Washing Dishes

The first thing I notice about the Gamgees' kitchen is that it is warm and filled with the last glowing rays from the sun. The large round window over the washstand frames the fringes of the sunset as if it were a painting, one done by someone with a love of vivid streaks of color. The light splashes into all the corners of the room, gilding them with a red-gold tint.

The ceiling is just the right height, neither too high nor too low, but somewhere in the comfortable middle. Well weathered boards, polished to a soft honey color and worn into gentle grooves by many feet, make up the floor. Beams of the same wood, though a slightly darker shade, hold up the roof.

The table and chairs, which are large and inviting, are made of a darker and denser wood then the walls and ceiling. The table's surface is scarred from many years of long use, but clearly it is taken good care of, the wood glows with that quiet warmth that only comes from much scrubbing and polishing. The oven, too, shows the signs of careful cleaning. Not an inch of the gout is stained, all of it has been scoured to a creamy off white.

Pots and skillets are hung on the walls, so as to be within easy reach for cooking. Or at least there are hooks for them there, tonight they are all piled in the washbasin awaiting cleaning. With the amount of people that had to be fed tonight it isn't really surprising that all the dishes were used. I don't think I'd properly appreciated before just how large Sam's family is.

Nor had I appreciated just how much they care for each other. This kitchen, never meant to be seen by outsiders, has had as much effort put into it as the front room. Maybe even more.

I suddenly feel like the worst kind of intruder, the polite sort you can't get rid of. My gift, a box of tea and a spare kettle I dug out of a closet, suddenly seems woefully inadequate. I was attempting to be helpful, my experience with deaths is that everyone ends up drinking a lot of tea to soothe their nerves and I thought that a replenished supply might be useful. I have a sudden feeling that I should have gone with my first impulse and baked something instead.

Of course, that probably wouldn't gone very well. I'm a good cook, but I'm rather easily distracted. I'll start thinking about something else, usually a book, and before I know it whatever it is that I'm cooking is burned. The tea was safer.

"You can set the basket there." Sam's voice breaks into my thoughts. "I'm sorry for the me..."

"Don't apologize. It's not a problem." I cut him off before he can finish the sentence. He shouldn't be apologizing. His mother just died for goodness sake! A messy kitchen is perfectly excusable at a time like that. Besides, it's a lot neater then mine is.

I place the basket of tea things on the table, next to several tall stacks of dishes, making sure I don't scratch the wood. When I turn back around Sam is moving pots out of the sink onto a nearby counter. I watch for a moment before he notices I'm done. He blinks, as if he'd forgotten my presence and says,

"Oh. Uh...If...If that's all then I've really got to work on these dishes. I..." I'm somewhat surprised, Sam is usually so polite it can be frustrating and even the slightest hint of abruptness is unlike him. But my mind takes in what he actually said and I blink in surprise.

"Sam? Are you washing all of this by yourself?" I ask him, gesturing to the vast piles of dirty cooking things.

"Yes." He seems suddenly a bit embarrassed, as if caught doing something wrong.

"Would you like some help?" I step forward and reach for a drying cloth hung on a rack. "I could..."

"Oh no, you don't have to."

"But I want to." I give him a calm look with just the right amount of pleading and resolve in it. "Please?"

He nods, a bit flustered and answers, "Well...All right."

I nod in return and pull the cloth off the rack.

We sort out our tasks without speaking. Sam sets to scrubbing the dishes and I dry them. The dish rag is nubbly under my fingers and makes soft squeaking noises against the glaze on the pottery. Soon the only sound in the kitchen is the quiet clinking of crockery and the other small noises of our work.

I watch Sam unobtrusively, out of the corner of my eye. There is a distant feel to the way he moves, as if he isn't really present and his body is just going through the motions. He is taking just as much care with the dishes as he always takes with everything, but there's an absent quality to it that suggests that he isn't really seeing anything. He's there, standing a few feet away from me, and yet he isn't.

It's incredibly disturbing. Sam always has an intense presence, a way of being so thoroughly focused on whatever it is that he's doing that leaves a watcher a bit breathless. When he turns that on you, it's the most amazing feeling there could ever be.

But that isn't here now, and I feel as if I'm looking at a stranger.

I bow my head over the plate I'm drying and try to clear my mind. I wish I knew what to do. I have never felt the distance that lies between Sam and I as clearly as I do now. I realize now that there are parts of his life that I know nothing about, pieces of him I have never seen and probably never will. I am at a loss as to what to do.


I take one final swipe with the dishrag across the upper curve of the plate and sneak a quick look at Sam. He's still washing the dishes with the same precise, far away manner.

I could start by just being the friend I supposedly am.

I set the finished plate in the steadily growing pile of dried and cleaned dishes and take a breath to steady my nerves, which are suddenly jumping about like crickets with a cat after them. I'm afraid that if I don't go slowly I'll rush, and Sam won't be able to understand what I'm saying, so I speak very deliberately.

"I'm sorry about your mother, Sam."

The words fall into the empty air more softly then I had expected. It's odd, but it's almost as if something strong and gentle reaches out and takes them, holding them as carefully as Sam would cradle a wounded baby bird.

Sam turns slightly and watches me without saying a word. Slowly, very slowly, he nods and returns to the dishes. No words are spoken, but perhaps I don't need them. After all, he seems a little closer already.

With just the barest hint of a smile, I reach out to take another dripping dish from the rack.