Breadcrumb #458

KATIY HEATH

There was a station wagon framed with wood paneling. Painted the icy shade your tongue turns when you get to the end of a Bomb pop. Blue as a soft contrast to the rusted edges. It once carried the four of us to St. Louis on vacation, scraping its belly across I-70. Each bump, sending the kids into the sillies. For twenty miles any word starting with the letter ‘b’ sent my brother and me to near tears. Bubble. Bumble. Boat. Bobby. Beetlejuice. Boob. The sillies distracted from the defensive driving happening up front.

    Marc Maron on the artist Lorde, a barely legal popstar who dances to her own music for three minutes. No singing, just moving her lanky body all over the stage like a funky, smiling scarecrow. Unadulterated emotion. Reckless. This is moronic to Marc.

    Watching, listening to intense joy—stuck in a car without the ability to switch off the tiny laughs in the backseat. It can make you start holding your breath while you switch lanes, lips pursed tight around the Fuck you buddies as you avoid the rearview.

    There was a maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass with a cracked grill. And a Mercury Topaz, gold with a prominent rubber line sweeping down the sides. Partially peeled, black Sharpie used to fill in for continuity. Drawing on metal with marker like an outline in a coloring book.

    All of our family vehicles were close to the ground. In first grade, we drove to Disney in a silver Plymouth Voyager. The Voyager had a cloth ceiling that hung low, tickling our hairlines on the way to school. I went from the sillies to asking mom to drop me off a block from the movie theater. In his craft class, Darin Strauss talks about characters as machines. Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day is a dignity machine.

    Dad is a machine of despair. Telling stories with a brown tint. And that’s why I can’t own a gun.  He likes to end with a punch line.

    I was driving back from Wathena with cousin Davey and his girlfriend. We were in high school and out of our minds. The car bounced against the guardrail. Have you ever heard teeth smack together? They make a clicking noise – like flicking a lateral incisor with a fingernail.

    His sister, Aunt Carrie, also was a raconteur. This house was built on an ancient burial ground. I think she is the kind of machine that believes in ghosts. There was the time she saw a young boy in the middle of the night, dressed for the coal mines, perched on a stack of towels at the foot of the bed. His cotton terry boot print still there at sunrise. Sleepovers were spent trying to catch a look, praying for a silhouette, but I saw nothing.  

    Uncle Mick did, though. At least according to Carrie. He rode to work with him one morning in the cabin of his truck. Red eyed and on his way to a 10-hour shift packing batteries, and there the boy appeared in his pointed shoes laced up to the knee.

    Sophomore year I took a class called Haunting and Healing, where I learned about the ‘Restless History’ of the Hudson River Valley. Did you know there are more tales of the supernatural upstate than any other place in America? Have you ever been to Columbia County, just south of Albany? I took a Ford Contour up the BQE and ran my fingers along the gritty brick walls of hollow brownstones, now mere etchings showing the Dutch influence, or what is left. I stopped at the House on Ten Broeck Street, picked paint off the white columns, and tried to rouse the man inside. Dressed in the clothing of a 17th-century Dutch soldier, he was last seen on the top floor holding a metal helmet and fistful of blonde curls. The most unusual hauntings familiarize the foreign, help us process trauma.

My aunt and uncle were having issues as the ghost child showed up. The kind of issues I would experience decades later, like when you can’t keep stories straight about how the remote control broke, or what happened to the red vase that used to sit near the corner of the couch. How Black Dog developed what was called an associative disorder with parts of the floor – the areas where things happened. The ex-husband saw a little girl standing by our bedside, in the spot Black Dog avoided. It’s her that keeps him from lying with us. The conviction in telling me how she smiled at him while I lay still.

The ex-husband saw a little girl standing by our bedside, in the spot Black Dog avoided.

Every dent in the dry wall smelled of burnt brussels sprouts and overpriced Malbec.  

My Dad told me to keep an eye on you.

We used to take the Dodge Stratus to the vet, leaving small dots of oil in our path.

The way Uncle Mick did from the kitchen to the garage, skin smelling of gasoline from nights at a work bench decorated in Kools empties. Playboy. Poster. Poontang. Topless girls above the lawn mower, high enough for all, including his elementary aged daughter, to see. She saw other things in the garage. Then she would go and reenact, making her cousin rub privates together like she had seen those other women do. Kids left alone, not knowing. Hiding, sneaking.

    Aunt Carrie rearranging furniture. Maybe one day he’ll come home, think he’s in the wrong house.

    Fourth of July was always at theirs. High on a hill of gravel I learned to not trust young boys with bottle rockets. Adults scattered outside, kids in the bedrooms: my cousin and his girlfriend locked away. You’re going to poke a hole in that baby’s head.

Juvenile hormones with no impulse controls.

    Like losing my virginity before my first menstrual cycle. Before I’m old enough to drive. Spending eighth grade hiding used latex in Nintendo 64 boxes, soiled tissues behind cartoon faces with oversized mustaches.  

    Rachel Cusk says she doesn’t believe in character development. That traits are more oceanic, seasonal even, and that people can and do change. Maybe we aren’t machines.

    My first car was a red Pontiac Sunfire.

    Graduation weekend, I was driving back from Wathena with a friend riding shotgun. Fighting blurry, tired eyes. She leaned out the window, wishing to touch the guardrail, then sprayed undigested Smirnoff down the side panel.  

• • •

Breadcrumb #457

KHAHOLI BAILEY

Growing up, I used to cry for things that never happened: my brother’s death, the day we go homeless, a doctor’s sigh before revealing a devastating diagnosis. I would cry and cry and feel like I was standing on a pedestal in the center of a windy abyss. I would fold those feelings somewhere deep in my mind, tight and complicated like origami, so that when I open up I am prone to bending in the same directions over and over again. But on the bright side, if any of those atrocities do happen, I will have had deft practice in the ways of suffering.

My pediatrician called it anxiety. That wasn’t the evolutionary diagnosis I’d been waiting for, so I kept on making up things to cry about.

                                  *

As a teenager I would lay awake and fantasize about my pending adulthood. I would imagine myself in the clothes of a woman, only overdone or underdressed like a girl’s fantasy.  I would be walking in stilettos down a Manhattan street and hear the train rattle underneath the sidewalk grail. Against my better judgement, I’d be off to a sprint. People start staring at me and in the way my uncle warned me about. Don’t fall, they’d say with their eyes, don’t ruin it for us. Miss the train by a margin of a second so that it’s wind can blow up your skirt they way we know you hoped it would. But I never make it to my Monroe moment. I’d feel all the faces upon me, closer and closer like an elbow-throwing rush hour crowd. Their attention deadens  my own and I fumble: I’d trip on my heel, silly little girl that I was, and nosedive into the pavement so violently that I couldn’t bear to end it with an image. Just cut to black and I’d be back in my bed, staring at an arthritic tree outside my window.

My friends called it normal, so I kept on fantasizing about patent leather pumps and planned how I would face an embarrassing death with dignity.

                                    *

In my 20s I had dreams of food stamps. I would sit on the sofa, lopsided as it was with the bent mattress springs underneath, and eat oatmeal from a plate. In my mind I was strolling the wide aisles of Costco, picking up king crab legs and organic grapes and mini cinnamon rolls to impress my guests. I would eat like a queen because I was a pauper.  I’d tell my son to bow his head before his meal and thank the state of New York.

My application was denied and the fantasies ceased. My oatmeal diet didn’t. My doctor told me it wasn't normal to cry for things that happen and gave me a prescription for Xanax.

• • •

Breadcrumb #456

FINOLA MCDONALD

I need you
to keep me on time. this house
is burning. we only have
a year to leave.
we never will.
the dogs will stay, too.
Instead, we’ll make motions
of happiness in the rearview mirror,
rent out forgotten cities, make love
in the parking lots,
spill blood over the crumbled mezzanine
and dry fountains.
I remember the way you held dark berries
between your fingers
in the later evenings of the summer
the way they looked busted
and thin and poor
against my temples.
they were the only thing
you could have saved
    but you put them out in the heat
to dry and acted like they’d never
change.

• • •

Breadcrumb #455

MAGGIE DAMKEN

If the body is a temple,
then mine is the house
of a fractured god,
god of peeled cherries
and pith. God of the crooked tooth,
lost enamel, bruxism;
god of the fumbled ultrasound,
god who sends doubting doctors
so to better teach you not to trust.
Mine is the god who refuses audience
until you’re two weeks deep
into the uncharted headache,
who listens best when you beg
for mercy from the toilet at 4 AM.
Mine is the god of the blistered bladder,
pelvic kidney, withered lung,
cystic ovary. Mine is the god
of unanswerable questions, a sphinx
speaking nonsense into flesh.
Mine is the god who takes no homage:
you sacrifice merely to learn how to lose.
Lose three years, forty pounds, senior prom,
painless sex, the blessed orange.
Lose walking. Lose fearless eating:
know the torture of the tomato,
the raspberry, the morning coffee,
know the futility of every choice
being the wrong one.
My god might be the god of Job,
my life ruined just as suddenly
and without notice.
I could say that pain has made me pious
but that’s only a half-truth.
My god makes you prove how badly
you want this life. You can have
anything you want if you’re willing
to walk over splintered seashells to have it.
Is one more livid sunset worth the bruise
you carry inside you? If the medication
that heals your bladder rots your liver,
which organ do you choose to save?
At the end of the test, the god of Job
gave him a new wife, new children,
soothed the festering boils inflicted on his skin.
If this is a challenge, I want no reward.
I choose this body made of sand and fire,
this body filled with stones and glass.
If everything must happen for a reason,
let the reason be this:
Sometimes there is no lesson to be learned.

• • •

Breadcrumb #454

CRAIG KITE

A

My shoulder pops when I rotate it. Also my grandmother is dying again. Last time she almost died her house burned down. She just laughed then and described what a soul looks like. My mother always calls me when death is singing shrill and I come down to see my Noni leak a little more out of her tired body. She is still alive and tries to look beautiful with a plastic tube slid down her throat. But her eyes say something in between I love you all, now please let me leave, &, Oh god, I’m scared. What’s going to happen to me? Some days I can’t remember my name. I named her Noni before I could spell my own name. It was a mispronunciation of the Italian word Nona. She tries to smile pretty. I brush her hair from her forehead and kiss her. She used to drive a school bus for handicapped kids. I could listen to her talk to me for hours. I never even had to say a word. It felt like a real grownup conversation. Now we crowd around the hospital room trying to lift her spirit, either toward heaven or the will to live. Her throat is sore and she can’t say my name now. I can’t tell if she remembers it. They had to resuscitate her yesterday. She was probably moments away. She wakes up and winces and I wince. 

My mother is a trooper. She’s paints the cabinets cherry. She paints the cabinets white. She paints the smoke show in my mind. She makes me move the furniture. Everything is a matter of fact built on distraction from the inevitable. She is stronger than I hope to be when I watch her die one day. My older brother is more financially stable than me. I’m better at focusing. I can beat him at arm wrestling.  Except I can’t. But I’m taller than him. 

In reality, I take much longer this year to respond when my mother texts that Noni is dying again. I don’t buy a bus ticket immediately. I am hiding in New York and tell my girlfriend I’ll go for the funeral. Or I’ll call mom tomorrow. I am just like my father, wanting to believe my presence is more trouble than help. My shoulder pops when I open my internet browser. I’m already worried about arthritis. 


B

Today Brett Kavanaugh’s seat on the Supreme Court was confirmed. Also my grandmother died. I’m not sure which is stranger, life or death. I’m not pro-life. When people die we say they pass away. When I was younger my body passed over the railroad tracks that run through Queens, New York and it was an adventure. Today my body passed under them a few blocks from my apartment and it was mundane. One day my ghost will pass straight through them. I’ll walk through walls whenever I want to scare a two-year old. My grandmother’s ghost would never do that. She was the personification of a hummingbird. There were always hummingbirds sipping sugar water from the feeders she put out around her house on Hummingbird Lane. She had figurines of hummingbirds collecting dust on every piece of furniture she owned and now nobody wants these nicknacks. Tylenol was Tomynol. She said words wrong but I liked hers better. She was the most racially tolerant and progressive of all the old folks in my family. And once when my mom asked her as child what would happen if a white and a black person had a baby, grandma said it’d come come out like a zebra. She was super good at Super Mario. Now there’s a fire behind my face and my scalp is all tingly. I still can’t cry but I feel out of my body early. And that is because I’m staring at her corpse.

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