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I remember sitting on the brown striped sofa, my shorts riding up and the alternating wool and velveteen fabric itching the back of my legs. I was six, not long before the house burned down, a few years before my mother was in the slam, but I was well past being corrupted. My mother left her can of Zigzag tobacco on the coffee table. Ghostly circles from sloppy cups dotted the wood. It was easier if I bent over, bracing my elbows on my knees. That way I could get more force with my wrists as I tucked and rolled.
I knew mom would be home soon. I wanted to get the task done. Sooner it was over; the sooner I could go outside and find Nicole. I licked the paper, a long snail trail across the crackling line, and folded it, patting it against the main. The smell was sweet and dark, like a bonbon gone wrong. I put the cigarette in the can with my day’s work, at least a hundred tightly packed, carefully rolled cigarettes. The lid made a satisfying Pock as I snapped it back on. Hungry, I made a fried egg and grape jelly sandwich.
I don’t remember how old I was when my mother taught me to roll cigarettes. I know I was excited to learn. I was eager to learn anything and to make my mother happy. This, rolling smokes, was one of the things that she rewarded me for. Sure, a medium double pepperoni extra cheese from Pizza Haven wasn’t much of a reward, at least, looking back now, I see it for what it was: cheap. Considering the alternatives, however, it was luxurious. Any other night and it would have been Top Ramen. Now the creator of Top Ramen is dead
I can’t eat wheat. My pizza eating days are over. It occurred to me today that I have spent a lot of time avoiding this fact: my mother’s mistreatment of me has lead to my worried self-care. So much of my life now is worrying. What to wear, how to behave, what to do with my blip of a life. I get pretty philosophical about it. I mean, WWPD, right? What Would Plato Do? I mean, what would have happened to me if Mary hadn’t stepped in? I was already 16 and living on the street when Mary located me.
I don’t know how she did it, but she did. I was staying off-and-on in a church group's basement for wayward children. My way was way off. My rolling skills had moved from tobacco to weed. I was proficient with one hand. By then, though, nobody I knew smoked pot. Everyone was hooked on Brown. I’d tell you what Brown is but I’m not even sure myself. All I know is everyone was cooking it. Mary saved my life. My mother’s sister, Mary was a counselor for Puget County Jails. She said I reminded her of the girls she profiled.
My brother was in the hospital with Chron’s disease when our mom decided she couldn’t live with us anymore. He was twelve. The Chron’s was first diagnosed when he was ten. Mom and dad visited Dieter without me. They said I was too young and left me at our neighbor’s. Cherie was nice enough, made me ramen noodles and let me watch cable TV. She asked about my brother. I was 7. Mom had accidentally burnt the house down and while insurance paid for it to be rebuilt Dieter started bleeding and I kissed a girl for the first time.
Divorce papers arrived after Dieter was released. He took steroids. His cheeks were swollen and his eyes puffy and he walked with his fingers inflated, difficult to grasp impossible to do the things he used to. He cursed as his knuckles split when he repaired the lawnmower. The radio dial was easier to turn. Headphones large enough to make his teen head look small, my brother kept to his bed with the Led Zeppelin poster and his automotive magazines. The divorce seemed to wash off him. Nothing lost after regaining his life. Mom moved away and dad worked as ever.
Dad’s hours were irregular. Some nights he came home late, gym bag in hand, juicy fruit gum smacking in his mouth, a sheen of sweat and dark circles under his eyes. Other nights he was home early having beaten the traffic, self satisfied to be sitting with a book before I got home from school, hogging up the one comfy seat in the house. He’d read and pause, “Listen to this,” quoting from the book. Alan Watts one day, Vonnegut the next. “How does he do that?” he’d ask, rhetorical and yet not. “I can’t do it, whatever it is.”
“but you could.” Dad’s grin, the grin of a cagey beatnik, a guy who’d seen the greats do their jazz band spoken word shticks, a guy who’d never compromised his studies and yet compromised his life by marrying and having kids and staying with mom through her most manic moments. “Why don’t you? You could do that.” He was always saying things like that. Like, “How do they do it? Can’t be hard if that jerk is doing it.” Somehow this translated in my mind to pessimism: how _do_ they do it? It must be insurmountable, they must be brilliant.
I always felt inadequate, a goofy kid with strangled hair and not enough lip to get the words out. Other kids seemed to have their own spotlights, a camera crew and orchestra following them, dramatizing their performances, adding highlights to their cheeks and posing them at just the right angle for adults to appreciate. They didn’t lose their shoe during recess. Other kids didn’t pick them for easy bullying practice. Recount the times I was corned and it would read like a tides table. Run too fast and there goes another shoe, easier to get pummeled and walk away polished.
My brother was a bully. He didn’t take any crap from anyone. Before he got sick he was average size. After the Chron’s he was suped up on enough steroids to make him a menace. His height kicked in. He should have been tall and gangly like the men in our family but steroids made him tall and stout, a combination that enabled him to circulate through his classmates without care. He bragged about being a man before the rest of them. I never saw he was much with the ladies but he seemed to think he was hot shit.
The healthier Dieter grew and the more distant the dealings with our mom, the more comfortable our dad seemed. Dad took over the kitchen, sharpening knives and buying a huge cutting board to cover the stained counter. He sliced mushrooms and sautéed them with pan fried noodles in a ginger spice sauce of his own design. He started screen printing, paperbacked emulsion rolls unfurled over a metal rack ready to be cut into designs. Self satisfied, dad looked younger, smiled at chores, ruffled my brother and read out loud to me page by page, whole passages of wisdom and humor.
What would possibly be worthy to post. On a day like today he is lost. There are no words. Fear of failure, a life lived outside of the self, his creative flow is jammed, gummed up, stuck in the works, monkey wrenched. He curls his fist under his chin and pouts, elbow hard on the kitchen table. The sun waggles outside, now behind a cloud, now shining through. He watches it through the window, looks down the block cataloguing the houses, the colors, and thinks about the luxury; fridgerators stocked with bacon, lettuce, factory direct apple sauce and leftover pizza.
Racked up with debt, bills piled by the sink, power turned off, two sweaters on, cell phone off and full of messages, exercising his butt cheeks by clenching in the straight back kitchen chair, Darren wishes he could write. But every word is useless. Nothing makes sense. Combinations that once rang true now make him angry. His Remington typewriter is on the curb with a free sign. Darren has given up. Why pretend? Why fight it? Darren knows his failure as he pencils in applications for Taco Time, Burger King and Walgreen’s. He’ll cut his hair and shower at Larry’s.
Another dollar folded into a shirt. How many times will this gimmick work as a tip? She seems to think that the act of having folded the dollar makes it worth more than a dollar. I wonder about that. Could I let myself believe? There is a charm to the origami. Something about it seems magical, as though it were added value. But as I hand a dollar folded into a shirt to the librarian to pay my fine she looks unimpressed and rapidly unfolds it, nearly tearing the bill along the collar, making me feel sheepish, knocking my pride.
A great opera panned and praised; Mahler loved it, Verdi hated it, Berlioz swung both ways, and Wagner, the anti-Semite, celebrated it. Forgotten, seldom performed, the opera languishes. Few care of opera anymore. The young think it is all fat ladies, false hair and beauty marks. Puffy underpants only go so far to make an opera entertaining. Plenty a farce about misplaced messages and misplaced love affairs have gone round. But when the tragedy of love misguided leads the key players to die in flames for the final act, who can deny the greatness of opera? Love transcends the fire.
He sounds crazy. The artist I’d admired all my life since I first knew what art was – how art could make people feel, wake up, remember – has gone bonkers. I’m certain of it. He talks about meditating, his being soaring above all humanity and resting in nirvana like wings on a bird tucked against a warm, rapid beating body of light. I decided I don’t want to listen; information over load, too much all at once, a rift in my imagining, a bump in my conception. How I had missed it before. Artists are all like this, disconnected from reality.
What is spiritual? People want to be rich. The television is all about possessions, how much you can buy, how much you can store, ways to spend money on organizing the possessions, following extraordinarily rich people around their extravagant homes and panning across the fields of automobiles, saunas, golf courses, studio and corporate endorsements; where are the servants? Where are all the attendants, the men and women who polish all the stuff? Everything I own is dusty. I rarely get to touch my things, let alone admire them. So why do I keep them? Why hold on to American spirituality?
Mary sits beside me and puts her hand on my knee, just for a second, just long enough for me to look at it and register the touch, then she clasps it to her other hand. I miss the touch. People don’t touch each other much. We share stories, we laugh, crack jokes, express woe, grumble but we don’t sing. We don’t linger. Who would dare break out in a love song, a heartfelt rehearsed song of devotion for a friend? Life could be a movie-musical. Couldn’t it? For Mary I’d sing a song of praise, a song of courageousness.
It took a long time to get over it. I read books about it. I talked to friends. Few people are experienced in the matter. They align it with money, troubles of the heart, garden gnomes on the hoof and what can you do? You can tell them it is not like student loans. You can explain the fear is nothing like the errant garden gnome because you know the gnome will return with your vacationing friend. The closest is love but that always mends itself with time. No, I was certain I’d never get over it and would die.
The first time I met her she was running through the dining room, a three year old sprite in a hot pink dress, dirty fingers and runny nose. She played shy. My brother was aghast. “She’s never shy,” he said. “Go on, tell her your name.” The girl curled her gummy fingers into the hem of her dress leaving brown smudges. I smiled and shrugged, “Evil auntie, I guess.” “No,” my brother said, “she’s never like this. I don’t understand. This is your aunt. Say hello.” The girl smiled, “You’re my aunt?” “It would seem so,” I said, half apologizing.
“She just learned how to play checkers last week. You should play a game with her,” my brother suggested. He had the girl go get the game board. We sat at opposite sides of a modular u-shaped sofa with a ceramic glass top table between us. The girl wanted the glass closer to her so she could reach the game pieces. She yanked at the glass, causing it to scrape against the ceramic base. “Careful,” I said, “this table is handmade. Don’t break it.” The girl looked at me and yanked the glass again. “Okay,” I said, “Stop. No more.”
“Can you play checkers?” the girl asked. “It’s been a long time,” I said. My brother laughed, “Watch out! She’s only been playing for a week.” I could tell he meant that as a threat, that he had trained his pet monkey to burn the competition. My brother was infamous for always knowing everything. Growing up, he lorded over me. He thought he was my protector, he thought he was wiser, he though he was a good and balanced ruler. I though he was crap. Sitting across from his adopted daughter I couldn’t help wanting to spank her checkers game.
“I don’t remember how the pieces go,” I said. My brother commented from the kitchen counter where he was dicing hardboiled eggs for potato salad, “You’d better remember quick or she’ll beat your pants off.” The girl wriggled closer to the glass table and said, “That’s okay. I can set them up. The red ones go like this and the black ones, you be the black ones, I’ll be the red ones, they go here and then when you come across you go like this and you can jump over me and then I’m gone and you got my guy.”
The pieces were all in order. Her red army faced my black army. She couldn’t resist further tutoring me on the rules of the game. I waited for her to finish then we started. “You move first,” she said. So I did. She moved her red then grabbed my black and said, “Now you go here and look you got my guy.” “Wait, wait, wait a minute. What if I didn’t want to move there?” “No, see, you got my guy and now I move here.” She put another red out and let me move a black. We moved again.
I put my black so she could take it but she fumbled the play and grabbed my black, hopped it over her red and made me win her piece. “You can’t do that!” “No, you have to jump my guy or you don’t win. And see, then, you get over here and then I king you and you go back to your side and then you win.” “Okay, but you can’t move my pieces like that.” The girl looked at the board; I could see no registration of my comments. Obstinate girl, I thought, I’ll show you what disrespect wins.
“How goes the game?” my brother asked. He had begun mixing mayo into the bowl of potato salad. “Daddy, she, Aunt, already has my guys and I have one of hers and …” the girl babbled excitedly. My brother’s smile has always been more of a smirk. Being the definition of cynical, he rarely bursts out laughing and when he does it is in response to a hardship or meanness. He wears a Dick Dastardly tee shirt. His moustache takes on an air of arrogance as I look at him smirking, mixing, proud of the winning creature he has trained.
“She is intent on forcing the game,” I say. I can feel my eyebrows are arched and I am sure my lips purse. I bet my face looks much like our grandmother’s did when we reached for a tray without asking for it to be passed. “She’s a spit-fire,” he says, “What can I say?” The girl waits for me to move, she analyzes the board, has likely visualized all the possible moves for the rest of the game. If she is going to force me to win, I may as well gum up her plans as much as possible.
I let her make the next few moves for me then I start throwing my pieces in random, illogical directions. At every opportunity I force my black in the tread of her red so she has to jump them. Bewildered, she stops grabbing my pieces and playing them for me. She takes a combative approach. As soon as my black touches her end of the board she kings it and says, “Now you go to the other end and you win!” “But what if I don’t want to?” “You just go to the other end and you win,” she repeats.
“Isn’t that boring for you?” I ask. The girl doesn’t respond. She looks at me with some mark of curiosity. The snot beneath her nose has crystallized into a dark smudge. Her lips are fat from thumb sucking. Her hair is dirty straw. She reminds me of my crazy mother – puffy from psychotropic drugs and delirious with self-gratification, years of doing as she will. How can a three year old seem nuts? She looks to my brother. He is busy loading bowl with cold pasta salad. She must live for his attention, she must follow him everywhere like I did.
I was never like that, was I? I know for looks I was far more refined. My brother was around but he was not responsible for turning me into an automaton, a monkey on the box dancing for quarters. No, I was shy. I concentrated on details and never trusted anyone. A word, a look could send me skidding down the hall and barricading my bedroom door with the dresser. This girl would never do that. She lived empowered. Her life was diligent instruction and the occasional smile of dick dastardly. “I’ve had enough,” I said, standing to stretch tall.
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