There were uncertainties, fretted, impacted. A mother was missing. The alarms were far off, but I heard them ringing. Sometimes they clanged. I remember thinking it would likely be rage, that it couldn’t be otherwise, but its name was unknown. I wondered how he lived without her. I couldn’t have lived without my mother, not then, my mother who held things for me, past things, and returned them to me when I asked. His mother’s missing was a form of damage that kept being done. He called it a decision. That he decided distance was best frightened me. Late afternoons, the blank thing was there, in the quiet, ratcheting, winching.
If I press I can find more: a bike, and a helmet—before laws about helmets, so it hung in a specialized air. There was a patch of yellow at the side of the house. Wasn’t there a door—to a basement or a pantry? Was this my first pantry? Did we draw the living-room drapes? No. There were no drapes. And why would we draw them, it was always so gray, or snowing, or verging on snow. It’s that memory sidles up to a phrase, and a gesture comes along, too—“draw the drapes.” It’s that the phrase fit, that the room in its spareness and decency would have put it that way. There were curtains instead. They were sheer and when you brushed by, they noticed. Wasn’t he beautiful. Didn’t he run ahead with a thought, ask, then fill in an answer before I had one. And wasn’t there also a counter-impulse, a quick way of rerouting the statement, refining it, offering it again, like a road widened. The thought bettered. Wasn’t he intent on
. (Surely I admired that drive, and as surely turned away from the phrase, thinking it too conventional.) And after retracting the interruption, didn’t he slow down, chide himself—and
that little slicing motion, didn’t he pare back his impatience. Wasn’t he hard on himself. To that reflex, habituated. Merciless, even.
comes. The core and scrape in that word. And the overtones
too, fit to the very ground of that house where he slept, read, cooked, breathed—as I breathed, in my grandmother’s house, deeply, the smell of mornings in winter when the heat kicked on and the wood of the stairs and floors expanded, releasing the scent of years when I wasn’t. Didn’t I want to quiet him. Soften things. Offer some softness. I keep putting a dog there, then taking it back.
isn’t right, but would have been good, with a bed in his room, its sighs companionable at night.
I never saw the whole house. Parts were closed off to keep the heat in—and that fits. He required very little space and the things he needed were close at hand. He reused and used down to the last. Studying at night, we must have opened the fridge and found not much at all. What did I bring? There must have been beer. I think there was oatmeal—in a tin, if a pantry—but not those single rip-open packets. Too wasteful. Too modern. There were stories I followed, harrowing ones, and much I refrained from asking, which, too, was part of the conversation. It must have been—knowing nothing of his life, then a lot all at once—that I listened for patterns, and to manage the unstable characters/sequences/motives, and mostly, my own disbelief.
return? I return
to that place. Why construct, of sensation and time, a circle if all along these memories have been here? And doesn’t time also unfold, -buckle, -braid? Have I “stepped back in”? I’ve tried to say “found it again,” of the time, but the time wasn’t lost. Can the neither-created-nor-destroyed ether suspend couches with dark wooden scrollwork, framed tatting, the red—and what was so red . . . shirts? thermals? complexions? Did these
? Are they
? After all, he lent the very air a bright tint. And I can add in some fireplace heat, tangerine- and lemon-slice flames to warm the white rind of winter outside. He was training for an event, and then stopped. It wasn’t an injury. It was something else. He was moving toward something, and also away. The dimensions are folding. He was smart and precise about mechanical things, compasses, knives, the workings of houses and mowers and weather. About the body and some ways that it worked. Not all ways. I think pleasure surprised him.
He sent, yesterday, now that I’m back in town for a while, a picture of himself and his family, but I haven’t looked yet. I want to see, right in front of me, his face as I knew it, compose. I want to be part of the reconstitution, like a puddle stilling again after a truck rumbles by. I want (it’ll be any day now) to see, in that very first moment, how years compounded, what dailiness built, how the weather of everyday life grew into countenance and bearing—since one can go about picking up toys, shopping, walking the dog bitterly or tenderly, beset by distraction or filled with gratitude. I want to see which stances took and which slipped away, if there are lines I don’t recognize, if there are creases I cannot unknow.
Now I remember—of
as soon as you corrected me, or rather, in your gentler way, suggested—it was
who sat up on the high kitchen counters, and
who stood near, and that was how we adjusted our heights.
And you’d just returned from a cross-country bike trip:
why the bike and you glowed. My sense of gear, and gears all around was right, though hazy. I had the bright bike against the white house, yellow catching a corner of sight.
, you said, but it took a few seconds and you had to cast back.
You had only a few classes to finish—and that fits the scene, more reasonably shows why you’d be clearing brush at two in the afternoon or dusk, whenever it was I looked up from my books, out the big window and across the two yards. And you’re right, it was only two yards, and there was a gate that only partly unhitched, and I had to slip through holding my breath. The neighbors kept buckets for seedpods, last onions, and hard green tomatoes to fry. The dried stalks crunched underfoot in the cold. The frost made things loud and marked my coming to see you with a form of intention I did not have. Or did not recognize. Or could not admit. I was no good with intentions and outcomes then. Your sensibly ordered, manageable tasks—lined up weekly and weekly checked off—made for me a more solid present. And though you couldn’t have known it then, in that way, you dispensed a dose of ease.
My father once painted and fired a series of Toby mugs just for fun or to sell, no one in my family recalls—fat English gents, with flushed faces and waistcoats—which only recently I’ve learned to pronounce
My grandmother kept two of these mugs in a phone nook, in a corner of her dining room where, tethered to the heavy black phone, she’d sit in a straight chair and talk. There was a clipboard for appointments and a pen in a holder, silver-and-black, like a slim torpedo. There was a pair of sharp scissors, a letter-opener and pencils in a green cup with a worn velvet bottom. On higher shelves in the nook, a pewter pitcher, a lace doily, a squat crystal vase.
Most of all I liked the cheeks on the Toby mug gents. They were shiny and round—feminine in their invitation. You were rosy enough to have thought of me then as
A dark presence
, you said (I was, likely, brooding), in the co-op one afternoon, which is now a well-lit and spiffy place, full of imported meats and good wine—no more dusty rice bins with big metal scoops, or vegetables clumped with fresh farm dirt. And now, while I’m back in town for a few months, the co-op’s across the street from my apartment, and again it’s where I shop. You described, just the other day, how we met: you were next to me on the checkout line and almost said nothing because, at the time, you didn’t know how to say even the simplest things to women, but you think I invited you somehow to speak—and we found we were neighbors and walked home together. I would have had in my bag dried noodle soup packets, fruit, coffee, and chocolate.
And since you have given it so precisely, sure, I can see the whole scene, but with your blue eyes and not my brown ones, for I don’t recall the moment I met you. Not one thing about it comes back. I have no beginning in mind to refer to. I’m back in town, and you’re back, or rather, have been here all along, and a present moment again knits up its own feel, so that the idea of an end to
time right now—and how soon it will pass!—is nothing I can locate either.
The picture I brought along, of my son and me, cheek to cheek, both of us fake serious-looking and about to laugh—when I showed it to your family at lunch, and said “here’s my boy”—that was just part of the story. I was thinking, there’s my mother’s mouth, my father’s brow, but mostly, that’s my grandmother’s chin. In fact, if I tilt up in a mirror, I can see the set of her jaw, her defiance, mock when we teased, or real when angry or retelling a story in which she persevered or struggled to learn resistance to some form of injustice. I remember, sometimes, being annoyed at the gesture. It came from what I considered (at a sulky thirteen) her narrow repertoire of responses.
I’d think. Which, of course, I relied on. It made for me an idea about what a grown-up should be—consistent, dependable in her actions and responses.
My friend, I must have things of
that you’ve lost. There must be something I can give you to hold and embellish. Something as useful and strangely orienting as a glance in a mirror.
What is it of yours I’ve been carrying?
The house is still there, but it’s no longer your family’s. They sold it. “Right out from under me,” you’d say, if you were temperamentally inclined toward bitterness. But you’re not. I remember, even then, you met dissolution with an energy for order and repair. And given the way your own losses composed, you checked mine like a pulse. I was a thing to watch for signs of bruise, and to care for. The gauging, the measuring you did: take my memory of that, if it’s not already an easy possession. How you’d fuss with my scarf, as you did just today before we all went out for a walk in the bitter cold. You tugged it up higher and, I could see, took note of my insufficient beret.
How just now your eye went fast to the small things awry—more soup to be served, plate of cornbread too close to the edge of the table—how you found the shapes of what needed doing and applied precise and practiced responses. How you attended to your very frail mother-in-law—before she could ask for side table, tea, napkin, and blanket—the solicitousness, I remembered, as natural as doing a thing for yourself. Maybe you can use this, too: that you’d get a little faraway when you fussed, the way a mother with many kids fixes one’s zipper while eyeing the wet gloves, messy boots, missing sock of the others she’s soon to move toward. Your fussing was easy to accept. I felt the matter-of-factness settle over, and submitted. I remember thinking, too, that maybe the care was compensatory, learned as a child, out of necessity, in defense, or as an enticement.