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Sugar Makes You Stupid

 

People have told me that excuses only prolong consequences.  That they will burrow in your conscience like a red fox, waiting for the perfect moment to prey on you, and end your streak of good intentions.  Excuses gather in groups and build up and crash onto you like a Hawaiian wave, each one larger than the last. I hate excuses, regardless of how they define the way I live.

I call my mother’s cell phone number, my fingers automatically tapping the screen, her digits engraved in my mind’s speed dial.  The call goes straight to voicemail, as it always does now. Hi! I am not available right now, probably out in my garden!  Please leave a message, I know I would love to hear from you! I hear her say on the other end of the line.  I must dial this number at least ten times a day.

***

On the Christmas of 2004, I barreled down the stairs, my fully grown, 15 year old limbs bumping off the stairwell, in a race to the tree.  My breaths were short and strained with the fatigue of the morning hours, but also filled with excitement.

My mother sat on her chair, letting a smile crowd her otherwise exhausted face, calling to me to come place the annual Christmas kisses on her cheeks.  I fell onto the maroon colored leather love seat, my eyes focused on the towers of gifts, piled nearly half way up the prickly blue spruce tree.  My father came out of the kitchen, carrying a large red and green platter stacked high with thick buttermilk pancakes: mine with chocolate chips, my father’s with blueberries, and my mother’s made with Splenda.  Mom, are your pancakes made with real sugar today? Enjoy yourself!  It’s Christmas!  I call out.

She settled her faded light blue eyes on me for a moment, her face flickering an emotion I cannot describe, and just before I could ask what’s wrong, she answered me with, No, Hollis, sugar makes you stupid.

I stopped chewing.  The fluffy bread and sweet maple syrup tickle my tongue, the taste reminding me I shouldn’t be hungry, ever. She’s joking Hollis, my father stuttered, looking from me to my mother, gaging the tension in the room.  Now, open your first gift.  It’s the big one in the corner, from us, and of course Santa, he told me, his hands pointing toward the large gift, and away from the previous conversation.

***

My fifteenth Christmas is just one example of how my mother’s condition ruled my life.  Excuses guided her life and mine for fifteen years. She would tell me that the reason she drank calorie free flavored water for lunch was because she had a stomach ache, or that she was allergic to bread, and all lunches had to contain sandwiches to be a proper lunch, so why have a lunch at all if it isn’t proper, right Hollis?  I would wake up to her making noise at 4am, to slip on her muddy running shoes, and seemingly stalk out of the house for her morning trail run into the Holloway Woods. That was only one side of her.

My whole life, I knew two mothers.  When she wasn’t in a relapse, she was a woman full of energy, always trying new recipes that involved pumpkin, because fall was her favorite season.  I’d come home from Blue Ridge Middle School, and there would be hundreds of burnt pumpkin pastries lining the small, granite kitchen counters, one failed cupcake or truffle after another.  I lost track of time, you know me and Gilmore Girls, best friends who lose track of time.  Try the ones to the far left, they’re just a bit crispy and almost add to the effect, she would tell me, a smile breaking over her face, a beautiful scene.  So I’d take a treat and fake a smile as the carcinogenic truffle spread its burnt taste over my tongue, they’re great mom, you should have one. She’d look at me with a childish grin, averting her eyes from mine. Oh no, Hollis, I’m too full from lunch.  I looked at her from across the counter, my expression confused. I thought you don’t believe in lunch?  She began to bring the spatula and batter bowl to the sink, then paused and turned to look at me.  Everyone cheats, sometimes.

When I was even younger, in Holloway Elementary school, she would pick me up most days at 2:45pm.  I could always pick out the dented, grey pickup truck splattered with mud from the corn fields turning in, and her bright smile, waving me toward her.  The days Dad picked me up in his Jeep were “visit days.”  It meant that Mom was visiting her friends at the big hospital in the city a half hour away.  As I got older, I started to notice her clothes fit differently in the weeks leading up to her visits.  When she came home, she wore tight blue jeans, and form fitting shirts.  Then, weeks would pass, and she would wear what looked like the same jeans, but they were baggy, accompanied by big sweatshirts.  One morning, before I headed to the bus stop on the corner, I asked, Mom, why do your lighter blue jeans fit differently on the first days of the month, and the last days of the month?  She replied with It’s natural for a woman’s body to fluctuate, Hollis. You’ll learn. Another excuse that blinded me, keeping me comfortable, satisfying my curiosity for the moment.

When high school came around, I had sprung to be 5’10, and still weighed 115 pounds.  I hated every second I went to school in my jeans that were always too short, and when I passed by girls in the hall I heard whispers following me to my locker.  When people asked why I was so thin, I always replied with the same answer: it’s genetic, you should see my mom. Regardless, I was called into the counselors office on multiple occasions, questioning my low weight.  I told the truth each visit, that I eat like a horse and even have extra sweets when my parents weren’t home from work yet.  For me, it really was genetic, for my mom, I started to not be so sure.

Back to school nights, career days, or football games, my mother and I were like a circus act.  Heads would turn, focusing on our bony legs and even slimmer waists.  Boys didn’t notice us, due to our lack of breasts and over abundance of pointy corners that were our hips, elbows, collar bones, and knees.  What I didn’t understand, was that I was forced to look this way, and my mother chose to.

She would study me as I tried on new clothes from school in Target, her eyes settling on my thighs and waist. What is it? Does it look to big? I turned around so she could see the back as well, my eyes settling on my front, in the red rimmed mirror.  Yes, Hollis, somehow an extra small is too big. We are leaving.  She then would slam the dressing room door, waiting for me outside the fitting room area.  I scrambled into my clothes, putting the unwanted clothes in the corner. What did I do? I’d ask as I met her, wondering what I could have said to make her unhappy. Nothing Hollis, you’re just a lucky girl. Lucky?

***

I was never allowed into her study.  It was in the basement, and always had a deadbolt on the door, forcing my curious eyes to focus on the oak details instead of its contents.   One day, my mother left the door unlocked unintentionally as she left for her daily “bootcamp” workout class.  I remember my palms resting on the golden doorknob, the devil on my shoulder egging me on.  Come on now, you’ve always wanted to peek in.  Just one look, just to see what she studies so much in here, he teased.  Liam was upstairs, watching music videos on MTV, so I felt safe enough to venture inside alone for a couple minutes, as my mother would not be back for at least another hour.  When the door creaked open by my gentle push, my breath hitched at the scene.  There were pictures of naked women crowding the walls, their bones large details, protruding from their pale, translucent skin.  I stepped into the room unconsciously, my brain too curious to step back.  There wasn’t a chair or a desk, just an unfurnished room, the floor crowded with magazines and black and white computer printouts.  The walls were labeled in sections, each dedicated to a particular body part.  The west wall facing our pool was titled “legs,” the east “tummy.”  Then, on the ceiling, was a large sign, hand painted “before” and “after.”  I saw pictures of my mother from before I was born, her hair long and blonde, her face full of light and her skin tan from the Florida sun, the sun she grew up under.  The photo that began the sequence was titled “1984.”  Then, in six month increments, until now, nearly 20 years later, were photos of her body from four angles, naked.  Her flesh grew whiter with each photo, her bones more visible.  She would praise herself in handwriting that read “5 pounds down this half-year!”  I collapsed to the floor, my body crumbling as I felt my hot tears hit my bare legs as I read the largest script in the room: Goal weight, 92 pounds.  My mother was 5’11, she would die when the scale hit 95. I sprinted out of the room and slammed the door behind me.  Sprinting up the stairs, I didn’t see my father and slammed right into his chest as I reached the last step, screaming with the surprise. Hollis, your mother is a great woman. She is troubled by imaginary people telling her that she is not good enough…thin enough. This is not true, and I promise I have it under control. Do not go in there again, do you understand?  All I could do was nod, because I was 100% sure my hands would never touch that door nob again.  He stepped to the side to let me by, and I remember the look on his face as my eyes left his, it was the same look he gave me each time I asked where mom went on her “visit days” to the hospital when I didn’t understand as a young child, his “lying” look.

***

The day I stumbled upon my mother’s study will never leave my head.  The pictures, the “inspiration” she gave herself, the bizarre excuses for the way she lived her life, the way she seemed to be absent for half of mine, in mind and body, all flooded together in a tsunami of memories.  When would she reach her dream weight? Why am I so thin, why does she look at me like that?  Questions loomed over my thoughts, distracted me from school, made me a victim of my mother’s condition.  Her excuses guided our relationship.  They used to build and build, a brick of lies piled on top of a brick of a stuttered reason for why she was never there.  The pumpkin pastries stopped flooding the counters, too burnt to eat.  Every second of my life I replay, and I see the truth that the red fox revealed after he preyed on the lies, leaving me a carcass of a mother I never knew until I saw inside her heart, inside the study.  My father never brought up the study again, and each time I noticed her walking down the steps with a pile of photos in her frail hands, I glared at him through my side glance.  As the months passed, he stopped trying to keep her upstairs. It’s her life, Hollis. 

Six months before she died, she would run at 8am instead of 4, when I was getting ready for school, forgetting that I needed breakfast or my lunch packed, forgetting that she is my mother.  When the excuses stopped, so did she.  She stopped doing anything.  She stopped going to “visit” the hospital.  She weathered away, and when I asked why she had to be so thin, why she didn’t love me enough to eat, she would answer with, It has nothing to do with my love for you.  You are my life, but I cannot control how I live.   I blamed myself.  Why was I so thin?  I could give her my body, and take hers, I could make her happy by giving myself away.  Giving her my bones, so that she could see her goal fulfilled, and smile every morning while I came downstairs wearing her figure, paired with my mind, the perfect combination.

When I held her hand in the hospital on September 24th, my 16th birthday, with her cold bony knuckles on my warm flesh, I knew she still had one excuse left to give me, one the clever red fox had yet to find. I took in the room my mother was to die in.  It’s light blue curtains and matching sheets, the old TV that hung on the wall playing reruns of Gilmore Girls, and the thin shape my mother took under her heaps of blankets.  I tears falling onto the sea of blue, blending into the light tone, eventually absorbing into the fabric, giving it polka dots. It was the first time I had cried since I was a child, years of memories and clues concluding in front of me.  I love you Hollis.  I am sorry, but nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.  I heard the long tone.  I saw the flat line. I kissed her sunken, hollowed cheeks, like always.  I held her hand until they peeled me away, forgetting to notice my father had been there the whole time, cowering in the corner as his wife faded away.  The whole scene seemed appropriately familiar, which is why I ran.

My father and I hardly speak, my mother’s life insurance funding my college experience, anything to get me away from the place I grew up in.  We have nothing in common, no words that are left to be said.  He let her die, and so did I, allowing her imaginary voices guide the way she decided to leave this world.  I lost my strong gut, my willpower, my motivation to keep going.  My mother was dead, and the only thing that took her from me, was herself.

Light as a feather, thin as a rail, I am exactly what she wanted to be.

The Coffee Table

“I’m not crazy,” I say, hopelessly coming to terms with the fact that my statement further confirms to these doctors that I probably am.

I sigh and slouch back in the uncomfortable plastic chair as the doctor ignores my statement and continues to make notes on his clipboard. My eyes are sore and stinging from the crying I did earlier in the night. At this point I just want to get out of this place and go to sleep. My eyes start to close, and for a moment my head slouches to the side, but the doctor speaks, interrupting my half-asleep brain with a question.

“Anne, why did you do it? Why did you send your mother that text?” He is looking at me calculatingly. I don’t open my eyes.

“Honestly? Because I knew it would stop the fight. I swear I honestly had no intention of actually doing it. I just knew that she would stop being upset if she was worried about me. I’ve told you this. I’m sorry that I did it. Obviously it was not worth all of this trouble. Can I please see my dad?”

“Soon, maybe,” he says as he gets up and leaves me alone in the room.

I try to find the bearable position I was in a second ago so that I can dose off again, but after a couple of minutes of fussing around, I give up and grudgingly open my eyes. I think about what I just told the doctor. I honestly don’t have any intention of taking my own life tonight, I think.

I think.

***

            It was a pointless fight, as most fights with my mother were. We both had short fuses and we both knew how to set the other one off. We always laughed about our French blood. I hated fighting, and ever since my dad left we were constantly getting annoyed with one another. I spent the majority of the summer before my freshman year in high school locked in my room, reading. I was in the middle of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for the 6th time, when my mom knocked on my door.

“Honey, I’m having some guests over, so would you mind tidying up your room a bit? I want to show them how nicely you decorated it.” Her voice was cautious and courteous as it always was when she knew she was asking me for something that might annoy me.

I stifled a sigh, “Yeah, I can do that once I’m done with this chapter – I have three pages left!” My voice rose as I heard my mother let out an aggravating breath of air. “Plus, you know that I don’t really want anyone in my room, mom.”

“Fine,” she snapped. “I’ll be back in ten minutes and I expect you to be cleaning by then.” She turned and started to close my door.

“Okay, fine.” I said, not looking up from my book.

“Can you acknowledge me when I’m talking to you, Anne?” She yelled.

“I’m trying to finish these three pages so I can do what you want, mom!”

She slammed the door and stormed off. I rolled my eyes and kept reading, attempting to finish the chapter I was on before time was up.

I did finish the three pages, but it left me with a cliffhanger. I paused for a second, deciding whether or not I wanted to keep reading.  I knew if I did it would cause a fight.

When my dad was home, he used to defend my reading. He would turn to my mother and say, “It’s fine, honey. She’s reading.  At least if she’s going to disobey us, it’s in a smart way.”  My mother would give him a stern look, but the corners of her mouth would role up to a smile. I’d always get at least another chapter.

I thought about how my mother would look at him. Her eyes would soften and her cheeks would redden when they made eye contact, even though they had been together for years.  When he would leave for his annual trip to Boston, my mom would be in a somber mood until he came back. When he did, her face would lighten up again.  This happened until the year that she went to the airport to pick him up and no one got off the plane.

I remember her face that night. Her eyes were either downcast or rapidly moving around the room. Her mood switched from confused, to terrified, to calm until she got the phone call from my aunt at two in the morning. That’s when she got angry. Her French side came out as she screamed at the phone, cursing my father and every single-family member that encouraged him to go to Boston every year. She came out of her bedroom and saw me sitting in the living room. Her face was red and her eyes were wet. “Go to your room!” she yelled as she stormed past me grabbing her coat.

I never found out where she went that night, but the next morning she told me my dad wasn’t coming back. Her face became emotionless, but there was still a sense of longing in her eyes. Three months later, when my dad finally did show up to grab his things, my mother didn’t greet him with the blushing smile that she normally did.  Her lips were pursed and her eyes were hard, and they stayed that way.

I quickly flipped the page of Harry Potter, wanting to forget my thoughts. Ten minutes later my mom opened the door and saw me in the same position I was in before.

“This is it, Anne! I ask you to do one small thing and you can’t tear yourself away from that damned book for a couple of minutes!” She stormed across the room and snatched the book from my hands. It gave me a paper cut.

“Ouch! What the hell, mom!” I yelled as I threw off the covers and followed her to the other room. “Give me back my book!”

“Not with that tone young lady! How dare you speak to me like that! I’m done. No more reading until you do what I ask!”

I managed to catch up to her and attempted to grab the book back. She yanked it away from me.

“Mom! Please! It’s the only thing that keeps me sane in this house! I hate living here!” I felt my nose start to get hot and tears started brimming on the edge of my eyes. I clenched my throat in an attempt to hold them back. She turned to face me, her eyes watering and her lips thin.

“Then go live with your father. I am sick of this.”

I grabbed for the book and gave it one good tug. I was crying now, and all I wanted to do was go back to my room and escape back into the world of Harry, Ron, and Hermione where a mass-murdering lunatic became the good guy at the end. I fell onto the couch behind me. My mother made a lunge at the book, missed, and hit me in the arm. After that I felt sharp pains all over my body. My mom’s arms were swinging over me, and when our tearstained eyes met, I couldn’t see anything but anger and hurt in her eyes. I tried to curl up, holding the book tightly to my chest. She hit me in the side of my abdomen and my leg kicked out, connecting with her stomach and sending her flying across the room into our antique coffee table. She lay on top of the broken table, stunned about what had just happened. I dashed into my room, slammed and locked the door, and slid down against it, hugging the book to my chest. I could hear her stifled tears through the door. After a couple of minutes, I heard her get up and walk through the kitchen to her room where she slammed and locked the door.

Shaking, I got up and found my cell phone buried underneath the covers of my bed. I found my dad’s number and hit send. I put my ear to the phone on the bed, unwilling to pick it up in fear of dropping it. I was terrified that if I put it on speaker my mom would hear the call and try to stop me. It rang three times before I heard my father’s cheery voice telling me to leave a message. I hung up before the end of the voicemail greeting. I should’ve known better than to call him. He never picks up. I dropped the book and clutched my sides, rocking back and forth next to my bed. This was typical of him. When I needed him the most, he wouldn’t answer. This was an emergency! I could be dead and he wouldn’t even know.

I could be dead.

I started imagining the look that would be on my parents’ faces if they received the news that I had died; my mothers’ guilt ridden anguished sobs and my fathers silent shaking as he looked at his missed calls and saw my number. Without hesitating I got up. Suddenly thinking clearly I tiptoed towards my door. I opened it quietly making sure to turn the knob all the way before pulling it open. When I got to the kitchen drawer with the knives in it, I had stopped crying and shaking. I grabbed the knife with a black handle and ribbed sides.

That would hurt.

I put that knife down and grabbed the one that was next to it with a worn wooden handle and a smooth blade. Smooth entry. I held it next to my arm, concealing it and went silently back to my room.

I sat for a long time holding the edge of the blade over my stomach. It was sharp, and every time the cold metal touched my skin, I freaked out and pulled it away. I thought of the reactions of everyone that I knew, but focused mostly on my mother. I could see her tear stained face in front of me at my funeral dressed in black. I put the knife down and sent her a nine word text message:

 

It was your fault that I killed myself.

 

I picked up the knife, held it over my stomach and waited to hear my mothers’ footsteps. They came exactly thirty two seconds later.

***

The rest of the night was a blur. I remember my mother crying and making two phone calls; one to my dad, and then one to the police. I remember riding in the back of the police car in handcuffs and being told it was for my own safety. Then, I remember this room and the constant flow of different strangers dressed in scrubs asking me questions. When I heard my dads voice outside of the hallway, I sighed in relief. I refused to talk to my mother.

After lots of yelling and complaining, the door opens up and I see the tense face of my father. It relaxes as he takes three strides towards me and pulls me into a hug. I feel myself stiffen. This surprises me.

“Anne honey, please don’t ever do anything like that again. Lets go home.”

“Uh, okay.” I say, perplexed. I was still trying to understand my mood. I thought that I would be excited to see my father, but when I finally did, I felt my mother’s old reaction cross my face.  A warm feeling was building up in my throat.  The anger was bubbling to the surface. I hold it in as I walk out of the hospital, passing my mother on the way. She reaches out and strokes my arm. Her fingers feel like ice. I continue walking, but my whole arm breaks out in goose bumps.

“Back away Marie. I don’t want you near our daughter,” my father snaps at her.

“Don’t talk to her like that after what you did.” The words come out of me like parletongue. Uncontrollable. “This is just as much your fault as it is hers. You left us. If you had been there, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Dad, shocked, opens his mouth, thinks for a second, and then closes it again. He looks down and continues walking, cautiously placing his arm over my shoulders. I follow less than willingly.

I glance back at my mother, and the guilt-ridden expression that I had pictured earlier was now on her face. I feel my expression mimicking hers as I realize that after I spoke, my parent’s eyes met and for a moment hers lit up again.

Ashes to Ashes

 

At first glance, my morning routine doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary for a man in his thirties living alone. I wake up, shrug on robe just slightly too small for me, and shuffle my way into the kitchen, making a beeline for the Mr. Coffee in the corner of my otherwise bare countertop. The difference starts with the view from my kitchen window. As I stand there at the sink below the sill and listen to the steady drip of my brewing coffee, I’m not looking out onto a neatly modest patch of green yard, complete with a gently rusting barbecue and a mismatched set of plastic deck chairs. All I can see through the double-paned glass are acres of barren field: the graveyard of some failed crop from seasons ago left to bake in the sunlight.

Despite its strangeness, this is where I’ve been living for the better part of a year—separate from the outside world, in complete isolation. And it’s where I’m meant to die on the day that my body ignites and I’m finally consumed in flames.

***

               On a similar morning 18 months earlier I was in my old house, the kitchen full of the smells of a cooked breakfast. Brenda had just set a mug of steaming coffee in front of me; black as the Oxford shoes I’d just finished lacing to get ready for my morning commute. I raised the drink to my lips and took the first scalding sip, burning my tongue.

The phone began to ring. It sounded twice before Brenda could reach it, maneuvering her swollen belly carefully around the pointed edge of the countertop. Her tone as she answered, although light enough for appearance’s sake, was strained and impatient.

“Hello? . . . Yes, this is his wife. May I ask who’s calling, please? . . . Right, hold on one sec while I check for you.” She pulled the receiver away from her mouth and tucked it under her jaw bone, whispering to me, “It’s the medical examiner’s office.”

“Did they say what they wanted?”

“No, not yet, just that they wanted to speak with you,” she turned slightly back toward the phone cradle and rested her weight gingerly on one hip. She’d had trouble sleeping the night before and the hand on her belly was chapped and sore in the winter dryness.

I got up from my seat, leaving the coffee where it sat.

“Tom Daily. Can I help you?”

“Hello, Mr. Daily. This is Sue-Ellen from the Prince William Medical Examiner’s Office.” Her voice was warm, feminine, and measured.

“I’m sorry to disturb you so early in the morning, but the Examiner has requested that you please visit our office as soon as is convenient, Mr. Daily.”

“Visit your office? Well yes, of course. Is there anything wrong?” Brenda looked up at me from the sink. Her eyes met mine, her brow furrowed with concern.

“I’m afraid I can’t discuss that with you over the phone, Mr. Daily, though I can tell you it is regarding your brother, Roger Daily.”  My throat constricted hearing Roger’s name and I could feel my pulse pound beneath my temples. Brenda must have seen the look on my face because she turned off the water and made her way over to me, stripping off her bright yellow rubber gloves.

“Sir, we strongly advise that you come at your soonest available moment. Do you know where our offices are located?”

“My brother? . . . Why can’t you tell me, if it’s so urgent? What’s happened? Is he in some kind of trouble?” My voice caught in my throat and I gripped poor Brenda’s hand in mine, bringing the pink knuckles to my chest.

“Please, Mr. Daily, I assure you that everything will be perfectly clear as soon as you arrive. If you’re not sure where to find us then I can give you directions now, if you like, though our address is also listed on our website. It may, however, be advisable to make arrangements at your place of work.”

“No need for directions, then. I’ll get over there as soon as I can. Thank you.” She thanked me and I hung up, a cold pit slowly growing in my stomach.

***

                It took me four minutes longer than what the GPS had predicted it would take for me to arrive at the Medical examiner’s office. I was met at the door of the brick building by a man in a loosely cut dark suit and a badge that told me he was a member of the local law enforcement. He led me into a nearby room where he sat across from me behind a sooth vinyl desk. A group photograph of men in uniform hung on the wall behind him, next to a set of framed certificates.

“I really appreciate you coming in on such short notice, Mr. Daily. I understand how difficult that can be,” his clean shaven face was very pale against the navy of his lapel, but his nose, ears, and hands were flushed.

I told him not to worry and that it had been not trouble at all to come, but he must have seen the straightness of my back or the tightness of the muscles in my jaw, because he didn’t waste any more time except for to offer me a glass of water. When he was ready, his voice settled into a deeper tone, his eye watching me carefully.

“The truth is, we called you here as a matter of procedure. It was essential that the news I am about to give you is done so in person.”

I felt myself lean forward in my chair, my pulse quickening and my skin tightening. At this point, I had already played through so many different scenarios in my head that I was sure I would be ready for whatever he told me.

“Mr. Daily, at 8 o’clock last night, a body was found in your brother’s home, by a neighbor of his investigating a sound of alarm. We have surveilled the area and made several attempts to contact your brother, all of which have been fruitless. This therefore leads us to conclude that there is a strong likelihood that the body in question is that of your brother, Roger Daily.”

I instantly felt the blood drain from my face and my skin prickle with sweat. I had thought wrong.

He didn’t pause long, obviously trained for my shocked reaction.

“Sir, please understand, however, that it is impossible for us to confirm the identity of the remains. We called you here to see if you could provide us with an I.D. positive or negative, so that we can move forward with our investigations.”

I couldn’t quite yet summon the ability to respond, but after another prompt I told him that I’d do my best to help in any way that I could, though my legs seemed to be much heavier than they should have been and I couldn’t imagine how I would manage the walk to wherever they were keeping my brother.

***

Coming forward to identify the body of a relative is difficult enough, but there’s absolutely nothing that can prepare you for the sight of your twin’s charred remains lying in the bottom of a plastic tub. The fluorescent lighting in the freezing room, cast a shadow of my slumped form over the contents of the bin as I peered over to look in. All that was left of him was a pile of ash and the bottom half of his left leg, the wound cauterized, foot still clad in one of his dorky tennis shoes, the white sock pushed down his thick calf to his ankle, everything singed at the edges. A label on white card tucked discretely in the corner identified him as a John Doe, but since I knew it couldn’t have been anyone else but my brother.

If it hadn’t have been for that shoe, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell at all, but I’d made fun of it enough.  Too much like the ones our grade school gym teacher used to wear, I’d tease, the one that had smelled of cigarettes. I’d told him that if he wasn’t careful he’d wake up bald as an egg and with an incurable case of jock-itch. It would be settled then and there that I was the handsomest and most eligible twin and he’d have to go on the prowl for a whole new generation of kids to scream at.

He never took it well. His jaw would tighten and his brow would furrow and if I was lucky, I’d dodge the swipe he made at me without too much trouble. It was true that we both looked alike, so much so that our father would avoid calling us by name, sticking with “kiddo” and “champ” instead. But now that there was nothing left of the man with whom, for our whole lives, I had shared a face, I felt less like a limited edition model and more incomplete, now of considerably less value on my own.

***

The pathologist wasn’t able to do much with what few remains of my brother were left to him, but what he was able to decipher ended up being more troubling than if nothing had been found at all. Roger had burned to death, according to the neatly filled out white box on the autopsy report. But he hadn’t passed out drunk in front of a furnace and caught on fire, not had he doused himself in gasoline and set himself alight. In either case it would have simply been a matter of filling out a post mortem psychological evaluation and my brother’s case could be put to rest. But no . . . the flames that had killed my brother had come from within his own body.

Before his death, I hadn’t thought of spontaneous human combustion as anything more than a curiosity—one of those shitty ways to die that you hear about on the Twilight Zone but still doubt could ever happen in real life. Even if it was a legitimate danger, it could only be reserved for those stupid enough to drink so much that their blood became flammable, or the unlucky bastards in charge of toxic waste disposal at some shady government-run plant. The truth is, the only prerequisite for S.H.C. is a heaping spoonful of extreme bad luck.

What makes it all the more ridiculous: it takes a very hot flame to burn a human body to ashes. Crematoriums are built with specially designed chambers to manipulate the flow of air, concentrating the heat in the centre of the oven as a way to get the temperatures hot enough. The idea that a simple, random chemical imbalance could cause a body to light up like a Molotov cocktail and burn to the ground is both terrifying and inconceivable at a basic level. It’s no wonder that before science could attempt to decipher these things, the only possible explanation anyone could give for it was an act of God: a good old-fashioned smiting.

In fact, the more I read about it, the less I seemed to understand. The city library had only a limited record of cases of spontaneous human combustion and what I was able to find barely scratched the surface. It seemed the medical examiner’s office was in much the same position I was. They could not pinpoint exactly what had caused the ignition in the first place. They were sure of one thing, however: as his identical twin, I was very likely harboring the same combustible genes in my own body.

A long series of examinations ensued. Every weekday, I’d have to take an extended lunch break from work to meet with them in the city hospital where they’d commandeered a room in a disused hall in the pediatric ward—I assume so that if I did go up the casualties could be minimized. I’d sit on the crinkly paper of the examining bed and pretend that it didn’t make me feel like a ten-year-old again, peering up at the inanely cheerful, though peeling, decorative wall runner. It was during one of these sessions, while I was waiting for the bitchy nurse to finally find the elusive vein in my arm she’d been stabbing away at for ten minutes, that I remembered how Roger and I used to love our joint doctors visits. Not that we liked getting shots or anything like that, but rather because we never had to go in alone. Our mother, thanks to a mysterious childhood trauma, detested being in the presence of doctors of any sort, and as soon as we were old enough, she’s send Roger and I into the office alone while she smoked outside of the waiting room. The two of us would distract each other with look-and-find, and I-Spy games, seeing who could spot the most interesting open window in the cityscape, or counts the most ducklings on the farm. Leaning back against the wall, massaging the welt under the hastily-applied bandage on my arm, I thought to myself that there wouldn’t have been room enough for the both of us to sit here now.

***

It wasn’t much longer afterwards that Brenda stopped asking me for updates on my prognosis. I no longer returned home to find her sitting up in bed, tortoise shell reading glasses perched below her furrowed brow as she plowed her way through another five dollar romance. She’d still leave the kitchen light on for me and a covered plate in the microwave, but I’d walk into the blue moonlight that flooded our bedroom to find her slender back facing my empty side of the bed, the spare pillow peeking out from underneath where it was supporting her belly. I’d eat my dinner cold, in case the microwave disturbed her, and would slip into the cool sheets next to her with just the slightest creak of our oak bed frame under me.

Sleep didn’t always find me, however and I often stayed awake for a long time before I finally dropped off. One such night, I lay awake staring at the floral print on the back of my wife’s night shirt, thinking about what the doctors had said to me that day. They had wanted to know about Brenda and I, the state of our marriage, the progression of her pregnancy, how often we fought or argued, whether or not we shared a bed. At first, I’d told them to mind their own business and leave her out of it, but they’d persisted with their interrogation and explained to me that it was time for them to evaluate my situation to determine what danger, if any, my family could be in by living in such close proximity to my condition. This had shocked me. Up until now, the possibility that these tests and evaluations might lead to something had only been restricted to nightmares, like it was somehow powerless in safety of the home I shared with my wife. They had closed our appointment by saying they’d continue their evaluation independently and bring me their results in the morning, thanking me once again for my time.

As I lay there with my troubled thoughts, watching the contour of Brenda’s shoulders rise and fall against the pale shadows on our wall, she sighed and turned over; maneuvering in her sleep so that she was facing me. I froze and stilled my breath. Even in the earliest stages in her pregnancy, Brenda had struggled with sleeplessness. After a few minutes of waiting as I debated whether I should feign sleep or try to comfort her if she woke, her breathing deepened and she stopped fidgeting, her mind returning to whatever dream she was having with the gentle flicker of her eyes underneath smooth lids.

Even in sleep, she looked exhausted, the lines around her eyes and mouth driven deeper with the past few week s of working through her pregnancy by herself; a deep semi-circles blossoming over her fine cheekbones. She’d always been self-conscious about the pallor of her skin, joking that she looked like a used tissue whenever she was tired or unwell, but I had always adored it; the way my dark skin looked when I used to rest my hand on her belly after we made love, like it was hovering over a basin of fresh cream.

My eyes trailed a path down to the front of her shirt and paused over a sliver of that pale skin exposed in the gap where she’d missed a button. I hesitated only a moment before gently raising my hand from the mattress and cupping my palm over the seam. A slight frown flitted across her face, but she kept on dreaming as the heat of her skin seeped through the thin fabric of her night gown and onto my chilled hand, the small area of skin-to-skin contact like a hot gash along my life line.

Suddenly, something shifted under her taut skin and I felt a small pressure against my hand, which then disappeared again as soon as it had come. My whole body went still, my heart pounding in my ears. Then it came again, longer this time and more forceful, lifting my hand from the curve of Brenda’s belly. The breath left my lungs with a whoosh and I could feel tears begin to prick my eyes, blurring the dark silhouette of my hand against the pale fabric and pearl buttons.

Bile rose in the back of my throat as I saw the pale plastic wristband I wore from the hospital catch the light when it rested back on Brenda’s belly. I wanted to grab those assholes by the lapels of their cheap white coats and, with all my strength, throw them out of my life for good. I vowed to myself there and then, with the pressure of my child against my hand, that I would do everything I could keep them safe, even if it meant keeping them safe from me.

***

It was on the morning of the next day that the doctors told me the results of their research. It had been determined that to keep my wife and unborn child safe from my condition, while still allowing me to live what was left of my life in peace, I should move into isolation. They gave me a moment to myself for me to process the information and it was all I could do not to scream at the top of my lungs and slam them against the powder blue wall for even suggesting it, but I remembered what I’d promised them both—Brenda and our child—just the night before. The rage inside of me shrank back into the widening pit deep within my belly and I called the doctors back in again. A fortnight later, I moved into the best place the local government could offer me on such short notice: this house in the middle of a dusty fire-retardant field.

Now, as I stand in my kitchen looking out at the heat waves dancing on the dusty horizon-line outside my window, the image of my brother’s body consumed in a pillar of white hot flame is burned into my vision. I dream about his death more often that is probably healthy for someone bound to follow in his footsteps. But then again- I’m not sure how important it is that I keep myself healthy these days. Technically I could booze it up all night, do all sorts of drugs, eat fatty foods—hell I could wrangle fucking venomous snakes for all it mattered. Nothing could bring me out of this hell hole.

It’s been a half a year since then; my boss has since replaced me with an employee who could make it into the office in the morning. I’ve managed to find a job writing manuals for the kitchen appliances that are shipped to me every so often—this month, it’s the Mr. Coffee Vista—which gives me just enough to send to Brenda for the baby.

He was born at his aunt’s house, where Brenda moved to after we sold the house and I was relocated to this field. I’ve only seen him a handful of times—once every other month when Brenda’s allowed to bring him to the house, swaddled in a fireproof blanket, always at a mandatory three yard safety distance. He has a bright and inquisitive face, for a baby and always peers intently around the house on his visits, taking in the strange environment. I want to tell him that he’ll get used to it; that he’ll learn to enjoy his visits to Dad’s military bunker out in the middle of nowhere, but I know I would be lying. It won’t take long for him to lose his curiosity and interest in the stranger he’s supposed to call his father.

So now I’ve given up thinking that the doctors who visit me every day with their needles and their scans will ever find a cure for my condition. I’ve given up thinking that I’ll ever be able to hold my wife’s milky skin to my own and show her that I’ve never stopped loving her. I’ve given up the idea that my son will ever consider me as anything other than a stranger. Today as I move through the paces of my morning routine, sipping my coffee and feeling the scalding liquid trickle down my throat, I think that there is no amount of heat that could possibly change how cold my world has become.

 

Blog Post Catch-up

Oct. 18th- “Mid-Autumn” by Butler

This story was at first a little difficult for me to get a grasp of because it’s got so many narrative layers to it. Having a story within a story within a story isn’t terribly strange for this collection, though, as the majority of these stories are told to us by the narrators as something they’re recounting from their own lives. Still this story is particularly remarkable in the sense that it takes it a step further; admitting to us at the beginning that the main character isn’t even speaking English, rather she’s speaking Vietnamese to her unborn child. This is interesting because Butler is obviously extremely skilled at deftly handling writing for characters of a different culture, so good, in fact, that it seems not stretch of our imagination that she could be speaking in another language.

The decision to make it Vietnamese also brings us much closer to the narrative, layered as it is, because we understand that she is speaking to her unborn child in the language of her homeland, because the feeling she is trying to express are too complex for her to do them justice in her poor English.

 

 

Oct. 25th- “Ghost Story” by Butler

“Ghost Story” is, so far, one of my favorites in this collection. This is because it does something that I’ve always loved books and stories to do: scare me. Even as a kid, I was always fond of stories that can raise the hair on the back of my neck with their eerie images. This is perhaps a little unsophisticated, now that I know how much more of an accomplishment it is to successfully conveying complex emotions like pain, love, and sadness, but I can’t help still having a particular fondness for “Ghost Story.” In particular, the ending scene stayed with me for a long time.

Because, as I sat in the darkness of the limousine and it drove away, I looked out the window and saw Miss Linh’s tongue slip from her mouth and lick her lips, as if she had just eaten me up. And indeed she has.

Nov. 1st- “June” by McCracken

I likes “June” because it surprised me by breaking away from the cliche I thought it would be conforming to. Instead of this being just a typical story about a girl suffering from child abuse as witnessed by her neighbor, we see June as a three dimensional character with her own vices and faults in the context of her tragic circumstances. And the character of June isn’t the only way through which this story is in keeping with McCracken’s themes of outsiders. The decision to have the narrator mirror June’s actions and take the fall for them herself sets the two up in complicated contrast–as two sides of the same coin not only in terms of family backgrounds, but in terms of their fate at the end of this story.

I admire this as an example for how to avoid being typical about how writing should portray times of hardship and personal struggle.

Nov. 8th- “Relic” by Butler

I love “Relic” for its strangeness. It took me a moment after finishing it to sit back and consider the fact that this story really is just about a man putting on a dead man’s shoe. I know that’s not really what happens and that reciting the plot of this story doesn’t do justice to the depth of it, but I think, sometimes, it’s probably good to appreciate a story like this for it’s sheer bizarre simplicity. If  I were setting out in my writing, as I sometimes do, with a deeper meaning in mind, before even developing a plot, I would bet that I wouldn’t end up writing about a man wearing John Lennon’s shoe because he believes it to have some sort of power. Its just so creative (not one of my favorite words ever, but it works well for what I mean here… in a vapid way that I’m regretting already).

There are so many layers and undertones of meaning in this story, my particular favorite of which was the titular running theme of relics, Catholicism and superstitions. On that note, I think it’s a testament to how well Butler is able to project his voice into the shoes of Vietnamese refugees (no pun intended!). The whole mindset of this character is very convincing as a successful Asian man with a closet obsession for good luck charms. I love how this character quirk is then translated into a sense of displaced loss for the character all leading up to a finishing line that I think will have to be marked down as one of my favorites:

“Then I will put both of John Lennon’s shoes on my feet and I will go out into the street and I will walk as far as I need to go to find the place where I belong.”

Nov. 29th- “Preparation” by Bulter

I love the tense, complicated emotion that courses through this story and the skill with which Butler crafts it to encompass all of the difficult and painful feelings of love and bitterness that the narrator feels for her dear, dead best friend. The effortless way the the narrator’s memories are stitched into the story is something that I really admire.

In class, we’ve spent quite a lot of time discussing the importance of fleshing out a character; filling their lives with rich detail so as to make their experiences and emotions all the more complicated and compelling. However, in my own writing, I’ve found the the “weaving in” of these memories is the most difficult part of the process. Thinking them up is a challenge in it’s own right, but having them flow smoothly into the narrator’s consciousness is really difficult for me. I often lapse into a sort of default mode: breaking the page and setting the memory as a flashback independent of the rest of the prose.

This story has inspired me to avoid that default setting an work harder to achieve the same subtle and delicate flow that Butler has here in “Preparation.”

Dec. 6th- “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” by Butler

I think that this story is the most beautiful of the collection. I loved the scenes where the narrator encounters the ghost. The writing is so beautiful that my mind illustrated those scenes with dusk blue shadows and soft, pale moonlight coming in through the narrator’s bedroom window. These impressions of color and value were, I think, born around the exquisite detail of Ho Chi Minh’s hands covered in silvery, crystalline sugar.

Sugar, like milk and honey, has always lent a strong sense of simple–and yet also rich– purity to whatever artwork or piece of writing in which I see it used. I am in particular, reminded of Wolfgang Laib’s Milkstone (pictured), a slab of marble made into a very shallow basin which is then filled to the brim with milk every morning and then emptied and cleaned in the evening. I think the same powerful purity is present in both this piece and Butler’s story, though it has another twist to it in the story. Having Ho Chi Minh’s hands covered in the sugar is a powerful and moving way to show the torment of his soul seeking peace, but even more so when you consider it as a replacement for a more traditional bloody hands motif.

This is a perfect example of the delicacy of Butler’s hand used to inspire complex emotion. I hold it as inspiration for my own work in the future where I try my hardest to do the same, though I never manage to do so quite so expertly.

Unwritten

The sun stung my eyes when the light reached the bed.  They still felt closed, although they were opened.  I placed each hand over my eyelids until the burning went away.  Before I even rolled over, I could feel that his body wasn’t lying next to me. If it had been, his legs would have been entwined with mine and our skin stuck together from the sweat.

Last night it took hours to finally shut off the worries that restrained me from drifting away.  I closed my eyes in hopes to find  more time in my cotton sheets alone.  As soon as I began to dream, the sound of the lawn mower awoke me.

I groaned and dragged my wasted, bare body from the old wooden bed that creaked as I stood.  I walked toward the window and watched as Thomas pushed the lawn mower across the front lawn.  His shirtless body was dripping with sweat as the sun sat on his back.  I wanted to beg him to wait until later, but the summer heat would only get worse as the day went on.  I couldn’t help but smile as the muscles in his back flexed with each push.  I felt embarrassed as I glanced down toward my frail body.

I went to Thomas’s side of the closet and pulled out the worn University of North Carolina t-shirt that he was wearing the first time we met.  It was Freshman year at UNC and I’ll never forget the image of my hands, sliding the shirt over his head while he shifted his body against mine.  It was when I met him that all the broken pieces of my life started to join together.  I stopped indulging myself in drugs and alcohol.  He was focused on law school and pushed me to pursue my love for writing, even though it went against my father’s wishes for me to go to medical school.  Thomas was the light that guided me from the darkness I had been trapped in for so long.

My parents weren’t around during my childhood.  My father was an Orthopedic surgeon who never came home and left my mother pilled up so that she wouldn’t notice he was gone.  I was forced to raise myself and make my own decisions.  With no one to guide me, I learned mistakes the hard way.  Money didn’t buy me happiness; instead it bought me an alcohol problem and a cocaine addiction before I even entered College.

It was easy to change after meeting Thomas. There was never a moment when he judged me; instead he inspired me to want to be something, something more than the poor little rich girl.  It didn’t take long to find that writing was what I loved.  I stopped accepting money from my father after college.

***

I walked outside while Thomas was still mowing the lawn.  The sound of the machine silenced once he noticed me.  He pulled a dishcloth from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he walked toward me.

He kissed my cheek and said, “Put some pants on, you’re outside.”

I laughed and said, “Oh, since we have so many neighbors? I’m sure the cows aren’t checking out my ass.”

We were living in Thomas’s family farm house outside of Chapel Hill.  It was a cattle farm with fifteen thousand acres of land and a small brick house.  Thomas’s father renovated the house as a wedding gift.  With Thomas in law school at UNC and me writing for the local paper, we didn’t have many other options.  It was all we needed, though.

Thomas kept pushing me to work on my novel.  It had been a slow process since college. The novel was based on the troubles I endured growing up.  Eventually, every sentence I wrote began to feel like a big cliché.  A rich girl who lacked the presence of a father so she compensated with drugs and alcohol wasn’t very original. The time I spent in Oxford, England, during College was where the real substance was for my writing.  I went the summer of my Junior year of college to attend a creative program at the University of Oxford.  Thomas had broken up with me because I allowed my father to pay for the trip.  My professor gave only me and two other students the opportunity, and I couldn’t bear to turn it down.  The only way I could afford it was if my father helped, but I knew it was the chance of a lifetime so I went.  I knew Thomas would forgive me eventually, and I didn’t blame him.  He only wanted the best for me, and to him that meant staying far away from my father.

Unfortunately, there were things about Oxford that were too hard to put in words.  A lot of things happened that my husband didn’t know about. Things that I only kept from him because I knew it would hurt him too much.

We lay in bed for the remainder of the day, while Thomas studied and I stared at my computer screen. When he could see my frustration, he curled his body around mine and rubbed his hands through my hair to try and coerce me to sleep.  I’d lay there all night considering the obstacles restraining me from finishing my novel.  I contemplated starting something new, and digging out my journals from Oxford but I couldn’t face it.

I was still awake that morning when Thomas removed his legs from between mine.  I stayed quiet, but watched as he moved around the room to get ready for class.  His mouth tasted of baking soda as he kissed me before he left.  I pulled him in to stay, but he couldn’t.  My body was limp when I pulled myself from the bed.  I was working from home that day to finish a deadline.  I made myself coffee and sat down at the kitchen table to edit my article.  Writing for the paper was a simple task compared to my novel.

I heard a car coming down the gravel driveway toward the house.  I figured maybe Thomas had forgotten something.  When I stood to look out the front window, a black Porsche approached.  I tugged on an old pair of cut off jean shorts and prayed it wasn’t my father knocking on the door.

I opened the door and for the first time in two months, I thought I had finally fallen to sleep.  Or maybe I wanted to be dreaming, because if I wasn’t, then everything I was a afraid of was standing before me.  Everything I was afraid to put on paper was now there to confront me. The memories of Oxford that I had tried to drown so many times had surfaced on the porch of our farm house.

***

When I first met Jack, I’d hated him.  Unlike the other girls in the Oxford summer course,  I wasn’t impressed by his trust fund and the number of novels he’d published.  Although he was not much older than the students in his course, Jack had already published five novels and was incredibly smart once he stopped talking about himself.  He was charming, yet pompous.  Handsome, but not my type.

There were rumors he slept with students, but I never indulged in conversation.  I kept to myself in Oxford, writing journals and walking around the city.  I spent the beginning of my time in Oxford missing Thomas.  It wasn’t like him to stay mad at me, but it had been three weeks since we’d spoken.  I got caught up in my own self pity and it had begun to show in my work.

Jack called me into his office one day after class to discuss a paper I had done poorly on.  He lifted his eyes from his desk and watched me as I walked into his office.  His eyes trailed my body each step I took toward the chair before him.  I regretted wearing the slightly see through, white dress as his stare made me feel naked.  Even when my cheeks became red he didn’t stop.  Instead, his glare became more intense.

He continued to take me in as he spoke of my paper.  The feeling of discomfort started to fade as I became fixated on him.  I had never realized how handsome he really was.  His lips were full and surrounded by the most perfect jaw line.  I don’t remember the criticism he gave about my paper, I was too lost in his charming english accent.  He must have noticed the way I was staring back at him.  My breathing intensified as he stood up and walked toward me and sat in the chair beside me.

He leaned into my ear and placed his hand on my knee and whispered, “Do you feel it too?”

Of course I felt it too, but Thomas’s face entered my mind and I stood to leave.  Jack grabbed my wrist as I walked to the door and pulled me into his chest.  He held my face in his hand before he pressed his lips to mine.  In that moment, I didn’t want to leave or walk away.  I wanted to be right there.  It was the beginning of a lot of crazy.

We fell in love before I had time to figure it all out.  Everything was out of my control and it felt good.  But it wasn’t long before everything started to spiral out of control.

Jack was young and had more money than he knew what to do with.  There were fancy flats and restaurants, something that wasn’t so new to me.  He didn’t understand that I didn’t need those things to be happy with him.  I only wanted him.

I had told him to stop seeing other students, and he did.  It was difficult not to be jealous when he had one on one meetings with them.  One day I threw every piece of fruit from our fruit bowl at his head after finding out a girl had come onto him during a meeting.  He let every piece of fruit hit him and then went out and bought a diamond tennis necklace.  I threw that too.

Jack would drink a lot and I started drinking again.  Oxford turned me into the person I had left behind when I met Thomas.  I was in love with a man that I had run away from long ago, but I was crazy about him.  It was different with Jack, there was a passion between us that was undeniable.

When the summer came to an end, it was time to return to my senior year of college.  Jack and I spent the last week together lying in bed and kissing every part of each other.  He begged me to stay, but I didn’t like the person I had become with him and I still loved Thomas.  I left Oxford and I never told him about Jack.

***

Jack walked through the door of the farm house and held my face in his hand.  Tears ran down our faces, but there were no words.  We lay on the couch, and for the first time in a long time, I fell asleep.

 

 

 

 

Ashes the Hairless Chimp

I never told Herbert about Ashes. Herbert was my husband, but he died five years ago last week. It was a DUI, a sleepy truck driver, a turn signal that didn’t work. He was fifty-seven. I never told him because telling him about Ashes would mean telling him about my Momma and Daddy. Herbert was a good man. He ate green beans with his steak and went to church on Sundays and talked real slow, like he had all the time in the world and wanted to spend it right there with you.

Herbert came from money. He didn’t boast about it or anything. It was just a part of him, a sort of carefree way he had, like he knew he’d always have a comfortable leather armchair and a pair of well-bred jack russells to come home to. On our wedding day, his parents came up to us at the reception, his mother in this smooth pale purple silk gown with a grey silk wrap around her shoulders that made me feel frumpy in my white satin dress with the lace collar and the beading on the sleeves.

“Welcome to the family, dear,” she said, taking my hand in both of hers. Herbert’s father nodded and smiled next to her. She was so elegant. When she swept her hand around the room to say how much she admired the flower arrangements on the tables, I could see her using that same gesture to order servants to clear the breakfast table.

I did almost tell Herbert, once. We’d been married a year, and even though Herbert didn’t like me to cook or even clean our house – that’s what he’d hired Bessie for, he said – I made pancakes for our anniversary breakfast using my Momma’s special recipe. When he came downstairs in his bathrobe and saw me at the stove, he just smiled one of those smiles that told you that he knew all the little ways you tried, the things you did to try to be a better person, how you put other people first but would never tell them, and he was thanking you for it all right there. I knew then that he was happy, it was our first anniversary, and he wouldn’t give me a hard time about the cooking. I poured the hot maple syrup from the pot into the gravy boat and carried it along with a plate stacked with pancakes to the table.

“Dig in, love,” I said. “While they’re hot.”

He forked a couple onto a plate and handed it to me where I sat across from him, then took some for himself.

“Lord, Susie,” he said, eyebrows raised, after the first bite. “These are good!”

“Thanks.” I smiled at him. “It’s the way my Momma used to make them.”

Herbert took another bite and looked at me. Then he leaned forward and tapped the tines of his fork on the edge of his plate. “Thank you, Susie.”

I knew what he meant. After meeting his parents for the first time, I’d had no choice. He thought my parents had died in a house fire five years ago, just after I’d moved to Atlanta looking for work. It was bad enough I was poor. I couldn’t be poor and have divorced parents. I almost told him the truth that morning over my Momma’s pancakes, the way he looked at me for a moment with his eyes so full of love and sadness, but then he asked me to pass him the pitcher of orange juice and I never told him about my Momma and Daddy and the tent where they yelled their business to the whole town, the tent for Ashes the Hairless Chimp.

~

When I was seven, a man no one had ever seen before set up on the town green a yellow and white striped tent with a sign over the entrance that read “Ashes the Hairless Chimp – Admission: $2”.

My brother Eddie and I noticed the tent on a Wednesday, walking home from school, and the crowd of people already gathered around it. I asked Eddie what a chimp was, and he told me that in science class they’d learned that chimps were what had come before humans and that they were as smart as a three-year-old child. I told him I didn’t believe him, that not even pigs were that smart and a chimp didn’t sound as smart as a pig, and he told me that yes it was so, his teacher had said it was so, and I shouldn’t argue with him about things I didn’t know about.

When we got home, Momma was on the phone with Mrs. Benson, her friend who visited once a year at Christmastime and brought her nasty little dog, a rat terrier named Yodel. She was telling Mrs. Benson about the yellow and white striped tent and the man and Ashes the Hairless Chimp.

“No one knows, Marge,” she was saying as Eddie and I dropped our schoolbooks on the sideboard. “He just showed up one night and the next day there he was.”

She pulled a pie out of the oven, holding the phone between her shoulder and her ear, and placed it on a cooling rack next to two others. She turned around and saw us, and beckoned us over. She bent and kissed Eddie on the forehead, then me, and whispered to us, covering the mouthpiece of the phone with her fingers, “Go out back and pick some tomatoes for us to have with supper. I’ll make a salad.”

She straightened, and said in her normal voice “Oh, I think the children would love to see it.” She nodded. “Mm hmm, what a treat.”

Eddie had picked two tomatoes and I had picked three – I was smaller and could wriggle back between the trellis and the side of the house, which was where all the reddest, ripest tomatoes always were – when we heard scrunching gravel that meant Daddy was home. We ran in the back door and Eddie put our tomatoes in the sink, then we brushed off of us all the dirt and smudges from the garden and went into the hall.

He was setting his briefcase by the hat stand and turning around for Momma to take his coat. “Eddie! Susie!” He crouched down and held out his arms. I ran to him and he squeezed me tight and reached out to ruffle Eddie’s hair.

“Dad, can you help me with my math homework?” Eddie asked.

“Sure thing, son. Just let me change first, and I’ll be right there.” Daddy turned and kissed Momma on the cheek, then went down the hall to their room and shut the door. Eddie went into his room and shut the door, too. I looked at Momma. She was holding his coat to her face. When she saw me watching, she hung it in the hall closet and walked back into the kitchen.

I went into the hall closet and shut the door. It was cool and the air felt soft, like it was made of cotton stretched real thin. Daddy always used to hide here when we played hide-and-seek. He couldn’t fit into the bathroom cabinet or behind the washing machine like Eddie or me. I found his coat, the one at the end, and stood inside it like it was a tent. I pulled it close around my face and breathed deep. It smelled like cigarette smoke and lilacs.

~

I couldn’t visit Herbert’s grave on the anniversary of his death this year because I was called in to substitute teach and the elementary school – something to do with my time – but the next day was Saturday and I could go. I ironed my black dress and baked a tray of snicker doodles, which smell so nice and sugary to come home to after that I can’t help but smile and see Herbert sitting at the kitchen table smiling back. I stopped at Safeway and bought a bouquet of yellow roses. I turned the car radio on and put in a cassette tape that Herbert had given me for our fifteenth anniversary of him singing “Hound Dog”, the first song we ever danced to at the Spring Gala all those years ago. I drove the fifteen miles to the cemetery and parked and walked up the hill to Herbert’s grave.

There was a crow rooting through a basket of muffins someone had left, and it flew off, cawing, as I walked past. A woman wearing green sweatpants at the top of the hill turned around, rubbing her eyes when she saw me. I made it up the hill, and she was standing near Herbert’s gravestone and so I stood next to her and offered her a tissue.

“I’m sorry,” she said, blowing her nose. “It’s been five years, but there are some people you just never get over, you know?”

I nodded and squeezed her hand. “I know. My husband passed away five years ago, and I still miss him like it was yesterday.” I stepped forward and bent down, laying the roses in their pink tissue paper and crinkly plastic under Herbert’s inscription, and when I looked back at the woman her face was blanched and she opened her mouth, staring at me. Her hand opened and the tissue fell out, but a breeze caught it and spiraled it up and up until it was lost against the gray clouds. She turned and walked very fast down the hill. I watched her get into a blue sedan and drive away.

~

 Momma took us to see Ashes the Hairless Chimp on a Saturday so that Daddy could come, too. We all paid and went into the tent, ten or twelve of us, and Eddie and I got to be in front because we were the smallest. We stood around the cage on the ground while the man who no one had ever seen before talked about scientists and lab experiments and mommy and daddy chimps and Africa. Ashes sat dead in the center of the cage, arms curled around himself, slowly plucking his lower lip. He didn’t look anything like a little human or like a three-year-old child, and I turned to glare at Eddie. I poked him in the ribs and he poked me back and then went back to watching Ashes. I wondered, why, if Ashes was so smart, was he just sitting there plucking his lip?

“You bastard.” I’d never heard Momma use that tone before, like she was hissing. I didn’t even know it was her at first, until I turned around. Momma was standing at the edge of the tent with Daddy, everyone watching them now. Momma was crying. I tried to run over to her, but Eddie grabbed me around the waist with both arms.

Daddy glanced sideways at everyone staring. “Don’t you say that to me,” he told Momma.

“How could you?” Momma wailed. “How could you do that to me – to the kids?”

The other people in the tent started to look away, at Ashes, at the man no one had seen before, at the roof of the tent.

“Penelope, you’re making a scene,” Daddy said through his teeth.

Eddie was holding me to him, squeezing me tight so I could feel his chest tremble against my shoulders.

“Shut up!” he screamed. “Shut up! Shut up!” He let go of my waist and grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the tent behind him. Then he started running, not toward home, and I didn’t know why he was running or where he was running to, but he looked like he knew, so I followed him.

~

I looked at the headstone to the right of Herbert’s. The engraving wished a peaceful eternal rest to Mary O’Connor. The one on the left was for an April Gibbs. I left the roses and drove home and thought about Herbert and the nights he stayed out drinking with his friends so late that I was asleep before he came home, but when I walked in the door with the cassette tape in my hand and held it over the trashcan, I didn’t see yesterday’s cantaloupe rinds or Herbert smiling at me and eating a snicker doodle. I saw Ashes the Hairless Chimp sitting naked in his cage plucking his lip because what else could he do — not walk around not with all those people watching — and this time I thought, you and me both, Momma. You and me both.

The Kitchen Table

All summer, I hoped that everything would go back to normal. I thought that maybe when I went back to school, Dad would be there to pick me up in the carpool line and he’d take me home and help me write letters and learn my multiplication tables. Maybe if Dad would come home, Mom wouldn’t be so tired all the time. Maybe he would scare away the mutants.

* * *

            I got to go to camp at the zoo for a week over the summer. We carpooled with our neighbors, the Quigleys. All three of the Quigley boys were going to the camp too. Mom drove us there in the morning and Mrs. Quigley drove us home. Her minivan was full of our macaroni crafts and the four of us shouting about which animal’s tricks we saw that day. I really liked the zoo camp even though I came home sweaty and smelling like poop. I got to learn about things like how they built the gorillas’ home and how they picked what food the gorillas would eat each day.

When Mrs. Quigley dropped me off Friday, I was tired and had a sundburn; I waved to her when I opened the front door. When I turned around after shutting the front door, I tripped over Dad’s black duffel bag that he always used when he went on trips for work or we all went to see Grandma and Grandpa at their beach house. Next to it were two blue rolling bags that were big enough for me to fit in. When I looked up, Dad was coming down the hall with his briefcase and another duffel bad.

“Dad, are we going to the beach this weekend?”

“No, sorry, kiddo. Maybe Mom will take you in a couple of weeks. Come into the kitchen, Mom and I want to talk to you a bit.”

Mom was at the kitchen table. Her eyes were red and puffy like mine were a couple of weeks earlier when I was full of mucus and sneezing from the flowers. Mom was drinking a glass of wine while Dad talked. “Mom and I have done a lot of thinking. We’ve decided that we make each other too grumpy. I’m going to try living in my own house. You’ll get to come hang out with me every weekend—won’t that be nice?”

“Does this mean you’re going to be like Cindy Joel’s parents?”

“Yes, honey. We’re getting a divorce. Sometimes this happens with parents and we’re very sorry about it, but it’s not anything that you’ve done.”

“But, Dad, you always help me do my homework.”

“I’m sorry, honey. I’ll still try to help you on the weekends.”

Mom wasn’t saying anything. I just sat there. My hands felt heavy and sweaty. I couldn’t talk because there was a big lump in my throat and my tummy was feeling weird. Mom noticed and she told me to go shower while Dad packed his car. She said after he left, we could have soup and ice cream and watch any movie I wanted.

* * *

            I could tell Mom was trying to make everything happy and fun for me. The whole next week we went to the movies or watched one at home every night. She took me shopping and bought me three new outfits and a new pair of sandals. One night, I woke up because of a dream about aliens coming to get me. It was really dark and quiet except for Mom crying. I didn’t know what to do since I’m not allowed out of bed after my bedtime. So I put away some of my toys that I hadn’t cleaned up yet. When I got up the next morning, Mom said that the next day we were going to go to the beach for a little while.

Last time we were at the beach, Dad dug a huge hole and buried me in it. We all went out at night and caught ghost crabs. Mom and Grandpa were the best at it. Somehow they always saw them even though their white bodies blended into the sand. After we got a full bucket of them, Dad would slowly tip the bucket and Grandma would count the crabs as they crawled out. One time, we got twenty-seven ghost crabs. They were crawling all over each other in the bucket. Some were as small as my pinky but there were some that were as big as my foot. I always made Grandpa pick me up so they wouldn’t bite my toes. Dad had also taught me how to jump waves and he promised to teach me how to boogie board next time we came.

* * *

Mom and I were in the ocean and Grandma and Grandpa were relaxing under the umbrella. Mom was going to teach me to boogie board. She had tried to bury me earlier but she didn’t dig the hole big enough for me to fit in. Mom decided we should go in the water to cool off and get the sand washed off. She was holding the board and getting ready to give me a push if a big wave came along. She had been trying hard to make it as fun as when Dad would come with us but it wasn’t the same. She didn’t push me the last big wave, she was fidgeting and she kept looking at the shore and then back behind us and salty water kept getting up my nose. Dad would have pushed me and made me laugh when I was nervous and he would have kept me above the water. Mom was paying attention to the waves so much that she didn’t notice the mutant jellyfish behind her. It was almost as big as me and it was a little purple. It stretched out one of its long tentacles and poked Mom in the middle of her spine just once. Mom screamed and she ran towards Grandma and Grandpa, still holding the boogie cord tight so I was trailing behind her. The board stopped and sunk into the wet sand and Mom let go of the cord. When I stood up and ran over to Mom, Grandma and Grandpa were looking at her spine. There was a huge red welt on it just where the mutant jellyfish got her. “Mom a purple mutant jellyfish got you! I saw it!” But they must not have heard me. Grandma said she had something for stings back at the beach house and Grandpa said he would stay with me. He told me that we could build a sandcastle before we packed everything up to go back to the house.

When we got back, Mom was in bed and I wasn’t allowed to go into her bedroom to see her. Grandma said she needed rest and she heated up some of the pasta for me. We had had it for dinner the night before and it didn’t taste as good. I asked Grandma when Mom would be okay and she said, “Oh honey, the sting isn’t bothering her too much anymore. She’s just a little tired. She’ll be fine.”

But I knew that if Dad was there, she would have gotten better quicker and he would have gotten all the venom out of her system. He always made me feel better when I had a tummy ache and even when I broke my arm. But Mom wouldn’t let him come help her, even when we got home, and I think there’s still some venom in her system because there’s some silver in her hair now and she’s always tired.

* * *

            My first day of school went okay. Our class just did some fun games so our new teacher, Mrs. Dalton, could learn about us. We drew self-portraits to put on the front of our desks. She also gave us a lot of papers to take home and have our parents sign. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to get Mom and Dad to sign them but I was too embarrassed to ask Mrs. Dalton what to do because I didn’t want the whole class to know about my parents yet.

But somehow, Cindy had found out. She sat down next to me at lunch. We both had peas and sloppy joe’s on our lunch trays. Cindy’s mom had braided her blonde hair into pigtails. I wished I had long straight hair like hers. I hadn’t seen her all summer but she was one of those girls who was friendly with everyone. I tried to chew and swallow the bite of my sloppy joe I had just taken so that I could ask her about her summer because Mom always told me that was the polite thing to do. Before I could, she said, “It’s not as bad as you think. I got more presents for my birthday, you know.”

It wasn’t a secret that Cindy’s parents felt so guilty that they were buying her all sorts of nice things. She had an American Girl doll and her birthday had a bouncy world and a petting zoo. Last year, her parents went to the parent teacher conferences together and they both came to the school play at the end of the year. So far, I was pretty sure that my parents hadn’t been in the same room since that day in the kitchen. When we came back from the beach, a lot more stuff was missing. Mom said that Dad came by and took the rest of his stuff.

When I got home from school, I put all my homework and the papers that needed to be signed on the kitchen table. Mom signed everything while I was eating apples and peanut butter. My homework was to write a draft of a letter. Mrs. Dalton said we might get pen pals so we should write a practice letter that would tell them all about us. Mom said she was too tired to help me so I should handwrite it before she helped me on the computer. We were supposed to have it typed up for class and I always did homework with Dad before dinner. I thought she might get sad and hide in her room and forget to help me. I just wanted Dad to be there so that everything could go back to how it used to be. I was starting to get all hot and sweaty again. I didn’t want to cry but third grade was going to be awful like this. The weekend was just a couple of days; not enough time for Dad to help me with my homework or read to me before bed as much.

Mom noticed that I was upset so she made me go out for a short walk with her. We were walking up and down the street when I saw the girl. I knew she had an alien parasite right away. She had hair that was as dark as when my bedroom lights were off. And she had a pink shirt on and she was listening to her iPod. Her face was pimply and glistening in oils. It wasn’t just salty sweat like I had. But her pimples looked different and it wasn’t because of the oil. They had a little bit of green around the white part in the center. Then there was a ring of red around them. I pointed her pimples out to Mom right away. Mom said I needed to calm down and stop letting my imagination run away with me.

I knew she didn’t believe me, but I was seeing mutants and aliens taking over everywhere. I could tell one of our neighbors was a werewolf mutant. He had hair sticking out of his shirt and he always looked sweaty and he had a lot of dogs. I was scared because Mom wasn’t seeing any of this and Dad wouldn’t be able to protect her from the mutants. Plus, the jellyfish venom might make her sick again and she didn’t believe any of my warnings.

* * *

            That weekend Dad took me to go but things to go in my new room in his new apartment. He already got me a bed and a desk with a rolling chair and a bookshelf. He said we could get paint for the walls and a rug and a bedspread and sheets to match. I made sure that everything was pink and purple. We got a pink and purple striped bed spread and a purple rug to go with princess pink paint. We also stopped at the bookstore and Dad let me get a couple of kids books on aliens and mutants. I was especially excited to read Aliens for Breakfast and Aliens on a Rampage with Dad at bedtime.

That night we made my bed and put the rug in my room and moved the furniture around to where I wanted it. He said we could work on my homework the next day and maybe he’d take me to the pool that everyone in the apartments shared. Dad said we could paint the walls Sunday before he dropped me off at Mom’s so that way the paint could dry and the smell would go away before next weekend. Dad made chicken nuggets while I put the juice on the kitchen table and picked out a DVD to watch after we ate. He was whistling and dancing while he put the chicken nuggets on plates and added some corn. I had never heard Dad whistle before. It wasn’t really a song, but I realized I had never seen him this happy.

As we sat down at the kitchen table, I though that maybe Mom could be this happy too if we did fun stuff like this together. Of course, I’d still have to keep an eye out for mutants—maybe they were why she wasn’t as happy as Dad yet—in any case, someone had to protect her.

I Wish

I Wish

Khirsten Cook

          It was mid-July, the hottest summer anyone living could remember, when daddy first saw her. Every breath was a mouthful of salty Atlantic air and six people had already died of heat stroke. Every store on main street had it’s windows covered in aluminum foil to block out the sun. A few barefoot, sun-burnt kids were eating snow cones under the big orange and white awning in front of Big Jacks. Jack had personally instructed daddy not to let them in the store because they left a sticky blue and red trail behind them wherever they went, and he was the one that had to clean whatever they got their grimy little hands on. Daddy would’ve gladly traded places with them, seeing as it was just as sweltering inside and he had to work. Breathing in the stagnant, musty air had been hard enough, and when mama walked through the revolving doors of Big Jacks, daddy just stopped breathing altogether. He was behind the register, working on his college applications when she’d come in with her cousin for some paint, a rope, and a tarp. They were fixing up an old boat for her brother, Kris. It was his eighteenth birthday, mama informed him. Daddy thought she was the prettiest thing east or west of the Mississippi; all big grey eyes and honey blonde hair. He could tell she wasn’t from the south, but now that she was here, she was trying to soak it all up like a sponge. She radiated sunshine. She was the sand and salt water. Her sundress didn’t try to hide the candy cane pattern on her shoulders; the wide white lines from her swimsuit and the pale scarlet everywhere else. Her nose was freckled and pink, and when she smiled, a little dimple peeked out of her left cheek. Daddy said he could tell she was only down for the summer for two reasons. Number one, he’d never seen her before, and everybody knew everybody in Greensboro. Number two, no one in Greensboro dressed to the nines just to come to the hardware store. He watched her laughing with her cousin as they walked up and down the four or five aisles of nails and hammers and paint rollers. Their eyes met a few times, but she’d look away, embarrassed, and he’d pretend to be writing or doing something with the cash register, but really, he was watching her. She laughed like there was nowhere she’d rather be, like nothing gave her greater pleasure than strolling down the aisles at Big Jacks, but it sounded rehearsed, forced.  When he got to this part in the story, daddy would look away from us, his anxious listeners, his captivated audience. He drifted away, maybe back to Big Jacks or maybe he wondered, like I did, what would’ve happened if they hadn’t met. He’d make us pull the ending out of him. Even though he’d told us a hundred times and we knew word for word what he was gonna say, in that suspended moment, it felt like the walls could come crashing down around us. Daddy’s raspy voice could put us back to sleep after a nightmare or leave us terrified by the fire pit in our backyard or make us roll our eyes when he got to the mushy parts. But out of all the times before, we never asked, what was it dad? Why wasn’t mama happy? Maybe we should have. Bug or Paige would pull on his pant leg and he’d shake his head, erasing whatever he was thinking about, like his brain was an etch-a-sketch. He’d grin crookedly over at mama. She didn’t know it yet, he’d say, but she was going to be my wife. All it took was a little note and a phone number, on the back of her receipt and they saw each other every day for the rest of the summer and every summer after that. Then she got pregnant with me and they don’t talk much about those first few years. I know that mama’s parents didn’t like daddy and that they kicked her out of the house. Daddy had to quit saving up for Princeton and find us a house and pay for diapers. He used to say that he would do it all over again. I haven’t heard him say that in a long time, but I still get chills when I think about how in love they were.

           As I lie here and listen to my own heart beating, I wonder how different their lives would be if it wasn’t. Sometimes I wish that it wasn’t, but then I think about what Uncle Kris says that everything happens for a reason. It’s all part of God’s plan for us. He gives us tests, lessons that we have to go through to get to Heaven. I think that maybe more people would like God if every once in awhile, he’d grade on a curve. I know lots of people who cheat on tests, but then, I guess God knows about them too. I believe in God. I do. I just don’t understand Him. Wouldn’t it be better to never have anything bad happen and have everyone go to Heaven, than give out tests where not everyone knows what to study and millions fail? Uncle Kris says that daddy will go to jail unless he gets his act together. I wish that he would. I wish that I had the power to make everyone believe again. More than anything, I wish that daddy had never been drafted. It’s been five years since he got the call, but it might as well have been yesterday. Mama thinks that the President should have to fight right alongside his soldiers. If he did, I bet there’d be a lot less wars, she’d say. I know that will never happen. Mama was so angry at the President and then at daddy and then everyone. Why John? Why are you doing this to me? She’d ask him over and over. I thought mama had really lost it. It’s not like daddy was jumping up and down saying, I can’t wait to invade Vietnam! He was just a guy with an unlucky number, the shortest straw, and a hell of a lot of courage.

           Mama was torn to pieces when he left. We all were, but I promised daddy that I would take care of the women. He had kneeled down and looked me square in the eye at the airport. He put one hand on my shoulder and I put my hand on his. You’re the man of the house now, Oliver. He’d said. I nodded and I promised to watch out for them, again. I hugged him as tight as I could because I knew he wouldn’t break and I knew he’d come back. Bug and Paige clung to daddy’s leg when he stood up and cried and cried. Sarah, come get the girls. Mama turned away. A few pale, wet lines had stripped the makeup from her face. Sarah, baby. Please? She let out a ragged sigh and grabbed their wrists and jerked them off his legs. Both girls were too shocked to do anything for a moment, then they started bawling even harder. I picked Bug up off the floor and held her her close. I stroked her back and rocked her for a few minutes. Paige was quick to follow Bug. She climbed into the blue, plastic chair next to mine and leaned her head on my shoulder. I told them that daddy would be back before we knew it, I glanced up to see if he was still with mama, but they were both gone. Mama returned an hour later and she seemed to have recovered. She smiled and motioned for me to get up slowly, so I wouldn’t wake the girls. She picked up Paige and I held Bug and we walked back to the car. A plane rocketed over our car and Mama just broke down. She was crying so hard that we had to pull off the interstate three times before she finally turned onto Elvis Ave. and our house came into view. It was a small tan house with six round windows and nine square ones. My favorite part was the big cobblestone chimney that dominated our dining room. In the winter, the smoke poured out in a long, vertical stream and I could see it all the way from my classroom at Falkner Elementary. Sometimes, daddy would pitch a makeshift tent with blankets and pillows and our mismatched dining chairs and we would roast marshmallows. We’d go to sleep to the sound of his voice and the flames licking and crackling against the wood, our hands and mouths covered in fluffy, sticky white marshmallow.

     A few weeks after daddy left, she started forgetting to make dinner and that we had school on the weekdays. She just stopped. I was almost eleven and I knew how to make fried spam and tomato sandwiches and our school was only a mile and a half from the house. I  packed our lunches and walked to the dollar store when we ran out of bread. After a while, Bug and Paige quit crying for her. Even at four and six, they could look at her sunken eyes and hollow cheeks and see that mama was gone. I tucked them in and read them The Berenstain Bears and made sure they had their homework done. Mama only ate what I brought her; I know because I had to watch her, force her to eat. I tried to keep her healthy, but her clothes hung low and loose off of her. She might as well have been dressed in bed sheets. She wasn’t a big woman in the first place and now, I could fit both my hands around her waist. For months and months the only thing she did was curl up in the bed, on daddy’s side, and just lay there, looking out the window. The only thing she could see was our big oak and a crumbling strip of sidewalk. I think she was watching for him, but he didn’t come home for a whole year and six months. When he came back, he was changed too.

          We got a letter that he had been shot in the knee and was being shipped back over to American soil for emergency surgery. I read it to mama real slow, once and then again when she didn’t move, but it didn’t do any good. She was frozen. I had expected soft tears or maybe even a panic attack, but her silence frightened and angered me. If she wouldn’t take us to see daddy, I would find my own way. I asked a neighbor woman, Mrs. Parks, if she could drive me and my sisters over to the hospital. She narrowed her eyes at me and asked, Oliver, I just don’t see why your Mama can’t get off her ass and take y’all over. She pursed her thin lips so that they melted into her face. But I guess I can, she continued. I need to stop by Right Aid anyways. Even though Mrs. Parks was a chain smoking racist with terrible asthma and an oxygen tank, she was, above all things a Christian, and I knew she wouldn’t refuse children in need. I didn’t hear half of what she said on the ten minute car ride over because I was so excited for daddy to be home. I did wish that she wouldn’t curse in front of Bug and Paige, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about that so I just looked out the window and said Yes, Ma’am and No, Ma’am when necessary. Mrs. Parks let us out at the emergency entrance and told us that she’d be back in half an hour. I took Paige and Bug by the hand and together, we ran down the hall, looking for the door which had a taped piece of loose leaf paper with Private Hendricks scribbled across it. I knew that he would give us all one of his bear hugs and he’d ruffle my hair and then step back and look us up and down. He’d tell me I had done just great. He would come home and make mama  move and she’d smile again and make our lunch. She wouldn’t have to try to fill up two sides of the bed anymore.

        We finally found it, room 253, and when I put my ear to the door and I could hear him snoring. It sounded like he was inhaling his pillow, dead to the world. But I knew that he was a light sleeper. Snores can be awfully deceiving. Mama doesn’t snore, but it was always daddy that heard Paige’s baby monitor or fixed me a warm glass of milk when I couldn’t sleep.  I held my finger to my lips, indicating to Bug and Paige that they needed to be quiet; this was not the place for yelling or running. I knocked softly before twisting the cold, steel handle. When I opened the door, the room was pitch dark, even though it was only four in the afternoon. Bug closed the door behind her and suddenly daddy stopped snoring. Dad? I whispered. He lurched out of the bed, like a bat out of hell and lunged at us, before dropping to the floor and screaming in pain. We all screamed and Bug and Paige burst into tears. I flicked on the light and Dad was passed out cold on the mint green linoleum, big red splotches began seeping through his freshly changed bandages. He had jerked his IV out of his outstretched left hand and it was now lying only two feet from me and my sisters. His head was wrapped in the same soft white gauze as his knee and his night gown what partly open, leaving his backside half exposed. Three nurses ran in and then there was a lot of running and calling people and then we were whisked out into the lobby and then Mrs. Parks was there. One of the nurses gave us lolly pops and coloring books, while she talked to Mrs. Parks. The mother is good for nothing, Mrs. Parks was saying through her flat lips. She had one hand balled up on her right hip and her brows furrowed together into a ‘U’. You can try calling, but pigs will fly in hell before that woman raises it to her ear. The nurse glanced over at me and smiled kindly, before beckoning Mrs. Parks toward the vending machines, out of ear shot. I decided right then and there that I hated Mrs. Parks. Mama was not useless. She would come if they called. This was what she had been waiting for, daddy was home! I told this to Nurse Amy and she nodded and smiled and she said she would call her for me. Mrs. Parks left her phone number and exchanged a look with the nurse before making her way towards the revolving doors, toward her Lincoln, toward the blue house right next to our tan one.

   I was right. I saw our little white car pull up in front of the same doors Mrs. Parks had just exited. Mama! Bug squealed when she saw her. Mama walked right over to me and slapped me so hard everything went dark for a few minutes. Sometimes when I think about that night, I can feel the sting of her bony fingers against my cheek. The way her wedding ring had slid to the middle of her finger from the force, the sudden swoosh of air, and landed hard on my temple. She was still wearing her nightgown and her grey tinted pink slippers; her hair hung limply to the left side of her head in a messy bun. She was all sweaty, even though it was only forty outside. And the look she gave me, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up, like soldiers called to attention. Her eyes were all grey; her pupil nothing but a pen point, a tiny bullseye in the center of a target.  She was livid. I was so confused, what had I done, besides try to help? Nurse Amy called security and two men in all white gave her a shot on her hip, right there in the lobby, and strapped her down on a vertical bed. They took her away and my sisters and I sat with Nurse Amy until Mrs. Parks came back. When we got home, I showed her the list of emergency numbers mama had taped to the fridge. Uncle Kris was number one, so Mrs. Parks called him and she told us that he would be here tomorrow, but until then, we had to stay with her. Her house smelled like bacon and cigarette smoke and a sourness that I never could quite put my finger on. My eye swelled shut and Mrs. Parks made me put a big hunk of rib-eye on it, but not before grumbling that it was a waste of good steak. She sure did walk the line between the wicked witch and fairy godmother. Women, I thought. I’ll never understand them. I didn’t care how much she tried, I still didn’t like her. She wouldn’t even let Bug have an oatmeal cookie from our own cabinet. We hadn’t eaten anything since lunch time at school, so I told Mrs. Parks that if she didn’t let us have a cookie, then I would tell everyone about how Big Jack (yes, the one and only) was visiting her every Thursday afternoon until way up in the night. Her beige Lincoln and his black truck, sitting side by side in the uneven driveway, unchaperoned. Mrs. Parks threw her head back and laughed, a deep throaty laugh, probably from all the cigarettes. I felt all the blood rushing to my cheeks for some reason. She said, you go ahead and run your mouth, honey. Remodeling a bathroom isn’t as exciting and mysterious as you think it is. I frowned and crossed my arms across my chest and marched up stairs, defeated and empty handed. I vowed to take my revenge. I would put my hamster, Joe, in her bed tonight. It wasn’t an hour later that the heavenly smell of butter and savory spices and mashed potatoes called us down to the kitchen. Mrs. Parks had bought us a meal from KFC. I stood there in the kitchen doorway for a few minutes, torn between grudge holding and delicious chicken. I still didn’t like her, but I decided to be the bigger man. I smiled at her, an apology. She rolled her eyes, but I saw her lips twitch at the corners before she turned towards the refrigerator. Mrs. Parks was a rubix cube.

      Kris stayed with us until daddy came home. I loved Uncle Kris best out of all of mama’s family, partly because he was the only one we knew. He was a state trooper up in Pittsburgh and he came down in his squad car. He wouldn’t take us for a ride with the sirens on, but he did let us talk on his radio and play with his badge. Kris may have been mama’s twin brother, but they were nothing alike. He had the same hair as me, thick and dark, like the Atlantic at midnight. We used to go up to his hunting cabin every summer, but we hadn’t been back since Bug was born. Kris’s wife, Ana was the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I couldn’t stand to look her in the eye for more than ten seconds. I counted, once. She didn’t come with him because she taught seventh grade English and couldn’t miss work the week before finals. Although, he did bring his baby, Tilly. Tilly and I were the same age, well, in human years. She was a basset hound; when she walked her joints creaked and groaned. Her face was solid white and her skin hung from her like a loose sweatshirt, baggy and frayed. Ana was pregnant and I know Uncle Kris was excited to finally have a real baby. Kris made our lunches and drove us to school in his squad car. When we went to the supermarket, everyone thought he was our dad. By the time our real daddy was ready to come home, I had begged Uncle Kris to stay half a hundred times with a dozen cherries on top. He had only been here for two weeks, but our lives had felt almost normal. I got to play with my friends after school and we got to eat something other than sandwiches and junk food. The last time we had seen our daddy, he had been lying in his own blood. He wasn’t the brave, strong dad that I remembered and I was so tired. Tired of being brave and slapping on a fake smile for the world so no one would know about anything. I was scared.

   I was fifteen before I saw Uncle Kris again. The screen door shook as daddy blindly shoved keys into the nonexistent lock. They jingled like sleigh bells as he fumbled with them; sweet and sharp and metallic. All he would’ve had to have done was pull, and the rusty door that encased the heavier wooden one would’ve creaked open, painlessly. He started pounding on it with his fist, yelling for mama to open the goddamn door! The fifty year old hinges squealed in protest as he pounded, the bottle in his other hand clanked against the cold steel. I heard mama’s soft footfalls as she dashed down the stairs, knowing the longer she kept him waiting, the angrier he’d be. Please don’t let him in. God, please don’t let her let him in. I wondered how my little sisters were still sleeping. Paige had her arm across Bug, their blonde curls fanning out around their faces. They were both far away in their peaceful dreams. Bug’s mouth was slightly parted, a little stream of drool ran down her chin, threatening to dampen her pillow. Their deep, consistent breathing made me want to crawl in next to them. I couldn’t tell if our whole room was shaking or if my body was playing tricks on me. Even my teeth rattled.

        John, why? Why are you … He didn’t give her the chance to finish. Mama didn’t scream when he hit her, but she was knocked to the floor and her body landed with a sickening thud on the hardwood. I could picture her. Eyes down cast, clutching the front of her robe with trembling, delicate fingers. She was still there, crouched next to the unlit tree, when the first rays of light began to filter through the blinds. Her white robe had a few specks of blood on the front and her left eye was swollen shut. I went to get her a cold washcloth for her eye. She didn’t look up when I tried to hand it to her, so I set it on the coffee table. She caught my hand as I made my way toward the stairs.

    Oliver, get your sisters ready. We promised we’d go to Kris’s for Christmas dinner this year.  Dad’s snores rocked the house. I nodded and a faint smile played on her lips and then disappeared, just as suddenly as if I had imagined it. She let her hand drop back into her lap and I began mechanically walking toward the stairs again. Bug was already up and brushing her teeth when I walked past the bathroom. Paige, on the other hand, had her face covered in two quilts and I wondered how she was able to breathe under there. I shook her gently. Paige, I said. She didn’t budge. I jerked down the covers to find an empty bed. I walked to the bathroom to ask Bug if she’d seen her, and then back downstairs to ask mama, but neither one of them had. We searched all over the house and then panic set in. I threw on some jeans and my coat and my boots and ran out the door. Mama had stayed inside with Bug. I called for her over and over. Paige! Where are you?! Nothing.

   We looked for hours, days, weeks. Uncle Kris had people all over the eastern seaboard searching for her, but it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t want to be found. I can picture exactly what happened because I had dreamed of doing it a thousand times. No one had heard the screen door creak open, as she crept out with her backpack stuffed with clothes and food. The December air hanging limply around her like a well-worn shawl. It had snowed the night before and the ferns on our front porch sagged under a new layer of ice. She had taken a deep breath and one step, then another, until she couldn’t see the stream of smoke oozing from our chimney. There was nothing left of her, but a ghost trail of size five sketchers denting the freshly fallen snow, and eventually, even they were gone.  I wish I had taken both of them and ran away to a place where no one could ever hurt them. But those places don’t exist anywhere on earth, I know that. If only daddy had never come back. He was never the same. Who would be after what he’d seen and done. He had to kill little boys like me. He told me that once, after he’d had several beers. He’d gotten a tattoo on his arm so he’d never forget what he did.  I asked him why he would want to be reminded of those horrible things and he said, so I can do it again if I have to. Sometimes, I wish he’d died somewhere in the dark green jungles of Vietnam, with only a picture of us in his right breast pocket and a prayer on his lips, maybe even our names. He would have died a good man, a brave man. The only permanent mark he’d have left on us was his last name and the sound of his voice as we fell asleep.

Sacrifice

The story “The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock” was a story that really focused on loss and on finding happiness when things become different from what one originally expects.  One aspect of this story that I really liked was the focus on physical descriptions, specifically bodies.  The narrator’s husband is a wrestler, and she spends a significant portion of the story talking about his body.  She also spends part of the story focusing on her body and how it is no longer what it used to be.  Her realization that she is getting old scares her.  Even though she doesn’t specifically say that, you can tell that the idea of aging scares her. Part of the reason why has to do with the fact that she hasn’t achieved what she thought she would have achieved in the stage of life that she is in.

Another important focus of this story is the idea of sacrifice.  In order to save Vito, they would have to sacrifice two thousand dollars for surgery.  They don’t end up making this decision, even though the narrator seriously considers it for a long time.  This shows the importance of pets to families.  Last winter, my cat got really sick. In order to figure out what was wrong with him, my mom had to take him to the vet multiple times. The bill, after all of the vet visits ended up being about seven hundred dollars. My mother called me before I came home for Christmas to tell me that I wouldn’t be getting any gifts this winter. I told her, “Tonks is enough of a Christmas gift for me, it wouldn’t be the same without him.” I never regretted that decision, and I spent Christmas with my mother and my cat, completely content.  That ended up being the last Christmas he spent with us, and I am so incredibly grateful for it.  This story reminded me of that incident.

In the end of the story, Vito sacrifices himself for the family by running outside to protect them from a bear.  The narrator explains that what stopped her was the fact that she had to prioritize her husband and her daughter above the dog. She was willing to sacrifice the dog for her family.

Another focus of the story was the parent/child relationship.  I loved her descriptions about motherhood because they were perfect.  Children are never perfect, but a mother goes through moments of being annoyed and exhausted and then moments of intense love.  This internal struggle was shown in the story, and I think that it really represented what motherhood is about.

Family

McCracken’s story “Secretary of State” focuses on relationships between family members.  I’m currently in a family systems theory class, and my brain seems to still be in that mindset, so throughout the reading I was categorizing the family dynamic.  The Barron’s are part of a closed family structure and they are very enmeshed.

Closed family structures tend to have rigid boundaries and set beliefs. It is almost impossible for an outsider to become part of their family system.  This is true for the Barron’s, for even their significant others are not a part of this family. As pointed out in this story, this can be a cause of dysfunction.  Enmeshed families are extremely involved in each other’s lives. They tend to have open communication and they focus more on the family instead of the individual.  One thing that I like about this story is the fact that it is psychologically accurate with the expected reactions of the family members, and the fact that this is not a normal family system.  The narrator spends the majority of the story focusing on the Barron’s family dynamic and her father, and the story doesn’t really become about her until the very end.  When she claims to be her father’s daughter, it shows how she was able to choose the relationship that she had with that family, and who she decided to get close to.

The father was another character that I also liked to watch. He didn’t have many lines, but I felt like I got a good sense of who he was. McCracken used many descriptions of daily routines in order to have the reader understand the characters.  I liked this method because it is how we naturally become close to people.

I liked that this story was in two parts because it really showed us two different scenes that were relatable. It reminded me of Stephanie Vaughn’s stories in sweet talk that are based off of the same family members.  The second part was much more intense, with a heavier conflict.  The thing that I liked about the second part was seen in the first part as well, and that was the ability to understand both  sides: the Barron’s and the Savitz’s.

The mother seemed to be more of the focus in the second half of the story, and the sacrifice that she makes for her close family was not an easy one.  I felt a sense of joy when she called her family members jerks, but once everyone started dying, I started feeling bad for her.  This conflict showed the internal struggle that many people have to face: choosing between two things that you love. McCracken really displays how there is never a choice that makes you fully happy. A person may be able to live with their choice, but they will regret parts of it.

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