“ . . . you must be informed of everything . . .”
–fragment of Parmenides
It all started up there in a tree. A big, leafy one, probably an oak, maybe maple, who knows the names or kinds of trees, especially when you’re a kid. Trees are just trees But they’re also fortresses, hideouts, they contain branches and leafy boughs of caves. They are the only ladders we know of to the sky. Trees rule everything, every city, every town. It’s a tree universe out there.
Some places have names even though they shouldn’t. Places with cities and rivers and forests that have to confuse even the most astute botanists. Places with not much else than a few tall buildings, a few strip joints too, a bunch of churches, some cemeteries, not much more. A factory to give the men a thing to do. Places where the most exciting event to occur is the county fair with its rednecks from foreign states of origin and girls with tattoos recruiting girls who want to get them and dangerous-looking carnies who love painted ladies despite their missing front teeth and oily, henna-ed hair, with the crow’s feet around their eyes and alligator necks from standing too long in the sun on summer days. Men who would rape a fencepost if it were illegal to do so. And who is saying it ain’t?
More on the setting later. Now, if you ever take a class in writing, the teacher will tell you that’s a very important thing to get straight, right from the quick. That teacher will have a couple books under his or her belt, a nice house with kids and all the requirements that spell the elusive word “success”, and he’ll be graying at the temples or she’ll wear just the right shade of lipstick and this godhead of the sacred logos will be, for certain, unapproachable. Enough about that, but for the setting, for practical purposes, we’ll call it Nowheresville, Illinois.
Up in that tree is all that counts anyway. Sun through branches. The silence of meditating birds. We neighborhood boys were playing a game or having some sort of fantasy that involved the tree being a boat. We, the crew, were manning it on a requisite stormy sea. The kid who got to the top of the highest branches the soonest would be admiral. Achievement early on for the sake of a simple title. To be somebody, that’s what the game is all about.
The boys I was playing with lived in a dark brown house around the corner, at the bottom of the hill. The house had orange carpet and white curtains. The parents were foster. Probably because they didn’t and never had any real kids of their own. The dad had a mustache and the mom was a scrawny blonde and she was not beautiful, not in a mom kind of way, even. The boys were kind of fat and ugly too, almost like their faces, not their brains, were a bit retarded. I guess they didn’t realize how lucky they were to have been adopted, maybe they were cute babies, they must have been, because they sure grew up ugly. Then there was the sister. Mary Ellen.
The sun shone through the light of the leaves. This is how he died.
They say a death in the family is one of the most traumatic events that can burden the psyche. Maybe it’s not the death itself. Maybe it’s the absence of that person’s life, the space created and all of a sudden lost. Death is the process that we need to knock to feel better, collecting skulls and scaring ourselves as we are wont to do. But that empty space, that abyss, it never leaves. It grows bigger and wider, swallowing memories, feeling, everything until one day there’s just you and the void. And voids really suck. You really can’t take them anywhere.
Maybe when someone disappears from a person’s life, especially a child’s life, it means absolutely nothing at all. The character who died was the nameless, writer’s father. It’s needless to say that on that day, I didn’t make admiral.
She was different because she was beauty in her little black and white polka dotted summer dress. She. The sister. She was beauty because she wore sandals and she was nice in a way a sister could never be. When we went into the basement, with its plaid fabric couch and cheap Jetson’s-like coffee table and horrible rolled rag rug in lieu of carpeting, to pretend that we were married and for a moment, just a moment when we were looking at each other in the door mirror and we had the exact same color of eyes, I don’t know why I dropped to the ground and began kissing her ankles. Her dirty legs and her naked soles because I took them off, what she was wearing, her sandals to expose her sandal leather stained feet. The little blonde hair on her legs rose and she giggled and she wanted to kiss me on the face but oh no gross, she was still a girl.
We were kids. This wasn’t supposed to happen. We didn’t do anything. After a while we stopped. After a while we started again. First time bliss, or maybe we were just acting out parts we’d seen on television. Dick and Mary Tyler Moore. Mr. And Mrs. Beaver. Aunt Bee and Andy. Now wait a minute on that last one . . .
Survey question no. 1: Didn’t you ever live in a house like this? Weren’t we all born sinners with no hope? A ranch house. One level, for easy access, because life is hard enough as is. With a humongous basement that used to be called a rec room, back in the day. Small windows near the basement’s ceiling that looked out onto a cross section of earth and then an insect’s eye view of the lawn. It was like looking at a room getting buried. It was like the view from a not completely sunk coffin. Cheap, flimsy white drapes to keep what from looking in? Worms? Anxiety-ridden vampires?
What happens eternally, time stops and eddies in perceived pools of time, maybe this time it’s stopped in the nineteen seventies, inside that coffin: kids playing music on an old stereo console. LPs and 45s, older kids making out under black light, successive generations of boys making advances on women in this subterranean id-zone, with an aura generated by a closet-sized bathroom exuding shower steam, sound of clothes washing the machines pumping on and off, the chirping crickets that co-habited but no one ever saw. On the turntable, Pictures of Matchstick Men and You.
Cans of vegetables stacked in bomb shelter intensity by mother: green beans, corn, Dinty Moore beef stew, canned tomatoes, canned peppers, canned pickles, gallons of gallons of grapefruit and carrot juice. Preparing for the Rooskies to invade.
Shelves made of wood stacked with the junk of games like Gnip-Gnop, Life, Operation, Sorry, Mousetrap, Pick-Up-Sticks, then puzzles, encyclopedias decades out-of-date. Glass vessels filled with colored water featuring silly folk dancers painted on them, plastic flowers, things nobody ever needs to keep but can’t and won’t throw away. A Ouija board. Plastic flowers forever in bloom.
A shard of pink glass that was a part of a wind chime given to mom by a friend that died. It was rumored to have rung when it no longer was there hanging with its counterparts. When the lights were off, I heard it, running as fast as I could up the thirteen steps out of the basement. Feeling the breath of something on the back of my legs. It is a place to never be buried in, not even sea monkey carcasses. What a sad Tutankhamen most of us would make if we died as children. The sick thing is that in this effed-up world worse things happen: people are born into these places. (No instruction booklets included).
One of the first lessons in life that must be experienced so that it can be learned is that everything goes. Everything disappears, so does it even really exist? It all goes away so why then the memories? A goldfish or a little black dog with crooked teeth named Cindy or a hermit crab who one day stops scurrying altogether and all of a sudden smells like no other smell ever, or a cat that got hit and so you keep notice of other cats or squirrels lying on the sides of roads, wondering is it her over there, she got away from home and why is she sleeping there, why isn’t she coming back? And that all of the people and animals the world loses to itself, everyday, and the impossible sadness of it all, and the everythingness about it that is doomed to go, be gone, maybe forgotten but still remembered so then somehow is immortal? And, oh, the lack of an answer to this because we know, deep down inside, in our cores, the answer to this. They invented an answer in math class. The empty set.
To lose a parent young is simply this: to not know who you are. Or who you should be. Beyond the tragedy, which no child can comprehend, it’s really not such a bad thing at all. And that’s because pain represses itself almost immediately, then bleeds itself out into any other realm it can, underlining all experience with a bitterness that merely adds flavor. My dad died when I was nine. Like a kid put up for adoption, there’s always the wonder, but there’s not the tracking down fantasy. There’s only some photos, some personal possessions, a money clip, a coin garnered on a cruise to the Caribbean, dumb things that possess just that amount of meaning, not even his words, in a letter. Not even how his signature looked.
Houses are for what houses are for: staying in one place. It’s what surrounds them that makes the place, the location, livable. Sure, some people get lucky, growing up next to a beach, maybe in Oregon or even Maine, or in the mountains of anywhere none too far from the night stars. Or kids who grow up in places where vacations are spent, to places thought of as exotic that people come to visit in free states of minds. To vacate all that we’ve accumulated is now the re-defined American Dream. But nobody really knows it. And that same no one, otherwise the narrator or the reader (how different the two, anyway) can imagine the millions and millions of young minds that grow up in the provinces, the nowhere places of the earth, where the most exciting thing there might be a creek to float leaf boats in, or a patch of trees that serve as a secret and not so hidden fortress, or a field overgrown with weeds that conceal secret stashes of dirty magazines and boy oh boy do girls anywhere do look good. Places so utterly boring, so devoid of your basic topographical interest that children are forced to invent a reality in which their minds can flourish. Welcome to your hometown and we hope you currently do not reside there.
They start first in the yard if they’re lucky to have one. There are all kinds of things to experiment with if you’re clever. Birds’ nests even in bushes. Highly flammable tree bark, a porcelain toilet bowl statue of the Virgin Mary awaiting graffiti, a garden to raid not for its deformed tomatoes or banana peppers or its lace flowers of wild dill or huge grass stalks of green onions but baby snakes that smell of stinky pee.
The things that exist in any yard can amaze the pagan sensibility. Perfectly round rocks deposited by wind or by a creek eons ago. Pope’s hats of hatched blue robins’ eggs. A rusted silver necklace lost by the people that lived in the house before you did, who no one in your family knew of or what they looked like until an older brother found a photo album that was covered in dirt in the cubby hole behind a crevice decorated in cobweb. It contained Christmas pictures of what we thought was the nineteen fifties but was actually the nineteen thirties. Towards the end of a second album also filled with Christmas pictures there was a series, only eight of them, of partially nude photographs of the Mrs., for the family was only a man and a woman and a cat.
The nude Mrs. sometimes wore pantyhose and sometimes she is seated or crouching and oh boy the look on her face. It’s like she’s happy to be angry. I thought I had seen what evil looked like it and sure did look fun.
Sometimes old coins would turn up in the soil or the dog bones of another family’s pet or preserved flowers planted for the sake of their being noticed. And bicycle tracks of those kids who’d ride the cut throughs even though they weren’t supposed to and get yelled at by Mr. Schmidt who’d have food particles, sauerkraut to be specific, flying out of his yellow crooked teeth when he yelled. The backyard where the birch tree grows peeling testaments from its trunk that blue jays attempt to peel off and read at later dates.
Thoughts of summer never seem to fade.
Philip Kobylarz’s work has appeared in Connecticut Review, Basalt, Santa Fe Literary Review, New American Writing, Poetry SalzburgReview and has appeared in Best American Poetry. His book, Rues, was recently published by Blue Light Press of San Francisco.