What you have heard is true. He was born in a cone of sunlight, or perhaps it was a streetlamp, his birth beneath the skirt of stars, or perhaps there was no light and the cone of sunlight or lamplight has been invented for the sake of remembering, for the sake of memory. His father was present, either way, that big man with the frayed belt, whether it was daylight or night, brightly lit or dim, and he was carrying a camera, some boxy thing that he held near his waist and studied, chin bent to chest. Or maybe it was his mother we remember, the mother that stood with her camera on the balcony overlooking the runway, the planes buzzing down one after another in a haze of dust on that dry day, leaning into the railing, thinking, maybe this plane, or maybe the next, holding her camera at the ready, a Kodak Instamatic, eye glowing behind the viewfinder. And the light is different when we tell it this way too, perhaps not a bright cone nor a dark night, but something in between, a mist, the sky an undulating gray cloth, a scrim of mercury. Today the truth is not with the mother, today the story is not hers. We’re telling it this way: there is the father and his Hassleblad, there is his father waiting near the terminal in his overcoat, hiding his bulk, tucked into an alcove, waiting for his son to arrive in a cone of light or darkness or rain. Today our truth is this: the father, the camera, the rain, steam rising from the asphalt. Today our truth is light, mostly, and rain, light and rain, here and there, puddles like silver trays dotting the tarmac. The actual story changes. Do you think we do not notice? Do you think we care? We have our last story, our last memory, our last remembrance. There is no other way to say this. We’ve forgotten everything, or do not know what we had, or never had anything to begin with. We can remember our names, certainly, and our children and our jobs and the movies we’ve seen and the loss of our virginity and the fire that took half the city and the bombs and the cold nights that came later and the heat of the fevers that left us shaking, but those stories, those memories, are loose, untied, untethered, unattended, without tendency, ghost-memories barely present, absent the cone of light or the skirt of stars or the mist that drives us to our knees. We have his father. We have his mother. We circle now, waiting for morning, when we begin again.
they said don’t leave us but who could look where he was looking and not leave, that’s what he asked himself as he was pulling away the brick, the first brick, down on his knees in the basement near the cistern, pulling away the brick and sliding down in the hole, or falling into the hole, stretching thin and just zipping down there, blasting into that dark fire, that dark fire, like an electric flare he’s pulled, zipped or zapped, like a hand reaches up and grabs him and pulls him thin, pulls at that one thread until all of him unravels and he’s just a longer sort of thread, and he’s gone, and who would he understand a thing like that anyway? Who would miss him now that May was gone? He’d go over to the Waterson’s where Frank is surely on the porch watching the finches, old Frank who wouldn’t remember his own name if Dave or Doris or one of the others didn’t say, Now Frank, or Here you go Frank, or How about a grilled cheese? Once, when Billy himself was a child, way back at the beginning of the thread, he’d gone to the Waterson’s to see Dave and there was Frank passed out on his stomach in the middle of the living room floor, ass hanging out for all the world to see, and Dave said, Ignore him, he’s so gross, and he’d never been able to see Frank the same again, even after Frank was on the wagon and sang in the church choir in a red robe. His voice carried through the whole church, a deep and lovely bass, and even though he never could shake the image of Frank lying dead drunk and buck-naked, he was sorry that he was so far gone that he couldn’t join the choir when they sang for May, Amazing Grace, it was nice, sure, but Frank Waterson’s big bass voice clear and sober as a judge ringing out, you couldn’t just replace that, and May would have enjoyed it so, and then he was home, eating tray after tray of casseroles and lasagna and deli-platters and hiding in his room drinking cans of Coors and then hiking down to the overpass and wishing for something awful to happen and then he was down in the basement looking at the old cistern and he saw the bricks move, just one at first, just the one, and the light coming from behind the bricks and it only made sense that something else was happening on the other side of the bricks and the field stones and the soil and the sediment and the layers of shale and granite and iron and all that pressure so far down, it only made sense that he’d see the opening when he was down on his knees, that’s how you found your way he remembered as he reached out, tugged on the brick, that’s the only righteous path, to be on your knees, looking in the right direction, and then he pulled the brick free and he was a long string zipping down into the core, either filling up the world or being filled with the world, he couldn’t tell which, and he was light, a particle, a wave, radio, x-ray, gamma, ultra-violet, transverse, longitudnal, electromagnetic, mechanical, a string, a thread, oh May, oh, he was gone
I’m standing on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Snay’s house. I’ve just finished cutting her grass. My shirt is soaked in sweat. I’m waiting for my mother to come pick me up. Her car should be coming down Fisher Street any minute. This is years before my dad dies so she still has that shitty green Ford wagon that burns oil and smokes for ten minutes every time she starts it. Later, with the insurance money, she buys a Pacer that she keeps until she dies and leaves it to my sister who drives it for two more years before it burns up on the highway while she’s driving to Lawrence to buy cocaine and when the police get there they arrest her for driving under the influence, her third strike, and she spends four years in state prison where she reads Audre Lourde and comes out clean and clear and with the help of a social worker goes right into college, gets a degree in Women’s Studies and then a job teaching underprivileged kids in a poor school district in Houston where she meets her partner Lucy. They’re finally able to marry in 2015 and I go down to Houston for the wedding and find out that my old friend Paul lives just a little way out, in Galveston, and he wants me to come over and sit on his deck that looks out over the Gulf and when I’m sitting there I’m reminded for some reason of the time my mother dropped me off at soccer practice and wanted to kiss me goodbye and I said, Mom, please, not in front of my friends. I got out of the Pacer and she sat there in the parking lot for a few minutes and then drove away. I start crying right there with the water lapping below the deck and Paul says, It’s the Gulf, man, she’s so pretty at this time of day, it’s not the first time she’s made somebody cry. Then my mother is driving down Fisher and the exhaust haze fills up the street behind her and all the rest is way far in the future and none of us suspects what’s coming.
For one thing, the chandelier is too low. Imagine trying to walk your way around those baubles twenty or thirty times a day, cocking your head to one side or the other, all that energy wasted for what? Who would live like that? Everything in the house is in disarray but nothing more so than the chandelier with it’s crystal tears and rings and wires. There are dishes in the sink and cloths scattered over the floor and drawers open and contents spilled out across the floor, batteries, scissors, that postcard from the vacation to Puerto Rico where you fell on the sidewalk and ran crying to the thin woman under the awning who helped you find your parents. You were how old then? Five? You cried when you stood on the balcony and watched the ocean stretching back home, your fingers holding fast to the railing as your parents packed the suitcases. You vowed never to leave no matter the consequences, but you did. You left that day, the plane humming on the tarmac hot on the soles of your sandals. You never returned and so broke your vow, the first of many. Maybe that’s why it upsets you so now, the postcard torn from the drawer and lying on the old green carpet under the crooked chandelier, it’s light bent over the room like some old hunched crone calling your name. You said you’d come back, the crone says. We waited for you, all of us. We had dinner prepared. We had the grill ready. The children are singing still.