A Girl, No Name
When I told my hubby the title of this piece, he thought I said "A Grill, No Flame" (in case if you ever wondered what living with a college professor was like, this is it.) At any rate, this story is semi-autobiographical, but names have been changed (or never given) to protect the guilty. Because, as you'll see, sometimes it's like that...
Like most women whose faces have come undone, my gramma is full of stories. Of her brothers, of her father, seldom of her mother, whom she loved but did not care for. Her own admission. I mine her for information about her family, so many brothers I never knew. She writes them down for me in bullet points, neat. It’s easier than telling you, she says, handing me the wrinkled yellow legal pages, two sheets. So I don’t forget and neither do you, she says:
Royal Frances, the oldest. Died in a car accident, age forty, Washington State. My youngest brother, the one closest in age to me, Howard Matthew, was driving. They were both drunk most likely. Howie hit a pile of logs at the roadside. I was twenty-one when Royal died, a brand new mother to a boy of my own, your uncle. Too bad he turned out the way he did, but that’s nothing to speak of now.
Steven Douglas. Stevie. Died aged seventeen. Mine cave-in, the same one that took Daddy’s leg. Buried near Greenview by himself, all lonesome. The tipple from the mine is still there. We didn’t live there long afterwards. I was three when he died. I don’t remember him but I have three pictures of him and I together. He is laughing in all of them. Stevie in the ambulance, his last words: Hurry up, it’s getting dark.
Donald David. Died at the age of fifty-two of lung cancer. I was thirty-nine then. Had four teenagers and one-grandchild on the way - not you. Donny killed a man once in a holding pen at the county jail. Both drunk, both fighting. Served two years for manslaughter in Southern Illinois. Not a nice guy. His own wife served time for writing bad checks. Her first husband robbed a bank and got away with it. Guess she liked that type. I have no pictures of him and me together. I do not know his last words.
Dwight Ronald. Died aged thirteen. I was six. Drowned in the rising creek near our house at the time. Father and Mother and Royal all went in after him. Royal almost drowned too. We did not stay there long after his death. Mother was afraid of the shadows. I remember Dwight pretty well. A nice boy. Always brought Mother wildflowers. Honey too, when he could find it.
Howard Matthew. Died aged sixty-seven. I was sixty-three then, divorced after forty-one years of marriage. Only a handful of times in our years together can I say your grandfather and I were on the same page. We were rarely even in the same book, let alone the same chapter - ha! But Howie, we were peas in a pod. He was a hobo, exploring the country, working as he saw fit. I would've done the same had I been a man. Howie died from alcoholism. It’ll kill you just as dead as a gun, but a lot slower. He said he had fun in the sum of it all, so who am I to say otherwise?
Then a star, and an arrow pointing to the very top of the list:
I forgot - A girl, no name, twenty years my senior. Lived only a few days. Mother called her Bridey from time to time. Not sure if that was her proper name or not. Mother was given to secrets and Father never spoke of her. I was twenty years from the light then. I did not know her. There are no pictures of her, no gravestone. So much death, sometimes it’s like that.
Her face may have slipped, but gramma’s cursive is ever the same. She had no schooling beyond the seventh grade; she’s always been terribly particular about her handwriting.
I keep this yellow paper, folded into quarters, in my datebook for months, shifting it further and further back as the time passes. I’ll write about it later, after my own sons, all four living and breathing, are asleep. The oldest is nearly a teenager, yet he always falls asleep first. One day, when I have time, when the world slows down enough to keep me from spinning, I will write it all down, I will flesh out the bullet points into real people. I will do this to honor my grandmother, though she has always preferred my brothers, even though I’m the one who visits the most, even though I am the only girl.
One evening just past dark, I go to retrieve the papers from last year’s datebook, discarded in the rubble of the office I share with my husband. I do not find it between the pages. I do not find it anywhere. Have you seen my yellow papers, I demand of each of my sons. The youngest three, the third eight, the second nine, the oldest, twelve. One cries. One shrugs. One is defiant. Sorry, I cannot tell you who is who, who says what. My husband, a man, does not even know about the yellow papers, about the bullet-points that make up the lives of men I never knew. He does not know my gramma either, he stays away. She only wants you, he says, even though we both know this isn’t true.
I used it, Mom, to draw my comics, the eight-year-old says. He’s the one I had the hardest time bonding to as a baby. What came swift and fast with the others was slow, doddering with him. He was almost eight weeks old before I looked down at his tufted head and felt the familiar swelling in my throat, a clotting of muscle and blood that made it hard to breathe, a drowning of self. There it is, I whispered my thanks. Sometimes it’s like that too.