Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Bottomlands

 

The house itself was unclear in Gabby’s memory, small with white paint and green shutters, or maybe green paint with white trim. She believed that the stairs leading to the second floor had a landing halfway up, and then a turn, and then more stairs, so that you couldn’t see to the bottom from the top, or to the top from the bottom. But all of this was speculation, as though the house had become, over years, an impression or an emotion rather than something she might grip firmly in her hands. It was Jasper, Michigan where she was living then with her family, until the summer she turned nine, and the part she remembered best was how close the house was to the river. She could hear the loud insistence of the current from her bedroom. Could smell the loam of the water. Could stand at her window and look through the narrow band of trees to moving liquid that seemed so near she could imagine tossing a stone to reach it.

 

On maps the river was called the Triune. She couldn’t recall referring to it by that name when they were there, though if there was some other name they used it had long since been lost to her. What was beyond doubt, though, was the sound of the river from the house, the commotion of its passage always present, both in their world and in their heads, forever in a hurry. She remembered, too, swales of insects in summer, the mosquitoes anointing her in blood each time she and her brother—Larry—ventured out the back door and walked through the trees along the river’s bank. The water was likely gray or green or mud-colored, and then black at night or reflecting the paleness of the moon. And always it whispered, chattered.

 

Except, of course, in winter. Then the water grew silent, the river freezing and the ice becoming a sheen, and maybe, on top of that, there was a separate skin of snow. It was surely the secretive time of year, the time when everything felt in abeyance, and it was also the time of year when, on a Sunday afternoon deep in the Michigan winter when Gabby was eight, her brother died.

 

What she remembered about that February afternoon was that she was in her parents’ bedroom. At least she believed so. She saw herself stepping inside her mother’s closet. There were dresses there—on the left side?—and they made a swooshing sound each time Gabby ran her fingers through them. They were not frilly dresses. They were not for weddings or fancy dances. They were plain dresses, clipped to hangers, dangling. And one—unless Gabby’s mind was playing tricks, which was possible—had tiny red flowers clinging to the fabric, holding on, so many of them that it seemed like a constellation of flower stars. And whenever Gabby recalled that day, she told herself that it was while she was touching that dress that the sound of the shotgun tore through the fabric of the air. It was a great thump of sound, a shuddering. It seemed that the entire house shook, the bedroom windows seeming about to shatter. Or maybe it was only like that in her memory. And a few moments later, or maybe minutes, she was watching from the upstairs window while her mother and father ran out the back door of the house toward the river. They were running in snow falling like furious moths. And Gabby saw that her parents were running toward Larry, who was fifteen that winter, and was as tall and thin as a corn stalk, with a goofy laugh and a love of toy airplanes made of balsa wood that he launched sometimes from that very same window. Gabby liked to watch how the flimsy contraptions floated out on some unseen current, then arced downward in the general direction of the river. But now her brother was lying by the bank. There was blood on the snow. And their father’s shotgun was sprawled beside him. And the memory of seeing Larry there—the stilled river beside him—would become for Gabby over the years like a painting hanging on the permanent wall of her thoughts. It was a re-creation, after all, a dream memory of the real. There her brother lay. There her parents knelt. And the river, holding its breath, said nothing.

 

 *  *  *

 

For there was one thing Gabby had come to accept in her life: the past was malleable, changeable, memories forever evolving or devolving . . . for whatever convoluted reasons. Questions remained, of course, about her childhood and her brother that Gabby had never been able to answer to her own satisfaction, even after she was a grown woman with children of her own, even after those children had reached Larry’s age and beyond. One of the questions, she supposed, was about grief. If she pictured herself in the weeks then months following the funeral, there were different versions of that childhood Gabby she could summon. Surely she was devastated. Surely she loved her brother with an intensity that only increased once he was gone. She saw herself sitting at school and gazing numbly out the window at the brick wall so close to the homeroom that she felt, almost, that she might reach out to touch the hardness of the surface. She remembered, too, sniffling on the bus to and from school, being worried that her classmates would surely see her crying. She felt their eyes upon her. And as she walked into the house after climbing off the bus, she refused to sit at the kitchen table where Larry once sat. It was like he was still there, even in death. It made her hopelessly sad to see that unoccupied chair. Poor Larry. There was a hole in the house now, an emptiness. Being in the kitchen or the living room or her bedroom was like crawling into a hollow log in the woods, feeling it decaying around her. And even worse, Larry’s things were still everywhere. Winter boots at the bottom of the basement stairs. A catcher’s mitt high in the closet of his bedroom. A toothbrush angling in a jar in the bathroom . . . until one day it simply disappeared.

 

Yet there was another Gabby, too, one she remembered equally well. The theatrical Gabby. Grief as performance. She remembered having to labor sometimes not to smile or laugh too much in class or if she was playing with the other neighborhood kids. She felt obliged to appear somber whenever parents and teachers asked how she was doing, how her family was doing, how they were holding up. Once, she knew, her homeroom teacher, Mrs. Decker, had approached her in the hallway before lunch and had asked if the story she had been reading aloud that day had upset her. For a moment Gabby felt perplexed, but then she realized that one of the characters had died from being shot, and Gabby, who hadn’t made the connection at the time, forced herself to breathe deeply outside the lunchroom where she’d been corralled, and tried to force her features into an appropriately downturned and slackened state. Sorrow was a position, apparently, she was forced to occupy whether she was feeling it or not.

 

Sometimes, though, it was even worse than that. It was not many days after the funeral when her mother slipped one night into her bedroom and lay beside her. It had to be late, for Gabby swam upward from a deep sleep, arriving at the surface to find herself seemingly on a rocking boat. Only slowly did she realize that her mother was there, that her mother had gripped her in her arms, that both of them were shaking with the convulsions of her mother’s weeping. And what did Gabby think in that moment? What emotion snared her in its grip? She was pleased. She was glad to be an only child now, the center of attention. Certainly this never would have happened if Larry had lived. Her mother would never have slipped into her room and have slept beside her for most of the night on the raft of the bed, clutching her with clear and obvious need, as though Gabby were the most important person in the world.

 

“I love you, Gab,” her mother whispered wetly at one point against her cheek, and Gabby imagined that the shaking of her mother’s body was a kind of benediction.

 

 

 

Then of course there was Larry himself. Even in death he confused her. There was the brother who had called her “Goob” or “Goober” or sometimes “Guppie,” but always with affection, always with a playful half smile. This Larry let her ride on his back around the house or in the yard, would pretend he was a horse, would let her actually kick him to make him go faster, would whinny and would play-buck and bend down and pretend to eat grass . . . or would even take a carrot from her palm. And always there were games of Go Fish and War and Candyland or Hide and Seek or a game he invented called Lions and Zebras. In this one he would chase her around the house, often with a jar of mustard in his hand, which he would claim he was going to slather on her when he caught her and ate her, so she would taste good. This same Larry laughed snot through his nose and liked to read on the back porch and sometimes played his music so loudly that the whole house throbbed. One time, Gabby remembered, he danced with her across the backyard while the sounds pressed through the screen mesh from his second-floor room, her feet bare in the grass, her hair adorned with dandelions. At night, too, some summers, he helped her catch fireflies, though always he insisted that they set the creatures free after holding them for a few moments in their hands. And he tickled her and introduced her to his high school friends, and even sometimes let her watch them on the trampoline in the backyard, and once even let her take a sip of one of the beers they were drinking under the cover of darkness. They laughed hysterically when she spat out the beer on the grass.

 

That was how she wanted to remember her brother, how she felt she ought to remember him, but other memories intruded, would wash in and out like flotsam and jetsam. There was Larry screaming at his parents that he hated them, that they were always telling him what to do and how to do it, never letting him have a single thought of his own. And Larry complaining about having to mow the grass, how tedious it was, how pointless, how it would just grow back anyway. And her brother getting caught smoking cigarettes, getting caught with a girl in the house when she wasn’t supposed to be there. The girl’s name was Janice or Jane or maybe Judy. And once Larry told Gabby that they were in love, but then, apparently, they weren’t, for she stopped coming by the house, and Larry never mentioned her again, and once, when Gabby asked about her, her brother screamed at her to fucking mind her own business. It was crazy how mad Larry could get sometimes, his fury like something set on fire. He yelled at anyone, at everyone. Even teachers. And this wasn’t only after things went sour with the girl. He’d always been like that. Moody, their mother sometimes said, and rolled her eyes. A brat, their father often claimed, and sent him to his room. But that was the thing. It seemed to Gabby that he was fine with going to his room. He would slam his door gleefully. There were days, in fact, when he would not want to leave that enclosed space, when he would lie in bed facing the wall, curled up in a ball, the sheets and blankets practically burying him.

 

One of Gabby’s more vivid memories was of opening the door to his room one day, of peeking in her head. It was a dark cave. A dark cave where a bear might live. She summoned her nerve and said to her brother, “Can I come in? Do you want to play?”

 

And what did he say in return? Nothing. Silence. The great zero.

 

So finally she gave up and closed the door.

  

Death changed all of that, of course, changed everything. In death Larry stopped being moody, stopped being volatile. In death he was like a river in winter, never growing older, never heading out somewhere else, never making a sound.

 

Dear God, she remembered praying nights before falling asleep. Please let my brother be okay.

 

For she envisioned him, somehow, as still alive. Larry existed somewhere high above the clouds, living his own life, separate from theirs in Michigan. He attended some heavenly school and played with his heavenly friends, giggling and even flirting with girls. And someday in heaven he would fall in love and get married, and he would have angel babies with his wife, and his wife would wear the prettiest dresses, and all of them would ride the most perfect white horses with flowing manes, and Larry would get older and older but never die, for he was already dead, which took care of it.

 

While back on earth, unfortunately, back in Gabby’s life, things with the family were in turmoil. Within six months of her brother’s death, they had all moved out of the house along the river, and Gabby and her mother were living in a small apartment near the dead center of downtown. Their father had taken a job in Ann Arbor and rarely visited anymore, though some weekends she was forced to stay with him in a trailer he was renting. Her mother was still waitressing at her old job, but they were poor now, very poor, and Gabby’s mother kept saying that it was Larry’s death that had delivered the mortal blow to the marriage, but Gabby didn’t get it, didn’t understand. One recurring memory of childhood was of sitting with her brother some nights at the top of the stairs while their parents’ angry voices rose from the kitchen or the living room, or lying in bed and hearing the arguments thudding up through the floorboards, making the house seem like something rickety, about to crumble into pieces. She remembered, too, Larry shouting at their parents once that they should just get it over with, just get a divorce, that they would all be better off if they would just go ahead and do it. But how was Gabby supposed to square that with other memories—just as strong—of sitting with her family on Christmas Eve, all of them playing Monopoly or opening presents, or the trip they took that summer to Mackinac Island, staying at a motel with a swimming pool, and riding bikes around the island and gazing out at the blue iris of the water? And what about how affectionate their parents could be, holding hands in public, kissing in the kitchen, their mother even sitting in her dad’s lap at the breakfast table. None of it made sense to Gabby. Her memories were just a mishmash, she knew, some puzzle pieces that didn’t belong together then or now, and never would. Her life was a set of random events, apparently, without any pattern to be discerned. But still she tried. She really tried.

 

This had bothered her over the years, the frustration of it returning as she had grown toward adulthood then beyond. What was she supposed to make of the fact that her brother had died, that her family split apart afterwards? Was this some terrible wound she had carried with her, some devastating blow from which she had never recovered? Or was that just a convenient excuse, her get-out-jail-free card? Didn’t it explain away any mistake she ever made, any screwup? She even remembered saying—to the young man at Michigan State to whom she lost her virginity, a boy named Bryan—“I’ve been screwed up ever since my brother shot himself.” They were naked in his dorm room when she said this, after sex, lying together in the dark, and she liked how dramatic it sounded.

 

Bryan sat up, shocked. He said, “He killed himself?

 

And Gabby said, “Yes.”

 

Though other times, to be sure, in other conversations with different lovers over the years, with friends and eventually with her husband and even her own children, she said instead, “It changes everything when your brother dies in an accident like that. Especially when you are at such an impressionable age.”

 

And both versions sounded true as she spoke them, and both sounded false. And both were just air expelled from the lungs to float for a moment around her, to exist as vibration, then disappear.

 

 

And it wasn’t as though she didn’t ask her parents for confirmation. She did. Many times. They weren’t forthcoming. Her father, of course, disappeared within a year of taking the job in Ann Arbor, moving, instead, to Alamogordo, New Mexico. He was supposed to keep sending money, and she was supposed to go visit him in the summers, but that never happened. Soon he was gone permanently from their lives, even more gone, in some ways, than her brother; it was as though Gabby’s father had never existed at all. And even before he removed himself from their lives, he refused to talk about such things, would change the subject abruptly at the mere mention of his son’s name, or would rise and leave the room.

 

“What good does it do to dwell on it?” he said.

 

And Gabby’s mother wasn’t much better. She loved talking about Larry, loved keeping photos of him everywhere, even in her car, loved saying what a wonderful son he had been, how he would have grown up to be a good man. She said, too, that God must have loved him very much to have wanted to bring him to the afterlife at such a young age. Gabby knew she was supposed to nod when her mother said this, was supposed to compose her lips into a sad-happy smile, was supposed to nod at the hard comfort of the words. But her mother was completely unhelpful in the untangling of what had actually occurred. Sometimes she would talk about Larry’s dark side, would go on about how there was some heaviness inside him, something from early childhood, but other times she would emphasize what a goofy klutz he could be, hopelessly uncoordinated, unfit for sports. In this version, apparently, he had slipped and had fallen while carrying the shotgun. Somehow it had gone off. It was a fluke. A terrible fluke. And if Gabby tried to ask for clarification, if she brought up the question of what her brother was doing with the shotgun in the first place on that day, her mother would shake her head and shift the subject, saying, “Do you pray for your brother, Gabby? I pray for him every day. God must think I am a hopeless chatterbox, but I will never stop. Never.”

 

By then they were living in Toledo, Ohio, with her mother’s sister, Aunt Hannah, and her mother was working as a receptionist at a chiropractor’s office. Gabby was in a much larger school than any she had ever attended in the past. In other words, Michigan and the town of Jasper were far behind her, but still Gabby kept attempting to stitch the memories together, to fit the hooks into the eyes. She knew that their father would take Larry out hunting sometimes. They would cross the green bridge and go off into the woods. And when they came back, they might be carrying squirrels in a burlap sack. Gabby hated the sight of those squirrels on the kitchen counter. They were left there for their mother to skin and cook. They had their bushy gray tails. They had their glassy eyes. They had their little paws. Gabby refused to eat the meat, refused to enter the kitchen when the squirrels were there. But wasn’t that the .22 they shot squirrels with? Gabby was almost certain of that. The shotgun was maybe saved for hunting birds. Was that right? So was Larry out hunting birds for some reason? Would there be geese or duck to hunt at that point of the winter? And why wasn’t their father with him? Larry wasn’t allowed to go hunting by himself . . . was he? So how had he gotten the gun? Wasn’t it locked in the case in the garage? Did he have a key? These were the sorts of questions to which she wanted answers, but by the time she was old enough to form them into a coherent interrogation, it was too late. Her father had vanished into nothing, and her mother was dead. This happened when Gabby was just twenty. Her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and was dead two months later. She had been a smoker since she was twelve. Aunt Hannah remarked on this fact outside the hospital not even an hour after things were over, then lit a cigarette herself.

 

So what was left but to try to conjure the day when her brother died, to recreate it from the scatterings of memory? The reason she knew it was a Sunday was because she still kept the obituary. It included the date of the death. And it was easy enough to check which day on which that fell. Yes, a Sunday. What was harder to know was if she was right about a memory from that morning she thought she had, or whether she might be conflating it with another Sunday. She believed that in the car on the way to church—the First Baptist Church of Grace—her brother had started saying how much he hated going, how stupid it was, a waste of time. And Gabby thought she remembered her mother turning from the front seat and arguing back, asking if he was saying that God was stupid, saying that everything that was most important to her in her life was a waste of time? Then—if Gabby were remembering it correctly—her brother turned toward the window and gazed out at the passing fields, white with winter, which only incensed their mother more. He wasn’t going to answer her questions? He wasn’t going to bother speaking in return?

 

Then—and this part she is almost certain about—her father’s voice was a small sonic boom inside the car. He said, “Both of you shut up.”

 

Yet there was another memory from that day, too, one that seemed to Gabby to contradict the other, as though all of life were about each new thing erasing whatever came before it. It was that same day in the car, and she and her brother were in the backseat, and they were bored, bored. It was a twenty-minute drive to the church, so Larry, to entertain them, started THE GAME. It wasn’t much of a game, but Gabby loved it. That much she knew. And how did it go? Larry would put his two hands behind his back. He would have a certain number of fingers up, and she was supposed to guess how many. She was almost always wrong. She would say five, and he would bring them around and there would be seven or maybe only two. They would play on and on, and Gabby—for reasons she couldn’t understand—never grew tired of it, no matter that she was almost never right, that it was game, essentially, of futility. She adored the game. She even ending up playing it with her own kids. But not the last part. The part that was always the punch line of the game. At some point when she guessed, Larry would bring his hands around and there would be only one finger up, and that finger would be the middle one, and he would aim at her, maybe even wave it a little. And she couldn’t help it: she would laugh until she was ready to burst. She would laugh while glancing nervously toward the front seat, hoping her father wasn’t peeking in the rearview mirror, hoping her mother didn’t know. And she adored her brother in those moments, and he would laugh, too, and she believed, somehow, that he did this on the very day he died. He laughed with her in the car. So how did that make sense? How did any of it make sense?

 

And the worst part of that day going to and from church was that she remembered nothing about arriving home, about having a meal with her family, about changing out of her church clothes. There was a gap there she could not fill, ever. One moment her brother was giving her the finger in the car—she didn’t know if it was on the way there or heading home—and the next she was reaching out for her mother’s dresses. Nothing existed in between. Nothing at all.

 

After her brother’s death, unfortunately, was a different matter. She remembered all of his classmates at the funeral. She remembered, at the cemetery, seeing Janice/Jane/Judy. She was standing beside several other girls in the cold, all of them huddling with their arms close to their chests, all of them crying. But Janice/Jane/Judy wasn’t crying any harder or louder than any of the other girls. Gabby remembered, too, how whenever anyone spoke in that cemetery their breaths became living clouds, things, seemingly, with their own small lives, their momentary existences. And she remembered sitting with her mother and father in that big black car. And what else? Nothing. She remembered that the years passed after that, and life went on, and each new day was its own hazy blur. And she didn’t get it, just didn’t. Still, she talked to her brother sometimes, talked to him many times, in fact, over the passage of the decades. It came to be a habit. Her voice would be there in her head, and his voice would be there in her head, too, and the two of them would go on and on about this or that. Sometimes in these conversations he was still a child, and sometimes she imagined him as older, older than she was by the correct number of years, and wise with age. She felt close to him often when they spoke, and other times she berated him, even though she knew it wasn’t fair. She told him she was angry at what he’d done, and angry that she didn’t understand, not even the most basic of things. Had he done it on purpose? And, if so, why? And didn’t he realize what this had done to her, what this had done to the whole family? Sometimes, in her head, he defended himself, argued, told her that her life had turned out just fine, that she should stop complaining, that she should buck up. He sounded like her dad then, though other times he told longwinded stories that sounded more like their mother. But mostly he was just the sound of her own voice, one part of her talking to another, shooting the interior breeze. And she told herself that she was happy with her life, happy with how all of it had turned out, that she couldn’t have hoped for anything more. And other times she told herself that she was miserable, that she had always been miserable, that she carried that sorrow deep inside her, hoarding it, and it was Larry’s fault, or maybe not, or maybe the whole idea of fault made no sense, not over the course of a lifetime.

 

And she dreamed about her brother often over the years. Sometimes in those dreams he was still alive, and he told her it had all been a mistake, that he’d only been grazed, knocked unconscious, but he was fine. Other times she asked him why her parents had gone running from the house? How had they known something was wrong? Had they seen him from the back window? Had they heard the sound of the shotgun? It was all very confusing. Larry would nod when she said this, nod and nod, or maybe he would grin and put his hands behind his back, and she knew from his grin what was back there, pretty sure she knew. In most versions of the dream, though, they were down by the river. It might be winter with blood on the snow, or summer with a swirl of insects levitating around them. She remembered that as she approached the river as a child she could actually feel the temperature grow faintly cooler, and in the dreams she sometimes said this, but more often she asked him to explain, to tell her, finally, what had happened and why, to come clean for once, and to put it in plain words.

 

And what did he say? Sometimes he was lying in the bloody snow when she asked, and on these occasions he refused to speak at all, was stubborn. Sometimes he was fully grown, and he slipped an arm around her shoulder—was she still a child in the dream?—and he would say okay, okay, he would tell her, she would finally know. But when he started to speak, crows might caw above them, or geese might squawk going by, or the river would be so loud around them that the words were lost in it, swallowed in the sound. It was frustrating, of course, hopelessly frustrating. Here her brother was telling her what she had wanted to know for all her life, but those words were fastening themselves to the bird wings or to the current of the river, and they were being carried off and were never coming back.

 

Usually she woke then, her heart thudding. She sat up. Finding herself in the center of her life.

 

 

Doug Ramspeck is the author of seven poetry collections, one collection of short stories, and a novella. One recent book, Black Flowers, is published by LSU Press. Four books have received awards: The Owl That Carries Us Away (G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction), Original Bodies (Michael Waters Poetry Prize), Mechanical Fireflies (Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize), and Black Tupelo Country (John Ciardi Prize for Poetry). Individual stories have appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, and The Georgia Review. He is a three-time recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award.