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his ain’t a river. If anything, on a good day in the Rains, it’s a trickle-crick. Any time else, it’s a dry bed where the coyot’ sleep and lightning bugs flame and die. Sure, there’s a river on your map. Last time they mapped this place, even Gran don’t remember. Yes, you fool, even things big as a river can change. Not like the landscape is carved in stone. The dam down the way probly had some hand in that. But nobody’s complainin’. ‘Cept you. What, you think I can help you find your river? All that’s left out here is dust and coyotes and a bunch of squeezed-out dreams. That’s what happens when the center gives. It leaves you in the middle with a big bunch of nothing. Here, fella, I don’t mean to scare ya. It’s a long time since we had a visitor. Maybe—I dunno—twenty years? Gran was still alive. There was still some life in this dead house. I myself am getting old, and I’m still just a child. That’s what I was, the child. When there’s no one else, you have to stay the baby forever. Have some water. You from the city? You don’t like my accent. Oh, I can tell. No hard feelings, man, stop blushing. Never been to the city, I haven’t. Too far. Gas—why, gas may as well be liquid gold. Ain’t got the gas we need to heat a house, forget a trip to a city that’ll hate our speech and our clothes and our plain, sunburned faces. Don’t look too good, slick. Take a seat. Tell me ‘bout yourself. No? Have another glass.
It’s just water, don’t look so nervous. …Eh—what’s that? …Who am I? Ha. Who am I. Don’t think I’ve ever had to answer that one. This old piano, I guess that’s who I am. This Polaroid—this is me, too. This house, that glass, the tomato vines by the porch… I’m a place more than a person. I’m a marker. I’m a time capsule. I’m what they left behind, keeper of the box of wonders that they salvaged and stitched up and passed off as the old world, when things worked and we could live and there was water in the riverbed. Don’t look so glum. Just because I’ve got bitter stories don’t mean I’m missing sweet ones. It’s sweet in a place where memories are alive and dancing in your living room. It only gets bitter when the dancers are gone, and all you’ve got left are memories of memories—a secondhand life that never quite lived. But even those memories—those secondhand, overused, rose-colored things—were beautiful like a damselfly. Or beautiful like my gran on the piano keys.
ack before this dust-dystopia, when they had restaurants and jazz night Tuesdays and you could buy seeds and paper from the shops downtown, Gran played jazz keys for Grampa and his boys. My Ma met Dad at jazz night Tuesday, not too long after Grampa put up his sax and not much before the restaurants were gone. They called me a “jazz baby.” Sometimes, later, after I was born and the restaurants were long gone and we all lived together, here, in the house I’m haunting now-- sometimes Grampa would pull down his sax to play, like the old times. One of those nights Ma made pancakes with cream so we could have a real jazz night Tuesday of our own—“just like it used to be,” Ma said, and I got stars in my little-girl eyes. Before I knew about governments and gas shortages and the death of the world, I would beg and beg to go to a jazz night Tuesday at a real restaurant. I felt like I was walking on sax riffs, sliding up and down the scales of happiness, fit to bust with excitement of being just like a real diner. But Daddy burst out laughing, and when Gran told him to shush he just grinned and said “how soon we’ll forget.” Ma whacked him on the backside with a spoon and told him to eat his pancakes. “I’ll have tiramisu and a Tom Collins, please,” he said, but kissed Ma on the cheek and took his pancakes. I was too old to tug on apron strings, but I pulled at Gran’s sleeve, dying to know what Daddy was on about. She shushed me, too, and sent me to sit next to Daddy, who
was eating bites of pancake and tuning the dusty bass. When Ma was done in the kitchen, they did a real good jazz night, and everybody played—Grampa on his sax, Dad on the dusty bass, Gran on the keys, and my mama singing like a music box and clapping the tambourine. They said they did it for me, but I think they just did it for the music. By the end, Ma had me clapping and dancing and singing along, too, so we were all one orchestra and one audience, and nobody got antsy from sitting still. It wasn’t until after Daddy was long dead that I realized why he was laughing. Jazz nights didn’t happen in diners. Ma used to be a seamstress, and we had one old Singer in the basement where she’d patch things up and make things over. She had an old box full of patterns— Vogue, Burda, Simplicity, “such a conglomeration that it probably shows bad taste,” Ma said; she always talked like that, with big words and sad laughs. Ma went to college and studied “literature”—she and Daddy always said it like it was somethin’ real funny, “literature”—but came home when things were tough. “Loyalty,” she says firmly. It was like she wanted to defend herself. One time when she was showing me old photos of college and of her first apartment, she started crying and went and locked herself in the attic. She wouldn’t even let Daddy in. I was a little girl; I climbed in Daddy’s lap and huddled up next to his chest, so I could feel his breathing and feel the rough black chest hair underneath his shirt. “She coulda been somethin’ out there,” Daddy said, “your ma. Coulda been somethin’ big. But she chose this.” He looked around the room: worn couches, scratched paneling, one window covered with insulation from when the glass had broke. I knew that these were things he muttered about, tried to fix, with covers for the sofa and varnish for the panels, but I never quite saw those rooms the same way he did. To me, this was what a home looked like. What else could it be? “She chose this,” he said again, and I thought he was going to cry. Ma eventually came down from the attic, and she and Dad closed themself off in their own room for a while, and the next morning Ma was fine. She even made shortcake for dinner. Years later, Ma tugged me downstairs and pulled out her box of patterns. “Time for something new,” she said. I was terrified that she would make me sew something—I was scared as a rabbit of her machine, the noises it made, the speed of the needle. Even grown up, I never quite got over it.
“Pick one,” Ma said. “Happy birthday.” The wealth of patterns before me was a jumble, indeed: slinky dresses; clown clothes; muu-muus with pregnant women in the model sketches; mens’ boxers; skirts and blouses. I started to pick up one that showed a blouse and short pants, but as I moved the pattern, I saw another envelope beneath it. The picture on the front was a young woman with her golden hair puffed up in curls and twists. The garment beneath had puffy sleeves on a slim bodice and skirt. It was pink. I took that pattern instead. Still have that dress, hanging neat in the back of the closet. It’s yellow, not pink, made out of an old set of day-glo shantung curtains. Wore it for every birthday and every funeral after that—me in a bright yellow party dress circa 1985, everyone else in sweaty work clothes and dirty aprons. Nobody minded. I think they liked it. For them, maybe, day-glo shantung was the color of hope. Once when I was sixteen I asked my Gran what sex was all about, and she said “don’t you worry.” I asked my Grampa, too, but he got flustered and said to go talk to my Ma. It was right ‘fore Ma died, but we didn’t know that yet—she went quick, like a summer storm. One day she was working beside Gran in the kitchen. Next day she was sick with God-knows-what. Next day we were digging a hole by the riverbank. But this was before that, and I went to ask Ma what sex was all about. “Oh, baby,” she said, and I know she still saw me that way. If she’s waitin’ for a reuinion in heaven, I’m sure she’s waitin’ for little-girl me, not grown-up me; little-girl me with sticky fingers and bright hair and arms skinny like a chicken’s neck. “Baby, you don’t need to worry about that.” That was all my Ma ever told me about sex. Later, after Ma died, Gran would fill me in on the necessities, but it turns out Ma was right after all. I didn’t need to worry about that. No pity, now—don’t look at me like that. I told you from the start, I’ve always been the baby. And I guess sometimes that makes me bitter, but mostly it’s just who I am. Do you fight—really fight—the color of your skin? Do you fight the sound of your voice? I’m still a child. I don’t belong out there with other people. I wouldn’t fit. I’ll always be like the toddler who thinks that work overalls with Turkish cap and a string of pearls are a nice outfit. I’ll always be picturing jazz nights in crowded diners, with pancakes and cream and waitresses in yellow polyester and nametags like “Doris,” and a disco ball by the band.
Words and Design by Leah Thompson Image “Iceland near Dettifoss 1972” by Roger McLassus; color corrections by Mysid Image source Wikimedia Commons
So what does it matter? I’m too old to grow up now, too old to learn the subtleties understood by people in a group. Can’t say I know that from experience; suffice it that I know. It’s a thing you feel in your bones, right? Nobody comes out here anyway, ‘cept the occasional fella like you—by the way, your color’s back a bit, howya feelin’?—but you’re so rare it hardly matters. You’ll forget about me, anyway, in a month or a coupla years, and what will I care? And that’s all right. Even memories, eventually, go out of fashion. So I’m just guarding this grab-bag of used reminisces; and maybe that means I got no taste, but I don’t mind. How does a person get taste in a vacuum like this? How does a person feel a part of a nation that ignores ‘em? No, there’s no river here. Just go back the way you came. Maybe send somebody out here to make a new map. Tell your buddies not to come this way. It’s all dried out. Thanks for the chat, but you’ve stayed your time. Now go away. This river’s dead. OOO
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