Shell pink, crab fat, lilac of a near-healed bruise: sunset over the Lombard Auto Body Shop, which Jack observes from the folding chair on his porch. The temperature hasn’t climbed above thirty all week, but Jack, bundled in parka and ragg gloves, has prepared. No entertainment on the porch—none of the formal variety, anyway—but Jack stays occupied, nipping from a flask each time an old Volvo passes. Old in automotive terms, but also human ones: cars Karen’s age, if she had stuck around. At this hour, Jack’s street, a diagonal from the main thoroughfare, is still; the neighbor kids have long since returned from school, their parents have dutifully led the dogs around the block’s quadrant. Folks have nested for the evening, and the neighborhood hums with mild activity structurally contained. Ostensible silence and the muffler-sputter of late-model sedans, frigid trails of exhaust making themselves visible in the lowering blood-orange light. A 240 shudders by; Jack sips. The silhouettes of the pines lining the body shop’s lot loosen into indistinction, sky deepening to meet their hue.
Karen had had the habit of defining objects’ colors in terms of other things. Their quilted bedspread had been deepest kelp, the twin night tables muted sand. Bananas nearing their end were marigold dotted with carob chip. Every room, each desktop and corner, held the wonder of color pairings heretofore undiscovered. The beauty, Jack realized only later, one night as he wrapped grilled pork chops for that week’s lunches, was that Karen never summoned the same description twice. “Pass me that bowl,” she might say, “—not that one, ’57 Falcon, second shelf.” Next day, the same bowl might be Dolly’s eyeshadow or Palm Springs pool, the pleasure of the descriptor seated in the true and unmitigated discovery. To Jack, that soup bowl had always just been light blue, but with Karen gone, it—and everything—assumed fresh and shifting nuance.
The day of the call was, to the outside world, an unmarked day. 1:13 p.m. was the time that cleaved larger time into before and after. Jack was not especially sensitive—no less than other men, certainly not more—but the aura the phone trilled with was undeniable. Hearse-black rotary singing with a shimmer of blue. Breath caught, breath stilled in throat, Jack moved to answer, knowing the ringing would cycle until he picked up. “Hello?” he asked, grateful for the mote of silence that preceded the officer’s voice. No one ever called Jack by his full legal name; this formality was the giveaway of disaster. That one blank moment, last one before the total collapse following, haunted Jack more than any other: static weighted with pronouncement, heavy with another man’s dread.
Rollover. Tin can. Instantaneous passing. The phrases tumbled over themselves as Jack raced to the hospital. By the time he’d arrived, the on-call doctor had signed the Pronouncement of Death, Karen awaiting harvest of her still-vibrant organs. Snowbank white, the cooler cradling the heart and kidneys. Jack hadn’t seen it personally, but he’d watched enough cop dramas to know. Light, the doctor’s hand on his shoulder, not patting but just hovering—gesture of the conveyance of sympathy. Hours into that first night, Jack envisioned the text on the cooler’s front side: Human organ: handle with care. Siren red, serif free, text unmistakable in its boldness.
Ignoring friends’ advice, Jack hadn’t cleaned the place after Karen’s death. Tidied, yes, but the hall closet hung full of her seasonal coats, warm lemon for spring—Karen had hated lemon-scented anything, but there was no better way to capture the coat’s bright hue—lichen for fall and the first few warm weeks of winter. Each room presented a unique threat in the form of undetermined color descriptors, secret object-identities only Karen had the power to unlock. Moving from range to breakfast nook, Jack stalled at the counter, considering a thrift-store ashtray. Sow’s ear or chewed Bazooka? The toothbrush cup in the half bath had always seemed to him a nauseous kind of yellow-orange, but now Jack wondered whether it was really more of an acorn squash or a burnt goldenrod. The front drapes, champagne grape in the early hours, muted to absinthe as daylight thinned. Or was it the other way around? Jack could never be sure. Without his primary expert, he shuttled from room to room, unmoored. A keen uncertainty, radiating from the furniture and floorboards, goaded him.
Then, the accident two months behind him, the outdoors presented itself. Early June—the sixth, he recalled; he’d ordered checks that morning. Staring streetward from the picture window, Jack saw a station wagon parked before his lawn. White: just white, marred by the ordinary scuffs of shopping-cart collisions. A revelation, that car whose color needed no supplementary name! Jack fell to the recliner, blinking. He allowed himself to feel his breaths rise jagged, then fall. The white car remained. Rousing himself, Jack fetched a camping chair from the hall closet and set up on the porch, whistling, studying the car. Waxwings chattered from the power lines and figs hung heavy from his neighbor’s tree. The wagon was free of bird droppings. A lovely day, Jack thought, if only environmental details were to be observed and accepted as fact.
Eventually, a woman emerged from a house half the block down, unlocked the wagon, and drove off. But the spell had been eased, if not yet lifted. Jack sat a few moments longer, studying the yard. Dandelions sprouting along the yard’s bricked border, crabgrass proliferating thickly. All so benign, Jack thought, poised to outlast the heartiest. Jack’s looked to be a house where nobody lived, and Jack smiled at the message of menace his shambly yard issued forth. Caution, all ye who enter here!, he thought, re-folding his chair. Closing behind him, the front door creaked and relatched with a satisfying click. Thus, Jack’s routine was born. Work, porch, sleep; the bleariness of a predawn wakeup, anticipation of hours spent in silence; his ginger appreciation of the deprecating lawn, deepening with each pull from the flask; slow journey back to the color-rich world.
These days, Jack thinks seldom of the tiny white cooler. When he does, the memory is mosquito fleeting. Afternoons after work he sets up on the porch, filled flask balanced on the peeling railing. Muscle memory has granted him the skill to position his chair at the perfect angle for viewing the body shop. Now around 4:30 the light starts to lower, the pointed ring of saw on metal calling through the chill air. Volvos, it seems, have grown scarcer. Jack pulls a nip regardless and watches the sparks thrown as a mechanic welds a door back to its frame. There are, he realizes, no correct interpretations, an infinite number of associations to be made between environment and interior environment, the separation between the two porous and shifting. The polluted northern air tints the day’s last light pink—Canadian bacon, Jack thinks, or newborn’s lung, quick becoming the murky purple of early necrosis.