reprieve

venango county: hills, valleys, slopes carved with dusty roads trailing fox, deer, black bear.  venango county: slow drawl, long cigarette drag in hot summer sun, miller lite iced in the bed of a pickup truck.  venango county & the weapons it taught me to carry: car keys, insect repellant aerosol can, pocket knife.  venango: beer belly, tender mouth, tanned arms of a working man; jealousy & possession, lady lost & won in a bar fight, suet & birdsong, trumpet vine & campfire smoulder.  venango silent, venango’s dry hands & my body covered light.  venango home, venango longing, venango in my blood i cannot go (i can’t, cannot go).

*

when tennyson first goes to the hospital, months before his death, you sit in his empty recliner next to jackie & you ask, do you miss him?  jack communicates with subtlety, an ever-so-slight head shake for no, minute nod of the eyes & eyebrows for yes.  to this question, he says no.  you know, to some degree, that this is a lie, but you let it go.  you carefully swab his mouth clean, wipe out his eyes, shave his face smooth.  on the shower cart, he warbles & groans; you tell him to save it for the opera, ask if he needs more money for better singing lessons (the current ones aren’t working).  you talk about his day, who he teased & why.  after his shower you ask, do you feel like a million bucks? & he nods yes.  you count higher–two million?  three million? four million?–& he wiggles his eyebrows yes, yes, yes, until he says no.  incredulous, you say, you have to feel like at least five million; get back on that bath cart, we have to do it again until i get it right, & he laughs, a laugh that you cannot quite describe–burble of cool water on a scorching day, sunlight filtering through a fan of leaves–but it is flint against the knife of your heart.  you sit him in front of the mirror & say, look at this handsome man, & he nods yes at you, at himself.  later, he will try to look down your shirt & you will pretend that you are appalled; your co-worker will throw you shrieking into his bed, & the two of you will laugh until you cannot breathe.

but the pain of venango becomes too great — your parents’ separate betrayals, your brother’s refusal to stand beside you, the discomfort of speaking incest aloud, tennyson lost despite the fight.  all your life, you struggle to stand tall & say to a world trying to suck your pockets, heart, & bones dry: i am worth something, & i am alive, & this place–river rising, forests cool as creek water, crickets & peeper frogs, orange flowers with seeds springing high–conjugates you into verbs too quiet, too still; you cannot move, & so you must go.  you love, & you lose, the loss thick as molasses through your lungs, & you leave.

in the weeks before you depart, you tell jackie, i’ll be home in january to visit you, & i’ll bring my boyfriend.  you’re not going to look at his butt, are you?  you are?  my god, & you laugh, the two of you, & you say, i love you, & you are so special to me.  you send cards to fill your absence, & you return like you say you will, & a week after your first visit, he dies.  it isn’t like losing tennyson, when you wondered if you had done enough, given enough, expressed enough, when his death was a slow build & there was time to practice, to prepare yourself for letting go because you knew you would have no choice.  jack’s passing is a brick thrown through the window of your heart.  the words that arrive: shatter, splinter, smash.  you are the smithereens he leaves behind.

*

*

months come, months go.  my new job is unpredictable, & i am unable to set boundaries between my life & my work, so my work becomes my life & i bury my grief: easy.  i wear my best Damaged Girl Passing, & i blend right into the wallpaper, pondskating over the surface of my life while ignoring the whirligig beetles & common newts swimming in the deeper water.  some days, in the twilight between napping & waking, or during the quiet early-morning commute, my longing for these men devastates, an itch in my bones, a deep breath that evades my lungs, & i dunk my head into the cold, murky water.  it’s been told before–grief, the way it chills the blood & how the heart just goes to sleep–& i cannot tell it now.  i wish to pause, to allow the sadness to linger, but i cannot let it.  instead, i carry of them what i am able: arrangement of spider plant, fern, & christmas cactus, stack of CDs from pete, the male nurse who drew tennyson’s blood at each hospital visit leading to his death; a palm-sized green bear jack claimed was his son, victoria junior;  their dinner dance portraits across a span of years.  jackie, my peanut butter pickle, my padeedledoodle, my laughing man roped in sunlight.  tennyson, keeper of rainbow pinwheels, jangling necklaces, fireworks cascading over water–root beer, dr. pepper, chocolate milkshakes & french fries; pirate parrot, elvis presley, & santa claus.

they come to me, & i ask: without you, who will i be?  who can i be?

i am left with this, among the space their absence makes: house plants, CDs, a tiny bear, photographs.

*

*

those are always the questions: without you, who will i be?  who can i be?  specter, afterthought, girl draped in blue.  child of cornfields & jaggerbush, strawberry fields & deer flashing white tails, slow & dusty roads.  creek water trickle, cedar waxwing flutter, footprint of a salamander.  the girl goes quietly in the night to escape venango heavy in her bones, but it follows: shadow, whisper, residual.

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