They are your
earliest memory. Beaked noses. Hair like clouds. You’re a child, four at most,
and wear the dress your mother bought, the socks with scalloped edges. Your
mouth is red with popsicles, your teeth rough with sugar.
The giants leer,
red-nosed – great aunts and uncles on your father’s side. Bob, Wayne, and Bill;
Geri, Fern, Jean, Mae. Russ died months ago but his name is often spoken. It’s
hard to remember he’s gone.
court in their center. With high cheeks and strong jaw, she is the handsomest
in the room. Boxed wine fills goblets. A Tripoley board is brought forth.
Watch from the top
of the stairs until the dog, a gray poodle, runs past. Chase after, down the
hall to the back room where Grandmother sleeps now that Grandfather snores. A
cat is there, curled like a pillow atop the bed, among handbags. The dog crawls
under to hide; you crawl under too.
It’s a long time
before Grandfather finds you. He is tan and thin; his limbs splayed like a
spider to peer under the bed. Shriek. Run but not hard. Let him catch you round
the waist and carry you to the basement, where he shows how to crack nuts with silver
tools, build towers of magnetic flakes.
When you are tired,
he turns on speakers that are built into a wooden bar. Colored lights dance the
walls and ceiling. He dances too, growing as he does. He grows until the room
is not tall enough to hold him and he must curve his back to fit. Even then, his
elbows knock divots into walls. His head pushes the ceiling, raising the floor
above, where other giants spill their wine and curse. Only then does he
diminish back to size and cradle you once more in his arms.
His face is all you
You moved from the
city on the ocean four states away.
“To be near
family,” Mother says. She does not add in
case Father leaves.
But the town you’ve moved to
isn’t hers at all – it’s Father’s – and she cries when she thinks you aren’t
“This town is too close,” she
says to Father. Everyone stares. Everyone knows her name. “Like being always on
You’ve been on-stage, violin
tucked under chin. You can’t see on-stage. You hear people watching but cannot see
them. The lights hurt your eyes and you sweat.
Picture Mother there, the round,
white light on her pale, pale face. Picture people staring, shadows moving, Mother
pinned, blinded by the light of Every One’s stares.
No wonder she cries.
For Halloween, Mother paints
your face with lipstick and shadow; your hair is braided into pigtails and you
wear a blue gingham gown. A plush dog rests in a basket that hangs from your
“Not in Kansas never looked so good,” Mother says.
It’s the first Halloween your
baby sister can walk on her own, apart from the stroller, and she grasps your
one finger with all of her own. Russ’s widow Mae waits, porchlight on, for you
to knock on her door. She wears a black witch’s hat; cats curl the staircase
She croons, “I’ll get you, my pretty,”
and your sister cries.
“It’s late,” says Mother, an apology.
Father carries Sister to the
car. Mother follows.
You are the only one to see Mae
slip into shadow, tall as the bare-branched trees, silent as a bat, seeing you
Swagger your steps at the
supermarket, the church, the pavement outside Grandfather’s shop. You are
famous. Joe’s granddaughter, Bob’s great-niece, Scotty’s eldest.
“Everyone knows me,” Mother
cries to Father. “I can’t go anywhere.”
“You’ll get used to it,” he
She takes the keys and leaves.
The door bounces too many times behind her.
Ask if she will return.
“Of course,” Father says. “Of
course she will.”
Hold the Lucky 8 ball
Grandfather gave you. Shake it and repeat, silently, to yourself of course, of course she will.
And, of course, she does.
She leaves you at Geri’s, to
drive to the mall an hour away.
Geri’s lips are gummy and red.
Her face droops more than Mae’s, more than Jean’s and Grandmother’s and Fern’s.
She has her brothers’ faces, their own beaked nose. Her husband Bill sits, as always,
beneath an afghan in the chair nearest the window. On her mantel are photos of
children not her own. She walks you along the row, naming them and how she
knows them. You’re older now – old enough to understand there is sadness here, but
not old enough to understand why. She makes chocolate chip cookies for you and
your sister, pours glasses of Sprite, though neither of you like chocolate or
Sprite. Your sister, still very young, opens her mouth to protest. Kick her
under the table.
When it’s time to leave, forget
your coat. You must run back inside, Mother says. Find Geri crying in a chair
beside Bill’s. Tears flood the floor. Children’s photographs float, knock about
your knees. You must wade them to get to your coat, hung on a peg in the
corner. Geri holds her arms to hold you, but she isn’t Grandfather and you’d
rather not. Try to run but slip in the flood. You can’t swim. Drown. Feet
scramble for a hold. Arms splash too hard for Geri to grab.
The door opens and there is
Mother. Run to her, tears streaming the door, tumbling the porch, drenching the
The giants do not have many
children, much less grandchildren. Run with your few cousins through the park,
over fairy bridges to fountains made of limestone where you drink after paying
the troll. There are geese to feed, monkeys upside down in cages. Pebbled paths.
The giants bring you here – sometimes singly, sometimes in groups. Iron gates
open at a touch from their hands. Magic, you think, slipping your own hand into
one of theirs.
Bob’s house sits
atop a hill, above a winding drive. It’s on the edge of town and everyone must
pass it as they come and go. A welcome sign of sorts, tall and very white. You
are proud walking to it, climbing the stairs that lead inside. Enter without
and the house is full. You know these people and run possessively through great
halls. Drink juice mixed with soda until your stomach bubbles.
In the front room,
giants and their grown children choose presents from a pile. They roar until
they cry, steal booze and lottery tickets from one other, avoiding the flamingo
yard ornament that will be wrapped and brought again next year.
You are still young
enough to have presents picked especially for you. Fashion dolls, coloring
books, glass beads for your neck, bottles of polish for tiny nails. Show these
to the giants who smell of smoke and drink – the doll with her tiny waist, the beads
sparkling against your neck.
Bob steals an ear
when you sit on his lap, slips it from your head with a thumb and forefinger.
He shows it to you, lying on his palm, when you begin to cry.
Only Jean, his
wife, he says, can put it back and she does, setting the ear gently against the
side of your head with a touch as hot as the sun’s, soft as a petal’s.
Then Bob laughs and
it fills the room, lifting you on bubbles no one else can see. Jean pulls you
back. She holds you as Bob wipes his eyes, pops bubbles with stout fingers. She
doesn’t let go until the last bubble is popped and it is time for you to leave.
Hug Geri quickly,
linger with Grandmother, hide from Mae. Blow a kiss, instead, near the
bejeweled tree where bat shadows threaten. Watch Mae catch it, the print of
your lips against a powdered cheek.
hovers. Stars reflect, like pins, in the snow.
Make a wish. Watch
the air still. Flakes hang without falling; all the world cupped within a
Breathe and it
move with your family away from the town where Mother was too well-known. You
move into the country nearby, where there is no one. Woods line the back of
this new house and there is a clearing where someone once built fires ringed
with stone. The trees here are always bare – summer, spring, winter, fall. They
are enchanted trees where orphans, when no one is looking, go to mourn.
At the new school,
no one knows your name. Sit in the back with your head down. Tell everyone
you’re an immigrant because you were born in the city on the sea. Blush when
they laugh. Disagree when the teacher says it isn’t the same thing. It is.
another house. Your own, this time. Giants stuff the edges of it. They are
smaller now, unsure of how they used to be big. The cards and booze are claimed
mostly by their children. Wayne and Fern are gone. Mae. Their absence is a hole
that will gradually shallow. Mother demands Christmas carols from you and you
play, violin tucked under chin, in a corner. Downstairs, your few cousins and
sister play air hockey. The house is full of noise.
“Where are the
jobs?” Father’s sisters ask. “What do we expect?”
The Gazette printed an article about the
death of Small Town America. Children grow and leave, never return.
slacks and matching sweater, strings of pearls along her wrists and neck and
ears, pours sparkling juice into a flute for you. Finish your song and sit
She pats your knee.
Says you play well. She’s proud of you. Her eyes water like ponds.
“Get out if you
can,” she says. “This place is ugly.”
made hang from the walls of her home, the walls of yours and your aunts’ and
all the living giants’. They are of the prairie and are more sad, you think,
Across the room,
Bob and Grandfather laugh. It isn’t like Bob’s laugh of years ago, but it is
strong enough, still, to push you and Grandmother against the wall, cracking it
so that every time you pass that room from now on, you will see the crack and
remember that night and that laugh. The way Grandmother sounded, urging you to
Go with Jean when
she visits Geri before Bill dies. Don’t enter the room he’s in – the room that echoes
machine-forced breath. Let Jean enter that place alone. You stay in the living
room, where the sun shines many windows and photos fill the shelves of a new
bookcase. Geri serves chocolate chip cookies and Sprite. You no longer mind.
But she calls you
by your aunt’s name and, this, you do mind. Look away. Ask about the children
in her photographs.
“I don’t know
them,” she says. “Who are they?”
Name them for her.
Point to each in turn until Jean returns and says,
“He’s better. For
“Who?” Geri asks. “Who’s
Jean touches her
shoulder. Geri’s eyes light.
But Jean must leave
and you must follow, glancing behind to say goodbye. Already, Geri’s light is
gone. She sets a trash bin beside the bookcase and sweeps her arm; children’s
funeral, then Geri’s. Curl your hair and paint your lips; you’re old enough
now. Next is Bob’s, where Jean refuses to leave the casket and stands beside it
through the entire service, clutching his hand as if, even this, she could
heal. Remember your ear and think maybe she can.
powers, you’ve noticed, are faded.
“You don’t have to
come,” Mother says about each visit to disinfected rooms, parlor viewings with
bodies laid like wax upon tables.
There are scholarship
expect you,” she says.
Tell her you want
to. It’s partly true.
handsome as ever, even as the others fade. Grief becomes her. High-collared black
tickles her jaw. People calm as they speak to her, grow less teary. Even Jean,
she manages to coax away from Bob’s body.
Grandfather plays music from his disco bar. The lights still flash, but he
slumps like the curved shrimp ringing crystal bowls upstairs.
The air that once
filled him has been taken from him and given to you. When he asks for a dance,
lift him with one finger, spin him as he once did you. Ignore the tears that fall
like acid from his face, burning carpet, sizzling the wood underneath.
fingers slide over catgut strings. Scatter notes like pearls from a broken
Choose the school
that is furthest away, in the city on the sea.
Here, music turns
from pearls to stones.
Change majors. Get
married. Work. Have children.
Mother calls to say
Grandfather is fading fast. Tell her you know; you’ve seen pictures. Snarl your
voice so that she knows – what she says must not be spoken.
The air tastes of
salt. Dolphins curl from water. Your children take turns burying one another in
sand. The pier is bloody from fish. Sand pipers run like the chicks your
great-grandmother used to have, but you don’t think of Great Grandmother; you
were too young. Think only of chicks without knowing why.
Waves hiss where
the pipers run. Foamed fingers claw tracks from sight.
The days are long.
Quit your job because, you say, you want to squeeze every moment you have.
But the days are
long. It’s hard to remember to squeeze.
crying often, the way your own mother did; stop as soon as you can, hope the
children didn’t see though, of course, they did. Your youngest cries with you –
over cheese that isn’t cut and cheese that is. Your oldest can’t quit touching
you – hands slide under the long sleeves that you wear, stroke the undersides
of your arms, where the skin is softest. When they hug you, it is as hard as
they can, afraid that you’ll leave.
You’re afraid, too.
Pull away. Tell
them it hurts. They have giant blood in their veins and are stronger than they
Lock yourself in
the bathroom. Ignore their pounding.
Outside, they wait.
Heavy breath beside the door. Four arms wrapping the moment they see you.
Pulling away is like cutting vines.
When he dies, Father
is the one who calls. You’re brushing the oldest’s hair.
“I have news,” he
Let your tears fill
the room, trickle the door’s seams, rush the hallway beyond. A waterfall roars
the stairs; your oldest nearly drowns. She floats beneath the surface, hair
like seaweed about a petal face. Eyes like stones. Grab her from the flood. Dip
your fingers to wet them, then draw them over the walls. Paint pictures with
your tears to cheer her. Emerald and gold stretch where you paint. Paint a
picture of Grandfather, the way he filled a room.
By the time your
youngest enters, the flood has dried and your head knocks the ceiling. Hunch to
fit. Splay your knees in a kind of jig, swing these girls about the room.
At the funeral,
feel an intruder. The people filing past, faces shining, lay stronger claim
than you. Shrink beneath the weight of your parents’ grief, your aunts’. Watch
the faces of your sister, your few cousins – rounder and deeper set than you
remember – watch their grief play out. Wonder if yours is real at all.
They say things and
write things and read things.
Not you. Your mouth
is a cave collapsed on itself.
Afterward, at Grandmother’s,
is a box full of puppets. The room has been made into a stage. Children are a
rarity; yours the only ones. Adults crowd to watch. Grandmother pours sparkling
juice into goblets, hands them to your children.
“I shouldn’t spoil their
dinner,” she says, “but who knows if I’ll see them again.”
Tell her this is
Jean smiles like a
Cabbage Patch in a corner nearby. She doesn’t know you and tried pulling away
when you gripped her hand to make her remember. She cried and you let go. Now,
she has forgotten again and her face is dimpled with smiles.
Above her, rests
Grandfather’s shadow and Bob’s with him. Mae’s arms, like wings, fill the
ceiling and there is Geri and Bill, Wayne and Fern; even Russ, whom you never
Say, “We will
always see you again.”
The girls finish
their show and Grandmother pulls a turkey hat from a shelf. Its wings flap at
the touch of a button.
Grandmother mimics. “Gobble gobble.” Flapping her arms.
Your girls roll
like beetles on their backs, laughing until they cry. In that moment,
Grandmother stretches as tall as Grandfather that day he danced in the
basement. Air lifts you to your back, above the chair where you sat, and you
hear Bob’s laugh before realizing – it’s your own.
Light falls in the
cemetery, where you’ve gone with your children for a walk. Your husband stays
behind and your mother is with him, telling him she knows. The shock of this
place. Your father sits in the chair Grandfather used to take, rocking in the
window. The town is small enough you think you see him, the shape of his head
in that window, from your perch on the hill.
Your children run
between headstones, the way they couldn’t that afternoon when mourners stood
like wraiths and a canopy spread the hole in which they placed Grandfather.
Now, the cemetery
is empty. Mist creeps beyond the ridge. The girls twirl. When they run, their
shadows reach to the tops of trees. Their arms spread for balance. If the straight
and pebbled path were just long enough, they could lift off. Could fly.
Screech, “I’ll get
you, my pretties.”
Their laughter is
sharp as stones.
When they tire,
point to the name they don’t know – the name that is your own.
And there. And here again, across the path.
Read aloud names
“Parents of,” you
read and your oldest is old enough to take your hand.
The youngest asks
when you will die.
Tell her, “never,”
unable to lie.