I awoke to the smell of coffee; an apropos detail for such a morning. It was a rare occurrence—the aromatic coup of coffee brewed—that signaled your presence in our home.
In the living room my mother anxiously rifles through a box of photographs, searching desperately for a picture of you taken one summer under the big tree in our backyard, surrounded by your daughters and grandchildren. We’re positive it was stolen but avoid naming names. I lament how childish and fucked up things are, but I’m careful not to articulate exactly what is meant by ‘things.’ Instead I bristle at the thought of the memory thief laughing at my mother’s expense—for any reason.
In a final exercise of hope I’m sent to assist my father in procuring more photographs for sorting. I stand at the foot of the pull down latter ready to receive whatever time capsules descend from the darkness. I hear my name and turn my face upward to be met by a rain of latent images. As I stoop to gather the scattered photos I stop to ponder how the molecular structure of a photograph could ever hope to compare to the molecular experience of a memory.
Just before we leave for your memorial I ask why only one of your sons will be in attendance. The answer startles me and I’m inundated with the heavy sense of your humanity twenty-eight years too late. On the ride home I soothe my disappointment by reflecting on the events at home; these were your true memorial not half an hour of gospel.
Mortal men are said to have presence; he came with the kind of atmosphere only Bergman, Fellini and Egoyan could emulate. He was a misogynist of the worst kind: a man who claimed to worship the goddess, the mother, and the womb but only insofar as they pertained to the cunt, any cunt, and its role in fortifying his manhood.
“Women,” he’d often proselytize to any heathen male who’d listen, “are the alpha and omega of my existence, my eroticism, my sustenance.”
What he meant was that a woman had given birth to him, raised him, and sent him into the arms of other women whom he’d love and revere, and occasionally make mothers themselves, until they were no longer swayed and blinded by the ejaculations of his ego, his desires, and his cock and therefore, could no longer be managed. Or, until the money ran out–whichever came first.
“Doubt is the devil’s tailor,” he said as he parted my legs, “now lay down, it’s your turn.”
I awoke to find my mother had gone already to the home you’ve just left behind. She had a list of things she intended to fetch before the home is dismantled, parceled and relegated to memories. I took the lima bean green tea pot from the windowsill, that night I was there and I couldn’t sleep. I wrapped it in my night shirt and tucked it in my bag. By that time, though, I’d noticed things had already been rifled through, boxed, and lost to the world. What was it like to spend your last days in a home that had already begun to breakdown? Did you really need a literal reminder that you were moving on?
I called my mom and asked for a piece of your jewelry I’d admired since I was a child. It was nothing special, nothing expensive, just smart: a string of black and white micro-beads in a candy cane pattern. I breathed a sigh of relief when she called to tell me it was there. When she returned and handed it to me, I was overwhelmed by the scent of roses and I shivered. I understand ghosts smell like roses. But I know you were fond of having little parfum packages tucked in your dresser drawers.
I’m sad now. I claim we were never close and yet I begin to recall the minutest of details, your subtlest idiosyncrasies and every home you’ve lived in that I’ve ever known. I remember in great detail the floor plans, the décor, and the smells distinct to each. I remember the constants: the bread machines, the afghans, the stockings hung to dry in the bathroom, the blaring televisions playing murder mysteries and you. And now, as I sit weeping, I can’t think of single thing more finite than death, an event lonelier than dying, or an emblem more poignant than an empty home.
With a quick flourish, my mother pulls away the blankets resting atop your lap and with them come approximately fifty pounds from your frame. Your limbs are skeletal and skin hangs from them in surrender. In this instant I come to understand the fragility of the body. When she pulls your catheter bag from beneath your robe and additional coverlet I pretend I didn’t cringe but you saw me and you looked the other way. I wasn’t expecting it, I’m sorry.
I do my best not to gag as she empties the tea colored liquid into the toilet in the next room. You can’t hear the contents fall but you can smell the pungent odor of your voids emanating from the bathroom. You smile at me and assuage the discomfort.
I jump up to free your walker from the recliner attempting to eat it and mom helps you slowly to your feet. You clench your eyes shut and your hands around your new legs as you struggle, hunched over, to catch your breath. “This is your grandmother learning to use her walker,” you say with what appears to be a tired blush flushing your translucent and paper thin skin.
I lay in the corner adjacent your hospital bed atop an old but cozy mattress on the floor. The coral pink walls are softened by the darkness and the light washing in from the hallway. Your breathing is rapid and labored and I begin to panic as I contemplate my course of action should the panting altogether stop.
My mind wanders back to some night in my childhood when we shared a bed. I couldn’t sleep and so I lay examining your beautifully wrinkled ivory face. I remember relating the story to my favorite of all your daughters the next morning and proclaiming, some twenty years premature, that you looked dead.
You call out in your sleep, moaning about the pain. I wonder what keeps you here. What keeps your still sharp and lucid mind trapped in this dying body? And then, from the other room, I hear your invalid daughter stir–the only daughter who has never questioned you, never resented you, never abandoned you, and can never understand you.
One evening my sister and I tussled about on the big bed–the single bed not attached to our bunk beds. Elizabeth, more recently known on occasion as ‘Hulk Beth,’ pulled me down and flipped me over her leg. I remain convinced that it was some fancy Judo move she just happened to improvise. I flew off of the bed and struck my head on the jagged corner of the electric heater. Immediately I felt dizzy and then I was bleeding. But, I was relatively coherent so I didn’t panic. We put an ice pack and a rag over my gash…
No, it didn’t happen that way. The way my sister tells the story, I launched myself over top of her, my temple aiming directly for that rusty corner, and I never made a sound. Even after I put my hand to my head and felt the wetness that was my blood, I didn’t speak…
No, what really happened is the story of two little girls who were rough housing when gravity decided to join in. Once gravity had thrown one of the girls a twist, literally, skin took offense and blood felt the need to comfort it.
I awake, shivering, beneath a thin cotton cocoon
to a cool room on a hot summer’s night.
The darkness, of some time just before or after
the witching hour, intensifies
the sound of the box fan in the window.
Beneath its whirring is the faint and indecipherable rondo
of chirping crickets and croaking frogs
as far away as dreams just had,
a dog barks.
I roll onto my back and turn my burning eyes
toward the nothingness above.
When the old water stains on the ceiling
reveal their dank and puddled outlines,
I know my eyes have adjusted
from one darkness to another.
on Walnut Street,
is as old and tired as the secret lives it hides.
The floors creak, the carpet is worn and
paint falls away from the walls in chips the size of
snowflakes and mothballs.
Sheets hang where there ought to be doors
and the plumbing is temperamental at best.
Still, nostalgia runs rampant and innocence abounds–
because this house,
on Walnut Street,
will give birth to butterflies and moths alike.
I lie awake in the dark,
My eyes expressing warm silk ribbons of tears.
I stroke your hair: long, coarse, unkempt.
A veritable nest of the day’s activities
And of the day before
And of every other day before this one.
I scratch your scalp gently, lovingly
And I am not surprised that even in your sleep
You are capable of filling the most miniscule of voids:
Beneath my fingernails is the purest of grime.
A concoction of dirt and dried skin
Saturated in sweat and sunlight.
I pull you closer to me,
Careful not to pull you back into me.
I can smell your hair now,
It’s sour, earthy—like the way it smelled
After playing in the rain that summer evening.
while I’m cleaning my own body,
Washing and braiding my own hair,
Cleaning your skin,
Washing and braiding your hair
Will be my intention.
You know, Jeanne D’Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen. There’s a cathedral shaped like billows of smoke where it happened—and a cross. Oh, I see the dull incessantness of the train has put you to sleep. Perhaps it is better that way; a sacrificial lamb who knows not, cries not. I read somewhere that she died before she really suffered. The fire was built to smoke and she was suffocated before the flames began licking at her flesh.
I was born in Rouen. Well, really I don’t know where I was born, but most of my first memories are there, so I tell people I was born there. I remember standing under the Gros Horloge with my little cup and smiling as hard as I could. The more you smile, the guiltier people feel about you standing there. That didn’t make sense to me then, but that’s what Marguerite was always saying, so that’s what I did. Once, this old man put his hand on my shoulder and bent down so we were face-to-face. He smelled awful and his smile revealed yellow, rotten teeth. He said a little girl like me shouldn’t stand under such a big clock. And then he laughed. And then he said it might eat me. Then he left.
I was so scared after that, that my poor little girl legs struggled to support me. I didn’t want time to swallow me whole. So I started to run away, back to Marguerite, but I tripped on one of the cobble stones in the road and all of my coins jumped out of the paper cup when my elbow bumped the ground. I was more upset about the coins than I was about bleeding. I just lay there crying. I was dirty, bleeding, and crying.
I’ve been that way a lot of times.
It’s the strangest sound, you know, the sound of coins on cobblestones. It’s hollow and prickly. I never found Marguerite. I never saw her again and so I just assumed that time had swallowed her after she put me under that clock. I had to clean up my own scrapes that day. That’s when I became a warrior.
I wasn’t in Rouen much longer after that. After that, I met Robert and he took me to Paris. But, I won’t tell you about those things. You get used to the sounds of coins on cobblestone, though, and you get used to scraping them up. I believe that if more women knew what that was like, they’d raise better sons.
I suppose that in the end, in different ways, time swallows everyone.
The train’s stopping. We’re here. You know, I know girls who just smother their babies and stuff them all sorts of places. The Seine is full of all kinds of broken hearts, not just that of a saint.
I’m glad you won’t remember any of this. You’ll have only the newspaper clippings and playground taunting to remind you. I’m sorry for that, but that’s not the worst life can decree. When I leave you at the doors of the billows, I’ll pray that you’ll never understand why. I’ll pray that one day you will understand that I can never remember any of this. Because, I’ll never forget it.