman answers. I mope. And her shorter partner answers, too: I cry until everything is out.
I tell them I cried when the first person showed up to see the stove. I tell them after the woman left, I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and told myself to toughen up. Get over it. I could see Grandpa’s face. We share a lazy eye; I taught myself to hide it by consciously widening my eyes, always turning left and tilting my head when I talk to people. We share dry skin that peels on our nose and around the corners of our lips; I use eczema moisturizer to hide it. We share the same big ears; I style my hair so it hangs a little over the curved pinna.
In that moment, I looked like Grandpa. Wet, red eyes. Puffy red nose. Lazy eye. Dry skin. This, I realized, was what he must have looked like when he cried. But when had he ever cried? Not when Grandma died. Not when I graduated from high school. Not when we had to put down our golden retriever in the dead of night because she couldn’t stop howling in pain.
I realize I’m crying again. I’m embarrassed. I tell the women Mary used to make this amazing chicken dumpling stew and while she was cooking it, I’d prepare a dry chocolate cake for dessert. We’d play music and lick dough off each other’s fingers. We’d keep the range hood off so all the smells lingered and even now I can smell them and remember reaching over Mary’s shoulder to kiss the back of her neck.
We just sort of stand there in silence, and all you can hear is the combine combing the corn field outside, grinding out chaff and straw.
Finally, the tall woman takes out her checkbook. She writes a check for two hundred less than the asking price — to cover the moving cost, she explains; she’ll need to hire a professional mover. I take the check and watch their car pull out of the driveway.
At night it’s hard to sleep because my chest feels so tight. I get up and pace. I look out the western window. With the full moon I can see the harvested farm fields; the bales of hay cast little rounded shadows. A voice tells me to drink — Grandpa drank a lot whenever something bad happened. It never worked; I could always see the smoke behind his irises, making his eyes grow glassy and vulnerable. He sighed and coughed as if he could expel the smoke from his lungs.
I can’t sell my good memories. They’re in the cast iron grates, in the oven compartments, coursing through the electrical wires and igniters. When Grandma died, Grandpa took everything she owned and threw it out. Pictures and knickknacks fit into the rollout garbage can, but the bigger stuff — couches, an end table she’d purchased at Goodwill, a sewing machine she’d bought with her first paycheck, an octagonal table for playing Bridge — sat out in the rain.
I ruined entire weeks with Mary because I didn’t know what to do with my emotions. I stewed. I took long drives. I shut myself off. Selling the stove won’t change that.
The next morning, I call a moving company, get an estimate. I call one of the storage companies on the outskirts of Chicago and rent a small unit. I rip up the check for the stove and call the nice lesbian couple and tell them it’s not for sale after all. I have the same feeling washing over me that I felt when I first completed the purchase of the stove. That feeling told me This is a mistake, a costly mistake, and it will change your life, you will never get back what you’re losing, you will never have that much money again. Mary’s parents are right: sell it all, bury the memories the way farmers bury broken equipment in the ground.
But the pain is part of those good memories. That’s what Grandpa never understood. He left all of Grandma’s things on the side of the road, but the garbage man never collected them. They rotted and grew mold and eventually he doused it all in diesel fuel and lit it all on fire, but even then the ashes remained, scattered, and the scorch marks on the concrete never washed away.
Ken Brosky received his MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He’s currently represented by Fairbank Literary Agency. They’re shopping a mystery novel that will change the way you look at tigers. Forever.
Featured image courtesy sarah b.