- Brush strokes
- Drop cloths
- Tongue depressors
- Shiny silver lids that look like coins
- Furniture in the center of the room
- Mistakes that show up in natural light
- Bristles caught in drying paint
- ‘one more coat’
It wasn’t about grapefruit seeds tucked into the wet folds of sour pink flesh or a black cat with white paws and a white ascot tiptoeing along a picket fence. It wasn’t about winter trees dipped in spun sugar and shimmering in white afternoon light. It wasn’t about sucking on an orange popsicle stick until the wood softens and splinters or chewing the pleated wrapper that once held a chocolate cupcake into a mealy pulp.
It wasn’t about marrying a man who beat the hell out of her children while she laid her cheek in a pile of cooling vomit on the dining room carpet. Or signing papers that released her oldest daughter to foster care. As a small girl, she could not have pictured the resignation that she would come to wear like a turtleneck printed with green turtles wearing brown shells. The turtles carried fishing line and crawled in circles around her waist and over her shoulders and down her back until they pulled the strings too tight for her to breathe. She got used to not breathing, and she just stopped one morning. She tied her breath in a double knot at the base of her throat. It’s a funny thing when someone stops breathing. Everything changes. A family changes when one person doesn’t breathe. It changes everything. And everyone. Even very small children worry when they see a person without breath, and the children begin to carefully tuck away their own breath. Perhaps there is not enough air available, and no one wants to be the one to hog it all and deprive the others.
If I could write a memory for her, I would choose something predictable and trite. She is about four years old. Her skin is pale. Pink freckles splash across a nose that wrinkles into a tight knot when she smiles. A bob of thick black hair flips around her round face. She has that sweet, particular look of a little girl who carries on her small head a crown of thick, grown up hair. A thirty pound Jackie O. She didn’t bake as a child for long enough, and she walked into adulthood with a cracked top and a gooey center. She should have been left in the oven longer. In my memory of her memory, though, she is still pale in the face and pink on the mouth. An eyelet nightgown falls to her wrists and ankles, and she drags a baby doll by a plastic foot and then tucks the baby into a rickety stroller. It is Christmas morning in a tall row house with piles of children somersaulting around the Christmas tree. Silver tinsel and shiny cranberries hang on low tree branches. The sisters have tight headaches from sleeping on pink sponge curlers. Her parents sit on the sofa with cups of coffee and hangovers. The living room is happy.
We are, all of us, always sucking on something or chewing on another thing. I don’t know what her first memory is, but I am sure of what it isn’t. All of us start so clean. We are each of us born like a halved grapefruit. Pink, wet, shining, and fragrant. And things go so wrong and we end up in places we never meant to be. We can’t change this. No matter how hard we try, we all end up signing the wrong papers or curled on the floor crying, chewing the flesh of our cheeks until blood runs. We are all pulling doll babies behind us, waking up with headaches, our tongues hot and swollen with splinters. Perhaps what we can do and what we can change is to forgive those who wrong us and abandon us and forget us. Even when they do it terribly. Horribly. We can let them love us even after they have destroyed us. We can walk softly instead of stomping our foot and insisting that all the hurt precludes any love. We can cancel the debt and forgive them, knowing that we are going to need the forgiveness ourselves one day. We will be begging for it. All of us will.
Her bedroom suit is the color of rotting lemons found at the bottom of the fridge. A pale yellow fading into gray.
The wood is soft and cheap and coated in thick, tacky layers of paint. She could easily leave teethmarks if she bites a drawer. She should bite a drawer. She should hold each drawer in two hands and run them through her teeth like row after row of corn on the cob, one drawer after another. She will hem the drawers with a series of half moons. When she grows up, her teeth will break and she will remember holding dresser drawers in her lap and gnawing away at their decorative fronts. She is a rodent with a long hairless tail.
A big mirror stands over the long dresser. The mirror rocks when she wipes it with windex and a torn undershirt. It could easily fall and break. She should break the mirror. She will break the mirror. It is a cold and sunny Saturday morning. It snowed last night, and her neighborhood is covered with white sparkles. She gives the mirror a good push and it breaks. Ten thousand silver splinters of glass skate across the wooden floor, spinning into all four corners of the room.
The crash from her bedroom is spectacular. Everyone in the house startles. Her family members are the most excellent startlers. The bones of their skeletons hang loose from their shoulders like curtains on a hanger, and the bone curtains give a good rattle, quick as a hiccup. No one runs to help. Good startlers, they are. Good runners, they are not. They are retreaters. They retreat.
Her mother is crying on the floor of the back porch. She wretches periodically, the gagging sounds loosening the chimney. Sometimes she vomits on the green plastic carpet made to look like a freshly cut lawn. The plastic blades of grass press into the side of her face, and she carries the red dents for the rest of the day.
Her sister Joanie is playing the flute in the basement. Tinny whistles putter out before they make it to the end of the long metal wand. Joanie takes deep breaths and starts over. The air in the basement is thick with Joanie’s exhalations.
Billy lines up battalions of plastic green army men on the wooden floor in his bedroom. He named one of the soldiers Kuwait. Kuwait has moveable limbs and Billy cuts the rubber band that secures Kuwait’s leg to his pelvis. A group of men carry Kuwait to the nearest helicopter. The sergeant carries Kuwait’s leg over his shoulder like a rifle. Billy pictures bullets shooting out of Kuwait’s toes.
The mirror crashes. Magnificently. The family retreats.
She gathers the shards and pierces each needle into her limbs and along her vertebra. She leaves her bedroom and struts through the house like a grand porcupine, mirrors catching the light and reflecting it. The needles shine and ripple in waves when she draws her limbs through the air.
This doesn’t really happen, of course. She dusts her furniture on Saturday mornings and carefully cleans the swaying mirror. Nothing breaks. Nothing ever breaks. Joanie does play the flute. Billy stages battles on his bedroom floor. Mom vomits on the back porch and walks around with a rash on her face in case anyone missed it. She has a rocking chair and bangs the curved rockers against the wooden floor for several hours a day.
Sheila is an ugly child. She has an ugly name, and she knows it, and she is ugly to look at, and she knows this, too. Her shredded bangs cover her face. Her hair is the gray like used bathwater. She is thin and bony. She wears glasses and the frames are made from a brown molded plastic. They are the color of shit. Her nose is small and her eyes are small, but her mouth spreads like a red tear in the skin at the center of her face. Her mouth is big and her gums are red and slick and they shine. She covers her mouth with her hand in the same way that she wears pants. She is thin and her elbows and knees are always scabbed over with bumpy brown cobblestones.
- Dryer lint
- Cotton balls
- Washed cotton
- Sheets that need to be washed
- Lana Del Rey
- The air on summer morning
- Three beers
- Baby feet
- Lima beans. I am making lima bean and ham soup right now.
- Dewy grass under your feet on summer mornings
- Warm bath water
- Flannel nightgowns, which Katie hates but I love
- Heat coming from a fireplace
- The moment when I sit in my car when I get home from work, before going inside
- Seeing my Christmas tree lit from outside my house
- Puppies with swollen bellies
- Putting on clean pajamas after a bath
I’ve marked today’s real post as private so this is a quick entry for ‘record keeping’…
- Tall and thin
- Short and fat
- Brown, red, yellow, orange
- Lightning conductors
- Night sky
- Licorice. Yuck.
- Chocolate donuts
- Kitchen appliances
- Chocolate chips
- Whales and sharks
Every Sunday afternoon, their father drank beer from plastic cups while watching Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The gorgeous ladies were fierce. Their bangs were teased into tidal waves that crested over their foreheads. Joe’s dad said their hair looked like armpit hair. Joe disagreed. He thought the wrestlers were exotic and beautiful. They stared at him intensely through the TV screen. Their eyes were heavily made up with metallic shadows and thick black eyeliner that tapered into points at their temples. They looked like they were wearing superhero masks. They were angry and mysterious in electric green onesies cut up to tightly belted waists, and the floor of the ring bounced under their strong thighs.
The boys’ father was sweaty with beer and enthusiasm, rallying the boys and cheering for Babe the Farmer’s Daughter and Brittany the Brat. Joe and Billy kneeled on the sofa with bowls of pretzels and bounced on the cushions.
By dinnertime, their dad was asleep in the pilling recliner. Joe practiced his moves on Billy, chop dropping him over his knees and body slamming him against the sofa. The cushions exhaled clouds of dust motes in the air above the boys’ matching buzz cuts. Billy’s laughter rang bells in the corners of the family room, and his smile split the seams of his face like an overripe tomato.
He was six years old and weighed thirty four pounds. He didn’t take up any room, like thoughts that float through your mind as you fall asleep, never resting anywhere and gone when you wake in the morning. He was nervous all the time but sweet and quick to smile, especially at Joe. A small boy sketched out quickly on grainy pieces of tissue paper and glued together with dots of paste. Joe lifted him easily but carefully, picturing Billy floating in a straw basket when he hoisted him over his head like a trophy. The boys spun in a haze of dust motes floating in the TV’s blue glow.
They lived around the corner from St. Mary of the Assumption and walked to school together in the morning, dry leaves tearing under their leather shoes. In the schoolyard, Joe left Billy with the first graders and ran off to play football with his friends on the low hill. Billy watched him, squinting his eyes against the morning sun and licking his lips. Freckles tiptoed across his nose.
When the boys passed one another in the hallways, Joe gave Billy low high fives. Billy sat at his desk in his basement classroom and watched Joe’s class playing dodgeball in the school parking lot. Joe was a team captain and he bent low before winging the ball across the cement and hitting his classmate behind the knees. Billy chewed on his lips and worked in his phonics workbook.
The whole school went to mass each Friday afternoon during Lent. Joe slid down the hallway in his leather shoes with the rest of the class. The boys pushed each other from behind. Girls in plaid jumpers pulled at one another’s elbows. They whispered secrets and passed plastic tubes of chapstick, sliding thick layers of warm wax across their lips. Shannon’s hair hung in long spiral curls to the middle of her back. Her bangs were swept into a perfect poof and held on top of her head with a gold barette. Her ears looked like small clam shells and big silver hoops pierced them. Joe reached for one of Shannon’s long curls and pulled it. She smiled at him and swept her long hair over her shoulder. A teacher held up a finger and blew sharp breaths through her clenched teeth. She cut her eyes at the students, and they floated into two long navy ribbons as they walked into the church vestibule.
Mrs. Finn lined up the squirming first graders under the arch of the rainbow painted on their classroom wall. Billy stood by a round white cloud at the rainbow’s end and licked his lips. His pink ears fluttered around his head like powdery moths. They reddened with heat when the fluorescent lights caught them.
Groups of children puddled around the baptismal font and the flat shelves holding pamphlets about the holy sacraments. Joe and the boys laughed and clapped one another on the back. They stood together like parade of lions. The girls reached down, pulling up knee socks and flattening skirt pleats. Their hair was teased into nets that framed their unlined faces. They blinked often, their eyes outlined in black.
The first graders trailed in with Billy at the end of the line. He pushed his fists into his pockets. His cowlick stood up and he licked his lips. With his hands in his pockets and his bent elbows tight against his sides, his scapula showed through his white shirt like wing plates, flapping along the hinge of his spine. He caught sight of Joe, and his cheeks colored pink. Joe lifted his arms in the air and shook his head, mouthing, ‘Chammmpion!’ Billy smiled and licked his lips until they were shining under the vestibule’s lights.
‘Who’s he?’ Shannon whispered across a few students.
‘My brother,’ Joe replied.
‘Why do his lips look like that? He looks like he’s been sucking his thumb all day,” she said, pulling her nose into a pile of wrinkles in the middle of her face. The oil of flowers was thick in the air.
Joe watched Billy’s thin chest crack into wet halves like the split breast of a chicken thawing on the kitchen counter, but he couldn’t stop even as his arms loosened at the shoulders and his legs pulled away from his pelvis. ‘Yeah,’ Joe said and laughed. ‘I’m always telling him to stop that shit. Makes him look weird.’
Billy’s back was a box of spilled toothpicks. He stood very still so he didn’t upset the pile.
The heavy church doors opened slowly, and the students shuffled forward in groups. Joe knocked his fist against Billy’s shoulder and said, ‘I’m just messing with you, man.’
Billy’s eyes picked up the shine from the floor’s slate, teardrops pooling like two tiny blue universes. His eyes and lips were wet and shining. He walked into church with his class, the cool air pulling a gritty tongue over his wet lungs and liver.