It was one of the only places in their house where logic and order did not prevail. He had dreams about it sometimes; in one, the drawer appeared in the guise of a giant shipboard valve that, when opened, released the steam that kept the whole vessel from exploding. She thought of the drawer as a nuisance and evidence of purposeful sloth, but put up with it because it was small, and its contents were hidden from view (even so, they exerted silent, invisible pressure on her peace of mind), and because her sister, younger but calmer, insisted that whether she wanted to or not, she had to defer to her husband’s wish that she not insist on controlling and subduing everything in the house and outside of it too. Furthermore, the drawer was only one of six, the other five in the breakfront all carefully organized: the cloth napkins, placemats, tea towels, her mother’s sterling-silver cake-serving set, his grandfather’s antique baby booties, new playing cards in unopened wooden or cardboard boxes, booklets of postage stamps and thank-you cards, bubble-wrapped bud vases—all studiously organized and occasionally looked upon with a covetous, adoring gaze. She liked the way everything had been made to fit with such precision, the way the drawers closed without scraping or balking, without having to be forced shut with the heel of a palm or the bony edge of a pelvis.
The junk drawer, however, almost always had to be slammed shut, knocked hard into submission, and sometimes, usually when she was already in a sour mood, it burst back open within seconds of being closed, the jumble of folded-over papers, rubber bands, matchbooks, mismatched shoelaces, batteries, creased photographs, business cards and takeout menus, its sticks of stale gum and stray cellophaned Lifesavers and peppermint disks, all leering up at her, a tangle of multicolored flotsam, out of which she could imagine a feral animal cannonballing straight into her startled face. In her dreams about the drawer, she was always standing in front of a room of schoolchildren who stared at her defiantly before they began pelting her with pieces of chalk and pencil erasers, wadded-up socks and scarves stolen from the coat room, each covered with big unsightly balls of red and blue lint.
The drawer had many lists in it, ones that he had been keeping for twenty years or more, some his, some his mother’s and father’s:
Groceries, 12/6/97 (his): apples, peanut butter, Cheerios, pesto, Chips Ahoy, toilet paper, dish soap, milk, 75-watt bulbs, mushrooms (sliced), bananas, Fritos
Words, hard to spell (his mother’s): definitely (definately), misspell (mispell), hors-d’oeuvre (many possible problems), ecstasy (ecstacy)
Christmas wish list, 1985 (his father’s, printed in neat block letters): awl (6.5 in., wood handle), red suspenders, black wool socks (2-3 prs, Gold Toe brand, please), magnifying glass (x4-5 magnification), binoculars (for bird-watching, but don’t spend more than $35), Crest toothpaste—travel size (for stocking), reusable toothpick (for stocking), Chapstick (for stocking, not cherry, please), comb (black, please, for stocking too).
N.B. Please do not buy everything on this list. These are wishes, and as such, are not all meant to come true.
Birds seen by feeder & nectar drip, 1999 (mother’s & father’s):
– male cardinal, female cardinal
– red-bellied woodpecker
– blue jay
– (very large) crow (a raven?)
– red-tailed hawk (?)
– starling (such a bully)
– scarlet tanager (?)
– eastern screech owl (! Yes, really, George, I saw him)
– ruby-throated hummingbird
– pileated woodpecker
– yellow warbler
– chickadee (at least two kinds—yellow & blue-breasted)
– red-winged blackbird
Dog names, 12/02 (his): Frisbee, Oscar, Highway, Ruby, Bill, Serpico, Tate, Bob, Mr. Finkel
Phrases to write in sympathy cards, 1988 (his mother’s):
– Thinking of you during your time of distress (heartache/sorrow/bereavement)
– We hope that you feel better soon and are able to go back to work. We know you love your job. Thank goodness for that! (?)
– Sending you our love and sunshine, even though it’s January (February/hurricane season.)
– We know that you’ll soon be back on your feet, baking cookies, weeding the garden, taking your cat and dog for walks around the block!
His wife wanted to know why he couldn’t put these lists into a scrapbook, in order to preserve and properly memorialize them, if he really did intend to keep them. He told her that he would get to it eventually, but he had been saying this for several years, despite the fact that after the first year, she had gone out and purchased an expensive leather-bound scrapbook for him to organize his lists (or for her, if he permitted it, which he did not). She had begun to consider his unwillingness to remove the lists from the drawer (and his unwillingness to let her do it for him) a passive, malicious form of disrespect, of subversive cruelty, of a tacit wish to drive her out of the house and the marriage. But it was she who had the problem, he insisted. Why could she not simply ignore the drawer? It was closed, needless to say, and unless suddenly she had developed X-ray vision, he didn’t see why she had to be so concerned and unsettled by it.
The home junk drawer had brethren in his office. All of the drawers in his desk, except for the deepest one, which contained file folders suspended on twin metal rails, were nearly as messy as the junk drawer in the den at home. He did not view this as intentional, nor did he view the melee that prevailed in the home junk drawer
as intentional, but entropy seemed the world’s natural state. In his view, it was only human beings that sought to make order out of chaos, though some animals and insects seemed to have their own rules and hierarchies. Plants, however, not so much. He had never spent time in a jungle, but he was aware that the Amazon and the jungles of Africa too, probably, if they hadn’t all been cut down already, likely grew wild and exuberantly free, and this never-glimpsed (except in the infrequent documentary about parasites or viruses of bloodcurdling deadliness or disappearing bird populations) wildness soothed him. Somewhere, it seemed to him, things should be allowed to enjoy their natural, single-minded disorderliness.
And if this was natural, as in Mother Nature and natural law, was it true disorder? Because maybe it was just another kind of order, not the kind his wife or other type A or OCD-suffering people were comfortable with, but an order, nonetheless, that made primal sense to jungle vines and rare parrot species and the macaques and other beautiful (and slightly beady-eyed) tiny monkeys that swung from the vines, or had once swung from the vines before all the trees and resident vines were cut down to provide timber for four-thousand-square-foot, two-story, three-car-garage homes for OCD sufferers like his wife. Not that she had been diagnosed with this ailment, but he would hardly have taken the news as a surprise if she were.
Lizzy, his secretary, who preferred the title administrative assistant, sometimes looked at his desk and shook her head, smiling with amused, censorious eyes, if he accidentally left open a drawer while she was in his office to deliver the mail or a small white paper bag that contained the occasional blueberry muffin or everything bagel with plain cream cheese. In fact, there were poppy seeds and sesame seeds in the cracks and corners of many of these desk drawers. Also present were movie ticket stubs, expired credit cards that he hadn’t yet bothered to scissor into shards, business cards listing the titles and contact information of people who no longer worked for the corporations paired with their names and phone numbers, coupons for half-price pizzas and deals for hot dogs with free side orders of locally famous waffle fries, miniature bottles of hand sanitizer, honey-scented hand lotion and wintergreen Altoids, matchbooks from taverns in cities where he had traveled for meetings, a few dozen Polaroids of street performers and other strangers he had for a while snapped at random until an angry fat man and his ashen-complected, thinner son threatened to “bust his face.”
A few lists had also taken up residence in one of his desk drawers:
Wedding songs (a warning, he quickly realized, disguised as a joke from one of his twice-divorced friends): “Woke Up This Morning (Got Myself a Gun),” “I Will Survive,” “Werewolves of London,” “The Monster Mash,” “You Don’t Own Me,” “Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Break My Stride,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,” “Trick Bag,” “Love Bites”
Underestimated vegetables (newspaper food column clipping): rutabaga, leeks, eggplant, zucchini, parsnips, turnips, brussels sprouts
Images from two recent dreams:
– fortune from a cookie that read You drive dumbo car and wear yellow (he wondered if this was advice or an observation)
– tree on which money grew but no numbers or presidents’ faces were visible on the bills
– small pink dog that looked like a dachshund followed by a line of purple ducklings
His wife, he knows, is jealous of Lizzy, though she has no reason to be. Lizzy often eats breakfast at her desk and sometimes spills oatmeal or yogurt down her shirt front; she also has a tendency to forget to give him phone messages; to affect the tones of baby talk when the subject of Fritz, her German Shepherd, comes up; to let her stockings run, and to permit her boyfriend to wait for her in the reception area, where he appears promptly at five pm, scowling until she emerges from behind the mahogany door that separates the employees from their lovers and clients and bike messengers. The problem seems mostly to be that his wife is not with him nine hours a day, five days a week, with an occasional hour or two tacked onto the end of some of those days, whereas his secretary is.
The junk drawer was once empty and this state prevailed for more than a month after they moved into the house. If opened, it gaped like a slapped mouth. Its emptiness seemed both virginal and scandalous, and eventually he filled it with scraps from his wallet and his car’s glove compartment, with mail he didn’t want to throw away but didn’t feel like filing more responsibly in the coded folders that he and his wife kept for their household accounts on top of her pristinely maintained teak desk in the study.
Not long after the drawer became so full it was difficult to close, his wife removed all of its contents while he was asleep and placed them in an unceremonious pile on the table in the kitchen beneath the window that overlooked the tulip beds, a place where he liked to eat Cream of Wheat and cinnamon raisin toast very early in the morning before catching the train into the city on workdays.
She was still asleep when he found the jumble of so-called junk and quietly but resentfully transported it back to the drawer which overnight had become the new home of several boxes of unopened Christmas cards, ones she would address and send later that year, without fail during the first week of December. He took the boxes of cards and stacked them on the floor next to the breakfront, put his cherished lists and sundry shoelaces back in the drawer, and returned to his lukewarm cereal and cold toast, which he ate without tasting, his heart beating too fast for six-thirty in the morning. They had been married for five years and the night before had discussed the fact she wanted her mother to move in with them, at least temporarily, while another, more permanent residence was located for her in a nearby town or perhaps, with a little luck, in the same town.
He had not been in favor of his mother-in-law becoming their housemate, for reasons his wife claimed to understand, but her irritation over his resistance to her wish was plain. He felt certain that the surprise evacuation of the junk drawer’s contents was one of the ways she intended to punish him. He guessed that the other modes of punishment would include a ban of unspecified length on conjugal relations, along with a stream of text messages assailing him at work about incidents such as their dog groomer’s recent DUI arrest and the unanticipated closing of his wife’s favorite cupcake boutique, news that would keep until he returned home in the evening, or else could be sent via a less abrupt and strident form of communication, such as an email message. It was likewise probable that she would book them for an expensive, ten-day yoga retreat in Costa Rica, which he had been saying no to for two years because yoga and the yogic-minded made him feel ungainly and stiff.
The junk drawer, his therapist suggested, was a metaphor for the sex life he secretly wished that he and his wife had—an unpredictable and exciting one rife with sudden shouted exultations and showy, perhaps even volcanic displays of passion. Who knew what they’d find if they sifted through the layers, if they parted the Red Sea (here his therapist lost him but he tried in earnest to understand the intent behind what Dr. Koons was saying, the doctor’s dark eyes uncharacteristically bright, his cheeks pinkened as he urged the husband to express himself more daringly while his wife lay naked and mostly awake in his embrace).
Ardor, the so often unexpressed imperative! Human beings, after all, had been equipped with feelings that allowed them to access the divine, but how tragically infrequently this occurred. Instead, humans preferred to indulge the baser emotions, the ones that kept them in the thrall of their neuroses and paranoia, of their petty jealousies over a neighbor’s well-trained collie or imported black sports car!
“But the junk drawer,” the husband said, “it’s really become a problem for us. My wife can’t seem to keep herself from opening it at least once every couple of days and staring down at it before she looks back up at me as if every disappointment in her life is all my fault.”
“Do you think they are your fault?” asked Dr. Koons.
He hesitated. “No.”
“Have you told her this?”
“Yes, sort of.”
“What does she say?”
“Not much, or else she asks me when I’m going to sort through the drawer for real instead of just taking out a couple of things and moving them into another drawer.”
“I think that maybe it was a mistake for you to allow her to quit her job.”
“She doesn’t want to go back to work and she doesn’t need to anyway.”
Dr. Koons stared at him for several seconds before murmuring, “Then you’re very fortunate. Yours are the peculiar problems of the unduly privileged, if we are being frank today.”
He was offended by this and was sure that Dr. Koons knew it but he had a reputation for being direct and bracing, or as some claimed, rude and unfeeling. After this assessment, Dr. Koons had reportedly said to one disgruntled former patient, “Do you think Dr. Freud was worried about whom he offended? Do you think a genius worries about this kind of thing?”
At which the former patient, who was also a friend of the husband’s, had rolled his eyes as he retold the story. “If Dr. Koons is a genius,” he said, “then I’m a Cuban cigar.”
“Is that the kind of cigar Freud smoked?” the husband asked.
His friend looked at him, nonplussed. “How should I know? It’s just a figure of speech.”
“I thought it was ‘Then I’m a French poodle’?” said the husband. “That’s how I’ve always heard it.”
The disgruntled friend shook his head. “Who cares? You can say it however you want. Don’t be so literal.”
Before they met and fell in love, the wife was a program director on a Scandinavian cruise ship when at full capacity carried a population twice as large as the town she had grown up in outside of Rockford, Illinois. The ship was captained by a despot with painful dental problems and owned by a shipping magnate who considered himself a poet. He specialized in erotic sonnets and each new employee was given a copy of his self-published collection, written in French and translated awkwardly into six different languages (Spanish, Portuguese, German, English, Italian, and Swedish), its English title In the Garden of Somersaults with Shakespeare. She wondered if it was supposed to be In the Somerset Garden with Shakespeare but when she asked the assistant program director what he thought, he laughed and said, “You actually tried to make sense of any of it?”
That was her problem, one that others had also hinted at: she was too earnest. She took everything so seriously, and perhaps the main reason she’d married the man that she had was that he too was earnest and had not criticized her for her earnestness because to him it seemed second nature, and so the fact that the junk drawer bothered her and had for as long as they’d lived with it in their otherwise beautiful home, he should understand and not get mad that she could not have a sense of humor about it.
He did not have a sense of humor about her wish to arrange his snack foods alphabetically in the cupboard either—which had started more or less as a joke, but then, she soon realized, it began to make sense: his snacks were easier to locate whenever he wanted them (almonds [roasted and salted] to the left of the Clif Bars [mint chocolate], Fritos, jerky [reduced sodium], Kettle Corn [reduced fat], Le Petit écolier cookies [dark chocolate], Ritter Sport chocolate bars [with corn flakes]—truly, was there anything wrong with this? He did not need so many snacks, to say the least, but she indulged him).
When her mother-in-law came to visit and spent half an afternoon looking through the contents of the junk drawer with her son, laughing and reminiscing over the silly lists she and her husband used to keep, the wife laughed along with them for a few minutes but then had to leave the house for a while to get some air. It wasn’t the drawer so much, she thought, as the continued resistance of her husband to using the leatherbound scrapbook for the filing of his cherished lists.
When she returned two hours later, her mother-in-law gave her a searching, vaguely sorrowful look and asked if she was pregnant, by any chance, which made the wife turn red. What a question. Ha ha! For goodness sake, no, she wasn’t pregnant, and although she didn’t say it aloud, she hoped she never would be.
“Just checking,” said her mother-in-law with an embarrassed laugh.
Her mother-in-law wanted grandchildren, but neither her son nor his younger brother had produced any yet.
The wife liked the mother-in-law, who was kindhearted and fair and a good cook and had given the wife many gift cards that she had enjoyed spending very much. She had also taught her how to knit, because she had a feeling that its repetitive nature would soothe her daughter-in-law, though this was something that she had said only to her son, but he later told the wife.
“Soothe me?” she said, annoyed, “as if I’m a horse trapped in a burning barn?”
“No, no,” said the husband. “She just thinks you’re a little anxious sometimes, a little too high-strung for someone who—” But there he stopped, and despite her insistence that he finish his sentence, he refused to do it.
“For someone who sits on her ass all day?” she snapped. “For someone who hasn’t added yet another greedy American mouth to the planet? For someone who doesn’t run to answer the phone every time her mother-in-law calls?”
“Don’t get so carried away,” he said quietly. “Dr. Koons said that we need to keep in mind that things could be a lot worse for us.”
She could feel her eyes widening. “He said that? Was he serious? God, what a prick.”
“I didn’t think he was being a prick. It was a reality check,” he said. “I don’t blame him for saying what he did. I’m sure he’s seen a lot worse than my own petty worries.”
“Everyone’s problems have meaning,” she said fiercely. “How dare he make you feel bad for not having worse ones.”
In a harmonious universe, there would be no need for junk drawers. No Dr. Koons, no guilt or impatience. No alarm clocks, search parties, divorce attorneys, plastic surgeons, traffic cops, detectives.
The day after her mother-in-law’s visit, the wife found the junk drawer empty. Her husband would not tell her what had happened to its contents, the truth not revealed for many weeks, him deflecting her inquiries with a half-joking, half-sardonic reply: “I tossed out everything,” he said, but she did not believe him, and he knew that she did not.
Into the drawer’s emptiness gradually crept a wristwatch with a dead battery, a new book light still in its box, an unopened package of tennis shoe laces. These three objects coexisted with no interloping receipts, business cards, to-do lists, grocery lists or lists of ten places to visit before they disappear.
It was the following winter, when she was rummaging in the back of the hall coat closet, looking for a red cashmere scarf that had not been in the storage box of cold-weather accoutrements she had brought up from the basement a month earlier that she found a small black trash bag squashed into the closet’s far corner. Inside she found the junk drawer’s former inhabitants—the expired pancake house coupons, the ragged matchbooks, her husband’s lists. She left the bag where she found it and quietly shut the door, the scarf still missing, but she would look for it another time.
She would not think of the bag hiding like a bandit in the back of the closet, this relocation of the junk drawer, its new and sadder incarnation, proof that things, she intended to convince herself, could be worse.
Christine Sneed has published two novels, Little Known Facts and Paris, He Said, and two story collections, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men.
“The Junk Drawer” originally appeared in FIGHT (TLR, Spring 2016).