My husband was sorting garbage in the basement below 10 floors of apartments in Kansas City. The room was deserted and gloomy, filled with deep shadows underneath a couple of long dim lights. From the edge of a towering pile, I made out discarded remnants from other people's lives: rusted toaster, charred wooden rolling pin, chipped ceramic dish.
"What about this?" I asked, bending to pick up a book about rescue dogs.
"Nobody buys used books anymore," said my husband, Andrew, barely turning in my direction. He was handsome, that much was certain. But he'd been out of work for six months and it showed on his face. His bright blue eyes had dulled. I watched as he leaned his muscular body forward, sifting through the garbage.
"This is awful," I said, throwing a plastic toy telephone back onto the pile.
Andrew said nothing. Instead, he glanced at me and stretched out his arms. For a moment, I thought he'd stop what he was doing and come to me, declaring that we could forget our troubles and everything would be all right. Instead, with outstretched arms, he bent his knees and lifted a large wooden cabinet. Struggling against its weight, he tottered, faltering, carrying it toward the door.
"Can I help you?" I asked.
"No," he replied in an unwavering voice. His face was usually calm yet now it looked fierce, glistening with sweat.
"I really hate just standing here not doing anything," I said.
"The cabinet is almost bigger than you are," Andrew said with a laugh. He set it down, wiping his forehead on his upper arm. The air inside the room was unbearably hot. We were in the middle of a July heat wave bearing down on the entire Midwest. On the fields and wide plains outside Kansas City, a vast stretch of stifling air had settled. Nothing stirred.
Watching Andrew take a deep breath before he lifted the cabinet again, I was reminded of his father. Roger had been a farmer up until he got too sick to work and then sold his fields for a fraction of their value to a shopping mall developer. Roger used to haul everything on his back and joked he worked harder than any old mule. His body was so stiff when he woke up in the morning that he'd crawl on his hands and knees across the bedroom to reach the bathroom door.
"Things have gone from bad to worse," I said grimly, wiping my hands on my shorts. "And now we're reduced to sifting through other people's garbage."
"I could take the janitor's job," Andrew said. "But you don't want me to."
"You'd be with the girls in their school," I said. "They'll be embarrassed in front of their friends. If we can hold out until you get a respectable job..."
Andrew stiffened. "Sarah, my father would say that it's the man who makes the money," he said. "Money doesn't make the man."
"You're right," I said. "It's just..." I abandoned my words the way the building tenants had abandoned all these possessions. I didn't want to admit that I also worried about what his own friends might think, the guys he rode bicycles with almost every summer morning.
I remembered the very first time I saw Andrew. He was standing in a group of bicyclists, men and several women in colorful clothes that stood out in the gray dawn like a palette of tempera paints. As I approached, my bicycle hit a pothole and began to wobble. I wondered why the bicycle was shaking so much and assumed it was because I was new to riding. I started to panic and then realized I had a flat tire. I stopped, pulled over and wondered what I'd do next.
A man in the group spotted me. He walked over briskly, wearing a yellow bike jersey and black shorts. There was something graceful about his gait.
"Let me help you with that," he offered.
I thanked him, and as he took the bicycle from my hands I felt as if I were entrusting him with my child. He spun the tire slowly, examining it like a doctor studying a patient's wounds, then stopped the wheel, pointing at a thumbtack sticking into the rubber. He pulled it out and the tire let out a huge sigh of air.
"Do you have your spare?" he asked.
"I should have," I said uncertainly.
He unzipped the black pouch under my bicycle seat and extracted a cinnamon-raisin protein bar.
"I'm afraid you can't fix your flat with this," he said, smiling and tilting his head at me. I caught his eyes, the deep blue shade of a lake, the spare line of his chin, the toned curve of his shoulders.
"I thought I'd packed one," I said, embarrassed. "I mean, the guy at the store said he had everything ready for me."
"Never depend on anyone else for your survival," he said. "I was in the navy with a good group of guys, but we were taught you have to count on yourself."
Standing at the edge of the pile of junk, I recalled Andrew's words. I picked up an umbrella, one of its spokes poking out of the black fabric. You have to count on yourself. What was I going to do? Our two daughters would soon graduate high school and hoped to go to college. We had a mortgage. Andrew had been the last man hired at his company and was the first man fired during the financial crisis. I'd been a teacher's assistant in the elementary school until the new school budget eliminated my position.
"If nobody buys the cabinet, I'll chop it up for firewood to sell in the winter," Andrew said. "You can help me carry the rest of the things to the pickup later."
"No problem," I said, looking down at my hands, clenched into fists.
I remembered watching Andrew fix the flat tire. He'd asked me what I would have done if he hadn't been there. I had wanted to tell him that my mother had died the month before and my grief had made me absent-minded, scatterbrained and directionless. The only way to escape the raw grief was to ride away, see the plains rush by like roaring streams. I wanted to go fast after all the slow days sitting with my mother in her hospital room. It was the start of spring and outside her window, we could see the leaves in the trees unfurling, the tulips opening, my heart breaking. I'll never make it out of here, my mother had said.
But I couldn't explain all that to Andrew—I'd just met him moments before. He changed my tire and the group set off. Although Andrew could have easily ridden at the front, he rode alongside me. That evening, after I'd returned home and showered, I changed into a white blouse, looped a pastel pink sweater carefully over my shoulders and we met for dinner. One year later, we were married.
I knew he was the man my mother would have approved of: a businessman with a good future, someone who would always be able to take care of my flat tire—and me. But then Andrew's company went under. Bad luck was how his best friend, Sean Phillips, put it. He lived on the ninth floor of this building and had suggested we come over and scout around the basement to see what we might find to sell. I was trying not to feel envious each time Sean and his wife invited us into their beautiful apartment. I knew that jealousy would only turn me bitter and ungrateful for what I, we, still had. Yet looking at my husband, I was flooded with fear. How would we survive?
"Find anything interesting?" he asked from across the heap.
"A flour sifter I could probably use myself," I replied, thinking I could learn to bake my own healthy bread. The lights above us flickered. Every now and then I turned to the door, fearing the building's janitor would come in to stop us, half hoping he'd come in to stop us. Sean had said he didn't think it would be a problem for us to go through the garbage—after all, the people had already thrown the stuff out. Yet I couldn't convince myself that this was right.
I picked up a bouquet of dusty flowers that might have been a centerpiece on a table at a wedding. I pictured my own wedding and how I'd walked down the aisle, looking up at Andrew, who stood at the altar beaming at me as if I were the sun rising. I'd never felt more beautiful or more certain that life would hold only good things for us. Our first daughter, Caitlin, was born the following year. Soon after came Nora. They filled the hole that grief for my mother had left behind.
I knelt down by a woman's fake alligator handbag and opened it. There was a business card in a side pocket from Bella Donna Hair Salon and a cotton handkerchief with the initials JK. My first thought was, Just Kidding. Would we be able to laugh about all this one day?
Everything in our life up until that moment had felt blessed. We had our two lovely daughters and a cozy house on a quiet cul-de-sac about 30 minutes away. On early walks with the dog before I left for school, I could see the stretch of fields rolling out toward the horizon, greeting the morning. The days of my life had unfolded exactly the way they should, like pages in a book. I was certain that life guaranteed us only happiness, yet now it seemed that everything had unraveled all at once.
I thought of the spool on my mother's sewing machine. She'd been a seamstress at a wedding shop, an expert at making each bride's gown a perfect fit. I pictured her hunched over the needle, concentrating, a safety pin in between her full lips, as the thread suddenly ran out and the spool whirled around on itself, jostling and bumping against the metal rod. What would my mother have told me now? She'd lost her husband—my father—when I was four and managed to raise me and put me through school. Sarah, she would have said in her no-nonsense voice, when life throws you a punch, punch back.
"Look at this jewelry box," Andrew said, holding up an elegant white box. "Now this is something I could sell. It's a vintage jewelry box. You don't see things like this anymore."
He made his way toward me and I noticed that his cream-colored shirt—the one I'd bought him a couple of Christmases ago—had a streak of dirt running across it like a railroad track.
"Let's just go," I said, pleading.
"I heard about one guy who made thousands of dollars selling antique jeans," he said cheerfully. "Eventually, this will pay off."
"Eventually," I said, trying to mirror his enthusiasm. "What happened to that job in Sean's company?"
"They're not hiring right now," he said as he reached me. "I don't want to wait for that, Sarah. I want to be able to support you and the girls. I want to support my family."
"But how?" I asked, unable to hide my despondency.
"My father always told me the story about his father and a friend during the Depression," Andrew said. "His friend was a rich kid who refused to work any job because he thought it was beneath him while my grandfather washed dishes and collected milk bottles and did whatever he could to survive. His friend didn't make it but my grandfather did. He saved enough money to go back to the farm and start over."
"He was a tough man," I said, looking up at Andrew. "So are you."
"I'm sorry you sold your necklaces," Andrew said suddenly, staring at the box. "You could have put them in here."
"Those aren't things that matter," I said with conviction.
"But they were your mother's," he said sadly.
"She'd tell me that I don't need a few necklaces to remember her," I replied.
"She would have been proud of you, Sarah," he said.
I turned from Andrew, my eyes welling. I imagined the sun outside, a brilliant golden globe shining over the prairies. Andrew's father and my mother had never met but they both would have been in agreement: Life goes on. Sometimes you have to pick up the pieces and make the most of what you've been given.
"You should take the janitor's job. And I'll clean offices until I find something else," I said, as if I had known the answer all along. "I remember reading in the newspaper about a woman who worked in a cafeteria in a private school. The parents were so snobby to her and then one day she won the lottery! She now has more money than they do, but she's still there because she enjoys being around the kids."
Andrew and I smiled at each other.
"Look at this ballerina," he said, gently opening the box. It was lined in light blue satin that was stained yet still a pearly blue. He turned the key and music began playing. The ballerina was poised with her arms above her head, one leg bent, standing on tiptoe. She turned and turned. The music filled the cluttered room. It filled my heart.
"It's amazing it still works after all these years," Andrew whispered, almost in a trance.
"It is so beautiful," I said just as softly, not wanting to break the spell.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.