Authors: Marya Hornbacher
For Officer Christie Nelson, M.P.D.
But where was I to start? The world is so vast, I shall start with the country I know best, my own. But my country is so very large. I had better start with my town. But my town, too, is too large. I had best start with my street. No, my home. No, my family. Never mind, I shall start with myself.
Motley, Minnesota, Pop. 442. Near the headwaters of the muddy Mississippi, past the blue glass of the cities and the stained red brick of the warehouse districts, past the long-abandoned train stations and the Grain Belt sign and the Pillsbury Flour building on the riverbanks, past the smokestacks and hulking wrecks of the industrial section, the town lies past all this, in the center of the prairie that creeps north and west of the river, into the Dakotas.
Seen from above, this prairie, its yellow grasses, is dotted sparsely with towns too small for mapmakers’ concern.
Just south of Staples, on the county road that runs through the center of town, passing the school at the south edge, Norby’s Department Store, Morey’s Fish Co., the market with the scarred front porch, the old brick storefronts with small wooden signs on hinges, the painted names of businesses faded and flaked. Morrison’s Meats, the Cardinal Cafe. By the time you’ve noticed that you’re passing through, County Road 10 swerves sharply to the left, past Y-Knot Liquors, and all semblance of town disappears, leaving you to wonder if there was a town after all. All you see are acres and acres of field.
On the corner of Madison Street is a pale eggshell-blue house with three steps leading up from the walk and a postage stamp of yard in the back where my mother, when the spirit moved her, gardened feverishly and then let the garden go sprawling untended in the tropical wet of July.
My father would sit on the back porch watching her, sitting the way men here sit: leaned back, feet planted far apart, arms on the arms of the chair, a beer in his right hand. The beer would be sweating.
They met in New York, at a club. They met and got married at city hall, and when I had my mother alone, I demanded she tell me again about the dress she made from curtains, and the red shoes, and the garnet necklace she got for a song. They had a party with cheap wine back at the apartment. I picture it all in rich colors. I remember the club for them, with red walls and small, spattered candles on the tables. Whether it had these things or not is of no concern to me, because it’s my story, not theirs.
The garnet necklace is mine now. I keep thinking I ought to get the clasp repaired.
“What were you wearing?”
My mother was soaping my head.
“Sweetheart, I don’t remember. Dunk,” she said. I dunked and spluttered.
“You have to remember,” I insisted. She laughed. “All right,” she said, and I could tell she was going to make it up, and I didn’t care. “Black. A black coat. And a hat.”
“What kind of hat?”
“Katie, for heaven’s—hold still—what? A hat with a feather.” She scrubbed my ears. In the hall my father was yelling for her, and the door opened. She turned to look at him.
“There you are!” he said. “When’s dinner?”
“I’m bathing Katie.”
“I can see that.”
“When I’m done.”
He stood there. “Esau’s sulking,” he said.
My mother turned back to me and started scrubbing my neck ferociously. “What am I supposed to do about it?”
“Hi, Daddy,” I said.
“Hiya, kiddo,” he said. “I see your mother’s in one of her moods again.”
I nodded. My mother rolled her eyes.
“Well, all I can say,” my father said, and then paused as if thinking. “Yep,” he noted with finality, and closed the door.
In the summer I wore a white nightgown and the sun didn’t quite set, the sky turning a faint purple that lingered late. We ate dinner out on the back porch. My father was watching the sky.
“We ought to go down to the city,” he said.
My mother snorted.
“What, we shouldn’t go down to the city?” my father asked. “You don’t want to go down to the city? There was something wrong with the suggestion?”
I sucked on my tomato wedge. My mother said nothing.
“Claire?” my father said. “Answer me. Do you or do you not want to go down to the city?”
“Mom, just answer him,” Esau muttered.
“Yes,” my mother said carefully, “I would love to go down to the city.”
My father grinned. “Good!” he said. “We’ll have dinner. See a show.” He looked around the garden, pleased, and took a swallow of his drink. He leaned over and kissed my mother on the cheek. “Good,” he said again.
My mother smiled faintly at her plate.
We would never go down to the city.
The light was fading, the way light fades in a memory, objects losing their definition, faces falling into shadow. My mother was clearing the table and telling me to get ready for bed.
And the house settled into obscurity for the night. My father watched night fall over his small square of the world while his wife did the dishes and his children did whatever it is that children do before bed.
What was he thinking about?
Perhaps my mother startled slightly when he came up behind her at the sink and placed his hand on her arm.
Perhaps she relaxed, and turned her face a little toward him.
Perhaps they danced then in the living room, to old records, while I stood in my white nightgown and watched through my cracked-open door.
I went to bed to the muffled sound of Count Basie, and the hot night, and imagined my brother on the other side of the bedroom wall.
It was 1969. America had gone all to hell, but that was far away. Nothing could happen to us because it was June and my brother was sleeping and my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. Soon my father would dip her, kiss her, go to the bar for another drink.
Esau and I squatted by the lake, using sticks to overturn the dead fish that washed ashore from time to time, poking holes in their staring eyes, and took turns telling ourselves stories.
“Mother comes from Georgia. Down south,” he said.
He nodded his head in a direction.
“Are there snakes?”
“Yes. Don’t eat that,” he said, and slapped my hand.
“Is she rich?”
“Who, Mother? She was.”
“Till she went to New York.”
“Then they were bohemians.”
“If I poke it in its belly, will its guts spill out?”
Esau shrugged. “I don’t know. Try it,” he said.
I did. A spray of water, then a spiral of wet guts. “And she got knocked up,” I said, prompting him. “With you.”
“And you slept in a drawer. In the apartment in New York.”
“They took you to the parties and you slept in the coats.”
He nodded, still smiling.
“Do you remember?”
“No.” He stirred his stick around in the split belly of the fish. “I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “Maybe.”
I was jealous of this. I narrowed my eyes. “Liar,” I said, and wandered off down the shore, looking for a new fish.
He crouched next to me again because we were by the water and he was twelve and in charge and you can drown in two inches of water, even, whether you thought so or not. I thought about lying down on my front and putting my face in the water to test the truth of this. I tapped my stick on the fragile shells of sea snails and scraped the shatterings back into the slow lick of the lake tide.
“Were they happy?” I asked.
I looked at him sharply.
“They were never happy.” He pressed his lips together like he did when he was thinking, digging a hole in the fish-smelling mud.
“They said they were happy,” I accused. He had his facts wrong.
He stabbed his stick in the center of the hole he’d dug. He grabbed my hand. “C’mon,” he said.
I pulled my hand away and walked a few feet behind him, kicking mud at the back of his legs.
“They were happy,” I called up to him.
“Okay, they were happy,” he called back. “Suit yourself.”
“They said they danced,” I called. “They still do, sometimes. In the living room. I see them.”
He stopped and waited for me, looking over his shoulder.
We walked along in silence for a good while, looking out at the lake.
“I want an Icee,” I said, feeling as if I had lost.
We were at another funeral party. I wasn’t sure who had died this time, but it was a suicide, and upsetting because it was completely out of season. No one killed themselves in summertime. It was rude.
Suicides start at the center of winter, and fall like dominoes all the way down the square row of days, until the weight of snow lifts off and lets us breathe again in spring.
There were the gathered loved ones. The gathered loved ones hovered around the edges of my childhood like heavy ghosts, faceless, vaguely disapproving, square and wearing wool. They said
make do. We make do.
My grandmother saved the ham bone and the scraps of soap, making a new soup, boiling the soap into a new bar. Nothing wasted.
When someone killed themselves, it was a waste. No one ever said so, but we knew.
My father will kill himself. It will be a waste. We will have to make do, and hold our chins up when we walk down the street.
But we were still back at the funeral party. My father was still alive, he was standing with the rest of the men by the table, eating off a paper plate, stabbing meatballs with a toothpick as if he was popping balloons. I was six; this was the year before the year that collapsed on us like a roof caving in from the weight of snow. My father was intoning. I was tracing the pattern of blue flowers on the couch that had a scratchy nap, like Uncle Lincoln’s stubble on his chin when he kissed me on the mouth with pursed lips. I wiped the kiss off with the hem of my dress and my mother whacked the back of my head.
The older women did not approve of my mother. She was, they whispered, a little different.
My mother was God.
The gathered loved ones sat stiff in their wooden pews in the chapel that afternoon, expressionless. They were stuffed into their second-best suits and dresses (first best were saved for going to the city once a year to the theater to see Shakespeare), which itched at the armpits and high collars. They sat through the warbling ancient soprano’s keyless meander through “Amazing Grace,” through the emotive (and really, they said afterward, at the reception, a little excessive, didn’t you think? I mean, considering everything) eulogy by the weeping son. They lifted their eyes to the heavens so as not to see the pallbearers’ embarrassing inability to lift the casket, nor hear their impromptu muttered recruitment of their wives. They filed slowly out of the chapel behind the precariously tilted casket, squinted in the sudden Saturday-afternoon sun, gloved hands lifted to shade the eyes. They endured the pastor’s heartfelt two-handed hand-clasping as the mourners shuffled by, his excess of eye contact as he gave his condolences to each and every person. I sat in the backseat of the car, pulling at the collar of my dress and breathing on the window, writing my name backward on the glass: ETAK.
At the funeral party I sat wedged between my mother and someone’s aunt Eunice, looking out the window at the lake, watching the sun set orange and pink on the last few boats. I wanted to go outside, but my mother was holding my wrist, gently, just forefinger to thumb, under the folds of her skirt. I leaned against her and watched Aunt Ethel’s head shake as she spoke. Everyone forgot themselves and started slipping into German, their voices dropping into warm growly sounds. Because it was a funeral party, the ladies allowed themselves a drink. My mother drank water and stared into space.
I fixed my eyes on my brother, across the room. He had his hands in his pockets and was standing in the doorway to the porch, looking out. He hated funeral parties. Uncle Ted sat in an armchair staring at the TV, which wasn’t on.
“The boy isn’t right,” said Cousin Bernie, and I turned to look at her. She was ugly, including a wart. She meant Esau was crazy. That was the talk. I didn’t believe it, and I stared at him as if to fix him correctly in place. Set him right.
“Takes after his father,” sniffed Mrs. Johannesson. My cheeks got red. My mother’s hand tightened around my wrist. They were talking as if we weren’t there, knowing we couldn’t talk back. We couldn’t talk back because we weren’t like them. We weren’t as good. My mother’s nostrils flared, her collarbone rising and falling in measured breaths.
You know about them.
that Schiller girl.
My name made a sort of spit-hiss sound when they said it.
That poor Schiller girl,
they said, and I turned and stared.
“Remember the aunt? Arnold’s sister. Mad as a hatter. Frail as china. Always fluttering around. You remember,” the women said to each other, shaking their heads.
“Jabbering about God knows what, writing things down on little bits of paper and putting them in her pockets. Taking to her bed,” the woman said, and the others snorted and said hmph.
Arnold’s sister was my aunt Rose. She died before I was born, when my father was young, before the war. They said she was beautiful. I pictured beautiful Aunt Rose taking to her bed, tossing among the silky pillows, looking frail. The door closed, the heavy curtains drawn.
No good woman would take to her bed. I knew that. A good woman didn’t even sit, except at funeral parties, let alone take to her bed. A good woman stood in the kitchen, or dusted.
My mother was not a good woman. She worked. She caused a rustle of whispers when we walked down the street. I copied the almost-a-smile she gave the other women, and her not-really-a-nod.
“And what happened?” asked a stupid fat woman who didn’t know about my dead aunt Rose, her hand at her throat.
“Hung herself,” crowed Aunt Ethel, who was not really an aunt anyway. “In the drawing room on Christmas Eve. There she was, dangling from the chandelier in her best dress.” She gestured toward the ceiling and we all looked up, as if expecting to see the chandelier.