Orel Keeps the Past Alive (1981)

Orel stood in his kitchen, frozen in a movement, forgetting where he put the butter. He reached for the cupboard below the cups and there was the butter plate. He returned his attention to the cutting board where four slices of bread lay waiting for his culinary artwork to begin. There was only one way to make a sandwich, according to Orel Meyer. He’d perfected the art throughout the years, making slight tweaks to the quantities as his tastes slowly changed. The main ingredient was not your typical bologna, but mortadella, the real stuff. It’s hard to acquire, but there’s an Italian delicatessen in San Antonio where he’d buy four pounds at a time, paper in between the slices, packaged in one-pound bundles, double-wrapped, ready for the freezer. The same went for the Provolone Picante, paper in between the slices, etc., etc.

He was stationed in Bologna, Italy during WWII, not far from Genoa, where he worked in the Navy as an underwater welder. There, mortadella entered his life, and it never left. That is why he spent so much care with his sandwiches because he cared about the past, what it meant to him, how it shaped him, and the good memories he had of a time when he helped save the world. Through the years, somehow all that, the totality of the war and his life in Europe had been reduced down to a sandwich; into a perfectly edible box of meat and cheese. To Orel, though the past gets smaller the farther you travel from it, like a pearl of light at the end of a tunnel, the essence of that time stays alive and should be cultivated and celebrated.

            It was late, perhaps eleven in the evening. Orel stood underneath a hanging light just to the left of the sink. He was a big man, 6’2 220 pounds, but all muscle. He’d always been that way, the big boy on the farm, a juggernaut of a football player. He stood underneath that lamp and shadows clung to him. It was in stark contrast to the pure whiteness of the kitchen. White cabinets, white tile floor, white walls, and even white curtains alongside the windows. Orel prided himself on not updating the kitchen. If you take good care of the past it doesn’t need to be updated, he always thought. So, though it was 1981 the kitchen was a reflection of 1946, the year he and his wife bought the house, on a secluded tract of land in the Hill Country full of old sunburned oaks and plenty of cedar to choke on come January.

            Orel finished his sandwiches, set the table, and sat the two plates down. He prayed. “Lord protector, I’ve seen your light, and once I saw that light, I’ve never looked away. Though that light was hidden, it wasn’t too far, as long as I was brave enough to look for it. Lord, when I found that light I finally understood what powers you have, how you can turn things inside out, and make anything possible. Lord, with your guidance, I’m not afraid anymore because I see how trivial this life can be when I’m caught up in distraction. I ask you, oh Lord, to bless this meal and may it not be my last. In your name, we pray, Amen.”

            Orel looked at the empty chair across from him, to the glass of milk, and to the plate with the sandwich and froze like he’d lost the butter again. How long had she been gone? He thought, how long from this earth. Was it this decade or the last? He used to know quite well, but with present circumstances, her passing had become a blur, nearly a figment of his imagination, or rather a bad dream losing steam on the back of time. They met in ‘39, married in ‘46, had kids in ‘47 and ‘49, vacationed to Italy in ‘63, he began diving again in ‘74. She died in… Orel imagined she was sitting with him, that she was knitting at the table, that she was listening to the radio and letting go of her obnoxious laugh. “No, but up here, that’s gone,” he said to himself. “Up here it’s all gone.” He took another bite out of his sandwich and it tasted stale. He set it down and began to pace around the kitchen. He couldn’t remember when she died and the thought hammered him with guilt.

            The kids in ‘47 and ’49, landed a job as a machinist in ’50. Italy in ’63. My first dive in ’74… nothing. He went to the living room and stood there looking at her empty recliner. He thought back to the days she used to sit there in her curlers listening to the radio. She always had a cigarette burning beside her and a fan on hot days. She’d yell at the boys to do their chores while reading passages from the Good Book. She died in… He still couldn’t remember.

He remembered the cancer, how she acted like she wasn’t scared, but shut herself away like she was infectious. She shed weight in multiples. Then, she went to bed one night and never woke up and the smell of death permeated the sheets, the walls, and the rug. However, Orel kept the room the way it was, to respect the past, to honor it. Never mind though that he hadn’t been in the room since.

            Orel crept up the stairs afraid to wake the dead. He slowly made his way to their old bedroom and pressed his forehead against it. “For the love of God, what year did you die?” he asked, but it was still a gaping hole like the answer had been extracted from his brain. He opened the door into the darkroom. Switched the light but it wouldn’t turn on. Dead bulb. He could see the outline of the bed to his right, centered on the wall, and on either side of it a bedside table. The alarm clock flashed 6:42 am and he began to ache because he remembered that was the time he found her. But the ache was quickly replaced by confusion as the strong odor of cigarettes clouded the room. He rushed downstairs for a flashlight and when he came back to the room he heard a wheezing sound coming from the far side of the bed. He aimed his flashlight at the source of the wheezing and turned it on. His wife sat on the floor, her back against the wall, curlers in her hair, pale as an onion, black and white, smiling at him, but wheezing. Cigarettes were everywhere, put out on the carpet, and piled into mounds. She just stared at him with tarred-over teeth, smiling like she was so happy he decided to open the door. Orel slammed the door shut and ran downstairs.

            “That is not my wife,” he yelled descending the stairs. “That is not my wife.” He began to pace in the kitchen again and noticing her place setting, ran his arm across it sending the sandwich and glass of milk across the kitchen. If there was one emotion Orel Meyer had little experience with it was fear, Orel was afraid. He’d been so close to God lately, so close to his wife, so how was it that a demon like the one upstairs could appear to a man like him? He needed answers and he needed them now. Against his better judgment, Orel decided to do what he said he would never do, dive at night, alone. It was the only way he could get answers.

He went down the basement stairs, pulling the light cord halfway down. The dark stone floor was clear of objects, all storage behind sliding doors, his tools curated in a museum of pegboard and matching hooks screwed into the rafters. He heard the radio switch on upstairs. He shuttered and went to a workman’s armoire, and opened it. There, he pulled out a wet suit, stripped, and slithered his way into the foam skin. He put on his fins, gloves, and goggles. Mounted his depth gauge and flashlights, and made sure his tanks were full. He connected his regulator, and double and triple checked his equipment like an experienced diver does.

            He then made his way out into the yard. He saw the silhouette of his wife in the kitchen window pulling a drag from a cigarette. It was evening, but sweltering hot. He walked to the old well on his property and descended the ladder, into the darkness. At the bottom, he undid the lock and hoisted the wooden hatch. He looked up and saw a narrow circle of the night sky above him, the stars shining brightly like memories. He looked down and saw nothing but blackness. He said one last prayer before diving into the blackness, where the room of light is, to ask his real wife when she died.

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