There Was Tinfoil Piled in Every Corner of the House

There Was Tinfoil Piled in Every Corner of the House by Elle Wheeler

I am standing on a frozen mud puddle poking a stick in a trash can. It smells of stale bread, ash, and ammonia; when I breathe in, the snow stings my nostrils. I have hiked a few hundred yards from a parking lot to this picnic shelter. It is late afternoon and the winter twilight is dusting to a close. Shadows are spinning through the spindles of the trees. There is one other car in the parking lot, a silver Civic, and a quartz crystal hangs from the rearview mirror. I don’t know who drives it. There is no one here but me. 

It is Christmas. Santa came this morning, and my children have already had their stockings and scrambled eggs and hot cocoa and hours of fiddling with the new things I bought. Then the car ride for the hand-off to their father. They did not seem to mind.

Crushed tall boys fill the garbage can. McDonald’s bags are crumpled into origami boulders. I turn to the fireplace built into the stone wall of the shelter, and I poke through the ash that piles in soft black dunes. The ash is riddled with scraps of tinfoil: some charred, some bright as dawn. They glitter. 

A week ago, I realized that my ex-husband’s phone had been synched to my laptop for years. It showed me a map of everywhere he had been. The map was a blue fishnet stretching across our town and it told me he had been coming here, to this park, every three hours like clockwork during his workday.

He was laid off from his job months ago, back when we were still married. I didn’t know why, and at the time I wondered.

A dark blue sedan pulls into a parking spot next to a barbecue grill. A man in a black Carhartt appears in the trees on a hill above. He shuffles down through the scrub. He splays his boots to gain traction in the crumbling winter soil. There is a hand-off in the sedan’s open window. I sense that I should be scared, but I am not. I rarely experience emotions anymore. My heart is hollow and dry. When I do turn inward, I do not want to feel things. Instead, I want to catalogue my memories. Because I can’t keep them straight, and they are slipping, and I don’t know how to make any decisions if I can’t even explain my own history. There are two women inside the car. I cannot make out much. They are smoking through a metal tube that they pass back and forth. Plumes of milky vapor curl around their heads and obscure my view through the window, so I am not sure what I see, but I faintly smell aluminum and piss. I squint up through the trees again and I see a discarded picnic table. Splintered beams perch on a corroded aluminum frame. The man sits on the edge of the table top. He resumes his lookout.

Another night, a few days later: I am standing in my empty garage with a phone and a ladder. My phone shines a coin of bright white light that illuminates the crevices and corners of the shelves, and I stand with one bare foot on the oil-soaked cement floor and the other foot wedged in the bottom rung of the ladder. It is cold; the garage walls creak. The pipes hum. I moved the car to the driveway for my treasure hunt. 

I am alone and I am flickering with curiosity. I pluck at the seal of a gallon-sized Ziploc bag that has been in the garage for months. I did not think to open it until after I had been to the park, after I found a metal straw in the kitchen, after I learned that aluminum tubes are pipes that are used to smoke meth off tinfoil. I had found the orphaned straw in our silverware drawer, nestled underneath the butter knives, left behind when my ex-husband packed his things. I lifted it and squinted down its charred black inner tube. These straws are sold in packs of twelve, I’ve since learned. There must have been eleven more that never made it to the kitchen. I wondered what other benign objects had secrets. I thought of the bag, then.

The bag is nestled in the tool cabinet behind six rolls of duct tape and a utility knife. It is stuffed with: rubber bands, cotton balls, sealed sterilized gauze pads, strapping tape, latex gloves, and at its center is a cardboard box. The cardboard box is the size of a matchbook and its corners are soft and silky from being handled. There is a girdle of strapping tape. I pick it open with my fingernails. Inside are two razor blades smudged with black tar, and a plastic circle, the size of a quarter, cut from some children’s toy. 

I am desperate for facts, but the material in this bag only elicits more theories. Maybe it was used for self-injury. Maybe it was used to chop powder. Maybe it was used to shoot meth cleanly. Maybe it is nothing at all, an assortment of first aid odds and ends that were packaged around an old matchbox whose contents he had forgotten. 

I’ve spent fifteen years trying to imagine the best in the man that I chose to father my children. Seeing his faults and excusing them. He has spent fifteen years telling me that I’m crazy. That I’m paranoid, that I can’t think straight, that I spin stories and lie. It feels absurd to presume that my weak mind might have worked out the truth. It is terrifying to imagine the grief that would flood me if I were right. So I look at the bag and I question myself, hear his voice telling me to keep searching for reasonable explanations. 

The smeared razor blades click against each other in my palm. I am chilled by how well they were packaged, how precisely the tape was cut and the box was centered in its nest of gloves and gauze. This bag was important to him. I am jealous of the attention that he showed these two pieces of steel. I am pricked with resentment that he would treat me and his children with such carelessness but conscientiously package these objects. I pinch the top corners of the bag and stretch them slightly. Nothing changes; it is still the same cloudy plastic, a magic eight ball that reveals nothing of use. 

There were so many things that were baffling a year ago, but that I understood fully once I grasped the extent of his substance abuse. The latex gloves he always wore when he handled the newborn. The crushed blue pill in his suit pocket. The frantic texting on weekend mornings and the rushed errands, with no explanation, that always followed. Then there are some things about which I am still unsure: the tinfoil balls wedged into every corner of the house, the cut-off electrical cords tucked in the rafters, the shards of broken lightbulbs in his basement hidey hole. I can imagine drug related uses for them, but I can also imagine them as the detritus of an overwhelmed household headed by an exhausted woman and a disorganized man. Even the camp straw might be charred from a campfire, and the map might show the trails taken by a cigarette-smoking hiker who hated his job. I am bloated with questions. Confusion eddies in sticky circles inside me, and I am driven to excavate room after room of my house in pursuit of more information. It is a compulsion. I interrogate each object I find for clarity about why I was worth leaving. They never provide answers. 

I want to claw the backs of my hands with frustration, but I don’t. Instead, I come in from the garage and open a kitchen cabinet to look for a tea bag. What else can I do? My children are with their father for their twice-monthly visit. I am worried about them, but I can’t run across town and steal them back. All I have are household items and suspicions. That’s the way it goes with addicts. The whole truth is never revealed, and all the details are confusing, but there is an unmistakable rot, sweet and spoiled like a bruised fruit, that spreads through the family. Every decision I make is an equivocation. So, I am making tea. And I reach for the tea bags and something whispers in me to poke through the ash, and I drag over a kitchen chair and step on it so that I can see all the way back in the top shelf.

Piled into the corners, perched atop the dry goods, tumbling from cans of beans and cylinders of spices: mounds and mounds of tinfoil. Stashed up high where no one will see. The glare from the kitchen light sears each crinkled ridge and valley. When I stretch over the back of the chair and lean into the cabinet, I bump the particleboard frame. Clumps of tinfoil spill out like rainwater from overfilled gutters. 

Later I will need to make decisions. I will need to choose whether to let the courts wend their slow way towards removing his rights. I will need to evaluate my children’s safety, and my own financial resources, and try to choose the most reasonable path. But for now I am lost in this fog.  I pluck a scrap of tinfoil from its nest and knead it between my thumb and forefinger. It rolls up into a silvery pebble, grooved and warm. Last Christmas he brought steak and burgers in from the grill and set them on the kitchen table. Yes, it was cold and snowing, but still he stood on the deck in a cloud of steam and smoke and made us Christmas dinner. He wrapped each cut of meat in foil to keep it safe from the frost. I set out the forks and the knives and a pale blue sippy cup of milk, and I was swollen with love for him. That was real. That happened; I can be certain of that one night and the memory of that first bite of steak, bloody and warm. 

Elle Wheeler lives in Ohio with her children.