Light then Dark

I am a photographer, but I know pictures can only do so much.  They are merely tools to get to the real stuff.  Like trowel’s to dig…something to break the surface.  The real stuff is deep down…suspended like a thousand  slivers of broken glass.  Memories.  Each one a door that opens up to another.  Something to be unlocked.  Something to be unburied.  Something to be found and studied.  Some from my minds eye…some imaginary.   None more important than the other.

All determining my fate.

Sunday’s are like fragments of light.

At church that morning I sat in the long wood pew that smelled like faded perfume and watched the girl in front of me run her hands through, particularly thick, particular long, and very blonde hair  It was the perfect alternative distraction.   My usual activity was looking through my mom’s purse.  The last time I had gone digging though, I had put my hand in something wet and gritty and had to sit through the rest of church with sticky hands.  So, instead I watched my new friend.  Every couple of minutes as if on a timer she would run a set of well manicured, long pail fingers through her hair.   It had become a game…a countdown.  I wondered if my older sister Holly was watching too, but I didn’t dare catch her eye.  It was just the sort of subtle thing that would start us on the short road to uncontrollable bursts of laughter.   The kind of cruel persistent laughter reserved for quiet Catholic sermons in a packed church.

Just after communion but before the mass was actually over my dad tapped me on the shoulder and tipped his head towards the door.  We walked out with our heads down to beat the rush.  We made or way through the lines of cars,  across a busy street, to a long drive that was the entrance to a new subdivision.   My dad refused to use the church parking lot. Catholics were always in hurry to get away from church, he said,  so they made the worst drivers.  My older sister Holly had called “shotgun” but George who was five years older wasn’t having it.  “I’m the oldest, ” he said and bodied his way in between my sister and the already open car door.

On the way home my dad played country music and my mom and I held hands.  I liked to twirl the diamond ring on her finger.   If I wanted to she’d take it off and let me try it on.  What was hers was mine.

We always stopped by the grocery store on the way home.  I looked out the window and watched my dad, both hands deep in his black suit jacket, walk through the automatic doors.    When he came back he had a bag full of two packs of chocolate covered marshmallow cookies with graham cracker bottoms and a six pack of ginger ale.  In a frenzy of screams and reaching hands the cookies would be gone before we even left the lot.

Most Sundays we would go play basketball in a park surrounded on all sides by woods.  I didn’t really like to play so most of the time I would wander to the empty end of the court and do cartwheels.

Sometimes I watched.

It was one of the only times I saw my parents flirt.  My dad would juke then pretend to lose the ball so my mom could grab it and break away for a layup.  Her layups were beautiful and transformed her to the girl I had never known.  My mom did not talk a lot about her past.  When she did it would be through short, delightful stories about charmed Catholic school days and Sunday afternoons with a house full of people.

As she took two long strides towards the basket I imagined what her brick house on Ladue Lane smelled like when she walked in the door for Sunday dinner.  Roast beef…the sound of a grand piano playing.  Her grandmother peeling corn at the small kitchen table.  Her father in a seer sucker suit pouring himself something to drink in a fancy glass.

As her front her leg left the ground and she lifted the basketball towards the hoop I imagined my mom as a teenage girl stepping out of her father’s new baby blue two door Pontiac Coup.  A group of Catholic school girls squealing in delight as she moved through the air towards them like warm cream.  Too quickly they would coral around her and she would disappear into a thick forest of knee high socks and plaid skirts.

After the ball went through the hoop I’d watch my mom turn towards my dad and smile.  I loved this smile because I could tell it was just for him.  I imagined her spraying her wrists with perfume, the sound of Elvis’s voice playing softly.  Her heart full of teenage hope before a first date.

After we got home from basketball time would drag its feet.  Newspapers stacked on the kitchen table and my mom walking up and down the stairs with baskets of laundry.

Chinese food for dinner.   We would sit on our red pleather couches and eat Egg foo young off thin white paper plates and watch the news.   After dinner I would take a bath and fall asleep to the peaceful hum of my pet mouse on his hamster wheel…safe, happy and full.

And then there was the dark.   

In the mornings before school my mom would make me toasted English muffins.  She would broil them in the oven with so much butter that it would gather in pools in between the toasted nooks. More often than not I would go to school my shirts full of happy grease stains the size of quarters.

On most days I would come home to my mom sitting on the cement steps watering her flowers.  Her bare knees up and her dark hair pinned back on both sides. She loved to garden and had made our small square patch of lawn a jungle daises and pansies.  They would bow and quiver as my mom daydreamed with a soft peaceful look in her eyes.  Usually I’d be able to guess what we were having for dinner from the smell coming in through the screen door.  My mom loved fresh air and any time she got the chance she opened up every window in the house.  

On some days though, I didn’t smell dinner cooking.   On some days the blinds were down.

The thin, dusty oriental carpet that on good days would have laid flatly on our foyer floor would look twisted and angry.

On these days after school my house was a special kind of dark.  It would be a dark with substance.  A darkness so thick in the air that it felt like you could scratch your nails through it.

Having the blinds drawn down was not enough.  Dirty white towels had been duck taped over the blinds.  It made the light coming in through the window the color of sickness.

My mom sitting at the kitchen table drinking a Milwaukees Best talking to herself.  A trashcan in the corner brimming with empty cans.  The words speweing from her mouth like poison.

I would sit down next to her and turn on a small black tape recorder I kept in the kitchen drawer.   Long hours after school alone with an empty shell of my mother’s body.  Her black hair matted and dull.   Her normally clear blue eyes would be glazed over and red.  Mumblings that came from a far away place.  A place deep and dark from within her.   Sometimes I could make out fragments of sentences.  The words were like tiny sharp blades.

Nazi neighbors, and the whores sleeping with my dad at work.

Sluts that fucked and neighbors that would have her killed.

The people that followed her from St. Louis.

The woman that pretended to be her mother.

The baby that they killed.

Words from a deep twisted place like the scratch marks on my skin left behind from the struggle to stop her from cracking open another can.  I could wage war against each swallow.  It was a battle.  I wanted my mom back.

I would fall asleep after saying the “Our Father” over and over again.  Less a prayer and more a plea for the darkness to move along.

Sometimes the four walls of our townhouse were not strong enough to hold in her darkness.

At night the red lights of a police car reflected against my bedroom window.   A light tap on my bedroom door and my dad’s voice high and weak.

“Camille has attacked the neighbor and I may need you kids to come downstairs as witnesses, ” he would say and I would pretend to still be asleep.

I would close my eyes

But the light still danced across my room and I could hear the sound of the person he called Camille crying a sad low moan outside my bedroom door.






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