Sunday, February 11, 2007

Family Trees

Walking down Main Street one day Zack nearly ran into a man that could have been his cousin Milo. He looked so much like Milo, even the tilt of his head, the way he looked down and to the left as he walked, like an old lingering habit from childhood, looking at every little speck in the sidewalk and any little glittering in the grass as he passed.

What was it about families that felt so constant, so inescapable, so true? That blood-is-thicker-than-water saying was kind of dumb, he thought, yet it came to his mind a lot lately, since Milo’s memories had begun to come back and make sense.

Zack’s parents were Clara and Schuyler, Milo’s were Marilyn (Clara’s sister) and Robert. They were all born in southern Mississippi, near the Louisiana border, and the close sisters were close mothers with a sense of humor. Zack and Susannah were Clara’s children, and Albert and Milo were Marilyn’s. Zack and Albert were born a year apart, so they had played together like brothers. Zack was 5 when Susannah was born, and Albert didn’t have a brother until he was 9. Now Zack lived in a quiet Louisiana town, with a Main Street, wet muddy ground, and familiar faces that were weathered but somehow still smiling. Milo, Albert, and Susannah all lived even closer to home, and Albert and Susannah had each married and had children of their own. Susannah carried her littlest, Hannah, on her hip all the time and Hannah with her halo of hair felt like a princess waving to her people.

Susannah, now 25, has always been happy in the world. She married Mike, a big beefy guy she met in high school who doesn’t own a suit or tie and hopes not to. He has a great loud laugh and likes his job with the telephone company.

Zack is a welder, and he had recently begun making “art objects,” or at least that’s what some people called them. He just found he couldn’t put his torch down. He liked the sparks, the light, the bursts of flame, and he felt his whole body an extension of the heat sometimes when he saw something forming into a new shape, like a bird and nest full of cracked eggs he had made last month. The bird dripped iron ore, its beak wide open, its head back and wings like arms opening in grief.

The welding had come from him like an urge to heal something broken for so long that he had not known it was, until the fragments of memory came back in Milo. Zack suddenly began to notice the way so many boys and men held hurt and confusion in their faces, then men he had known, boys now grown. Milo had taken a lot of drugs as a boy – his brain was like a dark room, he said, a gallery of gunshots that strobed red, black and white. Milo, now 21, had been glued to his father, Robert, much more so than Albert ever was. Robert was a school principal first, then a teacher – he said he had presided over them all for long enough, and wanted to get back into the classroom where he belonged, get his hands dirty, he said, roll up his sleeves.

Milo’s mother Marilyn was a beauty. She was a natural blonde with big lips and drooping eyelids, and a sway in her walk that seemed believable, like it helped her keep her balance. Men still whistled at her, and she liked it. Yet somehow Marilyn must have tuned Robert out, in a cloud, twirling in her own world. Milo began to remember the flashes of heat when his father got angry and hit the wall with his fist; ducking his head when his father swung, then hugged him close like his heart was breaking. His father did drink too much sometimes, but not so much that he didn’t know what he was doing. He was like a child gone crazy in a tantrum when he can’t get his way and doesn’t know how to say I am mad, sad, why am I in this world this way? Yet, come morning bright, he was slapping aftershave on his cheeks, whistling, straightening his tie and clipping off to work.

Zack’s father Schuyler was an intellectual, a quiet brooder or thinker who mused over every inch of the newspaper like he was soaking up the stories of the world, and sharing each little morsel of each family and business tale. He was an editor at the daily paper that covered half the counties in the state. Schuyler was tall, thin, with broad shoulders and a narrow chest. Zack used to think of him as a skeleton, like he could see through him, his arms wide out like a scarecrow and the criss-cross of bones like sticks that lit up in the dark.

Kiss me, his mother Clara said to his father sometimes, leaning into his newspaper view. He did, smiling that small smile he had that said it all. She would dip and lean back up, touching her fingertip to her lips after he kissed her and tasting it like a dip of chocolate was there and sweet as anything, memorable. Susannah always got tears in her eyes when they did this.

What Milo remembered, fragment by fragment, and began to put together in his fractured shut-eyes when he thought he was dreaming, was his father’s rage, and then what his father took for tenderness as he picked him up and carried him up the stairs to his little bed, where his father undressed him and stripped his clothes then dressed him in those cowboy pajamas, buttoning each little clear button so slowly and touching the pajamas, smoothing them down, first on his back then down the front, where his little jewels were. That’s what his father called them, his “little jewels.” He would say this with a little smile, like We know, don’t we, son.

Milo felt a certain warmth with his father’s smile, he said, this conspiracy of We know, don’t we, son. He didn’t know what he knew, but he felt the kinship of his father’s smile, that hand that touched him, smoothing everything down, rubbing him so gently. When his father touched his cheeks and nose, played with his hands, guided his head and hands, it was a game, only theirs. For years Milo had simply thought of his father’s attention to him as special, and he didn’t remember when this happened exactly, but sometime when his mother’s eyes seemed to glaze over when he looked into hers he began to feel more man and less boy. His father’s eyes changed too. They hardened into little beads, his anger cooled and made the room into a new unfriendly place. Milo didn’t know what he had done. His older brother Albert was somewhere in the house, but not very distinct, not warm like his father.

But Milo had grown used to this and it was “home.” He had forgotten how this happened, layer upon layer, thoughts and dreams weaving through his mind, through his hands as he pressed his fingers to his chest and over his legs, over his face as he lay in the dark, sinking into dream.

No wonder he had felt fingers feeling him for so long, and that he felt strange when bearded men came near and slapped his back or slender handsome men slipped him a smile and turned on the charm. He got panicked sometimes with the sound of bed sheets flapping like loose sails in strong wind, and the drugs streamed through his brain like the volatile chemicals they became, chain after daisy-link-chain. When real flesh and blood women wanted to touch him, with their long painted fingernails, their hands were like dancing carousel horses, little magical fireflies, sparklers that moved and dropped and disappeared into thin air. He tried to catch them sometimes, chased them, but they were fast and beautiful, fleeting.

Milo wrecked bicycles and then cars, all the while flashing that beautiful white smile in family photos. He was wrecked by his father’s need to be loved by his beautiful boy. He is coming out of this now, at 21, now that he has this memory and is beginning to know his beauty as a man, a man that creates like any god. He is beginning to remember he does not have to succumb to any other pressure – person, place, or thing, that his world is the energy of oceans, the calm or the giant waves like portals which open to swallow ships which disappear like they have floated into the never-never land of sky. The water is within him, too, the ocean salt and seaweed, the chemicals that float and meet and make new bonds, the clarity of ocean blue and bottomless depths, the way the sunshine reaches from infinite space to shine on the blue and scatter, like diamonds.

All of these new impressions and images have broken into Zack’s mind, too, like waves breaking on a shore. He has come out of the welding shop, the dark loud noise of all those men making machines, into the outside air, where, still masked and dirty, he is making new forms, without corners and strong yet still graceful. He feels angry, but determined, and ready for a change, for fresh air.

Zack is 30, and his parents seem ancient. They stay busy, his mother and her friends having coffee, visiting, volunteering, his father at the newspaper, talking politics and football with his friends, doing favors. Uncle Robert had retired from teaching, but was still a regular at every school function. Zack’s parents are fading in and out of his view, as Milo’s are. As he makes these iron forms, Zack is finding the strength of the bonds that hold a creature together, and he is remembering his mother’s love, his father’s quiet strength. They are there, steady, stable, themselves. Zack loves them, and he wants them to know.

Zack has never married, but there is a woman he is bringing back to his mind. She was one of Susannah’s friends at college in New Orleans. Zack met her once when she came home with Susannah for a visit. There was nothing particularly special about the memory, except that it was the clearest memory he had of anything. Paula walked in the house as he walked down the stairs, and he saw her look up at the noise. She captured his stare and his eyes went all over her, not in an offending way, but a caress like she was someone he had longed to meet, to know, and had not known it until she appeared. Zack was not sentimental, or at least he didn’t think so. He stared at trees and studied the way the leaves moved. They reminded him of little hands waving, then of confetti, then of big mittens in many colors. Susannah’s friend Paula looked at him and smiled, then turned the corner into the living room and kept going. Her smile took him in – not too much, not to read into, but just a warm invitation, embrace that said Hello, I see you. What a welcome change.

Any time, any town, he thought. His wide face and wavy brown hair, no college, no sophistication to speak of, but molded by time and this place he loved to live in. Welding was hard work, and loud, but the town around was quiet. He liked the small town street lights, a few store fronts, the tacky billboards, sidewalks that seemed to have been there forever. Friendly smiles from people walking slowly to pick up newspapers, the only loud noises the occasional siren. Now they are digging up a part of Main Street, fixing water pipes. The Courthouse and town clock were prominent still, and stately. Nothing to run away from or abandon, only to stand up to. A good place to be, to watch the clouds change in summertime and fall come in from spring.

This little memory of Paula had a different energy than the strobes of Milo’s story, and the shy confusion of Zack’s other encounters with women. Zack’s father seldom hugged or kissed him, but he moved his hand over his head, in his hair like an embrace which said, I am glad you are my son. Be proud of who you are.

Milo’s story helped him understand himself and his strength. When he mentioned Paula to his mother, Clara smiled, dipping her chin down and looking at him deeply. This got her attention. What was it, he wondered. He asked her why.

Because I heard the hope in you, she said, at last. And it makes me happy. You are a man alive, after all, she said, kissing her finger and touching his lips with it, like an exclamation point, or a birthday candle.

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