"A Beautiful, Fragile Thing" by Jason Derr

Categories: ISSUE 03: Edgar

A Beautiful, Fragile Thing
We had arrived late for the train, coming up the ramp just as it was pulling away, its horn sounding like the mating cry of a beached whale. I remember my mother, flying up the ramp, both arms spread out above her, her fingers spread as if to grip the train’s sides, mighty talons. “Hey stop! Hey asshole! Hey you!” she had shouted, her voice slipping from glee to pained frustration.

Funny, now years later, that is the memory that comes to mind. Gone are the late nights while I was sick, the hours spent with a bottle of wine after my first wife left me. Gone are the afternoons in the garden. They come, those memories, if invited, but the first thought is always of my mother and the train, the crazy woman trying to hold back the behemoth.

“I remember other things, Dana.” My brother said and then fell silent, spinning a penny in a slant of light from the window. “Nothing about trains. But I remember her being sick, mostly. I remember when things got bad and she lost track of herself, standing in the door, screaming at my friends, thinking I was her husband, my father, come home late from a night’s drinking.”

“Funny what time and distance do to us, hey?” It was true, Joe and I had a distance between us and our mother. A distance of emotions and years. Ten years sat between me and Joe. Ten years can mark different boundaries for memory. Sitting here in the old house brings those differences up in a variety of ways.

“When she was dying you were 20, you and she had just learned to be friends.” Joe put his penny down and turned to me. “I was 10, just learning how to be an enemy with her.” And with that we dropped the conversation, put it to one side and took up other matters. And really there was not much else to say at that moment, nothing complete and whole that would have done anything any justice.

In the living room my father was going about his business: reclaiming old books, becoming suddenly nostalgic of photos that had meant nothing to him after the divorce and now meant the world to him. Joe’s father sat in one corner, resting his one good leg while his left hand toyed at the stump of the leg they had taken from him. Funny, these two men who for years had played a game of passive-aggressive maneuvering, sharing secrets in a common grief.

“Took us too long to do this. Too long.” My father said this with all the weight of a man too long sober. He hadn’t once looked at a bottle over the weekend but had managed three meetings in two days.

“I don’t know, Steven, I just don’t think we were ready. Hell, she left the house to me and it took me 6 months to come in the front door. 6 months to invite you all here.” It was true, the house had sat empty for 6 months while Joe ignored his inheritance, coming by only to mow the lawn but unable to bring himself through the front door. The same had been true for me, the supposedly brave big sister, but even though I had grown up in a different house, two blocks away, I could not come into this house until now, afraid that her ghost would be too much for me. This had been a disappointment to my children who had wanted to be among Grandma’s things much more than I had.

“Ready ain’t the word for it. Not for me, least.” Joe’s father had been doing less well with his sobriety these last few days, though he was mercifully sober today. A scream from the backyard and heads turned. My father’s wife, Destiny, a former stripper turned corporate lawyer, was in the backyard with my kids, the grief of the adults being too damn boring for them. “Yeah, that about covers it I think, covers what I’m feeling. Little ones got it right on the nose, I reckon.” And with that, heads nodded around the room, silently bobbing up in down like flotsam on the ocean.

My father said, in all innocence, “She was the best lay I ever had.”

Joe’s father, David, my own step-father, registered a mix of emotions, rippling across his face. Pain to disappointment to shock until, suddenly, impossibly, joy and humor erupted.

“Woman had an ’magination, that’s true.” And the two men who once yelled profanities outside my high school graduation exchanged sly glances and knowing nods. This is not the world as I knew it. I was about to say something, something funny perhaps, to mask how uncomfortable I was at the conversation, when a sigh and a shuffle let me know that my oldest, Samantha, has come in the room.

“Mom? The baby’s hungry.”

“Baby’s hungry or you are hungry?”

“I dunno.”

“Can Gangan O’Neil make you dinner?” I refuse to call my father’s wife Grandma Destiny. But Gangan O’Neil had hit her limit, instead choosing to lay quietly on a futon in the study off the kitchen. I waved her back when she starts to get up. She’s done enough today.

Samantha, 12 years old and behaving like she has the world on her shoulders, centered the baby at the table before assisting me with pots and pans, opening the can of soup and doing everything but serving. Now that I was here I could feel my own hunger and spoon up a third bowl. With the door closed the talk from the living room was largely cut off and a thick, monastic silence occupied the kitchen.

Joe had managed to pack most of the kitchen before we had arrived, a tidy line of brown squares lining the wall under a photo of Mom and her friend Laurie jumping into the river. That had been, what, a week after she had been diagnosed? And there she is, wide-smiled, her eyes bright, captured eternally midair, her legs tucked under her as if in prayer, tilting through the air and towards the water below.

“It’s sad, Mom.”

“Sad, that Grandma has passed?” It had been a year since the funeral, and Sam and I had spent many tears trying to understand death. She had finally decided that Grandma was a flower: blooming brightly, fading back to the earth to make way for the next beautiful, fragile thing. It was surprising to be revisiting this with Samantha.

“No. I mean, well, yes, but not that. Sad that the house smells like Grandma and now I know the truth: the house does not smell like Grandma, Grandma smelled like the house.” My first instinct was to fight with her, to protest this summary of our shared ancestral bond. Instead I breathed deep and began to grieve, she is right, so right. That smell of dust and mold and a lingering, underlying layer of perfume and sweat did not emerge from my mother into her house, as if staining it with her presence, but instead emerged from her home, marking her, a rough, primitive domestication.

“Yes, something like that, I guess. This place is filled with ghosts.” Sam’s eyes went wide, large pale-blue disks among the freckles and button nose. “No, not a ghost like that. Not a ghost that follows us around. But a ghost of memory, a ghost that is an ocean we swim in. It pervades every corner. I think, maybe, we are the ones that haunt this house.”

“I see,” and she did, 12 years old and too damn wise for her own good. “Then why is Uncle Joe finally moving in? If we are the ones haunting this place?”

“All sorts of reasons, really. It was time. Mom—Granny, that is—died over a year ago. It’s taken Joe some time to be ready to come back in here. He had to live with her the whole time, years, as she faded away. He loved her, but it was not fun to watch.”

“And he’s ready now?”

“No, I don’t think he is. But I think he’s more ready than he was before.” When we finished eating I washed the dishes, dried them and put them into one of the boxes. As an afterthought I brushed a finger across the picture of my mother, as if requesting a blessing from a saint.

I had been at school when the diagnosis had come in. Mom and Joe had shielded me from how bad it had been for over a year, keeping happy smiles when I would call. This was years before my father found sobriety and Destiny, before he learned how to be a father again. He had drunk away my college savings, a scholarship and a part-time job had gotten me through my undergraduate years. If I had come home I would have lost all of that to years of treatments, illness and false hope.

Just as Joe had. He watched her die, took care of her as her body rejected treatment after treatment. He had held the cold cloth to her forehead as she, in her pain and delirium, had cried my name out moments before her last breath. I had been in California applying for a graduate program, grieving the loss of my wife and unaware of the loss of my mother.

Outside the house seemed as it always had. Silent, with a rough energy just below the surface. Our cars filled the driveway and the front curb. Joe’s moving van, filled with his meager possessions from his former bachelor pad, sat square in the driveway, under an off-orange/yellow light. I had come out to deposit the recycling in its container, but the low grey puffs of smoke from the alley between the house and the fence distracted me.

“Joe!” Joe screamed a bit as I called out to him, throwing his cigarette down and grinding it out under his heel.

“Damn! You scared me.”

“You smoke.”

“From time to time. When I go to the bar with friends. When I’m stressed. Don’t tell my dad, okay?”

“Yeah, fine. Don’t let Sam see you. She saw some video at school and thinks she has to be the cigarette cop.”

“Well, good for her. Mom hated that I smoked. She’d throw a shoe at me if I smelled like smoke.”

“Did you often smell like smoke?”

“As I said, I only smoke when I’m stressed. And I watched my mother die.” We stood in the cold, just out of the reach of the light over the garage and in silence for awhile. After a moment Joe lit up a second cigarette. I resist the urge to join him.

“How is it going in there?”

“Fine. Just fine. The dads are packing things for you, claiming anything that’s nostalgic to them.”

“Good. Good.”

“How’s the ‘Bradbury School’ Joe?” I should have warmed up to my question a bit, I can see it took my brother a bit by surprise. It was a joke of his, a reference to the author Bradbury saying he never went to college, instead he went to the library three days a week for ten years. Joe had been averaging two to three days these last few years.

“Good. Good. I’m reading all about the great pyramids in Egypt. Current theories suggest that Egypt became a super-power, regionally speaking, because they had to develop technology as they built the pyramid. Technology which made them more advanced than surrounding countries.”

“Ah, well, there you go.”

“Inspiring, isn’t it? By building something they created themselves. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.”

“Is there, Joe?”

“Maybe. Can’t really say just yet. I still have two shelves on the great pyramids to go.” The smoke was clouding up around us now, a silent veil in the night, a reverse holy of holies.

By the window looking in we paused. The silent family of odds and sods grieving through acquisition of material goods. The deceased’s careless purchases now become holy relics. My mother was one for novelty, not sentiment. She believed saving for a thought out and sentimental purchase was the worst sin. She preferred to buy in the moment, any item that struck her fancy, from the tacky to the exquisite as budget allowed.

A drawer in a living room cabinet contained a small box of snow globes, another a collection of key chains bare of any keys, I knew of a box in the garage filled with picture frames without photos. When shopping she would hold her novelty items tight, like a cat on the hunt, reluctant to drop its prey. The novel was the most holy thing for her.

We hated her for this approach, Joe and I. Hated the piles of curiosities so often forgotten after their deposit in the house. Hated her for the piles of pre-wrapped and undelivered Christmas gifts that amassed in the basement. Even as we claimed our share of this flimsy treasure, flimsy in its worth and flimsy in the items’ construction, we knew our efforts were limited. So much of it would makes its way to a landfill, discarded relics, suddenly empty of their worth. The archaeologists in the future could never guess at the spiritual implications of a dozen water-stained copies of “Three Novels” by John Grisham.

Morning was coming when Joe’s father said, “Well, I’ve done my duty. Said my goodbyes. I’ll be off,” stood, stumbled and fell. Joe helped him to the couch where he passed out. Joe took his flask from his jacket, debated between washing it and refilling it before leaving it on the counter. The house was full of sleeping bodies, crowded guest rooms, couches turned out into semi-comfortable sleeping arrangements.

In a few hours he would make breakfast, cracking each egg neatly in half, scrambling it in tight, widening circles. The house would wake, feast and say their goodbyes. Boxes would disappear and what we didn’t take Joe would arrange to have taken away. And, then, all at once, my mother’s house would be gone. The house she had died in would be gone, leaving behind, maybe, a bit of her ghost. In its place would be Joe’s house.

As they left he said, “You were 20 and just learning to like her. I was 10, just learning to hate her. When you watch a loved one die at that age, well, love and hate, it all gets mixed up. Muddled and confused.”

“And now?” My daughter was at our car, arranging our possessions to provide for a smooth journey home.

“I am filled with deep love. Deep anger. Deeply muddled!” He reached for a cigarette, paused and put it back. “And I am free not to be. Free to do other things, go on other adventures.”

“And free to be—or come—home?”

“This? This is a place of pilgrimage for all of us.” He reached one hand up, places it on the door jam and looked out to my daughter packing the car. “A fluid place. A place to remember and grieve and build new things. New lives.” A small, shadow of a smile flit across his face. “New futures.”

There is another thing I remember. My mother flying up the stairs at the train station, her arms spread, reaching out to hold back the train. And I remember it pulling away, large and steel and unaware of her. I remember my mother’s rage at this, her eyes red, falling to her knees in tears. And that had just been a missed train. The cancer came years later.

Before we left I toured the house. Emptier now than it had been, its remains ready to be carted away. I paused before the box of picture frames before moving on. In the kitchen I took down the photo of my mother leaping into the lake, at once at prayer and falling uncertainly toward the water below. A beautiful, fragile thing.

--Story by Jason Derr
***
--Background photo by Clay Brandt