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.

 

 

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