I’m all alone in Chicago tonight, and I decide to hang up some pictures. I need a drill so I buy one, and on the way home I pick up beer and a dragon roll, and through the window of a coffee shop I see a man who missed his opportunity to marry me because he didn’t look up.
I walk past the inflatable turkey tied down to the roof of the comic book shop. It’s finally gone flaccid. It’s way too warm. Someone has tied a candy-cane to the tree by their parking spot. I’m not even wearing a jacket.
But like every night in any season, there’s a tremendous beef-smell in the air. My art-deco building always smells like carpet and like someone’s making dinner. My grandma would have said “fixing supper.” It’s a picture of her that I want to hang.
I can’t touch her picture, it’s across the table from me. I have crunchy roe on my fingers. She couldn’t have imagined, getting crunchy roe for dinner on a Tuesday, eating it by yourself. She had been beautiful, married, Nadine was her name. It was my great uncle Roscoe who was even more hot than Nadine, or is it just the silver gelatin, the paper, the grayscale? Maybe no one looked bad back then. I picture their faces exposed to noxious phone flashes at parties, seeing their nostrils and moles. But they look like quiet, smooth models, even if they ran farms and maybe were counterfeiters on the side.
I push Roscoe’s photo away from the rest and scoot it closer with the edge of a chopstick. He was murdered in Korea in 1952, by another American after some confusion over a woman, a badly translated dirty phrase in Korean, and a cavalier grasp of our family’s inability to get corned and remain sane. But even if he was drunk, my Aunt Susan said once— using a bottle opener on a twist-off and not her hands to be lady-like— he was very good at languages, and had a compact, short torso like Humphrey Bogart, and women still liked that in ’52.
In the square of Nadine, she has a hand on her womb and in that womb my mom budges a little, her heels detectable when Nadine pats her belly down by her right hip.
I take a swig of beer. Mom’s already dead. She was a depressed hoarder in a Victorian farm-house outside Springfield, Missouri, up until spring of this year. Pictures boiled over in every room in that house for a century, then leaked up North until they got to my one-bedroom apartment.
Oh here we go. Are jaws like this a thing anymore? It’s my father’s grandfather, Eisom. He was married to Pearl, and my mom once showed me the crusty article where the Springfield paper offered some high-class adjectives describing the union. Pearl’s face looks serious, badass, no smile. What she’s exuding is better than smiles, there’s no thick make-up here. She’s dressed in white silk, a dress cut on the bias, my mom would say. That means it lilts with gravitas while pushing up light. Pearl, now made of light and silver, sits with her ankles just tenderly crossed, her feet in white shoes on a pillow.
Their offspring came racing from the gates: first Victor, a plumber like Eisom, then Roberta, about whom we know only that she liked soap scented with licorice, then Gene, who read Camus and rolled cigarettes and had friends that were men who stayed the night at the house sometimes. Roberta and Gene are dead. Victor’s been in a home for the last several years. They say he doesn’t remember.
In their family photo, taken outside since the world was a cheaper backdrop than the studio, Gene is a toddler in a kind of white and gray smock buttoned up the front, wearing little boots. Roberta is behind him, her face slightly fuzzed, lost on something buzzing in the full-bloom snowball tree, wearing its flower-balls like boxing gloves on the end of every branch.
Who cares about pictures? What do I do now? I’m an only child. In a one-bedroom apartment. I’m the last kid. I don’t want to have kids. And my whole adult life, because of my mom, I don’t keep anything. But, their faces are heavier than mere paper, and the inside of boxes is dark.
If I could have a beer with any of them right now, which I am doing, it would be Victor. Victor is not at all bothered by having been born. He is the only one smiling, his hand on a rifle. Eisom and Pearl appear to be frowning again, but this time I bet it’s because they’ve discovered already what there is to discover. Many times. Whenever Eisom wants it. It’s fine, they appear to say. Everything is fine. What else did you want?
I would have married the man in the window of the coffee shop. I have to just find a human and make a life together, if that’s what I want. Just make the damn life already, every day, wake up and do it.
Emmy don’t you curse, no one says. Of course my spouse will be flawed. We’ll just get up and continue. That’s what I want now. I’m ready to frown and work hard, he might say to me, on bended knee. What else do you want? What do you want him to say to you? after 5 years? after 25 years? I see Pearl forming the words in her mind, and I see a thin crescent of sweat in the underarms of her dress, a house-dress, she called it. I only sweat there when I’m nervous.
I’m getting nervous. So, you have to put an “anchor” into drywall I’ve heard. Or is it plaster? This worries me. I wash up and start arranging the squares of persons to whom I belong. I think I’ll use the family photo: Eisom and Pearl with their kids on the stairs. Then Nadine, stunning and perfectly faced, then the wedding portrait, and then either Gene or Victor.
Victor always had the same house while I was growing up. There was a cave not far out past the property where Gene had done some writing and printing. A lot of people came out of the cave with cash, they say. Long as I remember, Gene always had a dollar bill for us kids, crisp and new. And Victor always walked around with his left shoulder cocked up to his ear. In the picture, he’s just barely smiling a little, a retired plumber. Or was it a wry smile, with just a sprinkle of rage.
Victor was stabbed, actually, in the shoulder by his wife, ‘Sad Dutch Anne’ we called her. Everyone always thought she was such a weeper. Then she miscarried and blew a fuse, her last fuse, the night she was told by the nurse that she’d have to wait a few days to pass it. It passed. She didn’t sleep for three days.
On the third day, she waited for Victor behind their bedroom door and drove a serrated kitchen knife into his shoulder. Mostly it tore at his shirt and pushed around some tissue, damaged a bit of muscle. He just crouched down, pulled her towards himself, took the knife out and held her while she sobbed until she fell asleep. She was committed to an institution. He visited her once a week until he forgot to.
Well, they’re my relatives anyway, all of them. Cheers to them, I say. My mother always made a big deal out of toasting, out of speeches, making eye contact. One thing she never liked about my dad was that he didn’t get excited about celebrations. One thing he didn’t like about her was that she said the same thing at every party. When they divorced, my mother promised to keep together enough pictures of the whole lot of both sides, so that I’d remember what’s important, she said.
She kept them in overflowing piles and bins, heaped together. Some are shaped like squares with white borders, others— even older—are silky and delicate, framed in brown card-stock with the photographer’s logo embossed on the back. Some are from the 70’s, with softly rounded edges, almost square; brown and orange dominate. In at least three of these, my mother’s hair looks soft, her hips sexy, and the brown cattails around their pond are flourishing at four-feet-tall behind her. Others are 4×6 colored prints in which our eyes are red with flash, our clothes bold with the 1990’s, and no one looks good.
They must think I have a house, with storage. They must think I know what’s important. That I can inherit trinkets and heirlooms now, that I have somewhere to put them. They think I’ve made it. Emily, they always told me, don’t curse, Em, listen, you’ve got to live, go to Chicago and really live, you know?
In Springfield, people still talk about the big names in town, the old families, the old mobs, the preachers, the nutters, and the guy who was given a firken of butter as consolation after his cattle froze to death on the way to market in Chicago. Why it mattered to me when I was a kid I don’t know, but I obsessed over the thought of it at night, or on long bus rides up and down the slick hills outside of town. I would close my eyes and lock on to their fat, leathery noses, grayed out by ice and pressed against the rails of the cattle-car. Those eyes, bulging black globes, frozen open with snow on the lashes, a curved reflection of winter farms passing across their surface.
Doesn’t get that cold anymore, not for long enough stretches. Aunt Susan insisted on hot toddies whenever it fell below 40. I don’t remember how she made them, there was some secret I’ve since forgotten.
I line up the candidates. If I don’t hang someone up, I might as well throw them away. Who comes over and asks to see your storage bin of pictures? Now, there’s this one of Naomi. She was Osage, and she hung out with Victor somewhere between visiting his wife and forgetting everything, and together they made my dad. Her square contains most of her body, though I think Victor took the picture. Her forehead is cut off just a little. She’s standing in the deep, wet snow, holding a pair of mittens in each hand, laughing so hard her eyes are closed.
I’m ready to laugh so hard my eyes close. I want to take terrible pictures of one another. And, One Another and I will save only the good ones, laughing. Or will we be frowners? I look again. The snow. I remove the wedding portrait and old Victor from the line-up. I add Roscoe, then, The Snow.
I can’t hold my eyes open any longer. I leave the drill on the charger. The radiator hammers and hisses. I crack open a window and throw my dinner containers in the trash. I take one more, long look at that heavy, wet snow. It had a smell, didn’t it.
I kick off all the blankets and close my eyes. I lock on to the cattle on the way to Chicago. I watch the image of a frozen silo traverse the surface of one, shining, black bovine orbit. I sleep, remembering.