Monday, April 12, 2010

The Mystery of Her Brother

Who would go in his room first, after his death, the ashes in a cheap box she carried in her lap on the airplane, no tears, that wasn’t her way. (On the airplane, in his seat, what a fiasco having the name changed on the ticket, there was no other way to do it. To die at fucking Disney!) Tough, sweet and smarter than everyone else, she gets things done. Her shining brunette bob like Thelma, to his Gen X Shaggy, the underachiever who could light up a room with his promise in a laugh and that acquired metrosexual style, the beautiful black girls, the cigarette aura, the early silver hair, getting more handsome yes the years were kind to him after the awkward pudgy adolescence. Could she even find photos to do him justice, a photo anywhere?

“I have some on a broken phone from your birthday,” a friend offered, unhelpfully.

Elusive, what was there to hang onto in the mystery of a brother?
Whatever was in his room would have to serve as her answer, a month later. Who knew what was in there, what mold growing on glasses of soda?

“Ignore it, Jen,” said her dad.
But like Thelma, she knew, “And then you know, Dad, eventually it will creep down and get you.”
Her husband advised, “Open the windows, strip the bed.”
“Get the ghosts out,” she said.

She could feel bad for her dad about losing a son so young. She could not feel bad for her dad about all the rest of it, and that was a hard line to draw, to take, to make clear in her mind, going back (to the house she grew up in), going back and (really) knowing so little about these two men and their hearts, their conversations, their day to day (now very many) years of life lived together as bachelors in the (now) sullen smoke smelling house. Contrast it with her smart suburban accomplishment against her mother’s (also) sudden young passing, the black humor and bets of “Who will make it past 40?” (Their mother’s age at death). She would think of every other disaster, but not the lively happy lucky devil may care on the go self avowed bachelor fool living for fun, day to day, and then one day his heart just stops. At fucking Disney. That was Robby. She’d never known him to be any happier – so perhaps that was a moment to remove himself from the game, to say I won and I surrender at the same time? The game of Risk, Life, and Trouble. They played so many board games as kids, impulsively, competitively, constantly. She avoids the memory, back to driving the hours to the old house. She realizes that in the 25 years he lived in that room, she had never been in it.

Would his room have the dreaded imagined moldy soda glasses, filled ashtrays, some nice Diesel and Eddie Bauer clothes stinking of smoke on dusty hangers? Would it have sex toys for the black girls, porn on a laptop, piles of New York Times, bongs, mirrors colognes, watches, decks of cards, wads of small bills, boxers or briefs, secret writings on legal pads taken from the office, undeveloped throw away cameras from the 1990s, CD’s and DVD’s floor to ceiling, oh yes that was him! A game system and games ceiling to floor, perhaps. 4 remotes on the bed for an old 25 inch hooked to everything, Ikea lamps, a closet with accordion fold doors from the 70’s from when it was her room before she moved out to college, a closet full of old comic books and model airplanes, maybe. Old stuff he couldn’t throw away like numchuks and fishing rods? A boombox and gift shirts still in boxes never worn and crushed from years of ignoring, shoes in boxes and out of boxes? Scuffed plain walls and burgundy sheets from Target on a king size bed?

She pulls up to the house and ends her imaginings in this all too real beginning. The bright morning turned to a grey afternoon as she attempts to fill her brother’s role in her dad’s life in two days or less, with the bills and the doctors and the lawn getting mowed, two states away is another world where women contain and keep men from the folly of changeless dusty dens of men being men without influence of women.

“Why should I shower and have my wet hair absorb the odor?” she thinks in the morning. It’s cat and pipe and Lysol spray. Did they still make that stuff? Was it under the sink since her mother’s day and dad pulled it out for her benefit?

There would be every excuse and distraction not to make it up the stairs to his door. The doorknob with the do not disturb sign taken from the Trump AC.

“39 years of living at home. What could he have been thinking?” Only she could do it.

She stripped the bed and opened the windows. There wasn’t anything moldy, but there was so much booze but that could last forever so she left it there maybe his friends would want it. There were so many souvenirs and books and late night only sold on TV gadgets. There were things she imagined and others she hadn’t. Her dad just wanted his TV, it was better than his.

In the end the hatchback of her spanking Prius was filled with every conceivable musical instrument, rattles and shakers and egg shaped shakers, a rainstick, djembe drum, bongos, xylophone, ukulele, wooden flutes from the far west and far east, three thumb harps, a digeridoo, castanets, electronic drums, a Casio keyboard, penny whistle, slide whistle, squeezebox, cowbell, harmonicas in every key, and the one left handed guitar she knew he had, the one he played at her 40th birthday party. It was enough to put something in the hands of every child in her second grade classroom, and that is exactly what she intended to do. Who knew?
Rescue Attempt

When I came back to Long Island from Colorado I imagined a place called home that I missed, but there was no way you could get there. The songs about how you can’t go back or you can go back, and what is there to say about that.
I had been gone a long time, so far removed from prim suburbia that it was a culture shock. It was the 90’s, there was that gay leftist artists pro-labor scene up in Albany, there was the hippie sexual sharing, there was the freedom to throw away TV’s and razors, and that all got continued when I decided to leave the east and try my hand as a writer in Colorado. I could write a name dropping tell all of Aging Beats and outrider Buddhists, if I could remember it, beyond some small perfect details: Lawrence Ferlinghetti eating a purple Italian ice in the lobby of the Boulder Theatre. We had both skipped out on some performance and we caught eachother’s attention in that stolen moment. All I could muster was a shy smile. I couldn’t tell him that “A Coney Island of the Mind” was the first book of poetry I ever bought and loved unconditionally. That just doesn’t translate to anything anyone I knew could understand on Long Island.
In Boulder I had a box of thrift shop rags to wear, a bike helmet, a 1920’s typewriter.
One day, back on Long Island, I took 3 busses to get to Long Beach. I had a ragged bikini of multicolor crochet, a backpack. I body surfed in the rough waves slightly terrified and amazed after years of living inland. Some guy tried to pick me up and then graciously went away. I fell deeply asleep curled on my side. I awoke to the lifeguard whistle, a rescue attempt: Two swimmers are too far out, one fights his way back in but the other’s arms go up while the frantic brown lifeguard morphs into a dolphin cutting the waves to get to him. The helpless swimmer goes under, is swept away. The lifeguard is still diving until two others reach him and escort him back to land . “It’s fine John. Good work.” Pats on the back to a devastated man. A beach patrol jeep keeps driving up and down as it reaches the orange hour when all the people start to leave. I never found out if the rip popped the swimmer out somewhere else on the beach, but I was shaken and sun stroked, badly burned but only on one half of my body. I decided to try my hand at getting home by train.
There is a line of demarcation in the city of Long Beach, and that line between black and white gets blurred at the area around the train station. Blacks live to the north, traditionally servants to the wealthy south shore mansion dwellers, but even as times have fully changed as in other places the line remains, and as I window shop in culture shock along the line of strip mall stores waiting for the train, three black girls pass me and one says loud enough for me to hear “Her mamma don’t love her!” and the other girls fall apart laughing. I look at myself in the plate glass: my hair is long and matted with salt, I am wearing thin baggy jeans that were once pale blue but have turned yellowish, an androgynous pair from the men’s dept held up with some kind of belt and rolled up at the cuffs. My vintage 80’s tank is a faded fluorescent pink, the arm holes so low they show my hairy pits and bralessness. What was on my feet, I prefer not to recall given my long affair with a pair of moldy Birkenstocks. Even the ghetto girls are in pain just to look at me. I walk right into the nearest store, that staple of the low budget multicultural trendy New York lady, Rainbow Shop. I leave wearing the first things I find, a tight black tank and a rayon print wrap skirt I put on in the dressing room and purchase. I toss the old clothes in the trash can outside, and just make the train back to my parent’s house.
Back at home my family was living as Italians do, “like a bunch of grapes.” There were something like 5 cars piled up in the driveway, because of some stupid law that you could not park in the street at night. So every evening was a long, loud negotiation about what order everyone had to leave in the morning so the cars could be arranged in the birth canal of the driveway. By that time my brother in law gave me his old Ford Escort, and if I happened to have work the following evening I was blocked in by 4 oclock in the afternoon, the hour my father would serve us all dinner. Late at night I typed and typed god knows what into my ancient Mac while myriad TV’s battled the din of low flying jumbo jets. When it became clear that there was no getting the knots out of my hair I succumbed to the reverse mullet: buzz cut from the earlobes down and long on top, so it could be hidden or worn in a pony tail to show off my radicalness on errant trips to the city.
I decided to shave my arm pits too. My sister found the hairiness especially offensive. She had never left Long Island or seen a woman with hairy armpits before. I shaved one armpit and called her over, “Hey Andra, Look!”
“Wow your finally normal now. Isn’t it great to be clean?”
“Here feel how smooth.” When I got her really close I lifted the other unshaved arm to see her scream and run away like she had just seen a spider when we were still kids.
The next day she took me to the mall to buy a bra.
From “Stories of Houses”

The widow Tina lost her husband in a moment – one minute he was eating dinner with her and the next he was dead. She wasn’t so old but her children were grown, so she was left alone in the sprawling split ranch with the thought of him.

She grew figs on the south side, though the doctor told her she shouldn’t eat them any more. In back she had all the big trees removed so the sun could reach her garden of pole beans and night shades. She stayed out of the sun herself but covered from head to toe at dusk and dawn she would tend to them, cooking through the day with the Italian TV talk shows, or her friend would pick her up for senior classes at the library. With her blonde swept over hair and sad brown eyes she seemed so genuinely hurt it was hard to fathom her power.

First the downstairs apartment was for her oldest son, then for the youngest, a spare adequate bachelor pad built new in the 80’s and well cared for, everything wiped clean by the old widow’s hand.

The first tenant was a divorced fireman who stayed for many years. He wasn’t there much but there would be times when the lights would tremble, the bulbs would hiss and pop, the ceiling fan groaned starting up, the toaster would blow a fuse. His solution to these odd sporadic electrical problems was to convince his buddy, an electrician, to rewire the whole affair to code at his own expense, so he wouldn’t have to bother the old lady to get in the cellar when the fuses blew. “Problem solved,” because that was how he did things. Except for one recessed light which dimmed and flared for no apparent reason, and he would assess its discussion with him. One day he said he was getting married, a woman with two kids, the place was too small. She would have to find another tenant.

The place sat empty because Tina didn’t really like the people who came by from the Pennysaver ad.

When Tina’s friend Mary sold her house after her husband died she wasn’t sure what to do, which grown daughter to follow to which state, what to do with her frail mother who had to come and live with her while the deal went to closing. So Mary and her mother lived there for a few months, Tina cooking them dinners because life is so hard with a sick mother and just not knowing. The mother went to live with Mary’s sister and Mary went to Virginia to live with her daughter, a nurse. Like molecules of water that cluster together the women returned to each other in a new configuration.

But Tina’s children didn’t come much at all. The oldest son looked like her husband, the blue eyed Sicilian. He came and sat at the table on a Sunday and the exhaust fan over the stove whirred out the scents of sizzling spattering things, eggplant and cutlets, then he’d disappear again for 6 months. Sometimes Tina would go stay with her daughter for a day, but the daughter never came either. Why do her children stay away, the new tenant wondered. She is the nicest lady.

The new tenant Julie was one of those small women who is mistaken for a teenager from behind, until she turns and her face reveals not just a few years but decades. Her smallness allows her so many extra do-overs, because she seems so just out of college or fresh from an annulled marriage. Tina likes her, though, that she is easy to smile and works for a dentist, and her son is a handsome boy, that her parents are Italian and live in the next town. Paisan, something she can understand, capice?

It is true that Tina’s children want nothing to do with the apartment, the tenant, the house or any of that. They want her to sell it and keep her condo in Florida. But as long as she can have a tenant she can keep the house where her life was fullest, where her husband liked to sit outside smoking in summer under the awning with the lanterns while she cleared away the plates, where the old neighbors would come over and play cards while the children set off bottle rockets in the street or played in the rumpus room. The new neighbors are Korean and they smile but who knows what they are saying. Tina went to English classes on the bus for years at BOCES. She tried but they don’t want to try.
She doesn’t wear black but she wears her wedding ring and the cross. She goes to Florida three weeks each spring and winter and fall. She leaves Julie all her children’s phone numbers written in a careful eauropean hand on a pink shopping list and asks her to take in the mail.
When she leaves something always goes awry. Her children know why and that is why they stay away.

By the third day that the water is acting weird Julie considers calling one of the sons, but then thinks better. Water only comes out of the cold side in the kitchen, leaks hot in the bathroom sink, and the shower control spins in full circles, impossible to tell if the water will spray from above or run into the tub.

The hand held shower was left from the last tenant, so she could wash her mother’s hair from the chair. Julie had no feelings about it. She did try it out a couple of times for that mythical purpose of Playboy Channel fantasies, but was generally unimpressed by the experience. Now it started to leap out of its holder and clock her on the head. It hurt and it was scary.

She came home from work knowing all of this and it added to the fire in her belly that devoured the flesh from her bones as fast as she could remember to eat, making everyone dieting in the office jealous, but if only they knew her problems. Her ex sent her no money, disappearing then reappearing in her son’s life like an epic hero every time. Her parents were mean people, stingy with love and money and time and everything. Her son was a latch key kid so young, it was a secret that she held in fear. The last married boyfriend, she swears to swear them off, lost his job, so she stops answering the phone. If it is not someone you can call in an emergency then there have to be other benefits. No one knows because she can get away with junior department clothes, then to see her riddled face is terrifying.

Now at night there are little taps at the window, the door, it’s just goddanm Stella the poodle itching and licking or is it? Was the light on or off or was it? Of all the things to worry about.
“Michael, Michael did you do this?”
All three TVs are on the same scrolling blue channel, the program guide with out of synch muzak, just another thing scraping at her nerves.
“Oh why can’t you stop asking me?”
“I’m taking a shower.”
“I’m going over to Brian’s”
The water pours top and bottom and she leans in to adjust it so more comes from the top than the bottom, at least, then the hand held shower head pops out of the holder and gets her good. She gasps and angrily tries to turn all the water off, but the cold just spins around and around, blasting full force in either direction. It will not turn off. The tub starts to fill: the water will not go down fast enough.
“Michael?” she shouts to no one.
She runs into the kitchen naked and gets a Chinese soup container and starts bailing into the sink.
She gets it low enough to buy some time, to think and act. Without Tina, she can’t get into the basement to shut off the water.
She pulls on shorts and a T, grabs the long pink paper from the refrigerator and goes down the list, home and cell, first the oldest son, then the daughter, then the youngest. By the time she leaves the last message, on Joe’s cell, she is emphatic and clipped and out of breath watching the tub fill, “This is an emergency. This house is going to flood. Someone has to come here. Even if I call a plumber he has to get in the basement. It’s Tina’s tenant. It is an emergency in the bathroom. Call me back right away.”
Back to the bathroom, bailing. Soon she realizes she can point the shower head into the toilet and still use the phone, redial redial, ring. It’s Tina’s daughter.
“I called Joe. Joe will come and fix it.”
“Right now, right now, you understand,” she shouts over the endlessly flushing toilet.
She runs out to call for her son again, but he’s on wheels by now somewhere in the neighborhood, scared by her pitch even if he could hear her, he knows enough to flee.
How much time has passed? Now she is in a groove with it, spray, bail, pause. She can even leave the bathroom for moments to escape the din of the roar of water.
Tap tap on the door like late in the night but she doesn’t hear. Tap tap and the dog goes berserk. Finally.
“Stella! Stella!” she grabs her collar and puts her in Micheal’s bedroom. Opens the door and sees a youngish man with Tina’s old sad eyed face.
No words transpire. He goes into the bathroom and puts his tool box down and sits on it and does what he can do.
“She’s gotta give me the key for this stuff, nothing like this has ever happened before. It just won’t shut but maybe you can shut it….” And then she just can’t stop talking, standing in the doorway to the bathroom.
He stands and looks so sadly defeated, the same look as his mother, an ancient sadness, generations of sadness. He smells of smoke like Julie’s father. This is what he does for a living. He fixes things. Joe yet to say a word, goes outside and around to the back door of his mother’s house, and unseals it, the doors sticky with all the quiet. His shoes on the floor Julie can hear above her, her little part of the house with the separate entrance sandwiched between. In the cellar he muscles the wheel shaped valve shut and it turns so quiet she can breathe and smell the odd cold waterfally smell.

The shoes again and back he comes with his melty face.
He’s needing a cigarette, but not wanting to do it in her place. She is in the doorway to the kid’s room, holding the dog, her back to him. She looks like a child. He is confused by it. Then he thinks maybe she wouldn’t care that he is short, too. He looks at the place and it is so clean. He didn’t expect that. When he lived there, it wasn’t long until Florida called, there was a pool table in there.

“You stripped it.” Tina’s son told her. “You shouldn’t shut it off so hard.”
“But it was leaking.”
“But now it’s stripped. Gently,” he motions closing a faucet. His voice was gentle, too.
“Really I wouldn’t, I couldn’t…”
She thought of Lou. Maybe he had shut it hard. Or even Micheal could have shut it hard.
“And the whole, the …,” she is waving her arms, “The shower fell on my head today. It won’t stay.”
He sees the dozen shampoos and conditioners in a caddy. He thinks about it, about women.
“God, what a day. All I wanted to do was take a shower.”
Her hair is the color of when girls play with their hair color.
“Well finally you are here so… thank you.” She waves her hands to leave and let him work.

Later he is outside, after buying the parts and taking it apart and laying it all out. Outside he can breathe, have a cigarette, think before he puts it all back together. He calls his sister.
“I’m at mom’s.”
“Pop’s at it again…. Every time she leaves.”
“Oh please.”
“How bad is it?”
“It’s fine. I got it.”
“So I can tell her…”
“It’s fine. Did you meet this girl?”
“The little one? The dental assistant?”
“The house is very clean.”
“So no flood. Is it flooded?”
“No its fine.”
“Tell daddy to go back to bed. Tell him mom will be home soon.”

He looks across the yard and Julie is also there smoking and talking on the phone, too, and they look at each other as it starts to get dark, because it is starting to stay light a little later in spring.