A Thousand Ways to Dissemble
When I find my father's dress shirt in the back of my closet, suspended from a hanger, like a mocking little noose, I tear it to pieces while feeling him crawl up through a vein in my neck.
I take the shreds, burn them. The ashes lead me to the edge of a powder-blue coffin that held the corpse of a boy who loved the Dave Clark Five. The coffin wasn't actually powder-blue, but it should have been, the color of his high school prom tux.
Someone made my dress, but not my mother. My mother doesn't sew. In fact, people refer to her as "Mister." "What can I get you, Mister?" the kid at the hot-dog stand says. "You want ketchup on that, Mister?" And my father, right before he died, looked nine months pregnant.
My prom dress was turquoise covered in white lace. Or was it white dotted Swiss with orange accent flowers, the color of churned butter? My sister used it two years later for a wedding gown.
She married a short, charming X-ray tech with a huge mustache, a man who snuck into the back bedroom of the house trailer we were living in that summer and tried to kiss me. I was seventeen.
"Don't do that to my sister," I said, which was another way of saying, don't do that to me, which was another way of saying, don't do that to my sister.
Hence goes my life as a simpering teenager whose family subsists on cans of charity pork and beans.
Some in this town believe my mother is of a mixed race and treat her as such, my father a hidden Jew, his father a Hitler look-alike, his mother a Jehovah's Witness, his grandmother a kleptomaniac who steals carrot peelers and crucifixes and sews them into her mattress.
In short, we're below average in just about everything. My sister sells Avon door to door. I wait tables.
A man named Jack, a regular, always comes in. He smells like fruit flies, mercury and the water glittering beige in the street. His nose is a black prow, his shoes busted with spider legs.
His face, plundered, forgotten the way the earth cracks, tries to make itself into a dim fable. A minor bible that face, dog-eared, and somehow chewy.
I pour him a coffee, which he cups as though someone might kill it.
He doesn't say much, Jack, but when Frank, the boss, pinches my ass like a tootsie roll, he lowers his head, licks the grease in the bottom of the cup, brown odor of camphor lining walls brittle as old paper, as the paper Jack reads. The obits I think.
I can't start over or take on a new body as brilliant, or as pitiful as the one I inhabit, nor will I remember the moment when my prom date's blood spilled from his head, like coffee from a percolator.
And the little mouse, that furry fist of ears and eyes blacker than omission, how could I not kill it? Wasn't it already like us—wounded: gray, seeping?
Like Jack, who comes into the restaurant everyday, as if making the Stations of the Cross. How he sidles in like the saddest excuse for an apology I've ever seen. Even sadder. Like a scarecrow, or an abandoned space station falling to earth.
When probing a monster's brain, you're probably probing your own—Jack is no monster, this much I know. He squats at the counter, a warped shrimp. The napkin. This he folds into the smallest anchor.
I don't dare ask, "What do you want?" Don't dare cock my hip as if a baby might land there. It might.
He brushes everything away, off the sleeve, off the overcoat, huge ensembles of thought, like jars of buttons spilled, or a recurring nightmare of straw on fire, but who is the scarecrow, the scare, the crow, hovering then gone, gone the glances, gone the moths, the dust, the wheat?
Some of it explodes, is a vein in the brain, but not Jack. Like a vow, he just sits there, until he leaves me a nickel for a tip, then sets the gift on the counter, wordlessly.
Like the last thoughts before sleep, maybe my best, Jack walks out of the restaurant in snow that is flash, breach, blow.
When he walks off, abject, he grows smaller, like a grotesque, wanton somehow, a spindle, or reluctant wolf. This leaves me with the gift.
Wrapped in brown paper, I take it into the kitchen where I tear it apart, make slow work of it—just one eye weeping, a single chip on my shoulder and the usual screeching in my brain.
Exposed. Idiotic is how I feel when the paper falls away, like a crêpe hood.
The gift is a statue. Of Jesus. About the height of a groundhog and no better looking.
Homely. With homemade holes.
Picking up the statue as though it's a trophy, I know I'm a part of Jack—not of this world, but in the world of dying on rocky spurs of land in a blueness that refuses to lift the center out of the word "pain."
I understand that Jack loves me, not as a god or a devil, however nuanced, but as one who must attend to the difficult harvest of a life, to its losses and simple gains. He believes that, if I listen beyond the howling in my own heart, I'll hear him singing about what he carries down the road.
A crucifix made out of phantom limbs? The hum ringing in our bullet-borne language, ringing like static, a late-night ringing and the carpet's hiss and steam, as I vacuum, my body ringing, humming about my prom date, his gravestone and still, this ringing in my eardrums, rifled, symphonic, this ringing of midnight and of brake pads gone useless, and Jack's muzzled singing, this threading in and out of muscle and bone, this ringing, this hum, this ringing and in the midst of it, Jesus.
Whom, when I get home, I hide in the closet. Of course it's a disaster. An unbearable secret always is. Dangerous when we try to leave it, but for a short time, Jesus seems to be alive. Misled, misused, lied to and cheated, but alive.
For a while, he doesn't weep. For a while, I don't tear him down. Because love never helps in the way we need it to and because we all die and are put into the earth forever, I need to eat the wildness in his sweet body, so I can reach the body within the body, like molten glass.
And so, I eat him like corn on the cob. The waxy kernels glut my teeth while I spit the way Jack spits, more or less a spew.
I've been told to love Jesus. Down to the bone, to the marrow. Which I do. What's left, of course, are the thorns. A crippling clutch of thorns. To nest in, like a mental patient.
Not knowing what else to do, I bury Jesus in the backyard. Under the cobra-faced lilies. While my memory fins around and around, like the shiny obsessive lassos of a goldfish banding the narrow perimeters of its too-small bowl.
I never see Jack again, but my dreams, like my dead prom date, these remain powder blue. Formal. Like a tux.
Coming home from school one day, Mom waits for me just inside the front door, holding the bare-assed statue of Jesus, sweet Jesus, like a bone the dog dragged home.
When she beats me in the face with her shoe, screaming about sacrilege, I'm almost glad. Because I still pine for my prom date, no, for Jack, it's okay when Mom presses her knuckles into my throat. Because I'm a mostly failed distraction for the poxed and the broken, isn't always a terrible time to die?
There's a quiet violence bleeding through the sky—a wash of China blue lifts into pink, purpling dusk among the cobra-faced lilies and while yelling at her to stop, I'm afraid of what the world will do next.
I don't think I've done much, I who hold nothing but air, which I give back. All for the belief that I'm a homemade catastrophe.
Like Jesus, like Jack, there are a thousand ways to dissemble. Like this. Under the cobra-faced lilies.