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.

 

 

The Skies Over Bethlehem

He had a dream last night that left him floating all the morning in a surreal fog.  In the dream, he was looking through the woods for a persimmon tree he’d once found but lost.  That much he recognized; that tree had been on his mind recently.  His mother took him to it once when he was a boy and she’d said the fruit was only good when it was nice and fully ripe.

“Otherwise, it’ll turn your mouth inside out.”

He’d been thinking of his mother, too.  It happened like this a lot in the autumn.  They’d last seen her on a brittle Sunday afternoon of a long lost November.  The woman who disappeared just before his tenth birthday had worn a warm coat and a knit scarf of mixed greens and oranges.  Her scuffed boots had been brown like her hair.   She waved before climbing into the station wagon.  The man behind the steering wheel stared straight ahead, his thick glasses glinting so that his eyes could not be seen.  She winked at him as they backed into the drive, that familiar wink that was meant to say everything would turn out fine.  It wasn’t convincing this time around.  He and his sisters lifted their hands and waved as the dusty car vanished down the pale drive.

___________

In the dream, he came to a clearing in the woods and he stood there and turned around and round, peering into the forest, trying to spot the tree.  Then suddenly, in the way of dreams, he was no longer alone.  Stretched out in the clearing, lit by a stream of heavenly light, was a woman giving birth.  Her shoulders and her belly and her knees under the nightdress were a range of mountains.  The damp brown hair snaking through the wild onion was a black spring that began and ended with her.  He started at the sight of her, but she only smiled at him through her labored breathing.  It was a pained, mysterious smile, a bittersweet smile that was a little afraid.  She wasn’t his mother, but she had her smile.

“They say you forget the pain,” she said.

He crouched beside her in the wild onions and the hand that reached out to comfort her was pale and dimpled and small.  He hadn’t known until then that he was a child in this dream.  She took his wrist painfully.

“But you won’t be forever,” she said. “None of us are forever.”

“Please, let me go.”

She looked into his eyes for a long while.  He could not decide the color of hers.  They shone like the tops of lakes on days when the sun hasn’t broke through, but it might just.  Her gaze was a moving storm.   Finally, she released his wrist and he took his hand back.  He’d not got to comfort her, after all.

In the next moment, she was gone.  The clearing seemed to be growing smaller around him.  When he looked at his feet, the wild onion had become pine needles.  Soon, the forest was overhead again and the sky had changed to a deep, smoky violet.  It wasn’t the real color of a night sky, but the color of night skies in children’s books.  No, more than that, he decided; it was the exact color of a sky they had painted.

____________

His mother had agreed to help with the Christmas pageant at church.  She felt that it was her turn and perhaps she wanted a little something to help fill the long autumn nights.  She corralled each of them into the station wagon, Tuesday and Thursday nights for weeks, stopping along the way to pick up the Clatterbuck girl and then, a little farther on, the Willard twins.  The other kids lived close enough to the church to walk.  They were always there on the porch waiting when they pulled up in front, because his mother had never been on time to anything.   When she got the heavy paneled door unlocked, she’d reach along the inside wall for the switch to the vestibule.  Then one of the older boys would feel his way half way down the basement steps to flip the breakers for the knave.  It had been wired late and funny.

When the lights came up, the red plush cushions on the pews jumped out first, then the dark green carpet running up the twin aisles. The alter looked bare without the Sunday flowers.  The big room was cold at first, but the huge old oil furnace would quickly warm the place.  Coats and hats went into a graceless pile on a pew at the back.

His mother got them started on lines and in a half hour, another woman came to help out.  She brought a few kids with her, too, and she played the piano in the choir loft and helped with the singing bits.  His mother was in over her head, her slightly stunned face confessed, but she laughed a lot as she tried her best.  That was all she could do.

Close to the pageant, she had one of her breakdowns at home.  It was on the carport, while she tried to finish the backdrop to the nativity scene.  It was hard to paint the skies over Bethlehem with the wind kicking at the corners of the cloth.  The coffee tins she tried using weren’t heavy enough.  She tried prying up some stones from the garden.  By the time she spilled the paint, she was a nervous wreck.

“Goddam it!” she yelled. “It’s tomorrow.  Can’t the world give me a fucking break?”

He watched her for a moment through the screen door and waited for the nervous giggles that her breakdowns always caused.  This time they didn’t come, which was a blessing.  They always infuriated her, even though she knew it was involuntary. He pushed open the door and came to crouch beside her.

“I’ll help, Mommy,” he said.

“It’s too purple anyway,” she said.  Her face looked older than it needed to look under the yellowy overhead light.  The doubt and the anger and the suffering in her eyes was something he couldn’t quite understand.  They would get the skies over Bethlehem painted in time.  But her misery would vanish and come again and again. It was the way of things.  He felt the feelings with her and for her, even when they made no sense.

He took up the brush and began to smear the spill back and forth, filling in more and more of the white canvas.  Because there was so much, it spread far and quickly.  She sat beside him, her face in her hands, but her frown beginning to fade.  After a moment, she found another brush in her caddy and she crawled to the other side of the cloth.

“Just pour some on,” he advised. “It works good that way.”

Soon they met in the middle of a vast, plummy sky and laughing, they held up palms of the exact same shade.

“We should have started here and worked out,” she said ruefully.  But the crisis had passed again.

Neighbor

Lord, how I miss having Lady B next door.  The new people don’t do nothing but come and go, never looking right or left.  Act like throwing up a hand might kill them. All those big, dumb-looking boys do is work on they dog cages.  Never crack each other up, just mumble back and forth like they got nails in they mouths.  And the woman, she let all the weeds choke out Lady B’s pretty flowers.  Looks a mess over there.  You’d never know anyone ever cared for that house, oiled the floors, gave the curtains a spring wash.

When she was beside me, the world was all right.  Everyday that door of hers be swinging open, that hinge her man couldn’t fix whining like a cat in heat.  She had a light way of walking, but I always heard her feet on the hen gravel.  She pop that head around the corner of the porch and smile like sunshine on the lake.  Rooney said she wasn’t pretty at all, but that fool only like thick girls with blond hair all down they back.  I thought Lady B. was just about the prettiest thing I ever set eyes on.

Image

“I got a piece of pie, if you want it,” she say to me sometimes.  Or else, “I made a pot of chili.” I already knew if she was making chili because it made the whole holler smell good and warm like flannel.  Lady B never had no little ones of her own, but she was a mamma through and through.  She fed anyone who wanted a bite.  I was just the luckiest one, my porch right next to hers.

Her kitchen was small and yellow.  The table was just big enough for two.  When that man of hers rumbled away in the morning in his truck, long before the sun was up, she had that place to herself until nigh dark.  We’d start the morning off with some little cake or something and coffee, telling the same stories over and over, and agreeing on who was good and who was rotten of the folks we knew.  We’d part for a while in the middle of the day, clean up our places a little bit, maybe do a little fuss with the dirty clothes and start a pot of soup.  But always I think I hear her on the porch and wish I could get my chores done sooner.

Then one day that man come home and tell her he got a new job, other side of the valley, and they ought to move on down the mountain, closer to town.  She was sad to say good-bye to that little house and the holler, but I was more sad than Lady B.  It didn’t hurt much, knowing I was more torn up to see her go than she was to be leaving.  It weren’t her fault she could cotton to anything and anyone, while I be the kind who keeps close to myself.  She give out her last cup of flour to a tramp.  I be thinking, ‘What he gonna do with it? Don’t look like he got anything else to make bread with.’

Lady B could get herself caught by the Bible thumpers, standing behind the screen door, smiling all nice while they talk Jesus at her with they hats in they hands.  I peep out from behind my sorry front room curtain, trying not to breath unless they gonna hear me.

When she went down off the mountain, she took her light with her.  Wherever she landed, she’s passing out little bits of herself, sweet slices of pie and all kind of kindness.  I wish she changed me.  I wish sometimes I took over a bowl of chili to that worn old dog living in Lady B’s house.  But that woman got small eyes, a jaw you could split logs with.  She ain’t nothing but meanness, I can tell, and I’d rather my rooms be quiet all the day than trade an angel for a sore old sow.  Anyway, maybe it’s time we got out of the holler anyway.

I think sometimes we could make it down in town, maybe find a couple little rooms on the street where Lady B lives.  She’d have all kinds of friends now, but she’d make room for me at her table, I know.  And this house would fall apart like her own had done, but that wouldn’t matter none.  It’s people that mean anything.  Houses are just wood and clay and tin and they ain’t no better than them what keeps them.

London and Other Old Loves

When he thinks of London, he remembers a girl with henna red hair and eyes like exotic oceans. Water he’s yet to dip his toes into.  They were best friends for a year and lovers for a scant few weeks.  That began in a rented room over Baker Street, where the window looked out on roofs for chimney sweep dancers. It surprised them both, that their laughter and wrestling sport would lead to urgent kisses, sliding hands and tongues, a shattering and quieting bliss.  He held her until she fell asleep, wondering what it meant.  Had he changed or been mistaken in himself all along?

Later he stood out on those roofs, listening to the noise of the city, feeling the humidity of the summer night.  He smoked back then and he remembers watching grey plumes drifting away from him into the shadows.  In his recollection, he didn’t want to turn and study her through the window.  He felt a mixture of anger and curiosity.  They had opened something between them that could not help but feel bold and mysterious.  Yet he was sure it only complicated everything.  The weeks to come would prove him right.

He walked to where the building ended over the street and sat on the dirty ledge.  He thought of home, the small nest of their town in Virginia, and he cried when his thoughts drifted to the boy he was sure he loved. In later years, this summer of youth would amuse him a little.  If the man he became could stand near the boy he was, watching him swiping at his tears and lighting another cigarette, he would be hard pressed not to turn away with a smile of both kindness and contempt.  Would he drop a hand onto the boy’s shoulder, give it a comforting squeeze?

His father used to do that, when he was alive, and that young man always squirmed away from the touch.  The young have no notion of how cruel they are, carving out their space, keeping their old keepers at arms length while they mine the world for gems they can only find on their own.  He hopes he would save the gesture. Perhaps he’d do the thing the boy hadn’t the courage to – after all, things would sort themselves out eventually – and instead he might turn and give the young woman his consideration.  Knowing where the years would take her, surely she needed the love more than his callow, slender, boyish self.

If he could go back as he was now, with just a hint of ache in his joints, a skiff of white wintering his dark hair, he might stand at the glass and think she was a bit of Venus in the shadows of that old room.  In sleep she would seem angelic, her claws tucked away.  For the year of their friendship, she was safe and never needed to use them.  Except perhaps a bit at the end – but those little cat scratches were all but forgotten.  He would trace his finger along the glass, the silhouette of her cheek against the pillow.