Love, Death and the Easy Bake Oven by Steven Christopher McKnight

You find a word you like in the Wakefield Cycle: the Middle English term pykeharnes, modernized as pickharness, a scavenger who scavenges the armor off of the war-dead. The fuck are they gonna do with it? Not going to do them much good now. There are no war-dead where you live, so when you attribute the word to yourself, it’s more symbolic than anything else. At the thrift store where you worked to earn money through the pandemic, customers would often come up to you with knick-knacks from the knick-knack aisle, ask you what it is like you’re some expert on everything, say to you, “I don’t know what it is, but I like it.” You see yourself in them. Dissonant bits of stories and characters present themselves to you, and you mutter to yourself generically, “I’m stealing that.” Every time. Without fail. You don’t know what it is, or if you have any use for it. But it’s there. Whoops.

An old-and-young-and-neither-all-at-once woman at the backdoor of Goodwill drives crates and crates of sterling silver and collectible plates and unworn name-brand clothes into the sorting room where wicked-stepsister-energy-Kyle won’t let you and Murphy work (preferring the company of the store’s lady-employees) unless there’s some heavy lifting to do. “All my friends are dead,” says the woman conversationally, almost singsong, with a polite smile of introduction. “These are their things. What am I going to do with them?” The harnes is pyked clean in that moment, and you’re the one to pick it.

You wear the clothes of dead men regularly. Your family’s never gone without, despite the so many children. Your father does the archiving at a train museum, which earns enough money to put the kids through college when the government doesn’t furlough him. But of course the $2.50 plaid button-down you can buy at work with an employee discount fits you better and looks better on you than the $15 Target plaid. And when you’re beckoned to the car of the lady who drives the bus to church your first year of college, she gives you a set of suits and coats that fit you perfectly. A friend’s husband died. I thought they’d fit my husband. They don’t. You look about his size. You were about his size, and the tan suede jacket, worth more than you, becomes a staple of your wardrobe from day one. Nolan-who-has-the-air-of-a-person-who-should-write-gay-erotica says you look like a street magician, not to be confused with the other Nolans of whom you know none.

Your mother says you have your father’s father’s nose—been saying so since you knew what your nose was. It’s a hook-nose, a goblin-nose. When he dies, you ask to attend the funeral of your nosewright Grandpa Duncan, but your dad says no, says you need to focus on school, takes off. He’s a mystery to you, your father, a novel character doing things for reasons you don’t know why. But when you’re 22, you take a trip to Stowe with Dad to visit your ailing Grandma Betty one last time before the terminal cancer takes hold. As you flip through the old photo albums with her, the things that shed a little more light on Dad and his side of the family, a humble letter slips out.

“Your aunt Kathleen wrote this,” Grandma Betty says more matter-of-factly than the situation merits, handing it to you. “When your grandfather and I divorced, she wrote me this begging me to take her back, told me all the things he was doing to her, but what could I do?” Your Uncle Mike snags the letter before you have the chance to read it, looks it over, frowns deeply. The conversation stagnates, then shifts, and on the drive back home Dad tells you that how you use this story for your career, whether it’s for a half-baked play or a never-finished novel, is up to your discretion. You’re too distracted by your own nose to give what he’s saying any thought, though. It just dangles there in your double-visioned periphery, a schnoz inherited from a now-dead villain. You don’t like it, but Duncan’s not using it anymore. It’s all yours now, whether you want it or not.

The worst part about sorrow is the fact that you can only perform the most pathetic parts of it when someone asks you what’s wrong. Russia invaded Ukraine. You’ve not heard from Viktoriia in well over a week. The last text from her was, “They’re so close,” and not knowing what to say, you promise her that she’ll be safe, but then the Russians take Makariv, and she lives in Makariv. You know how Russians are. At work those days, everything reminds you of her. Friends merchandise. Train paraphernalia. That week you get two donations of antique postcards so suitable for your Viktoriia—who the night after you first met her talked for over an hour about her antique postcard collection at home—that you move to text her before you realize again for the millionth time that day that she’s nowhere to be found. In your mournful reverie the assistant manager drops by and asks how you are, and without missing a beat you wryly reply, “I think my girlfriend might be dead,” and she’s not really your girlfriend, but explaining everything takes too long, and there’s not a word in English that really describes it, and God it feels that way, though, doesn’t it?

So the manager calls you into her office, offers you the chance to go home, tells you that, despite what you’ve been instructed to advocate for the past year or so, maybe picking clean the proverbial bones of the dead and selling their stuff might not be the most important work in the world, even if it goes toward good causes like local charities and our paychecks. In the face of war, death, destruction all around the world, the most important work we can do is make sure that we are okay. And of course you can’t stop sobbing.

Viktoriia texts you a few days later. “We are alive. I’m not okay.” Her family’s fled to a safer part of Ukraine, leaving behind every physical memory she’s ever had in the house her father built before she was born. For months she won’t know if that home is still standing. But for now, you’re happy that even though some Russian thug might be stealing her washing machine, it warms your heart to know that for the foreseeable future, she is on the other side of the screen when you send her pictures of a small metal booklet of antique postcards from her Kyiv, when it crosses your desk and you see her in it.

You talk to teddy bears regularly because your parents never let you get a cat growing up, but writers need to talk to something, so you’re stuck conversing with somethings that are remarkably less animate.

“Steven, will I die?” asks Milkweed at 2am. He’s a gift from your grandmother from twenty years ago, and you love him dearly for it, but God is he a bummer sometimes.

“You were never alive,” you say.

“Oh.” A pause. “So will I see the heat death of the universe, then?”

“No,” you say. “You don’t really see much that I don’t imagine you’ve seen.”

“Okay,” says Milkweed. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Will you live to see the heat death of the universe?”

“I’m going to die in my mid-30s by a mysterious murder. We’ve been over this.”


“And I suppose,” you hem and haw, “that you’ll die soon after. Or at least cease to be. You only really have a consciousness that I ascribe to you. Without that consciousness—” You trail off.

“So I’m only alive because I mean something to you. So when you die, I die, too.”

“Maybe,” I tell him. “Or maybe someone else will find you and love you and give you a whole other meaning. Maybe you’ll go to some nice kid, or a thrift store, and—” You continue to lie to him. He’s kind of grungy and ripped up, and unless you’re going to rise to stardom somehow and get Milkweed enshrined in the museum, you know he’s going in the thrift store dumpsters. But it feels nice to imagine that the things in the world that you love won’t see their end when you do.

You hold Milkweed a little tighter to yourself. Milkweed is inanimate and does not respond.

The minutes tick by like blood oozing from an open wound in the last hours you spend with Arianna. She doesn’t want to say goodbye just yet, so she takes you to her conservatory, asks the teacher if you can sit in on a sound production class that’s being taught entirely in Italian, just so she can be in the same room as you for the hours leading up to your train leaving. It’s cute and you like her.

During the lunch break, you go out for sandwiches and eat them in an open market outside the Theatre of Bologna, and she scolds you for treating her to lunch again as if you haven’t watched her and her parents make homecooked meals for you all week long or buy your bus tickets because you were too lazy to withdraw the cash or literally sit you down to brush your hair because it’s remarkably knotted and she just wants to make you beautiful. You don’t know what kind of love you feel for her yet, you only know that it’s bright and full and dreads taking that plane to Warsaw at 5pm. You check your phone again. The flight’s not cancelled. Fuck.

You tip your plastic water bottle into your mouth, let the last drops fall out. Then you crush it, tighten the cap, and stick it in Arianna’s backpack.

“Hey,” she says, slapping your hand away.

“It’s a gift,” you say ironically. That’s not really the case. You just don’t want to carry it around all day, looking for a recycling bin. But she doesn’t know that. The two of you have a running bit: you’re Raccoon Boy and she’s Possum Girl, and you’re both lovers of trash—old, decrepit, valueless things that have value because you assign it. To her, in this moment, the gift of trash is the greatest gift of all, and you imagine you’ll come back in many months or years and find that crushed-up water bottle on a shelf in her room next to the little glass rodent you bought for her in Prague because you saw a little bit of her in it, and the sonnet you wrote her in the bedroom across from hers in the hours before she woke up the previous morning. (You’ve discovered that there’s never enough time to write a love letter. It’s the perfect strategy to fritter the time away.)

But you also imagine she recycles it. And that’s fine, too.

You leave noncommittally, in a quick space between her classes. One hug isn’t enough. You make it two. You give a thought to tenderly kissing her forehead—she’s short, and you’ve joked she’s perfect forehead-kissing height—but you’re fighting off allergies or sickness or something, and you dare not taint her with more disease than necessary.

Her favorite piece you’ve written is a short story—a half-fiction, actually—about a thrift store, where an Easy-Bake Oven basks in its tragic obsolescence. In the story, someone buys it, along with many plaid shirts, not for its intended purpose, but for some unknown, loving inside joke between that individual and a different unknowable figure. You haven’t the heart to tell Arianna that you wrote that piece to impress a woman who you shouldn’t have tried so hard to impress. But it’s impressed Arianna. In that moment, trash becomes treasure. Congratulations, boyo. You’ve pyked your own harnes.