November 15

National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day

 

Nathan began with the hallway bathroom, one of the few places his father had kept functional. Most of the items got tossed immediately into one of the thick green trash bags he’d bought in bulk from Sam’s Club in Gadsden. A dozen or so toothbrushes, large packs of disposable razors, four different electric shavers (including one that looked like it ran from a wind-up key). Nail clippers and trimmer scissors (one shiny of each type, the others tarnished or rusty). Lots of prescription bottles, some of them with his long-dead mother’s name on the labels.

The kitchen cleanup was next, with a priority on perishable items. Each sweep through the chill refrigerator air mixed a new wave of odors: curdled milk, the sweet vinegar of spoiled ketchup, a yeasty tang of dried bread in an unsealed package. Why hadn’t he noticed things had gotten this bad in his father’s home? The answer, of course, was that fresher items toward the front gave a veneer of clean; expirations dates got older the further back he reached, where spoiled items were packed so densely they practically created an air tight seal until he disturbed them.

Some of the items in the vegetable bin had liquefied. Nathan held his breath as he pulled clear bags from the bin and tossed their sloshing contents in the garbage. The last bag stuck to the bottom of the bin and burst when he tugged on it: orange and brown and green sludge poured out in chunks (baby carrots?), and a horrible stench rose up, a chilled bile he could taste when he swallowed.

Nathan stepped back, ready to douse the whole vegetable bin with Clorox and Sunlight detergent. Then he stopped himself. Whoever bought the house would surely install a new refrigerator — new cabinets, new tile and wallpaper, and a new stove while they were at it — so why waste time? He held his nose, pulled out the whole bin, and dumped it into the Hefty bag. He twisted the bag closed, sealed it with a locking-tie, then started a new bag.

A series of cloudy jars lined the back of the bottom shelf.  Over the years, various liquids had spilled from the top shelves of the fridge — milk and juice, soda and tomato sauce — and each glass jar was practically glued in place.  The first one snapped from the shelf as he pulled it away.  The jar was heavy, like the coffee cans of nails and nuts and bolts his dad would keep in the garage, but the contents swayed as he lifted it out.  The glass had entirely fogged up, with blue and gray patches of mold battening on the inside surface.  Nathan wondered how difficult it would be to unscrew the lid, and what soured foodstuff festered within, but the gag-inducing thought of any emerging odors kept his curiousity in check.

The faded label offered his only safe clue about the jar’s contents, but instead of depicting food items, the series of small grainy images offered a collage of scenes from a history book.  Nathan couldn’t recognize all of the images, and he didn’t want to bring the jar too close to his face, but one scene showed soldiers dead on a battlefield; another showed the Hindenberg disaster; a third image showed a mushroom cloud rising over an inhabited city.  Letters appeared along the bottom of the label, difficult to distinguish over the historical images.  With some hesitation, Nathan brought the jar closer to his face to read the product name.  The contents swayed again, and Nathan steadied his grip as he read the words on the label:  “Civilization As We Know It.”

Beneath the title a small white rectangle offered further information:  an Expiration Date, listed as today’s day and year.

The jar moved again, wriggled out of Nathan’s hand and shattered on the kitchen floor.

 

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[…Author’s Note: the opening section of this entry is adapted from my first book, Invisible Fences, but at the midpoint I took the scene into an entirely new direction…]

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