Thursday, June 4, 2009
(note, this is a real place in PA.)
These are the things I couldn’t tell you when we were dating. You would beg to know, and then demand. Where did I go for an entire year? You saw me working at the bakery on Elver every morning for months, and then I was gone. And when I came back, somehow you knew right away. You showed up at the bakery and waited around for a while, we went to that park with the intricate fountains the night after I re-appeared. You didn’t ask me where I had been right away, it was simply too early to tell whether or not I had been in prison or someone very important had died. By the fourth night it was obvious that I was fine, just exhausted. I wouldn’t tell you where I had gone because you didn’t need to know. But now that you live an important and fulfilling life and do not hang around the bakery anymore, I don’t care. You can tell your new girlfriend that you once dated a deeply troubled and nomadic woman, if that is what you would like to say. You could walk her by the bakery and say something like “One day she was just gone. My dark marauder.” And since she is obviously a simple woman, she will be amazed and probably intensely jealous. Or you could read this, and then burn it, it’s not really any of your business in the first place.
I will give you the facts about Centralia. It is in Pennsylvania, which is quite a ways away from where we live. Don’t be insulted by my telling you that, I have no idea what you know. You could only be aware of the geography of your own block. And that would be fine. The world is the size of a fingernail if you want it to be, there is nothing wrong with an honest life and a simple woman, Adam. Four people live in Centralia. and I only ever met three of them. When the stakes are that low, you expect to be in on everything but your not. The thing about the place is that it has been on fire since 1940. The whole space under the town is one very large coal mine, this was the soul reason any one ever lived there in the first place. Coal mining men with sooty clothing and bloody coughs, and their patient, understanding wives who were probably not much different than your new girlfriend. There were children, of course, who could grow up to be two things depending on their reproductive organs, a bloody cougher or a patient woman. Either way they would stay in Centralia. You could probably up and leave the place all together , but I guess you could never really come back. One man started a fire in the mines one day, I like to think it was on purpose, and it is as simple as this: the fire never went out. There is enough fuel for this particular fire to burn for four hundred and fifty years. Everyone left, obviously, because the ground is liable to collapse at any time and there is no coal to mine. Everyone except for these four people, obviously. Part of the reason I chose to stay in Centralia is because there was a risk of being forever swallowed by the fire at any moment, there are even signs posted all over saying “PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.” The other reason is that it was where I ran out of gas for the first time, and there was no station around. I hadn’t eaten yet, either, and I figured that if at least one person lived here there would be some food. You are probably wondering if I stopped along the way and the answer is no, absolutely not. One day has twenty-four whole hours in it. Again, do not be insulted, my days consisted of varying lengths before Centralia. For all I know, yours are only the length of a school-day, six hours. But if your day has twenty four hours in it, you have to assume that about twelve of them will be spent alone. Most people are sleeping or fucking or in their basement drinking or thinking about killing themselves, but I was just driving. When you do something alone it gets done much faster, you must know that by now. Anyway there was just one house on the main street, and the three people I knew lived in it. The fourth person was bitter and old and named Jiffy. He may have been dead, no one had gone down to the other end of town to check on him for a month. Jiffy wouldn’t have wanted them to. The people whom I know are alive were called Joseph, Gladys and Judas. Judas and Joseph were old, but not bitter, and Gladys was young so she took care of them. By young I mean forty, that is called young nowadays because people are living to be at least one hundred, so that’s less than half your time here. If it were up to me I’d bring the life expectancy back down the thirty, more incentive that way. I didn’t really know what to do when I got there. I mean, I didn’t park anywhere because I had no gas. And even if I did, what’s the point of looking for parking in a town of four people. I just knocked on the door of the only house I could see and I thought God, this is it. I didn’t have to think any further than that because a woman opened the door. Obviously, it was Gladys. You’d think she would have looked shocked to see me, but she was obviously a steady woman and only said
Like she thought I was here trying to sell some magazines. And I didn’t know what to say except for Hi, which sounded flat and meaningless.
“I’m out of gas.”
“I got a can in the back. Aint a station for miles.”
“Actually, I’m not looking for gas.”
“I mean, its true that I don’t have any gas but I’m not trying to get any more.”
Gladys looked at me for a good minute and wiped her large calloused hands down the front of her apron which must have been white once, maybe twenty years ago. She had sturdy ankles which were just as wide as her calve at their largest point, she wore muck boots unapologetically and thick grey socks. I thought of when you used to take me out, I wore matching underwear and frivolous bras, just in case. I was more jealous of Gladys than I had ever been jealous of anyone in my life. Gladys made her own soap out of lavender and lye. She patched her own gutters and didn’t run away from things.
“Are you okay?”
“I didn’t plan on coming here. But I can’t really go back home. I’m sorry to bother you. Actually I can just leave, I’ll even walk, which way is the gas station?”
Gladys tucked a piece of hair behind her small, pale ear.
“You can come inside if you want.”
Sunday, April 5, 2009
He nods again, and I know he can’t possibly understand what it is like to own something that takes you over completely. Perhaps he unexpectedly became the legal guardian of a young child, or was very sick at one point. But that isn’t really the same because those things would have been out of his hands, whereas I am able to walk back into my old life but the thought paralyzes me. He is peeling a green apple with a pocket knife, the pocket knife has mother of pearl inlay and the initials J.R inscribed onto the handle. I imagine it was given to him years ago by his father, on his birthday.
“What’s your job like?”
“It’s very consuming.”
“How long have you been at it?”
“A couple months. I sort of fell into it.”
He reaches over the wrought iron divider and hands me half of the apple and I am overwhelmed by the gesture. I am a grain of sand on a very large desolate beach and the man is a marine biologist who comes along and says ‘you are beautiful, you are deserving, you are one grain of sand and you matter.’ The apple tastes sharp.
“Do you sleep at night?”
“Do you sleep?”
He has stabbed the bottom of his apple with his pearl knife and is eating off of the blade. No. The honest answer is no. I take scalding hot baths in the dark, I re-arrange all of my furniture and flick the lights on and off to watch my pupils dilate. But I do not really sleep.
“I don’t sleep either. I’m an infomercial operator.”
“You know at the end of infomercials when they say, “Call now! Operators are standing by?”
“That’s me. I’m the operator. I’m standing by.”
It is 2:16 AM and someone is rapping at the door. I am sitting on the floor of my kitchen with a mirror propped up on the refrigerator, cutting my hair. I have thrown the cake in the trash. I am considering becoming someone else entirely, it is easier than it seems to slip in and out of lives. I take the scissors with me to the front door, if it is a burglar or a Jehovah’s witness, I would like to be perceived as aggressive. Not like someone who chops their hair off in the middle of the night. I hide the yellow plastic handle under my palm, exposing only the harsh blade so that whoever is on the other side of the door does not think I am in the middle of a craft project. I knew a woman who’s life revolved around her home-craft-business. She made calendars out of delicate printed paper and pastel ribbons, then affixed tiny palm fronds in the shape of crosses onto the backs of each calendar. I was friends with her devastatingly innocent daughter until the woman called me a hussy and demanded I leave her house. Perhaps it is her on the other side, perhaps she is selling them door-to-door.
I un-latch the chain,
“You cut your hair.”
“I couldn’t get May’s smell out of it.”
“Would you like to see the infomercial ware-house.”
It isn’t so much a warehouse as it is a very large, dark room. Cavernous and damp, there are towering stacks of cardboard boxes labeled with things like,
“MR.CLEAN PRESSURE WASHER”
Operator sits on an olive-green pleather chair with deep cracks in the cushion, leaning over a desk which has three phones and a computer. There are two laminated sheets taped to the face of his desk, one lists the appropriate phone dialogue protocol:
HELLO AND THANK YOU FOR CALLING E-Z SHOP, HOW MAY I HELP YOU
WE ONLY HAVE A LIMITED QUANTITY OF (PRODUCT) LEFT, ORDER NOW!!
I OWN A (PRODUCT) MYSELF, DON’T KNOW HOW I LIVED WITHOUT IT!
ORDER ONE FOR MOM!
and the products currently available for shipment:
BIBLE ON DVD
“Most infomercials are played between the hours of two to six in the morning because most people are asleep then.”
Operator swivels in his chair to face me.
“Isn’t that counter-productive?”
“No. Because normal people who are up and about during the day don’t have the patience to watch the whole thing, which is on average five to fifteen minutes long, or they have the sense to move on, do something, know that they don’t really need a clock in the shape of a cat that meows on the hour. But people like us who are awake from two to six are in deep enough of a daze to watch the whole thing. We have poor judgment. And some of us order. This industry is dependent on insomniacs.”
“How many people call? Do you ever sell out?”
He points to a flat of boxes labeled WEIGHT LOSS BELT.
“These have been here for three years.”
The light is flickering on and off.
A fly is crawling on the wall.
Operator is staring at me.
“I hear you in the middle of the night sometimes.”
I stare at the fly crawling, I never kill houseflies because I know that their life-spans are only twenty days. This could be the last day. It should die on someone’s sandwich bread. Not under an EZ-SHOP Catalogue with a picture of Tammy Faye Baker on the cover.
“You take baths with the lights off.”
“How can you tell?”
“The lights in our building make a buzzing noise. When you turn the water off the buzzing stops.”
I sit down on a plastic crate.
“You listen to Vivaldi on vinyl records. There’s a scratch a couple minutes into your ii adagio. You have the volume up all the way, but no one ever tells you to turn it down.”
The fly lands on his knee and he doesn’t notice.
“Don’t be bothered by this. It’s not that I’m listening for it, I just don’t sleep either.”
“Why did you ask me to come here.”
I grip the edges of the crate like they are the last thing I will ever touch. Someone is listening for me, someone is sitting in their apartment noticing that I take baths in the dark because I am terrified of finding a patch of cancer or a tumor. I leave records on as loud as possible because then I may not hear the phone ring, then I will not have to answer it.
“You can’t understand what it is to really be an island until you live in Nevada. The desert pulls you out like a rip tide and before you know it, it has been three months since you’ve had a conversation with anybody.”
There is a roaring, swollen silence.
“Can I just feel your pulse?”
I look at Operator. His eyes are two different colors. Brown and blue. Heterochromia iridium. I’ve read about things like this. Ancient civilizations believed these people had an evil, unborn twin living in their body. I understand why someone would want to feel another person’s pulse. I own a stethoscope, I stole it from the emergency room when I had alcohol poisoning. I listen to my pulse sometimes with it in the bath, in the dark.
We are lying on a flat of Lucite crosses that are filled with holy water, which is really just tap water from a warehouse very similar to this one. All warehouses are similar, all water is holy if you need it to be. We are lying in the dark with our fingertips on each others jugulars. The phones are off the hooks. Our clothes are on the floor. It seems perfectly natural to be lying naked in a warehouse listening to a strangers pulse. It seems necessary, medicinal even. I think of how we might look from far away, and I can see it because I am far. I am asleep in a nebula in the depths of outer space. I am not really here. Most things do seem wonderful from great heights, the world is best viewed from a ferris wheel or the top of a very tall building.
My beeper goes off.
The inside of an aluminum mobile home is like a womb. It is small and warm and curved on all sides, it is usually dark and if it is particularly windy it will even rock a little bit. The call is out in the desert between an abandoned church fashioned out of crumbling mud-brick and faded mosaic tiles, and a brothel called SHERRI’S RANCH. The dispatcher says, ‘Look for a plaster statue of a lion, the trailer is about 80 yards to the left’. There was the lion, it’s left ear bashed off leaving a gaping hole in its plaster skull, there was the dim buzzing pink lights of SHERRI’S RANCH, and there was the trailer. I approach trailers gingerly, perhaps because I grew up in one, so I understand the wariness of their residents. People often walk into trailers without knocking, they don’t see them as homes. Just pods. Also, this person is in the midst of a crisis.
Wait two seconds.
“Hello? This is Lydia Lynch from EMS Crisis Services. Is everything alright?”
There is a flurry of footsteps, breathlessness.
The door creaks open just an inch.
“Hi. May I come inside?”
I am sitting, facing Temple Teagarden, on a thread bare turquoise velour loveseat. She is perched on a piano bench, biting her nails which are uneven lengths and painted in coral. Her hair is bleached and teased into a brittle cloud and she is not overweight but close to it. Temple wears geranium lipstick that bleeds into the crevices around her mouth and false eyelashes which are crooked. I find myself wondering if this is due to the crisis or if she just doesn’t care.
“Can you tell me what caused you to call tonight?”
She smoothes the creases out of her white cotton shift and stares intently at her knees.
“I gave my daughter up for adoption twenty years ago.”
I nod expertly. I notice Temple has an EZ-SHOP plastic crucifix tacked on the wall and feel like it is a message from Operator, ‘anything can be holy if you need it to be’ I bet there is a bible on cassette somewhere in this trailer, I bet Tammy Faye Baker did the voice over.
“I was sixteen, I couldn’t keep her.”
“She was so fragile. She was the smallest thing I’d ever had, but I still didn’t have any room for her. Does that make sense?”
All I can think about is the cake in the trash, Darren and Maeve under a quilt somewhere being twin-souls, the apple half. How do you become a twin soul? Are we born as jagged halves with the one other fitting piece orbiting around the other end of the earth, or is it something you might convince yourself of being with the aid of self-help books and motivational thinking? Perhaps we can re-shape ourselves to fit into any other piece, perhaps it has nothing to do with the cosmos.
“I have always regretted it. I named her Tanya but I don’t know if they recorded that at the hospital. They never let me hold her, I think the nurses assumed I would give her up. I mean, they were right but they could have asked.”
“Of course they should have asked.”
“The worst part was never getting to hold her, and I know that if I saw her again she wouldn’t know who I was, she wouldn’t feel anything about me. But she did hear my voice, because when they took her away I said ‘Tanya’, you know they say if a baby hears it’s mother’s voice just once it will recognize it forever? Do you think that’s true? Do you think she would recognize my voice?”
Temple dissolves into tears, her shoulders heave and wobble with every quake of her body. She has the eyes of a pig, blue and round and watery. Her breasts are visible through the cotton shift, they are burgeoning against the strain of the fabric and seem too heavy to hold up for a lifetime. They are large in a way that suggests dismal maternity instead of sexuality. There is nothing sexual about them, they were meant for Tanya.
“I am sure she remembers your voice, its obvious that you love her.”
“She came here today.”
“Tanya did? To your home?”
“This afternoon. Once they turn eighteen they’re allowed access to their biological parent’s address. I didn’t think she would ever come, I mean I didn’t even sign anything. I thought about her every day but I didn’t think she would come.”
“So what happened? Did she come inside, did you talk?”
Pig eye tears again and heaving cow breasts, nicotine yellow nails rake over the wailing moon face. Her waxy, geranium lips are stretched over her teeth. Grinding. I feel sick, this is my job. To always be available, to suppress overwhelming nausea.
“Would you like a tissue?”
What a question. Tissues, Kleenex brand facial tissues. Lavender scented.
“No, I’m fine, I’m fine.”
Temple digs dirt out from under her nails.
“I didn’t say anything. I pretended to be someone else.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean she came to the door and said, Temple? Mom? And I didn’t know what to do, I panicked and I said No, sorry. Wrong trailer. And she looked at me for a real long time.”
I think of the time I lay on the floor of my mother’s kitchen when I was seven years old, pretending to be dead. A heap on the grimy linoleum for at least three hours, I stayed perfectly still and chiseled my breathing down to a shallow hush. I let ants crawl over my arm, I let the dog lick me, I held back a sneeze. My mother came through the front door with a vase of yellow roses which she dropped, the cloudy water pooled in the cracks of the floor and rolled toward me. The flowers were crushed, the dog stepped on the glass and there was blood. She shook me, she laid me on the couch and called 911. When her back was turned I ran out the door and hid in a watershed down the street until sunset.
“She looks just like her father.”
“Where is he?”
“Hell if I know, took off with a casino girl named Candace. But he had huge green eyes and red hair, and so does Tanya.”
“Did she leave then?”
“No she said, ‘You really aren’t Temple? This is the address the agency gave to me, I’m actually trying to find my birth mother.’ I couldn’t really talk, I just shook my head and shut the door a little more. She left a letter.”
“Have you read it.”
“I could never. I can’t read that letter. I don’t know what to do with it, it’s in the oven.”
“No, it’s just sitting in there on a cookie sheet.”
“Why is it in the oven?”
“Because I can’t see it if its in there.”
“Why did you feel you couldn’t let her know who you were?”
Temple heaves a sigh, lights a Virginia Slim and combs her sausage fingers through her yellow scrub of hair.
“I was a different person then. Sinful. After I gave my baby away I found Christ.”
She motions to a crude oil painting of Jesus tacked up on the wall, his heart throbbing with veins radiating from the center of his chest.
“I did that in rehab.”
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?”
“I was raised by an atheist and a Jew.’
She clicks her tongue, blows smoke from the corner of her mouth.
“Well, when you’re ready, he’ll be waiting. He’ll always be waiting for you.”
“If you’re a different woman now though, why couldn’t you let Tanya back into your life?”
Temple ashes into an empty can of Pabst,
“You know, I’m just too busy.”
You would never guess she had been sobbing a moment earlier.
“My country singing career.”
“It’s really taking off.”
“Well are you happy?”
“I’ve got Christ.”
She stands up and reaches into a paper grocery bag,
“I’ve got my demo, here. Would you like a copy?”
She presses the disc into my hand, there is a paper sticker on it with a close-up of her face and an illuminated cross. The title reads, “DESERT ROSE”
“That’s my stage name.”
There are four tracks, FAITH FROM ABOVE – HE WHO KNOWS – BLUE RIBBON FRIED CHICKEN- MAMA KNOWS
“For the album.”
My God. Of course. Perhaps I will listen to it in the car, perhaps I will give it to Operator and he can listen to it when I’m not taking a bath. Perhaps I will listen to it when I’m not. Or we may even listen to it together next time on the fire escape. If there is a next time, which I suspect there will be. Once someone has listened to your pulse it is very likely you will see them again. Probably in a similar situation. I pull a crumpled bill from my pocket and hand it to Temple,
“So are you alright?”
She stares blankly, detached like the helium balloon.
“Why, I’m just fine.”
“Do you think you’ll read the letter?”
Pig eye stare.
“Okay. Here is my card, I’m available most nights.”
“Christ is available twenty four-seven.”
Operator sits on my bed, which is a mattress in the corner of my hallway. There is a bedroom, but it is stifling and there are windows in it. Which are undesirable for two reasons. I sleep-walk, and am liable to open one and fall out. Also, I am terrified of being watched. The envelope is on the mattress, DESERT ROSE is playing from a stereo in the bathroom. I am sitting on the floor, cutting off more of my hair.
“How did you get the letter?”
“I took it on the way out.”
“Didn’t she see you?”
“Yes, but she didn’t stop me.”
“Should we read it?”
“No, but someone should. You could slip it into a box about to be shipped at the warehouse.”
“What the fuck is this music playing?”
Operator squints, his glasses are crooked. Probably because his ears are uneven.
“Did you take this, too?”
“I purchased it. Unwillingly.”
“There’s a lot of freaks in the desert.”
I stare at him.
“Yes, there are.”
“Are you saying that because I told you about listening to the bath from my apartment?”
“Not consciously, but probably. I am an intensely private person.”
“We should write each other letters.”
“Things that we didn’t say at the warehouse.”
“Will we ever read them to each other?”
“Maybe. It depends on how real you want this to get.”
The CD skips, Temple’s voice warbles again and again ‘I put my faith in you-I put my faith in you-I put my faith in you’ I pull the cord from the socket with my toes and it is too quiet. I hum to cover up the silence, I play the neurotic’s wild card and pretend I never noticed it in the first place.
My beeper wakes me up at four AM, the window in the kitchen is open from when Operator climbed out of it to get back into his house from the connecting fire escapes. What kind of people go to such lengths to avoid going through the front door? The same kind of people who sleep in their hallways and slip in and out of other people’s lives like a fugitive or a protected witness. The dispatcher sounds tired and hopeless on the other end of the radio waves, he says
“Good news is that the call is in your building, can you believe that?”
Of course I can believe that.
“Bad news is the woman is suicidal. Apartment 16a”
“That’s right next door to me.”
The door is open, all of the lights are on. I know this is where Operator lives and I already know that after tonight I will have to find someone else’s life to fit into. I could create my own, but as you might imagine I don’t have any references.
I proceed with caution.
“This is Lydia Lynch from EMS Crisis Mediation Services. I’m here to help.”
The bathroom door is open, and there is a woman. A frail woman with a puff of wiry black hair combed into a hive on the top of her small, fragile head. She wears large circular glasses rimmed with red plastic and is sitting in the bathtub, curled into herself.
“I know who you are.” She says this flatly, and my breath gets caught in my throat and begins to curdle.
“You’re the woman from next door.”
“I do live next door.”
“You know my husband.”
I know from prior experience that this is the point where I can either deny everything or apologize profusely and slowly segue the conversation into something about growing together as women, and how we can sabotage “the man”.
“I didn’t know he was your husband.”
She shakes her head.
“I actually don’t even know his name.”
Her eyes widen, “You fucked someone who’s name you don’t know?”
“Well, no. I mean I had a name that I called him. So it wasn’t like I didn’t have something to refer to him as,”
“What did you call him?”
“But he is an operator…I think you should get out of the tub.”
“I’m waiting for him to come home.”
“Okay we can wait on the couch.”
“I don’t want to move. Did you know he was married?”
“Of course not. He didn’t seem like the type.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well his work shift is from two to six in the morning and he is obviously unstable. You must know that. Has he always been that way?”
“Did he take you to the warehouse?”
“Do you think I should leave him?”
“Probably. I think I’m moving out of this place pretty soon, so if we both cut out at the same time it will be even worse for him.”
“Are you leaving because of him?”
“And other things.”
There is a very dense silence, I turn the sink on and wash my hands to cover it up. I use the woman’s soap. Vanilla scented. Our worlds are composed of miniscule things. What if all soap were un-scented, what if there were no color choices and we had numbers instead of names? I would not even have a job because everyone would have killed themselves already.
“I have an idea.” She says mostly to herself, but I am entitled to it as well because I appreciate her choice in hand soap.
“What is it?”
“Packing up all my stuff then setting this place on fire. I’d like to move to Oregon.”
I have had a hand in the upheaval of this woman’s life, so I must comply. I also like the idea of doing something that would force me to move on from this place.
“Then let’s do it.”
I run to my apartment and throw the Vivaldi records, the stethoscope and the yellow scissors into a bag. I don’t need a lot of things. I would do very well as a Franciscan monk, except I am a woman and prone to bouts of moral bankruptcy. Red Glasses is already dousing the place with lighter fluid.
“I hope this doesn’t hurt any one else in the building.”
“The sprinklers will go off before it does.”
She nods and empties the last of the container onto the bed. She removes her glasses and tosses them onto a pillow.
“These have glass lenses, anyway. My vision is fine.”
“Why did you wear them?”
“He liked them.”
With that she lights a match and the bed erupts into flames. I hook the stethoscope around the door knob before leaving. I just don’t have room for it.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Mamihlapinatapai is a word from the Yaghan language of the Tierra del Fuego , and is considered one of the hardest words to translate
It describes "a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start."
For a while, I was a crisis mediator. A crisis mediator is someone who usually gets to a scene before the EMT’s do and stays after they leave, trying to calm everybody down with mantras like “Let go and let god” or “Know things for what they are.” People will also call a mediator if they are feeling suicidal, or if someone has just died.
I didn’t do it because I was particularly interested in the work, or even very qualified, but because I needed someone to need me. I also liked the idea of having a beeper that could go off any minute and would allow me to drive erratically or walk out of dinner without paying. I was living in the apartment of my friend Maeve who had gone to Utah for something called Leap Further! A Life Purpose Retreat! and needed me to take care of her three cats, but Maeve ended up moving in with her life coach and never came back to Jersey so I just let the cats out the door one day and kind of resumed her life where it left off. I had made some money before taking Maeve’s place so I didn’t really have to get another job besides EMS Crisis Mediator for a while.
1. I found myself at a carnival and at this carnival was a bell jar full of jelly beans and a sign that said “GUESS HOW MANY JELLY BEANS AND WIN!”, I guessed 405 and was exactly right. A bucktoothed man in overalls gave me a check for four hundred and five dollars. I left the carnival feeling like my whole life had been leading up to this moment.
2. I posed for a “mermaid themed” calendar of questionable decency. They glued bits of net and shells into my enormous wig and dressed me in an awful green sequined fish tail skirt. I was paid in cash and was told that the calendar would be distributed only in Thailand and Malaysia, I felt okay with it all because if anyone I knew ever came across it on the internet, I could say the whole thing was a fundraiser for Sirenomelia, don’t get so uptight.
3. Then I had a brief stint as a professional griever. This is exactly what it sounds like. I was paid to attend funerals and cry, sometimes I would get extra to make a speech. I was given details about the deceased and concocted some really good stories about volcano science projects we did in fourth grade or that time we got stuck at the top of the ferris wheel with those boys from Sigma Delta! I was very convincing. I had a whole slew of bodily reactions I’d punctuate the stories with, there was the silent heave which was a real tear-jerker, then the fist-pound which was usually accompanied by a WHY! or GOD! and then the choke-up which was my quick exit strategy if a story was going no where.
I am sitting on the window sill in the kitchen clipping my toenails and having a cigarette when Maeve finally calls. I haven’t spoken to her since she left three months ago but I know her well enough to know she’s never coming back.
“Hi! It’s Maeve!!!”
“I know. You have caller ID.”
“Oh. Then why did you say Hello instead of Hey!”
“I don’t know. It’s just one of those things you do. How is Utah.”
“I moved in with my life coach. His name is Darren.”
“Is he helping you leap further.”
“He is a very centered man. I would even say he is enlightened.”
“I’ve been living in your apartment, by the way. I probably won’t leave. My old lease expired anyway, so if you ever come back from Utah I won’t have anywhere to live.”
“I won’t come back, Darren and I are twin souls.”
“Good. Do you miss Nevada.”
“No. My eczema went away as soon as I left the desert.”
“That is because you saw the dermatologist before the retreat.”
“How are the cats?”
“Fine. Oh shit, my beeper is going off I have to go.”
“I’m doing your job now.”
I hang up and head out. I just don’t have enough room in my life to hear about twin-souls.
The call is at 45 Mercy Street in the left side of a double-family house, half of the house is painted yellow and the other blue, so there’s an awful rash of green where the two sides meet and I suspect it will always be this way. Some meager cacti are planted in clusters around the barren land in front of the porch. There are balloons tied to the yellow side’s mailbox and a sign that says “MAY’S PARTY IS HERE! HAPPY BIRTHDAY MAY!” Someone has gotten injured at a birthday party. It could even be May. I am suddenly wildly anxious over the prospect of walking into May’s birthday and possibly having to step over a pile of presents or having to sing. Someone may even offer me a slice of cake and I will be too overwhelmed to speak. I walk into a room, the birthday room, the crisis room. The walls are covered with pictures of smiling people sitting on beach towels and eating ice cream cones. There is a pile of presents, oh my god the cake the cake is frosted with pink icing and white flowers. What if we all spent our days lounging on beach towels eating beautiful cakes. Every day is someone’s birthday. I am in love with everyone in the room already. They are caving into themselves, they are crying into the frosting,
“Hi everyone. My name is Lydia. I am your crisis mediator.”
Be willing to sit in silence.
Accept and acknowledge all feelings.
These are the rules.
“Is everyone alright? This is a stupid question and I know it.
The woman in the orange tent dress sitting on a rocking chair, face mottled with tears knows it.
The twin boys crouched by the fire place know it.
I take a seat as far away from the cake as possible.
“What can I do to help?”
“Who sent you here.” The woman who has obviously been crying the most asks me.
“I was paged by Emergency Medical Services, someone thought you could use an ear to listen during this time of shock.”
An ear to listen. This is a phrase I thought I would use before I took this job. I was also ready to say, ‘I can’t imagine what your going through.’ and ‘Go ahead and cry’
“We don’t need your help right now.”
I nod like a person with infinite caverns of unconditional love for every living thing, like a person who is born a mother, a person whom people feel comfortable asking for directions. Hitchhikers would get in the car with me if I nodded like this.
“I understand. Are you sure there is nothing at all I can do to make anything easier for you?”
They say nothing, they nod but it is the nod of someone who is very far away. You would not get in the car.
“Okay, here is my number. Again my name is Lydia Lynch and I can be paged anytime day or night, for anything at all. Please don’t hesitate to pick up the phone if you feel you need someone.”
I turn and open my eyes a little wider, make sure my body language communicates openness and acceptance. The woman in orange glances towards the cake then skittishly back to me. It simply too large of a thing to stay in the room, in the house. Anywhere, really. The twin boys look into their palms like soothsayers, like they are reading tea-leaves and the leaves are swirling into the shape of me walking out the door with this impossibly large thing, it is the shape of me taking away the things that would otherwise stay there forever.
“You could take this cake, here. We’re not going to be eating it. We don’t really have room. It just reminds us.”
The cake sits on my fire escape. I sit on the fire escape. I smoke cigarettes and watch the cake like it may become something else. Jesus Christ, the candles are still stuck in it. Number candles, white and blocky 1 6
May was sixteen today.
I was sixteen, one time. I had one summer, one Christmas, a boyfriend who fixed cars.
Someone took a lick of icing off the back of the cake.
Sweet Sixteen wasn’t dead yet, it must have tasted better. What if they still had the taste in their mouth when it happened. What if the taste is on their tongue forever.
I can’t possibly bring this thing inside my apartment, it is too large. It is larger than anything I have ever owned, it would not even fit in the fridge. It would create a vortex, a ravenous black hole. I would be sucked in and never get the taste out of my mouth.
It is warm enough to sit out on the fire escape in a night gown and this is all I want.
The person above me is playing flamenco music, cooking something. Below they are speaking Russian, watering a tomato plant. Next door there is a man sitting out on a plastic lawn chair. He looks at me and then the cake and says,
and it is the most intimate gesture in months.
“It was someone’s birthday.”
He nods, like a person who is obviously detached. A helium balloon drifts in and out of my peripheral vision, stuck in the electrical wiring.
“Someone who’s dead now. Or very close to being dead.”
“How’d you end up with the birthday cake?”
“I’m a crisis mediator. And I went to these people’s house and they couldn’t keep it, it reminded them.”
“Why’s it out on the fire escape. It’ll melt out here, gona reach 110 today.”
“I don’t really have room for something like this.”
Monday, February 23, 2009
A taxidermied zebra was the first thing you saw upon entering the Bellflower’s mansion. It was situated in a corner of the always dim, cold foyer between a potted palm and a portrait of the family. Before he died, Father Bellflower wouldn’t let anyone walk past the thing without relaying the tale of it’s capture and kill,
He would stammer, his voice rattling with age
“Damn hot place. Went there on safari, nearly died of heat exhaustion. Shot the bastard from my jeep, in those days no one at the airport gave you shit for having a dead animal.”
The zebra was not the most unusual thing about 77 Gregory Avenue, nor was the ancient swimming pool caked with green sludge being used as a pet cemetery, or the bedroom on the third floor which contained thousands of toothbrushes, so a new one could be used every time. The residents of the house were what made you look twice. The Bellflower family. They weren’t always this way, their toenails weren’t always curling over the lips of their sandals, their eyes weren’t always glazed over and blood shot. It’s hard to say when they all went over the cliff, these things usually happen when we aren’t paying attention. They bred dogs, Greyhounds specifically, and this is how I came to know them. When you buy an animal from a good breeder, they usually want to keep in touch. When you buy one from the Bellflower’s, they want you to move in. They insist upon it. I was thirteen and there was nobody to tell me not to.
I consider this as I pretend to examine a stack of filmy x-rays Susan Bellflower, the middle daughter, has dropped into my lap. At just forty years old she has accumulated a mysterious assortment of ailments, including selective sight and hearing, debilitating joint pain and multiple personalities.
“This is where the growths are,” Susan nods slowly, with a sage wisdom that I almost believe.
“They aren’t showing up in the x-ray, but their right here.”
She jabs her bony index finger into the pale flesh of her neck.
“What growths, like a tumor?” I ask, distracted by her eye twitching.
“No, like a twin.”
“You don’t have a twin.”
“Exactly. But I was meant to, she just didn’t get to finish growing. But I can feel her hands under my skin, you know? I keep telling the white coats.”
I look back at the x-rays, Susan’s bones are ghostly and brittle looking, but there are no extra limbs or rogue fetuses. I could never tell her this.
“Well, sometimes it takes a while to find the right doctor.”
She wrings her hands together, each finger is covered in rings. Some wildly expensive pieces with diamonds like ice cubes and strawberry rubies are mixed with a couple of gaudy plastic things and the occasional rubber band wrapped around twice. Gold bangles encase her scrawny, freckled arms up to the elbow. She wears no shoes, but has a band-aid stuck on each toe. Her dress is white, I thought the hem was lace from far away, but can now see it is just moth-eaten. She has her nicotine yellow hair wrapped in a turban, the teal fabric is worn and has a wilting sunflower stuck in the center. Susan’s false eyelashes are slightly crooked and give the appearance of being either half-asleep or drunk. She has, as usual, given herself a beauty mark with eyeliner and painted her lips with concealer so they blend into the rest of her gaunt face. Her mouth spreads into a slow, medicine-sweet smile,
“You know, when I was young I looked a lot like you.”
I wonder to myself if that means I will look like her in thirty years.
“Jesus lord, my neck hurts…so about my twin, I haven’t told the family about it..”
At that moment a blood rattling screech erupts from the kitchen, which is adjacent to the dining room we are sitting in.
“FOURTH OF JOO-LIE, EVERYBODY!!!”
Susan’s face hardens, her knuckles tighten.
“GET YOUR FIRE CRACKERS OUT OF THE ATTIC!!!”
A small, round woman tumbles in through the swinging door. She wears a white hospital gown festooned with red, white and blue ribbons and blinking American flag pins. She wears a red and white striped party hat, and waves a paper Israeli flag on a wooden stick.
“Mother, I’ve told you to stay in your chair.”
Mother Bellflower stares directly at me,
“Susan doesn’t believe in the fourth of July.”
“Mother, get back into your chair.”
I study the old woman, her bare feet are bulging with purple veins and her yellow toenails are thick, wavy and dangerously jagged. Her face is mottled with sun spots and metallic star stickers. She turns slowly and hobbles into the kitchen, muttering. Susan turns to me,
“Let me show you something.”
I follow her past the zebra, then through a narrow corridor cluttered with hospital supplies. She touches the walls as she walks, as if feeling for a pulse, then stops at a crudely painted green door.
“This is where I keep them.” She swings it open casually, we are flooded with a cacophony of hysterical barks and howls. She switches on a light, at least fifty grey hounds are clustered at the bottom of the basement steps. Susan shouts over the din,
“I told my sister, if she ever comes back here to take anything from me, I’ll shoot each of these dogs and THEN myself!”
She slams the door shut, I say
“What’s wrong with your sister?” Which really means, what’s wrong with you?
“That’s her name?”
Susan sighs and stops in front of a mirror propped up against the wall in the corridor, she adjusts her eyelashes,
“She was always sour, I hated her even when we were little girls. Mother told me she was sick with jealously over me when I was born so she tried to smother me in my crib one night! Can you imagine! Then when I was just a toddler she left me outside in a snow drift, then went off to school. I think there must be lemon seeds in her heart, that’s how sour she is. I’ve warned her, if she comes back here I’ll shoot myself. She always comes at night, looking for things to take, trying to smother me in my sleep.”
She smoothes the front of her dress and looks at me for a long time,
“Excuse me. I need some air.”
She disappears into the gut of the house and I know she won’t be coming back. When I wake up in the morning there is a gaunt, sallow-skinned man sitting on the edge of my bed. I am more disturbed by the fact that I am not even surprised by his presence than the idea that he has probably been watching me sleep.
“Hi.” He says flatly
“Who the fuck are you?” I say, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and pulling the quilt around my shoulders. His eyes, spinning and dark like uncontrollable saucers, widen.
“Do you live here.”
“I’m Susan’s brother.”
“I thought you never leave your room.”
“Did Susan tell you that?” I nod and pull on a pair of shorts under the sheets.
“Well, I am writing a book. It consumes a lot of my time.”
“What’s it about?”
I pull my hair up into a bun and reach into the drawer for my toothbrush, Raphael smiles slightly,
“I disposed of your toothbrush for you.”
“Why would you do that?" He appears alarmed, even slightly offended.
“We adhere strictly to a one use policy concerning oral hygiene.”
He produces a new toothbrush from his pocket and hands it to me, “Use this one. I have hundreds.” He sits cross-legged on the foot of the bed while I get ready.
“It’s a memoir. My book.”
“It can only be published after I die, or after they die. Suppose Vivica read it. Do you know about Vivica? She’s our sister, she’s mad. She would slaughter me if she read it. I write my transcripts in invisible ink.”
“I must take every precaution.”
“Susan said Vivica tried to kill her.”
Raphael nods, “Several times.” He squints his eyes and really looks at me, “Are you Yvonne’s daughter?” I nod “You look just like she used to.”
“You know my mother?”
“Oh, she bought dogs from us before you were born. How old are you now?”
“How did you end up here?”
“I didn’t really feel like being home.”
“You can stay until you feel like leaving. You can read my transcripts.”
“I thought they were written in invisible ink.”
Raphael stares at the wall behind my head for what seems like hours, there is an ambulance siren in the distance, there is a fly crawling on his hand and he doesn’t notice.
“We lost one.”
Out by the pool Susan is lying on a rusty deck chair in a zebra striped bikini, even though it is overcast and the clouds are pregnant with rain. A small white box rests at her feet,
“Will you help us with the burial?”
“Is that a dog in there?”
She nods, flipping up the brim of her white sunhat and staring at me through smudged Jackie O glasses, “That was Uncle Houlihan, right there. We found him this morning. He was old.”
Raphael and Mother Bellflower appear at my side holding a leather bound book and a bundle of red poppies.
“Let’s get started.”
Raphael and Susan lift a green tarp off of the pool, Mother Bellflower grips my hand and we walk to the edge. It has been drained of water but there is a thick layer of green sludge caked to the sides, nine white boxes identical to the one I just saw are arranged in rows at the bottom.
“Justine, would you like to read from our book of blessings.”
Raphael hands me the journal and I open to the first page,
“Just say Uncle Houlihan’s name where it says ‘the deceased’”
I clear my throat and squint to read the sloppy letters scrawled across the tattered page,
“Uncle Houlihan left us today. Even though his earthly body is gone, his spirit will never leave the walls of this home. Today, he will begin his next journey through heaven’s poppy fields and we must rejoice in knowing that Uncle Houlihan will return to us one day, in another lifetime.”
Susan, Raphael and Mother Bellflower nod solemnly. Without speaking we each take a corner of the box and lower it into the pool, I throw the poppies into the pit and it occurs to me that all of the other thirteen year old girls are at camp, and ballet and the mall. They do not wake up with strange men in their rooms, they do not bury dead animals or deal with the mentally ill. The thought blows through me like a torpedo, the sky splits open and the rain pours down.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
3AM i dreamt about explosions, plumes of dust and gravel and the odd limb careening out of the debris and landing next to me, I was sitting with my cassette player listening to what to do during such an explosion, but it was so loud I couldn’t hear the instructions. 7AM it occurs to me, I need to see something blow up. I brush my teeth and think of sound and how heavy it is, and how heavy the sound of an office building roaring into oblivion would be, as opposed to a copper beech tree or an aluminum trailer. then there is a mushroom cloud in my coffee mug, my frozen sausage links are really sticks of dynamite. 10AM I decide limestone would have a delicious weight to it, but I will settle for marble or even gypsum. in the car I understand it must be fate, rock quarries exist for this very reason. i bring a bag, a zip-loc bag, for the errant chunks of limestone that will inevitably gravitate towards me, I will save them in the bag and bring them to thanksgiving and tell everyone I did it with telekinesis. I sit on the ledge with my bag open for several hours, and for several hours nothing moves. the sun goes away and now it is too dark to see the explosion coming, anyway. 7PM I accuse myself of purposefully locking the keys in the car. that, I hiss, is something you WOULD do out of desperation. I say the word ‘sabotage’ aloud, and since no one is here I yell it I walk to the edge and scream SABOTAGE, it echoes off the rocks and comes back to me and I chuckle, I have sabotaged myself, I am getting dehydrated and my zip-loc bag is still empty so I toss it down into the quarry then think that now there will never be an explosion of any kind, because I have littered. 7:30PM is this a spiritual experience? I tell myself I am having a spiritual experience while I am walking down the road which is narrow and dusty and looks the same at the beginning and the end. five miles there is a farm house, pick up trucks collecting water a confederate flag three furious dogs a mailbox, a fish mailbox I do a practice knock on the aluminum door, ready for the owner of the gape jawed fish mailbox to open up. I imagine him to be Ed Gein, he will open the door and pull me in he will make soup stock from my femur, I will probably be made into a lampshade. 8PM inside the house I am looking at photo albums of cy and alma’s Canada vacation they have three children they moved from Nebraska they remember the prohibition have a sodium free diet and lost fifteen pounds with weight watchers no I am not lost, I lie, I am becoming a minimalist so I left my car with all my things in it. I want to fall into sleep and wake up one thousand years ago I want to see people gathering berries I want to see an antelope shot with an arrow i want to see cy and alma in loin cloths, emerging from the quarry explosion. 6AM instead of mushroom clouds, I see the fish mailbox in my coffee.
Deadhorse, Alaska is the furthest North anybody can go to live without dying, but it isn’t guaranteed you’ll survive. You could freeze, of course, and there are bears, but due to the isolation it is also possible to go for several months without speaking to another person. And this is sometimes enough to push you over the edge. It is populated almost entirely by oil workers and hookers, there are some registered sex offenders on the outskirts and possibly some good, solid people who just appreciate nature. There is a motel called, “The Almost There Motel” which can be funny if you are in the right mood because Deadhorse is the last stop. But this could also be what kills you, because it will remind you that you are living in a perpetually grey area. It will remind you that since you were born you have been almost there, and why not just jump already? I work at this particular motel, I also live in it because we are never at capacity. I guess I came here originally to write, I was certain there would be something really heart-breaking to tell everyone about, and I was right, the whole place is your worst nightmare. But I haven’t been able to leave yet, so no one knows about it but the oil men, hookers, sex offenders, and possibly the good nature folk. To actually get here I had to take a special bus that could go over the ice, it was painted bright orange and I assumed this was for optimal visibility should we plummet into the water at any point. We stopped overnight in a place called Cold Foot and I didn’t sleep at all. This is because I am not accustomed to the phenomenon called ‘Midnight Sun’ which, as you could probably guess, involved long periods of daylight, sometimes as long as several months. There is also something called ‘Polar Night’ which is the opposite, and involves going around in total darkness for days at a time. The motel in Cold Foot had no curtains and I imagined this to be a test of our resolve, to weed out the pushovers from warm cities like Dallas where the sun and moon are reliable things. This is the only place in the world where you cannot even trust the pull of the universe, the only thing you can be sure of is the fact that every day you are getting closer and closer to THERE. I brought this up with a very nice stripper named Goldaline who lives in the motel, and she told me her THERE is the cockpit of a commercial plane,
“I am the pilot” she told me,
and I said
“Maybe you could go to flight school.”
And she just smashed out her cigarette and looked at me like are you fucking crazy. And that is where the conversation ended, as you probably guessed. I am one of three people employed at the Almost There. There is the guy who owns it, his name is Ishmael and because of this I think of whale harpoons and biblical looking men when I see him. Then there is his wife, who’s name may or may not be Aggie, this is what I heard when she introduced herself at my interview which went basically like this
“We don’t usually take outsiders.”
“I wouldn’t either.”
“Are you an upstanding person?”
“I like to think so.”
“Can you use a vacuum.”
They gave me a key to room number seven, and told me I could live in there if no one else needed it, the carpet smelled of menthol and there were curtains because I had proven I was rugged enough for the routine of gravity to be pulled out from under me. I sat on the starchy floral bedspread and thought about the worst things I had ever done and how they would never come back to me because somehow, I knew I would probably never leave this place.
1.I was crossing the street in Philadelphia and saw a man get hit by a car, he was shot up into the air like a champagne cork and the awful cracking sound that happened when he came back down made me throw up on the sidewalk, so instead of calling 911, I went home and laid down.
2.I compulsively stole toothbrushes from people’s homes as a teenager and feigned confusion when they stood at the sink, baffled. I hoarded them in the back of my closet.
3.I poured a box of sugar into my male super’s gas tank when I was nineteen as initiation into a radical lesbian separatist group. I am not really radical and probably not a lesbian, but I liked the idea of forging into oblivion with a group of women who were really sure of something.
Aggie knocked on my door and said
“Folks aren’t gonna check 'emselves in!”
So instead of the bedspread I sat behind the counter and measured my distance from these things.
The second day we entered a period of Polar Night, Ishmael came to my desk post with an orange bottle,
“When night starts up for more than a day, we take a couple of these. Makes time pass easier.”
My level of gratitude for the pills was disproportionate to the act of his giving them to me, I felt like a daughter I felt like a cancer kid or someone who works very hard at their mediocre job. He gave some to Goldaline also, and I felt betrayed. At some point a man and a woman walked into the lobby. I was completely unprepared to accommodate them in any way because they were the first people to patronize the motel since I began working, and I had spent the past week proving my adept vacuuming abilities and taking baths in the dark.
I said “Welcome!” a little too loudly.
They were both dressed in a way that suggested wealth but also an awareness for things like the environment and worker’s rights. Sleek down coats with real shearling trimmed hoods and durable boots. The man wore round tortoise shell glasses and I could see a turtleneck peeking out from under his socially responsible jacket. Cashmere, probably. He smiled like a professor and said,
“We’d like to check in, not sure how long we’ll be staying.”
I nodded, again, too fast, too eagerly. His wife was beautiful in such a way that required no assistance or upkeep, you found yourself thinking that you too could be beautiful in that way if you left everyone’s toothbrushes where they belonged. You look at her eyes, which are light grey and enormous, and think of hand knit sweaters and places like Nantucket or the less commercial Cape Cod. You think of her and Turtleneck cooking things like couscous and quail eggs in their tastefully rustic kitchen. Her hair is the same color everywhere and is graciously, bashfully wound into a loose knot at the base of her genuinely modest neck.
I say,“What brings you folks to Deadhorse?” and immediately feel like an imposter, a professional cordial hostess impersonater, someone’s sexually repressed mother, Paula Deen in bizarro world.
“Just passing through.” they say and
Grey Eyes smiles serenely, like she is perpetually slipping into a warm bath. She probably came out of her mother with this smile on her apple-white face. I want to choke her with an umbilical cord and wash her hair patiently, like a withered Irish nanny, at the same time. Turtleneck speaks,
“I see your having a Polar Night.”
“Seven days now.”
They left early the next morning with their cameras hung around their necks, they carried a map and asked me where was a good spot to see the aurora borealis, I didn’t know because frankly the whole phenomenon terrifies me, so they asked Ishmael and I was at least able to suggest a scenic foot trail, but then remembered it was too dark out to go on a hike.
Aggie croaked from her stool by the window.
“Wonder what theyre doing all the way up in Deadhorse.”
Adopting an Inuit baby saving seal cubs making a religious pilgrimage finding his biological mother seeing the finback whales before they all go extinct probably becoming enlightened like people with effortless beauty do, sometimes.
“Just passing through.” I say
Aggie takes a slug of coffee from her mug which has OVER THE HILL printed on the side in big pink letters.
“Why don’t you go clean up their room.”
I vacuum Turtleneck and Grey Eye’s carpet even though it doesn’t need it, I wipe off the sink with Lysol and fold the end piece of toilet paper into a perfect triangle and wonder how much further I can possibly go. I start to change their sheets but find myself cocooned in them on the floor with the duvet over my head their pillows clutched in my hands like they were the last things I would ever hold, like they were my hands, my hands as a child, my five year old self holding on over the edge of a cliff and all of the sudden I am speaking out loud
DON’T LET GO DON’T LET GO DON’T LET GO,
and the curtains are saying YOU ARE ALMOST THERE
YOU ARE ALMOST THERE
Everyone I have ever known is under this duvet cover on the floor and they are all clapping and saying this has been a test you have passed the test. The couple is there and they have their Inuit baby in their slender, long arms they have a photo album of the finback whales and pictures of the aurora borealis, and I am not terrified of it anymore. My old super is there and he says, The car was a prop! Don’t worry!, The radical separatist lesbians are there and they say This guy is our best friend! The man who got hit by the car is there, It didn’t hurt at all! I have Dysautonomia, I feel no pain! Ishmael and Aggie are huddled together with a candle between them and they say this is our light, this is daylight, we have a sun we have a son he is giving us light. Everyone has their toothbrushes back, they had extras anyway, Goldaline is wearing a pilot’s hat and command bars on her shoulders she says I am 30,000 feet away we are somewhere over the Atlantic and we will be THERE shortly.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Nothing in the house actually belonged to them, they bought it from a hysterical widow named Olivia Hensel who refused to take anything with her but her cat and some clothes.. So my grandparents were left with more than they bargained for. A huge, drafty old house full of Victorian curiosities and heavy, musty smelling furniture. A hair wreathe was my favorite thing. It was kept under a thick panel of glass, and you would never give it a second look if you didn’t know what it was. And most people didn’t. It just looked like a decoupage of dried flowers. In actuality, it was a mourning ritual. Something women did in the 1800’s when their husbands died. They would chop off their hair and his, weave it together into a pattern and keep it on their bedroom walls. When they died, their children would weave their hair into it, and so on. The house came with this, a box of a whole dead family’s hair. There were some archaic educational videos played in health classes in the 1950’s, scratchy film which one could still play on a projector warning against the dangers of homosexuality and rock music. This was when my father dropped me off there one day in July, I had just turned twelve and had seen his side of the family only once before, years ago. Now I would live with them for the summer. On our drive my father appeared agitated, his ears were turning red which was something reserved for real atrocities.
“This is some genuine horseshit, Justine.”
He would exclaim this, his hands firmly gripping the wheel, his teeth clenched.
“What state are we in?”
“Pennsylvania, god dammit.”
“This is where they live now?” I was amazed by the flat landscape and over abundance of Waffle Houses.
He shook his head, becoming more aggrieved by the second.
“Your mother, godammit. Thinks it’ll be good for you to stay with them. Thinks its no good you haven’t seen them in six years.”
“What do I call them?”
“Eugene, that slimy bastard. You call him by his name if he ever comes out of that office of his.”
He didn’t mention his mother, whose name was Darla but back at home was more commonly referred to as ‘that backstabbing cunt’. I understood my father’s grudge against them both. I had pieced together the story from eavesdropping, snooping through desks and sometimes from things I had been informed of directly, usually by way of large doses of painkillers, something which my family dispensed liberally. I understood the constant abandonment from his mother and the abuse from the steady string of “stepdads” and boyfriends who came and went. I understood it was her fault.
“Are you going to get out of the car?”
We were parked outside of their house, my father was hunched over in the front seat. Breathing heavily and nodding slowly.
“You can just drop me off. I get why you don’t want to see her.”
He looked at me very seriously.
“It isn’t easy for me to leave you with her.”
“She feels too guilty about what she did to you to hurt me.” I answered, surprising myself.
He counted out three little blue triangles from his alligator skin pill box and swallowed them dry.
“God dammit, I drove all the way up here and I will go into that house. Make sure there’s no fire hazards in there.”
I find myself sitting under the dining room table with the cocker spaniel while Darla the backstabbing cunt and my father scream obscenities at each other above my head. Someone slams their fist and makes the table shake, I trace circles into the damp orange carpet with the toe of my shoe.
“YOU HEINOUS BITCH, YOU RUINED MY LIFE!”
“I WAS A CHILD, RODGER.”
“DO YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO ME WHEN YOU LEFT ME THERE?”
The screaming stopped for a moment, the air swelled and blistered with tension.
“Do you know what was happening to us when your father was still around? You were too young to remember any of it. Be grateful.”
Now they both sob. They cry until the sound has run out and their body has no more tears to give them, so they just heave their chests and gasp for air.
When I wake up in the morning my father is gone.
I don’t know what to do so I climb out the bedroom window and sit out on the roof until Darla finds me and tells me we’ve got to go visit someone called Catie. I have no idea who she’s talking about. I follow her through the house, every room we pass through has a radio playing full volume in it. Each tuned to a different station, the effect is unsettling as we pass through each of the four stories. Darla looks exactly as I remember her, pale and startlingly thin with a torrent of wiry black hair brushed into a puff on top of her head. She wears a threadbare t-shirt with a basket of kittens emblazoned on the front and highwaisted jeans. I can see her long, yellow toenails curling over the edge of her grimy flipflops. Without eating breakfast we climb into her burgundy Cadillac, the springs have collapsed under the seats and I cannot see above the dashboard which is festooned with stacks of receipts, taped down in groups of eight. I look around the car, there are eight gallons of water in the back. Eight cans of soup, eight family sized ketchup bottles and eight road maps, carefully folded into neat squares. She is an erratic driver, throwing her weight into the steering wheel at random and executing sharp turns onto the wrong streets. She uses the horn liberally and reacts with utter shock and offense when someone honks back. I clutch the sides of the seat and say silent prayers as she careens down winding roads and tries to make it through train tracks before the gates snap shut. Suddenly she stops,
“Okay now we’re at Catie’s,”
I look around and see nothing but grass and an enormous hill in front of us. We are a long way from town, the place is desolate and lousy with mosquitoes and rag weed.
“Where is the house?”
“Catie doesn’t want anybody coming up the drive way, makes everyone walk up there. Up this godamn hill, can’t hack it with my arthritis anymore.”
We ascend the hill and I finally ask her,
“Who is Catie?”
She appears crestfallen, and her wrinkles crease deeper into her face.
“Catie is your Uncle Cal.”
“Your Uncle decided he didn’t want to be an Uncle anymore. And now he is an Aunt.”
“Did he get a sex change?”
Darla looks shocked that I am aware of such an operation, but nothing really surprises me anymore.
“No. He just wears dresses.”
“Okay. What should I call him.”
Uncle Catie’s house looks tired. The roof has slouched into itself, the windows and doors look exhausted. The paint has peeled off in long strips, revealing a dusty yellow underneath the dirty white. There is a pile of old bicycles in the front yard that has been there so long the surrounding grass has turned a rusty color, too. There is a bathtub collecting rainwater next to the doorstep, a drowned black bird stares placidly up from the bottom. From inside the house I hear a person’s voice and a scratchy record. The person, who I assume to be my Uncle, croons along with the music, his pitch fluctuating violently. His voice reaches a horrific crescendo before dropping down to a low bellow. The words are totally incoherent. My grandmother knocks on the window. The record screeches, then stops and I hear a patter of footsteps rush down stairs. The door is swung open dramatically, Uncle Catie is wearing a moth eaten wedding dress and thick makeup, garish against his ghostly complexion. He has some stubble, and his Lee press-on nails have begun to pop off his fingers. His body is delicate and hungry looking
“Well Hello….” His voice is breathy and low, but tinged with suspicion.
“You’ve caught me at a very special time…I’ve been practicing my opera.”
Darla pushes past him into the house, nearly knocking him over.
“Well, continue your practice later. Your niece is here and I’ve come to collect the things you took from me.”
She disappears into the living room, Catie stares vacantly into the endless expanse of open fields in the distance and says
“I’ve taken nothing of yours…I haven’t left this house in months, Darla!”
“Stop it now, I know you’ve got my Dutch oven.”
He looks at me.
“You must be amazed by my sudden change in appearance.”
Catie arches a crooked, penciled eyebrow.
“I have undergone a transformation.”
“Yeah, I can tell. Did you divorce your wife?”
“Tanya! Heaven’s no. She is in Iowa, on a spiritual journey with her lover. We write letters to each other.”
“Oh. Do you have a lover now, too?”
Catie’s eyes soften, he brings his hand to his throat and speaks softly,
“Yes. Arthur. He is an artist, a grafitti artist. A wonderful man. I would love for you to meet him, his theories on the spacetime continuum will astound you.”
There is a moment of silence
“How old are you, Justine.”
“I just turned twelve.”
“Darla thought you may be too young to understand about me. But what nonsense, your practically an adult. Come inside, now. I made sweet tea.”
The kitchen is yellowed with nicotine. A time capsule, holding it’s breath somewhere around 1963. I am wary of the cloudy jam jar brimming with amber liquid that has been set in front of me. Catie drinks several glasses, and eats crumbs off the table top.
“My son has been kind of enough to bring Justine to see us this summer.” Darla says curtly.
“Yes, yes. Must be quite a shock for you, coming from the city. As you can see, there is not very much out here.” Catie motions out the window to the barren landscape littered with rusted trucks and dead trees.
“I like the quiet.” I tell him.
Darla clears her throat,
“I trust you’ve gotten rid of your jars, Catie.”
“No. I’ve told you, the jars will stay there. They belong to mother.”
“Mother has been dead for years.”
Catie’s body stiffens,
“Excuse me…” He stands slowly, then goes upstairs. I hear his record come back on.
“Well, that’s the last we’ll be seeing of him for today.”
“What jars are you talking about?”
“When Mother died, Catie locked himself up in this house. He kept all of her things, even the food of hers that was still in the fridge. It’s been in there for years. He won’t get rid of anything she ever touched. That dress he’s wearing? Yeah, it was her wedding gown. I’d bet my life the lipstick on his face was hers too. Anyway, she used to make fruit preserves when she was still alive. She made her last batch about a month before she died and stacked them up in the basement. The thing about jarred fruit, you can only keep it for so long. After a while, it starts to produce a poisonous gas, which builds up in the jar and finally the pressure of the gas makes them explode. The gas will make you sick, it could even kill a person. Catie’s got hundreds of them down there, we’re just waiting for them to blow.”
I stare at my grandmother in amazement.
“Let’s go home.” We drive away, no one has seen Catie since then.
“WHERE YOU BEEN?? WHERE YOU BEEN??”
Eugene is standing on the doorstep, flailing his arms dramatically and stamping his feet.
He is even shorter than I remember, but he is wearing the same green sweater that I have always seen him in, which is no surprise. Eugene is my step-grandfather, the fourth and final one to join our family. He only moved here from China ten years ago after spending his entire life in Bejing, so his accent is heavy and the American food still makes him sick.
“I WAKE UP AND THERE IS NO ONE HOME, YOU NEVER TELL ME WHERE YOU GO!!!!”
Eugene is delusional and has severe obsessive compulsive disorder. That is why there is eight of everything in the car. That is why he taps the doorknob eight times before turning it, taps each key eight times before pressing down, blinks eight times and never washes or takes off his green sweater which he believes will extend his lifetime indefinitely. He often wears a gas mask and has eight orange cats which he keeps in a special room painted green, for good luck. Eugene plucks out eight strands of his hair every night and keeps it in a special box under his bed, he believes that they will one day be of great use to him. He makes his living through the stock market, like my father. Also, like my father he is controlled by the fluctuating numbers and prone to bouts of ecstasy and dysphoria at their whim. Unlike my father, however, he is utterly mentally ill.
“Put a lid on it, Eugene. We just went to go see Catie.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”
He storms back inside. I see my bike helmet sitting on the swinging porch seat where I left it, but now it is cracked in half. Completely destroyed.
“Oh my god, what happened to my helmet??”
Darla purses her lips,
“Eugene did that last night. He was worried you may have an accident and he would get in trouble. Besides, he told me to tell you not to go outside anyway, the bees will kill you.”
“I’m not allergic to bees.”
“You don’t know that.”
I feel my chest folding up inside itself
“My helmet would keep me from getting hurt in the first place. This isn’t fair.”
I follow her inside the house, through the piano room with the potted plant which reeks of urine and alcohol. She picks up a newspaper and fans herself with it, we reach the dining room and sit down across from each other at the table. It is late afternoon and the yellowed lace curtains flutter indecisively in the breeze.
“You know, I used to have a job at the animal shelter.”
“Yeah?” I respond, still irked about my ruined helmet.
“Yeah. You know what my job was?”
I am wary of her answer, my youthful naivety has been irrevocably tainted by adult’s propensity to tell me all the sordid and grim details about their pasts.
“My job was to euthanise the animals. It was very relaxing.”
I dig my nails into my palms, leaving pale nervous half moons indented in my flesh.
“We’d drop them into these jars. Sometimes, if it was a kitten we would just use a plastic pretzel barrel. I would pump the gas through, and they would get so peaceful. Their bodies would just melt and sometimes I could hear them purr very softly as they floated out of themselves and went wherever it is you go when your time is up. You know, I would like to die that way.”
At that moment, I hear the loudest sound I have ever heard in my life. It is louder than the most violent thunder, and heavier too. The sound has a weight to it, a supernatural boom. The furniture is pulsing, the chandelier shakes. I am sure it can be heard over the entire planet. I know my grandmother has heard it too, her eyes are enormous and her knuckles have turned white. She clutches the table. Her mouth is moving but I can’t hear anything, only a dull ringing followed by a dim static. The crash was so powerful it’s temporarily deafened me. I see Eugene run from his office, a cat in each hand. He, too, is screaming but the sound gets lost somewhere inside the sonic crash. Everything is eerily quiet and I feel like I’m underwater. Out the window on main street I can see people running from restaurants and gas stations, Bishop is brewing with panic and confusion. Ambulances and police cars whiz by, their lights are on and my hearing is slowly beginning to come back to me. I can make out the faint sounds of a siren blaring, in time I can hear the hysterical din outside. Eventually, I can hear my grandmother. She speaks slowly, but her eyes look wild and there is a white light in them that makes me nervous.
“A meteor has fallen outside of town on the Carson’s farm. That was the sound you heard.”
Eugene is running to and from the house and garage, bringing back eight light bulbs, eight gallons of water, eight transistor radios.
“Your grandfather will be out of sorts for days after this. I wonder what he’ll do…” Her voice trails off, I know she is thinking of the irrational measures he has taken after incidents in the past. A fire in the old apartment building, he ran into the blaze and took my father with him claiming it was their fate. He once bought eight satellite dishes and placed them in a special formation out in the yard, claiming he would be in contact with extra-terrestrials.
Now Eugene appears in front of us, his green sweater is spotted with grease stains and cat hair. His comb over is especially oily, and he too has that formidable white glint in his eye. I have a sixth sense for psychotic breaks, I can feel them coming like birds sense an earth quake.
“We are under siege.”
He is holding a hammer and a bucket of nails.
“The meteor men have arrived.”
There are planks of plywood propped up against the dining room wall.
“We must secure the house.”
Eugene begins boarding up the windows and doors, tapping the head of each nail eight times. There are five windows in the room, in half an hour each one is covered and the house is getting darker as Eugene boards them up. Darla and I struggle in the dark to find lamps, we hear Eugene's voice booming from the parlor,
“”NO LIGHT. NO LIGHT! We must not give them any sign of our location.”
After all of the exits have been boarded, Eugene gathers every electronic in the house and stacks them up in his office. There are walls of radios and TVs and prehistoric computers on top of each other, he plugs in the televisions and tunes them to a static station. He sits in front of the wall, staring at the eight screens showing nothing but black and white snow, we hear nothing but the eerie electric hum and the occasional siren outside.
We live like this for three days, hearing Eugene preach about the apocolypse and how this is the end. We eat oyster crackers and drink tap water, I steal food from the refrigerator in the night even though it is forbidden. And after three days, I almost start to believe him. I almost believe that we are all going to return to the earth, that it is only a matter of time. On the morning of the fourth day I am in the kitchen, relegated to the task of making an egg salad sandwich for Eugene. I have a festering mass of dread growing in my chest, my hands feel heavy and I miss the sun more than I could ever imagine. The static from the wall of televisions is grating on me, and it dawns on me that I need to get out. It occurs to me that outside of the stale air contained in this house, the world is still turning and the sun is out there, too. I feel empowered, like I’m on a plane and about to hijack it and not a soul knows. I take the finished sandwich on a plate into Eugene’s office, he is sitting at his desk, pulling out his hair and arranging it in the box. I hurl the plate at the wall above his head, it splinters into a million little pieces and the egg salad plops tiredly onto the shoulder of his sweater. His mouth drops open, his eyes grow wide and turn into spinning black saucers. I am grabbing his hammer and turning on all the lights, I am prying the nails off the front door and I don’t care at all that he is screaming at me. I am pulling back the plywood plank with strength I didn’t know I had.
I step outside:
The world is still turning.