The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part Three: Music of the Spheres

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                                                                       Conrad Wallace, age 68

What am I doing? I’m going through Amy’s things. And I guess you’re the bag I’m not supposed to open but must be sure not to leave behind or throw away, her machine-gun instructions from the unit, over the phone, what the docs called pressured speech, don’t open it, Dad, and don’t even fucking think about throwing it away, it might look like garbage to you but that’s because you don’t get it, you never got it, I had to ride this goddamned genius train all by myself, feel the music all around and align my body to it like a tuning fork, Dad, do you even know what a fucking tuning fork is, Dad? Of course you don’t, because you don’t get it.

She was never a cusser.

‘It’s a work-in-progress, Dad, a model, I’m helping the structure perfect itself, capture the music, make it audible to everyone. And if you throw it away like everything else you’ve always dismissed and made fun of–‘

‘Honey, I never–‘

‘Shut up Dad! Shut the fuck up, Dad! You don’t get to talk! I’m giving you simple instructions.  You throw away that bag and that will be the end of us.  The end of Amy and Dad at the planetarium. No more music for us.’

So the work in progress, and boxes of books, sheaves of sheet music, clothes, sheets and towels, a giant pair of men’s basketball sneakers, a small pair of briefs that I tweeze from the floor like a dead animal. One man? Two? The guy she brought to our house for dinner once and spent the evening fondling, scratching his back under his shirt, murmuring in his ear as her mother and I sat and watched, our food cold lumps in our mouths?  There were a lot of them, when things got bad. It was how you knew they were getting bad. There was no stopping that either.

And you, bag, heavy, clanking like pirate’s loot and knotted tightly at the top, everything goes into the U-Haul, again, another failed flight for Amy, again, her third school in as many years, the meds make me fat and stupid, Dad, I’m meant for bigger things, I can’t fuck, I can’t sleep, I can’t wake up. I know how to balance this.

I read her a story once about Phaethon, the son of the sun, his father had made him a promise: ask me for anything and it is yours, swore on a sacred river. And he asked to drive his father’s chariot dawn to dusk across the sky. Myths were my music when I was a kid; I thought I might grow up to be a writer once (‘Now there’s a lucrative career path,’ my practical wife told me, not unkindly). The sun balked and begged his son, please don’t make me keep that promise, it is more than you can do, the horses are wild, but he had sworn on a sacred river, that is of course what a promise to a child must be, unbreakable,  and Phaethon was stubborn like kids always are, convinced he could control the uncontrollable and he took off and the horses sensed his tentative hold on the reins and went wild and the chariot tipped down toward the earth and set it alight, the fire spreading so quickly birds burned in the trees, then veered back up and just as fast it froze, charred branches locked up in layers of ice, the chariot’s axle snapping, Phaethon falling into the sea, slipping between the waves, and he was gone.

Oh, her baby-bird wings, no escape velocity, she peaked for a moment in the sky, pausing as if taking a breath of surprise–Jesus, how did I get up here–like one of the model rockets she made dozens upon dozens of once, her fingers peeling with hardened glue, gunpowder on the air, then turning nose down, plummeting to the ground.  Again.

I was old when she came, closing in on 50.  Her mother, too, 45.  An accident after we’d given up, a wish we no longer made. Was it that? That we’d stopped hoping? Was it faulty sperm? A stale old egg like a wrinkled pea? She was odd from the beginning, never cracked a smile. She never knew happy.

I am a parent.  Everything is my fault.

And here is the present moment again, life is a messy pile of them, I’m poised on it, weaving, like a drunken gymnast on a bar, the present only starts to make sense once it isn’t the present anymore. The past falling away behind me, her sweaty hand in mine, the future dim in front of me, will she come back this time? Will she ever have a nice house, the right meds, a couple of kids, a husband who maybe won’t be real warm but helps her stay on track, will always come to save her, kind of like me, who feels for her the kind of love he’s capable of feeling on his best days?   Will they have a piano? Will daily things replace her magic flights?

Will she be okay with that? Will she be okay?

My knees ache as I bend to drag stuff out from under the bed, my neck twangs as I pull posters from the cinder-block walls, her roommate silent in the doorway, owl-eyed, who called the Student Health Center three days ago, got the hospital ball rolling. Again.

I think it burned her brain a little, each time. A smell came off her: carbon, model rockets. When she was a kid there wasn’t a name for it. Then, suddenly, there was.  And it turns out it did. Burn her brain, I mean. An electrical storm. The psychiatrist used those exact words.

She used to love explaining things. I’ve always been good at having things explained to me. I like to think she loved me for that. I’d take her to the zoo, the Natural History museum, the aquarium on the Sundays when her mom went for coffee and an afternoon with her journal, but she loved the planetarium the most. We’d sit in the soft movie-theater seats, a curved acoustic-tiled heaven within a heaven, pinpoints of light, a man’s deep voice-over edged with static, explaining, and she’d name the planets above us, trace their orbits.

The music came later, flowing out her fingers into white keys, stretched strings, padded hammers. I took out a little loan for the piano, the lessons, the expensive schools. She’d sit and watch the tuner work his magic, striking keys, adjusting wires, damping pedals.

I sit back on the floor for a minute, stretch the stiff out of my knees, look around at all the crap, don’t know where to begin. And you sit there, I look over at you again: ‘I’m saving the planet.’  As though you are inviting me with a weird plastic sympathy to look inside: maybe this will vindicate her. Maybe she really is on to something.  Maybe the third time’s a charm, where the crazy finally burns away to leave a bright star of brilliance. Maybe you really do hold magic, the mechanism she began to describe over the phone six weeks ago, screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-3-59-23-pmshe’d never made anything before, this was new, an hysterical thread running through her voice, dead men whispering, Pythagoras, Kepler, the music of the spheres, hidden ratios, that unheard song, the cycles of the planets, the stringed instruments of bodies, one cannot hear nor align with the other, she’d found a way to do that, emptied her checking account buying the materials and the tools, was embarked on the design and construction of the tool that would make it possible, she ticked the list off during another phone call, this one at 3 a.m.: a jeweler’s drill, sheets of brass, a tiny saw, rubber hammer, watch springs, threaded screws that would pass through the eye of a needle.

People need to hear it, Dad. People need to hear it.

Then the Health Center called, then the Dean. Then I got in the truck and drove to the hospital.  Then I stood outside the ancient spacecraft airlock doors of the unit, waited for the burly male nurse who’d greeted me twice before–a former Marine, maybe? his hair was so short, his crossed arms behind the chicken-wire glass as big around as my thighs, I looked like him once–to buzz me in, took that short instant alone to drop my head into my hands, feel my legs begin to go, feel the wail run through me, aligning me with that silent chord of the universe, escaping, my mouth shaping it into her name.

I don’t have room for any of this stuff anymore, her mother’s death only made the house smaller, I guess I’ll rent a locker. That way there’s a chance she’ll come get it, a chance she’ll come back to earth, heft the heavy lock in her palm, scroll in the combination, slide open the door.

But meanwhile in this present that makes no sense yet I drag you acrogears_watch_piless and up and into my lap, work the knot with my fingers, give up, tear you stem to stern. Tiny gears and crookedly sawn tiny lengths of brass, sharp enough to draw blood, and the tools, a miniature disaster, chaos in a bag, clashing, crashing notes. I gather them up in my hands, let them fall, and they jingle and ring with trapped music.

That is what I am doing.

©2016 Melinda Rooney

 

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part Two: Domesticity

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Amy Wallace-Detmer, age 38

What am I doing? What does it look like? I’m putting away the goddamned groceries.  There’s a guy who loads them into my car at the store but once I’m home I’m on my own. It’s easier than trying to get the boys to help me.  I pick my battles.

I remember you. Back when I was young, in that big old first wave of recycling, you all were saying the same thing. And now it’s back, and the bags are back, asking questions: a successful campaign; why wouldn’t it be successful again?

But I’ll ask you a question back:  What did it succeed at?  Do people shop more at stores with bags that sneer at them?  I saw lots of you tumbling empty through parking lots, wadded up in garbage cans.  Just what was it you were trying to accomplish?

All you have to do is wait long enough and everything comes back around again.

You can be reused 125 times.  Well, we have that in common, at any rate. In fact, I may very well have you beat. And will I reuse you? Not likely. I never think to bring bags along until I’m in the car. They pile up under the sink. So you are not the first bag to ask me that question. I’ll stuff you down there and you can all trade saving-the-planet stories, congratulate yourselves in a crinkly little cocktail-party mumble.  I’ll pull one out to carry wet bathing suits, clean the litter box, load up with some stuff to take over to Dad on the days Meals on Wheels doesn’t come, give to Riley and Wyatt for trick or treating.

That snuck up on me. I used to be better about holidays. Now I’m always running along behind them, like the kids. I thought I had parenthood nailed, once: cupcakes one year topped with orange frosting and spiders with gum-drop bodies and licorice-whip legs, a dozen of them, for Riley’s pre-K. I was up until 3. I wanted to do everything for him, which might’ve been a mistake. He’s become so passive. It kept me anchored, the routines, the recipes, the things it was okay or not okay to do or be or read or say.

I am a parent. Everything is my fault.

You’d like Ted, bag.  He is saving the planet, or the people on it with cancer, at any rate.  Does that count?  You and he would get along, trading smug challenges and debating the finer points of planet-saving. He’s always taken care of me, from the time he met me when he was rounding through the psych unit as a med student. I was glad I’d washed my hair. He saved me, I guess you could say–so it would be peevish to criticize. But I sometimes think he loves that he saved me more than he loves me.

I love him. I do.

That said, there’s a whole continuity of care issue–I stole that from him–when it comes to the boys.  He’s never around, in other words, to see things and watch things, which to me means that he’s not in a super-good place to worry out loud that our kids are always trying to comfort me and settle me down and that that is bad for them, that I am always trying to control them, and that that is bad for them, when all I am doing is trying to keep them safe, calm, confident, on the right path. And maybe they could want to comfort me sometimes? Is that such a bad thing? Aren’t we all supposed to kind of look after each other? Isn’t loving someone enough to want to comfort them a good thing?

I mean, Ted, stick to cancer, okay?  Help me out by not suggesting maybe I should’ve gone back to work, which implies there was work to go back to: B.A. in Music, Minor in Astronomy? As my mother once said, ‘Now, there’s a lucrative career path.’ Maybe only remind me of the psych unit a few times a year, the checking account I emptied to make that model of the universe, the run of not-so-wise intimate encounters, the inanimate objects like cell phones and shopping carts coming to life and trying to hurt me, you know, the suicide stuff after.  Holidays, maybe. Mention it on holidays. Halloween. Last year I got that haunted house place across town to close down the room that was supposed to be a mental hospital full of wackos, but it’s funny; I couldn’t really work up a big old head of steam about it. Stigma, it’s called, but that’s just another word for being afraid: their problem, not mine.  Crazy people have bigger fish to fry: med compliance, shrink after shrink, bloodwork, behavioral coping therapies, insurance, revolving fucking door policies.  I was lucky.  The meds finally caught and held, never let go after that, and I never let go of them. I joke to people that I am a professional patient.  I am my own job.

There is really nothing wrong with being afraid of crazy.  I mean, I have enough trouble with what I think; I have to decide how others think now too?  I mean, I try to say the right things, have the right feelings, arrange them neatly, like setting a table for company.

You’ve got enough job for two people, Ted. It all balances out.

Meanwhile, well, yeah, groceries.  And the phone call to that woman at the managed care place; my father’s going nowhere fast. And Riley’s waiting for me to tell him what he wants for a costume. Like I would know. I don’t understand why he doesn’t want to decide on his own anymore. I don’t know why Wyatt wants to be a girl.

I just don’t want them to be crazy. That is all I don’t want.

So, yeah. Not real interested in saving the planet. I’ve got other things on my plate. But you go right on ahead.

That is what I am doing.

©2016 Melinda Rooney

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part One: Trick or Treat

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Part #1: Riley Detmer, age 9

Why do I always have to be doing something?  Mom and Dad all the time ‘what are you doing?’ How does a bag save a planet?

I don’t know.  I think this is going to be my last year.  I was too young and now I’m too old to remember when it was fun. The one story I always hear is how I went through my entire candy bag when I was three and a bumblebee, ran around like I was crazy and stopped in the middle of my grandparents’ all white almost empty living room and turned white like a ghost bee and barfed all over the floor.

I mean, that doesn’t sound very fun.

unknown-5Last year I was 8 and I wanted to be Wolverine from X-men. Wolverine could save the planet better than a bag. The answer was no. The reason was my mom said Wolverine made violent choices and didn’t think of better ways to solve a problem. Is that really what you want to be Riley she said which the answer was yes. Is that a part of yourself you think is okay? she said. What if I don’t have the claws I said. She shook her head. Nice people are the real heroes she said.

This happens a lot. I used to get mad about it but finally I stopped. Getting mad is a violent choice and besides it just makes her talk more. I ended up being a fireman with a plastic helmet and coat that looked totally fake.

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When I was 7 I wanted to be a Apache brave which we were learning in school. This was also no because we shouldn’t take things from the Indians and we also should not be calling them Indians. You’re a lucky little boy because you are privileged she said, and that means you can’t take things that aren’t yours and make fun of Native Americans. I said I am not making fun. If I am privileged I said I wonder why does that mean I can’t pick my costume and be whatever I want. This was before I stopped arguing about everything. Plus it was totally confusing because Wyatt who is 5 and my brother was Ariel from Little Mermaid. But Ariel is a girl I said. Wyatt can make that choice my mom said. We can’t tell him how he should express himself. But I want to express myself and be a Apache brave I said. Wyatt is not a girl I said. Riley, she said. Stop making fun of your brother. This is along with my friend Chloe at school who was a artist with a french hat called a beret because she was not allowed to be Ariel from Little Mermaid because it is not what little girls should want to be. So Wyatt got to be Ariel with a boob thing made of two plastic seashells and a tail thing with sequins.  I don’t know why but I just wanted to hit him really hard. And I was a cowboy because it is okay I guess to make fun of them.

imagesWhen I was 6 we didn’t do Halloween because refined sugar. When I was 5 I wanted to be a hobo with a stick but that was no for some reason too so my mom made my costume without even asking me which was a bunch of grapes made of balloons. I was mad and got a timeout. Before that I don’t remember except the story about barfing which is not really a thing I remember but just a thing they told me that happened.

So I think this will be my last year. I don’t know what I will be. I guess I will wait for Mom to tell me. But I will take this bag because those plastic pumpkins with handles are stupid and for babies and I swear to God I will argue about that if I have to.

That is what I am doing.

©2016 Melinda Rooney

 

From the Clickbait Archives: Tiffi’s Gift

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Parrot by Barbara Franc; http://barbarafranc.co.uk

Tiffani Scott had a huge surprise for her military husband when he returned home after a year-long deployment to Afghanistan.  Unable to speak any longer in anything but canned, rote phrases, Tiffani asked her mother-in-law, Becky, to tell us her story:

“My Jeff was always a bird guy.  He used to joke he was raised by my pair of lovebirds, that in a lonely, only-child, working-mom single-parent home they were his only friends, his best companions, his model of a healthy relationship. After he was called up, Tiffani told me she wanted to give him this special gift. She wanted to welcome him home in a big way.”

Imagine his amazement when he was greeted at the door by a Greater Jardines Parrot, brilliant as a Christmas tree ornament!

“At first I didn’t realize.  It was only when she cocked her head to one side and bobbed it up and down without breaking eye contact that I figured it out. ‘That’s my girl,’ I said to myself. ‘That’s my Tiff.'”

What Tiffani couldn’t have known was that from the beginning, birds had figured prominently in Jeff’s experience in the war-torn country on the other side of the world.  Jeff’s primary assignment was heading up a patrol unit in Kabul’s bustling marketplace where he’d occasionally snatch a few moments of simple joy in the Bird Market, lowering his M-4 to insert a finger through the bent bars of stacked cages, many of them strung with colored beads, to invite the birds to tap his fingernail with their bills.  He’d grappled with guilt for months over the fact that he was more devastated when a row of caged parrots–African Grays, Amazons, and, yes, a Jardine– was vaporized by a rogue mortar than by the destruction of his unit’s MRAP by an IED three weeks later, a tragedy that look the life of one friend and the leg and lower jaw of another.

It also did not escape his notice that at every opportunity wild birds, piping to one another in Pashto, set themselves with fierce determination to the task of destroying U.S. military vehicles: peeling away windshield wipers like ropes of licorice, pulling at plastic trim, pecking at loose headlights, gnawing through ignition wires.  And once one flew as if with full intent into the windshield of a moving jeep, flustering the driver so badly that the vehicle flipped into a ditch, flinging its passengers into the dust, the bird, neck broken, instantly dead, landing on its back a few yards away.

‘All along,’ Jeff said, ‘the whole time I was there, and I’m a patriot, I’m proud to fight for my country, but I’m not sorry to say I kept thinkin’ those birds, well, they didn’t want us there. Innocent victims, you know, sabotage, little suicide bombers.  I can’t help it,’ he finished, swallowing hard.  ‘It changed me.’

Somehow, Tiffani knew…that special, psychic bond between people in love that keeps hope alive during difficult times, the triumph of the human spirit, the will and the wish to go on, to take a wild stab at a different kind of happiness.

Once she’d put her mind to it, Tiffani, who also changed her name to Tiffi (‘it just sounds more birdlike, don’t you think?’ Becky asks), didn’t find the process as difficult as she’d imagined.  ‘You have to really want it, you know?’ Becky explained.  ‘This is America.  Jeff has committed his life to defending our freedom to believe it and achieve it.  Men like him?  He’s why we can be whatever we decide we want to be.’

Tiffi was able to hide her rapid shrinkage, sprouting pin feathers, cracked black bill and gray, thickened tongue by claiming her Skype link had crashed so that she and Jeff could only communicate by phone; then, once the words were gone, she passed the task on to Becky.  ‘Won’t pretend wasn’t hard,’ she squawked, a phrase Becky taught her by offering her a Froot Loop for each word she mastered.  But it was the itching, Becky says, running her hands lovingly over Tiffi’s now-glossy back, that was the worst part, and learning to open jars using only her feet.  Formerly an accomplished cook, Tiffi has been forced to resort to take-out. She’s learned to accept Becky’s help when it’s time to switch out the newspaper in the bottom of her cage. ‘She never liked depending on others,’ Becky said, picking a nit from behind Tiffi’s head and crushing it between her fingers,’but you do what you have to do.’

But that was not the only surprise Tiffi had for Jeff when he returned, released after the requisite PTSD observation at the nearby VA.  Lighting on his shoulder, reaching over and taking his camouflage collar in her beak and tugging, she led him across the room to the tall cage in the corner, in which she had prepared a nest with leftover strands from Becky’s yarn stash.  She ruffled her feathers proudly. Jeff’s eyes filled.  ‘But baby,’ he said.  ‘You kept sayin’ you wanted to wait.’ In response, Tiffi rotated her head until it was completely upside down and offered him a fetching wink: I’m ready now.

But the happiest moment came when she spoke the handful of phrases she and Becky had practiced for weeks: ‘Love you,’ ‘Missed you,’  and, of course, ‘welcome home!’

‘I love you, baby,’ Jeff said to Tiffi, perched on his shoulder, claws digging into his shoulder through the thick fabric of his fatigues. Tears poured freely down his face. She bobbed her head, blinked, rested her vivid head against his wet cheek. He lifted his hand, ruffled her crest with a finger, cracked a smile. ‘Now, don’t you go poopin’ down my back!’

Needless to say, Jeff was incredibly impressed by how his wife had handled things during his absence.

©2016  Melinda Rooney