This just in: Shut Up & Write comes to Marin County! I’m super excited to host a Shut Up & Write salon each week at 5p Pacific time. Wahoo! If you’re working on a super top secret book revision, passion project, poem, screenplay, graphic novel, blog, this is the place to get words on the page. #Brilliant.
The color of her dress was a cross between periwinkle and the dusty blue of a prairie sky just after sunset. There was a pattern of small white flowers infused into the fabric that swayed in time to the movement of her hips. She was strong and young still, years from the strain of farms at auction, of entire communities vanishing, tilting toward the promise of union wages. Her eyes were green, and her nails were painted Ala Carte Blue. The hue of her dress and the blue of the tips of her fingers provoked a kind of stupor, a trance of scalded milk and blurry edges. The hem of her frock fell to just above her knees, exposing a slim white scar, the result of a tumble off her bike on that gravel road just off the old Red Rock bypass. When she walked a cup of coffee across the café, every head turned to watch the sway of that blue skirt, the set of those shoulders, the cadence of the quiet hum of her heart. The all wanted that coffee. They all wanted to be the cup in the palm of that hand.
It could be a witty insult. It could be the guy with anger issues tilting toward corruption, just looking for a reason to scratch that itch. It could be a barbeque technique. It could be the fate of all political endeavors, a trendy cookbook, the path to ecological destruction. Some wood burns long and slow. Some goes up like TNT; just ask the folks in Paradise. Candles on a birthday cake after a certain age. Gas lanterns in 1920s Paris. Forgotten love letters. The sting of fire ants. Revenge, like aspic, best served chilled. The toc of a clock on death row. Fallow dirt scorched by Monsanto. The torture of never knowing the truth about what happened to that girl. The longing of unrequited love. Offerings in the collection basket that won’t go nearly far enough. A rare sunset that melts into the horizon, preceding the green spark. Moon dogs. Snow haloes. Wandering half naked through longing and desertion. Betrayal. Makeshift camps wedged into the blasted grass between the freeway offramp and an asphalt parking lot. Hunger in the midst of plenty. The long road home.
My grandfather was blind, so there was a terrible fascination with those vacant orbs. Because of this marginalized sense, he was reserved and quiet, and frightening. It could be that it was his personality to not interact much with the family. (After all, we were a loud and boisterous tribe of hooligans.) As a young child, I mostly observed him, fascinated and terrified. There was a large walk-in coat closet at the front of the house, where he kept an electric shaver. My dad used one of those death defying straight edge razors, so the fact that my grandpa could shave without being able to see was beyond comprehension. This was at a time in the world when men wore hats, and so did my grandpa. His forehead was pale from the hat, giving him a “farmer’s tan”, and those pale blue eyes peered out from under the brim of that soft grey hat and saw…shadows? One day I was lying on the grass beneath a plum tree in the back yard. He shuffled by and paused, calling me by my sister’s name, scaring the hell out of me. He apparently had some sight, enough to make out the shape of a young girl, but to a silly child, it was horrifying to be identified by the blind man on a sunny Spokane summer day. Grandpa possesed habits that shaped my world. He make popcorn on the stovetop. Without seeing. How did he know not to burn the corn kernels? It was beyond comprehension. He used to sit in the kitchen at the yellow formica table, listening to baseball games on a transistor radio. He would sit for hours, listening to the play-by-play, announcers from cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles. My grandpa’s blind eyes saw things that haunt me still.
“Get lost,” she said, closing the door with a dramatic flourish, something she’d harbored fantasies of but had never actually done. “Bye-bye,” she said, to the oak paneled door, bowing and backing away as if to attest to the gravity of the moment. She hadn’t thought about it. They had been talking, then hotly debating, which evolved into a rant, an argument, several accusations, and ultimately, a crossing of a line in a sea of sand she hadn’t known existed until now. She had tolerated the small crises when they arose, and met them with compassion. Still, when he tried to sneak something in: a package, a golf bag, a box of detritus, she called him on it. “Please remove it asap,” she wrote in dutiful, polite emails, paper trails of the millennium. There was always an excuse, high dudgeon. So much drama! For a lawyer, she expected something more. Something somewhat more dignified. The debris of one marriage, two marriages. It was too much. “Storage was never part of the deal,” she said, when she found a rental van backed up to the garage, discovering a deceit he had hoped to conceal until the deed was complete and then what could she do but protest inertly? “My brother in law moved,” he lamented. “It’s only temporary!” he cried. How did he manage to pass the bar? How had he survived this long in a liberal hotbed of assertive women and sensitive men? His mother had coddled him. His wives enabled him. “I told you. This is not your storage solution.” Then it came to her that all the times when she said no, he had feigned concern but had ultimately rejected her protests. In his head he muted her voice, her opinions dismissed as irrelevant. She didn’t want to be that gorgon, but now she craved to be heard, to bear the weight of relevance. “Go now,” she said gently, to herself, bowing and backing down the long hall toward the kitchen. Go. Now. To that place of lost treasure.
He said I love you by calling her back from her circle, by competing with her banjo, by holding her hostage to starving ghosts. He said I love you one hundred and ten percent and therefore you owe me something in return. You owe me I love you back one hundred and eleven percent. Can you dig it? She laughed, then sobered. Oh, you’re serious then, she said. Those words cut. Those words did not say I love you one hundred and twelve percent. Okay then, she said. I will shave back my performances by ten percent, cross my heart and hope to die. What else, he averred, there must be more. Well, she replied, I will cut back visits with my sisters by twenty-five percent. All together, that’s thirty-five percent more for you. That’s pretty good, hey? I can say I love you thirty-five percent more than before. Harumph! He tooted. I still love you more. Is that the best you can do? I’ve given you one hundred and thirteen percent of my heart and I still don’t feel your love. What about my children, she asked. I’ve given them back to their father for you. I walked them back to their paternal home. When do I get credit for that? Children belong to their father, he said. A woman belongs to her lover. She practiced saying I love you, I love you, I love you, in the mirror. Finally, she thought: the truth.
She wore Chanel No. 5. On nights my parents went out, she drifted out the door on a cloud of deep musky-floral pheromones, an accommodation of the sophistication she yearned for. Periodically, when we were old enough for them to leave the brood with a reliable steel-belted sitter for the weekend, they journeyed north to the Banff Springs Resort in British Columbia. There are photographs of them from one trip, souvenirs from a night club they had attended. My mother appears to be in her thirties, young, pretty, wearing a classic kind of Jackie O sheath dress. The photographer caught her smile and a sparkle in her eyes. She seemed happy then, and glamorous. I imagine that in that dress, in that club, she was enveloped in a cloud of Chanel No. 5. She later switched to a fragrance called Interlude – with the same base notes, a similar mysterious, musky presence. Other scents of my mother that I recall: Breck hair spray, spray starch, despair.
There was an apartment in my grandmother’s house where an attic would have been. Up the staircase, there was a kitchenette, living room, bathroom with a clawfoot tub, closet, bedroom, and screened porch. It was only used as often as we visited, arriving in a station wagon loaded with kids, luggage, and the detritus of a small tribe. The apartment smelled of dust and mothballs. It seemed enchanted somehow, a miniature house. We had never seen an apartment and it held a special charm to me. The living room was by far the largest space, with an overstuffed sofa, braid rug, ancient radio cabinet that might have broadcast reports from a faraway war, a window that overlooked the backyard garden and Italian plum tree. When we descended after five hours on the road, children scattered like marbles on a linoleum floor. We touched every room at once: kitchen, pantry, back yard, cellar, upstairs apartment. We slept everywhere too, sofas made into bed with sheets and chenille spreads, screened porch and sleeping bags. Family legend maintains that my parents lived in the apartment their first year of marriage: playing house in an attic filled with relics of austerity.