The overhead lights in Fitch’s studio didn’t turn on when Vivian flicked the switch, but she shouldn’t have been surprised since she hadn’t paid the electricity bill for several months. And it was only recently that she stopped paying rent for this space in downtown Los Angeles where Fitch restored furniture and made a modest living. If she could, Vivian would go on paying to keep the studio the way it was before Fitch died in a car wreck, if only to avoid coming here and clearing out his junk. But here she was, about to give his things away to people who could use them, the way he would have wanted, especially to his kid sister, Lindsay.
Before they entered his studio, Vivian had warned Lindsay that she would walk into a cluster of distressed bookshelves, office chairs, dressers, benches, file cabinets, piled on top of each other like a towering art installation, that every inch of floor space would be covered by mounds of thrift store clothing, old tiles recovered from the fancy powder rooms of a demolished hotel, enough cans of spray paint to graffiti one side of a five-story building.
But Lindsay said they could clear everything in a weekend, and Vivian knew that it must be true; a dozen boxes were indeed stacked against the wall, the larger pieces of furniture spread out like at the Salvation Army. Lindsay started inspecting the items as if she were in a showroom, touching the apple green paint job on a dresser, smoothing out the reupholstered seat of a chair, showing off the new diamond and sapphire ring on her finger.
Lindsay’s fiancé Daniel soon appeared in the doorway after parking their borrowed truck. Lindsay motioned for him to come inside. Then she placed her palm down on a French door with peeling white paint and missing windowpanes propped horizontally off the ground by two wooden stands, one attached at each end.
“D, look at this,” she said. “I think this is supposed to be a dining room table.”
The couple then debated what else the piece could be and if it could fit the back of the truck. To Vivian, they sounded like a boy and a girl playing house, maybe because they were ten years younger, or the way they exchanged bright looks with each other over the details of domestic life. Daniel took out a measuring tape from his jacket pocket and began pulling the yellow plastic strip across the longest dimension of the door/table.
The boxes, most of them the size of a mini fridge, were not taped shut. Vivian opened one and found fabric samples. Another contained knobs and hinges salvaged from discarded doors and kitchen cabinets.
“My brother never found anything he didn’t think was worth saving,” Lindsay said, her voice catching on the last syllable, and when Vivian turned around, Daniel was already holding on to Lindsay, her tears making small dark splotches on his denim sleeve.
Vivian turned back to the wall and got down on her knees to open yet another box, one that stood by itself in a corner. She wasn’t really searching for something, not that she could search for why Fitch suddenly decided to clean this space. And she just didn’t want to watch Lindsay being comforted.
In the box, Vivian found balled-up flannel shirts crusted with white paint, unlike Fitch’s shirts that still hung in their bedroom closet, which always looked slightly puffed out like the first breath of air inside a balloon, still carrying the smell of Fitch’s American Spirit cigarettes.
Vivian was about to get up on her feet, move on to the boxes stacked on top of other boxes, when in that pile of old shirts she hit upon something rigid. She uncovered an open shoebox. It was full of photos and letters, and when she saw a small black velvet case in there, she pulled it out. Its rounded corners were slightly scuffed and two barely visible steel hinges creaked as Vivian opened the case and saw a diamond ring tucked within its plush red center.
“Oh my god,” she said.
“What is it?” Lindsay asked, and when Vivian didn’t answer, Lindsay walked over.
Vivian took out the square diamond the size of an earring stud. It was attached by four tiny prongs to a gold band that appeared to have lost some of its shine, looking more like a ring from an antiques store than a jeweler at the mall. But then Fitch had always favored the one-of-a-kind over the mass produced. Lindsay grasped Vivian’s hand and repeated “Omigod,” but her voice shrilled higher and echoed inside the studio.
Daniel popped his head up from measuring the legs of a chair.
“What did you find?” he asked.
“We found a ring in one of his boxes,” Lindsay called back, still holding on to Vivian’s hand as Vivian locked down her thumb and forefinger even tighter onto the gold band. “It looks like an engagement ring.”
“Is it for you?” Lindsay asked Vivian.
“I don’t know,” Vivian said.
“Did you find it in here?” Lindsay asked, letting Vivian go so she could pull out the shoebox from the nest of shirts. She sat on the floor cross-legged with the box between her knees and leafed through the photographs.
“I remember her,” Lindsay said, picking up one of the photos. “She helped me with my cheerleading routine.”
Vivian wondered whether her picture was in there too, even if she couldn’t remember developing an actual photograph of herself, much less of her and Fitch, in the last five years, content with letting all her memories live on the digital albums of friends and people she hardly knew. Vivian examined the ring for an inscription. She flipped the case to its bottom. She put a finger into the plushy lip inside the box, as if Fitch could bury a note in there for her to find.
“That could be grandma’s ring,” Lindsay said, looking up suddenly from the shoebox.
Vivian closed her fingers around the ring and held it inside her fist, as if keeping Lindsay from taking it away from her.
“Hey, Linz, I think I know how we can cover the holes in this table,” Daniel said, then seemed to remember that Vivian was in the room.
“We’ll take it only if you don’t want it, of course,” he added, looking in her direction.
“I want it all,” Vivian said, and she had not meant to say it out loud or for her voice to ring inside this studio, the acoustics making her sound more forceful than she usually let on, as if Fitch were backing her up.
These two kids, just twenty-two years old, looked back at her with confused expressions. Vivian didn’t want to send them away with an empty truck, but then they could just as easily drop by IKEA on the way home to Orange County.
“I changed my mind, please leave everything the way it is,” Vivian said, the ring still inside her fist, now shoved inside the pocket of her jeans.
“But don’t you need to clean out everything by next week?” Lindsay asked, standing next to Daniel now, her wide blue eyes free of tears. “If you want anything here, we can bring it to your apartment. We have the truck this weekend, we don’t have to take anything for ourselves.”
“Thanks,” Vivian said, trying to smile.
The echo of her own voice from a moment ago, that cry for “I want it all” continued to reverberate in her body, as if giving her the strength to get down to the task at hand and analyze every photograph, every note, every word and object that Fitch had left behind. She could pay for another month of rent and then another. She could give up her apartment in the Valley. She could live here.
“I’m sorry you came all the way out here …” Vivian said.
After Lindsay and Daniel left, silence set in. There was no more echo, nothing backing her up. Vivian sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall. She took the ring out of her pocket. She tried to slip the band on her left ring finger, but it stopped at the second joint. She could try to force it down. She could go to the market and buy butter, olive oil, KY jelly, and then she might never pull it back out again. Vivian found the small black case next to her foot, placed the ring back inside and closed the lid.
Lindsay had left the shoebox on the floor, and Vivian couldn’t help but notice the topmost photograph of Fitch and another girl.
A pale blonde with pink cheeks in a sleeveless green dress was holding on to Fitch’s arm. They looked as if they were attending a wedding or some other fancy outdoor event, which could explain why Fitch was wearing a stiff white shirt and a purple and gray striped tie knotted at the neck, the only tie he still owned. In this picture, Fitch’s dark hair was cropped so short that his hairline looked painted on. And maybe it was the fading light of the room that made his expression in the picture seem pained as he squinted at the sun, a look that made Vivian think of people stepping off the curb to look for a bus at a bus stop, concentrating all their energy and yearning into making something, perhaps someone, appear at any second.
Sandy Yang holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona, and her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Santa Monica Review, South Dakota Review, Euphony, Weber—The Contemporary West and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles. To read more of her work, go to sandyyang.yolasite.com.