On Burying A Friend

The air is still moist from the night when I with gloved hands take up the shovel to make the grave for our very old friend.  It helps to be alone out here, bent over the earth with my thoughts.

Later the loneliness is edging close as thankfully my husband joins me in a cap to keep his ears warm. And so we take turns cracking through tree roots and pulling up stones. Helpmates. Silent in our grief, the passing of our ginger cat.

Our Guy.

The scratch of iron and rock make a sharp cry to break the calm of the woods, fittingly rough, like how we aren’t ready to let go.  Finally the hole is deep enough.  We climb the steep hill and I take off my muddy boots before entering the house.

My eye drops toward the floor as I push the door open, to where he usually stands with curious eyes asking to go out.  I cannot give a moment for tears just yet.  I push through the house, to the cool spare room, where he waits in his carrier.

I take him outside and together my husband and I wrap him up for burial.  He weighs the same in my hands as he ever did.  Or is he lighter now, not twisting to protest being cradled like a human baby?   I feel he must be given a final hug, something to say that inside the bundle is still the lovely creature who shared so many years with us.  I curve around his still form, weeping freely, my husband weeping with me, the two of us with rubbery garden gloves, hands a little cartoonish, eyes as red as pickled eggs.

“Okay,” I say.

Somehow we fitted his resting place perfectly.  The bundle settles into the depression as if sized by tireless craft, rather than the educated guess of two men unfamiliar with the digging of graves.  I gather a wad of mud between my hands, say a word of good-bye and sprinkle him over with earth.  My husband says his farewell and reaches out to let his gathered clay fall like dark heavy snow.

I am careful with the first shovels-full of dirt, filling in the edges until the ground is level with the top of him.   Then another level until the black bundle is covered over. When the ground is filled in again, we pull a rake over the earth until it is smooth.  Then I rake away the autumn leaves because they make his resting place seem too forlorn.

I decide we ought to cover him over in stones to keep animals from digging him up.  We root around at the edge of the woods as the day opens up bright and warm above us.  The mud on ours boots grows thicker as we work.  We cannot seem to stop hunting for new stones.  I like best the ones from under the leaves, the ones cleaned by a recent rain.  One crude rock at a time, we build a mound to cover the grave of this our very old friend.

“We’ll put a ring of bulbs around it in the spring,” I say.

And my husband nods through his tears.

“I’m glad it got warm. I fell asleep last night dreading the cold, knowing how he hated it.”

We are silent a moment more before taking up the shovel and the rake and climbing the hill.  At the side of the house, I realize we have forgotten the pick axe.  When I return to the edge of the woods to fetch it, I see a small rock winking up from the ground.  I almost turn away from it, but it seems that in noticing it, I ought to add it to the mound.kingly-guy

 

Momentos

As my high school graduation grew nearer, my father sent away for my class ring.  I wore it for about a year or two before it embarrassed me to put it on.  No one I knew advertised they finished high school through jewelry and I didn’t want to either.  The ring was exactly what it should have been: large and golden with a ruby stone and engravings to show I concentrated on The Arts.  A pair of brushes cross over a painter’s amoebic palette and some Greek letters make the case for the man my father thought I was becoming. 

The ring still surfaces now and then, floating to the top of a box of forgotten things from about the age of ten up through my twentieth year.   In that box there is also a keychain with a picture of an old friend in it; a few chess pieces from a set my mother made me in ceramics class;  blue and white shards of a Chinese umbrella holder that I cut my knee on when I was nine; shells from a beach where a girl and I sat in the blast of January winds not talking about things we might.


The keychain is a tapered square of turquoise plastic with a white tip on the narrow end.  In the tip there is a lens and when you look through it you see my old friend.  She is on the beach, her thick dark blond hair pushed behind one ear in defiance of a breeze off the water behind her.  When she and I first became friends, my world was small; my best friends were family and it was a joyful discovery to build my own friendship from scratch. We were close at one time and luckily it did not end in fire, as some of my relationships did when I was younger.  Rather we just drifted apart, first in our interests and later geographically.  Before social media, we were as good as invisible to one another for over a dozen years.  Now we reach out from time to time to say hello.

During all those years when many friendships were considered not only diminished but severed by lost addresses and by telephone numbers that no longer worked, I would occasion upon that keychain, squint into it and try to remember something about how she came to give it to me.  Had she gone to the beach alone or with one of her more loyal childhood friends?  Had we met for lunch, she proffering the memento as I worked out in my head who I’d be partying with later that night?


My mother didn’t handle my growing up very well.   Two dreamers who were much happier at home than out in the world, we needed one another mutually when I was young.  It must have been hard to see me making friends and moving outward into the world, while she was still fixed in a place defined by her phobias and her traditionalism.  When I was seventeen she and I were at our most tumultuous point.  In between our heated arguments about where I was going and who I was going out with – why did I like so and so more than my own family and what did we know about their people? – she would be moved to do very kind things.  One of them was the chess set, although by the time she finished it and presented it at Christmas, there were already changes in my worldview that made me feel only lackluster about the gift. 

Rendered in blue and grey, the Civil War iteration of the game did not suit who I was becoming – a person with growing disgust for a romantic take on rich southern slaveowners who turned on their own neighbors rather than follow the shifting moral imperative of their country. 

Having watched the film Gone With the Wind at nine and consuming the book greedily afterward, I spent the first half of my teen years in a love affair with the antebellum south. I wrote and rewrote novels with heroines who lived on plantations and wore hoop skirts.  With each rewrite my shifting principles showed evermore. As I discovered feminism, my heroine became pluckier.  I added character details to make her seem less organized around feminine norms.  Now she liked to sneak off bare footed to go fishing when she wasn’t sparring with our enigmatic and handsome hero. 

As I discovered my empathy for the economically disadvantaged, my heroine developed a friendship with a ‘po-white’ family down the road from the Big House and helped their ‘clean but respectable’ Irish children with their lessons in between trips to the trout creek.  Just as I may have been likely to start writing a slave rebellion into the plot, I grew tired of the whole Southern aristocracy schtick altogether.  By the time I received the chess set, it felt like a postcard from another year to another me, although I was careful to pretend I loved it.  My mother is very, very sensitive.


At the age of ten I was well in the midst of my romance with all things old world and opulent  when I discovered an umbrella holder in the cluttered storage cum laundry room in our basement.  Made of thick china and hand-painted in the Asian fashion with blue flowers and birds on a white field, it seemed like a relic from a much finer home than our fly-specked little ranch house in the country.  Perhaps this was the last vestige of the grand manor our family used to own on the Mississippi, I speculated – until my mother told me they were a dime a dozen in the seventies.

The top was broken and looked a little like the shape of the Coliseum, with pierced arches left incomplete where the missing pieces used to fit.  I found some of the broken bits in the bottom of the vessel and pestered my parents to buy me crazy glue so I could fix this treasure.  I was still working on the restoration months later – frustrated that not all the pieces had been saved by my parents – when a tumble with my sister landed me on a jagged point that split my knee open like a cruel smile.  They stitched it closed and it still looked like a punished mouth for weeks, weeping blood at the iodine-stained threads when I flexed my leg a bit too much.  For a couple years easily I worried that somehow I’d crack it open again, even when all that was left was a quite sturdy white scar, a lumpy albino worm where the mouth had once ruefully grinned.  I still have the umbrella holder and the shards; the mend was never complete.


I don’t remember gathering the shells with Jenny, but a visceral thread woven into the beginning of my manhood hangs free of me, teased even now by the mood of a wintry beach.  When all the umbrellas have been tucked away and the children have returned to school, beach towns become something more like wilderness again.  They become raw and savage: the breakers are cold knives nosing the sand, the blackened tangles of seaweed like so many Medusa headdresses abandoned. No matter where I am, when cold air that smells like salt water hits me, I am taken back to a Carolina beach and seventeen.

We walked with our heads down, our chins protecting our throats as the wind tore at our curls and rippled our too thin clothes.  It had been an awkward holiday, me liking Jenny’s green-haired artist friend we had come to visit so much that the three of us fell into a strange discord. In youth we wear our jealousy loosely on chapped lips, with faces still too childlike to hide our fleeting pain and rage.  Yet we are already learning to ignore what we think we will not be able to change.  And so Jenny continued to love me and I made funny faces and let the incoming storm off the water lift my hair into a wild black mop that she caught in her camera.  When my whimsical bravura was spent, we sat in the sand not talking about anything, unsure yet sure that the holiday had already pulled loose what had gathered us together.  The silence felt intimate, but we were no longer.

In the cold mist we watched the tide go out while three broken shells found a home in my pocket.  It has been over twenty years and I have yet to send them back to sea.

Black Man

It was true that he lurked outside the A & P and true too that he stared.  When one glanced away from him, Russell had moved from his typical base – a shuffling path among the shopping carts just outside the electronic doors – to walking right alongside your car.  It was startling how he seemed to have teleported the distance.  Mom always locked the doors when we saw Russell in the parking lot.

“Some say he’s harmless,” she’d say. “But I don’t know…”

a-and-p

We were terrified of Russell Green.  A tall black man of indeterminate years, he was a fixture of our childhood.  At least on days when we went grocery shopping.  Looking back, I can’t think of a single thing he ever did in our presence to evoke our response to him. Except perhaps to be born black – something that in the south is a handicap and a risk in the eyes of many.

Mom once said she’d heard he was quite a scholar in his youth, but that he’d been roughed up by some boys (I always assumed they were white) and had taken a blow on the head. Her tone implied it was pitiable, but she still locked up the station wagon when she saw him.  I didn’t know what to do with his backstory when I was a kid, but in the years since I’ve colored it until he is almost a mythic martyr.  I imagine him as a slender youth, dressed in a cardigan, wearing smart glasses like Malcolm X.  The light glints off of the frames as he sits under a tree, writing an essay for school.  His mother is Oprah Winfrey and she nails it in a calico apron, a modern day queen sitting in makeup for three hours to give her the dry elbows of a hotel maid.

The truth is it is hard to imagine it differently for me.  My understanding of the black struggle has been spoon fed to me through the lens of too many white film makers. Perhaps the legend of Russell was partly true – that he was good in school.  But maybe he would have wanted to use those smarts to get a job at IBM and not to change the world in protest.  That would not occur to me because when white storytellers tell black lives, they talk about blacks who changed America via the remove of a dais and a microphone.

When I try to put the pieces together about Russell – and maybe it is fetishizing to even try or an exercise in lancing the boil of childhood’s racism – I come up short.  He was a black man and some said a mad man and he was a lurker and a looker, but more than that he was a stranger.  The fact that he spent his time skulking or loitering the parking lot of the grocery store gave him an unglamorous fame and because of that he sticks out in my memory.  To be fairer still, the A & P was in his neighborhood and he never bothered anyone, never hurled insults or begged favors.  He was just there.  In an odd way, showing up on the regular gave him name recognition, a perverse argument in favor of the marketing stratagem of consistent exposure.

Nowadays it might not happen so, if for no other reason than that the grocery store would be on the outskirts of town in a well-lit suburban haven on the other side of too many highways for the lost or the deranged of neighborhoods to wander upon.  The A & P of my childhood was on South Street, but all the white grownups I knew called that area Nigger Town. This because this short road of small stucco houses – being evermore bought up and leveled for strip malls and burger huts – was where black people lived.  It had no jurisdiction of its own, no real autonomy and independence from the mechanisms of a white establishment.  So while there was nothing to threaten the status quo on these three blocks except perhaps one mad man walking the rows of the parking lot, daring to stare at white families in their wood-paneled station wagons – it clearly needed a name to delineate it from the rest of town, to demarcate the differences between us and to levy upon the darker skinned a moniker meant to demean.

Then black artists took that same word and made it their own.  Still white people chafe not that it exists but that now it is wielded by black hands, spoken by black lips, linked to new cultural moorings by black ingenuity and will.  We hear the debate: why is it okay when they say it?  I will not speak for black people to answer; they have their own voice.  What little I can do is to peel back every ignorant thing I ever learned to expose and dismiss it, one remembrance at a time.

In the minds of my people, Russell was to be feared and to locked out, but it has become clear to me in my life that the real social menace was on the inside of the glass all along.

 

 

Dear Dad

 

I went with Ed to put flowers on your grave today. Two roses from the bushes we just planted. One for me and one for Ed. I thought you’d like that, something simple and beautiful earned by hard work. You showed me that in spades.
I thought about you the other day in a particular way I had not before. I thought about how you found a second passion, later in life, when you went into real estate. It was something you’d wanted to do when you were younger. You patiently met your retirement goals with NIH and then you started again, a new life in a sense. And just as you might have the first time around, you had to build from scratch, take risks, be patient, make mistakes, try again. I thought about how maybe it was hard on you waiting that long to start over again. How it must have been so tiring to your spirit.
But then, I wasn’t with you at the NIH job every day. Maybe you had a couple of work pals to cut up with; maybe you took pride in completing projects. Maybe that fed you enough, especially with dreams and future plans to mull over on the long ride home and the ride back.
I was trying to think of which of the flowers we planted to take to you. I thought of the snap dragons and then I wondered if there was metaphor lurking there. I decided not, but it did give me pause, remembering how your eyes glowed red all my childhood, abused as they were by paper work, long hours and – your constant companion – bitter allergies. You seemed tired to me so much, impatient and gruff and hard to please in the years I was little and wanting to please the most. By the time your circumstances, your mellowing age and perhaps a shift in values made you over gentler, I had become the hard one. A young man bent on his own goals, making perfunctory dinner plans, feeling I was doing my duty, thinking somewhere deep that one day it would even out. We’d meet in the middle.
In many ways, we did grow closer. I know you loved me and I know you knew I loved you. The last year of your life, when we thought you’d fooled your cancer, I found often that I had hit a button on my phone by accident. I’d look down and see your name on the screen. For a second, I’d wonder had you called me or had I called you. Caught off guard, distracted, I would give the least of myself to a quick conversation, laughing shortly that I had called by accident. I’d ask how you were and you always answered honestly, humbly, and with thought. You’d ask how I was doing. I would say fine, that work was busy, that all was normal at home.
me and dad at wedding reception
Recently I had a client who wanted some help developing a business plan. It isn’t my expertise, but I felt like I could offer something. Like you, I’m not without ideas, not without a solid sense of logistics. I worked with a friend to help me. It came out good. Then the client’s realtor started acting cagey toward them and I wanted to ask you for advice. It hurt me so much that I couldn’t make that call. Not because of business, but because it was another reminder that all that I could make of us, I had done – in youth, arrogance, unforgiving just a little bit, cautious a mite.
I made peace with the harsher memories of being the different child in the family, the one judged for it, when I was younger. In the years that followed, you showed the kindness and the love that I wish had always been between us. And I was thankful for it. But I was also unsure of it. I stood to the side of it, giving back a lukewarm version of the same. I think time, my own age and humility, would have helped with the knitting you were casting.
I wish you had lived to be old – very old – to have felt strong and manly and capable as long as possible. It would have been great to get to be old enough in my own skin to have met you fully in the middle. It is a regret, painful to be sure, but one that I want to put to bed. It isn’t fair to think I could have done more. I did what I knew to do in those days and hours in which we were both here.
Now, in the aftermath of your death, I have been changed. I have never been short of empathy and compassion, but I now want to show some of that to myself, that I can avoid the snap dragon years. I am a sourpuss at times, eyes red like your own, tired more than my age. I would have what you found later now. I have been trying to feel more patience toward other people. I’ve been trying to let things bother me less. I cursed the garden hose this morning, fowl and guttural, and perhaps battling to become so saintly as to overcome pique at tricky, dumb things about the house is asking too much. I only want to make more room for pleasures, to ask myself if my impatience in a moment would be replaced with calm. One gentle lesson at a time, to retire bad habits of spirit early or as early as possible. I miss you, old man, in more ways than any one letter can cover. Know that I love you, miss you, and wish we could have had more of time and talk.
In the spirit of you, I am happy to set a goal of more life, love, freedom and joy in myself – a little spell to cast, pulling myself out of shadows, delusions of age, finding the sun again, the light and optimism that youth cannot help but hold easily. We who are ripening know something about optimism that youth sometimes misses: it takes tending, I’m grateful to know. You set a fine example.
All my love, your son, Paul

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.