Tuesday, March 31, 2009


“In those days you didn’t call for a doctor unless you had money, which we didn’t. You took care of things your self; there were all kinds of home remedies about. When my sisters both got sick at the same time we didn’t think too much of it at first, we didn’t know anything about the Spanish flu, didn’t know anything at all. Besides, they were strong, beautiful girls; handsome we used to call them. They were so strong as to be able to do nearly the same work as any hired man, my father used to brag. Course there weren’t many men to be hired back then, what with the war.”

“Anyway, my sisters got worse so quickly there was barely time to realize it, we didn’t even have time to get the priest. They’d gotten sick on a Sunday after church and by the next morning you could hear the death rattle in their heaving chests and there was a strange foam coming out of their mouths. By the evening they were both dead, within an hour of each other. My parents were in shock; I don’t think they could believe it had happened. I remember thinking they were very strong because they didn’t cry, but now I wonder if they were just so stunned they couldn’t.”

“People were laid out at home back then, and since there were two of them they lay side by side, barely fitting on the dining table that was moved into the parlor. I remember they had coins on there eyes too, but now I can’t recall what that was for. I think it was because sometimes the dead’s eyes wouldn’t stay closed. Yes, I’m pretty sure that was it. I was very young at the time, you have to realize, so a lot of things didn’t seem clear to me.”

“Both Mary and Katherine had their Sunday dresses on and so did I. My father had picked a small bouquet of flowers and placed each of the girls’ hand around it, so they were both joined together with those posies. I remember thinking that they looked so pretty and clean and I wondered aloud how that happened because when I saw them last in their sick beds they looked awful, Mary’s red hair was wild and tangled and Katherine’s dark eyes looked big as saucers, like she had no pupils at all, they were just black empty holes against ghostly white skin. But my aunt told me that she and my mother had stayed up the night before bathing them and getting them fixed up and dressed. Then she started crying and said, ‘It should be the other way around, our children should be dressing us for the grave.’ She had five children herself. By the end of the winter she was dead too, and so as my uncle. I don’t know what happened to my cousins. We couldn’t take them in, we were barely scraping by.”

"It was just a few days after my sisters died that my baby brother, Nolan got sick. You know that’s where your name came from, don’t you? Yes, of course you do, I’ve told you that before. Nolan was named after my father’s mother, Nolan was her maiden name and the name of the village we lived in, Nolan Hill. I remember my father used to sing a little song he must have made up, something about ‘Rollin, Nolan Hill, God bless us yes He will.’ I wish I could remember the words. He had a lovely voice. "

"My mother seemed to go numb when baby Nolan took sick, but my father got crazed, he got desperate. He began cursing God and yelling at my mother to do something, not to just sit there weeping like an idiot. He wanted her to nurse Nolan as she had Mary and Katherine, but I just don’t think it was in her, I think she knew it would do no good. She was already in mourning for the boy. But my father wouldn’t believe it, he tried anyway. When the poor baby’s fever spiked and his breathing started to become hard I watched as my father did what looked to me then with my young eyes like torture the boy. He wrapped him in thick woolen blankets and held him tightly, the baby’s fever made him strong for a bit and he struggled against my father’s sturdy arms but eventually he resigned himself to it, I guess. You see, the thought in those days was that you needed to sweat a fever out to break it, so they’d cover you in blankets and put hot water bottles ‘round you even."

"All night my father held the boy in his arms, just sat there at the kitchen table and rocked little Nolan back and forth, singing until his voice was just a hoarse whisper. No one sent me to bed; I sat there with him and my mother. I fell asleep with my little head on the table. In the morning when I woke it was obvious the boy had died sometime during the night, he was limp in my father’s arms, wrapped in all those damp, sweaty blankets.”

"I think that drove my father over the edge; I think that’s what killed him. He went shortly after Nolan. It was just my mother and me then. We had to leave the farm in the spring because there weren’t enough men, what with the war and all, to help work the farm. We had to move to the city where we could both find some work. My mother always said we’d get enough money together and go back, go back to Nolan Hill. But we never did. I’ve never been back and now that your grandfather lies here in this plot with your own baby brother, I’ll rest here someday too, instead of with my parents or brother and sisters back in Ireland. That’s what you do, Nola, you marry and go where your husband takes you, you make a life out of what you can and hope God doesn’t give you too much to bear. That’s all you can do."

Sunday, March 29, 2009

sharp things

From the minute he was told about the accident Graham had been stoic. She’d thought he was strong, at first. He never openly mourned, at least not in front of her. No tears, no desperation, not one crack in his staid demeanor. Of course he was grim and he was quiet, speechless even. Graham moved as if on automatic pilot, zombie like. But he never broke down, not once. Kate never would have gotten through the whole process, the hospital, the funeral, if it weren’t for Graham’s solid level of control. She also hated him for it. She could never forgive him for letting her mourn alone.

It seemed like as soon as Ethan was in the ground Graham went back to a routine, back to living some semblance of his former life. He didn’t do it with as much animation – none in fact. But he put one foot in front of the other. He got dressed, he ate, he even slept. Kate could do none of that. She was in a drugged out haze from the tranquilizers and even if she hadn’t been she could not have functioned as before. Food would never be the same. Sleep would never be the same. Breathing would never be the same. Ethan was gone and nothing could be the same ever again without it feeling like a betrayal, a denial.

She watched Graham sometimes, when he wasn’t aware, looking for a crack in his hard exterior. She had done that, watched him secretly, since they first met. Back then she had loved the way his movements seemed so exact, so assured, never any extraneous motion, even when he had no idea anyone was looking. Every action he took had a purpose. Whether he was walking down the street, making a sandwich or washing his car it was all fluid, no hesitation.

Whenever they were far apart, fighting, arguments that went on for days, when they had barely spoken in weeks, she didn’t want to watch him. She didn’t want to admire his perfect execution of everyday activities. But sometimes she caught herself doing it in spite of herself, despite him.

After Ethan died she found herself watching him all the time, but now it was with rage, a silent wrath that she could feel bubbling in her chest the minute she saw him. Yet to give voice to it, to speak of it would be to offer him a chance to refute it, to defend himself from it. She wouldn’t do it. She would never give him that. She would rather watch him and hate him, blame him for his ability to go on.

There was one day, months after Ethan was buried, that she remembered thinking he might break after all, might lose it as she had done so many times. She’d started into the kitchen and noticed Graham was there, she hadn’t heard him come home from work. Kate hung back, staying in the doorway partially obscured by the Hoosier cabinet immediately on the right as you entered. Unless he turned around and took a few steps into the center of the room past the old pine farm table he wouldn’t know she was there. And even if he had, she just would pretend she was coming around the corner at that very moment.

Graham had all the ingredients for making a sandwich laid out on the counter in front of him, the mayonnaise, the bread, lettuce, tomato, and a package of cold cuts. She hadn’t been cooking and the gifts of food had stopped weeks ago. Graham hadn’t complained aloud, but she knew he was losing his patience; his silence always spoke volumes to her.

She watched as he took the serrated knife and thinly sliced the tomato, placing the sharply pointed knife at the back of the counter when he was done. Then he spread mayo on one slice of bread with a butter knife, placed the lettuce on it and then placed the butter knife in the sink; he was done with it. Next he went to open the package of ham…or was it bologna? Graham reached into the blue crock Kate kept on the counter that held the most often used objects, spatulas, tongs, wooden spoons, and kitchen shears. He took the scissors and cut open the package of cold cuts and then laid them on the counter.

Almost immediately, out of habit, he realized what he’d done and picked them back up – no sharp objects left within reach of Ethan, both of them were always so careful of that. It was easy to forget, to get distracted and leave a stray knife or fork too close to the edge of the counter where little hands could reach up for it. Once when he was barely two, Kate found a steak knife in the toy box, he must have taken it from the kitchen and managed not to impale himself with it, thankfully. After that they’d taught themselves to be vigilant, watchful, as all parents did as their toddlers explored more and more of their surroundings.

Graham picked up the scissors again out of that time ingrained habit and began to put them back into the crock, but stopped. He held them halfway, frozen in midair. Kate couldn’t see his face but she could tell by the angle of his head that he was staring at them. Slowly he put them back down on the counter. Then he slid them closer and closer towards the edge, slowly, till they were right at the very rim before falling on the floor. He reached for the serrated knife and placed it next to the scissors, also right at the counter’s edge, its blade hovering in space, only the heavier handle kept it from falling over the edge, kept it rooted to the counter’s surface. One by one he took all the sharp objects from the crock, the meat fork, the large bread knife, the sharp cheese grater, and lined them all up side-by-side at the edge of the counter.

Once done, Graham put his hands down at his sides and stepped back as if to survey his handiwork. Suddenly he turned away and walked quickly across the room, opened the back door and went outside, leaving his sandwich half made and all those implements of harm lined up at the edge of the counter, like weapons ready for impending battle.

Ethan wasn’t there. The scissors couldn’t hurt him; sharp things were no longer dangerous. There was no point in being careful anymore. It was just the two of them now.

Kate turned and went back upstairs. She went to Ethan’s room, where she slept now, and took a few more Valium. When she came back down in the morning everything was back in the crock, tidy and neat, as if nothing had happened. Everything was safely back in place again just the way it was.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


“I miss my mother,” Nola whispered, concentrating hard on the pitiful way it sounded, trying to let that feeling of primal, childlike longing well up from deep within her, willing the tears come. She wanted a flood, an unrelenting flood of sorrow to engulf her, hot, salty tears streaming down her face. “It’s not fair” she softly moaned, rocking, chanting the words ‘I miss my mother’ over and over again, like a mantra, goading herself, trying to provoke a state of anguish beyond her ability to control. She wanted to set that anguish in unstoppable motion so she could float away in the raging sea of it. She needed to get lost, to find release; she wanted to cry, to mourn, and to yearn for her mother. It might be her last chance.

But try as she might all she could feel was the anger and frustration she always felt towards her mom. The feelings of betrayal, of being ripped off, of not getting what she deserved. The only emotion she could muster for her dying mother was utter disdain.

On some level Nola wanted to give her mother a break, wanted to let it all go, especially now as her mother seemed to let go of life itself. But she was overcome by the need to hold onto to all that anger as punishment, to forgive Kate would be to let her off the hook. She needed to hurt her over and over the way she’d been hurt by her whole lousy life, to make her finally see how horrible she’d been.

Nola’s silent chant spontaneously changed now from “I miss my mother” to “How dare she.” How dare she lapse into this state of legitimate unconsciousness, how dare she find release, how dare she be so ultimately unreachable. So un-punishable. How dare she disappear yet again.

The realization that she could no longer love her own mother hit her and she felt all the air sucked out of her lungs. How could that happen? Am I really that pissed off at my comatose mother for being stupid, careless. Yes, that was it. Kate was, above all else, careless. And now it was Nola who couldn’t care less.

Am I a monster? Wouldn’t anyone think that, wouldn’t anyone find me despicable for feeling this way? What had she done that was so awful, really? Certainly her crimes couldn’t be considered as bad as her father, could they? He was mean, cruel, purposefully wretched. All her mother did was…was…not much. Not much of anything. She stood by, watched it all. She didn’t see it. But she could have. That was the difference, the fundamental difference. Knowing that her mother’s blindness was a conscious choice is what changed everything.

Her father didn’t know he was the way he was. He wasn’t innocent, but he wasn’t responsible in the same way. He was a product of his own nightmare childhood. In his deepest, darkest hour he faced his demons and took some responsibility, at least some. He definitely felt remorse. Not like Kate, Kate knew, she had moments of clarity and regret but instead of facing them she turned around and denied it all, made the conscious choice to close her eyes again and again.

Her mother made promises and offered pipedreams, over and over she offered hope and then let that fragile hope shatter. She made excuses. She made claims. She twisted reality out of shape until it lost its elasticity altogether; lost the ability to contain the concrete form of Truth and instead liquefied into a puddle of vague platitudes and broken promises.

How had this happened? Just a few short years ago Nola would have said they were close, would have said her mother was her best friend, it was two of them against the world, against her father for sure. But now Nola could clearly see it was only because that’s the way Kate always said it was, it was merely a depiction, an attempt at revising history. She said they were close, that they were more than mother and daughter. She said he was the enemy. It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the truth either. Somewhere in between; somewhere in the gray; so damn much gray.

And what of Ethan? Would he have been here with Nola, understanding how she felt, commiserating with a similar experience? She imagined the sweet little face of a boy who loved his mommy as all children did. Would he see Nola as the betrayer of his perfect life, or the savior come to free him from a mother’s neglect. Was Ethan even all her mother had said, or was he just a little boy, a regular little boy adored by his mother. Or worse, what if Kate’s ability to love wasn’t dead and buried with him, but nonexistent in the first place, what if Ethan suffered for his mother’s emptiness too?

But thinking of Ethan brought Nola comfort, because no matter what Ethan would always be perfect since his story was over before it started. He never made it into the messy guts, the flawed chaos that is life. His beauty would stay eternal by its brevity; the perfect flower only remains possible within the bud. And whether she did when he was alive, his mother loved him but better after death, the point is she did love; if not a child in the flesh than one in memory.

And maybe Kate’s maternal failings were simply because Nola’s presence in her life was a constant reminder Ethan was missing from it, the crime she committed wasn’t being imperfect, it wasn’t being less than Ethan, it was being. Or maybe it was reminding Kate that she was only able to love a dead child and not a real one. Kate was defective, not Nola.

Perfection isn’t sustainable. Perfection is only possible at beginnings and endings, birth and death. Nola wanted the middle. Perfection was a state to be transcended, moved through and gotten beyond. It was a stage in the process, a phase of the journey, or perhaps the end of the road, but it was not in the middle, in the heart, the center.

Just then a nurse came in to check her mother and Nola realized she’d stopped her rocking, stopped trying to evoke emotions that she no longer carried within her. Empty and tired she stared at her mother’s near lifeless body lying in the bed. The machines breathed for her, steady and precise, no chance of a missed breath, no chance of a mistaken heartbeat. Her mother didn’t even have the responsibility of breathing now. Nothing was required of her anymore, not even living. She had retreated into her own, tightly closed bud, safe from facing her own imperfection. At that thought Nola found peace. Not forgiveness, but peace. The middle ground.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

mistakes & miracles

“I have brought you something, but you must promise me that when you are not playing with it you will keep it in your room, alright?”

Nola promised she would.

Grandee took a rectangle of thick lavender wool from the brown bag and laid it across her lap. “I knit this when I was pregnant with your father. But I was new at knitting and realized soon after I started it that it was going to turn out smaller than I’d thought. I’d misjudged the gauge of the yarn, you see, but thought I might as well continue with it since I needed the practice, to say the least.” And then she added in a conspiratorial whisper, “Truth be told I thought I was going to have a girl and she might could use this as a wee doll blanket. I never had my girl, until you that is,” she said squeezing Nola’s hand. “So, now this is yours. I think it’s perfect for Bear-Bear while he recovers, don’t you?” And with that she wrapped him up in the blanket. She held the swaddled Teddy bear like a baby and rocked him in one arm while stroking Nola’s hair with the other hand. Nola looked at Grandee rocking her wounded bear wrapped tightly in that thick blanket and remembered, “Just like baby Nolan!”

Grandee had been staring off into space, lost in the motion of rocking and stroking Nola’s hair for a moment, but at the sound of her brother’s name she stopped and looked intently at Nola, “what was that?”

“Like baby Nolan. You said they wrapped him up tightly in a warm thick blanket and your father rocked him all night. But baby Nolan died anyway.”

Grandee’s expression changed to a pained grimace, she grabbed Nola and pulled her onto her lap, hugging her tightly with the bear still clasped to her chest surrounding both of them in her strong arms, “Nola, is that what you’re thinking about, my poor brother, may he rest in peace?” and Grandee made the sign of the cross as she always did when she spoke of Nolan or Ethan. “Sweetness, Bear-Bear isn’t dead, and he will never die. As long as there is a scrap of fabric left to him, even a few measly torn bits, this bear will live forever.”

“Like a miracle, Grandee? Is it a miracle Bear-Bear was saved?”

Her grandmother looked at her and smiled, “Maybe, yes, yes I suppose he is a miracle bear. Why, he survived the terrible jowls of certain death,” she proclaimed with dramatic flourish, making Nola giggle. “Ah, there, now that’s the true miracle…a smile like that on a day like this.” And Grandee snuggled Nola’s cheek against her own, still clutching the swaddled bear and the child both.

“Nola, do you know what today is? It’s been years now you know. Ten years since your own poor brother died. Today is the anniversary of the accident, I think perhaps that’s why your mother isn’t herself, she wasn’t thinking. She didn’t mean for anything bad to happen.”


“Yes Love.”

“Do you mean she didn’t mean anything bad to happen to Bear-Bear or…?”

“Both, she didn’t mean for anything bad to happen to either of them.”

“But it still did.”

“I know, I know.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Truth is like a loose thread, sometimes you pull it and it breaks off clean, never to unravel again. Other times you pull at it, hoping the thread will break but instead it unravels the whole edge, the more you pull the more the fabric comes undone until it’s nothing but a stringy, tangled mess and cutting the thread can’t save it anymore.

Everything was different now; nothing looked the same. When a veil is lifted everything that had been fuzzy and dim before becomes clear and crisp; the details sharp and in focus. Nola wanted to go through it all, each memory, each story, with newfound knowledge she wanted to revisit every significant aspect of her life and look at it from this new perspective, to see how it had really been, to catch the fragments of truth she had missed. Something as mundane, as seemingly innocent as a tattered teddy bear brought a clarity Nola hadn’t even known was missing.

“Bear-Bear”, as he had been known since Nola could remember being alive, was a teddy bear she had since birth, originally a gift from Grandee. Only he barely resembled a child’s stuffed animal anymore, let alone something specifically bear-like. He was little more than a stitched together rag with the remnants of two eyes and a nose. Nearly all his fur was gone, as were his ears, he had a stub where one of his arms had been and like Frankenstein’s monster he had a random pattern of zigzag stitches holding him together. Kate used to joke he’d been loved to death. She would tell how Nola took him everywhere, that he was her favorite toy, that he’d been peed on, vomited on, left in parks on swings and in the yard during snow storms. Poor Bear-Bear, she would say, but he was still loved, despite his bedraggled appearance.

It was true, Bear-Bear held a special place in Nola’s heart, he had a special place in her room to this day, on a shelf, tucked enough behind her books that prying eyes wouldn’t notice and he was spared ridicule, yet a bit of his face peeked out enough that she could see him, she knew he was there. Bear-Bear was still her guardian, her faithful companion.

But now Nola looked at the disheveled remains of her Teddy bear with different eyes. This was her favorite toy, her beloved little bear. How did it get in this condition? How did it get left behind in the park, left outside in the rain and the snow, why was the dog put in the room where her toys were that day so that she could chew whatever struck her canine fancy? Nola wouldn’t have let that happen to Marcy’s doll, she watched over her for Marcy because she knew that if something happened to that dolly Marcy’s little heart would be broken. That’s what you did for a little kid, you watched over them and made sure they were safe and you took care of what was important to them because that was part of it, protecting their heart from being broken was part of it.

Nola’s heart had been broken that day. She could feel the pain, the agony of that horrible day discovering the chewed remains of Bear-Bear when she came home from school and went to the playroom. She opened the door and Sheba came running out, glad to be let lose from her confinement. Kate had kept “that damn dog” out there all day, and a bored dog was a destructive one. There was shit and piss all over her doll blankets, fluff and padding from various stuffed creatures, now savaged, lay all over the floor with body parts of vinyl dolls and scraps of fur. The carnage was shocking, Nola tried to scream but no sound came out. And then she saw Bear-Bear, or what was left of him. He was decapitated and missing limbs, ripped apart like some horror movie victim. She barely remembered what happened after that, just bits and pieces of her mother being hysterical at the dog, of her trying to clean up the mess while telling Nola it would be alright, they would get her new toys. Only Nola didn’t want new toys, she wanted her own, she wanted her babies and her animal friends and most of all, more than anything else she wanted her Bear-Bear. She needed to rub his fur between her fingers and suck her thumb, she needed to feel him in the crook of her arm as she slept. He was her best friend and now he lay in rags and ruin.

Grandee came and tried to sew him back together, “good as new”, but of course he wasn’t. Still, Nola had been comforted some by her grandmother’s soothing voice as she sewed what bits and pieces she could find back together, creating a new version of Nola’s beloved. He still had the bit of fur on his arm where she liked to rub it, still lay in the crook of her elbow as she slept. Nola was devoted to him for many more years after that, but something had been lost, something had been taken from her forever. As damaged beyond repair as the bear had been.

And now today it was as if the pain was fresh, as if the last bit of her innocence had been trashed along with her toys, ripped to shreds by the hungry mouth of realization. It was her mother, not “that damn dog” that had really been to blame all those years ago. She had carelessly put the dog in the playroom, not another room where she might damage Kate’s or Graham’s belongings, but in the room where Nola’s precious friends were, in the room she played and sang and chatted happily to objects that listened to her in a way no one else did. Kate hadn’t given a second thought to what might happen.

Instead she told you how much she loved you without looking at you. She said motherhood was sacred and children were precious but then she locked chewing dogs in rooms with toys and told stories of favorite bears being loved to death instead of the truth…that nothing can be loved to death, only carelessly ignored with predictable results. It had all been predictable and yet she didn’t see it. She never saw anything she didn’t want to. Kate didn’t see any of it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

the hiding place

Before the solid door with a lock was installed, Nola used to spy on her father sometimes. She’d hide in her special spot in the butler's pantry, under the counter behind the gingham curtain, and listen to the sounds from his study trying to guess what he was doing. The clicking sounds of his fingers on the keyboard meant he was writing, the sound of pages turning meant he was reading. If she heard the sound of papers being shuffled and a pen scratching that meant he was grading papers.

Sometimes, if she was feeing brave, she would poke her head out from behind her curtained hiding spot and peek thru the broken slat on the bottom panel of the folding door to see if her guessing was correct. That folding door was replaced when Nola was about 5 or 6, but before that it was all that stood between Graham and the outside world beyond his inner sanctum. That’s what he called the study; he called it his 'inner sanctum". Once when Nola was visiting with her mother at a neighbor’s house she asked where their inner sanctum was, she had thought it was the actual name of that kind of room, she believed it to be a space everyone had in their home just like kitchens or bedrooms.

Now the thought of spying on him, of entering that inner sanctum and looking at his things, terrified her. The last time she had she was finally caught, and the punishment had been severe.

Nola had been home from school, sick with the tail end of a cold, and feeling better as well as bored and restless. Her mother had needed to run to the store and decided to leave her alone rather than take her out in the cold weather. She said she would only be gone a few minutes but it seemed a lot longer to Nola. She was playing in the butler’s pantry when she heard her father come in. She could tell it was him by the way he jingled the keys in his pocket. Nola knew he hated it when she played in there so she decided to hide until her mother got back. Besides, she had thought, he probably was just going to get something and go back to school; he never stayed long if he cae home during the day, only popped in for this or that.

Nola quickly scooted into her favorite hiding space under the counter just in time to feel the rush of air as her father walked thru to get to his study. He closed the flimsy slatted bi-fold doors and she could hear him walking around, drawers opening, papers being shuffled, maybe the mail being looked at and placed on the desk. Then there was the sound of the springs creaking on the old diner booth, her father must be sitting there, probably closing his eyes for a rest, she’d seen him do it before. After a few moments of relative quiet, though, she began to hear strange sounds. She couldn’t identify them; she had never heard noises like this before. The sounds were so strange that curiosity got the better of her. The springs were squeaking nonstop now and it sounded like he was bouncing on the seat. That didn’t seem like something he would do. Nola had to see for herself so she cautiously poked her head out of the curtain and crawled closer to the door, carefully peeking through the missing slat at the bottom.

It took her a minute to realize that what he was doing was rubbing his penis, very fast, very vigorously, so much so that he was, in fact, bouncing a little on the seat. As she focused and what she saw became clear to her, Nola felt kind of sick and a little scared. There was something very wrong with it! She had seen his penis before, once or twice as he came out of the bathroom his robe had been open a little and she’d seen it hanging down between his legs, flopping a little against his wrinkled, sagging testicles as he walked. She remembered it was small and darker than his regular skin, sort of pink like his lips or tongue. But now as he was squeezing it so roughly it looked dark purplish and kinda wet; it was a different shape, too, longer and bent kind of funny. As he rubbed and squeezed it there was a moist, slippery sound, it reminded her of when her mother shook the egg noodles in the colander to get all the water out, a slurpy sort of noise.

Her father seemed to be in pain, like he was straining for breath, like he was choked and couldn’t get the sounds out. Nola panicked for a moment, maybe he needed help, maybe she should go in, say something, ask if he was ok? But he was sitting up, his eyes were open, it seemed like he could get help if he needed to. Something told Nola that she shouldn’t go in. She was too afraid to move.

For a few seconds Nola watched, frozen, staring at his hand moving up and down over that strange, dark, glistening penis. But then something else caught her eye. She realized that her father was looking at something, he wasn’t watching his own penis, and he wasn’t staring off into space. He was looking at something, focused squarely on it, staring hard. Nola couldn’t see what it was from her vantage point, but she could tell he was looking at a particular spot, almost like he was watching TV but there wasn’t a TV in his study.

Suddenly her father let out a deep groan and she almost jumped. Quickly her gaze turned back to him. He now had a bunch of paper towels in his hand and he was covering over his penis with them. He seemed to be pushing down hard on it and Nola panicked a little again, maybe it was bleeding now, maybe he was trying to make it stop like her mother did when she cut herself badly, applying pressure to the wound? But an instant or two later she could see he was only wiping it, he was drying off his penis. It looked sort of floppy again and it didn’t have that same angry dark color anymore. Whatever it was it had gone away. Maybe that was why he was rubbing it so hard, maybe there was something wrong with it and that was how you made it better.

He stood up and pulled up his pants, walking out of Nola’s view to what she assumed was the garbage pail, to throw out the paper towels. Or maybe not, maybe he didn’t throw them out in the study anymore than he threw out the ones he cleaned his windshield with in the garage – he hated garbage around his things, so maybe…

Just as the thought came into her consciousness that he might throw the paper towels away in the kitchen and therefore be about to leave the room, the door opened and Nola’s father would have practically tripped over her if she hadn’t just a split second before scurried back into her hiding spot behind the gingham curtain under the shelf. She could hardly breath and her heart was pounding so hard she was sure it was loud enough for him to hear. She clasped one hand over her mouth and hugged her knees extra tightly to her body with the other arm, praying like crazy that she wouldn’t be discovered. Her blood was rushing in her ears and she couldn’t hear anything for a moment, then she jumped when the metal garbage pail lid closed with a clang in the kitchen. She’d been right, he did go into the kitchen to throw away those paper towels. Thank God she’d thought of it when she did, one more second and she would have been caught…unimaginable what would have happened.

Nola could hear noises in the kitchen, her father running water at the sink, the towel being removed from the squeaky rack, then replaced with another squeak. The fridge door opened and closed, the snap and fizzy sound of a cap being twisted off a bottle of soda. Or maybe it was beer? Then the basement door opened and she could hear Grahams footsteps as he went down the half flight, opened the side door and headed thru the breezeway, most certainly to the garage.

She was safe. Or so she thought.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Kate roamed around the kitchen opening cabinet doors, rifling through drawers, looking for something to eat. She was physically restless but mentally numb, on autopilot. It was almost as if she could look down and see herself walking in circles, see what was coming, but yet was unable to stop it. Or unwilling.

She opened and closed the fridge countless times in her trek around the room, but there was nothing in there she wanted. Of course this was by design, her design. A futile attempt to prevent the inevitable. Along with a door full of condiments the only things in the refrigerator were fresh fruit, raw vegetables, a tofu lasagna, and some bean soup. There was soymilk and orange juice to drink. In the snack drawer of the cabinet next to the fridge were rice cakes and whole grain crackers, popping corn, a small container of raisins and some plain corn tortillas. She could bake the tortillas; maybe sprinkle them with some spices? No, too much work and not enough satisfaction. It wasn’t what she was looking for, longing for.

She opened the cabinet on the other side of the stove once more and this time climbed up on a chair to check out what was on the very top shelf. Whole-wheat flour, baking powder, cornstarch, a box of bran muffin mix, nothing that didn’t require effort or thought, nothing that would meet her urge.

But wait, there it was, a lone can of chocolate frosting, probably left over from Nola’s last birthday when she made those cupcakes. She shouldn’t eat that, it would make her sick, it was pure sugar and God knows what else.

Kate climbed down off the chair empty handed and started to pushe it back to the table where it belonged, but stopped. She left it where it was and made another pass around the kitchen, half-heartedly looking for something to change her mind.

Frosting wins, she knew it would the minute she saw it.

Frosting wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted someone to catch you eating. That would be embarrassing, pathetic even. Instead, frosting was the sort of thing you ate alone, in a bedroom, with the door locked. Or maybe it was like fast food you ate in your car, parked on a side road with no houses, stopping your feeding frenzy every time a car went by so no one could see.

But to take her frosting for a drive would be too silly. The bedroom was fine.

She grabbed a glass of milk and tucked the can of frosting under her shirt, just in case someone came home as she was going up the stairs.

Safely locked in her room she sat on the edge of the bed and opened the can. Eating it with her finger seemed somehow less intentional than if she’d used a spoon. She crooked her finger and dipped it into the smooth gooey confection and scooped out a great glob, licking her finger clean and plunging it back in to the sticky chocolate, repeating the process mindlessly over and over until the can was almost empty. She knew she would feel sick, shaky, nauseas, her teeth aching from the sweetness, but she could not stop. She didn’t want to stop.

When the can was empty she wanted something savory, needed something salty to counterbalance the sickeningly sweet chocolate. The tortillas? No, too much work. Maybe the popcorn?

She found herself in the kitchen again. This time she decided to make toast with lots of margarine – margarine was a treat she rarely allowed herself and when she did it was in measured teaspoons, one, maybe two at the most. Now she placed eight slices of bread into the toaster oven and waited by the window, in case someone came home. If they did she would quickly toss the bread outside and say it was old, stale, fit only for the birds.

Toast done she began to slather margarine on each piece, placing it back into the hot oven to melt it better. She thought for a minute, then grabbed a plastic shopping bag out from under the sink and placed all the toast, neatly stacked, inside so she could carry it back upstairs without anyone seeing if they came home right at that inopportune moment.

Once back in her room again, once the door was locked, again, she sat on the edge of the bed and ate the toast, margarine dripping, the hearty, nutty taste of wheat made her feel warm and satisfied. She took big bites, eating each slice in no more than three bites, letting the fat slathered bread fill her mouth up, not thinking about anything but feeling the sensation of chewing and swallowing, the taste of the rich salty margarine, and smelling the faint charcoal aroma of the slightly burnt edges, just the way she liked it.

When she was finished she knew she wasn’t done. Now she wanted something sweet again. She went back downstairs and decided to make cinnamon popcorn. She dug out the hot air popper from the lower cabinet next to the fridge and measured out the corn kernels. Then while the popper was heating up she grabbed a stick of margarine and placed it in the skillet and put it on the back stove burner to gently melt. She got out the cinnamon, found the sugar, and begain making a mixture of generous proportions in a cereal bowl, adding more and more cinnamon to the pile of white granuals until the color looked like the right shade, the way she remembered it should look. When the corn had popped and the margarine was melted she drowned the popcorn with it, almost making it too soggy. She took the cinnamon sugar and sprinkled it liberally over the damp popcorn, tossing it around, watching as it turned that beautiful, shiny caramel color whenever it hit a margarine wet spot.

Once again she climbed the stairs – no need to be so covert this trip, no one knew what she’d already eaten and the popcorn looked harmless, you couldn't tell how much margarine was really on it unless you tasted it. It looked pretty normal. Like a normal person’s snack.

Later, Kate would lie on the bathroom floor, cool tile against her face, wishing she could vomit the very depths of her interior out from within her. But she could never bring herself to stick her finger down her throat, never bring herself to get rid of the enormous mountain of crap she stuffed into her body. She just lay there wishing it would happen without her having to help it along. Without her having to do a thing, she wished she would throw it all up so she could feel better. She wished she were empty again.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

everything in its place

He slammed the door when he got back in from the garage. Nola knew she was in trouble.

“Goddammit, Nola, how many times have I told you not to leave your stuff lying around the yard? Huh, how many times, huh?”

“I’m sorry Daddy.”

“You’re sorry? Jesus Christ,” he spit out these last words through gritted teeth.

“What stuff, Daddy, what did I leave lying around?”

“You know Goddamn well what you left lying around. You know Goddamn well.”

“I don’t, I really don’t.” Nola could hear herself whining and tried not to cry.

“You figure it out,” and with that he slammed the drawer where he’d been searching for a knife. He’d found it and began to spread butter on his bread. “You know Goddamn well,” he added one more time for good measure. “If you know what’s good for you you’ll get out there and put that stuff away.”

“But Daddy, it’s raining, can’t…”

“Do what you want!” And with that he threw the used knife into the sink where it clattered loudly against the plates waiting to be rinsed. “Make sure you do the dishes before you leave this room.” Graham stormed through the butler’s pantry and into his study.

Nola looked out the window over the sink. She couldn’t see anything lying around. She went to the back door and looked. Nothing. She listened to see if she could hear her father in the study. Yes, he was in there. She walked into the foyer and looked out first the front window and then the side one. Still nothing. She would have to go outside.

Nola headed back into the kitchen and over to the sink. She rinsed the plates and silverware piece by piece, making sure to leave no traces of food, and put everything into the dishwasher. Then she went to the foyer closet and put on her slicker and boots and headed outside.

She scrutinized the front yard, trying to jog her memory as she stood in the drizzle feeling the panic rise up in her. What if she couldn’t figure it out? Once she was sure she’d sufficiently checked the front yard she headed around the side away from her father’s study scanning the grass as she walked very slowly. By the time she reached the back yard she saw it, sitting there in front of the shed.

She’d left the watering can there instead of putting back. That must be it. But what if it weren’t? What if he hadn’t even noticed that and it was something else she’d left out? Nola would have to keep looking, just in case. She walked over to the old shed and unlatched the door, placed the watering can inside on the shelf, made double sure to re-latch the door, and stood there in the rain, scanning the back yard for clues.

By the time she came back inside it was almost dark. There were no lights on in the house, except the one in her father’s study. That meant he hadn’t recently come out. She took off her slicker and hung it carefully on the hook over the radiator and placed her wet boots on the shoe tray in front of it. She decided to head upstairs and stay in her room until her mom got home.

As she went up the first steps the study door opened and her father’s voice stopped her, “Did you do what you were supposed to do?”

“Yes Daddy, I mean, I think so, yes. It was the watering can, right? That’s what I left laying around, right?”

“Jesus Christ, do I have to tell you everything? Yes, it was the watering can, ok, are you happy? I don’t want you going in that shed unless you put stuff away, got it?”

“I’m sorry Daddy, I forgot it because…”

“Did you hear me? I don’t want you going in there anymore unless you put what you take out back where it belongs, got it?”

“Yes, I’ve got it.”

“Did you load the dishwasher?”

“Yes, I did it before I went outside.”

“I better not find any crap on the dishes when it’s done.”

“You won’t.”

“I better not. Go up stairs to your room till your mother gets home. I don’t want any noise going on around here.”

“Ok Daddy.”

Nola went up the stairs to her room and closed the door. At least that was over with. She pulled out her schoolbooks from her backpack and spread them over the floor. Then she took a bed pillow and placed it against the wall, leaned back and closed her eyes. "This sucks, this sucks, this sucks, this sucks." She chanted the words over and over as the tears flowed down her cheeks and poured down her neck. After a few minutes she began to take deep breaths trying to steady her nerves, trying not to think about how trapped she felt, how inescapable this life was. She tried to numb herself and breath, just breathe in and out, one breath after the other without thinking about anything, anything at all.

After a short time she calmed down. She slowly opened her door and listened. All clear. She went to the bathroom and splashed water on her face. Carefully she wiped down the vanity and the faucet with the hand towel, replacing it with care on the towel rack. She walked quickly back to her room and quietly closed the door, safe once again. This was the one place he never came in to, this was her sanctuary. He didn’t care what condition her room was in as long as she kept the door closed. He didn’t care about anything in there as long as the door was closed. Nola never forgot to close her door. She protected her room from him and in turn it protected her back.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


“Mommy, tell me another Ethan story, please?”

“Not now, Nola, we’ve been talking long enough, it’s time for you to go to sleep. You know, it’s already way past your bedtime.” but as firm as Kate tried to sound her resolve weakened quickly. She would like nothing more than to crawl back into bed beside her daughter and get lost in another story about her son.

“Please, Mommy, just one more, just one more story and then I’ll go right to sleep, I promise.” Kate noticed Nola’s delicate little hands, fingers crossed hopefully for luck.

“Alright, just one though, and then no more trouble, got it?”

“Got it,” said Nola triumphantly sitting back up, happy to be staying up even later. “Can you tell the beginning one, the one where Ethan was born?” Kate slid back into the bed beside her daughter and pulled the covers up around both of them again. “Ok, I like that one too.” She tried to smile at Nola, who look so pleased, so happy for this intimacy. Kate was instantly glad she relented because this was just what she needed. She needed to keep talking.

Nearly everyone else tried to shush her whenever she talked about Ethan. Nola was the only one who wanted to listen. At the first mention of her son’s name other people would murmur a shushing sound interspersed with vague platitudes while sadly shaking their heads. Strangely, few ever actually looked her in the eye; loss was somehow shameful. If they did meet her gaze, it was usually just to offer the old standby “I’m sorry” with a sympathetic expression plastered on their face. Sorry, yes, well of course they were sorry, who he hell wouldn’t be? What happened was…but she didn’t see why that meant had to stop talking about Ethan now that he was dead. That would be like forgetting him and she couldn’t if she tried. She didn’t want to walk around pretending he never existed, never to utter his name above a solemn whisper like it was against some rule to say it too loud. Kate didn’t feel like whispering, she felt like shouting, like screaming. Even after all this time.

Kate couldn’t ever stop thinking about Ethan. Everyone said it would ease up, that she would be able to let go enough so that life could go on. It didn’t happen. She knew in her heart it must not be normal to want to bring him into every conversation she had, from chatting with the cashier at the supermarket to discussing politics over cocktails at some faculty function she was dragged to…it seemed every subject lead to Ethan. For years now she had to remember to be aware of it so she could stop herself from going on and on about him. It obviously made people uncomfortable, it made for awkward silences and odd sideways looks. She knew people thought something was wrong with her and she hated that, hated them thinking she wasn’t handling this the right way.

But thinking about Ethan was like breathing, it just happened automatically. Or maybe it was more like a compulsion, a need. It felt primal like that, like a desire that had to be quelled or it would overwhelm her, it would get to the point where she couldn’t take it anymore.

Today was like that, the squelched need to talk about Ethan had been building and building, it started with that desperate longing that never really went away and kept getting bigger and bigger like swallowing one heavy stone after another until her gut was full beyond capacity, weighing her down to the floor. It was too heavy to carry the load for one more minute. She needed the release of talking about him. She never talked about the accident, or the hospital, certainly never about the funeral. She preferred to talk about the beginning. Just talking about simple, happy little memories, like those sweet early days when he was a baby, seemed to make her feel a little lighter while the story lasted. Thankfully her daughter was always a willing audience; she never tired of hearing Ethan stories, always hungry for all the details about him Kate could remember. It had become a frequent nightly ritual, a special time for both of them. Yes, Nola was her precious comfort. Thank God for Nola.

“When Ethan was born,” Kate began the story in an odd singsong voice, the same way she’d told it many times before, “he was the most beautiful baby in the nursery, all the nurses kept telling me that. Every shift when the new nurse would come on duty she’d stop by my room and say, ‘I’ve seen that beautiful baby boy of yours, Mrs. Collins’ and then she’d lean into the room a little further and whisper, careful so none of the other mothers would hear ‘…and he really is the most gorgeous baby ever, he's just so perfect.’ Can you imagine how many babies they must see, Nola? Thousands, I bet, really, many thousands. Yet they could tell there was something extraordinary about your brother. Most babies are kind of funny looking when they are born, all shriveled up and their skin is a weird reddish purplish color, their heads come out all smushed and misshapen. But not Ethan, he was the epitome of what a flawless, healthy baby should look like in every way, all pink, round, chubby and angelic, like a little cherub. Some of the nurses even suggested we get him into modeling, he was just that stunning.”

“Tell the part about when you brought him home, the part about all the people staring.”

“Well, when we brought him home from the hospital it was summertime so a lot of the neighbors were out, that’s when we lived in the city so people were outside more in the summer than you see around here. Anyway, your father could only find a parking spot four blocks away. Our old Pontiac had no air-conditioning, so rather than sit in the hot car while he circled around and around looking for a closer spot I decided it would be better to go ahead and park the car right there and walk. I carried Ethan in my arms. Daddy wanted to because I was still a little weak but I insisted. I just couldn’t put him down. Oh my, I held him all the time, just staring at him. I held him so much that sometimes when I’d finally put him down I’d realize my arms hurt. They say it spoils them, but I didn’t…”

“Mommy,” Nola interrupted, “what about that walk, the walk from the car to the apartment past all the neighbors?”

“Yes, right, sorry. So, as I walked down the street everyone wanted to peek at the little bundle I held in my arms. He was dressed all in beautiful shades of blue, he had a blue bonnet, babies still wore bonnets then, even boys. He had on a little cotton homecoming outfit and the cutest little blue booties that my great aunt knit him. But the blanket, well, that was something really special. The blanket wrapped around him was the most beautiful shade of silvery satin. I made it myself, bought the fabric when I was pregnant and stitched it to the softest white cotton so the inside would feel nice and fluffy against his skin. Then while I was in the hospital I added the trim and the blue silk tassels in all four corners…”

“And it looked like the blanket of a prince, like a blanket for royalty, right, Mommy?” Nola recited the words she’d heard from Kate dozens of times.

“Yes, that’s right, it was fit for a little prince. My little prince.” Kate smiled to herself, barely noticing that Nola lay down flat now and snuggled up against her.

“Anyway, every single person I passed glanced at the silver satin bundle in my arms, but when they caught an actual glimpse of the baby wrapped up inside they stopped whatever they were doing and each and every one of them just ranted and raved about your brother’s beauty. They’d say things like, ‘he’s amazing, he’s perfect, what a gorgeous baby, how lovely, how beautiful.’ Over and over every single person stopped us to tell us what a beautiful baby Ethan was. It was almost like a parade, you know?” Kate laughed, but when Nola made no reply she turned to look at her daughter for the first time since climbing back into her bed. She realized that Nola had finally drifted off to sleep. She was alone again now, empty arms folded across her chest, hugging herself. For a minute she could almost feel the weight of her infant son in those same arms, the solid feel of his chubby body, waving limbs wrapped tightly in the swaddling blanket. The emptiness was too much. She took a lock of Nola’s fine, brown hair between her fingers and stroked it a moment, then pulled, at first gently, then harder. Nola mumbled and woke up from her light sleep. Kate continued as if nothing had happened.

“…and people stopped to tell me how beautiful Ethan was wherever we went, all the time. At the store, the doctors, or even just out for a walk in the park pushing him in the baby carriage.” Kate kept an eye on Nola now and each time her daughter seemed about to drift off to sleep again she covertly moved or poked her a bit to keep her awake. “You know, as much as I was flattered, and I really was, it was also a little unnerving. He just garnered attention wherever he went. I understood though, how could you not notice him? He had such beautiful blond hair, a perfect chubby little face with round and rosy cheeks. And his eyes…”

But now Nola was finally fast asleep and Kate’s gentle poking and prodding couldn’t rouse her. Eventually she stopped trying, climbed out of the warm bed and walked out of the room, turning off the light switch by the door on her way, without looking back.