The house is brown, mottled, and nestled away in a cul-de-sac. It is the impish, adopted brother among the rows and rows of white, gleaming houses of the north suburbs of Chicago. The backyard slopes downward to Lake Eleanor, and a disease-stricken crabapple tree hunches over our dilapidated canoe like an ashamed Quasimodo. Clusters of greenish-yellow crabapples droop obscenely from its branches, and the grass is littered with rotting crabapple corpses.
“They look like poop balls,” I say, wrinkling my nose.
My sister is already walking away, her white headphones in, scrolling through tracks on her iPod mini.
“They look like poop balls,” I say louder, flaring my nostrils.
She sits down in a sea of crabapple fecal matter.
I keep a small, black journal. It is an important journal, like the ones important writers scribble into when they’re conversing with their barista. I imagine that their chicken scratch words germinate and blossom into books about Life or Meaning or Hope. I print my name neatly in the upper right corner of the first page. I am careful to not have my s bleed into my t. I carefully close the journal, and then lift the cover slightly so I can peek to the side and make sure it hasn’t smudged in the process. Satisfied, I put it in my desk drawer. Tomorrow I shall write important things.
My grandma has Japanese porcelain dolls populating curio cabinets throughout the house. There’s two in the dining area, one in her study, and another two in the living room. Their pale, corpse-like bodies are decorated with crimson kimonos. Sometimes they shift out of place.
“Things will just settle, ya know?” My dad explains to me through a mouthful of chips during an episode of Ancient Aliens.
I shrug, unconvinced. “Sure.”
My grandma does not share my fears—she tends to them and says that they remind her of Japan. She is too short to reach the top shelves of the cabinets, and she has to stand on her slippered tip-toes to correct the dolls with her fingertips. I sometimes expect her to recoil down screaming, a fountain of blood erupting from a severed finger—the doll on the top shelf cackles maniacally with blood flowing down its chin. Or sometimes I imagine her being thrown into the ceiling by an invisible force, signaling the beginning of our battle with demonic forces from hell.
“They get their power from the dolls,” I would explain slowly, as if talking to a stupid child.
The exorcist would shake his head and speak dismissively in Latin. The movie ends with the dolls tearing him limb from limb.
My sister and I are sprinting through the house, skidding around corners with wet socks and hurling a blue mini-nerf football at each other. My sister runs ahead of me, propelled by her casual disregard for rules and conventions, her long black hair trailing behind her smirking face. I am fueled by a barely contained rage, threatening to burst into a full-fledged temper tantrum. She had teased me for not knowing the capital of Arkansas. I wield the blue lump of foam with the intent to kill. It bounces off of white stucco walls and polished wood cabinets. It sails past a painting of a samurai and hits the dog’s head with a soft thud. We slip and dodge through stacks of newspapers and orthodontics books, careen far too close to the piano, and jump like action movie stars over sickly green furniture covered in opaque plastic. I aim for the back of her head but keep missing. I hope that she slips and falls.
We are riding the Shinkansen, travelling towards Kyoto. The cars are clean, filled with Japanese businessmen and an old French lady from Paris. She is conversing with my mother, and their broken English mixes together into a soft melody as the high-rises silently blur past the windows. It is nothing like the Metra, where couples argue viciously, gesticulating wildly under garish yellow lights, and a bearded man who smells like stale urine tries to sell me “fresh” beers. I sneak looks at my grandpa as I’m eating my bento box. He looks haggard and pale, and he’s constantly running his fingers through his grey hair. His shoulders are slumped forward, and he looks tiny in his green jacket—nothing like the man who dealt out scathing witticisms with extreme prejudice, and then would imperceptibly turn towards me with a quick wink, or the vigorous workaholic who declared that he wanted to die working in his office. I wonder where he is keeping grandma’s ashes. I worry that they will spill.
I’m starting to tire out, and my barely existing throwing arm is failing me more and more. I nearly hit the shark jaw my sister would daringly poke and watch the droplet of blood form on her finger with fascination. My next throw sends the nerf football sailing upwards against my will; the ball ends up cartwheeling off an oblong floor-to-ceiling lamp that only the most pretentious artist would have displayed in their studio apartment. My sister races down the foyer, hopping over the napping dog. My throw veers left and I already know I’ve just broken the porcelain teapot. It spins off the table, the painted blue flowers embellishing its smooth white surface blurring into an ugly smear before exploding into uneven, jagged shards. The dog, bleary-eyed from his nap, rises and pads away from the scene of the catastrophe. My sister and I are motionless, terror having injected ice cold water into our veins. I can see in my sister’s wide eyes the plan of blaming me starting to form as my own mind races to pin this on her.
I’m trying to find him, playing a perverse game of Where’s Waldo. Find the Japanese guy in the sea of stuffy old white men. A sea of smiling faces seated at a bourgeois banquet dinner. My aunt, a jovial woman who insists on referring to herself as “the fat imo” sidles up next to me, a disarming smile on her face.
“You find him?” she asks.
“Nope.” I hunch closer to the picture, biting my lip in frustration. I can’t pick out the faces in the black and white photo; they’re incorporeal, fuzzy, barely there, already gone.
She puts her hand on my shoulder. “Took me 15 minutes,” she laughs.
After the funeral is over I’m hiding in the corner of the room by the pictures. My dad spots me as he’s taking down the banquet photo.
“Did you find him?”
“Yeah,” I lie.
What is your family’s story? I stare at the blinking cursor on the empty word page. I check the assignment sheet to see how long this has to be. 2-3 pages. Shit. I don’t know where to start. I peck out a couple of sentences.
My family’s story is complicated. I don’t know where to start. This assignment is a complete waste of my time. How fun. Thank you.
I delete everything. I wonder if a pretentious metacommentary will work.
Any attempt to encapsulate a broad scope of human experience within a single, cohesive narrative is, quite frankly, an absolute fallacy. What follows is a grotesque attempt to warp inexpressible experiences to the perverse guidelines of this assignment.
No. I delete everything. I try and remember what makes a compelling story. Interesting conflict? A well-crafted climax? Narrative cohesion? Don’t leave loose ends?
I open my school email account and hit compose.
I do not feel comfortable sharing my family’s story with you or anyone else in the class. Is there an alternate assignment I can do? If not, I’ll take the zero.
I keep a small, black journal. It is an important journal, like the ones writers carry around to parse their thoughts. I imagine that if I write down what jumps into my head everything will make more sense, and that my desperate, disparate thoughts just need time to marinate into sensible stories. My handwriting is sloppy and crooked as my hand is unable to keep up with the speed of the anxieties racing through my mind. I leave the journal on my desk, on my bed, on the kitchen table, on top of the grandfather clock, wedged between the couch cushions, even by the bathroom sink. Tomorrow I’ll pace around the house, looking for it in its usual haunts so I can fill more of its pages with confused, meandering ink.
Whenever grandma is in a good mood, she bakes. This means she rarely bakes, but when she does, she seems twenty years younger, urging us all to have one more bite. Sometimes it’s triple fudge brownies that fill the kitchen with its aromatic siren call. At other times she serves the whole family thick squares of steaming cornbread. On occasions rarer still, she’ll bake an impressive white cake topped with a colorful accoutrement of strawberries, kiwis, and blueberries. The whole family relishes these unexpected gifts, and nights that seem to just be the end of another day turn into all of us laughing at the ridiculous, slapstick antics of Japanese gameshow television and trading memorable family stories, such as when my grandpa was held at gunpoint by a junkie looking to score some drugs who didn’t know the difference between an orthodontics office and a dental one. Almost every day I try and ask my grandma if she will be making anything, and most of the time she grunts in the negative, pushing her horn rimmed glasses up her nose. But on those rare occasions, she breaks out into a wide, toothy smile and says she has just the thing in mind.
There is a red Honda on the median of the highway. Our light blue sedan is crawling along in a swarm of other sedans, pickups, soccer mom SUVs, and 18 wheelers. I can barely see the Honda from where we currently are—a massive flatbed carrying cars is blocking my view. All I can see are the flashing red and blue lights, the trunk of the Honda, and the occasional glimpses of men in uniforms ambling about, talking into their radios.
“What’s happening?” I whine, my nose pressed against the window. I just want to get home to play Pokémon Gold on my Game Boy Color, a necessary life-saving activity which I am banned from doing when my parents drag me to church on Sunday.
“I don’t know,” my mom murmurs. I look over and see that she has her face smooshed up against her window too.
“Must be a pretty bad accident,” my dad observes.
We slowly inch further along to the sound of Earth, Wind & Fire. The flatbed lurches forward, and I’m able to see the entire scene. It looks like someone jammed 3/4ths of the red sedan into a giant blender. The trunk end of the car is in pristine condition, but the rest of the car is a complete mash of compacted metal. The roof of the car has been completely crushed in, and the doors are reduced to gleaming, paint stripped corrugated metal. Emergency personnel are milling around the car, waiting for something. I wonder if there’s a person in the car, but I don’t want to ask.
I am on my hands and knees on the cold tile floor, trying to pick up the dozens of porcelain shards. I pick up the larger pieces first—the top quarter of the spout, half of the lid, the broken handle. I pile them neatly together; an amalgamation of vaguely teapot-shaped pieces taking on a sadly incoherent whole. I stupidly wonder if I could put the teapot back together, but there are tiny porcelain pieces, porcelain dust really, that I know I cannot possibly place. I notice my sister inching slowly away from the crime scene, and my dad is suddenly there, pulling me up and dusting me off. I try not to look him in the face but when I do I can see he’s not angry. He is holding the deadly nerf ball—it’s just a toy in his large, calloused hands. He stretches it out to me, and I meekly take it from his fingers, my eyes burning.
To my utter confusion, he is smiling. “Just don’t tell grandma.”
I see my sister’s mouth unhinge in the corner of my eye.
“Or your mother,” he quickly adds.
It’s the same nightmare, my steady dream-world companion as year after year peels away. I’m running through a marsh, and my legs sink into the black muck with every step I take. I’m always escaping from something—it’s either a pack of dogs or an unknown specter. Suddenly I’m transported to the cul-de-sac; the cold wind sweeping off of Lake Eleanor makes my skin feel thin and brittle, like the ancient packing paper we find stuffed inside grandma’s innumerable and non-descript cardboard boxes. My mom’s blue Hyundai is idling in the street, and my mom and dad are frantically motioning for me to get in the car. Sometimes I don’t even make it inside the car, and icy grey hands with long fingers drag me away. In other instances I make it inside, but the same disembodied hands grope, rap, and scratch at the windows, no matter how fast we drive.
One morning I ask my family what the dreams could possibly mean over breakfast.
“It means no one loves you,” my sister says, pouring herself another glass of orange juice.
I’m standing on the balcony overlooking the backyard and the lake, my body wracked with violent shivers under the grey night sky. My toes are completely numb—I am wearing slippers while standing in the inch of snow covering the balcony floor and the railing. My oversized Western Illinois University sweatshirt envelops my upper body like a poor man’s snuggie, providing only the ridiculous spectacle and none of the warmth of the real thing. The lake itself is frozen over, and a thick drape of untouched snow muffles the landscape. The crabapple tree still hunches in its usual spot like a reject Christmas tree, twisted and misshapen unlike the glamorous artificial one downstairs that we’ve dressed up in lights and gaudy ornaments. I try to visually locate the desiccated remains of the buried canoe, and I suddenly realize that I’ve never actually been boating on the lake. I want to run downstairs and make plans with my parents for the spring to visit the tiny island in the middle of the water. And I know I can, and I should, even though it’s 3 am, because that’s how my parents roll. But I also know that I can’t. My dad is still trying to find all of the important documents my grandma hid around the house in the last two paranoid and Alzheimer stricken years of her life, and my mom is wetting my grandpa’s mouth with a sponge as he lies dying. I decide I can wait another year. Or maybe two. Or maybe I should just keep it, a vague future hope I can look forward to at our empty holiday tables.
“I wanna go to Pita Inn,” I tell my mom.
My dad sighs in utter defeat. He hates Mediterranean food, and gives his cover story that it “just doesn’t sit with him right.”
“Why?” my mom asks. “None at Western?”
“All the university serves is dry pizza and slop that hardens into grey chunks. I guess there’s a place that just opened this year called Mediterranean Grill but it’s viscerally repulsive.”
My dad, inconspicuously shuffling towards the fridge, nods in silent agreement.
“Well, why don’t we go somewhere we all can eat?” My mom is playing the diplomat but I’m having none of it.
“But I wanna go.” I’m slightly disturbed by my accurate and unintentional 5 year old impression but I am too hangry to let it go.
My dad waves a plastic container of leftover spaghetti in defeat, saying “I’ll just eat this.”
I find a small, black journal in a musty box in the garage labeled “Justin stuff.” In the upper right corner of the first page I find my own name printed neatly. I flip through the rest of it, finding only slanted cursive scrawl dirty with smudge marks, water damage, and orange flecks of who-in-the-hell-knows-what. It rambles, conflates sentences, confuses words, and has way too many commas. It almost seems to be random ink marks vandalizing the journal’s off-white pages. I consider keeping it, going back and poring over every crossed t and looped l to decipher its meaning. I throw it in the trash on my way out.
My dad and I are waiting for the guy with the crazy hair to appear and talk about aliens. Right now a fat goateed man is enlightening us on the fact that UFOs can go underwater, and that there are entire facilities of aliens living on the ocean floor. He is an insufficient substitute. My dad and I are chortling behind glasses of Cherry Coke, and occasionally burst into fits of outright laughter during particularly inspired segments. We check on grandpa during commercial breaks; we already gave him morphine and wetted his lips with a small sponge. Mom and fat imo are out buying more sponges and food. My dad and I are back at our seats waiting for crazy hair guy. He doesn’t make his entrance and we make bets that he’ll show up near the end of the show. We check on grandpa during the next commercial break. He is dead.