Rufus tosses the penguin into the air and catches it, shaking it brutally six times. Dead, for sure. Then he tosses it up again. The sodden black-and-white fleece lands in his jaws exactly like an Emperor penguin in the maw of a leopard seal. Eventually the toy lacks an eye, one-third of a flipper, and the squeaker has lost its voice.
This is not so much a shell, as it is a ruined city. Every slick surface has been calcified by other creatures. Coral etched little pinpricks all over the outside, and some worm excavated a port hole through the middle. Carol and I found it in the sand dredged from Pohnpei’s harbor; amidst perfect augers and cones, this one had character.
The art deco brooch resides in a silk box at the back of my nightstand drawer. The crystals sparkle, but the silver has tarnished. When I hold it up to the lamp, a milky light passes through the apple green stone. Likely Ida wore it in her wilder days, when she ran off with that farm boy who broke her heart.
Stella Gibson says, “That’s what really bothers you, isn’t it? The one-night stand. Man fucks woman. Subject: Man. Verb: fucks. Object: woman. That’s okay. Woman fucks man. Subject: Woman. Verb: fucks. Object: man. That’s not so comfortable for you, is it?” And I find myself wishing that she was conversing with Hemingway. “Woman fucks man to death. Alone. In the rain.”
Five years ago, my Mom gave me a pair of men’s LL Bean boots that my Dad never wore. She thought they might fit one of the boys, but neither boy wanted old man boots. The boots sit by the garage’s back door, and I slip them on when I take the dog out. One zipper no longer latches. We galumph.
The fabric: nubby pseudo linen from a remainder table, brown shot with black. The pattern: Vogue 1256 by issey miyake, early 1980s. Size 16, something that Mr. Miyake probably never would have considered possible. I wore the dress into Saks one day while shopping with Mavis, the Queen of Bethesda. A fabulous sales clerk swooned. Score one for the shiksa daughter-in-law.
A SARASA 0.5mm black gel ink pen. The company logo is actually written SΛRΛSΛ, a word best attempted when drunk, and on an SNL sketch. Don’t try to substitute a Zebra pen, even though that is the parent company. And don’t even consider a 0.7mm. Just flick off the red plastic guard covering the ballpoint tip, and get some words out.
“Look at this cute plant. It’s an upside-down, spotted octopus.”
“Wonder how long until I kill it?”
Let me rub my jaw along your spines. Ahhh.
“Water once a month. How will I ever be able to remember when it’s a month?”
I worship you. I will leave my scent, and fur, all over you.
“Get away from the plant!”
The Kimball console collects dust in our library. It was a practical, economy model that my mother somehow bankrolled so that my sisters and I could learn to play. Cindy didn’t try, Cheri lasted for about a year, and I kept at it for a couple more, until Mrs. Molinari’s disdain collided with my teenage sensibility. I keep it in tune.
“We have a piano; ergo, you will learn to play.”
Both boys embraced piano lessons. The translation of notes to keys to fingers never gave them a moment’s pause. Each had an inherent musicality that allowed him to understand phrasing. But practice? No, that never quite stuck. Every night was a wheedling bargain, a devil’s pact, and an interlude of beauty.
I found the album in the cut-out bin in the middle of the Woolworth’s store in Nyack. “Jazz Impressions of Japan” by the Dave Brubeck quartet. It was 1978. I knew nothing of jazz, nothing of Brubeck, nothing of Desmond. I played the album for Vara, sitting in warm islands of lamp light and sipping red wine. Her dark eyes shone.
When we leave this house, I’ll have to decide what to do with all the rocks. There’s a box of seed fern fossils the boys gathered from a hillside near Pottsville. Two small granite boulders travelled from the Crazy Horse monument. A fist-sized chunk of Lackawanna anthracite sits on the back porch. This worry stone…I’ll slip into my back pocket.
One way of looking at my childhood: everything I tried, touched, and learned depended on the way my daily life orbited my sister. In fourth grade, I began playing the cornet, because Cheri loved Herb Alpert and a certain senior boy. Why not a trumpet? Probably a decision was made when Mr. Runzo saw my pudgy lips. I will never know.
My memory grows fictional. I pulled two books off my shelves today, ready to write about how I read them in Andrei Codrescu’s seminar in the fall of 1980. I would have bet the farm on that. Both were printed in 1982, and one was first published in 1981. An entire history of my relationship to magic realism, shot to hell.
How can you object to the wonderful sound of rain, windows open on a February night, and something parched opening in my mind? What would the object of your complaint be? That I am allowing too much of the warm, albeit stagnant, air out into a thick black night? A car drives down Moss spitting wet gravel. There should be music.
The glass pumpkin sits on the nightstand in Conor’s empty bedroom. Long ago, he made it on a school field trip to the Corning Museum of Glass, insisting on his two colors: the multi-mix (heavy on pink and blue) and the seasonal orange-yellow mix. We argued; he held firm. His breath formed the hot glass and the artisan twirled the stem.
This peanut butter pie, created from a recipe in a southern women’s club cookbook that found its way into my mother’s kitchen, cools on my counter. Pie people will tell you that it’s all about the crust, and the Hannigans were pie people going back several generations. No lard, no butter, no shortening. Just flour, salt, oil, and milk. Easy as…
Ed called to ask when I’d like the piano to be tuned. When Ed calls there is always an overlong pause between my hello and his, as if he is getting my words delayed by distance, or he had to swallow a mouthful of sandwich, or he got lost chasing a long day dream after he punched my number. That’s Ed.
Judging by our basement, a happy 10-year-old boy lives in our house. I wish. Then we could rummage through the Lego sets, the Erector sets, the Snap Circuits, and the Kinex. My favorite Lego set, the King’s Castle, model 6080, I bought at a yard sale when Duncan was still in diapers. I assembled it while he napped: a test run.
There are no decorative cows, sheep, horses, or pigs in my house. (Nor live ones, for the record.) But what can I say about this metal chicken, found beside a red wheelbarrow, in an antique store on route 390? It sits on a shelf between the boys’ pictures, looking through the windows into the woods.
[Note: I’m lying about the wheelbarrow.]
Two sun-browned little girls, our play interrupted. The grainy photograph has us posed in front of the garage. What was special about that day that brought my mother out with her camera? She wasn’t easy to tear away from housework. “Summer, 1962.” I bend over to scratch my leg. Mary leans away, shifting her weight onto her left foot, smiling sweetly.
The Hannigan clan, with dogs. This is the extent of my father’s side of the family: a solitary nuclear clan, with no love shared beyond filial attachment, and even then, very little. My great-grandmother, Big Mum, holds the smiling dog. I inherited her nose. (Big Mum’s, that is, not the dog’s.) Great-uncle Dick, far right, is clearly up to no good.
We are battling worms for Rufus’s heart. I find it difficult to think of anything concrete, or any objects at all, while such an important war rages. Last night, at 2:30, he snuggled his furry back into me, and I saw the glow of his collar: tiny luminescent dog bones swaying in the dark. I listened to him breathe, softly softly.
Our family motto should have been “You’ll never know that we’ve been here.” (My ancestors would have been perfect visitors to any national park or monument.) Here is the sum total of what my sisters and I inherit: one anonymous Civil War sword, loose pages of a Bible with blacked-out names, and a box of photographs (some tintypes) all lacking identification.
I detest the gorram symbols that disinfect profanity. What makes s#@t better than shit, when in fact everyone, even small children, know that you just wrote shit? Even Chaucer, with a slight spelling variation, just wrote shit. I believe in good anglo-saxon swearing, good norman-the-conquerer swearing, and especially good sci-fi swearing à la Joss Whedon. Hence, “gorram,” you hoe-tze duh pee-goo.
[Per Youswear.com, gorram is a corruption of “god damn,” and “hoe-tze duh pee-goo” roughly translates to “monkey butt” in the bastardized Chinese of the ‘verse. Shiney.]
Mavis took me shopping, often. Her house was a model of efficiency, and after all, she had a girl come in each week to do the heavy work, so Mavis shopped. She haunted Loehmanns’s Back Room, where nothing came in my size. In the cavernous dressing room, she put a plastic bag over her hairdo, as she slipped the dresses on.
We don’t form our children; we blindly surround them with a million variables, with which they form themselves. When my boy attempts to explain his programming work, I float, lost on an ocean of data that I cannot place into any memory. Yet I know that he navigates these structures, understands a certain art, and creates a language, eloquent and valuable.
“In computer science, an object can be a variable, a data structure, a function, or a method, and as such, is a location in memory having a value and referenced by an identifier.”
– from “Object (computer science),” Wikipedia.com
Alice and I, while housesitting during the summer of ’79, explored the attic, and in particular the treasure trove of vintage clothes stored there. I found a full-skirted, deeply v-necked, leopard print cotton dress. If I didn’t breathe, we could just secure the side zipper. The cap sleeves skimmed my shoulders. I could have danced in a fountain in that dress.