Stacking Plates – Joshua Chaplinsky
November 14, 2021
The end of the world is an exhibition. A graveyard of fallen towers that pave the landscape with their wreckage. Mountains of rubble, giant metal utensils twisted in the heat, bleached bones buzzing with hungry flies. A nightmare wasteland ruled by a mad king, crippled and sunblind. A large scale sculpture of everyday objects, destroyed.
My ex loved telling everyone what a helpful husband she had. Regaling dinner guests with stories of my dishwashing prowess. What she didn’t tell them is I needed at least a couple drinks first, otherwise I couldn’t keep my hands steady. He’s like a churchmouse, she’d say. If it wasn’t for the sound of running water, I’d never even know he was in the kitchen. Meanwhile, I was in there downing the dregs from everyone else’s glasses.
So helpful, the other wives would parrot back, before following up with passive jabs at the helpfulness of their own significant others. My ex beamed. I don’t even have to ask, she would say.
What she never told them, never told anyone, was it only took one dropped plate on her part, a single bruised cheek to ensure she never had to do dishes again. You didn’t do anything wrong, I said as I wept. The sound startled me, is all. A moment I lamented often.
A short time later she confided in me, because I guess she had no one else to confide in about such things. Or maybe it embarrassed her too much. I hate doing dishes, she told me. It was a fair trade.
But two plates was one too many. The second plate, the one I dropped, destroyed the illusion of the helpful husband. She packed up and left before the bruises appeared.
I could have stopped her. At least tried. The explanation sat right on the tip of my tongue. All I had to do was open my mouth, maybe give a gentle nudge. But I couldn’t. My mouth went dry and my tongue turned to stone. I couldn’t breathe. Like a child, unable to move, face pressed into their pillow.
For some reason I thought back to when we first met. I’d been on a business trip. She found me cowering in the shadow of a menacing apartment complex, levels stacked atop one another like concrete plates. I hadn’t given her an explanation then, either. She took me in her arms and led me towards a waiting cab. This time she got into the cab without me.
I remember one time Dad took me to this museum. I didn’t want to go, but he and my mom were having some sort of argument, so I had no choice. We strolled through a room full of oversized kitchenware and household objects. Cups and saucers, forks and knives. Pens and pencils, fruit, a giant table and chairs. Like that movie where the dad accidentally shrinks his kids. I ran through the room laughing and screaming. Dad leaned against the wall as I climbed a six-foot stack of pancakes. That’s probably the last good memory I have of him. An anomaly, really.
Forever ended and I could breathe again. My muscles relaxed as oxygen flooded my bloodstream. Euphoria overwhelmed my senses.
I threw open the cabinets and destroyed every plate in the kitchen. Stood there, chest heaving as I surveyed the aftermath. Listened for angry footsteps, a response to my symphony of destruction. None came. A nervous laugh escaped my body. Deep down I knew it would take more than that to wake the dead.
I drove straight to the nearest homegoods store. I didn’t want to look too pathetic, so I bought service for two. Bone white. Cheapest I could find. Went home and smashed it. Felt a slight buzz as I fell asleep.
I went back the next day and bought service for four, a soothing cornflower blue that wasn’t as soothing as its destruction. I basked in the feeling. Tried to make it last. I resisted as long as I could before going back for an eight service set. A nice winterberry design with sculpted edges.
Then service for twelve. Pink cherry blossoms with metallic gold. Anything to get my mind off the mismatched set from my childhood. I started buying out entire design runs.
A country floral.
A red toile. Then a classic blue.
Gilded roosters with architectural detailing.
A hand-painted citrus medley
A European crackle glaze.
There were so many options. Eventually my credit card maxed out.
Shards of ceramic sliced and gouged at my feet as I paced. Grease dripped down my chin, fell to the floor to mingle slick with the blood. I stuffed a hunk of wet bread into my mouth, held the paper circle to the light—practically see through. The landscape had been transformed through its lens. The paper crumpled into a wet ball in my hand.
The smashing, I told myself, was almost like the telling. In fact, it was better than the telling. Now my ex could come home. She’d see my bloody feet, the remnants of the fallen tower, and she’d understand. I wouldn’t have to say a word. She’d look upon my actions and know. We could start new lives, wander the wasteland together.
I went to the closet and retrieved the box.
In college I had a job washing dishes at a restaurant. Bottom of the pecking order. Dishwasher went home last, which didn’t bother me. Never had to worry about going out with co-workers, the burden of socializing. If they’d invite me I’d promise I’d meet them there, wherever there was. After I stood them up a few times they stopped asking.
Everyone figured me for a weirdo, especially my boss, but I did my job so well he didn’t want to let me go. Did it so well he didn’t want to promote me, either. Never broke a single dish, he’d say to no one in particular. Not one dish. When a waiter dropped a plate the boss would get red in the face and yell, Why can’t you be more like Mr. Steady Hands over here? I’d smile and grit my teeth and listen for the sound of my father’s footsteps coming down the hall. Eventually I realized the administer of my punishment wouldn’t show for anyone else. Still, I feared the sound of shattered glass like no other.
You killed yourself at the age of seventeen. No one saw it coming because you maintained the facade so well. It led to widespread disbelief. People couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Was I the only one who knew?
Technically you may have ended your own life, but he’s the one who took you from us. Destroyed our family. Such unfathomable cruelty.
You had a bit of a cruel streak yourself. That night while the family was out you went around the house and destroyed every picture of yourself, as if you wanted to punish us, erasing yourself from our lives. Left us with nothing but memories. I try to picture your face, add on the years, see what you might look like now. But that original image, of how I remember you, gets more elusive each day. Most times it’s hidden behind your bedroom door, which I could just see from my bed if I lay at the right angle. Even with the plates stacked on my back. More and more now the door is all I can see, your face locked behind it with all the horrors you suffered, horrors I invented, because I didn’t really know. Sometimes I feel like I’m the one who locked you in there.
I can hear his footsteps, slow and steady. The clink of the plates piled in his hands. Mismatched designs, pieced together from thrift shops and hand-me-downs. He never said a word, not even the first time, just patted my head and walked away.
He didn’t visit every night. Some nights he went out. I’d hear the creak of his bedsprings, take a deep breath, and bury my face in the pillow. I’d listen for the footsteps, the clink of the plates. But then I’d hear the front door open and close. I’d imagine my sister’s relief.
Where did he go those nights? Did my mother know? She slept the soundest, but always woke the least refreshed. A strange thought occurred to me one time. I wondered, did he take the plates with him?
I parked across the street from the old house, the box seat-belted in, riding shotgun. Blood soaked through the gauze wrapped around my bare feet. Through the window I could see kids at a table doing schoolwork, a wife preparing dinner. A few minutes later the husband walked in, planting kisses on heads and cheeks, dancing around the wife to grab a drink of water. He tidied a few things before disappearing from view. They seemed like a normal family. Happy, even. I wondered what kind of dinnerware they used. If their happiness could survive the apocalypse.
The last time I saw Dad alive was at Mom’s funeral. But time goes by fast, and the next thing I knew I was packing up an empty house. Me and my sister’s rooms looked exactly the same as when I left. Mine stripped bare of possessions, hers a monument to grief. Sometimes Dad would sit in her room after she died. A grieving father made for the perfect cover.
I packed up the kitchen last. Put those familiar plates into a box. Ran my hand over every chip. Felt their weight. Listened to the haunting nostalgia of that familiar clink. The worst part had been eating off them each night. Seeing my sister do the same. The act made me feel small. Instead of donating them with the rest of the stuff I put them in the back of a closet and tried to forget about them. My dad never made eye contact during dinner.
I kneeled in front of my father’s tombstone and placed the box where he could see it. I hadn’t visited since the funeral. Dad never cared for small talk, which suited me fine. I was content to listen to what the wind said to the trees. They foretold the end. Time would grind everything to dust.
I opened the box and stacked the plates, one by one, on my father’s grave.