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--- K R I S T A W O O D L I E F
My grandma, my mother, and I live together in a cinderblock house at 57 Bethel Road. Grandpa used to live here but he died a year ago. Influenza.
"I opened up the window and in flew Enza."
The house still smells of him ~ the ground chew he used to suck like licorice. I would sit on his lap and he would (how typical) bounce me on his bony, crooked knee, or nibble my ear with wet lips just before spitting phlegm and tobacco into the Foldgers can. On the floor. Next to us. We sat together in his worn, green rocker ~ a rocker as bony and crooked as his knee ~ and cautioned the wind and the weeds not to blow so hard or grow so high.
Mom sits, now, in Grandpa's worn, green rocker, and rocks and scratches and shifts. She's always shifting, crossing her legs. Dangling shaky feet. Making noises with her slippers as they slap at her heels and scrape the floor.
Her birthday is coming up. July 4th. She gets lights on her birthday. Grandpa and Grandma always told her that on July 4th, everyone from all over celebrated her birthday. She believes them. But it's a hard thing to prove otherwise. Especially when she only ever asks for the lights . . . or salt and pepper shakers. And she usually gets one or both. But I think she would like some new slippers this year, although I'm not sure. She likes the way these feel against her cheeks.
I brush Mom's hair in the mornings when she is up and I'm not late for school. Since it's summer now, I brush her hair almost every morning. Sometimes, she grins to me when I do, but most of the time she doesn't.
"Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me,
Her hair is longer than mine, to her shoulders, but is dull and lifeless. Brown and odorless. Strings break off in the brush and I wish I had known her when her hair was young and her face was full.
I'm sure it wasn't my fault being born. If I could have I would have gone back into (in two) my mother's souring womb. I would have kicked harder and harder until her belly, bruised and busted, and her brain, sore and sorry, would have turned on me. She would have turned on me and knifed herself just to get rid of me. But I was too quiet in there, too still. She says I was "like a little pink owl. You were turning 'round in there so softly, rubbin' my belly to sleep, and I would wonder who, who you were in there, Little Owl, who."
And now, we have cable for her. She likes the home shopping network. Grandpa didn't want cable, so we didn't get it until after he died. He said that it gives us too many excuses to be discontent. I think he may have been right. Mom rocks faster than she used to.
I used to be afraid of the bathtub drain, that it would suck me down there, that it would strain my body like spaghetti and instead of just one of me slipping through the drain there would be twelve. But I've never been afraid of the trashman. He has a nice smile.
Caroline's come over. I can tell its her because she has a special knock.
"Wash your plate and you can go out and play," Grandma tells me.
Caroline knows to stay outside and wait for me.
"And wipe off the table, honey. It's all sticky now."
I slop the aluminum table with a dishrag and throw it across the kitchen into the sink, fluffing Grandma's hair a bit. She squints here eyes ~ filmy eyes ~ at me, but looks to the back of my mom's head in the rocker, and softens ~ gazing eyes. So I run.
Down the cinderblock steps, Caroline's putting the pieces of her clarinet together, leaning against the birch tree. She flips the clarinet reed sideways with her tongue. She accidentally swallowed the reed once, but it came back eventually. That happened to a cat I had too, only with a bell.
"You wanna walk over to the pond," Caroline coolly asks me, the reed hanging from her bottom lip.
There's a breeze I don't feel tangling Caroline's orange hair ~ twisting her hair into all sorts of curls and directions. But she tosses it back, puts the reed into the mouthpiece, and begins to beat a series of hard notes out of her instrument.
The notes are gone almost as soon as they've come. Noise is hard to follow outside of the house, back in the pastures. In some places the grass is as tall as me and tends to grab at my clothes or poke my knees (kind of like the kids at school). But I poke back or rip them out of the way or mash them down, because I can do that . . . to the grass.
There used to be a fox that lived back here. He made trails in the grass that Caroline and I could follow. That fox took us all sorts of places, good places, and I wondered if he knew us, if he brought us on purpose. Last summer the pond dried up, and the flattened trails the fox had made began to stick back up and grow into the tall pasture grass, becoming harder and harder to follow. We thought the fox was trying to lose us, that he wanted to be alone. But one day Caroline's brother heard noises coming from the old well behind their house, and he looked down there and there was the fox. He was all bent and crying, her brother said. So he picked up some big rocks and threw them down there.
Stupid fox. He didn't know what else to do. Neither did Caroline's brother. When Caroline found out what her brother had done, she screamed and shook and threw her clarinet at him. But later she went back to the well and threw some flowers . . . over the stones . . . over the fox. And she named him Perdy.
"If there had been any water in that old well, that fox sure got it," Caroline told me.
On my way around to the front door, I pluck a couple of honeysuckle growing on a bush under the living room window, from where the shed can easily be seen, and I bring the flowers in for my mom.
"Your father was a fireman" (criminal) "handsome" (frothy) "chivalrous" (sniveling) "~ a man who was killed" (jailed) "saving" (hurting) "the life of a child just about your age."
This house is always cold, even in the Mississippi summers. And so I sit. On the floor. In the sun. Where it's warmer. Beside my mom. And I watch things flash across the television screen.
I never sit in front of my mom. I can't tell where she is.
The sun moves across her slippers, across the floor, growing long, narrow, sharp. A fly spits in and out of the light, mixing up the dust and the dreariness. Sometimes it hits the window, and that throws it back a ways.
There are hot spots in certain places in the hall ~ in the hollow hall of the house. I wish I could pocket one and take it out when I get into the living room. Or the kitchen. Or the bathroom. Take the hot spot out and wrap myself up in it. But instead, when I find one I have to stand. In the hall. By myself. And stand, crumpled up, with my shoulders and my neck drawn in. Crumpled. And crouch against the rough plastered wall.
I wish the moon was more anxious, like the t.v.
Grandma says that if I stick my lip out much farther someone is liable to trip over it. I ask her WHO. She just smiles as if she knows who but won't tell.
(An entire collection of phobias can be found in a single sulk!)
And this house keeps in odors.
If it were round and if there were a hole in the middle of the roof, maybe it wouldn't be able to hold onto these odors so tight.
But I live in a rectangle.
At the pond, sitting on a brittle stump, Caroline asked me if my mom ever yells at me.
"Does she ever say that she'll send you away."
"No, not really." I hadn't been asked to go anywhere away from the house, but since Grandpa died I haven't felt like hanging around much, at least not with Mom, which isn't the way it always was. It's just that Grandpa was always there to make up the diff erence.
"That's good," Caroline said, polishing her clarinet with her shirt. "Sometimes my mom says she'll put me away."
"Where do you think she'll put you?"
"Sometimes she puts me in the closet, but I don't think that's where she means."
Caroline rides her bike over to my house most of the time ~ rides it despite the worn, crumbling road connecting us.
The pastures end behind my house. End before her house. When we don't walk, and when she doesn't have her clarinet or sometimes even when she does, we ride our bikes through the pastures, dodging rabbit holes and rocks. Up and down, down and up over the hills, over the hill, over the . . .
Caroline says that I am her best friend. I believe her.
Her thoughts are so good. It's as if they're packed in boxes and padded with clouds and kittens, and on the boxes are the labels "FRAGILE", "THIS END UP".
And when a boy at school once said that my mom was crazy and my dad was dead, she blew her clarinet in his ear so loud that he ran away. Caroline doesn't seem to be afraid of much.
The day school let out for the summer, my teacher told the class to write down all the things we loved about summer vacation. I thought of many things, like Caroline and sprinklers and fireflies. But I only wrote down the one thing that I loved most about summer vacation ~ no school.
I could do without most of it, except for Caroline. She stays by my side at school and we go places together ~ lunch, recess, the bathroom.
I don't like going places with Mom. I won't go places with her anymore.
She yelled at me at the last open house. In the bathroom. The bathroom smelled like sad lemons, and she looked in at me. There were no locks. No locks. There never have been. Her cracked hand gripped the cracked door and held it open.
Grandma knew not to let her out like this. Mom didn't take her medication right that day and there were people around. But I wasn't thinking about the stares, the upturned upper lips showing teeth like irritated dogs. It was her hand, her fingernails ~ split and rigid, landscaped with cacti, barren. Gray grit showed through and I wondered if there was sausage under there, or worse. Her cracked hand gripped the door so steadily. Still. Tight. Her cramped knuckles turned from red to white to yellow as she dug into the door.
She was slurring her words when finally Grandma came in.
"Hattie, shhh, not so loud," Grandma said. She was nervous and smiling at the stares, but Grandma was used to it.
Mom grunted from some place deep.
"Hattie, dear, close that door, now. It's time for us to go."
Grandma didn't have to ask Mom again. She quietly approached Mom and touched her arm. She held her arm and then her hand, leading her away from my door. Mom's eyes were clouded and lost to me, and even to herself, and I was out of the bathroom before I had to look at them. In another time, she had Grandpa's eyes. Light green eyes outlined in black, eyes that could keep you looking back because they seemed hollow and endless. I used to look in them and try to find things she knew or things I had lost. When I lost a doll, I thought I could find it somehow in there if I kept looking deep, deeper . . . Her eyes worked like a vacuum, always absorbing, extracting, inhaling, anything you didn't want.
But now, they don't even do that. They just sit in sockets and rock back and forth with her in the chair.
It takes a bit of effort to get to Grandpa's grave. He was cremated so he could be scattered places in death he could never have been in life. We still have most of his ashes on account of we haven't been able to make it to a few of those places yet. I wouldn't know how to begin to get to Saskatchewan or The Canyon.
Grandpa only took two vacations in his life; one to Atlantic City for his and Grandma's tenth wedding anniversary; and the other to see Uncle Larry, Mom's brother, in Spur, Louisiana. But he never considered that one a vacation. They say I went, but I don't remember.
And I remember a lot about when I was four, mostly about my Grandpa or my accidents, like when I scarred my knee on the wooden wheel at the end of our driveway. But I don't remember going to Uncle Larry's.
I remember when Uncle Larry came. Here. To Grandpa's funeral. And I remember wondering if his shirt was going to hold in his belly. Between his coughing and chewing, he had stretched the shirt and its buttons far past their intended limits. He had rings, pools, under his arms and always a handkerchief in his hand to smear his chest and forehead. But he had pride ~ that kind of easy, boastful pride ~ only it took on forms other than hygiene.
"Yeah, and he was just a staring at me the dumb shit ~ oh, sorry Mama ~ and I was thinking just stay where you are pretty boy. OOOH, he looked so good, I could just taste the stew and steak I was gonna get off that boy. And we looked eye to eye, and he knew his time was up cause I had that barrel aimed right at his white chest, and BABOOM! He was mine. He laid flat out on the ground with his neck flopping and his tongue hanging out like a retard, and I'll be damned ~ excuse me, Mama ~ if his heart wasn't still beatin' when I started gutting him."
Telling us this, he rocked hard and panted hard in Grandpa's worn green rocking chair. I remember wanting to tell him to stop.
"Um hum, yes well, I'm sure your daddy would have been proud, Larry," Grandma said, shaken tired, and ever making up stories. Grandpa was never proud of Uncle Larry.
"Yeah, he surely would have," Uncle Larry said. "He (sniff, cough) sh-sh-surely would have been proud, M-m-m-a-mama."
I haven't seen such a large man hunch over like that and shake. And I haven't heard such a large man, as he let out the same kind of blubbery sounds from the deepest pit of a stomach, out through the sticky, dark tunnel of an open mouth. But there he was, Uncle Larry, blubbering, and for a moment he looked honest as he gripped his greased, stringy hair between his fingers, digging his elbows into his knees. Dimples and dikes poxed his cheeks, his face tightening as he cried. He looked so uncomfortable, like his body couldn't fit him anymore and his clothes couldn't fit his body. Something was going to have to give because he couldn't keep himself together much longer. His head was out-growing his hair at the top, his hands seemed too bloated to make a fist, like a blown-up rubber glove, and the bottom of his pants, stretched and frayed, came up to the middle of his calves when he sat there, hunched over.
I left Grandma and Uncle Larry sitting in the living room, and I went into my room to take off my funeral clothes. I've never liked wearing black ~ it reminds me of things. And even though they were more of a peach color earlier that day, my underwear even looked black. So I stood in my room, naked, picking lint from my skin, until I put on some new underwear. Then, I stood in my new ones looking into the long, warped mirror nailed on my closet door. Depending on the position I take in front of the mirror, certain parts of my body will stretch out or sink in. I tried to poke out my belly like Uncle Larry's to see what I was like. But my stomach wouldn't go out that far (unless I leaned sideways and bent my knees), and I was rather satisfied knowing that.
When I came back out of my room in a t-shirt and shorts, I saw Uncle Larry, red in the face, beating and pulling on the one window that was nailed shut. Trying to open it. Cursing Grandpa for never having fixed it.
There's a birch tree in our front yard, a scraggly tree with its bark curling up and peeling off, like it's bored or something, like my mom's skin. You can see a little of the tree from the nailed window, if you stretch your neck far enough and press your head against the windowpane. It's split in two at the base, each half of the tree getting farther away from the other. I was never able to climb up either side, the one growing towards the shed or the one growing towards the road. I could only sit in-between the two because the branches were too high for me to reach or too soft for me to sit on.
But I don't sit in front of the house much anyway. The pastures in the back are more for me. Besides, sometimes that tree makes me sneeze.
Same with pepper, but my mom collects salt and pepper shakers anyway. She arranges them almost everyday, even if it's just to move one in place of another. And they're always kept full, but even when they're full, they're filled. Or checked. By Mom. They sit on a small, water-stained shelf hung in the kitchen, and she has all kinds. Shakers shaped like mushrooms and chefs, dogs and churches, teapots and tomatoes.
We've always had tomatoes ever since I can remember, and I can remember way back when I was four.
Grandma fixes them all sorts of ways: cut up, whole fried, stewed, green, red, yellow, souped, juiced, spotted, salted, dried, drained, and every other way a tomato can be eaten. <
She grows them out back. She's got plastic buckets with stakes that she grows them in. Right now, there are five plastic buckets that she has to water and tend to, and they've got tomatoes in them.
Towards the sun I used to look, until one day Grandma told me looking up there was bad for my eyes. It was hard to keep looking anyway. It made me kind of dizzy. But I don't look anymore since I'm scared, now, and besides, I forget to. I used to wonder how I was going to go through the rest of my entire life without ever looking at the sun. It's so big. It's almost always there. Except when it's night and the crickets play on their washboards. That's what Grandpa always said. That the crickets played washboards at night and that's where all their noise came from. I never asked why the crickets play washboards, because Caroline plays the clarinet. And she said she plays the clarinet because "I like the sound it makes and the reed tickles my lips." I like her sound better than the crickets'.
Caroline's coming over after supper. She said that tonight we'll go catch fireflies and put them in mason jars. They make good nightlights when you put the jar in your room. Caroline puts her jar on her nightstand and I put mine on my windowsill. If you put grass inside the jar with the fireflies and punch holes in the top, it keeps them alive longer so they can be put out in morning.
Sometimes they die and I feel bad. Sometimes they die and I don't feel bad. They're just bugs. There are so many of them out back that we could scoop them up with a bulldozer and fill the entire house and not be able to tell outside. Still, I guess some things are better left to themselves because, as Grandpa always used to say the more you know the less you believe.
Mom is rubbing one of her slippers on her cheek and humming something I can't make out. It's not that the slippers are all that soft, really, only that they were soft once. The part that covers her toes is wool. And the wool was soft once and clean once and curly, but now they're stubbly and worn and brown. I think Mom remembers them. I like to think she remembers the time when they were new.
I'm tired of sitting, and sitting makes me tired. But I'm still here. The sun's gone from the window and almost gone for the day. There's a haze in the room resting on top of the furniture, on mom, on me. Grandma's taking a nap, but she'll be up soon (she always is) to fix potatoes and pork chops for dinner.
On certain nights, when the moon is crawling up over the house and when it hits the cinderblocks, the house glows like a giant T.V. ~ a steady glow that doesn't stay long. And on other certain nights, the clouds are low, and the fog rolls and drifts over and tucks into everything. It was on these nights, when the top of the house was all I could see, that I used to run out into the fog and imagine that the house was a ship sinking in a sea. And sometimes I would worry about all the things that would be lost; sometimes I wouldn't worry at all. I would swim in the fog and try to get to the top of the house ~ get to something high above the water. But every time I swam there, I would arrive at the front porch or at other cinderblock walls under the clouds ~ under the water.
I would s
And I would grasp for air and sputter and gurgle, and for a moment I would remember the things about myself that I wanted to remember. And for a moment I would die, but not for long. It was all pretend.
© crossconnect 1995-1999
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