Who You Are and Where You Come From
There are people who use the bathroom before they leave the house, even if they don’t have to go. There are people who wait until they get where they’re going, and even then they wait a little longer, until it’s always the most inconvenient time to say they don’t know where the bathroom is. This is what my mother told me at Deborah Offel’s memorial service, when I was ten. It was my first funeral, and I wasn’t at all sad about missing any of it while my mother clicked her fingers against the stall door.
Deborah had been a classmate of mine, and I later discovered her death had shocked only me. She was what people used to call mentally-retarded although, by then, a few of our teachers were hounding us about instead using the word special. So, near the ear of any adult, we’d sing to one another, “Oh, she’s special. She’s awfully special. Deborah Offel is awfully special.” I passed this along to my parents, both bent toward saying the wrong things at all the wrong times. But my mother would continually use the word spacey instead of special, as in the one night, when she loud-whispered to my father in the kitchen while I dropped eaves at the top of the stairs: “Oh, shit. I meant to mention earlier – Deborah, the spacey Offel girl. You know. Poor thing went to sleep last night and never woke up.”
Life on the ground floor – chores and school and dust-mopping the wooden floor in the dining room (even though, gawd, it just got dusty again), Dad flicking my lip for both pouting and blasphemy, and the dogs bringing us a foreleg from a shallow-buried horse at a nearby farm – all continued uninterrupted, the death of Deborah Offel be damned. Upstairs, I was in ruins. I survived two weeks of no sleep, basting under sweat-dipped sheets, terrified as tiny hands spidered up the bed to steal my breath. She went to sleep and never woke up. Or maybe I’d die like Ted Taylor’s ancient lab, crawling under an abandoned half-ton to say goodbye, half-eaten by vermin before they found him. They would discover my body sooner, hopefully, under the sewing station or curled into a dresser drawer, nude and ashamed.
There was guilt, gummy and hot, crouched under this new fear of sleep. It wasn’t misplaced; I had my reasons. A year before dying, Deborah and her family had been dinner guests at our house. The Offels were our closet neighbors at a half-mile away. Hardware store neighbors, a different temperament, different religion, Latter Day Saints. It was a sheepish invite that arrived eight years late. After supper we’d escaped upstairs to my room, Deborah, her two younger sisters, and me, while my brother and Edwin Offel secretly BB’s at starlings on the hill-facing side of the barn. We played dinner party. Or rather: I was playing and they were watching. I had had too much wine and was spilling it down the front of my dress while the twins laughed and covered their mouths, like good Mormons, bewitched by my cheekiness.
I refilled the teacup with pretend wine as my ancient tabby, This Old Man, crawled from under the bed and towards the door. Deborah squealed and scooped him into her arms. Her sisters froze, so I froze. Before anyone said anything, Deborah hollered – Weeee! – and lofted the cat up at the ceiling, like a hairy armful of leaves into a dust devil. He twisted in the air, first belly up, then feet down, just reaching the arc of his flight as the blade on the ceiling fan clapped him on the back of the head. Then the descent, tail-over-head, landing sideways on the bed, open mouth facing the wall.
I screamed. I kicked and bit, spoke in tongues. The twins pulled Deborah away from me, hustled her from the room as she sobbed. My father appeared, kneeling and pulling me into his chest. Dr. Offel, the Latter Day dentist, as Dad called him, laid into his son for playing with guns, which he still held as he ran inside to investigate. My mother leaned across the bed and gently pressed her hand against my cat’s belly. She bent until their noses were nearly touching, and hovered there for a moment before pulling away, and I understood: This Old Man was no more.
The horror sprouted overnight. By morning, it’d grown into a tree, dropping poisoned fruit into the driveway for the magpies to choke on. Deborah was now an enemy, her special-ness no longer a shield. It was no kid’s game to me: I didn’t look at their house when we drove by on the way to town; I made a routine of spitting on the gravel near the end of their drive; and once I even stepped out of my underwear and peed in their drainage ditch, which I imagined fed into their well, somehow. I burned a page from my journal with Deborah’s name on it, dousing the flames in the trash can with a glass of milk. That earned me two weeks’ grounding. But I extended the feud and snubbed her sisters on the playground; Deborah, by then, was homeschooled by her mother so the sisters acted as a sort of proxy.
Then she was dead. She visited me at night, tossing the ghost of This Old Man into my ceiling fan, over and over, while I watch through parted fingers. I would drift away and dream of getting caught in the ditch below the Offel house, my jumper hiked around my waist, the whole school watching and judging. Even the secretary, Ms. Luntz, who sometimes gave me root beer barrels from her desk drawer. The guilt seemed to kick-start my first period. My mother rushed me to our family doctor, unable to grasp a girl bleeding through her culottes at ten-years-old.
I went to Gran Natty. My mother’s mother had moved in with us after her husband died, who I only remembered from a laugh and the pissy smell of aftershave in a green bottle the shape of a car, on a tip-toe shelf in the downstairs bathroom. Gran Natty was a ghoul herself. I’d once seen her nab a raw, round steak from the cutting board and rip part of it into her mouth while my mother pulled potatoes from the oven. She spotted me, watching from the doorway, and put a finger to her lips. She wheeled herself backward into her bedroom off the kitchen, a drip of blood filling a wrinkle on her chin. But Natty also knew things. Terrifying and mysterious facts, which she’d sometimes impart to me or my brother when our parents were out of the room.
“It’s much harder to poke out a man’s eye than you think,” she said.
“Every man likes a little blood on his sword,” she said.
So in a haze of sleeplessness, of guilt and my period being thereafter linked, like Sunday and wind chimes, I wandered onto the front porch into Natty’s domain. She was sitting in her wheelchair, watching jays dive-bomb the squirrels while the dogs ran circuits around the house. In her lap, she palmed a tennis ball. There was no explanation for this.
“Gran,” I said. “Can I ask you something?”
She turned and looked right through me and I wondered if she was going blind now, too. But the moment passed and she pulled me into focus before nodding. I sat on the top step, below her chair, and confessed. I even cried, praying my parents didn’t pass by the window. No butcher shop stories, Gran, no war stuff, my father would say. Gran studied me and said nothing.
“Do you believe in that stuff?” I said, picking paint off the steps.
“When I was little, my younger brother would just hound me,” Gran said. “He didn’t mean to but he just did. I had a dollhouse I’d made from newspaper and glue and one day he took it apart and made a boat outta the pieces. Right down the gully it went. He was sad and tattled on himself. Dum dum. My ma and pa told me, ‘He’s younger than you, Nat. He’s just being a boy. He doesn’t know no better.’ Oh boo hoo. None of that mattered to me. Why should that matter to me?”
So she had made a plan, and waited for the right moment. It happened one night, after her brother was sent to bed early for throwing a fit, after everyone in the house had gone to sleep, and Gran put on her shoes. She slipped out of the house and into the shed, where she sawed all the handles of her father’s tools in half. Then it was back up the stairs to hide the saw in her brother’s dresser.
Gran laughed at her own joke. She tried to set her hand on my shoulder but her fingernails raked down my neck instead, not quite breaking the skin.
“That’s terrible,” I said, and scooted a few inches down the step.
“So, at first, they thought it was me,” Gran Natty said. “Of course they did. Because I was a bad kid anyway. A little curse. And I probably would do something like that. I told them, no way, not me, but I could see they didn’t believe me.”
But they had no choice, she said, when they found the saw in her brother’s room. She laughed again. Laughing even when she remembered how sad they were about her brother’s sudden turn. What had happened? Her father made her brother work at the ranch on Sundays and he didn’t get to listen to any of his programs over the holidays.
“Didn’t you feel bad?” I said.
“No. I felt good! I felt like I wasn’t the only bad kid anymore.”
Now, because it’s talking to me, won’t let me ignore it, I have to make a slight detour: to a memory of my mother as she faded into a familiar obsolescence in our guest room, forty-or-so years after the mutual confession with Gran Natty on the porch. It was the first move my mother had made without my father, the last she’d would ever make. I was molding my figurines in the craft room upstairs. She was keeping me company, although she usually fell asleep, or pawed the same book for a half-year, staring out the window, passing gas, not talking.
“You remember Harlon?” she said, looking up from her book.
I turned, my brush just loaded with a bullet of red paint.
“Harlon-my-brother?” I said. “Yeah, Ma. I remember him. He lives in Buffalo. You’ve been there. We’ve visited.”
She rolled this around for a minute or so, snapping the spine of her paperback.
“I liked him better than I liked you,” she said. “If you had to compare the two. Which, I guess, you don’t have to, really.”
Then she tilted her book back up in her lap and ran her fingers down the page, finding her place. I said nothing but abandoned my brush at the craft table and fled the room. In the pantry downstairs, I cried and drank gin while posted on a step stool, until Donald came home to talk me down.
“After high school, my brother went into the army, and then it was off to the war,” Gran Natty said. “Maybe you heard that. I was still living at home and working at the butcher’s in town when he got killed. Shot, I guess, or blown up. I don’t really know. But the day after he died, or the day after we heard he died – this is why I’m telling you this story – I was sitting at the bus stop, by myself, when someone said, ‘Repent!’ I looked all around, over here, over there, but there was no one at the bus stop but me. Then I heard it again: ‘Repent!’ Still no one there. It was just me and this crow, standing over there on the ground. He was looking up at me with his head kinda tipped. So I look at him and I said, ‘What?’ And the crow said, ‘Repent!’”
“The crow talked?” I said.
Shut up, she told me. Aren’t you listening? The crow kept yelling at her. Again and again. Well, Gran didn’t like that so she stood up and decided to walk to town. But the crow followed her. He flew from telephone pole to telephone pole, squawking and talking. And when she said, ‘Cut that out!’ he repeated that back to her. Cut that out! Repent! All the way into town they went, until she got into the shop, and even after she got off at her bus stop at the end of the day.
“All week it went like that,” Gran Natty said. “The crow yelling and me running down the road telling him to cut it out. It just irked me. Then one night, I didn’t leave the shop right away and Syd – he was the owner of the butcher shop – Sydney gives me a drink. I think he could see how anxious I was. Well, we had a few drinks and I got a little tight, I guess, and he probably was too. He asked me: Did I wanna go upstairs? So I said, yes, I think I’d like that. Because he lived right upstairs, above the butcher shop, and I always liked him anyway. We drank a little more and talked and laughed and then we went to bed. Afterwards, he said, ‘That was some real good exercise.’”
Gran laughed and slapped the arms of her chair. The sound cracked across the porch and spooked me upright. That’s the type of thing he would say, she told me. Even when they were older, married for a long time, and she couldn’t have kids anymore, they would do it and he would say, afterward, lying next to her: “That would have made a beautiful baby.” It was her first time, that night above the shop. She had bled a little on his sheets but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Maybe because he was a butcher,” she said. “Ho, I just thought of that.”
Gran laughed again and I felt anxious, like I was waiting in the doctor’s office again, a ball of toilet paper wadded into my underwear.
“Gran,” I started, not knowing what I’d say next.
But she kept on. She remembered lying in the little single bed of his, telling him about the crow and her brother dying and sawing the tools in half and the dollhouse. He pet her head and said, That’s okay, Nat. That’s all okay. She was glad she told him.
“So when I saw that crow, it was the next day or the next, I was sitting on the bus bench and he flew down and landed on the ground next to me. He was tilting his head and looking at me like a crow does. And he opened his stupid mouth but before he could say anything, I jumped up and kick him right into the ditch. ‘Beat it,’ I said. And he didn’t say that back. Ha! He just rolls around in the dirt and flew off over the peas. I married Syd that summer, your granddaddy you didn’t really know.”
Gran settled back in her chair and watched the rain sweeping gray over the Blue Mountains, way out at the end of all the fields. She palmed the tennis ball in her lap, loopy grin on her face, like she’d snuck a drink or two, like I’d seen her do once or twice.
“She’s picturing my granddad,” I remember thinking. “Granddad Syd who-I-didn’t-really-know. She misses him. Of course.”
I felt proud for realizing this, and grown up.
“Gran,” I said. “crows can’t talk.”
She stirred from her daydream and turned to me. The oily grin had disappeared, and she looked helpless and angry, as if I’d stretched out my foot and pushed her wheelchair back from the dinner table, how Harlon and I did sometimes.
“You little hex,” she said. “Neither do I believe in your dead ghost girl.”
She stretched her arm into the air, straight above her, and pitched the tennis ball down at me. The ball bounced off the side of my forehead and shot into the yard. Then she backed her chair toward the house, twisting the doorknob under her armpit, and rolling inside.
I stayed on the porch, watching the sky turn, still feeling the spot on my head where the tennis ball had rebounded.
“That’s what you get,” I thought, sucking back tears. “Of course that’s what you get. You chubby loser.”
That night, I sunk into bed and pulled the covers up like a hood. No specter appeared to toss any cats, or eat raw meat, or squawk like a crow, or sit at the end of my bed to remind me who I was and where I came from, like my mother did sometimes, punishing me by depriving me of sleep. (I am still in awe of this, at once insidious and ingenious.) I drifted off long before sunrise and woke up so hungry my stomach was in cramps. I folded my pillow in half and lay so it pressed into my belly, tricking it into thinking it was full. When the pain subsided, I fell back to sleep and dreamt of cold streams, soft-boiled eggs on toast, and a boy passing me a quadruple-folded note, written in a code we’d just invented: Do you like anyone in class as more than a friend?
JOEL WAYNE’s writing has appeared in Burningword, The Chattahoochee Review, The Moth, Salon, and elsewhere. He has won the Silver Creek Writer’s Residency, the Lamar YorkPrize, and is a Pushcart nominee. Wayne produces the NPR-affiliate programs “Reader’s Corner” and “You Know The Place” and can be visited at www.JoelWayne.com.