After the fight, the mother took the children across the state line to buy fireworks, and the father went to the garage to work on the car he’d been restoring. As soon as the mother left the house, her remaining tears evaporated instantly from the heat. Inside the garage, the father’s sweat formed a clinging bond between the back of his shirt and his skin. He bent over the hood, peering into the mess of gaskets. He adjusted a bolt or two, disinterested at the work. The light was dusty-orange, filtered through a four-paned window on the eastern wall, one of its panes missing, covered by a slice of cardboard. The fight had rattled him, ignited something he couldn’t understand.
The children were both as fiery as bottle rockets, their minds racing at the thought of purchasing illegal fireworks: an espionage mission. They had simultaneously forgotten about the fight they had overheard through the open window as they played upon first mention of spycraft.
Behind the wheel, the mother dug into her nail beds, extracting a piece of misplaced dirt. She, unlike the father, no longer felt rattled. The heat got to our heads, she said to herself as the milemarkers dropped in number. But, as her van crossed the state line, as she saw the signs and the banners, she wondered if there was more to it than the heat. She shrugged the thought away, focusing instead on the squealing children in the backseat.
They purchased six bags of fireworks for the town’s annual Independence Day celebration. Bright and colorful fountains of fire; cherry bombs; moon whistlers that lasted for minutes; mortar shells that erupted in bright splashes of color, all tucked away in brown paper sacks in the back of the van.
And Marla is sitting behind the wheel of the old four-by, driving past her now. It is dusk on the eastern outskirts, and way out past the three curves where my brother lives are the first stars. Adona is buried somewhere in the golden light of end day, in the dregs of sunlight that are still seeping into the basin of the river valley through the clouds. The family lot at Mount Ararat Cemetery is burning its low, hot embers.
Tuck and Marla are up front, and I am crammed up in the back, my long legs hedged between my niece’s booster chair and a Styrofoam cooler half full of beer and half full of deer sausage. A comfortable, boozy silence fills the air of the truck. Until Marla breaks it.
“Some day it’ll by us on Ararat,” she says, twiddling her calloused thumbs against the wheel like her eminent demise is no big deal. “We were talking a month ago, before you got back, about our stone.” Tuck and Marla, ragtag parents extraordinaire, ready to die at fifty. The curveballs never stop.
She goes on. “A joint marker we were thinking. Maybe two little hearts that intertwine in marble, kissed with doves. What do you think?”
Feeling inspired by Etgar Keret lately, so I wrote this. Thanks for reading!
I wasn’t sure what was happening. The tears didn’t feel natural; they were not the tears I had cried the day before, at least. Yesterday’s tears were shed so freely, so deep into the stacks that I might have been all alone, tucked between an odd alcove near a riot-proof window and a shelf of outdated psychology journals. Since picking up this work study job, I have learned all the best places to cry in the library, from the service elevator (only accessible by library staff), to the most secluded desk in the quiet study, my face pressed against the cold, scarred wood.
Today’s tears were reluctant tears, jammed up inside my eyes. As hesitant as they were to be born, that didn’t stop my body’s other functions from *wanting* them to surface. I parked the book cart outside a bathroom, relieved to find it empty. Standing with my nose pressed against the mirror, I tried my best to avoid scrutinizing what I saw, but my tired and slouched posture, the premature lining on my face that hadn’t been there when I left for college, the puffiness in my eyes, were enough to release the hot, painful tears from their prison.
[This post is an homage to my college creative nonfiction classes, where we were asked to write a string of sentences that all begin with “I remember…” It’s such a great exercise to get you in the mood for writing, especially nonfiction. The exercise is based on Joe Brainard’s book of the same title (1970). Feel free to comment your own I remembers.]
I remember the dusty hayloft and rickety ladder, and the abandoned pile of horseshoes found beneath the hay.
I remember the adult-sized tricycle Natalie gave me before she died. I pedaled it up the hill and down the small gravel path that led to the cell phone tower, where I sat and watched the sun rise.
I remember when the chain rusted and snapped and the brakes stopped working and how I took the bike back to Natalie’s house in the middle of the night without telling her parents it was me who had it in the first place and how I never went back there again.
I remember bokchoy in oyster sauce, and sneaking kisses while his father watched the Peking Opera on the couch.
I remember inerasable red rings around our mouths from drinking fruit punch from plastic jugs in the sweltering heat.
It would be a lie to say that I didn’t know the dead man, but it would be the truth to say I can no longer remember his name. Too many nights filled with foreign smoke and strong drink. Too many days scratched away listlessly. But I know it’s still down inside me somewhere, being chewed up and digested again and again.
It’s been buried so many times, on the tip of my tongue in the pitch of nightfall, but never fully exposed. Maybe it will surface one day, as these things often do, when least expected.
I have wondered why I forgot the name. Before his death he was someone I saw a lot—you couldn’t say I knew him, but he was definitely a constant. We worked at the market for a couple months anyway. A friend of mine said it best over drinks, as we sat next to a shelf of nameless corporate nobodies at some long-forgotten bar in the legal district: it’s easier to forget a face that wants forgotten, he said. That was at least five years ago—my dog didn’t get hit by the bus yet, we had a president worth having, I had more hair. My god. What is five years but an endless and terrifying chasm that has the potential so suck away your very lifeblood?
Both he and the dead man now share a common denominator: both absent from my life.
It was an impossible year to be alive. The great forces at the wheel continued onward in unyielding procession; water fell from the sky, dried, and was carried up again into the clouds. Our tears were no longer among the water that the forces carried on, because we forgot how to use them correctly. Some still made it by, like when we would cut onions, or when we stubbed our toe on the radiator during a midnight trip to the icebox, or when we would laugh so hard at a comedy club that they would leak out and we were unsure why. Those went up with the water the same as always.
But when our loved ones died we no longer felt the tears cloying from the small space inside our heads, the well where such things are kept and extracted when needed. No longer were we moved to such extremes. This is because death had come to define our existence, little by little, year after year, since the internet had cast its hand in death’s favor. Each night, we would plug in to our hivemind and revisit the deaths of the day in unison, sending virtual candles to the ones we never knew and eulogizing the ones who stood and vague beacons on the outskirts of our periphery. Condolences thoughtlessly given to the families of the departed, and as a response – just a virtual thumbs up, no words necessary. No tears as our eyes glow by the light of the screen.