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Eleanor invited us over to help her go minimalist. “I’m cleaning house!” she said. We arrived at her apartment with large, shiny bags from the home goods store, and smaller, shiny bags from the grocery store. The plan was to fill our bags to the brim with Eleanor’s things, and then haul the bags back to our bedrooms and kitchens and possess the unassuming objects until they transitioned into objects of our own, until they bored us, until we also decided to go minimalist and force the possessions on someone else. This was a ritual we called a “swap,” or a “giveaway,” or a “gutting,” or a “Here, you take this, this looks so nice on you, this looks so much better on you than it does on me.” The complicated provenance of our stuff.
But Eleanor’s apartment was practically empty, as vacant as a model home. Nothing save a mattress, two hats hanging from hooks, a table and chairs pushed against the far windowed wall. Our shiny bags floated on the freshly swept floors like the crumpled trash of giants.
“We thought you were decluttering?” “Yes,” Eleanor said. “Decluttering here,” and she pointed to her head. Eleanor liked to try new things. She was the first of us to take a trapeze class, and so this was just another acrobatic development. She lifted the hats from their hooks, and gave one of the hats to us. We passed it back and forth among ourselves, familiar with the idea of hats, but not in this context. Eleanor put on the second hat herself, and motioned for us to follow her into the apartment.
To start, Eleanor gave away a favorite anecdote about bug repellant. It went through one hat and straight over to the other. Next, she passed along a recipe for corn fritters. “I never cook these days,” Eleanor laughed. “I’ve sold my pots and pans!”
She uploaded the story of her education into the brim of the fedora, and it made its way through the straw cap sitting on Yuki’s head. “I didn’t know you studied semiotics,” Yuki said, and Eleanor looked at her blankly. “I did?” Then Eleanor had to give this knowledge back to Yuki, again, to prevent her brain from refilling itself.
We traded turns wearing the hat, receiving Eleanor’s refuse in shifts. Eleanor had a lot of great ideas, and a lot of lousy ones, too. Her head was like any closet, its contents both worthless and priceless in equal measure. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of hair products. She had watched more television than she cared to admit, and lied about the same things we lied about, like her availability the weekend of Brandon’s wedding. She was more racist than we had imagined, and less neurotic. She actually read the articles Katja forwarded every week, even the long ones, and not just the headlines. There was a whole business with a pack of monsters dressed as bears, hiding behind an armoire. There was Eleanor’s very first thought, an idea about the light that bathed the knotty fibers of her furry, soft pillow. She gave away her ability to sew and her ability to lift weights safely and effectively. Eleanor didn’t give Brandon her virginity, but she gave him her memory of losing it.
“I don’t understand,” Brandon sighed. The day was slinking off toward evening, and Brandon had missed brunch. “Why would you want to make yourself stupid?”
“Not stupid,” Eleanor said. “Just empty. I’m making room.”
And then, Eleanor put on the fedora, and gave away her idea for going minimalist in the first place. When we left her apartment, we left her with one thought in her head, and nothing else. We walked home with our empty bags. We wanted to know what it was, this shiny final thing, but she wouldn’t have told us, even if we had dared to ask. After all, she no longer even knew our names. She chased us down the hallway, screaming like someone we had never met.
Our own heads grew cluttered and heavy. Painful things, happy things, complicated nests of story. The years were tangled with other years. We tried on hats in fashion stores and waited for the thoughts to trickle from our ears, out and out forever. Every now and then we prepared a corn fritter. Every now and then we knew more about a hair product than we felt we should. We kept ourselves cozy with the clutter of well- stocked pantries.
On the long walk up the stairs, on the long drive to the country, on the marathon for retired Olympians, on the trips home from the doctor, on the stroll down the beach, we remembered Eleanor. We pictured her sitting on that bench, in that room, in the passenger seat, one car over. Look at how she points her chin forward into the coming day, we thought. So self-possessed, so single minded.
Hilary Leichter’s work has been published in The New Yorker, n+1, American Short Fiction, The Southern Re- view, BOMB Magazine, The Rumpus, Tin House, and elsewhere.