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Souvenirs, by Matt Tompkins


It started with a few knickknacks—

A tiny model pickaxe embossed with the words ‘Yukon Territory.’

A brown bear statuette: Standing up, brandishing the California flag.

A teacup-sized, ceramic covered wagon that reads Oregon Trail: Westward Ho!

I noticed them all one day on a bookshelf in my bedroom and I assumed my mother must have sent them, mementos from her post-retirement pilgrimages. Trips I had heard about during rambling phone conversations while I did my hair and makeup and got ready for work, or sat and ate a quick, microwaved dinner with a half-glass of wine, checking my email while she talked on.

I thought, in the perpetually busy and distracted bustling of days, between bad dates, long hours at the office and endless trips to conferences, I must have opened packages containing these objects, set them out on display, and then promptly forgotten about them—only to find them again later as if for the first time.

Like I said, it started with the knickknacks—easy enough things to misplace or forget about or receive without even registering.

But then, a while later, there was an end table.

It was one of those integrated coffee-table-and-floor-lamp-in-one deals that looked straight from the seventies with a gilt-edged glass top, four lathe-turned wooden legs, and a green-shaded bulb.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that it (or one of its close relatives, at least) might have lived in my grandparents’ house when I was growing up—the sort of thing that one of my cousins would have smashed his forehead against as a toddler. If he went seeking consolation he’d have been chastised by some cigarette-wielding, liquor-swirling great-aunt. I can almost hear the rasping, That’s what you get for running in the house!

But, how did it end up here in my apartment?

No idea.

Next thing was a guitar.

To be clear: I don’t play the guitar.

I don’t play anything.

I have no real desire to learn, no particular ear for music.

In other words, I have no reason to have acquired a guitar.

I had a boyfriend once who played, but I can’t imagine he’d leave it here all this time, unnoticed until now.

It’s an old, acoustic model—that much I know. Lustrous, honey-colored wood, with luminous swirls of mother of pearl on the long piece that runs up under the strings, and a warm, musty smell inside its cavity. The knobs that tighten the strings are gold-plated. I can see my face reflected in them: Two neat little rows of cameos.

When I plucked at the corroded, coppery strings, they gave a satisfying, rattly twang.

But, of course, that’s not my point.

My point is: What is it doing in my apartment?

I broke up with it—or, with the guy, who must have left it here—long ago.

And the list goes on too—these are just some highlights.

The more I look, the more I find my apartment is full of things: cooking utensils, bath towels, old clothes, plastic toys, framed photos, scented candles, paperback and hardcover books that I can’t remember picking out, that I’m sure I never bought, that I don’t recall receiving, but that somehow made their way into my already-tiny living space, making it impossibly smaller.

It wasn’t such an issue at first. But lately, with the pileup, I can hardly sit down or walk from bedroom to bathroom without climbing over piles of clutter or shoving things out of the way.

The latest arrival is an armoire.

That’s right: An armoire.

How, exactly, one of those arrives unannounced I couldn’t begin to guess, but I woke up on Sunday to find it half-blocking the doorway to the kitchen. Stubbed three toes on it stumbling through to make coffee. When I pulled open its doors, I was nearly knocked backward by an avalanche of

mothballed business suits,

faded military uniforms,

grass-stained overalls,

and a whole slew of cable-knit wool cardigans from New Zealand.

From the plackets and toggles and lapels, gold buttons and hooks winked up at me in the slanting, mid-morning light, like we shared some obscure half-secret.

I think the armoire is made of cherry wood. It’s beautiful, really, and it smells like cedar and sage. But despite its charm, it’s maybe not so practical for the space: It takes up a full third of the living room, so I’ve had to push the couch way back into the corner.

Then again, whether I want it or not, I have no idea how I’d ever get it out of here. It would never fit through the front door, at least not in one piece.

All else being equal, and other concerns aside, I do have this to say in its defense:

It goes nicely with the antique sideboard that showed up yesterday, big as a coffin, overspread with huge, dust-greyed doilies. The sideboard’s wide drawers are packed full of tarnished, hand-monogrammed flatware, delicate gold-leaf peeling from the engraved letters—three initials that, though I can’t quite place them, feel vaguely, distantly familiar.