Falling Into The World
Sometimes getting answers requires risking a fall into the unknown....
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived with her mother and father and baby sister in a little town beside a big river.”
Beyond the circle of porch light, the crickets chirped an evening song. My mother’s arm was warm around my shoulders, almost too warm in the lingering heat of a late-summer day, and the seat slats of the porch swing cut into the backs of my legs. The moon rose red through the harvest dust, and even though I couldn’t see them from where we sat, I knew the trees along the Mississippi’s banks were gleaming silver in the red moon’s light.
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl. And this is her story.”
In the time-honored tradition of humankind, my mother’s stories were oral history, the reality of each story enhanced by the fairy-tale quality of its beginning. But her voice was silenced the year I turned twenty-two, and somehow it seemed--seems--my story ended six years ago when I lost the teller. Life goes on, or so they say, and living stories go on, too. Still, life can be altered beyond expectation, leaving behind a clutter that never quite makes a whole, a story that never quite makes sense even though you pretend it does.
“Let’s see that ring!” Mrs. Carlson says.
We’re standing in front of the toilet paper at the local Kroger store. My cart has somehow contrived to bump into Mrs. Carlson’s cart even though I thought I was doing a pretty good job of not being seen and pretending to not see. The toilet paper is stacked along a wall, and a display stand of corn removers blocks the alternative exit and turns the aisle into a dead end with Mrs. Carlson guarding the only way out. I smile and hold out my hand to show her the ring.
“I wanted a plain band.”
“I would have thought Colton could afford a diamond. Even a small one.”
“It was my decision. He wanted to buy a diamond.”
“What’s the world coming to when a boy can’t even buy his girl a small diamond?”
I reach out for a pack of Charmin and give it a good squeeze.
“I hear your sister is back in town. That must be . . .”
She pauses for dramatic emphasis. When I don’t react, she raises her eyebrows and reaches for a twelve pack of quilted softness.
“ . . . difficult,” she finishes. “Not that your sister is difficult. I mean, it must be different.”
I shrug and judge the distance between the shampoo, shelved across from the toilet paper, and Mrs. Carlson’s cart. The width of available space is short a few inches, thanks to the store manager’s decision to buy bigger carts without widening the aisles, so I won’t be escaping gracefully. I feign interest in a particular brand of shampoo just past Mrs. Carlson’s cart, clear my throat, and gesture helplessly.
“If I could just. . . ?”
But instead of moving aside, she shuffles backwards, keeping me trapped between her cart and the corn removers.
“I suppose it’s a good thing that she came home.”
I’m concentrating on falling in love with a shampoo at the end of the aisle and working out a geometry problem of angles, curves, two carts, and escape.
“Your sister. It’s probably a good thing she came back. A young couple needs their own home. Having her back will make that easier.”
I stop my trajectory toward the end of the aisle, stop my feigned interest in softness, volume, and clarification, and really look at my captor’s face. She’s going fishing. She’s hungry for gossip and she’s just thrown out the bait to see if I will bite and give her a tasty fish fry for her next get together with the coffee klatch that poses as a book club.
“I’m not sure I understand,” I say.
“Oh . . . nothing, really. Have you tried this brand?”
An hour later, standing in the warm sunlight of my father’s kitchen, I unpack the toilet paper and the shampoo I didn’t want.
“Do you like this brand?” I ask my sister.
Saphira is on her way through the kitchen, carrying a basketful of laundry which is, undoubtedly, hers and hers alone. I wonder what happened to Dad’s and my clothes--the load I put in this morning. Saphi stops and looks at the shampoo bottle in my hand.
“Not really. It would make a good floor wax. Why’d you buy it if you don’t want it?”
“It was a ticket to freedom.”
She shifts the laundry basket so it sits on her hip. I dig farther down into the grocery bag and drop a few boxes of tampons and the package of toilet paper on top of her clothes.
“Take these upstairs to the bathroom, will you?”
“My God. So no one has knocked off the old tart in a fit of justified rage?”
“She’s not so bad.”
I feel compelled to defend Mrs. Carlson and feel angry that Saphi has made me feel compelled to defend the old . . . tart.
“She’s got a nose three miles long.”
Saphi leans forward and sniffs the air like Jackson Dover’s spaniel.
“Ah, I smell gossip hiding in this store.”
“It wasn’t like that,” I say, setting a box of tissues on top of the TP in her basket. “She actually had battle maneuvers laid out and she trapped me in the only dead end. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rack of corn removers wasn’t part of a strategic plot.”
Saphi snorts, and for the moment it takes our laughter to mingle, I’m fifteen years old and she’s ten; our world is still revolving and everything makes sense. The moment only lasts a moment before it winks out and is replaced by the present.
“We don’t need tissues upstairs,” Saphi says.
“The box in my room is out.”
“So carry it upstairs yourself. It’s your box.”
“The tampons aren’t yours, either, but--”
She takes the blue boxes out of the laundry basket and sets them onto the table, effectively ending any argument I might have made.
Dad wheels into the kitchen, and I cut my frustration off at the knees. Saphi shifts the laundry basket off her hip, and I feign industriousness by rummaging in the lower depths of the paper grocery bag for the celery and tomatoes.
“Just leave those out,” Dad says as I open the fridge. “I’ll make my world-famous chili for supper.”
I set the vegetables on the kitchen counter and take a deep breath before turning around, hoping the additional oxygen will help me fool him into thinking that Saphi and I were not on the verge of reenacting the Battle of Verdun over the kitchen table.
He glances at my face and then at Saphira’s. I’m sure my smile mirrors hers--Raggedy Ann smiles sewn onto blank faces. His eyes register quiet frustration with two adult daughters who are more childish now than they were as children.
“I’d better take these clothes upstairs,” Saphi says. “I’m looking forward to trying your chili.”
She kisses the top of Dad’s head on her way out of the kitchen, but she leaves the tissue and tampon boxes on the table. Dad looks at me and sighs, rubbing his fingers along the arm of the wheelchair.
“Augustina, your sister’s been through a lot. Take it easy on her.”
* * * * *
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who moved to a small town beside a big river.”
The small town was Stoic, Missouri, and if the town’s people did not always live with indifference to pain and sorrow as their name might imply, at least the town kept up with its neighbors that bore illustrious names from history. Carthage, Sparta, and Troy. Paris, Hannibal, and Seneca.
Warren Fletcher was a Methodist seminary graduate, and the small Methodist church in Stoic, Missouri offered him a job and a salary just enough to cover living expenses and the hospital fees for a second child soon to make her appearance in the world.
“Was I naughty?” I asked Mom, on the warm summer night where crickets chirped and the moon rose red. I leaned into her side and watched Dad bounce Saphira on his knee. She was now-born and nearly two-years-old. I already knew the answer to my question, but this was the time in the story when I asked. “Was I naughty before Saphira was born?”
“You were awful,” Mom said, laughing. “Positive that the baby was out to end your life. Fortunately, Beaver kept you in line.”
When we moved to Stoic, I was five years old and unaware of much beyond the two facts that I was about to become a member of a two-child household and Stoic was a fascinating place to explore and get into trouble. My main source of comfort during the trials and tribulations of being five, newly re-planted, still friendless, and soon to be the oldest in a family of two children was a dog of indeterminate breeding named Beaver--so named because his tail was wide and heavy, and he used it to slap the water when swimming after a ball. Unlike his temperamental human sidekick, Beaver only had two main emotions. Joy when chasing after a ball and deep sighs of sorrow with his lot in life when no ball was being thrown.
Beaver’s relative placidity helped even out my alternating moods as we explored the unfamiliar square footage of Stoic. The town sat on the banks of the Mississippi River, and even though it had never been a stopover for steamboats, the local chamber of commerce did a good job of fooling the out-of-state tourists into thinking otherwise. The river was a continual source of mystery and I was determined to solve it, giving Mom the fits by taking Dad’s compass (not that I knew how to use it), a bottle of water, and my pony-shaped backpack and setting out on river navigating expeditions. With innate doggie knowledge that what I was doing was wrong, Beaver refused to be my accomplice in crime, and instead ratted me out to the authorities. My last attempt at lone river exploration found me in the center of the field across the road from our house. The sky was an endless bowl above me and I was utterly lost. Enter Leviathan. A gigantic animal with huge ears walking in my direction.
“And he had big, nasty yellow teeth,” Mom said years later, holding her index fingers next to her mouth and embellishing the story for my benefit as we sat on the porch and Dad bounced toddler Saphi on his knees.
“What did I do?”
“You screamed. And you probably wet your pants.”
“I did not! Did I, Dad?”
Beaver and Dad looked at each other. Beaver wagged. Dad looked up at the bead-board ceiling above us.
“Certainly not!” he said, contriving to look like a pastor in need of forgiveness for telling a lie.
When he wasn’t rescuing me from Jackson Dover’s mules, Dad spent part of the early days in Stoic setting up his tiny church office just east of the Sunday School rooms and the other part setting up the heavier household things for Mom. Mom washed all the dishes as she unpacked them, so they would be clean when they went into the glass-fronted cupboards in our new kitchen. Beaver and I helped by being underfoot. After a few weeks, life in Stoic, Missouri, fell into a grand routine.
Then Saphira was born.
* * * * *
“Take it easy on your sister,” Dad repeats.
It’s not an order, just a plea. I struggle to hold in the frustration that wants to come boiling up and ask when someone is going to take it easy on me, but the last years have taught me the virtue of keeping my frustration to myself. Guilt from hasty words wears sharp spurs and rides your shoulders forever. If my temper is threatening to boil over, I can go outside and kick a tire or something to turn down the heat, but spoken words are permanent. Before, I might have complained to Dad about life’s unfairness, but now I just smile at him as I heft the twenty-four pack of diet cola into the fridge.
“I’ll try, Dad.”
He tosses me the bag of tangelos that go into the crisper. The distraction on his face means that he’s searching for a source--a safe, non-familial source which didn’t just carry her laundry upstairs--that might explain the weary lines I can feel crease my face.
“Did you have a difficult time with that kid? Dillon?”
“Devon. No, he’s fine.” Devon is one of Stoic’s many high-school and home-schooled students I independently tutor in the fine art of using the English language. I drop the tangelos into the crisper. “He’s never going to be much of a writer, though.”
“You never know,” Dad says. “You may have inspired him. Someday he may pick up a pen and say, ‘My tutor said I would amount to something,’ and go on to write the great American novel.”
“Given the state of literacy in this country, he just might.”
Dad digests this as he puts away some canned food. In the old days, the days before the accident, the days when the sun still seemed to collect in the sparkle of my father’s eyes, he would have had a snappy comeback for my little joke. I wait for it, hope for it, wish for it--
“He just might,” Dad says.
I try to smile. Devon just might say, “I blame that woman--the one who told me copying passages directly out of the book was plagiarism--for my homicidal rampage.” Anything else is pushing it.
“It’s hot,” I say out loud, folding the last paper bag and putting it away. “I’m going to put some shorts on.”
“Aren’t you supposed to have supper at the Morleys’ tonight?”
“Thanks. I’d forgotten.”
* * * * *
“Your dad wanted to name the new baby Sappho,” Mom said as the crickets chirped beyond the porch and the moon rose higher and began to lose its redness in the cleaner atmosphere.
“After the Greek poet,” I added, not that I knew anything about Sappho’s poetry back then, it was simply part of the story.
Mom pushed the floorboards with her toe, setting the swing into motion.
“And I looked up at him and said--”
“‘Warren Fletcher, you will not name our baby after a dead, Greek lesbian poet, I don’t care how historical she is,’” Dad said in a creaky falsetto.
“I did not.”
“Well, something like that, anyway.”
He winked at her, and she rolled her eyes.
I silently wished she’d said something like that when he suggested naming me Augustina, after St. Augustine. The name Augustina lends itself to certain abuses, primarily the nickname “Gusti,” which is not amusing when yelled across the playground to the accompaniment of loud farting noises.
I was at the hospital when Mom nixed the Sappho name and remember Dad rubbing his chin and saying, “Well, how about Saphira, then?”
Mom was either asleep or too tired to argue, so my baby sister was named after a woman struck down by God for lying about how much money she and her husband made in a land deal. I think Dad just wanted to have another “-i” nickname in the family. I’m sure it tickled his sense of humor to imagine future evenings when he would lean out the door and yell in a blaring sing-song, “Gusti! Saphi! Time for supper!” while all the adult neighbors gawked, the children snickered, and dogs howled. Actually, he usually said, “Gusti! Saphi! Time for suppi!” which may have had more to do with the snickering than our nicknames.
Driving home from the maternity ward to a “Dad dinner” of frozen waffles, fried eggs, and bacon, I realized I was going to have to share him from now on, share my protector and confidant. Fear came on with the setting sun, and I thought about the way the shadows crept and crawled across my bedroom floor as the oak tree outside my window twisted in the wind and the glow of the streetlight.
“Do you love me as much as the baby?”
It was an embarrassing question, especially for a five-year-old, one who should definitely have been old enough to not ask in such a shaking, pathetic voice. I wouldn’t have asked such a question in the morning light, but with the sun sinking faster and faster behind our house, I couldn’t stop myself.
“I will love you just as much as the baby. But I will love you for who you are even more.”
“Because I’m older?”
“Because you’re the only version of you.”
That sounded good. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but I figured it probably meant that he loved me more at the moment.
“Can I sleep in your room tonight?”
Sometimes, when Dad was gone, Mom would let me sleep on a mattress on the floor beside her bed. She tried to let me sleep in the bed once, but discovered I “kick like a horse” in my sleep. I was content with the mattress on the floor and listening to someone else breathing in the room. I was content, knowing I was safe from all the terrors the night could hold as long as one of my parents was nearby.
Dad looked at me and then looked at the fast-setting sun.
“Shadows getting you down?” he asked.
“If you sleep in your room, I’ll stay with you and sing until you are asleep. Deal?”
Dad knew all kinds of blues, jazz, and folk songs. I later discovered many had been carefully edited for five-year-old ears. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I figured out a “backdoor man” didn’t fix hinges and ripped screens.
The night Saphira was born and lay nestled in her pink flannel at the hospital nursery, I fell asleep clutching Beaver--who never paid the slightest bit of attention to the experts who said mannerly dogs did not get up on furniture--and listening to Dad’s tenor voice charm the shadows away.