A Light in the Cupboard

There were no rules against applying your own mother’s makeup for your own mother’s funeral. It wasn’t like representing your father in a trial or operating on your son or anything like that. And besides, who else was there to ask in a town of 4,082 where there was only one mortuary makeup artist? And besides, who’d know how to make her up better than her own daughter? And besides, there were no rules against it.

In some tiny cupboard in the darkness of her brain, Lula allowed herself to believe that if she got the look just right, she could be back there with her mother. With her. Not stuck in layaway in a city five hundred miles away. Not eating a cheeseburger at a crappy airport restaurant as she breathed her last.

Laying in her casket’s faux-velvet (all they’d been able to afford), she could be sleeping. Flu-ridden maybe, pale from her immune system’s effort, “resting her eyes” like childhood days when Mom was worn out from her second shift and it was always just something: “just set for a while,” “just five more minutes,” “just resting my eyes.” It always ended on that one, even now.

Hair: Coiffured, hairspray applied and false-fruity smelling, the stuff always announcing Mom’s presence before she entered a room, gag-worthy usually, but not now. The smell somehow different, like it was extracted from real fruit this time. Gentle teasing to hint at fulness, hide the bare spots where Mom ripped out clumps and ate them, moved on from eating rocks when Lula stopped her and ate the hairs dry, split ends sometimes dangling over her bottom lip, fresh white follicles catching light and saying, “Look over here, Lula, here’s one you missed.”

Lips: Bad Motherpucker to give them the look of life, Mom not able to put her hand out and say Lula in that way she did at “motherpucker.” Her lips like a popped tire, rubber gashed. The lipstick she’d apply spread from the center out, like a flower, like when Mom would try each shade one at a time, test kisses on Lula’s arm and then wipe them off, but the stain would stay for a day or two and Lula would spit and scrub but secretly hope it wouldn’t fade.

Cheeks: Blush fingerpainted on, concealer to cover the scars from her many falls, always falling and bruising her eyes, chipping her teeth, bloodying her nose. Always so clumsy when Dad was around, and blushing just like this, ashamed to be around him, then again when the Alzheimer’s swam through her, the color in her cheeks a permanent rose. The same brand Mom used to instruct Lula in the cosmetic ways. “Make me up, Mom,” she’d say. Make me up.

Eyes: More concealer for the puffiness. Always crying after the diagnosis. Crying after being fed, crying after being changed. Eyes’ whites fading to red, blues graying, like smoke over the fire inside her, flames bursting not through windows but tear ducts and vocal cords. Lula putting on Dad’s going away 45s, the ones Mom would play each “last time” he’d leave, mouth dancing around chori, gray eyes going blue again, tiny oceans to put out the flames inside.

Lula could dance to those old 45s, dance and sing like she would with Mom, cheek to cheek, hands in tango position. Lula led herself around the room in delicate swoops, around and around we go, tango hands grasping air but out still, and warm, warm like they’d be when she hardly reached Mom’s hip, warm again with those gray-blues across from her, the flame of recognition replacing the one of identity loss. So Lula spun and she spun and somewhere, somewhere deep inside, a light went on in an otherwise dark and tiny cupboard.

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The Barclay

While telling stories with my little brother, I began to tell one in a British accent about a mysterious character known only as The Barclay. That story was largely unintelligible. That story was completely improvised. That story is here now for your aural amusement:

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Fine; Fine; Fine

He began by eating what exposed roots he could find. These were Lovecraftian tendrils that peeked out of the dirt and were meaty. Here the worms were tenants. He chewed them into hearted segments and rubbed their innard mud into his gums. Where the tendrils’ diameters waned he grabbed, he pulled, he consumed. The easy peel bark came next and off in sandwich strips laced with late-season sap. Here the ants were tenants. He put them neatly into his mouth and let them think they could lift his teeth. Thorax, abdomen, head he mashed into paste. Some went on the sandwich strips. Some he ate plain. He dug canines into cambium and stripped past woodpecker holes and sun-dried cicada skins. The skins were hollow impressions and had nothing in them. Here he would mount the trunk and climb, claim angel tip and rip out bitter pits of decayed branchlets, gnaw at buds and baby leaves. Big branches with rings inside he split and spit on and made jagged pieces go to pulp that smelled of wasting. The pulp went down with sapwood juice and he sprang a termite from its home. Wiggle wiggle till the bite in the middle and the other buggers came out of their hole. He caught a pecker by the wing and broke its neck between his teeth. This he ate with heartwood. The tree was log width and sign height by then. The pith stank and was sallow. This he ran his tongue over, collecting slivers on pierced taste buds that blinked out one by one. The slivers became toothpicks for larvae: arboreal hors d’oeuvres that slid past teeth and down throat for tummy to collect. He rent the tree to a stump by nightfall and made an O with his mouth and held it there and bit and chewed till his lips met dirt again and the ground was supple; soft; bare. This was good. This was right. One day he would eat it all up in his tummy, every little thing he saw in the whole wide world, and when he did this he would smile; smile; smile. But tonight it was just this tree, and that was okay. That was fine; fine; fine.

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Too Easy

Toenail

When you get back inside with the toenail in your hand the blood will leave a picture of Jesus in the carpet. You’ll tell your mother the nail came off after a botched kickflip. You don’t skate. She’ll bring a bag of peas and take pictures of the stain for Ripley’s Believe It or Not. You will think yourself a holy child. The peas will stick to your nail bed. Blood will pool at the bottom of the bag and melt frost off a couple peas.

Bird

Sharo will find the bird first, in the street. He’ll ask if you want to lose a fingernail this time and you’ll assure him you do not. Tiny spectators will gather. They’ll pantomime the bird’s movements for those without a good view: Lloyd will bug out his eyes, connect his left ear and shoulder, open and close his mouth robotically. Obe will twitch his left arm, flap his right. There will be a bucket of water. The kind you’d spin to illustrate centrifugal force. Sharo will say: Your head or the bird’s. Pick, faggot. You will pick the bird’s. Lloyd will pantomime your cries.

Nail Nail

You will lose a fingernail, but not by Sharo’s hand. It’ll be wedged in the back door on the way inside to wash a carrot from the garden. Your father’s hand on your shoulder will be warm and the ice water will be not warm. The pain will erase the word “cold” from your brain. The nail you lose will be the nail of your middle finger, so you will get away with flicking people off for several weeks. Inside you’ll nail the nail to a secret corner of bedroom wall and call it your nail nail. You’ll consider starting a collection.

Congestive/Digestive

The hospital room’s Pokémon rerun will be too loud, so you’ll hear “digestive heart failure” and imagine your father’s heart slowly descending to his stomach by way of peristalsis. You will have just learned the word in science class and will remember it by turning it into a name: Perry Stalsis. You’ll ask your dad if he wants to play Who’s that Pokémon, but he’ll already be asleep. It’ll be Pikachu. Too easy.

Flooded Meadow

The storm will knock out the power for three days. During this time you will subsist on Mickey D’s and sugarfoods. Meadow Lane will be under several feet of water. You’ll have just seen Waterworld and will pull back your hairline; scowl at things. You will strip down to your undies in broad daylight and swim down your street. You’ll imagine barnacles on car tires, tiny submerged cities. Only once will you open your eyes underwater. You will immediately regret this decision. Your eyes will burn till the power comes back on two days later.

Boxing Match

All the block’s tiny humans will congregate for the main event. The combatants will be four and five. The gloves will go up to their elbows. You’ll say: I don’t think this is a good idea. Sharo will say: nothing, because he’s just spit in your face. It will have somehow gotten in your nose. When no one laughs, Sharo will say: Just kidding. So there will be spit in your nose and blood in Lloyd’s. Lloyd’s dad will come out with no shirt on. He will say: Give me the pucking gloves. The kids will say: Ha ha ha. His exposed stomach will say: I’m hairy.

Spider-Man’s Eyeballs

Spider-Man’s eyeballs will be made of bubblegum. His severed head will be on a stick and will be made of ice cream. Everyone will have a father except for Cal. Cal will have no father and no money for ice cream. No one will know where Cal’s father is, not even Cal. The ice cream man will hit a pothole. He will get out and swear and hit his head hard on the truck’s undercarriage when he’s done checking the tire. Cal will say: Are you okay? Ice Cream Man will say: Fuck off. Everyone except Cal will get ice cream. Sharo will say: Niggers don’t get ice cream. You will split Spider-Man’s head and give Cal the sticked half. You will surgically remove one eyeball and give it to Cal.

How It Ends

Years will go by. Your father will die and be buried. Sharo will die and be buried. You will attend both funerals. Your father’s face will be ashen, and you will see that he’s become a gray alien. This will be fitting because your father would always talk about gray aliens and Area 51, codename Dreamland. You will tell your father’s ashen body that it is going to Dreamland. You will remember that fake alien autopsy video, imagine what your father’s innards look like, and get sick in his casket. He’d always remind you it’s “get sick,” not “throw up.” Sharo’s mother will clutch you to her like a child would a teddy. She will insist you and Sharo were best friends and you’ll agree. There will be kabobs after. The kabobs will be good and the flight home will be long. When you get home you will kiss your wife passionately and watch a Pokémon rerun with your son. You will both guess Pikachu when the time comes. You will both be correct. Too easy.

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should too.

Change of side

The one thing support group never tells you about recovery is that you’ll come to a point where your shiny new normal life will bore you to tears. That you’ll crave the old pain and drama, the self-loathing, and are to fight these cravings. That the most unsexy part of healing (maintenance) is also the most vital.

Early on, the milestones will carry you.

Your life force will return with each pound you shed: a perfect inverse proportion. That untrustworthy brown line on the back of your neck will disappear. Your jeans will turn into parachute pants. You will regularly inform people that it’s hammer time. When people say you’re looking good, you’ll want to ask them if they really think so. You are to fight this craving. You’ll consider starting a blog about simple habit changes that’ll turn your life around. Later that week you’ll go over your daily calories. Weekly too. You will be a complete and total fraud and will have to start all over.

You’ll imagine what your coke-addled mom might say once you stop at the Center with parachute pants in hand, if she’ll apologize for calling you a fat fuck or what. Your support group will remind you that this is your journey, your achievement, and not hers. You’ll thank them but mutter under your breath anyway.

You will update social media with how much you’ve lost since last weigh-in, unless you’ve gained, and then you’ll post nothing. It’ll hit you that you’ve lost a whole person. That an entire human being has been removed from your body. You will try to tuck the extra skin into your jeans on bad days and pretend to be Stretch Armstrong on good ones. You’ll post a before and after picture. A friend will comment and say that yes, your taste in tee shirts really has changed. You will consider inflicting bodily harm on this person but will settle instead for making a veiled allusion to their just having been dumped. Your comment will receive some likes, the friend in question will shut up, and you’ll feel victorious for an hour or two. That night you’ll go five hundred calories over and make up for it next morning with an early run where you’ll puke up apple.

You will cry when you reach your goal weight. This is normal.

You’ll tolerate the forced congratulations in support group and try not to feel bitter, hurt. There will be nothing more to post. No updates to make. The compliments will trail off like a conversation that’s reached its logical end. You’ll still listen to the old motivational playlist sometimes but it’ll feel cloying, corny. You will refuse to play anything by MC Hammer. You’ll pack the parachute pants into the bottom of your closet.

A friend will recommend you read Infinite Jest. He’ll say it “holds the cure for what ails us as a society.” You’ll ignore the pretentiousness and give it a go. The book will meditate, among other things, on our culture’s tendency to glorify active protagonists, to see stasis as death. The author will counter that glorification by asserting that sometimes a good protagonist is one who is defined not by the good things he does, but by the bad things he doesn’t do.

You will cry when you finish the book. This is normal.

You will pore over every fan site, join forums, read over the fiction you wrote years back, before you gave it all up. You’ll start writing again, and will hide a little part of yourself in every story you create, like an elaborate literary scavenger hunt. You will read your old stories and laugh at how hard they’re trying, cringe at how pompous they are.

You will publish one story, then another, then another. You’ll fall into the old social media gratification habit and convince yourself that it’s okay to do this as long as you recognize it’s happening. You will sit down and write something about your weight loss. You’ll stop trying to be witty and just tell a fucking story already. You won’t know what the end should be.

At first this will make you feel like a shitty writer. This is normal.

You will tell yourself that maybe this is the point. That maybe the end is that there is no end. You will always be recovering, always cresting over the endless wave of addiction. You will say: this is okay. You will say: I’m allowed to be human. You will say: our lives always end mid-sentence, so maybe our stories

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