My school bus was Lord of the Flies on wheels, and I was Piggy. Nighttime tears shed the residue of that day’s humiliations. My parents’ variegated forms of “Children are cruel” landed as corroboration rather than sympathy. Their concern quickly sewed into ennui hemmed with …
Month: April 2015
“You are at the age of reason,” Sister said, “ready to understand the mystery of transubstantiation.” She cued them with her ruler. “Tran-sub-stan-ti-a-tion,” the children repeated. Angie spoke it softly, enjoying the roominess of the word, its multiple, mysterious syllables that would teach her how …
The goal, someone told me, is to make each day different than the one before.
So I heeded the advice and added to my routine that summer half a joint every morning and about a hundred butterscotch candies. For maybe seven months my teeth stung when I ate anything, especially the round ice cubes I liked to chew from the large Cokes at the gas stations.
Why I was able to exist at all, to function in some kind of meaningful way then, finally, after my mother died, was because I was still delivering flowers, and the shop never saw me. All the bouquets would be on the counter in the stockroom, tagged and wrapped. My job was to put them in milk crates, stuff newspaper around them, load them into a pretty un-rusted greenish 1973 Ford Country Sedan, and come back to resupply later, when I was out. Each run, then, took about three hours.
It turns out there was more to my daily responsibilities, but name someone, really, who was going to tell me?
It was fun to spend the morning dealing with that half joint. Maybe fun isn’t the word. Closer to numbing, a kind of two-dimensional thing. The day would turn into only the double yellow and red or green stoplights and some small-town hills and smiling people on doorsteps, or nobody at all, just ring the bell, wait a minute or two and back to the car.
It was 1987, early August. Sometimes I’d smoke the whole thing and the dashboard clock would say 3:15 and I’d wonder if, really, I’d ever have a job like that.
My front passenger was a $65 thing of pink and yellow roses and baby’s breath and I think peonies, and keeping it steady on the floor mat between her legs was Sandersson, two years older, finished with her second year of teacher’s school, home for the summer listening to T. Rex, Aerosmith, learning calligraphy, the bass guitar, reading Kant too much.
It was raining a little. I listened to the tire spray when I wasn’t sure what to say next. I thought about my mother in those washy silences. She wasn’t dead, really, just gone; four states south, no phone number or address. So not dead, but I didn’t see a difference, then.
Sandersson’s younger brother Ryan grew what we smoked in his prep school dorm closet. We were fine all summer and I well into the fall.
How did his dorm attendant not know, or at least have some suspicions?
It doesn’t have to be something new each day, just something different than yesterday: a road you don’t usually drive, order something else for lunch, a slight change to take your mind off her and the new family I imagined she was cooking for at that moment, this moment, every and all moments.
Yeah, ok, I can do that, which meant the cup holder now held M&Ms everyday at 2:00 and my 711 Slushies came with rum and by October three joints might get me to 4:00.
Ten years later, Sandersson would grow up, take a series of principal positions, one even at the school her brother went to that summer. Vanderville? Landerman? Grandville? Something like that, regal enough, with two syllables.
She would also become a man, finally, after what involved an out-of-state hospital, consultations, injections, years of hesitation, waiting rooms, outpatient procedures, every type of therapy. Then, finally, after, she had a new first name, but the same severe jaw and brown eyes with dull gold flecks.
Way before, in college, did her dorm mother know, I wonder, or at least have some suspicions?
I think about those questions now, but at the time, that summer and fall, she was just Sandersson, two years older, and I pretty desperately wanted to sleep with her. But when? Where? We were 18, 20, and the seats were full of all these goddamn flowers.
After she went back to school the passenger was my brother, and we’d hum choruses and share those big bags of pretzel rods, and we’d talk about mom but just enough to make ourselves feel better.
Or he’d be nodding off, glassed over, drifting away from me, you, us, and whatever I’d say would be the exact wrong thing.
Once, driving too fast on snowy roads, I skidded into a snowbank, knocked the fender off and had to pay for it later out of pocket. He never offered to help, seemed unfazed by the incident. And the question I wrestled with, continue to, is: How did I not know, or at least have some suspicions?
There’s no real car accident in this story. Just a conversation. I don’t remember every sentence. We piece things together, we think about before, how we talked, what we wanted, the way we imagine our words probably sounded. But here’s the type of thing Sandersson was on that summer.
“Most things don’t matter unless we make them matter,” she said. “I mean, think about it, right?”
It was all this amateur philosophy then, but it really struck a nice full round kind of 12-string guitar chord when I was so stoned.
“Do these flowers matter?”
“The people who get them assign them meaning,” she said. “They’ve already swept a place clean in their houses, in their hearts, for them to matter.”
“Does this Ford matter?” A Doobie Brothers song started. I switched it off, like, Ok, let’s get some real quiet for a conversation this deep.
“Do you think?”
“I mean, it allows me to deliver these flowers, but that’s it.”
“There you go,” she said. I had no fucking idea what she meant, but remember, these old sedans had lifting armrests, and she was sitting so close her hair would drift in my face on left turns.
Later, after, she’d listen and offer the correct consolations, but then, before, she said, “If you choose to honor the dead, then you just have to commit to that desire, but that’s only if you want to.” She took a long pause, during which I turned the radio back on and right away we got Joe Walsh.
When he was still alive, Sandersson’s dad had “real problems” is how she framed it. He’d just died the previous winter fighting a fire in a textile warehouse the next state up.
She said, harshly, “The dead go away. They live, they die, that’s it.” In my memory, the way I decide now to see it, she’s crying, a perfect little crystalline drop down her sharp left cheek.
This song kept going, verse chorus verse bridge solo another verse.
“Don’t worry, it’s ok, relax,” I told her. “Take it easy. ”I still wanted to sleep with her but she could be so stubborn and unforgiving. And even if I was only two years younger and my mom wasn’t around, I held on to an idea that the world was soft, like a plush padded basket you could sit in and eventually it would fill up with exactly what you needed, if you just waited long enough, sitting.
Cold and persistent and always had to be right. Still though, she’d hook her arm in mine on the walk to the doorsteps, and it would make it so much harder to hold these huge flower arrangements steady, but I never said a thing.
After, almost a decade later, when I started working for Sandersson, she, now he, would listen to the new tragedy, understand, give me paid leave, organize it so different teachers brought over dishes in Tupperware with heating directions for two full weeks. She’d get the faculty to fill my desk with cards.
Each new day something different: unfiltered cigarettes, clove cigarettes, plastic-tipped cigars, driving barefoot, a blue nylon fake fur trapper hat, denim jacket, books on tape.
We never did do anything, Sandersson and I. We kissed I guess, that winter, for a minute against the washing machine at this girl’s party, but that went nowhere. It was the wrong time, the wrong room, the wrong party, the wrong season, dynamic, outfits, music, circumstances, people. She went back after the holiday break and I saw her the way you see people, occasionally.
Sandersson and my mother were both gone and I wanted them back. It was like young love, in a way. One sided. Total longing, unrequited. Or requited but just not in the same way. Or stuck in every gear at once, flying down the road, stoned, seeing everything so fucking clearly. Or bucking, coughing to slow at a yellow light, sputtering out in the suburbs, walking from the gas station with a red canister, chewing on ice cubes, smoking a cigarette like, Fine, let the ash travel into the can, let the whole thing go up.
Matt Liebowitz earned degrees in Creative Writing from Boston University and Skidmore College, and has studied with Steven Millhauser, Ha Jin, and Martha Cooley. He’s published stories in 236, Crack the Spine, Clare, and Fiction Southeast. Matt teaches middle school English in Encinitas, California.
There was a house at the bottom of a hill by the shore. It was coated in a clotted-cream-colored siding perpetually speckled with dirt.
A sturdy oak sat in the back yard, centered between the off-white vinyl fence and a deck only big enough to fit a white plastic chair, a small sea-glass-encrusted table, and an ashtray.
In the summers, around 11 in the morning, the sun would hit the glass sending waves of color onto the siding. Blues and creamy whites would crash into deep greens to make a color so similar to the ocean.
After rain, my father’s Newport cigarette butts would swirl around like fish in the murky water of that ashtray. I would take my finger and push them around, sometimes naming them, sometimes not. My father watched me once, pick a snubbed wet butt from the pile and raise it to my lips. His grey blue eyes watched as I lifted it to my lips like he always did. The taste was bitter and harsh and filled my tongue with the taste of ash. Tears filled my eyes and ran in hot streams down my cheeks before my father grabbed my wrist between his thumb and pointer finger, tugging me along as I screamed for my mother.
Under the oak they built a sandbox.
Sitting and drinking Yoo-hoos, my sister and I watched my parents carrying buckets of sand across the three blocks from the shoreline, adamant about not paying for Quikrete play sand with real sand so close. Their faces were puffy red as they trudged back and forth filling the pit my father had haphazardly dug. Her chestnut colored curls were tamed in a ponytail but strands still poked out like a chia pet. His balding head, with its horseshoe ring of speckled grey hair, was damp with sweat. They kissed once when they were done, before my father left to go inside, leaving my mother to watch us play. She gave us a soft-sweet smile as we built sandcastles and dug holes to China, clicking her thumb nail between her two front teeth and looking back at the house.
Now, my mother tells me that isn’t what happened. In her stories her hair was pin straight with the strong scent of Just for Me relaxer still clinging to it. My father sits at the sea glass table overseeing through a cloud of cigarette smoke as my mother poured sand. They both sighed when my sister and I started tossing clumps of sand from the box, peppering the pockets of grass and weeds around us. Snubbing his cigarette, my father turned toward the house, tossing one hand up in frustration, and left my mother to watch us play. I like to believe she remembers it wrong.
Inside it was always warm. The walls were coated in pinewood panels that soaked up the daytime sun. Beige carpeting followed you from room to room, the same beige carpeting that has followed me in every home I have had since.
The entryway was worn, showing the heavy trails of feet that were dragged through the front door. It was stained slightly brown and matched the wood grain on the walls. There was clutter. From that day, and the day before, and a month before that. It was crowded with no hiding places.
On the top floor there was a door that led to a loft. The loft was kept bare except for three bay windows facing east and a bench had been covered in pillows and groaned under the weight of two people.
Often, my mother would wake me, quietly, from my bunk bed to watch the sun rise, nestled in the loft. Wrapped in a soft blanket, she rubbed the sleep from my eyes with a soft swipe of her thumb. We never said anything. But we would watch the sun peak over the horizon till everything coated in an orange glow.
As the sun cleared the shoreline my mother would kiss my forehead, tuck a blonde curl behind my ear and sneak us both back into bed.
My mother tells me now I can’t remember that house or the sunrises. What three year-old could? She reminds me I don’t recall the fighting on the nights that she took me from my bed. The way she trembled from either sadness or anger as she gathered me in her arms. How she would whisper to herself that the new house would be better, that we would be happy there. That things would change.
When I was nearly four we moved three blocks away into a house that was a bastardized mix of Victorian and Colonial style. The yard was bigger and had no oak or sandpit, but we all had our own rooms to escape into. It was painted a sea foam green that resembled no ocean Inearly four we moved three blocks away into a house that was a bastardized mix of Victorian and Colonia would go years without watching the sun rise together.
On the fourth floor there was a tiny window in our bathroom that faced westward enough to see those three bay windows. Inside, the bathroom had a sandy brown tiled wall that mixed with a cloudy sky mural that had already started to chip. I remember stealing a stool from the hallway closet to watch new families when they moved in. I could see the Harrises move in with their dog, and the Olsens a year later with their new baby. No one stayed for long–three families in four years, in fact. I liked to think we left our stain there, that somehow the new family could see our faces in the wood paneling, hear us as the house groaned when the heat kicked on. We were trapped in the walls.
One night, when I was almost six, my mother snuck me out of my room as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Her grip on me was tight as she strained to lift me high enough to see over the white windowsill. The skin of my thigh was pinched between her ring and middle fingers as she shifted me so I could see the orange glow was a fire.
Glass cracked, wood splintered and sirens clanged as whips of orange light rose from our old bay windows three blocks over.
The flames were bright and stung my eyes as I stared into them. My mother was tense holding me, her breath shallow but constant.
When it was done, and our old home was left steaming and crumbled, my mother carried me to my room without a word before tucking me back into bed.
Now, my mother tells me I remember it wrong, that together we watched the flames burning from that tiny window, my fingers tangled in her curled hair, tugging on the strands till she winced. She gave me a small-sweet smile, the same I remember getting that day in the sandbox, as I took her strands and wiped them across her cheeks for forgiveness.
I like my memory better. The one where she kissed me, no tears in her eyes, and smiled as she tucked me into bed, before leaving me in the blue black light of morning.
Stephanie Bills is a Baltimore-based writer/photographer/blogger. She is a recent graduate of Baltimore University’s MFA program. She would also like to remind everyone that she can quote Top Gun better than you and all your friends.
______________________________________________ Theodore Zachary Cotler’s most recent books are Supplice and Ghost at the Loom. His awards include the Colorado Prize and the Ruth Lilly Fellowship. He’s a founding editor of The Winter Anthology at www.winteranthology.com. Cotler will direct Shipwreck on a Hillside, a feature-length drama …
______________________________________________ Tim McLafferty lives in NYC and works as a drummer. His poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Painted Bride Quarterly, Pearl, Portland Review and elsewhere. He is the poetry editor at Forge Journal. timmclafferty.com