Authors: Kathleen Alcott
Tags: #Literary, #Fiction
Copyright © 2012 Kathleen Alcott
Production Editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from Other Press LLC, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast. For information write to Other Press LLC, 2 Park Avenue, 24th Floor, New York, NY 10016. Or visit our Web site:
The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
The dangers of proximal alphabets / Kathleen Alcott.
1. Brothers and sisters—Fiction. 2. Childhood—Fiction. 3. Art—Fiction. 4. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
PS3601.L344 D36 2012
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book is dedicated with manifold variants of love
to Casey Cripe, a brilliant narrator
“if there is a place further from me I beg you do not go”
ur parents liked to say that the first time Jackson and I met, we concentrated our focus so intently, grew so still, that they worried our little bodies might have forgotten we’d exited our watery beginnings, neglected the duty to breathe in and out. On the floor of the living room we turned our still-soft skin toward each other and blinked before demonstrating our talents in gripping and releasing: my five fingers around his chubby wrist, then his in embrace of mine. They say that the cat, our relative equal in size but a fascinating stranger in composition, strolled up to sniff the crowns of our heads, our full cheeks, but we offered him no attention. My mother and father and Julia, sitting on the couch, all happy with disbelief at the way their endlessly curious infants had quickly adopted such content with a tiny corner of the universe.
The next part of the story, the one that would echo for decades afterward: Julia moved to scoop Jackson from the
floor. I left my quiet behind and howled with such force that the cat, still skirting the carpet, panicked and ran. My mother came to me and attempted comfort; my father, at the door with Julia, shrugged and offered a comment about the volatile nature of young love. They laughed, of course, and agreed to bring us together again very soon. Jackson did not cry, but squirmed from Julia’s restraint and tried to get a clearer vision of me. My wailing gained confidence and rhythm. I refused, even, the draw of my mother’s breast, as if I knew that she would not be my family much longer, that I would find that elsewhere.
That night my parents broke their oath to leave me in the crib, no matter how upset, and brought me into their bed. They wondered at me where I lay between them, linked their fingers over the heaving abdomen they’d created together, sang me folk songs about low roads and high roads, told me the word for each part of my body, whispered secrets about the ocean and the brain and the patterns of the earth until I finally calmed enough to listen.
ackson has one green eye and one brown, though each is dotted with bits of the other color, as if hesitant to vehemently commit. He has a mole on his left hip (noncancerous, last time he checked) and half a BB bullet permanently lodged in his right shoulder blade (I put it there). His cheeks are wide and globular, as if they were hiding apples for later consumption, and give him the appearance of someone instantly trustworthy and kind. He is uncircumcised, but his foreskin is unusually taut and so this isn’t obvious. The hair on his chest issues forth in small tight curls, and halfway across the spirals change their direction. He pronounces “often” with a harsh “t.” When he picks up the phone he goes, “ ’Lo?!” in mock surprise to be hearing a voice from the magic box in his hand. He is a master with chopsticks. He is endlessly polite to the men at corner stores, taxi drivers, weary all-night-diner waitresses. He once dove into the polluted river in our hometown to retrieve a necklace of my mother’s
after the well-used clasp broke, and contracted a rash that lasted two weeks (he wasn’t embarrassed). He talks in his sleep, among other things. He has a tattoo of my name on his chest that he insisted on during the throes of a melodramatic fugue (which is rare for his character) when we were seventeen. A mutual friend in a motel room (where his brother James worked the front desk) administered the ink at four a.m. with a questionable needle. He is incredibly gifted with children, though he always refused to discuss the possibility of having any. He is left-handed and secretly proud of the fact, the implication of genius. He once rode a shopping cart down one of the steepest hills in our city just for the hell of it; in addition to the half BB pellet, there is a bit of gravel, resulting from the inevitable crash at the bottom, that is also permanently part of his body. He is not traditionally handsome but most are tricked into thinking so. There are many items of clothing he has owned for more than ten years and still wears. His second toe is longer than his big toe. He goes through phases of intense love, then hatred for Indian food (it gives him explosive diarrhea). He is endearingly cranky in the mornings but inherently an early riser, and he gives up coffee every six months, swearing this time it’s for good. He likes to wear a mustache, but only when accompanied by a beard. If you go to a museum with him, he will unfailingly wander off by himself. He is a talented drinker but rarely seems drunk. He is a library of facts about the ocean. His body temperature is always one to two degrees higher than the average 98.6 and so
sleeping with him feels like being in an intimate position with a furnace. He has a way of narrowing his eyes when he is annoyed or suspicious, and a way of ridiculing someone without their noticing until it’s too late. He absolutely spurns astrology; his handwriting has a way of changing to suit the occasion. He can roll his
’s quite well and, if he chooses to, speaks pretty decent Spanish. He whistles while he urinates. He always carries a knife and uses it (in handy versus violent ways) every chance he gets.
He cries infrequently, and when he does it is silent with a great deal of shoulder shaking. He does his best thinking in the ten minutes after a visit to a planetarium. He can curl his tongue into a U and also a “clover,” and is a talented eyebrow raiser. There is a spot with a half-inch circumference below his left jaw where hair does not grow; he has bizarre theories about why. Most of the time he has illicit fireworks purchased in Chinatown on his person. He adores Burnese mountain dogs and lights up at a sighting of one.
I use the present tense here, but it is possible that Jackson actually has given up coffee, that he has covered the tattoo of my name with something else, that he cries openly in front of this new woman. It has been a year, two months, and six days since we spoke. It has been four months since, in a moment of loneliness that came not late at night but early on a sunny morning, I called him and left a message he didn’t return. The last of his belongings and mementos of Us sit in a box in the back of my bedroom closet; though I resist the urge to take it
down and finger the black-and-white photo booth strips, the silly tin science-fiction lunch box I bought him that he loved fiercely, the only remaining piece of art he made in his sleep, I know the objects so well that I’m not sure what difference it actually makes.
fficially, I’m Ida, though Jackson has called me
as long as I can remember. The symbolism is sickening. Even in the worst of it, even in phases where I spoke almost exclusively in monosyllables and guttural sounds and sat around lost in the worn flannel shirt he left behind, I would never bring this up to anyone:
and he calls me
In a particularly memorable home video, shot by my father who poured his monomania exclusively into filmic evidence of our childhood for a full year before quitting pretty much entirely, Jackson and I are sitting in a sun-faded kiddie pool in my front yard, aged three and a half or four. There’s something in my hands Jackson wants but can’t have—the camera zooms and focuses—it’s a set of brightly colored rubber rings—and he looks right at the camera, at my father, at justice, and cries:
I want it but
Cut to: Valentine’s Day. We are at the kitchen table, our fingers covered in glue and the filth it’s attracted, and my father has not taken pains to maintain any level
of organization so that bow-tie pasta and bits of stained doily and construction paper and crayons are everywhere. Somewhere in the background you can hear Julia walking a rambunctious James around the house; she is singing “Baby Beluga” full force and he wholeheartedly despite not knowing all the words; my father tries to point the camera toward the sound but it can’t be framed and he switches it back to us.
“What,” he says, “is Valentine’s Day for?”
I ham for the camera and flirt and wiggle: “Loooove,” I say.
“And who do you love, honey,” says my father, but before I can reply Jackson butts in, his sticky fingers spread wide, grabs my face and plants that series of wet kisses only young children can, and I shriek and giggle.
“I love I!” yells Jackson. “I LOVE I.”
Cut to: a celebration ceremony at our kindergarten (the last substantial bit of video for a number of years). We have of course convinced the teachers to let us stand next to each other during the part of the “performance” where the class gets up to sing the alphabet. To his credit, my father covers all four rows of children, with the same historian penchant for accuracy and entirety I’ve inherited, before settling on the two of us. The many weak voices lilt and strain, and when it gets to “f,” you can see our faces widen and bodies tense.
“E, f, g”—Jackson and I look at each other—“h,” and then we positively explode as we scream our initials—“I J”—so much so that neither of us has energy for “k”; we’ve
been holding our breath in our ambitious bodies for those two syllables the whole time, and we both sort of slump and stumble, and the shy boy in the tie next to us frowns at how we’re embarrassing him.