by Sam Savage
I stood in the kitchen and recited Swinburne aloud. “Pale, beyond porch and portal, crowned with calm leaves she stands,” and so forth.
The time I squatted next to an anthill, holding my dress up so ants couldn’t climb on it, and watched Thornton soak the hill with gasoline from a mason jar and light it on fire. I have a clear image of the ants swarming out of their hole right into the flames and curling up into little black balls.
I remember chanting, “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children are gone,” and tossing a ladybug high in the air to make it fly.
I remember always knowing that it was wrong to kill ladybugs.
I remember “Eeny, meeny, miney, mo, catch a nigger by his toe,” and my mother telling us we must say bunny instead.
The times I saw Lila and Mama carrying bucket-loads of clinkers from the fireplaces out to the backyard, adding them to the pile next to the wire incinerator.
The time I noticed that clinkers, tumbling one on another, went clink.
The time Edward and Thornton and a bunch of other boys were waging a battle with clinkers and hit my friend Lucille on the head with one, and Lila made them stop.
When Papa came home he made Edward and Thornton pick up all the clinkers from the yard and put them back on the pile.
We had oil heat by then but the clinker pile was still there. I don’t remember when the pile was taken away. I do remember that for a long time no grass would grow where it had been.
Riding past the post office this morning I saw a summer tanager in a crepe myrtle. I made Lester stop and back up so I could point it out to him. He wasn’t interested in seeing, but I kept pointing until he saw it.
A female summer tanager is the only greenish-yellow bird with gray-brown wings of that size found here in September, is a fact.
The image of myself on the library floor drawing birds with colored pencils, copying them from a book of Audubon paintings, is a figment.
Is a true figment, I am convinced, nonetheless.
As is the image of my mother leaning over me, inspecting my drawing.
As is the idea that my mother taught me to draw, though I have no image of that.
I do have an image of a large book called Teach Yourself to Draw that somebody, Edward or Thornton, had scribbled all over with green crayon, that my mother gave me to practice from.
That I was never able to draw as well as my mother is a fact.
Is an imaginary fact, of course.
James McNeill Whistler was my mother’s favorite painter.
I have never seen an actual painting by Whistler.
I have never seen an actual painting by anyone famous.
I have another image of myself on the floor of the living room, but this time I am looking at illustrations of paintings in a large, thick book called Masterpieces of the Louvre. There is a reproduction of the Mona Lisa on the cover.
I remember my mother telling me it was the most famous painting in the world.
Remembering, and feeling again now, how alien and completely bizarre the paintings in the book were to me then.
I remember wishing I knew how to play a trumpet.
I remember sitting at the dining room table after everyone had left, the time I decided to look at a Sears and Roebuck catalog all the way through.
If you placed the telephone to your ear a female voice said, “Number, please.”
I had no idea that we were small-town people.
I have gone out with Lester and bought a new hairbrush. It is made of blond wood and has natural bristles.
In addition to things I remember, there are things I only imagine that I remember, because I was told about them, perhaps, or because I made them up out of whole cloth, possibly, some of them, without even knowing it.
I have a (mental) image of Thornton standing next to an airplane, and I have another (photographic) image of the same thing on a wall in my bedroom.
I am quite sure the former is a real memory of an actual event, of Thornton standing next to an airplane when he was seventeen, and not simply a mental reflection of the photograph of a similar event.
I want to say that in the former I can feel myself there, out of view, a dozen feet from Thornton, who has completed his first flying lesson and is now posing with the airplane.
Even though I know there is no discernible difference between a real memory and a fake.
Know it theoretically, I mean.
My first word was gun, they told me. I believe that to be true, though I don’t remember it, of course.
On the other side of the ocean there was a war going on, I know now.
I had not seen the ocean yet, though it was not far away at all.
Before actually seeing the ocean I had expected it to look the way it had in a Little Lulu comic strip when a huge wave rose up suddenly and knocked Tubby flat.
You could see fish swimming in the wave towering over Tubby’s head before it crashed on him.
The Atlantic Ocean did not look anything like that, I found out later.
I have a lot of memories of the ocean now, accumulated over decades and decades, but none so vivid as the one where the wave knocks Tubby down.
I remember a heavy stamping of boots on the upper porch moments before soldiers, who must have climbed the wisteria to get there, burst through the French doors into my parents’ bedroom.
Though I am quite certain this never happened, it remains one of the clearest of my early memories.
Edward and Thornton had stacks of war comics that I was allowed to read when I was sick, is why I have such a memory, I am sure.
German soldiers were blond, big, with handsome, cruel faces. They said “ach Himmel” when surprised and “argh” as they died.
Japanese soldiers were small, misshapen, and ugly, with large mouths and lots of big teeth. They screamed “aieeee” as they flew into the air, arms and legs akimbo, above yellow flames and the word BLAM!
I don’t remember anything else about the Second World War.
I don’t remember that I minded being sick.
Edward had malaria first, and then Thornton. I remember feeling proud when they told me I had malaria, finally.
I remember polio. I was not afraid, but Mama was afraid. In the end none of us got polio.
A girl in school got polio. She had one leg much shorter than the other. I didn’t know her before she got polio, when her legs were the same length. Nobody was her friend.
The time Thornton and Edward dropped Crayola crayons off the upper porch onto the brick walk. The sun made them soft, and we molded them into little balls and ate them.
It must have been summer then, though I don’t remember summer.
It was a long time before I could remember things like “It was summer then.”
I remember how crayon tastes. Like candle.
Lila’s son William was killed in the Korean War, which is all I remember about that war. I don’t remember William.
In the morning quiet I can hear someone playing ping-pong in the common room.
Thornton and Edward broke the ping-pong table at Spring Hope by jumping on it.
I remember, much earlier, digging with Thornton in the dirt behind the house and finding a dented ping-pong ball, and Thornton saying it was a snake egg.
The fact that Peter Caldwell, who was Edward’s friend, had a dog named Ping-Pong.
The time Edward said table tennis was the same as ping-pong.
The fact that Ping Pong was not the name of a Chinese person who invented ping-pong.
I have a single vivid memory of the French-Indochina war. From the back seat of a car I heard the words Dien Bien Phu issuing from a chrome grill in the dashboard. The words fall of, as in the fall of Rome, followed by that strange unimaginable name.
It was a black Chevrolet car, I am almost sure.
In the strangeness of the name Dien Bien Phu, in the remoteness of Indochina, lay a first dim awareness, I think now, that we wer
e provincial people, that we lived in an out-of-the-way insignificant place.
The next war I remember was in Indochina again. The memories of that war, meaning of course the memories of the news of that war, are exceptionally clear, because I was an adult then and because of television, I suppose, and also quite meaningless.
If Edward had died in Vietnam someone would have told us, I am sure.
I learned to read at the same time as Thornton, who was two years older, I remember Mama telling a woman who had poked her head in through the car window.
I remember “My daughter, the genius,” and my mother standing behind me, gripping my shoulders while I stared in terror at the school principal.
The time I stood at a bookcase and sounded out the names on the spines, Mama correcting me when I was wrong. “Not Goth, honey, it’s pronounced Gerty.”
Scolding me when I said somebody busted an arm or skint a knee but letting Edward and Thornton say them.
My father clapping his hands and saying “well, well” the time I spelled Wednesday after Thornton said I couldn’t.
I was born knowing how to read, Mama said.
Thornton said facetious was not a word.
I was a naturally gifted child.
My mother’s brother Louis Staunton, who went to Paris to study painting and died of a ruptured appendix before he could attend a single class, was naturally gifted.
His life was snuffed out, my mother said.
She always used the phrase snuffed out when speaking of the death of young artists like Louis Staunton or John Keats, whose life was snuffed out by tuberculosis.
Being snuffed out like Uncle Louis was a tragic irony, my mother said.
There was a photograph of a teenaged Louis Staunton in the library at Spring Hope. He was seated on a large white horse, a pale blond boy who looked ill, I thought.
The time I played dying with Thornton. I lay on the cracked leather sofa, beneath the picture of poor dead Louis Staunton, my hands crossed on my chest, while Thornton intoned, “She was not yet seven . . .”
There was cotton in the fields back of the house when I was very small, followed by a green bushy crop that I think now must have been soybeans, and then just tall grass that turned pale brown and grew feathery tassels in the fall, and after a time the grass also went, overtaken by shortleaf pines, which Papa called field pines, and stunted blackjack oaks.
There are houses in the fields now, I believe, but I have not gone back to look.
The soil at Spring Hope wasn’t worth a goddamn, my father said.
Knowing even as a small child that we inhabited a poor, unfertile, unlucky land that nothing good would come from.
I remember my mother saying that the South was a tragic land.
I remember fields baking in the sun, the distant trees shimmering in the heat waves. I remember dust devils swirling across the fields.
I remember my father taking the three of us for long aimless rides in the car on hot evenings. We rolled down all the windows and tilted the vent windows to make more wind, and though the air was hot the wind made us feel cool.
Images of unpainted shacks and tumble-down sheds in small acres of poor-looking fields, mules in paddocks, hogs in makeshift slab pens, and strange dirty barefoot children my own age standing among the wandering chickens in the yards, looking up at our car, staring, unsmiling usually but sometimes waving, unsure, flow through my mind the way they flowed past the car.
I remember looking out the rear window at a cloud of dust curling behind us, and coming to a stop and the dust catching up with us and rolling over the car.
Images from different times, flowing together now.
Miles of pine forest there now, broken by roadside clearings and trailers and little brick houses without porches, and nobody outside because of air-conditioning and television, I noticed, passing in the car with Lester down the same roads, unable to attach those other images to anything there now.
Mama, Papa, Lila, Verdell are dead now. Edward too, for all I know.
I remember hot summer nights when all three of us slept on iron bedsteads that Verdell set up on the screen porch, the dogs out there with us.
The time we made music by banging on the metal bed rails with sticks and spoons as hard as we could, Papa yelling at us to stop.
The time Edward fell out of bed and then Thornton fell out of his bed on purpose, but I was afraid to fall out of mine.
I remember Mama on the porch, her back to me, working a handful of raw cotton into a torn place in the screen to stop mosquitoes getting in, immobile in that posture, in that image.
We sometimes heard, even above the continuous shrill vibrato of insects and frogs, the whistle of a freight train crossing the trestle half a mile downriver, though never the fainter clickety-clicks of the wheels, as we could sometimes in the mortuary silence of winter.
Steam locomotives, and the breathy melancholy of their whistles, were among the first things that I became aware of as having disappeared.
A steam locomotive took my mother to New York when she was young and she never forgot it.
The time I rode a train to Connecticut with Thornton and my father, taking Thornton back to college, it was a diesel locomotive.
Thornton uses an airplane to travel now.
Hearing the Cessna overhead, I would run to get Mama and rush with her into the yard and we would stand there waving.
Waving and waving while the little blue plane banked and came back over the treetops, roaring overhead, almost scraping the roof, it looked from below, the dogs frantic, leaping and barking, and the plane going away, disappearing behind the trees in the direction of the county airfield, the sound of it vanishing finally, and having scarcely time to get ready and get Mama ready before Thornton would be driving up to the house.
Showing Maria the photograph of Thornton standing by his airplane.
Maria has never flown in an airplane.
Sometimes I get Lester to take me out in the car and we just ride around.
When Lester drives me I ride in back.
When Mama or Papa drove Lila home, Lila rode in back.
The road to Lila’s house went past a big sinkhole, a nearly circular pool of black water fringed with stumps of sawed-off cypress trees and a few gnarly tupelos left standing because they were trash trees not even good for burning, the grain of a tupelo log running every which way and no man alive able to split it, my father said.
If a cow went to drink in that hole and fell in, it would sink forever, Lila said.
I went to Verdell’s house with my father and a goat knocked me over.
Before Lester there was Vernon, before Vernon there was Huey, and so forth.
Before Maria there was Ruth, before Ruth there was Beth, before Beth I was at Spring Hope, wandering from room to room, as I mentioned, with dogs, as I also mentioned.
It is generally true, I think, that very little of importance happens now.
I am aware of a long stretch of time, but it is mostly undifferentiated, without markers.
If I try to imagine “a long stretch of time” I picture a level landscape without trees and a narrow unpaved road running across it all the way to a distant horizon.
A long beige ribbon of time.
Even though I have never actually seen a landscape like that.
If I had to describe my situation in a word, my living situation and psychological situation, and so forth, it would be indeterminate.
Odd that a word like that, being quite indeterminate itself, can describe a situation so precisely.
Going on vacation with Thornton might be considered important, I suppose.
Considered important by me, naturally, though it might not be by anyone unaware of my circumstances.
The journey of the body is across physical space, on foot, horseback, bicycle, in cars, airplanes, and so forth, on foot again, stumbling, crawling at the end, metaphorically speaking.
The journey of the soul is through tim
e. I like the odd phrase: a space of time. A gap between one time and another, a continuum without content, a kind of sinkhole into which weeks, months, and years have sunk from view.
I am traveling, it seems, through the space of time, falling through it actually, it feels to me now.
The body stops, but space goes on and time goes on.
The fact is I have no clear idea of what I mean by the word soul.
A great whoosh of feathers, and a pair of doves descends on my feeder, startling me and sending sparrows flittering off in every direction.
If a sparrow tries to come back, alighting cautiously at the very edge of the feeder, the doves puff out their chests, hunch their wings, bat-like, and strut and jut about on the feeder looking terribly frightening.
Hummingbirds, oddly, are also quite aggressive, though mockingbirds are easily the most aggressive birds I know.
Excluding hawks and falcons, of course, who are positively murderous.
Even so, birds cannot be considered neurotic.
Any bad feelings they have they get rid of by flying, I imagine.
On second thought, though, remembering now, some chickens are horribly neurotic.
And parrots, of course, as everyone knows, the ones in cages anyway, plucking out their own feathers.