Barbara Flug Colin
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.
"Fall, fall," my brother screamed.
At least that's what Dick's telling me he screamed, so I am imagining hearing him as I see past him through the hotel dining room's windowed wall. The ocean is as it can get to be in the Keys in any season: calm, turquoise, and translucent. The egrets are fishing casually.
"I wanted you to die," he continues. "I wanted you to die at age seven so I could have mom all to myself. I was frozen in place while you skied out of control because I wanted you to crash. Then too late I called 'fall.'"
He lifts his J & B on the rocks and I match him drinking my Beefeater on three rocks with three olives at a faster pace.
He is a genius and nine years older than me so sometimes when I answer him I only think words are coming out. Now I think I am saying, "why me...what about dad...what about Alfie my almost twin, what about baby Bud, or Nancy that terrible throb in mom's tummy?"
But I don't say anything until it comes up again a month later when he seats me beside him at his formal dinner party.
Summer evenings from his dining room Long Island Sound is cut off by his green lawn with its own rectangular pool off to the right; the view subdivided by orange frames to the panes in his French doors.
"It was a bandstand."
"No," I disagree, "it was a fence I crashed into, a fence of vertical naked but thin wood slats attached by wires. How could a bandstand have gone through my chin?"
Now I am remembering. Not the bleeding from my chin, but how successfully I fought the stitching.
There is a woman I need to find. We talked last year in a pediatrician's waiting room. She told me how she fought to keep her child alive. How she fought her family, the doctors, the state, the school she got to place him in. Everyone thought he was too disabled to live. She did not describe. Life was leaking out his unfinished body and she kept stitching.
When my bandage diminished to a band-aid, I was sent back on the mountain, the bigger mountain with the boys.
Halfway down I was abandoned by all eight of them as they skied in Sandor's instructor-perfect tracks, a thin swivel that, had it compacted more would have been a straight line down: a line as straight as the one I had made on my first day, out of control, down the smaller mountain. Now I was left halfway to wait while they skied greatly. They would ski free while Sandor would return to ski me.
When Sandor left me alone the first day did he expect me to stop on the top while he went to get the boys set on a bigger mountain? Did he think that first herringbone ascent exhausted me enough for me to not expect an immediate downhill free play?
Had I forgotten skis were attached to me when I stepped a bit too far over the edge? Did I know what out of control meant? Hearing "fall" had I been too frightened to listen?
“FALL, FALL!” he is screaming.
How easy it is to receive meaning without words. Sometimes at night it is a train whistle across town. It has to be night. By day it can be an airplane or a church bell, a sound as familiar as memory and as unpredictable; whose message is merely its tone across distance. A clarity because of its distance makes me respond.
When did this call begin?
When I first need words I am three, away, with my family, me alone, waiting inside because someone has promised to return to read the stories.
I am waiting for someone to reopen white outsides to glazed cardboard pages.........................waiting for someone to read again stories of girls with names like mine and flowers whose names I can't memorize from tall pages in the thin book they say is mine.
I am waiting for someone again to impress me with the images inside: perfect girls with red heart-shaped dresses; yellow faces of flowers with dark eyes of velvet I know I could feel if only the book would let me touch or smell.
Inside these panels of knotted pine in my one room cabin alone with this book they say is mine, the book is the bed I lie on above unopened white covers. From here I read the pine walls whose glaze does not absorb the liquid shadows that flow over them: white drifting pools...the pools the shadows make are not like the perfect black sticks of words fixed inside my book, are not like the usual reds and blues in images of girls and boys...are not like the names they gave the flowers.
If no one comes in to read again the book I know is not complete, I will stay inside here, silent as it is, and from my small bed island at center I will swim inside the white pools shifting across the knotted and paneled walls that do not feel.
When they first set me outside, free, the sight of sky was a sea drawing me from the shifting raft of the paved alley.
“ . . . FALL. . “
They led me down to the beach but sun filled the concrete steps on the way so I stayed in the broad solace of white space rounded off so edges were not sharp, not a far step down to the next; till sun scorched my bare feet...so many burning footsteps till hot sand promised wet relief at the ocean’s edge.
Sweet writing but I do not feel the white, the sand, the sun, the ocean. So I bike to the local beach.
"No," says the woman I meet today after writing this--the woman at the empty beach I need and find today as if it were the same beach as the first.
"I come here," she says, "because my first memory is the beach with my father...I use the sea to be alone."
"What was the first beach?" I ask and she gives me the name, Brighton Beach, same beach as mine.
"What was the white concrete?" I ask. "Was it steps to the beach?"
"No," she says, turning from sun, opening her eyes and pointing toward the ocean.
""That first beach was as small as this. It was not far down to the sea. The white concrete was a bandstand."
They have sent me away from home to ski alone outside on open white space descending.
Inside..outside..home..away..they told me I was free and allowed, yet even now, here, today, I am screaming inside my full grown house for all the people to get out, the burner in the basement is so obvious, flames gleaming, and no one will listen as I cry fire, and I have to go down the back hall to the room with doors within doors that keep opening and closing, to convince the one deep within that there is no time to dress: to escape means to come out fully naked.
"...watch out for"
Let the fence I am heading toward decide.
The wound I am receiving from the teeth of the naked wood slats is to remain a red ocean on my chin. I will allow no one to stitch me in.
When I followed Sandor down the mountain it was different from the boys. I had to skirt the girth of the mountain with uninteresting diagonals then turn by plowing a huge curve. To get down I had to go across. To turn I had to first lean into the mountain. And leaning following him, something as solid as a plane or train or church bell cracked inside me.
At the bottom of the mountain there was nothing to look forward to but a row of people preparing to be towed by a thick braided cord back up again in grooves the skis could slide through if you could hold on but not resist a rope that scarred your mittens.
At night we had to follow Sandor down to the Old Forge Inn basement where he used a plywood board to support one ski on its belly at a time: scraping, lathering, shaving smooth the drying wax. And in the morning, without a knock, he came in expecting me to easily strip down to my long underwear so he could start me over again unpeeling all four layers of my socks. My legs dangling from the bed, he built them up again, smoothing layer by layer.
Clothing, he taught, is skin. Skis are the body's extension.
I would never ski like them!
"He will never be like him..." said the businessmen of my brother Dick in my father's business.
"I had to kill him..." said Dick in his pool way after my father had died. His pool is big enough to do laps in, but I could tell he wanted me to talk with him at the shallow end beyond the path of the white plastic circle, a mouth sifting the surface, snaking debris to the drain. I figured he had been to a Freudian.
But then when he said it again in winter in his heated pool atop his western mountain, I knew it was serious, true, and had somehow to do with me. Had dad died instead of me? Had dad died so I could breed fresh children? Was my brother happy dad died? Was I? As woman would I have to kill mom?
When I was pregnant with my first child and we buried dad, we chose the simplest box, rectangular and pine, and the soil we laid him in was deep, well down toward water. The one time I returned to the plot, I noticed how weeds had grown along the upright stone, almost covering his name. Though other grass was well mown, it was curlicued like hair grown over a scar just above where the casket had been lain.
After the funeral we five dispersed like grass seed strewn from the sun's tracks--east to west.
Bud, the baby boy who grew higher than dad or Dick or Alfie drove slowly after dad died. Finishing school, he went south, deep, out of the country, before he returned east to drive slowly out west.
I walked him slowly from home on his first day of nursery school. I walked him slowly south on the peninsula where we lived in the south of Brooklyn on the beach of New York, Manhattan Beach. On his first day I walked him slowly because it was a migraine day for mom and the nurse was off, so I walked him down the two blocks well-pocketed between the bay and ocean, and when he cried inside I stayed.
No. I had third grade that day. His nurse, Miss Payne walked him down to Happyland and stayed.
When he got to be in my school, the Center Academy, halfway across Brooklyn, the same chauffeur and chaperone drove us home in a rage, banging at the back door, screaming into my mother the curse word I'd said...the word I'd never heard of--could any word be this bad? The soap tasted not bad.
The only friend he remembers is the Good Humor Man with the withered hand. He does not remember Miss Payne.
Before he came into his fame last year, he told me his dream: "....First there were the explosions: volcanoes, ash clouds in the sky. Only I went out. And then the sun low at just such an angle to the horizon that it projected the shadow of the bridge against the clouds in the sky, and I thought that perhaps my shadow might be projected there too."
The bridge that is his is the bridge that I feared which is why I stayed east. After the funeral the weight of my pregnancies was too great to allow me to cross or fly or be carried. I stayed in and grew my children, my house outgrowing my childhood constructions of hideouts: inside green blocks balancing on the roof of elementary school; inside the scooped out belly of iced snow molded in the alley; inside an air pocket that defied the brook it held down inside an overturned rowboat whose moisture magnified the shadowed wood and my echo.
Or there were miniatures, separate from me: a wood facade of a house made in my image--triangular and square, yellow complected, geometric blue eyes, red mouth. And the best, my real home in a detailed drawing: bricks intricately outlined and colored in by my mother for me to bring to school and claim as my own.
My grown home, my children, in the symmetry of bricks my mother outlined and colored in.
I dream my father comes toward me from the lake. I embrace him to enter and swim to the circle where my mother's lover swims to replace him beside her to enter the center and become the mother I must replace. I wake knowing life was the dream I could not break receiving the story I gave bedside to my children in a home grown to full size, rooms for each member a roof over each, on a base of concrete. The cabin, rectangular and pine buried deep, well on the way to water; the covers thick over an uncompleted story.
My mother is reading to 8-year-old me, as she reads to her many friends through separate phone calls the same story of her day. We are close as always and I am listening as always from inside her pink satin chaise, a deeper pink than the pink I and my daughters wore till age five. I am deep inside her medium pink love seat among white china dolls like the dolls she had at five on the bottom shelves of the mirrored back room of her mother's store where the men came in: the dolls with embroidered lace collars and ribbons that her rich relatives sent because she did not have a father; the dolls the men came in and broke because they pronounced her mother bankrupt and her mother said oh her mother smiled and said okay it's okay because tomorrow will be something better than dolls you'll have school, school.
I am beside my mother's pink-gowned white china dolls, their black patent shoes hand-painted on. The room is dark and I am listening and I can hear my mother as I see black walls with vines roping orange-pink lilacs climbing to be blossoming. She is somewhere deep in this room, her bedroom, where one fully bloomed lilac at night looks in from outside her window, a lilac held high by the spread legs of a tree that never lets in sun. I am listening to the last chapter before a new page. Her best friend whose name is my middle name, her best friend so envious, her best friend whose youngest daughter older than my mother's oldest daughter--me--has already danced on toe away from the bar and knows how to get to dancing school alone, by train, unlike me, stubby, ballooning from my tights, given extra lessons though my feet are not ready for toe, don't want to perform in Carnegie Hall, and walk off stage midway in the recital for the city dancing school chosen for me, the best for me, though I can't even find my way, needing daddy or Alfie to take me because how could I know. That best friend who envied my mother's home so she bought a mansion deeper in toward the ocean to house her three children to my mother's five. That perfect china face with hair in brown waves unlike my mother's miniature curls dyed black, netted to her head, tightened by unseen pins used sometimes as tools or weapons, unlike my curls long, imprisoned each night by my mother's twisting white rags to a knot freed each morning by her fingers shaping my hair around her fingers so the separate five fingers of curls swing freely, tubular protrusions dangling, shaking when my head shakes. That friend is finally found inside the basement by my father and my mother who tries to breathe the envied life back into her head being pulled by a cord toward the ceiling.
I need to ski freely without a rope to pull me up. I need to leave naked from the basement of my full grown home. I go away to find a new ski territory where I can use old lessons new ways. The women know how to cross country ski so I follow them as they skate the surface and I sink and they reach to pull me out but I won’t let them touch. The men seem confident so I give them my key and they ski freely messing virgin snow and I watch scornfully as they ski small hills falling and laughing and awkward and out of control, while I ascend neatly and descend in a straight line and they respect me and they are laughing and falling unselfconsciously and I remain upright, my legs equivalent, balancing, pacing my descent, and they are beyond me, teasing me to come the way they do. And the sun turns. And I grab my key. And I go inside. And the room is a rectangle in which the book snaps shut, and words and images squeezed from the pages snow over the edge onto floorboards loosening to a wash of changing memories. And there is no place to stand, no way to stay in, and out is a sea of blue sky white ground. So I attach two skis to my shoes and watch as one foot follows the other across sun scorched white snow, making fresh irrational tracks past a black stump, through tight trees in a forest where no one has been, to a clearing. Beyond is a painting I have seen before: a hill with a cabin. I ski to penetrate that canvas.
Inside the empty log cabin there is a moisture I have known and memories echo, as if they were my voice magnified inside this air pocket. And so alone with myself, I am prepared to go out. Slamming the door shut, heading for freedom, I choose to ascend. Needing freedom descending, I am clinging and fastening and then, released to the speed I create till I break into a bank of snow, entering the depth and darkness of white. Even my feet can be felt unhurt inside my ski- held shoes. I lift from the weight of snow to ascend to look beyond the surrounding road for a worse mountain.
We are driving south on the two lane highway to the Keys. As adults we have found a new way to speak. Dick beeps his horn when he finds my worded thoughts out of sync.
His hand reaches toward me seated beside my husband in the back seat. My hand reaches forward for Dick's and we are clasping each other tightly till the feeling of fingers disappears and I am remembering, for the first time since I was nine, how it felt passive, my hand inside my father's tightening and releasing fingers as we drove in silence from the city bakery, between us stacks of boxes--green behind a brown chain pattern tied off by the bakery's name, Ebingers-- encasing uniform cupcakes with round unflaking white or brown icing topping a depth of soft airy cake unlike the cupcakes in the country bakery at the edge of the town above New York to the west of the port, Westport, where the name, Marvel, was not imprinted on the white plain box in which mouth size cupcakes iced with unexpected blues, greens, pinks, whites, browns; each handmade and different and soft over thick velvet cake we'd save for going home, me beside dad down the road tunneled by foliage splayed for the sky unlike the city road home below a sky safely divided by the geometry of the el.
When I was twenty and racing south on the East River Drive along the edge to be outside the overhang, to be under open sky, because dad beside me was dying; he asked me smilingly, in the slow rhythm of the deep voice that he was...did I think I could drive a slight bit in on the road more slowly?
How slowly Alfie is driving because he just got his license and my newly breasted friend Lydia and I have to wait a year and he is slowly deciding and he drops me and shoots beyond with her. And when he finally returns home I bite him on the arm, my brand on him that turns green in sun.
Because the nurse does not know how to stop 5 or 6 year olds from fighting she calls my parents on the phone and when they come home my father draws out the snake from the channels of loops that keep it straight in his pants. Against our butts it's as graceful as a wave extending and retrieving. I am watching it sting Alfie screaming and I am thinking it was because of me. Because of me. I feel nothing when it is my turn.
In the next age Alfie comes into my room and cuts with a ruler into my gray rug a description of a square large enough for us both to enter embracing, while he instructs me in the art of wrestling, fighting to teach me, he says, my own protection.
In the basement I am wondering why he knows the names of chemicals while I just want to play with fire; how he knows and mixes these things and heats them to cause a reaction, while I choose colors of candles to inflame. I am wondering how my parents can leave him to waste time with me in this room, his time from the next room where he owns and runs the Lionel trains, the tracks, the station master in and out the station below stairs I watch him from.
Only Alfie stays east like me but he could fly west or cross bridges to get there.
I need to drive fast around here because someone is pursuing me in a dream, trying to keep me from a leap past the tracks before the fence comes down for the oncoming train. This time, for the first time, finally, in the dream, I make it, then enter a room alone: a room somehow familiar, with animals shut out to the right by the door I slam shut when I see them--so pitiful so haggard as if they live in an appurtenance to the room; as if I shut the room out from their sounds so I can remain in the room so dark I cannot see its walls or how clean it must be. In the dark alone, there is a silence and I am waiting feeling incomplete.
If only I could accept the reality of the dream. If only I too owned the train that was his in reality, or the train in this dream: the train whose tracks I skipped to evade seeing its time and motion, its speed from the outside.
If I could allow the train, not just at night as a clarity of sound across distance...
And admitting this the dream breaks, and I admit the train incising my walls midway between ceiling and floor with incessant precision: its creamy green motion lighting my white bare walls--pockmarked and aging; lighting my disappointment in the room. Accepting the train's time and color and motion in my space, I can accept the room. When I wake will I admit the starved animals, their wan mating sounds across the night, their brokenness? Can I leave my sleep, my dream, and keep the room inside me to cross any territory, unafraid, to bridge time or space, free to be inside at any height or depth, one with any droning engine?
My sister Nancy is calling me from her grown home and family out west. She wants me to come in summer.
We camp inside the ground fenced from the distant mountain, but we climb the mountain. She says--"Look down." She is my sister and I trust her and from this height of solid ground I see down...
I am looking down from the two-tiered broad stairway of our childhood home, the wide steps an aisle I have made down which to hold her hand and walk, da tum ta tumm...the wedding march, and I am pacing myself to her three-year-old steps and explaining brides and grooms and from the bottom step they take me into a separate room and explain in words that sound like a reprimand.
...she says--"Look down" and I trust her and from this height of solid ground I see the distant flow, a brook of feelings rills over jutting rocks. And we descend not holding hands.
Dick is calling me in fall to his home out west.
We are looking out the glass side of his mountain house. He says--"Soprus used to be apart from us...we love the other Aspen mountains, but Soprus, its height, its separateness...but now we watch to see and can accept how the sun hits and lights patches of Twin Bells and other peaks and crevices as if testing itself and the land as it flickers on and off across from east to west. And now how Soprus accepts the shadows the light creates, so we see by its contrasts its greatness."
Nancy is calling me in winter. She wants me to ski again the old way, the first way, the way I have forgotten since Sandor. She has found the worst mountain, a peak blurred by clouds. I must come now.
Inside the womb of the plane I know I am going home by skirting the whole body of the country, as if this freedom through unboundaried space toward a high mountain in winter is the way. But I feel worried, slowed by something I have not allowed; something I have allowed to recede into the symmetry daylight provides lighting rows of condominiums; unlike my dream of the red glow above almost imperceptible rooftops at night which gives me the hope to return to the real estate. I need the dream to remind me of the truck that recedes into the closing lids of the garage in a row of condominiums in daylight. I need to be seen seeing, unafraid that the guards of symmetry will attack. And when I attack back I earn the back road home, the back road the dream provides, the back road in the dream where I am going home and am stopped at the last curve by the same truck, close up, archaic as a dinosaur, sprawled headless across my way before the final tunnel that bridges the highway. The truck is rectangular as rooms and pages I have known; stacked with furniture of my life dried to black geometries high enough to incise the radiance of horizon's dusk with a skyline of broken angles. Below, the belly of the truck is raised by slight female high heels to let through something I expect, can now accept coming toward me around the last bend: I wait patiently to see the horse drawn funeral procession.
I arrive at the mountain my sister has chosen according to my needs. My daughter is beside me and I am afraid.
We are standing waiting for the tow. There is no rope to hold onto. No grooves for the skis to remain in. The blue metal skeleton pair of chairs is approaching, scooping from behind and we are being lifted increasingly high above the mountain, and there is no fence across the chair to hold us in, and the vista of imperfect tracks down on the mountain is like a map of out of control mistakes--like the map of anyone's life, I suppose...and a cracked bell inside intoning me to fall, fall.