2012—A shiny, whistling bottle of gasoline beneath a tamped, burning wick enters the house in New Orleans from behind a sofa, which sits on a tightly lapped maple floor that rises in a gentle ship’s swell, a rise that resolves pressures long since accepted by the house’s foundations. This curve builds from the blind push of living room furniture against the earth moving with the insistence of millions of root trunks, limbs and water-seeking hairs sent out by the front yard trees, which may soon burn, too. The lone bottle flies perfectly thrown, not tumbling but arcing through the simple glass panes, bottoms up, and riding a thin smoky trail from its burning wick. Meeting resistance in the thin, invisible air, it wobbles slightly like a black rocket wiggling as though thin wires would be obvious, meets and courses through the window’s glass, which has thrown light across the sofa’s glazed chintz flowers for fifteen years without interruption. For a moment, there is only the surprised clash of glass against glass, the bright strain of the window and a ping, and then the cocktail has made its way through the failed window, the sash holding to the shards not taken. The Molotov cocktail has arrived unbroken in a dive toward the floor, arrested in its flight to hover like a furious angel.
Then stress cracks open, circling the bottle’s base, feathering in microseconds like the shock of dissolution sending its message through the clear glass vessel, and the cocktail breaks up in mid-air. The 93-octane gasoline has no shape until it ignites in a formless instant: Vapor flashes and rises, droplets ignite and accelerate from the center outward, and the wick carries forward through the liquid mass of petroleum, which has a form now: a burning fabric, a burning dress, a flaming cape spreading in air two feet above the sofa’s flowers. Its disappearance will arrive after a wild dance in flames.
Shards of the failed window have not yet reached the floor when the leading edge of the gasoline mass meets the floor, backs up in a hydraulic jump and lashes the sofa with an angry tail. The floor lit slowly and cradled its flames until the furniture was burned from below. The sofa’s horsehair stuffing lifted into instant flame and ignited the yellowed wallpaper. The quick vapor cloud climbed through itself twice in a vertical roll toward the ceiling, and meeting that, spread outward in perfect roiling circles. From beneath, it is a flat cloud larger in diameter than the spread arms of the boy who threw the bottle. Certain, more aerodynamic, gasoline droplets have passed the wave of gasoline and spattered on the curvaceous faces of inlaid walnut bureaus and sideboards where their small burning licks up shiny lacquer finishes. The lace curtains, which until now have only patterned the light that dances on the sofa and seconds ago caught flying shards of glass are not yet completely billowed. They are returning to their natural drape as the sofa burns upward with enough heat to dissolve the gentle lace patterns.
Lying down, meeting resistance, floors, baseboards, dust-bunnies, pencils fallen behind bureaus, the gasoline steals the shape of the house and flattens quickly into a thin layer of liquid supporting hungry flames with the single mind of gravity. It has raised the temperature in the room fifteen degrees and taken half of the still air before the room’s finishes betray the house, join the flames and carry the job forward. On the sunlit wall that holds a broken window, flames have fingered wallpaper seams, singed paper pulp and climbed toward the ceiling carried by a rising thermal draft. The floor’s varnish has bubbled and begun to smoke thickly where gasoline kisses it directly. It has exploited the hairline seams between sticks of maple and invited the cool liquid between; the cool liquid has baited the flames that pursue it deeper; the clanking bottle fragments have left minute scratches on the floor as they tumbled toward the baseboards. This room where nobody has sat for fifteen years has risen up in a box of heat and turned against the rooms that neighbor it.
From the point of view of the video camera outside, this room has filled with stinking black smoke, cracked by the lightning of flames. The video camera is manned by Harley, great grandson of Benjamin Adler, who built this house. Harley stands on the sidewalk.
Once lit, the sofa cannot stop, a smug collection of upholstered curves held tightly by shiny, glazed fabric burns. It is opening under the pressure of its stuffing, freed by the loss of its skin, feeding horsehair and cotton to the flames dancing on its arms. Soon, it sends its springs a few feet into the air, shot from its skeleton to zing. The gasoline has reached beneath the cushions, found pennies and dimes and pet hair, found the skin cells of those who slept there, sat there, begged for love with pining eyes. The sofa cannot stop as though it has waited for this burning, a wellhead shooting its fuel into the air of an oil field.
Fire will first reach the room above the sofa, turning beneath the ceiling, tricking the helpless floor above and climbing over its edge, poking through nail holes in the trim, climbing through the narrow tunnels of the wall—convincing the cloth covering of the wires to join it—and looking out of the outlets at the fringe of bed skirts. From beneath, the ceiling has lit and warmed the air in the cavity of this bedroom floor; the air is rushing about disturbing insulation, warning plaster lathe, carrying smoke from below and blowing it with a sharp whistle through gaps in the flooring. There is cotton muslin on the underside of the bed hanging like Spanish moss, reaching downward to grab sparking dust and lifting upward to ignite the cheap pine innards of a box spring—while pioneer flames have licked the bed skirt—and now the bed has lifted like a hovercraft and made a gentle huff of bursting into flame.
There is no one to fight the fire.
In the kitchen, there is a KitchenAid stove. Its gas lines vibrate beneath its skirts at the far end of a burning living room with one large oven-door glass eye. The woman who used this stove, Mrs. Ellen Centenary Menteur, was Harley’s grandmother. She was a sea-gull: nervous, scared, timid and gutless, feeling portent, feeling premonition, indication and sign type of person who would often say before a road trip: “I dreamt of fire!” Her stove has burned chickens, pigs’ bacon, fish, and vegetable inside it.
Some gasoline cocktail has splashed into the kitchen, to burn beneath the door frame, and die ineffectively on the clicky linoleum surface, still, heating the countertops and cabinets, kitchen table and chairs!
Beside the kitchen door, the sideboard circles flame across china plates, feeds it with lace dresser scarves, reflects it with a dumb mirror, and kneels so that the flames may reach wallpaper, thereby the upper timbers of the door frame. There, the burning lingers, doubtfully caught between rising to the ceiling and walking like a fly down the door frame to meet linoleum, which has now changed its nature, which does not now brush the flames aside but grows torpid in the heat, loosens its grip on the flaky red marble pattern burnished by shoes and by bare feet standing on it to cook breakfast, lunch, dinner, to reflect from below figures slumped at the kitchen table late at night. The linoleum swells and returns to asphalt, a perfect fuel of crushed dinosaur bones and plants, burns now in a stable mass that gasoline could only envy. The updraft of heat clears a vacuum and pulls down half the flame sent through the door by the sideboard, sends it a few feet further into the kitchen and lights up every chrome surface in the room.
The sofa is a hill of fire on four legs. The drafts in this room blow outward through the broken window, and the camera sees its first sure sign outside that the spectacle has begun. The flames will course the outside wall and climb in the bedroom window where the bed, too, is a pyre in a square ring of fire, the lower edges of each of the walls that surround it skirted with flame. In those walls, super heated air is blasting upward and dragging flames behind it in a run on the attic. There, on top of the house and beneath the roof, are the memories. If it were possible, one could see only now a lift of the dust in new movements of air.
Below, the living room has exported its fire to the rooms that border it, to the salon where children were set uncomfortably and adults more so, on velveteen settees and armchairs. It has sent the fire to another bedroom in search of clothing, shoes, bedside books, and quilts.
Above, warms the menagerie of scrapbooks, school annuals, dried flowers, fans, baskets, unneeded beds, tin scraps, sewing machines, nameless boxes, and wardrobes.
Between, the bedside table falls off spindly legs and its drawer of pencils, magnifying glasses, photos, and candles tumbles onto the floor to burn.
Outside, Harley shields his face from the heat, watches the fire in a camera screen, wonders if the lens casing will melt. The camera shows fire explore the face of this house, watches smoke pour in soft currents between the siding, records the blunt clinks and thumps of the house’s insides dropping to the floor behind a growing roar. The facade of the house has twitched noticeably when the ceiling has pitched downward a hot mass of crazed, burning figures, junk, and smoke into the kitchen and out the window like a bomb.
Some cities are better without their past; some houses and their neighbors can be burned. It’s a crime but a blessing Harley has for YouTube: four branches of American family tree to burn, and in New Orleans, nothing is crazy enough to draw attention but a fire. A small, sad secret: The wooden homes of New Orleans burn too fast for firemen to reach them. They have just a few witnesses.
Beneath the roof, a yard sale of junk and specifically connected things is the last remaining space that does not burn. It is a capsule atop a rocket. The arsonist’s work does not reach here; however, the burning house attacks, marches up the stairwell in a hairy fire and strains its burning into a sacrificial bowl of orange and rage. Each and every thing in this attic tugs like a deep sea diver on the lines that connect: to Marie, to Edie, to Mrs. Ellen Menteur and her disappeared husband and all the way back to the fine French city of New Orleans. Each of them may now feel a pull so gentle it could only be at the end of a spider’s thread.
Harley’s camera is recording this. He can see through his plaintive lens the appearance of fine lines too numerous to count rising above the house in a Hydra’s head of snakes, and too late, too many of them flash forward seeking his chest, bounce off the camera’s eye and expire. The rest must certainly be reaching for every level of heaven: These are blood lines, the channels of family trees from root to limb, mutated and mistold family histories, the marching lines of Mardi Gras parades, and the threads that held buttons onto the parade jackets; the lines traced by the need of love that mimic and short circuit the nervous systems of all those bodies whose keepsakes and junk has lain safely untouched for fifteen years above the rooms. Harley’s camera is recording the conversations that lined up like train cars on telephone cables and split the talkers one from another, forgave one for another, forgot one for another.
The kitchen floor has fallen into the basement, left the stove to fly on its own, cradled the unused refrigerator, and wrapped itself around one kitchen table and four chairs. The timbers have not yet reached concrete below, the stove—a bad flier—drops immediately and snaps its copper umbilical cord: there, mimicking the Molotov cocktail wick, a pitiful flame shoots from the line and ignites the remaining gas in a perfect blue ball expanding in a wave of concussion: heated cheese graters, stainless steel colanders, and knives ride its shell and flicker in utilitarian shapes.
Harley’s camera sees, for a miraculous moment. He stands beneath the live oaks in the neutral zone of St. Charles Street, empty of streetcars now; but, for the money shot he’s running, looping toward the burning residence of his grandparents across the street: Benjamin and Ellen Adler. Harley has less concern for the severity of the crime than he would have in a better run city than New Orleans. He’s capturing the video, but it seems clear the Molotov cocktail was thrown by several generations.
Harley’s camera sees, for a miraculous moment, that the attic is floating above nothing, that beneath it the four walls of this house have shivered and lain down on the four quarters and left nothing beneath it. The camera sees a broken piñata of love chests, newspapers, milk bottles, magazines, glass insulators, light bulbs, garden hats, typewriters, shopping bags, and window dressings about to pour downward from beneath the roof held aloft it seems by the moldy electrical wires attached to power poles.
Lunging too close to the collapsing house, Harley has spread his arms and legs to slow the tumble he is in, to protect himself from the debris that is clattering to the ground from above him and shooting from the air toward him.
Harley’s mother is not there, but her little girl’s dresses are, and her sister’s, too. They open like parachutes on the upwelling heat and burn quickly like cigarette papers. They burn because they belonged to an indecisive girl who liked men to start her fires.
Harley’s Aunt Edie is not there, but her scrapbooks are. They do not burn in the air because they are locked tightly beneath leather covers. They will drop beneath this house and burn like cordwood when the roof has settled over them. They burn this way because they were created by a girl who had no escape except the thickening of her skin. She would be water-bird silly, wary of shorebirds. She remained afraid, also frightened, alarmed and apprehensive. Edie is his mother’s identical twin.
Harley’s Grandmother Ellen Menteur is not there, but her songs are, living hidden on ancient wax disks that light from the edges inward, falling and spinning. They burn this way because she was a woman whose dark center could pull nothing into it, could only send words away from it in slathering droplets like burning shellac.
Harley’s grandfather, William Centenary Menteur, is not there, and nothing of his is except that nothing that is there escaped the touch of his disappearance. There is a grease-stained paper plate falling inside a simple wooden box, and his writing is on this paper plate, the words the elder Menteur took to heart: He wrote in soft lead pencil on his plate, how he had to leave: “Ellen—;” he wrote a long passage. It said, “I am so ashamed at my disintegrating dignity, I grind my teeth over certain disasters. I have been known to throw temper tantrums. Lonely people find joy vicariously.” The paper will burn out behind the graphite, and leave the message written in coal orange script on its ash for a moment.
Titus Burkhardt is not there, and no thing of his tumbles to the ground, but he is the heat rising from that blank house, rushing to the skies and dissipating in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. This is his best-lit match, certainly.
Birds are there. They, with the exception of a few random field mice, have been the sole inhabitants of this dead house now disappeared beneath them. In a single black cloud of shifting shape, angry, obscure birds that might be bats finally, finally, finally! blow out from beneath the creaking wings of the roof and carry those flames that have caught them in a wild ball held together by burning flock instinct, catch in the concussion of exploding gas and scatter like buckshot into the grass and water around that house.
When the firemen finally come to do their work, the water that douses these birds is the voice that soothes, even unto the future. It goes to warn black ravens that are sooty, sooty and charged with accusation. Warn them, that their work is done.
Before Harley Was Born
That night the Crazy Birds entered Mrs. Menteur’s throat. On the table, her roasted chicken sat in its black enameled roaster pan and shriveled into its shiny skin. Flakes of cayenne glistened on the mashed potatoes. The potatoes cooled on the dinner plates and became stiff gravy volcanoes. Her moody daughters Edie and Marie were putting Mother on the spot. They were playing a guessing game, in which Mother was responsible for discovering and then apologizing for an unknown misdeed on her part. It was a game that her adolescent daughters played much more skillfully than she did.
After picking a third piece of chicken into a mess, Edie flushed red in her cheeks and scraped her fork across the plate in anger. That was Mother’s cue to begin suffering. Marie certainly knew what was on her sister’s mind but was not telling.
Edie’s motions became short. She sent out waves of heat and frustration, which Mother would have to translate before Edie could open up. And then the two girls were silent, and Edie tugged at her hair. Not since her early studies at Loyola had Mother felt so unprepared. Her time had been, at the very least, simpler. Now it seemed to her that there was little else for Edie and Marie to do but find psychotic boyfriends who could distract them from their Mother’s ponderous theatre. Edie would have! but could not! bring home a girlfriend.
Edie’s color was already high when she arrived at the table. Mother tried to draw her out with talk of boys, and talk of the new school year, with chatter about purchasing another car—meaning the girls would get their present car only weeks after they had gotten their driver’s licenses! And promises of new school clothing like dresses and pantsuits with psychedelic flowers and colors—or whatever the confusing fashion was.
It all fell on deaf ears. Mother felt used. She felt used up. She was fighting seafood all day long, and sorting shrimp she could not afford, in order to feed them this dinner, which drained her to cook for no appreciation. Mother’s throat tightened and cut off her sentences unexpectedly. In the softness of her neck, her muscles clenched and behaved according to some alien nervousness. Mother might have said, “you have a friend,” but pauses in the conversation grew longer and the chicken got colder and thinner in the roaster pan. Mother might have said, “you have a friend in me—” She did say that. And she thought Marie might have snickered.
The roaster pan became very interesting.
Mother focused on that roaster pan and recited its history to herself. That roaster pan came from her disappeared husband’s grandmother. Borrowed once and left in the cupboard, returned belatedly, and then given back as a gift of charity. She memorized the details: black enamelware, channeled on its bottom in a pattern that reminded Mother of a fish skeleton. She scraped at the pan with her fingernail and felt a heat rising in the back of her neck, felt the muscles heat and solidify into a dull throb. Her chair creaked under her shifting weight.
When her throat began to clamp shut, Mrs. Menteur’s breath came down it roughly. She knew from experience that she could make her throat loosen, but hatred flared, too, something new, like a flock of crazy birds lifting off the heavy green spillway, speeding and flocking around her. She felt something like hatred unexplained.
“Eat your damn chicken,” she said; it came out compressed, sounded like “Eeeyerdamshick.”
She tried again, she said, “eyoreshicken.”
Neither Edie nor Marie noticed that she could not speak. Their mother was losing the ability to speak and they were not noticing. Maybe that is why she felt such sinful hate. She had not drunk any cocktails!
Edie pushed at her plate. Her mother pushed it back. Edie finally said out loud, “I pretty much hate you.”
“No, you don’t—she said?” But Mrs. Menteur could not say that. The silence was noisy with Mrs. Menteur’s raspy breathing.
Edie put her fork to her plate and again, the scrape made each one jump in their chairs.
Mrs. Menteur brushed her lap and concentrated on loosening her throat, which was not responding to her will. Covering her weakness she sighed and said, “Hmm.”
Edie repeated herself. “I hate you, pretty much,” she said.
And a pain rose in Mrs. Menteur’s chest, a shortness of breath. She said, “Hmm,” again. Her voice was rising to a high, airy pitch. This was a joke? She simply could not ask what had Edie so upset. Marie would not tell. It was a warm black movement of thorny layers shifting inside Mother’s chest.
Mrs. Menteur screamed, “Gon’ klean the platz? Gon’ klean the platz!” and dashed from her goddamn dinner table and left her daughters confused.
“Gon’ to taka ba-th!” she added.
But her hot bath did her no good. When the evening had passed, Mrs. Menteur found she could not fight her throat. She was made to spend the hours in an anxious fright, which she hid from her daughters behind closed doors.
One cannot describe what the throat does when caught between the twin-coiled snakes of history and loss. Though neither head may strike, they are each in their turn too real: History strikes with regret; loss strikes with sainthood. The night the Crazy Birds entered Mrs. Menteur’s throat was voodoo, was dancing coils of smoke and chicken’s blood.
The Beginning, From Marie’s Point of View
A fruit bat bit me at the age of eight. I was a little girl. It was 1971, and my sister and I looked like sparrow girls with knobby knees. I was thin, with thin bones, and when the summer sun came over me sometimes my eyes were dark wells like Lady Bird Johnson’s. Since it also left no marks on my neck, I say I was not scared—but I do not know—maybe the bat thought it had attached itself to a birdling.
We replayed the scene. We left hickeys on each other’s necks playing vampire. When Mother discovered what we were playing, she rose up with her eyebrows arched clear to her scalp and she spanked us both like we had stolen something. That was a beautiful thing. Our hair scattered like chimney-orange fire behind us while Edie and I tried, and failed, to outrun her with our hickeys.
I do not remember being bitten by the bat, but Mother told me the story of that great beast, “like a vampire angel!” as it descended on its wings black and gossamer. She told me the story in her beautiful hysterical language many times. She said, “the shadows!” and it perched on the foot of my bed where its toes curled. She said, “wickedness and hunger!” as it thought of the blood it would draw from me. It left no memory for me. And each time Mother told me the story in her staccato language, I imagined the bat hearing my breathing, softening the surprise of its landing so gently. Mother said, “it came to dinner like a devil!” and it was clear that uninvited dinner guests were evil. It was dressed in the evil adverbs and exclamation points of Mother’s stories, which left us with a picture of a rat-fur creature that felt painful stirrings in its belly, and could hear the vibrations of blood in the veins of other creatures. The high-pitched shrill of its voice, tuned by its angry little teeth into a kind of eye with a special affinity for lacy dresses, shiny shoes, pajamas, baby shampoo, and knob-knee little girls. That kind of storytelling was Mother’s talent. She spared us no detail. She gave us each a role to play, she split us right down the middle with every overheated, frantic tale she told us. She summoned the pain of the entire New Orleans on her smooth, imperious features each time, and spun our lives out in a continuous story.
Now Edie and I are not entire without each other. We grew where black water spread aimlessly through the wide spillways around our house. We were alive with the smell of sassafras root, sweet olive, and redfish emanating from the pores of our skin. Everyone suffocated in the wet heat, and the air held my own body still for entire summers.
Edie and I played Father and Mother sometimes, when we were sure they would not see us. Edie did Father so well, it put us in stitches. She pulled her pants up and let show a couple inches of white sock over his borrowed shoes huge on her feet. She would say “Christ A’Mighty! I’ll burn this house down! If I can find a book of matches!” The house would have burned well, we thought, in a heated, adolescent way; it was built of dry wood from dry seasons: cypress and yellow pine. That summer, floors had been laid, on a shocking morning when Edie and I came down stairs and saw that Father had removed the entire first story floor, and we could see clear to the concrete basement below through the naked joists. We could see the washing machine like we were flying above it.
But any fire in that dry wooden house would have been stanched by the wet swamp dirt that lapped up against it. We thought that was funny. The roof over our heads was a tired set of wings.
I did Mother pretty well. We ratted my hair up into a turban of fiery red, and I carried her coffee cup like a cattle prod. I was always the director. “Don’t split your goddamn infinitives, William! The girls will pick it up!”
I also interpreted for Edie what we heard them say during fights. We had ringside seats. Mother and Father were contentious. They fought. Because they never changed their minds, they never backed down and they never lied to sweeten things up. There was no room for them to maneuver around each other. They could have taken a cue from Ricky and Lucy and put up in separate beds, but they did not. Instead, Mother made the trundle bed in matching sheets like her own. She kept our house and tried to remain calm, which was impossible for her. When she put Father through his paces late at night, Edie and I heard it all up close and personal. I was the director, so I knew why they said what they said. Nothing that I told Edie stayed true, but I have always been a confident storyteller.
I do not remember Father before he went to Vietnam. He made good memories because he loved us very much and said wonderful things that I’m sure have made me strong (his words bore good fruit.) Despite anything Mother has said, his leaving was a long time coming when it did. For instance, there was a letter Father wrote to me around the time of his leaving: hope this reaches you in good health and spirits. What that was, I do not know, we were all in the same damn house, settling into the mud.
Mother would not have guessed that reporters would be jumping from helicopters in Vietnam, microphone in hand, to narrate the war on the spot in front of camera crews. She would find herself looking for her husband on the little screen.
Easter Sunday, 1976, our proud Father and his twin girls. Mother is behind the camera and Father is in a thick white tie. He holds our hands. They were the best they would be for Edie and me. Father smiles, scoops us up in flurry of Sunday dresses and patent shoes. He looks like an Olympic swimmer; he is graceful. Mother, when she moves into the frame is elegant, dated fashionably in knee-high boots. The action is all blur and family. I have used the footage in my films sometimes when I’m in a bad mood. I know that there is good Super 8 stock like that everywhere. They were probably in a heated discussion—stopped a moment—flashed a camera—and continued to argue. I wish there was more to follow it.
From the time we were born until he left in summer of 1976 my father, William Centenary Menteur, woke every morning to troll out into the Gulf of Mexico. He netted fish, checked crab traps, and dragged for oysters—which were meticulously counted, and then charted in numbers.
In the afternoon when the conveyors were busy with the many catches of local fishermen, my father would inspect the haul. He checked the size and development of mollusks, their hardiness; he watched the crabs for changes in their molting cycles. While oysters jiggled up the black belt and tumbled into bins, he told his Vietnam stories to the fishermen and made bar talk, stopping to examine prawns for mutations or inspect the bright eyes of a shrimp. His pay was provided by refining companies, something he found ironic. In the South, poorly controlled polluters were the most generous employers of fish inspectors and they paid him well for the little bit of work he did. Many of the fishermen worked near their wives, because while the trawlers came in lined up to the horizon, the women worked in a building next door to the conveyors. They packed the shrimp whose spines sliced their white cotton gloves.
All that goes almost unremembered by me. What do I know? I know that Mother could have made it up. During that time, Mother was probably not holding on well to herself—or what she meant to herself—because she was getting frantic. She was fighting her life where houses did not get painted and there was no money for tailors or maids. It was making her brittle, and taking her outside the security she had built for us with her imperious love. I—but never Edie—stopped wasting mental effort on dreams of wealth engendered by Mother and her breeding, but it was too late: We’d already paid the price for that seduction. During that time, however, everyone knew we were poor as shit just like them.
In Lake Charles there was not any peace or repose for a woman like Mother, and during her days, she crept toward the eastern side of New Orleans, where the shrimpers built shacks along the Mexico Gulf to find the coffee: Viet immigrants chopped up catfish with mallets and knives on the sidewalks. Wore pointy straw hats. Drank rich, black coffee filtered into condensed milk over ice in the French style. That was joy, she insisted, in a little dose. That was close to what a person deserved, she said. She went on at great length over those small cups.
She told us the story of my great grandmother’s delivery at the hands of the Virgin onto my great grandfather Benjamin’s Mardi Gras float; it was how they really met. Mother provided us with a detailed history of finer things her sensibilities bespoke; the veal cutlets that were consumed on bisque china in our grandparents’ New Orleans home she was to inherit. The fine fit of real tailored clothing, the excellence of the furnishings and the amusements and confections that a good pastry chef in all likelihood was—even now—bringing to our grandparents’ table, at which we were not welcome. In time our grandparents’ house became a treasure chest of precious glass, fine linens, cherry wood, walnut, gilded pages, and rare songbirds. By Mother’s reckoning, however, it would have been easier to steal the Ark of the Covenant than to get into that house.
Of course, good coffee is a poor substitute for a happy marriage. She just plain failed to ever explain why her parents had turned their back on her and retreated into that house. We would learn despite her that the newly minted Mrs. William Menteur’s bridesmaids had not yet let down their hair; her groomsmen had not yet returned their tuxedos when she disappeared into the swampy countryside surrounding Lake Charles and found her dowry empty. All funds had been retracted by horrified parents, on a long thin line, backward into their storied past. They had fervently wished she would marry inside a tightly controlled list of surnames, live in a few special districts of the city and send her children to the Sacred Heart Academy. This is how she was raised; the angels had drafted tirelessly, drawn critical details into her life. She fouled it when she missed her own coming-out party to marry a Communist.
So Mother stayed up late and alone at night. Father snored in bed. This and many other small crimes were things Mother did not forgive him.
Father did not better the situation; he took instead to leaving us for sometimes one, sometimes two days, working his way up the shoreline, calling Mother too late, when it was already obvious he would not be home. Mother used his absences against him and called it a sign of his carelessness. She said it was “a sign of that man’s incompetence!” She said with such gravity, “that man!” I almost forgot what he looked like. He was always sowing some kind of seeds, like sometimes they were just little gravestones and crosses, the death of everything lovely in his life. He trampled everything he crossed in his shrimper’s boots.
Her accusations tormented him. She told him that he did not know what love was! Love was proof. Love meant that you could speak your mind and remain calm even when you were full of rage and swollen like soaked beans. You did not have to blow up and swing your fist. If you were smart, then you could talk when emotion overcame you—but then, Father did not know what emotion was. Mother would say tartly, “That is how your life becomes a story.”
Eventually, her contempt was hidden from us by their strained efforts, but then Father was gone. I had already begun to form a picture in my mind of Mother, floating motionless in the dark spillway waters, staring like an albino crocodile waiting to strike at him again.
He left a note on a paper plate, written over a stain from a catfish sandwich he fried himself. A touch of cayenne and a lot of white pepper because Mother was enthralled by the bicentennial celebration on our TV. She had made repugnant little red, white, and blue weenie hors d’oeuvres that were so ugly they ended the marriage on the spot. He wrote in soft lead pencil (one of Edie’s school pencils) on his plate how he had to leave. He wrote a long passage. It said, “Ellen, I am so ashamed at my disintegrating dignity. I grind my teeth over certain disasters. I have been known to throw temper tantrums. Lonely people find joy vicariously.” He finished off with a meaningless message about how even though he was going, he was going to be there in spirit—but the last lines were never clear beneath the greasy smudge of catfish. Edie and I have always wondered how a man so dimwitted as the one Mother portrayed could use so many adverbs in so few sentences.
Mother tucked that greasy plate beneath her blouse and thought briefly, she has told us at length, of sucking on the tailpipe of the station wagon he left us. She did not, but her feelings were distorted in countless retellings until William Menteur’s leaving became a grotesque accidental kidnapping and loss. “A Nightmare! A Fine How Do You Do!” Father really just walked out to trade crab traps for lobster pots and continue his work on the Eastern seaboard. He literally walked away with nothing more than his wallet. Stunned, Mother extracted the last salty fragments of her marriage from his leavings. Remedy was not available. Fetching the medicine was not possible.
She bought a mahogany box for the paper plate and stored it in the kitchen and began to raise us alone. She held us by the necks above the ground until we got older and I got smarter. Smart as a whip, and it’s not often that I have trouble putting a spin on anybody’s head. Mother cared for my use of words, saw to it that I could speak and write well. Father was gone and she was in charge, so: She kept the house. She was wired for a mild drug intake. She made a small sum of money from the popularity of two songs she wrote and did piecework when the trawlers dropped shrimp, something that pained her greatly.
This mahogany box, burning, was the blurred object falling last in Harley’s video. It was off to the right, falling beneath the eaves.