A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Early July, ninety degrees in the shade and me in the crook of my mother’s arms. She has her movie star sunglasses on, purple cat-eye glasses with iris-tinted lenses.
Although she looks like she’s honeymooning, my mother’s blouse is a starched wimple and her dark eyes are pansy-bright with eyebrows arched like shady rainbows. Her expression? Unreadable, but her flesh is golden, tanned.
Inside her, a carnality works like a magnet, pulling the black muck up from the woods and gardens filled with her unmentionable perfumes. Mom is and always will be my first and deepest severance, the one which prepares me for all others.
Even now, standing on the cement walkway, under a sky so tight it is a taut blanket held by parents who are tossing the baby, parents who like tossing the baby so much they might flip it onto the ground.
In her arms, I’m a wedge of raw fish in a paper wrapper. My bare foot soles dangle, are grey, wrinkled elephant skin and my cries already know the difference between two darks, the one within my mother, and the one without.
Can’t you see the crow’s feet under her eyes, weak as tea, or my very own lifeline? My mother’s Bermuda shorts, these I remember. Madras plaid, the kind that bleeds,bleeds.
The house on Sherman Drive is behind us. Wine-dark with bricks the color of pulled apart eggshells. I cannot say I am happy. I have just been born. My father, who’s holding the camera, takes a picture. The sound, like slid-in-skin, is an instant death.
Of what or whom I cannot say. I have just been born. In my mother’s arms I am a scary story no one wants to know the ending to. No one, especially me. My eyes are so tiny, even an ant can’t crawl into them. Pencil point pupils, in which erasers are at work. Eager erasers.
The house on Sherman Drive is behind us. In it, is a play pen, diapers fat as a sit-upon, a crib wired with feeling-sorry-music. A baseball bat, a TV, a dog. My brothers and sister.
To go into this house is to become unborn. In it, I will know death, dark as my mother’s coffee. No milk in it, ever. No milk, ever. Only the dog barks. The TV is on.
~ ~ ~
I learn the story of Benjamin the boy, not the dog, over Sunday brunch. As the baby of the family, I’m a good listener. After hearing this story for the first time, I know it by heart. I believe it as easily as I believe the questions in my Catechism. Who made us? God made us.
A scholar of trapped darkness, Dad’s at the head of the table. I sit next to him. My sister, Marie, a lefty, is on my other side. She’s in a snit because she’s just been ordered to keep her god-damn elbows off the table.
Across from me, Mom smokes. Nail-file thin, her hair is a burn howl in an owl’s face.
Doug, my oldest brother, sits at the other end of the table. Ed sits alongside him. The story of Benjamin concerns him.
Spring isn’t here, but the oak tree, father to none, is a tall thought in a potato-dirt sky. Dogwood blossoms float, are a fist in the open palm which tells me to take it, take it all.
Our smiles slouch over creamed corn, icky curdled eggs, burnt toast. I want the birds to nest in the cornucopia of my ears while I drink milk and look at Ed.
He’s doing his lip exercises. He has to do them because they are too big. He sucks them in at least a hundred times a day. If he doesn’t, he may never talk right.
“The sermon,” Dad begins, “what’s the meaning of today’s sermon?” Does his question have centuries between each word?
We’re always graded on the sermon we have just heard at Mass. This turns us into dunces. I want the birds to hide their songs in my ears. Instead, I hear God’s meaning warming the plated sun.
Ed sneaks half of what is on his plate under the table to our dog, Daisy, while Dad changes the subject.
“The milkman brought something special today.” This is his favorite trick. “It’s still in the milk box.”
All four of us are entranced. “It’s still warm,” he says while the aroma floats up out of the milk box and under our front door.
“I can smell it,” I cry, jumping up.
“Sit down,” yells Marie, “quit being a brat.”
My dad goes on. We’re all salivating. Mom rises, opens the kitchen door and lifts the warm cherry pie out of the milk box. She even let’s us have it ala mode.
Ed is happy with his pie. It’s then, right when he’s lifting a big fat cherry to his big fat lips, that Doug brings up Benjamin.
“I remember Benjamin,” he begins, “he was the best brother we ever had.” I want to pet his poodle head, but not the way I’m petted and petted until I bleed.
“Poor Benjamin,” echoes Marie, “we all miss Benjamin.” She has straight Flapper bangs, mosquito-bite freckles.
“We all loved Benjamin,” Doug continues, “he was the smartest, best-looking, most talented boy in the whole wide world.” My superhero, this brother gives me Indian burns to toughen me up.
My family is a circus of torment. Outside, the dirty light has a heart attack, but the oak retains its high thought.
“Benjamin was out playing ball near High Farm Road.” We all know High Farm Road has lots of traffic. We picture the road, its loud shadows.
I look at Ed. His lower lip trembles.
“Well,” Doug goes on, “our dear Benjamin hit the ball out of the park. It rolled into the road. When he chased it, he got hit by a UPS truck.”
In Ed, I hear the sound of almost drowning. His breath is jagged, like the torn fins of the sunfish I angle for.
Doug doesn’t stop. “Mom and Dad were so sad after they lost Benjamin. They didn’t eat and they didn’t sleep. They just drank and when they were done drinking, they drank some more. That didn’t help. We didn’t help, so one day Mom and Dad went to the local ASPCA and picked out the cutest little monkey they could find.”
We bow our heads, sigh.
“That monkey is Ed.”
My brother’s lip trembles even more. Ed’s a miracle to me, even if he doesn’t know if he’s a monkey or a boy. I love him. Aren’t the tormented the true children of God?
Boy or monkey, he is my soft baby Jesus, bunny-ear-pink and our memories are long as the road Benjamin died on.
Copyright 2018 Elizabeth Kirschner