(written by Jordan Inman in 2010, with some revisions since)
To Lynne and Landry – Old enough to have been there, Young enough to maybe comprehend.
Test pattern…test pattern… How could I have been so mesmerized by that contiguous line-up of colors and its unchanging whine broadcast on daytime TV? Yet I’d still hop up from my feet-inside-the-cushions position on the upstairs couch and over to the VCR so I wouldn’t have to wince at the high pitch D-natural – a sound often accompanied by that unsettling ghost-white screen at the end of a videotape. Or was it a dark screen?
I remember waking up one morning long ago, a little earlier than my parents normally did, and wordlessly speculating on whether my legs had grown noticeably longer overnight. I sat up straight in bed so I could get a better view of them unblanketed but still covered to my anklebones in close-fitting navy blue sweatpants. I started to rub my legs while in disbelief – or am I already confusing this with a dream I had when I was a little older? In the dream, my house had collapsed. I was salvaging what was left from the rubble but the nightmare incited me to vigorously rub my legs as a way back to palpable reality. And then there’s that prep-tale Dad always gave to his little league teams about some Olympic runner (Roger Bannister?) who suffered third-degree burns in a house-fire and had his legs rubbed back to health with the constant application of an ointment. Why should it be so difficult to pinpoint where these small “epiphories” (memories that stick with you but are effortlessly processed) are coming from and what they really meant? Especially when they help to create who we are. Or do they gradually deteriorate us instead?
“Everything has a secret soul, which is silent more often than it speaks.” This, I am assured by the top of a page from Man and His Symbols, was written by Wassily Kandinsky, the first modern abstract artist. The book takes into account the alchemists and their belief in the “spirit of matter” and goes on about how this spirit inside inanimate objects is really the projection of our unconscious into the mysterious and inexplicable or occurs “where our rational knowledge fails us.” I’m not so sure that line of thought directly applies here, but the soft-wood coffee table in the downstairs living room has so many nicks and scratches on its surface by now that it could pass for a non-objective sunken relief propped up against the wall in the event of vacuuming. What unspoken Messages would its polished-over ruts and clusters of fine-point ink-pen craters impart if I decided to take a deep wade into its scars with my eyes? I do just that but instead my gaze slips into more of a glaze. My efforts are rebuffed just as the table itself was impassed on impact years ago when it hit against the gruff burgundy edge of our brick fireplace – the pith, an outside-in extension of the home’s frame – wounding it with its most broad and determinate gash. Does memory not have a more suitable turnkey than some vestigial medium from the desired era?
So, now I resort to squinting. Have you ever pretended that every moment of your life was being put on film? I used to, except that everything was being recorded through my own point of view. As a device to help segue between the VHS volumes my life would be distributed on to the outside world, I would squint to signal that it was time to fade into the credits listing all the people who appeared in that particular volume. The beginning of the next volume would pick up in the middle of that same squint so the audience could be reassured they hadn’t missed anything.
As everything stands up to now, this video-based method feels most appropriate. If I’m going to try and reconstruct my past, I might as well do it with cuts and edits, with FF’s and REW’s, and pauses that flinch in place from wanting to remain in motion and then jump to an eject-warranting blue screen if I linger too long.
I see something now – coming through a dim haze of eyelash and floating, microscopic imperfections of vision. Somber veins of crème ricotta, an Arabian sand, drenched wet by day and then frozen dry by night, splashed and two-dimensionally stacked on one another from no particular locus. Single footlights out of commission for the weekday snuffle, cubby-holed in a few and far-between parametric zones. One lengthy and crowning raised plateau cordoning off some other piece of the unmoving bleached summer’s cake all cut and seamlessly cauterized for walkabouts. And then, my imagined world is dazed with the blood pressure flux of standing upright once again and readjusts to the unaided daylight shining askance through the windows in the living room and through the glass of the French doorway in the kitchen. The ceiling goes back to merely paralleling the floor again – the four-blade fan especially dispelling what had been a mythical courtyard with its dust on the wrong side of gravity and posing as an absurdly precarious shin-and-ankle-tackler.
Three wooden mixing spoons, stained with vegetable oils and broken in with three bare and puffy bottoms, stashed away in the master kitchen drawer… From there, a sock-white hallway lends most of its exterior to doorway space – an aliment to the young imagination, the concept of infinity reified in a hallway of doors clapping at the horizon point – and then wraps around the stairwell, erecting the most purely blank wall, watch-towering over the foyer and its persimmon red entrance with hidden crucifixes in the face of the front door.
And now, maybe it should be your turn to relive the cool smack of up-ended feet against partially swept linoleum and tingly fuzz of low pile carpet as you make a sharp turn around the corner in a game of hide-and-seek tag, a 5 or 6 year old surprise guest…all that laugh-thrummed running has brought us full circle into the living room for our breath to return and purposes to realign.
I’ve decided to cloister myself; it’s hard enough to fiddle around inside my memories on my own. I don’t want to have to hold anyone by the hand. Intensely filtered sunlight of the early afternoon – only the most translucent dross is filched from the rays, leaving a golden, visual musk to soften my limited cache of an oversized dinosaur book, a whodunit pop-up involving a missing ruby, and Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo! Quick healing paper cuts add more creases to the webbing between my forefinger and thumb where I clumsily slip each page on by. Inside our blue-and-white gingham sofa, with the foldaway bed pulled out, are the naked boards holding it together. An older cousin showed me this top secret area (as he did the “top secret area” in Super Mario World) while playing a game of hide-and-seek; it’s an even better spot than crouching down in the laundry hamper with pullovers and a couple of Dad’s neckties for extra camouflage layered on top of you – it might be too much of a temptation to grapple your fingers around that plastic florid grillwork and give yourself away.
But should I be getting somewhere with this by now? Have I? What’s missing? What isn’t missing for that matter? Down the same hallway again and to the right is my bathroom and, of course, my bathroom mirror where I got a good look at myself every day. It’s where I established which direction my hair would be parted for the rest of my life up to the present – an identity-driven, individuating choice but a characteristic that’s always opposite for anyone looking at me than for me when I’m looking in the mirror. Too much dawdling in front of the mirror at a teeth-brushing could transform my tongue into the pointed nose of a witch trying to escape the dungeon of my belly after I’d swallowed her. Is that where all my efforts ever really arrive at – coloring in my own reality where the other becomes vapid? Or was there something there to begin with?
Chapped and stiffish Play-Doh plugging a hole where the wasps used to come in through a nook in one of the upstairs dormers. Dad was the one that solved that problem for us…it was always fun taking night baths with him (probably more like evening baths, but it always seemed dark out by then) after he’d come home from one of his men’s league softball games (number 11 for the Nuschlers) with his legs all bloodied from sliding into bases without the buffer of sanitaries. He’d tell me stories like the one about the seven Chinese brothers (what was it, one had an iron neck, another could swallow the sea,…) and return to the same familiar songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” accompanied by the slosh of tepid bathwater. The addition of bubbles gently tickling and clinging to my underarms was always a welcome one. A princely pink towel hot out of the dryer Mom robes around my shoulders once I climb out and there’s no want of comfort, that‘s for sure. It’s probably time to go outside – let the wind dry the rest of my hair.
If the inside is a roomy place to float about almost wantonly then the surrounding grounds are its commodious complement, looking glass fountain water scattering the centerpiece against the reflection of the sky. To the right, looking down the long gravel lane from the highway border, is the elevated playhouse, brick red and brown like its parent garrison, with a teal tube-slide curving to the grass in a half-formed spiral. So much grass – it’s a wonder to think of all of it and every other inch of Indiana grown to the density and prickle of a wilderness not more than two or three centuries ago. Walking over it barefoot or even running through it wearing your socks thin, you’ve gotta be careful not to step on the sleeping grass. I think it’s just called ordinary thistle, but somebody called it sleeping grass once and I’ve always thought that was a good name for it since it’s low-lying and then irascible when you accidentally “wake it up”. Another reason to put on your sneakers is the gravel you would otherwise need to gingerly but sprightly tip-toe across to get from place to place around the driveway.
All of it was too much to be lumped into one convenient reference of “outside” in my head, so I ended up mentally charting my own sections (as I’m sure anyone might do if their yard was so big). One half of the front lawn becomes an Oregon Country. The flood-prone curve around what was thought might be an Indian burial mound applies itself as an unamicable alleyway after scarfing down a pair of my aquamarine swim shoes in its turbid puddle. A small sample of a mulberry orchard helps put a distance between us and the nearest neighbor. On the opposing side stands a National Guard headquarters. The back yard has always been a little less tame – lower ground that gets marshy after the fairest rainy day in June – and had the honor of hosting our bonfires. Two or three thorn bushes that no one could figure out how to remove were back there, in front of the Hawthorn copse that lurches out at the top like a bouquet. We’ve affectionately referred to this as Thorn Island, another buffer against what lay beyond. All of it self-containing geography, just as the Greek poleis had their stony ranges and the eastern States their Manifest Destiny…
Dandelions, a macrocosm of their own pollen, dispersing themselves in one great temporal peck over the fields. If only I could make better use of them – for purposes of further insight. I bend down and deprive one of its fixtures on life halfway down the stem. My immediate reaction is to lift its head up to my nose and try to reap a smell away from its flower-like appearance. What comes next, I guess, is a matter of what’s on your mind trying to find a way out. But what if that something is just about everything that ever was on your mind? So….the smell from a dandelion is sort of nondescript, that’s what makes it such a good conductor of hidden memories attached to your sense of smell. This one conjures up the singular aroma clinging to every linen, hard surface, water bed, and hair in the possession of friends who used to live down the road. The next reminds me of the inside of my 1st grade collapsible lunchbox, bright yellow (oh, it was probably perfectly colorless, but that’s not how it is to me now) and routinely unzipped, commingling its own bread and peanut butter scent with the collective stagnant odor in the gymnasium. I really could go on ad nauseam with this sniffing, especially when provoking allergies, and still…
The ends of the skyline are set at mending the afternoon air into congenial blue-gray again and I’m still not ready to give up. I hear a persistent but weak sound coming from behind the house. As I move in its direction, I wouldn’t say it becomes stronger as much as it gains fidelity – the preschool singing voice of my little sister. No true rhymes, and certainly no reason, make up her strung together, repetitive phrases as she resets her breathing with each petite swing on the swing-set. Maybe this is what I need – human interaction. Or will this encounter between spirit and reality end up as successful as the typical Casper attempt at making friends?
“kitties are soft things…a flower is in the sky…you should be happy…”, Lynne’s song translated in bits. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say there isn’t reason in all of that.
“Whatchya doin’ sissy?” I feel like I’m speaking through a camcorder.
“Oh. Do you like singing?”
I pat her on top of the head and suggest that we play something. I watch her scoot off of the blue rubber swing and where it lifts her dress and reveals that strawberry birthmark we always thought looked like a smashed Skittle – a good augur of her sweet-tooth. We make our way across the front and onto the patch of ground mirroring the living room where we have most of our fun outside.
And now here’s Landry, the baby, making relatively fast tracks on his bare knees. Either chocolate or dirt, you never could tell which, is branching from the sides of his mouth, tracing him a wider smile.
In an instant, the smile puts on a couple years and the mess on his face has retracted in from the middle of his cheeks. Lynne has lost most of her toddler paunch and restlessly swings her arms forward and back in wait for a game to spontaneously break out from the stirred summer air. She takes it upon herself to excitedly suggest we become dogs again, a familiar pretend game in which we assume the “pet” names Sparky, Princess, and Peter from oldest to youngest and go around on all fours in a pack.
“I wan’uh be uh woof!” Landry pleads to his older siblings.
“No, Lanboy! You haffa be Peter! You still gotta be a dog!” Lynne counters.
“Nuh-uh! Dogs is the same as uh woof is!” he fumes and sputters out in sections.
“No it’s not!” Lynne declares, slowly shaking her head downward from what little height separates them.
“Tell Landry there’s a difference between a dog an’a wolf!”
Both of them are looking at my mouth now, a distiller of truth by right of birth.
“Dogs…live in houses. Wolves don’t.”
No further dissent from their mouths or unrest comes for at least the next ten or twelve minutes – a little miracle…
* * *
Before the Tyson plant filled in the field and forest on the other side of the road and renamed Water St., before the rural route address system went obsolete, and before Mom retired her blue ’75 Mustang II, I dreamt Lynne and I were the only ones in the car sitting parked on the side of the road next to that fallow, soaring field. The Mustang started rolling backwards on its own, away from the direction of the house, as if it were parked on an incline. I think we ended up in town…but that could have been years after in another dream picking up where that one left off. I’m sure I’ve had sequential dreams before – visiting and then revisiting the Walrus and the Carpenter walking the length of their beach. If only I could remember how these ended…The world ended in one of my dreams. I met a mirror-image of myself in the garage, wearing the same t-shirt, and listened to him long enough to hear him tell me that the end of the world was here and there was nothing I could do to back out of it. Right before the trumpets blasted, as I was told would happen when the end came, I had the absolute sickest feeling, as if I’d been cheated like no other person had been cheated before and hadn’t even been given a chance to gripe about it.
It’s a cloudless midday in town and I’m bearing out the wait in the backseat of Mom’s car. She’s taking her time, extending the conversation she’s been having to catch up with a friend here at the pool and I’m biding mine with the yellow foam that’s underneath the interior – tough and sedimentary from being exposed and picked at. An abandoned orange can of Coke II sits next to the curb, infiltrated and subsidized by the working power of a yellowjacket task force. My reaction is based on reflex as I manually crank the passenger side window to the top.
I’m beginning to glimpse something now….through that stare I was developing at an early age by relaxing my eyelids so as to shroud the color of my eyes into a tincture of what pools of experience and wisdom might look like…
We stop at a friend’s house to return some red and yellow socks he left behind. I only stayed overnight there once; I opened my eyes in the middle of the night in a trance of disbelief that I was in someone else’s house at that time of night. (I remember trying to see if he was home one day over the phone; I wasn’t used to calling anyone, so I ended up irritating his mom by calling about five too many times.) Still driving, we make a short visit to the McAbees’ and mess around with Hannah out back until it’s time to leave. To this day I still use some of these places when I need a visual context for characters in a book I’m reading.
This excursion has strayed farther from home than I was expecting. In the evening, the general mood and electricity are starting to rise, and by pitch dark, there’s always a giddy chill that gets inside you once you’re taking in the air. It’s nighttime now, 9:45 or 10:00, and I like watching the star-burst lights shrink back down to their normal bulb encasement as we make our way back from Muncie. The radio plays music that doesn’t affect me as anything other than something to accompany me while I look out the window and occasionally stare back at my reflection in the dark.
Dead air wafting through the metal mesh of a radio’s speaker. Dad is standing next to the filing cabinets during afterhours at the office uptown, telling me dead air is what radio stations want to avoid so the listener won’t change stations.
Glib and electric night dies with the sleep of those who unmake its obfuscence and eventually bequeaths the same space to the morning light. But even it has trouble maintaining a longer title and slowly languishes until some forgotten minute in the late afternoon arrives. So much of that death and rejuvenation goes on over the years, it’s a true wonder we don’t hear more stories about encounters with ghosts of the living — perhaps I’d get spooked by an afterimage of me playing itself in a loop every once in a great while, whittling away an orange Crayola onto the carpet with its fingernails…
One time Lynne and I fought against an afternoon by dismantling cheap little calculators that outweighed their demand in our family and were almost as useless to us at that age as the decorative abacus in the living room. We must have used a few tools to do the job – a small screwdriver at least. Rubber membranes were out of their shells and circuits were disconnected. Not sure where our activity went after that. It could have ended with a fight – we’d have those like every other brother and sister who live under the same roof. Lynne would be red-faced and screaming and I would be giving poor excuses for hitting her arm.
I turn the corner to find the microwave clock at 3:30 – it’s only been three hours since we got home from church. Three hours! Maybe I’d been hit with the power of suggestion by the complaints of boredom coming from Landry at the counter “drowning his spirits” with a sippy-cup full of cranberry juice. There must have been more time in between…
So many of my action figures have 1991 or the years surrounding it molded onto the bottom of one of their feet. It’s funny how my first good conception of time can come from Toxic Crusaders or toys brought home from Fisher’s Big Wheel. Then there are the yawing pencil lines that kept their place in my closet years after I’d put them there (and I can’t even remember if those have been fully painted over or not; their presence being so familiar I haven’t noticed) or the egg-shaped imprint of a stamp that chemically ate into the wall. Vandalism doesn’t take much to achieve longevity – I remember Mom and Dad took an old father and son portrait from their closet one Halloween and painted white fangs and glued on googly eyes over the faces.
The transplanted sandbox from my first home laying underneath an oak tree in the back, edges barely visible behind the teeth of weeds and whose wood is becoming wracked by soft, dark creases of age…
My very earliest memory, or at least the earliest memory I’m sure actually happened, is one of Mom carrying me reverse-piggyback on the first floor of the house as it was being built in ’91, so I couldn’t have been more than two-and-a-half. None of the carpeting had been rolled on yet, that’s what sticks out in my mind the most because I was barefoot and I didn’t want to step on any splinters in the wood. You can still see that same wood, pied in a few shades of brown, by standing underneath it in the basement: that’s why I can verify it.
Down in the basement, after carefully walking down its bare steps and then past two rows of black iron supports, one with slick scotch tape spun around the center, a dark hole waits in the corner. The sump pump caused its share of floods and even ruined part of the white carpet we had laid over the cold concrete foundation, but it was always more notorious to me for sucking in any rubber or foam balls we lost control of that careened over into its area. Potential electrocution kept us from reaching down and prizing them out.
I squeezed a gilded cap screw from a perfume bottle onto one of my fingers one late afternoon like it was an expensive ring secured by a felon in a manhunt. The “ring”, however, ended up getting the best of the pretend criminal and it was dark out before my parents found a way of slipping it off my tyrian purple finger. As soon as I’d restored my breath after crying most of the way through the process, I could add it to my list of decidedly close calls – like the time I rubbed the back of my neck raw by pulling back and forth on the ends of an unstrung shoelace…
“A fork is a girl because it looks like it has long hair,” I’m pointing out to Dad sitting catacorner to me at the dining room table. “And a spoon is a boy because it’s either got short hair or it’s bald.”
“No, I think you’ve got ‘em switched the other way around,” he tells me.
Oh well. At least it wasn’t as fantastic as having the idea that all those sinister-looking tendrils on weeping willows were poisonous. Such ordinary memories can be so persistently intrusive to the point that you might think it was about something devastating…
Everything. Everything has been given. Everything has been given – and only That can be taken away. But taken away by what? I feel as if I’ve dropped enough string around the answer. I just don’t know if I’ve wrung it up yet.
Unknowingly, I’ve made my way upstairs. I’m old enough to have opted out of a trip to the grocery and no one else is home. My first thoughts are inclined to scooting my way down the stairs, bottom against carpet – that was always the fastest. But now I know…it’s out of place. I scratch an imperceptible itch on the back of my leg in procrastination and then I place one foot on the edge of the banister that crowns the stairwell. My left foot follows, swiveling in front and inserts in between two of the bars, a perennial hiding spot for Easter candy that’s just wide enough to balance the insteps of my feet. As I further travail outward, with the stairs below me sinking lower and the cool sensation of sweat collecting at the centers of my palms, I can hear the second part of Shine On You Crazy Diamond playing through the walls – specifically from 2:30 to 4:40, where the development of that one melodic line fails to relent…
Once the music recapitulates to the central theme, I find myself crouched over in a bathtub again – this time it’s the smaller tub next to my room. Why am I just sitting here? Has this happened before? The water’s almost gone and my eyes are fixed on the miniature cyclone over the perforated drain. The acrylic bottom is slick, but I remain motionless, clutching onto my legs and refraining from drying off. A lost gurgle shoots out of the drain and leaves me alone in silence after the music has ended – as naked as the wolf…and straining to be as mysterious.
Voices don’t travel the same way after you’ve been asleep for some time and sound more “pure” if you’ve woken up just as you were about to fall asleep. At least, that’s how I remember it. It’s what I noticed one night when Mom was helping Dad re-price his sport cards before they carried me out of their room and back into my own bed.
Tick. Click. From satellite to satellite, C4-17 to G1-23, the image has been captured on the reel of videotape wound up in the little black box in the VCR. Commercials covering air conditioning installation and Mentos fleck the edges of the home movie footage after they had been used to record television. Why would they film such an inordinate amount of tape on the incoming attendance before my baptism? I’ve got a couple high stacks of videotapes sitting next to a speaker. I hesitate before peeling the longer label from the included set of stickers and start smoothing it on. It’s blank.
It is all too common for caterpillars to become butterflies and then to maintain that in their youth they had been little butterflies – some discarded textbook axiom might read…and maybe it’s true, but only to a certain extent. I don’t really need these tapes.
“The mind’s ‘disposition to spread itself upon objects’, as Hume expressed it, is at the same time a search for home. – Roger Scruton