Simon’s oven mitts hadn’t been washed since 1998. They were originally patterned with clusters of blueberries and chickens, but time had splattered them with streaks of spaghetti sauce, grease from Sunday morning bacon breakfasts, wine from the fight about wedding silverware and soot from having burned the right thumb when he found Lucy crying upstairs on Thanksgiving. He stayed with her, lying in the alcove where they kept all the old stuffed animals, as the turkey burned downstairs.
Simon slid the mitts on and opened the oven door. The butter and sugar bubbled off the side of the tray; he had put too much on top. Lucy would’ve scolded him, but Simon knew muffins only tasted good if you tripled the butter and doubled the sugar. He wanted to add cinnamon, but when he pulled the jar from the drawer and shook it, nothing came out.
Leaves fell gently from the oak tree outside. Green veins had turned brown, brown had turned mustard yellow. The air smelled like mold and chimney smoke. Simon stared out the window as he ate his third muffin, folding down the wrapper and taking small bites.
A radio on the countertop peeked out from behind a pile of old magazines, cookbooks from the eighties and envelopes addressed to his wife. It was an old radio, nothing fancy. Simon had bought it the day Lucy went to the hospital to have her second ultrasound. She wore Simon’s orange knit sweater to the appointment, smiling softly at him as she walked out their front door, saying Don’t worry sweet pea, I’m fine. Simon sat at the countertop, thinking about how his wife looked like a fall pumpkin in his sweater and wondering how the doctor could possibly see their child underneath the knitted yarn. Lucy explained to him how it worked. Sound, she said. Little waves of sound squiggle through me and find the baby.
Simon sat there for several moments after she drove away in their green Subaru. The baby must hear it, he thought, this sound. He pictured something small inside her belly, something curled and quiet. It listened to the sound, the whirs and the whispers, and dreamed of warm things.
Simon, without the car, had walked three miles to the hardware store. They were only selling one kind of radio: black and simple. 12 dollars and 99 cents. He bought it and walked home, fiddling with the small plastic dials. When he reached the driveway, he saw Lucy sitting on the steps, the orange sweater still covering her belly. He knelt by her side, cheeks flushed, not knowing what to say. She stared at him with quiet green eyes, her head tilted as if she were already resting it on his shoulder. He slowly unwrapped the radio and pressed it into her hands. For the baby, he said, to listen. Her smile was slow, but it grew and she started laughing and so did Simon and they sat there with the radio and the sweater and Claire, curled and quiet inside her mother, listening.
* * *
Simon walked every evening at five o’clock. He sat in the wooden chair in the hallway and laced his white tennis shoes: first loop, second loop, crisscross, pull. Bunny ears, like how he taught Claire.
The smell of strawberries and burnt butter still clung to the house while Simon got ready for his walk. As he pulled a fleece hat off the closet shelf, gloves, scarves and faded baseball caps tumbled down on top of him. Nestled in the far corner, still folded nearly, lay the sweater. Simon had tucked it in the closet, hoping that the moths and dust would make it smell less like her.
Simon hesitated. He closed the closet door, walked back into the kitchen and pulled the radio out from under its pile. He wiped off some crumbs, held it against his chest and left the house.
His feet shuffled along the sidewalk, past the pastel houses, past the bushes where the birds lived every spring, past the bicycles and children making mud pies in their yards. Simon turned the radio dial on and off as he walked. He kept his thumb pressed against the smooth button, clicking between static and silence every minute.
Every evening from then on, Simon walked with the radio. He walked with it during winter as snow fell and stuck to the trees. He walked with it during spring as rain slid off his red umbrella. He walked with it during summer as the neighborhood kids played baseball at the park, their laughter like crickets, their small feet running through long green grass.
When Claire was young, she would walk with her father. She skipped next to him in her blue dress, tugging at his hand. Her brown hair stuck out at different angles and, despite Simon’s patient instructions, her shoelaces stayed untied. She was always desperate to feel and be heard. She would scream, drop glasses on the cement steps just to hear them shatter, and jump from the swing when it was too high. Some days, though, especially Saturdays, Claire would curl up quietly next to her mother as she read books about whales and starfish and things that liked water more than air.
* * *
Lucy found Claire in the bathtub. She was seven, wearing her bathing suit covered with turtles, floating. Lucy screamed and plunged her hands into the lukewarm water, lifting Claire up. My baby, she cried, my baby, my starfish. Simon ran up the steps, stumbling over the carpet. What happened? Simon asked. What happened? Lucy pressed Claire into her chest, smelling her daughter’s hair one last time. She was trying to breathe underwater, Lucy sobbed.
After the funeral, the neighbors brought food to Simon and Lucy. The food never tasted right: lasagna without cheese, cookies with only one chocolate chip, pink chicken. Lucy sat on the kitchen floor, her shirt slipping off her shoulder, her collarbone protruding like a handle. They think we killed her, she whispered. After that, Simon carried everything up to the bathroom. He dumped the pasta and sauce and brownies and blueberry pie into the ceramic tub. He watched the ice cream melt. He ripped the aluminum trays and sprinkled them on top. He threw the vases against the tiles just to hear them shatter.
* * *
One evening as Simon walked, he heard something. He glanced around: a sparrow sat on a mailbox; a piano played inside a house; water ran down gutters. Simon cleared his throat and fiddled with the dial of the radio even though it had been dead for years.
Then, from nowhere, “Who are you?”
Simon nearly fell on the pavement. The voice came from the crackling radio speaker tucked under his arm.
“Claire? Claire? Is that you?” Simon held the radio to his ear.
“Actually, I’m Cassidy.”
Simon swallowed and lowered himself onto the curb.
“Why can’t I see you?” The girl sounded curious.
“I’m here, baby. I’m here, Claire, come home.”
The crackle of the radio got louder. Simon twisted the volume. He heard a swooshing and humming and the echo of someone talking. He shook the radio.
“You live down here?” The girl’s voice came back.
“Down? No, no, Claire, we’re at the top of the street. Remember, starfish? Remember our home?”
The radio went silent: no crackle, no girl.
Claire liked the park, Simon thought. He grabbed onto the mailbox, pushed himself off the sidewalk and began shuffling down the street. His knees protested, his back hunched, his shoes came untied. Simon kept hobbling.
When Simon reached the park, he went over to the swings. Claire liked to fly. Other kids were at the park, giggling, sliding and playing tag. Simon squinted his eyes: where was she?
He sat down on a swing and twisted the radio dial as far as it could go.
“I’m not scared of being here. I’m not scared of you, either.” The girl’s voice rang out over the playground.
Simon grabbed the cold chain of the swing.
“Scared?” Simon stuttered.
“You see, my dad has a temper. The last thing I remember…” The girl’s voice cracked. “Standing over me, rubbing his belt between his fingers. And the milk pail.” The radio hummed. “But, but I’m not scared of you.”
Simon shook his head back and forth. No. They never hurt Claire. She just didn’t realize how difficult her fits were: the yelling, the glass…
Simon got off the swing. Claire needed help.
“Claire? Where are you?”
Simon started wheezing; the chilled air pushed against his lungs. The radio beeped and went silent.
A few people glanced at Simon as he stumbled out of the park. His gray hair stuck out like bird feathers and his lips stammered wordlessly. By the time Simon arrived at the hardware store, his chest ached and his hands shook. The door jingled as he pulled it open and stepped inside.
They were only selling one kind of radio: black and simple. 20 dollars and 99 cents. Simon bought it and went home.
* * *
The new radio sat propped up on the countertop. Dust and crumbs had settled in its cracks. Simon waved a butter knife in the air—he was baking cookies.
“Did you really learn that today, Claire? I’ll have to tell your mother later. I think she’s taking a bath right now.”
Simon’s oven mitts were patterned with clusters of blueberries and chickens. He slid them on and opened the oven door.
The radio’s static echoed through the house.
Part of the Ritual Issue