Us Lovely Monsters

For each generation of children, there are fears of destruction hurtling at them from the outside world.  Growing up in the 80s, we had many to choose from, but nukes, kidnappers, and serial killers topped the list.

lonely house 2

The first of these was optimistically if grimly tempered with the conventional wisdom that Russia wouldn’t bomb us because they knew we’d bomb them back.  However sound this logic may or may not have been, it was a comfort and whenever it rose anew, we kids all nodded sagely and hoped that it was right.

If my Uncle Eddie, who should have been moldy from carrying so many wet blankets around, were present, he’d say something like, “It’s Korea you have to worry about. Chinks.  They’ve got nothing to lose.”  I’ll leave that there.

Kidnappers seemed the more likely threat.  Mom was always cautioning us against getting away from her in stores.  “I just think of that made for TV movie I saw… That poor woman never forgave herself.”  There’s a cold comfort in knowing only ABC ratings bait stood between us and a life of captivity in a backyard compound made of rusty car parts.  Were a haggard JoBeth Williams in a ruffled working mom blouse even a skosh less haunted about leaving her son alone in the McDonald’s fun house to take a shit, one of us kids would have been decorating milk cartons.  Thank you, JoBeth, thank you.

Serial killers still creep me out, as they darn well should.  As a kid in the post-70s, the nation had come through so many hardships with Vietnam and Watergate and Sonny and Cher, that when the anchor people turned to the latest case of a missing woman in the greater metropolitan area, you could tell this was the new lighter fare.  The gravity of their eyes lessened almost as much as if they were about to take us to footage of a family petting zoo getting a reprieve from a tax audit.

Stories about serial killers was such standard issue in the 80s, that when I started a kid detective agency with my sister and cousin, we wrote out detailed MOs about our made up killers.  It was pretty professional grade stuff.  Our sick sons of bitches tended to go after look alike nurses who drove similar cars.  Case file notes included phrases like ‘pert nose’ and ‘strawberry blond’ and ‘dark green Pontiac’.  We cajoled my mom, who worked from home as a medical transcriptionist, to type our reports up on her hospital-issue forms, but we had to draw our crime scene photos ourselves.  No matter how grim the carnage, each shot wound up with a Crayola sun and flying bird in it somewhere.  It wouldn’t have taken Judge Wapner to point out these were inadmissible in court.

The end result of all these fears was that it taught me the notion that people were possibly more apt to be monsters than heroes.  Time has revealed a more nuanced truth: people can be disappointing and disheartening, but most of them aren’t planning to drop bombs, steal your kids, or toss your body parts into the Green River.  But before I learned that, I saw the world as grimmer than statistically possible.

One night my folks drove us home from my grandmother’s house, the car wending through forests to left and right, and I passed out of childhood.  Until then, I had thought of the woods as threatening, just as they were in fairy tales.  Then we passed a small house with a sparse lawn glinting in the moonlight.  There was only a single window lit and I imagined that someone was doing something horrible to someone else inside.  The threshold was passed through in that instant and goblins and bears and wolves faded into fancy, leaving behind the big fear of adulthood: each other.

 

Marla

My aunt Marla was not easy to like, but she was maybe the funnest person to watch in Wassavale County.  There is something about people who have no filter that makes their every interaction a grenade with a loose pin.  You know this could go south quick, but you can’t look away.

Through knowing her, I learned the difference between nice and polite.  Some people always say what the social contract assigns them, but they’re filled with poison inside.  Marla didn’t really hate anyone, I discovered eventually, but she couldn’t help seeing folks exactly as they were.  And saying things from that same place of truth.

There was a lot that was unstable about my childhood, but the one thing I could count on was that when things got dicy at home, my aunt would swing by in her shiny blue Mustang and drive me away from everything hateful.   One Memorial Day weekend when I was nine, an argument between my folks sent my Mom into a tizzy and she wound up going to stay with her folks for most of the day.  She was going to leave us, she said, a threat she employed so often that my older sister, Hillary, never acted frightened of it anymore.

Aunt Marla came as soon as my father called her, though doubtless she had her own holiday plans.  Dad always said moss didn’t grow on Marla.  Despite the opening day throng, she took us to the town pool – a treat for county kids – and pissed off an old friend of hers within the first half hour.

pool2

My sister had abandoned us the moment we arrived, being at that stage in her teens when it was considered uncool to have relatives either older or younger than oneself.  Having made an immediate beeline for the long line at the food hut, I was happily eating a wafer thin cheeseburger twenty minutes later when a smiling woman in a wide-brimmed hat approached us.

“Howdy, stranger!”

Marla was rubbing on cocoanut oil.  There were signs on the fence around the pool asking people not to use too much lotion; this was her second replenishment.  I thought it made her smell like a parfait from Tastee-Freez and it made me hungry all over again.

Marla glanced at the woman over her shoulder without smiling.

“Oh. Hi, Crystal.”

“I miss seeing you at church.”

“I haven’t gone in ten years.”

Crystal squinted out across the glittering pool water, then perched on the edge of Marla’s lounger.  She bit her lip, her eyes cutting to me.

“Is this your nephew? You’ve grown, sugarbooger.”

I smiled nervously, aware that I had a smear of ketchup on my chin.  As I dug around in Marla’s bag for a napkin, she arranged herself to bask in the sun.  She turned to the woman in the big hat.  My aunt’s power to unnerve was heightened by her perpetual accessory, slightly mirrored sunglasses, which hid her warm brown eyes while reflecting back at them their own growing anxiety. Staring down Marla was like looking into the thin, hardened face of a state trooper with the addition of a frazzled blond lion’s mane.

“I gotta say, Crystal, you look great.”

The other woman’s smile was short lived.

“Yeah, Crystal.  When I heard what that son of a bitch did to you, I thought, ‘Well, she won’t show her face for a year.’ I mean, it was embarrassing to even hear about it.”

Crystal stood quickly.

“Me and Bobby are working things out now.”

Marla snorted.  “Well, good luck.”

Crystal opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and walked away with studied ease.  Marla nodded meditatively at the departing figure.

“Those beauty pageant types – the really good ones – never lose their poise. It’s classy. She’s real classy.”

Opening the wrapper on a Zero bar, I tilted my head to study Crystal’s posture.

“I thought you didn’t like her.”

“Why’d you think that?”

I almost said the first thing to come to my mind, but I decided on another answer.  “Well, I thought maybe you didn’t like her asking about you going to church.  Mom hates it when people ask her when she’s coming back.”

Marla laughed shortly.  “I don’t give a shit about that stuff.  Crystal’s okay.”

 


 

I found out from my mom that night that Crystal’s Bobby had cheated on her, embezzling money from the auto dealership where he worked to pay for a secret love nest with another woman.  The dealership was owned by Crystal’s dad, so the betrayal ran all the way through the family.

I dried the dishes and watched Mom burn through a menthol.

“Your aunt’s gonna get killed one day,” she said.  “But I’d have loved to see the look on that bitch’s face when Marla brought up the thing with Bobby.”

“That’s not nice, though, is it, Mom?”

This was from my older sister, who was standing on a step ladder, putting away a casserole dish with green daisies on the sides.  Hillary blinked down at us through her thick, peach-toned eyeglasses.

Mom shrugged. “She was stuck up in high school.”

It wasn’t much of a defense, but we knew that no matter how much Mom may have disliked someone, she’d never say anything to their face that would cause them a moment’s discomfort.  She wasn’t like her sister-in-law at all.  Neither was our Dad, who’d suffer almost anything rather than cause someone else the smallest qualm of self-doubt.

Aunt Marla had a theory that his personality was what kept my folks together.

“If your Dad wasn’t a weakling, your Mom would have been out on her ass years ago.”

She told us this many times throughout my childhood in one way or another.  The last time Marla said this was when she was driving Hillary to a fitting for her wedding dress.  I was along for part of the way; they were going to drop me off at a friend’s house in town.

There had been a kerfuffle at the house that morning that left Mom refusing to go with my sister to the dress shop.  The fitting appointment was a day after Mom’s birthday, but because her birthday fell on a Friday that year, she had lobbied to move the celebration to Saturday instead, which didn’t necessarily require the fitting to be cancelled, although Mom thought it should have been.  She was sure that the dressmaker would take too long and they’d be rushed to get ready for dinner. Looking back on it, there was no reasonable outcome that would have required anyone to change their plans.  Still, by the end of the Saturday morning argument, Mom stormed into her bedroom, shrieking, “Happy fucking birthday to me.” Slam.

 


 

As always, Marla was available at the drop of a hat when I called her to pick us up. Dad explained before we left the house that he offered to take my sister, but that Hillary refused.

“Of course she did,” Marla said. “You’d be a wreck at a fitting. Up and down, trying too hard not to act bored.  But you’ve never had a poker face, Sonny.  Besides, you gotta stand watch over crazy in case she tries to cut her wrists again.”

Dad glanced through the car window at us, his lips drawn thin.  Hillary was staring out through the windshield, her green eyes as cool and latently ferocious as the twin jade dragons at the Chinese restaurant in town.  He tilted away to look at our low slung rancher, dully lit by the overcast day.  “She’ll be alright, I think.”

Marla shrugged.  “When she pulls that stick out her ass, I hope it leaves a splinter she can’t reach with tweezers.”

“You’re a real peach,” Dad said.

I looked up quickly to see if he was being sarcastic – something I thought was literally impossible for him – but he was giving his sister a genuine smile.

“I mean it,” he said.  “You’re more of a mother-”

“Don’t,” Marla said.

She patted his hand quickly, then hit the window toggle to shut him out.  As she pulled away, she said for herself only, “It’s too stuffy outside to shoot the shit with him when I got the A/C running.”

We were halfway down the drive when she made her famous claim again, “If he had even squirrel balls, he’d have thrown her into the bin back in the beginning.”

My sister and I were silent.  It seemed each time it came up that one or the other of us would finally snap and say something to defend our mom.  Yet despite the hurt Marla’s words caused, I think we each felt there was enough truth that anything we said would have been hollow loyalism.

At the end of the drive, Marla said, “Chipmunk balls even.”

 


 

We didn’t know it that day, but Dad was working on an exit strategy.  He was just waiting until my sister’s wedding was over.  While she and her husband were in the Poconos, he served Mom with divorce papers and moved into an apartment in town.  It wasn’t far from the pool and I would still have been going to the same high school in the fall, but I stayed with Mom.  Marla’s jibs about my mother’s attempted suicides weren’t cut from whole cloth, and since the age of seven, I had lived with an underlying terror that I’d be the one to find her dead.

Dad understood all too well.  And while I think he would have liked the company, he was probably relieved to know someone was taking up the watch in his absence. The weird thing was that the divorce went really smoothly.  Mom even had moments when she was calm and insightful.

“He did the right thing,” she said one day in the fall.  We were bringing in firewood together. There was a lot one could say about Mom, but she never shied from work.  She was carrying in twice as much as me.

“You’re not mad?”

“Nope.”

But as the days of winter grew shorter and colder, the all too familiar flatness settled on her.  I knew the signs like the words of a song you hate, but can’t escape on the radio.  She started taking less showers, forgetting to eat, and sleeping later into the morning.  Each day when I left for school, my stomach was in knots, worrying about what I’d find when I got home.  By New Years, I wasn’t sleeping a whole night through.

I called Aunt Marla out of desperation one Sunday morning when Mom refused to get out of bed. She didn’t fail me, as she never had, and within a half hour, I heard the wheels of the Mustang crunching through the gravel.

Marla looked a little worn to me that day as she paused out on the breezeway.  Her tan was still fixed in place, thanks to a subscription she cherished deeply at a salon over in Bunkport, but her face looked leaner than ever.  For the first time, I saw that, like the rest of us, she was getting older, too.

The first thing she did when she entered mom’s bedroom was to pull the bedspread off the bed and yank the pillow out from under her head.  It was like a magician’s trick, seeing the cloth whip away in one clean arc, leaving in place one limpid woman – forty, fat, curled in a ball.

Mom grunted. “What are you doing, Marla.”

“Stripping the bed.  These sheets are fowl.”

“Leave me alone.”

“You think Corey needs your pity party?  Get the fuck up.  We’re washing your sheets and we’re washing your hair.  You smell like a whore with busted plumbing.”

That made my mom laugh out loud, rolling on her back and pushing out her laughter at the ceiling.  I couldn’t find the humor, but I smiled at Marla.

“Get up,” she said.

Over breakfast, Marla told my mom what she was going to do with the rest of her life.  Or she told her what the next few weeks of it were going to look like.  “You’re going to start seeing a therapist.  I know a woman.  She’s good. I’ll get you in quick.”

“So I’m not allowed to be depressed after my husband leaves me and my daughter runs off.”

“Your daughter didn’t run off.  She left with her husband after a wedding that was two years in the planning.  You’re an asshole if you feel abandoned by her.  Hillary was old enough to start her own life.”

Mom glanced moodily out the window.  The wintery yard was as homely a silver yellow as a boiler onion.  She was going inside of herself again.

Marla gestured to me and I covered my belly with my hands, a thing I did whenever anyone looked my way.

“This one can’t start his own life yet, so you owe it to him to pull yourself together.”

Before she left, she made Mom agree to see a therapist.  I watched my aunt drive down the driveway and wished desperately she’d turn the car around, tell me to hop in.  I would have loved to have gone to live with her, to sleep on her sofa, to keep my clothes in a bundle hidden behind the TV.  I would never leave a dish unwashed, I’d close the fridge without a sound.  I would have made myself as quiet as a mouse, as small as a beetle, if it meant I could tuck away into her life instead of that one. As I turned back to the house, I saw Mom through the kitchen window, pouring herself a glass of juice.

Maybe Marla’s advice would take hold.  She could get some help, pull out of this. Winter would be over before we knew it.  Marla was blunt and sharp, she held your feet to the fire.  But you never felt guilty when she told you how things were. You simply knew she was illuminating the truth.  Do with it what you would.

In that way, she was the sunlight when I was small.

 

 

Burning Down the House

My people take it on the chin.

We absorb the blow.

Yet I have observed a curious thing about being hurt by someone else.  Even when the hurt is unintended, merely a clumsy misuse of words, it gets at something cold and murky in my psyche.  When I’m burned, I answer with ice.

Perhaps it is a protective skiff of the cold stuff, a pristine shield that rises until I am done licking my wounds – be they imagined or real.  The good news is that I pick away at it with logic and eventually pull myself from the numbing tomb.

While I am in that place, though, I am not easy to be around.  My words are few, my smile is absent – laughter unimaginable.  A dry observer would call it pouting, but that would be ungenerous.  Or perhaps only partly true.

It wasn’t always this way.  Before there was ice, there was fire.

christmas shopping

Friends of mine know a story I tell about a plastic flashlight in my childhood.  It involved my sister, Bird; there are few stories centered on this one that aren’t complicated.   The story ends with me climbing under a thorny hedgerow to retrieve a Christmas gift.  Yet the aftershocks are permanent, leaving their impression on my adult self.  The artifact of that day is the reason I always go to ice.  It is a safer alternative to setting fires.

When I was a kid, shopping for other people was a pleasure.  I wasn’t so concerned with whether or not the recipient would like it, so long as it made sense for them in some vague way and so long as it fit my firmly defined budget.  Our parents gave my sisters and I each a small sum to get everyone’s gifts with and then shepherded us through the mall until we were finished. It must have been crushingly obnoxious to them.

Because I always saved my cleaning allowance (marveling that I got cash for doing my favorite thing) it meant that I had a little more to spend.  I started with Mommy and Daddy, then picked something for the girls, then my aunt Becky and my Grandma.  If there was enough left over, I might get something for a favorite cousin.  Somehow I always made the budget work.  When it worked out perfectly, I ended with one small self-indulgence, a candy bar to eat in secret.

My sister Bird was another person altogether.  She started shopping for her school friends first, sparing no expense, as she had all the spontaneous generosity of a bi-polar lottery winner on a spree.  This meant that she had to ask for more money at some point in the afternoon.  The one Christmas shopping trip I remember clearest is the one that led to my tussle with the thorn bushes later in the winter.

My mother wasn’t gifted at setting boundaries. When Bird found her in the  JC Penney and asked for more money, Mom started with a defense weaker than day one of a little league training camp. Answering in a tone that is the closest audible rendering of hand-wringing I have ever heard, she said, “Bird, damn it. You know your father and I said you only get fifty this year. You knew that going in.”

“I know, Mommy, but Travis’ friendship ring was eight dollars and the pack of scrunchies I got for Tammy was another three and-”

“Who’s Travis?” Mom asked.

“He’s new in school. He’s awesome.”

“But, damn it, Bird. Your father and I are really pressed this year. We barely had enough money for the Christmas tree lights.”

I heard this with a chill, horrified to imagine we were so close to ruin.

Bird didn’t miss a beat.  “But I think Cassie would love a vanity set for her Cabbage Patch Kid and she gave me something for my birthday and I forgot hers. Please, Mommy, please.”

Her desire to please her friends was admirable.  Eventually, as she kept the whining up through the department store, Mom forked over another twenty. Her parting comment was, “But if me and your father lose the house, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Then as Bird skipped off to finish her purchases, Mom turned to me and confided resentfully, “If she cared about us as much as she does her friends…”

I had heard this before and knew her take on it.  Bird just used us as a crashing pad, a money dispensary, a food bank.  She showered her affections on everyone but the family. Her heart was really with those people who lived further along the school bus route.  Mom viewed them as coarse and simple.  She couldn’t imagine what Bird saw in them.

“Those old Butterfields,” she’d say. “More like Butterballs. I don’t get it.”

This was a conversation she had with her sister on the telephone, zig-zagging her way through the house with a spiral cord marking her path like a line on a treasure map.  My aunt said something funny and Mom laughed before leaning in on a remembered scandal.

“You know old Carol Butterfield?  Poor homely thing. Wasn’t her husband mixed up in that thing with…”

Disappearing into the depths of her bedroom and shutting the door, I would never find out what scandal had befallen Carol Butterfield’s husband.

Before we left the mall that day, Mom double checked that we each finished our shopping. My oldest sister, Moo, who had done hers in the first hour and spent the rest of the day perched at the fountain, reading a new book, looked up from the last chapter and nodded. I patted the sides of my bags with a look that said I’d shopped like a hero: Dad was saved again from the yearly horror of running out of monogrammed handkerchiefs; Grandma would have a new addition to her collection of trivets; and Mom was going to love finding room for another what-not in the china cabinet.

Bird glanced away cagily.  Knowing she’d already pushed the limits, she was smart enough to back off for the present.  In the coming weeks, she’d find the gifts for the family here and there, as we went to the Dollar General.  And she’d have less trouble wheedling a dollar or two at a time out of our parents to add to her stash of gifts.  Still, I would keep track, watching every transaction jealously from behind a TV Guide.

And I tallied her abuses to our family finances like an estate planner with only one client. “One curiously egg-shaped pack of pantyhose for Aunt Becky. Check. There goes the oil bill. If Mom’s right, we’ll be bedding down in sleeping bags by the end of January.”

Or, “A completely unnecessary multi-pack of Pez dispensers for all the boy cousins. I hope she likes eating beans and rice, because our days of chicken patties are going the way of Unions.”

One cheaply packaged Christmas gift at a time was sending us straight to the poor house. Fostered on this idea of imminent ruin and miserly concern about how others acquire their goods, it is no wonder I reached adulthood as a young republican, the admittedly androgynous Alex P. Keating of our knotty little family.

When Christmas day arrived, Bird’s gift for me was a flashlight.  It was small and yellow, not much bigger than a fat Crayola marker.  I studied it for a moment trying to understand the reason she’d picked it. Seeing me puzzling over it, she said, “Because you like to play detective.”

Then it made sense.  I liked it.  She was right: when I wasn’t cleaning the house and singing the soundtrack to Disney’s Cinderella, I was embroiled in cases of espionage and detection.  Many dollar bills had been taped behind the pictures on the living room walls, so that I could discover them as a clue in a later hunt.  And that year I had formed a detective agency with Bird and my cousin Carrie that involved gory coroner’s reports and copious notations about serial murders.

I was touched that Bird’s gift matched up to something I cared about.  The weeks of staking out her every shopping decision were forgotten as I placed the yellow flashlight with my other treasures on my immaculate dresser.

As is the way with kids, we are sometimes enemies and sometimes friends.  Weeks later, when Bird and I got into a quarrel – the cause of which is long forgotten – I spotted the flashlight on the dresser. Remembering my mother’s comments about how Bird always spent more on her friends and gave them better gifts, I no longer saw how the flashlight fitted my sleuthing life.  I saw it as something else; a Dollar Store find. One of the cheap pick ups that crowded the check out line.

I snatched it up as we bickered back and forth.

“I hate your stupid, cheap gift,” I said.  It took the words from her, it took the air out of the room, extracted the sunlight from the day, greyed the snow on the window sill.  Still I wasn’t through.  Even as her eyes filled with tears, I had to keep burning down the house. I had to make her hurt like what ever (now forgotten) thing she’d said that hurt me.

I took the flashlight out of the house and I threw it into the overgrown bushes that lined the yard.  It was trash.  She was trash. I hated everyone.  It still chills me to remember that act of wicked loathing.

I remember her face peering out at me from the screen door, streaked with tears, her small brown eyes crinkled closed, two painful lines in a reddened circle to remind me this was a human face.  I had succeeded in setting that fire but it brought me no joy.

Flooded with immediate regret, I crawled under the bushes, pushing through even as the thorns cut my arms and the snow shocked my skin, and I found the flashlight  and brought it to her in muddy hands.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I really do like it.  I really do.”

She couldn’t answer yet.

“I’ll clean it,” I promised.

But the thing about setting fires is that they leave only scorched earth, fragments of what existed before only found if you kick through the ashes.  The building of new takes time and there is no replicating the old.

We hope to find peace with our own transgressions and if we’re lucky we learn something that helps us later.  I cannot reclaim that bubble of time during which the flashlight was pristine and my friendship with Bird imperfect but unscarred, but my empathy was finely tuned by that day.  And though instinct may stir to set the fire, I have learned to draw the ice over me until it passes.

 

 

Hell Fire

In the early autumn of 1981, my Mom and I discovered a new radio song to harmonize over as we drove around town.  It was an Oak Ridge Boys tune called Elvira.  You should go Youtube it and then unfollow me.  I deserve nothing less.  Of all the things I share with Mom, the biggest may be that I’m a big picture dreamer who sometimes needs to focus on the details as to not screw them up.  With that song, we spent about a year singing the lyrics wrong.  Although to this day, I still think ‘My heart’s on fire….hell fire-ah” is a gutsier choice than what the Oak Ridge Boys recorded.

station wagon edit

Those last weeks of August were dreamy, though the threat of school skulked at the edges of my mind.  Still, it was hot enough for shorts and we weren’t yet ready to go shopping for Trapper Keepers and pencils. The station wagon didn’t have air conditioning, so the drives were windy and warm.  Our legs stuck to the seats unless we wiggled around from time to time. The syrupy remains of cola in the console drew flies if you stopped in traffic too long. The music took our minds off the heat and bugs.  We didn’t care who heard us singing.

If you were to catch our passionate duet as we pulled into a parking lot in those days, you would likely be in one of three places in town.  This might be outside the A & P, as grocery shopping was our never ending endeavor.  You could be a tired commuter stopping to grab some low calorie TV dinners on the way home, your double knits really chafing your thighs, your comb over slipping down over your gigantic eyeglasses as you glanced up to see who was making the commotion.

Actually that guy would be my father and if he had smarts he’d disavow any knowledge of our existence in that moment.  He’d hunch down in his gas-guzzling, Flint-built Ford, waiting for us to disembark from the station wagon and make our way inside.  This was a different time, before smart phones, so he would have likely wound his wrist watch, balanced the check book, and people watched while he waited for us to leave.

The other place you might find our mother son performance playing out would be the parking lot of the Tastee-Freez.   Musical artists need creamy indulgences – it is our fuel, our reward and our punishment.   My sister Bird would be along for the ride, scowling out the side window, puzzling over a thing she’d heard about on 20/20.  Called emancipation, it was something kids could do to divorce their parents.  Most likely she would have been working out who to hit up for shopping money if she went through with it.  Tinkerbell makeup didn’t buy itself. One thing was for sure: she wasn’t enjoying our singing and she wasn’t joining in.  When we got to the counter, we all united around the theme of helping Mom cheat Weight Watchers, that cult she and Dad had joined earlier in the year.

That had started innocently enough in the late winter.  At our first barbecue of the spring, Mom made a special sauce that had half the calories.  They took the skin off the drumsticks before they grilled them.  We were likely not told that the mayo in the potato salad was low cholesterol because in memory we gobbled it down with all the usual verve.   Our new ways were different, but they were tasty enough, so we had no reason to fear.

But then our grocery shopping began to entail skipping whole sections of the store. There would be no more strawberry Quik, so more Chips Ahoy. Breakfast cereals were edited to only beige and brown as colorful bowls of morning happiness became a thing of the past.  It was as if this Weight Watchers crowd had explicitly said,  “Children should learn nobody promises us rainbows.”

Then came melba toast and cottage cheese.  It was war.

“Mommy, we were good at K-Mart.  Can we go to Tastee Freeze?”

“Now, damn it, kids. No.”

“Please? Please? Please?”

“Goddam it.”

Ever the staunch hold out, she’d make an abrupt u-turn, cutting off a pedestrian with a stroller, and in moments we’d be heading toward sweet, icy bliss.  As we drove around town ten minutes later, licking down our cones while singing Elvira wrong, she’d say, “This will be our little secret. Daddy will be sad that he didn’t get any.”

We’d shrug in agreement and though Bird would still not sing with us, she was happy to lean her face out into the crisp sunlight, letting the wind ruffle her hair and eyelashes like a winsome golden retriever. Up along Main Street, belting ‘hell-fire-ah, hell-fire-ah’ as we passed the movie house, the five and dime, the old ladies gaping at us from the bench outside the furniture store.

The other place you might have been standing as our car pulled in, blaring that song, was the local library.  If it were a light day there, we’d find a spot quickly, happily dashing in to find new books.  On a busy day, Mom circled the parking lot with a seething resentment. She was all too happy to explain who was to blame for our parking troubles.  Lest there be confusion, our family holds the belief that someone is always to blame.

“It’s the transplants.  They come here to live, bringing their snobby Northern Virginia attitudes, telling us there’s nothing to do here. But they love to belly up to the public library.”

Then as a woman approached a car, she’d pause hopefully.  If the woman got in and drove off, we were golden.  If she were merely retrieving a forgotten volume from the car seat, Mom watched her return to the cool, air-conditioned library with a scowl.

“Now she saw me waiting there. She could have waved me on. Typical transplant.”

Perhaps Mom was cranky.  It had been a couple of hours since she perched a slice of canned peaches and a dollop of cottage cheese onto a melba toast wafer and called it lunch.  As she scoped out the next opening with a set jaw, we gazed out into the grasshoppery meadow along side the library, knowing that this too would pass, that the song would catch us up again, carrying us along to the next stop.  Most importantly, if we played our cards right, there would be ice cream.

 

 

1986

He was closer to his mother when he was a boy.  The father could not put him to sleep; only she, the soft love of her soft voice reading.  As she spoke the stories, he forgot to be afraid of shadows.  He found the enchantment of other worlds: a cabin in the prairie with a china lady on the mantle; a little island out over Canada where the roads were red and the gables green.

The boysome, bounding bravery of others did not come easily to him.  His voice was gentle, his brown eyes shadowed.  Early on in his childhood, he found a dread of school.  Other children sensed something about him was different.  The questions in their faces humiliated him and when they found the words that fit, if clumsily, their savagery cleaved him from any sense of belonging.  The world at school was terrible to him.  Had he been able to disappear into it, had he a talent for that, he might have slipped through the years less scathed.

In his fear, he was friendless, except that he had his mother.  She forgave him his fears, by and large, even if she couldn’t pry the cause of them from him.  It made sense that she understood him.  She was a nervous wreck herself: afraid of spiders, big open spaces and stairwells.  In their little ranch house with the yellow walls and the low ceilings, they were safe for a long while.  Then she began to fear crossing the bridge between the house and town.  It began to imprison them.

Escape

[From a piece about escaping to a childhood home, a theme that recurred a lot in my imagination in my 20s and found its way into my drafts last year.  The idea of a person taking shelter in a forgotten place was comforting to me once; perhaps it turns on the same part of the psyche that makes preppers enthusiastically dig out their bunkers.]


 

It is starting to mist when she asks the driver to stop at a clapboard house with a broken trellis and a faded green door.  He sets her suitcase on the walk while she counts out change from her coin purse.  From the porch, she watches him turn the taxi around and head back from where they came.  His taillights paint a second set of red eyes on the wet street when he brakes lightly at the intersection.  Then the vehicle rolls forward and soon vanishes into the distance.  Taking a breath, she steps onto the sidewalk and heads across the street, turning southward along a wall of shrubbery.  Her steps are quick.  She keeps her head lowered.  Once she hears a car approaching and she presses close to the hedge, holding her breath.  The car turns at the corner and she moves on.

Delaware Farmhouse 1From the house with the faded door, it takes her ten minutes to walk to the place just outside of town where the old main road meets the highway.  She almost misses the mouth of the drive because the honeysuckle has laced the fence posts together, a Jacob’s ladder of vine.  It will be best if she does not disturb their camouflage, so she hunts a while to find an opening she can squeeze through.  When she’s on the other side of the vines, she breaks off a twig of cedar and reaches out to swipe her footprints from the damp soil.

The drive is much as she remembered it, though the view to left and right has changed.  Even in the smoldering twilight she can see arcs of wild poke berry and sumac in the fields.  All the soft wily growth of the countryside has returned.  There was a time when even the dreamy dandelion was kept at bay.  It is better this way; let the scrub grow and grow, blotting out the farm and hiding her from all searching eyes.

 

Pillar

The custard would not thicken and finally, having added this and that without result, she turned off the burner and walked away from it.  There was some ice cream in the freezer and some strawberries in the fridge.  The berries were a little sad-looking, but she’d cut out the bad parts and macerate the rest.  Her mother would never notice.

It was strange to her to be going through normal little rituals like planning for dessert.  In light of everything, she ought to be sitting with friends to either side of her, holding her hands, rubbing her shoulders.  That is what a woman should want when her lover has been murdered.  No one who knew her would deny it to her.

In the back of their cabin, the yard was a narrow strip running along a steep bank, thickly overgrown with scrub cedar and autumn olive.  Below, the thin branch of the North river slipped past, a determined and patient body, head down as it acquiesced to the bends and boulders and to the fallen trees.  It was low just now, silent and safe.

Last year there had been a flood and the river climbed the bank, pushed through the woods and rose up into the cabin.  The furniture lifted off the floor and swam about the rooms. When the water dropped, the dining chairs were ganged in a corner, drunkenly toppled against each other.  The carpet was covered over in mud and silt.

She and Mike had cleaned the place on their own, drawing on the wall in the bedroom closet when they were done, a mark of where the water had been, with the words, “We’ve decided to stay anyway.”  They added the year as an afterthought, hoping it was true this was a hundred year flood plain.

One night when they were cleaning up, they talked about where they might have gone if they hadn’t stayed put.  Mike was cutting out the bottom two feet of the drywall in the living room.  A work lamp, clamped to the ladder, cast his face in shadow, lit his golden hair and arms.  She glanced up now and then as she emptied out the kitchen cabinets, watching the muscles in his back moving under his shirt.

“What was that place Suzanne used to talk about?” she called out. “That town in Vermont where she went to school?”

“I don’t remember,” he said. “But I remember the name of the lunch place she used to talk about.  The Goat Head.  Sounded so good.  Didn’t she bring us hummus from there once?”

“Yep.”

“I could live up north,” he said.

“I could, too.”

She shifted onto her hands and knees and began to scrub the inside of the cabinet with bleach water.  The fumes stung her eyes, but they said it was the only way to prevent mold.  “We used to go to Maryland when I was a little girl.  There was a house on a point on the Chesapeake.  Mom always came alive there. She wasn’t much of a people person.  There she didn’t have to put on any acts.  She could flop around all day, drinking coffee and smoking.  She spent most of the day on the screened porch, reading and watching us down at the water’s edge.  It was peaceful.”

For a moment, his work went still.  She wondered if he was feeling sorry for her, but just as she would have cautioned him not to say anything about her mother, she heard his hammer at work, pulling nails.  She let out her breath, leaning out of the cabinet to breathe.

Outside they heard rain drops falling on the grass.

“Maybe this’ll kill the humidity.”

“That would be nice.”

They were whispering, though they were alone.

“Hey, Mike.”

“What?”

“I’m glad we didn’t move up north.”

 

 


 

Her mother was sanskrit before they cracked the code.  She was unreadable, unknowable, a column of femininity with pointy flats at the ground and a smooth dark crown that reached up into the sky.  She was not a tree, because they had boughs that reached out, listed, trembled with life.  Her mother’s arms were always close to her frame, folded against her chest; or else her hands were linked at her back or tucked into pockets.

Her voice was low, slightly less so when she was lying.

“Tell your father we went for a walk today.  All of us together.”

“But we didn’t.”

“I know, but he’s been hounding me.  Just tell him we went down to the point and then back.  Tell him I seemed good.”

Molly peered up at her.  “You did seem good.  Resting in the house.”

“Don’t be like that.  Just tell him I took you guys out for a walk.”

“Okay.”

Her mother hugged her shoulders, turning her head to pull on the cigarette dangling from her long fingers.  “Mmm. Tell him it was nice.”

Molly loved her father and she was almost sure she loved her mother, but it was never joyful to be around them at the same time.  He treated his wife like something delicate, as if he cherished a thing about her no one else could see.  His eyes followed her wistfully; he shifted himself to fit closer to her in all ways.

On his fortieth birthday, her mother fretted over a cake.  It surprised the kids not only because she usually treated the kitchen like the coffee counter at a gas station, but because she never went to any pains for their father.  It just wasn’t how they operated.

The night of the birthday dinner, he was telling them about something that had gone wrong at work, when their mother heaved a sigh and dropped her fork onto her plate.

“This is boring,” she said.

A silence fell in the small dining room.  The children glanced into their father’s stunned face, then studied their laps.  Molly tried to think of something to say so he could finish his story.  Maybe she could act like mother was just joking. She lifted her face to try the lie.

“Anyway,” her mother said.  “You could get to the point a little sooner.”

When she brought out the cake after supper, he made an effort to seem enthused. And despite his hurt over the earlier comment, Molly could see he was touched by the gesture.

“You didn’t have to, Annie,” he murmured.

“I know,” she said.  She looked into his face quickly, then lowered a scowl onto the cake as she cut it.  “Anyway, I hope you like it.”

 

 


 

The man who murdered Mike had known them both since high school.  His name was Julian.  He was lanky and handsome with shadowy brown eyes and curly hair that made him seem boyish.  Sometimes they made runs together, he and Mike, bringing pot across the state line to sell in town.  Mike wasn’t much of a drug dealer.  He knew a couple of guys who’d buy a quarter pound at a time.  It was Julian who had a roster of clients.  He sold his share in little bits to just about anyone: eighths, dimes, and nickels.  He’d sell a junior high kid a single bud, wrapped up in the cellophane of a cigarette pack, rather than turn away a five dollar bill.

She never liked Julian, never trusted him.  He used to look up at her from under his curls, letting a slow and knowing smile bloom on his face.  His lips were red and cherry sweet inside the frame of his dark beard and she could not deny that the smile had an affect.  He could see it in her eyes and they both knew it.   She always looked away.  He never touched her, never came up close or behind her.  He never said a sweet thing to her, told her she looked good in any color.  In truth, Julian didn’t talk much.

Mike told her one night how their drug runs always went down.  They drove up Route 50 into Maryland, then turned onto Greenlick Road just before the old burned out church.  There were two more turns off that road, each new road a little narrower, the last one gravel only.  Julian made him sit in the car while he went in to buy.  He’d play the radio, but low, because the men inside didn’t like noise from outside.

Every time they went there, it ended with three sounds.  The first was the screen door on the little green cabin, whining as it opened, then slapping the frame softly.  Julian tapped on the trunk and Mike hit the latch on the floorboard to open it.  Julian always closed the trunk so softly it made no sound, but then he’d tap his knuckles on the glass of the passenger door and Mike would unlock the car.

“How’d you guys work that out?” she asked, turning something over on the stove.

“We didn’t really,” Mike said.  “It’s just always like that.”

“So you never see the pot until you get back into town and split it up?”

“Nope.”  He pulled his guitar out from behind the sofa and began to tune it.  He wasn’t much of a player, but he handled the thing every day.

“So you don’t even know if its good until you own it?”

“Nope.”

She pulled the pan off the burner and came to sit on the coffee table in front of him.  It was winter that night, snow flying at the windows, the Kodiak stove hot to the touch, heating the little rooms faithfully.  “Listen to me,” she said.

He smiled up at her, knowing she was going to give him advice.  At times like this, she wondered how much he really took her words to heart.

“Molly Harding?” he said.

“What?”

“I’m listening.”

She put a hand over his, stilling the guitar strings.

“If you guys ever get caught, you need to play dumb.  You need to act like you thought he was just buying enough for himself.”

He opened his mouth to speak.

“Julian’s a piece of shit.  He’d throw you under the bus in a heartbeat.  You’ve never seen the seller but you know how to get to the house.  Draw the cops a map. Cooperate. Say you smoke now and again – they’ll test you, so no use lying about it.  Say you drove Julian because he’d been drinking.  Unless they’ve been following you guys a while, they’ll never know the difference.”

“What about my guys?”

“Your guys? Your three college friends who split your share?  They’re the opposite of him; they’d never betray you.  Besides, they’re all model citizens, don’t even really look like potheads.  We’re not in our twenties anymore.  Only people like Julian fit what cops think of as trouble.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“If you ever get caught, you were driving Julian because he’d had a little too much to drink. You knew he was getting some pot, but you thought it was just a little for himself.  And then you draw them a map of how to get to the place.  Julian’s exactly the kind of guy they’d like to send up.  If you get them to the place where he’s buying, that’s all they’ll want from you.”

He’d looked at her for a long while.

“You’re a little cold sometimes, you know that?”

She wanted to smile but couldn’t.  “I know how to take care of my chickens.”

He dropped his gaze.

“Well, I’ll think about it.”

“If you ever get caught, do it exactly like I said.”  She went back to the stove, “Or stop running with him.  I’d prefer that.”

He shook his head at the thought.

In the Spring they had another party, marking the flood from the year before. Everyone was to bring something. They made a makeshift table out on the side yard under two sycamores: two sawhorses from Mike’s shed and a piece of plywood. She spread two cloths over the rough panel and though they didn’t match, it didn’t matter once all the bowls of food covered everything over. She had asked him not to, but Mike invited Julian.

“I didn’t think he’d come.”

She was clipping flowers from the edge of the yard. “There’s free food and booze. Of course he’d come.”

After the sun set, people had started to separate into groups, some down by the river, where a couple of guys were making music.  Julian found her in the kitchen by herself, doing dishes.

“You always keep moving, Molly.”

She didn’t look up from the water.

In the darkening glass of the window over the sink, she could see his curly head outlined by the ceiling light from the living room. It almost seemed he was wearing a halo.  She rolled her eyes at the thought.

“You not speaking to me tonight?” he asked, his drawl never so lazy. “You’re always mean to me, Molly Harding.”

“Don’t call me that,” she said.

He laughed, a rich sound like one from an old wooden violin. No, not that distinguished.  She slowed her breathing, trying to decide what to say but a moment later he stepped away, leaving her alone in the house.  He left his scent with her in the kitchen, spicy and sweaty and warm.  Pulling her lips tight, she switched on the ceiling fan.

In August, they went through a long, rainy period.  The river rose again, rapidly, and people started talking about a second flood.  She and Mike never said their fears aloud.  One night he went on a run with Julian up Route 50 and when he was gone two hours longer than usual, she convinced herself the road had got washed out and they were stuck up country for a while.  They’d probably have to wait for the water to drop and that might take a couple of days.  She tried to imagine how the two men would spend that much time together.  She wondered when Mike would think to call her.

It was the middle of the night before the phone rang, waking her from a light slumber that had stole over her despite her efforts to stay awake.  She answered with a dry voice.  An operator asked if she would take a collect call from the county jail. Her heart sinking, she said she’d take the call.

“Mike?”

“I decided to take your advice,” he said.

 


 

When her mother got to the house that evening, she was sporting a new haircut. Over dinner she told Molly about the trouble she’d had finding a good stylist.  She only let men touch her hair.

“I don’t trust a woman to tell me what looks good on me.”

Molly didn’t ask why, mostly because she didn’t care.  She moved the food around on her plate.  Her mother pulled a leather cigarette case out of her purse, which always rested on the floor near her feet, even at dinner – and no matter the house.

“You mind?” she asked.

Molly rose and opened a couple of windows.

“Okay, I’ll be quick,” her mother said.  “It’s cold out there.”

The two women sat without words, the one eating her dinner half-heartedly, the other burning down her smoke like it was being timed.  At last her mother broke the silence.

“You gonna find a renter for this place?”

Molly’s eyes widened; it had only been ten days.

“What?”

“I mean, you can’t sell it. It’s in a flood plain. I tried to tell you guys that before.”

“It isn’t even on my mind right now.”

Molly pushed her food away.

“Okay. Suit yourself.”

“Mom!”

Her mother shrugged, rising to put her cigarette out under the kitchen faucet. Dropping the butt into the trash, she moved to close the windows.

“Not yet,” Molly said.  “It still stinks in here.”

Her mother folded her arms.  “You can’t stay here.  Those bastards may still be out there.”

“They’re not coming for me.  It wasn’t my fight.”

“You don’t know.”

Molly dropped her face into her hands, rubbed her eyes until she thought she’d rub them out, the two dark stains that had been condemning her from the bathroom mirror since the night of the shooting.  Eyes that said she’d brought this on him.

Her mother sighed.  “Can I close the windows now?”

“If you want to.”

They closed softly.  Molly looked up and caught her mother gazing at herself in the glass, her expression wistful or else nothing at all but tired.  This woman had taught her how to lie good and she had schooled Mike to do the same.  She frowned down at her hands, folded on the table.  It wasn’t fair to string things together that way.

It wasn’t the whole story.

Time had taught her why her Mother asked her to tell stories to her father.  She’d had reasons that were not without compassion.

“I want to buy you some blinds for the windows if you’re not leaving,” her mother said.  “Although I think when the shock wears off, you’ll want to start over again, somewhere else.”

Molly nodded wearily.  She was either too defeated to argue the point or not entirely sure the other woman was wrong.  Perhaps in time she would need to move on, to put these years in their place, and strike a fresh mark on a new page. If she had her mother’s strength or something like it.