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At my mother’s funeral, after the fire, my father knelt to kiss her, making the sign of the cross, fumbling with the gesture, though he’d never been religious before.
“Why?” I asked, and he said something about the Holy Ghost. Said it would have saved her if it could have. Said even the Holy Ghost wouldn’t have wanted such a woman to leave. Gail, my older sister, stood beside us, weeping in small shrugs. My father smelled of Communion bread and sugar, an acrid, ornamental reek. His fingers swung from chest to forehead, forehead to chest. Then he bent down and cupped his hands together, as if in a prayer he would never be finished with. Staring out the single shut window, where birch trees waved in high wind, seeming to torch the sky, I asked why again, an eight-year-old’s wheezy voice. The word flared from my mouth. I didn’t mean for it to. My stomach rumbled, the awful pulsing of breakfast, burnt cinnamon toast, coming back up, and dread. I could feel my mouth becoming narrow, could feel the words becoming ever harder to get out. I couldn’t stop itching, in the suit with the two-small waistband that had been my cousin’s, and with hair grease that dropped across my forehead and clung to the sides of my face.
“Why?” I asked a third time, with no idea as to why I shouldn’t.
“I’ll tell you why,” my father said, his face filled with oncoming storm. The two of us stood in front of my mother’s casket, man and boy, in the floodlit silence of the room. Being a man wasn’t all that, I thought suddenly. Being a man was a terrible thing. I nestled into my father’s shoulder, smelling the man smell of razorblades, trying to get the sickness to stay inside me. The sickness was flying up. The sickness wouldn’t stay—
I caught my father’s hand coming toward me—swallowed hard, with the sickness rising—considered my mother’s face, how cold and frozen, like a tortoise’s, it was—with makeup on that made her cheeks into cherries, and a rubbery, sweet pallor to her skin—and my father’s face was coming closer—and his lips were the lips of someone who wanted to die—and Gail was shrieking—and he slapped me so hard I aeroplaned backwards, into a crowd of black-hatted women. One of them caught me as I fell.
I hit the sweet folds of her polyester dress. Swiveled into her. The fabric was scratchy, packed with static. Cold-faced, freezing, I buried my head in her sausage arms. For a moment, she held me, and I crumpled into her. She was fleshier than my mother had been, with a roll of pig-like skin around her neck. Under her hairline was a wetness, maybe sweat. For a long moment, I drew myself into her, breathing. My palms stung as I pulled them into her shirt, letting every fold of fabric find my fingers. The woman breathed in too, with a wind inside her breath, the breath of someone moving slowly underground. Then she released me.
“Go see your mother,” she said, half-whisper, half-command.
“Dad!” Gail was whimpering beside us but didn’t move.
I let go and, avoiding my father beside us, stumbled forward.
“There’s no reason,” the woman said to my father, “to hurt the child.”
My mother’s face was slick and puffy when I went to look, like that of a tamarind or a rare macaque. I bent down, trying not to think about the last time I’d seen her: how her smile had broken right out of her, curved up into her cheek’s corners, as we stood out at Leaf Lake, watching the cormorants swerve over, staring into that green-blue shimmer, where the whiskered catfish hid, the last night before the fire that ate into our house. No one knew who’d set that fire. Maybe it was still burning. My mother didn’t know, did she? Now, her cheeks shone with a crystalline, humanoid glow. She smelled of cinnamon and rindy cheese.
I was going to be sick. My cheek was burning. I ran to the back of the room, past the thick circle of women clustered around, nearly blocking my way, and hid my face. Then I felt my father’s hard hand on my back, pushing me forward. Another hand grabbed my wrist.
“Keep your eyes on her,” my father said, and before I knew it we were back at the casket, and I was staring at my mother’s face, and the two of us were meeting, eye to eye. “Make sure you get a good look before she goes.”
“Please, no,” I said, but he pushed my head forward, so the fluorescent lights on her face burned into mine, and black dots popped up in my vision. He took one set of fingers to each of my eyes and held them open, pressing into the underside of each lid. The pressure made my forehead almost burst. My chest pinged, dark and pressurized. Under her makeup, a jagged scar lay at the nape of my mother’s neck. A pinch of skin was visible under her shirt.
Someone opened the single window. Air crushed me with its sea salt and chemicals. Black wreaths underscored the gold lock on the door. Gail ran to me, wept in my shoulder crease, her hair lacing my neck, oddly scratchy, her breath souring in small puffs into my cheek. Ignoring the pain in my cheek, worrying through me, I tapped her neck.
“You okay?” I asked, in her ear. She didn’t answer. She’d always had trouble hearing from that ear. She only drew away from me, shook her head.
Now, older, I see how it was being forced to look that caused the trouble. Looking back, the way Lot’s wife did, always ends up in bad news, in punishment. After death, the best thing to do is close up shop, pretend nothing happened. The best thing to do is save face. And what if you can’t save face? You best try. You best dive down and down and try to forget anything is wrong. Try to ignore any sign of wreck. Dying’s a thing people do without warning. No reversals, no magic potions, no final goodbye Johns. At least that’s what I thought back then.
After prayers, that night, I ran home and climbed into my parents’ bed. My father and Gail would stay with relatives: I’d take his place. That night, feeling the roominess of the bed all around me—feeling as though I were suffocating in that space—I kept dreaming of my mother’s face, sunk in water. I couldn’t tell if her face was real or fake. I kept grabbing for it, kept pulling my arm up, believing that her face lay right before me, a whole landscape, that I only had to travel a little farther, dive in deeper, and I’d be in. But no matter how I grabbed, I couldn’t catch her. I kept muddling through an endless, open sea.
Grief was a luxury to us back then, not required. The next morning, the day after the funeral, my father returned a different man: redness packed in his face, shadow coiled in his walk. He had hit me, yes, but that was typical enough. It was the redness in his face I feared.
“Open the closet doors,” he called from the foyer, as I lay on the couch, stiff and still. I sat and listened and didn’t say anything. “Bring me the boxes. I’m talking now.”
I knew which ones he meant. And, after all those years, I knew what now meant too. Knew that now had no pause in it, no time for hesitation. With a pulse in my throat, I jumped up from the couch. Ran to get those boxes, buried in the back of the closet. The first box heaved with a dead weight in my hands. The second box made me tumble over. I had to grab its corners once, twice. I shook as I dragged it from underneath. I imagined a weight at the center of my chest, helping me drag it. A weight inside like a struggling bird.
It wasn’t every day that we took those boxes out. In fact, we hadn’t taken them out for years, not since my father’s father had died. At the time, I hadn’t thought of it as a ritual.
But now, I went to my father, with those boxes in front of me, and knelt at his feet. I felt something bending down inside me, staring at his black laced-up boots, thinking about the one hole that the lace had missed, on his right foot, and how sad that hole looked, and what would happen if that hole never got filled. Would he die like that, with one empty hole on his boot, and the other holes normal? I couldn’t think for long.
“Get up, boy,” my father said, and tapped my forehead, so I looked up, barely breathing. “You’re alive, aren’t you?”
“I’m alive,” I said.
He bent before those boxes and gestured for me to open them. I did, using my fingernail to pierce the tape in the center, drawing my thumb down to crush the cardboard top in. My father gazed over me, a hard look to his face, and a heavy silence. The tattoo on his shoulder, of a bald eagle, extended up to his neck—the eagle’s claw—and I kept watching that claw as it bent in, as my father crouched down, and wondered if that eagle would tear me up.
Then he started pulling the photographs out, yanking them one by one from their boxes and drawing them onto the floor. I watched the photographs drop onto the floor, knowing I couldn’t pick them up, that he’d hurt me if I did, that I could only stare. There were images from the time my mother was a little girl—stiffly posed in a short white pinafore—snapshots of piano concerts (rows of kids in black robes on stages)—one of my mother cutting the ribbon of our house—heavily pregnant, hand on her back—holding me up, watching the stars. Probably she was naming them—Orion, Cassiopeia—she always did have a love for the precise word.
Then I couldn’t stop myself. I had to see her, even for a moment—I picked up the last picture and held it, cold and beautiful, in my hands. My mother’s face lay in the center—
“What’re you think you’re doing?” my father shouted.
With a yank, he took that picture from me and tossed it onto the floor, then dug into the open box and pulled others out—first slowly, letting each image drift up into the air for a moment, then settle onto the green carpet, and then faster and faster, like he wanted to be rid of her soon. As he worked, I watched her face—or faces, rather, since there were dozens, on those glossy four-by-six scattered pages—she had tight brunette curls in one, face spotted in sunlight—in another, she was holding a blue umbrella, in a bright, rain-fed yard, feeding a baby boy. Feeding me? Those faces blended, drew up into the air, then shuffled into a single shiny blur.
“Those are mine,” I said, and reached to snatch them. My father swatted me off.
“Mine, mine, mine. That’s the problem with you.”
He jammed the photograph he was holding into his fist. I was shaking but could do nothing to stop him. I touched the inside of my mouth, tasted blood. He took out a lighter from his pocket. A small one, like the kind you’d use to light a miniature cigarette. He clicked it once. Twice. The sound echoed like a ticking clock. I looked off, inspecting the living room floor, then back. Gail would help me. Would stop him. She always could. But she was nowhere to be found.
“You’re never thinking about the others,” he said. “Only yourself. That’s the problem.”
Then a flame rose up from the lighter: insistent, bright. He brought the flame to the pile. I wanted to look, and couldn’t. Then I did look and couldn’t stop looking. The photos melted into the carpet, glommed up. Melded with the carpet’s puke green hairs. Liquefied black stuff dripped onto those fibers, sizzling. I saw seared fabric. Beneath that: ashen slats, an irregular hole. My mother’s face, in multiple, folded into itself, then disappeared.
“What’ll you do about that, huh? You’ll beg for your mama to help?”
I could have slapped him. If I’d been stronger, I would have. I would have slapped him in the face and run off with the photographs and found a way to keep them safe for good. But I feared him, feared what he could do to me. I ran. Hid in the bathroom. Vomited. Fell asleep with my head on the sink. Woke up with a mark across my face.
It was the leaving that changed something in me, I see now. Leaving while my mother’s face burned. An act of cowardice. But I feared what my father could have done to me, or even worse, what he would’ve refrained from doing. I feared that perhaps he wouldn’t have slapped me at all. By that time, I wanted to be hit. Was desperate for my cheek to singe. But maybe my dad would have found it a tedious thing, to hurt me. Maybe he would have given up and stared.
If you live in a time of sugar, you’ll have the taste of it forever on your tongue: that’s what he always said. Same thing if you live in a time of salt. If you live in a time of fire—good luck: you’ll breathe in ashes without realizing it’s anything other than air.
As a child, I didn’t know what he meant.
All I knew was, after the fire was over and the ashes swept off the burned-up floor, I couldn’t keep living in that house. No one could. My father left—as he claimed, to go fight in the war—the day after that. Gail and I moved in with our grandparents, who never mentioned the incident. I developed a cough I had to see the doctor about. Asthma, he claimed, and gave me an inhaler, which I never used. The reek of burned carpet settled in my nose.
Now, as an old man—too old for my own good—I hold onto that memory, of those pictures being burned, and of me standing and staring over them, wanting to save them, but being unable to. It’s one of those memories you wish you could forget. One that you wish somebody would pave over, like a road you’ve stumbled down too many times, so there’s no hope of traveling there again. And yet, there’s something vital to holding on. Something about those dark circles of fire, of my mother’s face folding, that makes me realize what it meant to love, or rather to grasp onto a moment—its smell of shriveling paper, its reflective light—so deeply you can’t breathe after that. There’s something that makes me feel how images can rise right up out of you and turn to sound, flame into consonants and vowels, and mingle, and let you cry out and feel all of a sudden what it means to grieve.
Grief never leaves you, that’s what I know now. Neither grief nor danger. These days, I gaze down the street whenever a fire truck comes near. I take a gander at what’s going on. Most of the time, there’s nothing visible—no fire that I can see—but that doesn’t stop me from imagining there is. Maybe somewhere, I think as I close my eyes, a young boy’s lifting his head. Maybe somewhere a girl, lying in bed, hears a crackling sound, and for as long as she can—ten seconds, fifteen even—tries to ignore the disaster shuttling toward her, turns her head off from the flames gearing up to lick the windows, gouging the tables, devouring the pages of the thickest dictionaries.
Her biggest hope, that girl’s, is that she can simply forget disaster. That the fire, if she doesn’t notice it, will flush away, or at least refuse to harm. She can tell herself that disaster is only a thought, that she can unthink it, and that lies can be unlied, and life unlived. And yet there comes a time when her face gets terribly hot, and the reek of smoke rises up inside her body, so terrible she has to look, can’t look away—and that’s the moment she does look, and she sees that the room’s become a waking den of fire, and the truth she’s been ignoring is barreling towards her, and her family, all she’s loved and lived for, has irreparably changed.