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From an essay that appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of The Threepenny Review.

Yesterday, while on extended hold with an appliance store, I deleted dead people from my Contacts. First to go: my mom’s friend Peggy (d. 2011), who once found a tropical frog in a plant she’d bought, then kept it alive for two years in her Philadelphia apartment. To learn its diet, Peggy called the local zoo. Neighbors later reported an infestation of crickets in the tenth-floor hallway.

I removed the young tenant from my rental house (d. 2013) who had killed himself, as well as his sister, the parents’ intermediary. They paid rent for another few months, slowly emptying the house, emptying the basement bursting with musical instruments, dismantling the upstairs compound of what struck me as an older man’s life: furniture suites and spice racks, security cameras and custom sconces.

Still on hold. To give up on my call now would be foolish, I figured, as I deleted a lovely man (d. 2010) who crafted low-alcohol artisanal ciders in western Massachusetts. He had a great head of gray hair and a graceful air about him, and he died in a cider-making accident (an explosion). My husband ran across his widow recently; she helps with the cider business, now run by their son, and both have found equilibrium after a few rough years.

The day before my call, ordering the dryer had been a snap. Add to Cart. Checkout. Finish and Pay. But I realized afterward that I need installation, too, and this could only be arranged by phone. One person after another asked me to hold just a moment while they got me to the right department, and meanwhile I removed the restaurant owner from my dad’s hometown (d. 2009), who was found in his pickup, self-inflicted gunshot. There may have been issues with the health inspector. There may also have been a broken heart.

When my shoulder cramped from propping up the phone, I laid it down and activated the speaker. Tuneless music unfurled across my desk as I discovered I still had a number for Murty (d. 2006), the roofer from across the street. Murty died young, or youngish, in his late forties. Wrapped himself around a tree, someone said. Died suddenly, the obituary said. When I hired his company to fix my porch, Murty promised he wouldn’t send the knucklehead who wore short shorts to work. “Hot pants,” Murty called them.

I erased Jo (d. 2003), my mother’s favorite travel buddy from the days when Mom—now ninety-six and socially distancing in her retirement community—went hither and yon on a teacher’s pension. My sisters and I threaten to get Mom a three-wheeled bike, but where would she ride it, she asks us? And who’s left to go with her?

Yes, I said to the employee who finally picked up, I could wait ten minutes while he finished with another customer. What was ten minutes, I joked, after an hour and a half? His nonresponse suggested that perhaps my bitterness had seeped through. By the time he returned, I’d made it through the alphabet. I’d kept Julie (d. 2004), the mother of my childhood best friend and a second mom to me, and my neighbor Deena (d. 2019), whose pancreatic cancer came on so fast she was in hospice before I heard she was ill. I kept my father (d. August 16, 2006). Setting up installation took all of five minutes, but then the appliance department employee said he couldn’t take payment and would have to connect me to customer service. Yes, I said. I’ll hold.

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December 2021

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