If my mind truly is broke, at least I’m the only one holding the pieces. That’s a rare claim around here, owning something outright. My own people never seen it for real, so all they can do now is walk around the fact of me like a pack of wild dogs barking at a boxed-up turtle, not knowing whether to shout or go blind in the terrible newness of it all. Excuse the truth, but those pieces are mine and not one a’ them’s allowed near. Might get cut and they know it. Had their chance to play is what I’m humming as I sling those pieces like razor dominoes. Used to, I would have been extra careful, about them first, of course, but the world is surely changed. If it hadn’t changed, I’d have to laugh outright, watching ‘em suffer in their confusion. But it has changed, so I don’t. I work my pieces.
On a good day it’s like suddenly being able to play that fifty-cent piano lesson half-learnt in the neighbor’s house and finally getting it right. The curtains open up like a big red flower and everybody claps and there you are, but it’s your own house and everybody’s clean and no one’s shaming your hands that can barely rise above the keys as you stare at the dimes stacked level with your nose, knowing that’s either food for eight or a whipping earned for not learning and you can’t even breathe, so how could you possibly play?
Now it’s fifty times right for every time wrong, is what should finally balance me out, I figure, but there’s always the starting over at the first sour note and some days I do get stuck, some off-key piece won’t work no matter how hard I pound it. Can’t help them days. Other times I’m halfway home before the bell rings, playing loud as I want, loud as I can. Then soft, softer than my hands could ever dream, softer than the teacher’s dress that I ached to lean against. So soft she has to close her eyes to catch it and it’s so pretty and soft that she forgets to slide the dimes into her pocket. Considers herself paid in pretty.
It’s funny what you do come up with, though, just playing. Right pretty designs, sometimes. Other times it’s downright awful stuff that makes you scatter them pieces quick, look out the window and swear off your grief-grubbing forever. But it’s just broken pieces of memory glass on a fat lady’s lap, ain’t nothing special going on. Throw ‘em in the air if I want to, catch ‘em if I care to. Don’t matter. They always come back. Can’t help it. They are mine.
The world-changing started for a fact with Verdell, Jr., soon as they got me inside and settled. Not two minutes after the funeral, the house crawling with people I ain’t seen in years, and that child is out there racing back and forth on the ride-around mower his daddy parts built. There’s a proud one, I thought as I watched him through my side-window. Staring straight ahead and grinning like a blessed fool, he revved it for the hill, roared it under my window, then spun in circles around the only stick tree in that burned-out yard. Now who in their right mind would go and mow the yard two minutes after burying a sister? And still in their church clothes? Probably hoping for a quarter, that one. Give ‘em all fifty cents to go away for good, I thought as I looked around at what death’s home-cooking had brought to my door.
Oh, you stupid grass, I sighed, the nerve to grow where nothing else grows. Stupid child, I moaned so the Devil wouldn’t hear, making me to smell the wicked cut of life when I’m striving for emptiness. Stupid me for plopping out his daddy when I had said no more after six. Stupid how it goes on and on and when does it end? When can one of us count to more than twenty and not feel like a genius, was what I wanted to know.
I was squeezing my armrests and rocking fast as I could when that junked-up machine ran over the hose-pipe and exploded right under my window. And the cat . . . Good God! Attacks the walls of the house, the ceiling! People are throwing plates of food in the air and screaming like a bomb done gone off. Then the beast drops on me and I’m caught, done for, pushed over the edge by stupidity, animals, and di-rect pain.
An ungodly sound flew out of me as I pulled that monster off my neck and moved myself to the bathroom — for I was always parked a straight shot in front of it. Hadn’t been alone on my feet for over thirteen years and there I was, walking, if you could call it that. More like should have dropped like the bloated sack of fat I was, but the crazy rage of a death gone wrong had me by the neck and wouldn’t let go.
I slammed the bathroom door behind me, grabbed hold of the sink with one hand and clawed through the medicine cabinet with the other, looking for ear-cotton, and Lord, the relief once I twisted it in. But it weren’t enough for my trouble, and lately trouble had been hitting faster than I could rock, what with Wayne in prison, Aileen buried today, Lucy long dead, and now Henry starting up wheezing.
Feeling my legs about to go, I cried “Mercy!” At that very moment I found me some open Vaseline to swab that cotton in to better seal up my ears. “Thank you Jesus,” I whispered as I grabbed my side-rails just in time. Then, by releasing my fingers like the airbrakes on Henry’s truck when he’s holding a hill — inch at a time, inch at a time — I hiked up my skirts, lowered myself directly onto the commode and made use of it. Of all the prideful things that I cannot afford in this life a wasted trip to the washroom surely tops the list.
That’s when I saw the penny.
Stuck half-under the baseboard near my foot, my old penny-hunger flared right up. I groaned with frustration and shot my arm out, but didn’t even come close. Worked on it with my shoe, but only managed to shove it in tighter. Damn, I thought, if ever there was a time to get me a penny this was it, for the feel of a found penny always calmed me down. But here was only more proof of my predicament.
Now, pennies are familiar, but when you’re surrounded by filth and nonsense like I was, a penny shines bright. Bright and quiet. Waiting to be found or not. Don’t care, just is. Like I never was allowed, always pushed and pulled and Queen-bee’d to death by them. That’s why I wanted it. A nickel one of the babies would gobble up fast as a goose. Dime? Quarter? Grown men gone crazy, fighting like birds over a piece of string. But a penny lies flat and brown. Takes dirt on its face, says, Okay. Takes feet, says, Thank you. Takes it all and never speaks up. Guess ol’ Abe done bit his tongue so many times he just give up on talking, like I was about to. But I heard him just fine. And the fact that I could not have this one near killed me.
I toed the penny’s edge as I sat, looking in the mirror glued on the wall, licking my fingers and wiping the blood spots off my neck. Then folks started knocking on the door, asking politely Was I okay. I knew they only wanted to use the facilities, but figured if I could hear that I still weren’t safe. My eyes started flinching, looking around on their own. Panicky. Finally lit on an old pair of Henry’s shootin’ plugs on the toothbrush holder where the soap should a’ been.
That nasty habit of his might have finally paid off for me, I thought as I pulled up, leaned forward and caught myself on that poor old sink near ready to pop off the wall from its years of double duty. Doused them plugs with peroxide right where they was and watched the filth boil out as I counted my seconds. Then, by switching hands real quick as I straight-armed the sink — thump, thump — I worked the plugs in, squeezed back onto the commode and stared at the ceiling cracks as the world slowly faded to the great beyond. Finally twinked away, I thought, flicking my fingers and hearing nothing. The real deal, these. Can’t be nothing better.
I pushed the plugs in deeper and shuddered as a tickle shot down my spine. And then, for some reason I’ll never understand, I started thinking about old times — or old times started thinking about me — until out of nowhere I caught a vision of us gone to the grocery store, me shuffling down the aisle with my fake, taped-up leather pocketbook weighed down with whispering Abes. Only this time I knew why people was looking at me and Henry and the kids. Sitting in that tiny bathroom, squeezed between two linoleum-patched walls with the pattern rubbed slick off both sides again, knowing the floor might give out at any minute but too tired to care, I also knew what they was thinking. How could he? Why would they? But fat, stupid me, I had held my head high, thinking this, that, or the other child you’re staring at in disbelief just might be the great, great . . . oh, many greats grandfather of the final, fat-assed redneck child. And that child will someday put his stupid lucky hands on the giant pretty wheel, spin it just right and win the million-dollar prize for all mankind — saving this world from all horrible death, somehow, in the bargain.
Such was my dream.
But in the meantime — and knowing our blood was bad — I dropped child after child into the litter box of life. “There a whore, here a thief, there an idiot. Don’t know what that one’ll be, but go ‘head on, Mr. Devil, take your pick. Take ‘em all, I guess. There’s always more. We’re a lucky family,” I muttered as I shook my head at my old self. Lucky that outright retardation hadn’t attacked us in holy vengeance, is more like it, I thought anew, for them Bible stories had nothing on that old house. By the age of seven I had seen and heard the coming and the going and all the in-between. Even guessed-out half the truly hidden stuff as well. Weren’t pretty to hear then, and there’ll be no telling of it now. What’s done in the barn stays in the barn, is all I’m saying.
Shameful lot all.
But they can’t disappoint you, I realized with a guilty sigh. You knew what you was making, no matter what your dream. One a’ them wasn’t gonna come out waving no fat daddy-check and taking ya’ll to some fancy Florida, you most certainly must have known that. Must be life itself that needs ‘em, then, to fill some dark hole or such so the good folks don’t have to touch dark, can just walk on by and never even guess at what’s looking up at ‘em. But I don’t need to hide from dark. I have touched it plenty. I shivered hard to shake loose any old memory’s grip that even thought of climbing out and eased on back into the silence.
Like seeks like sure as man is born to trouble, it came to me at the top of a yawn as I stretched my unaccustomed backbone. Never seen a dog hopping a turkey, I added, and almost smiled, feeling a bit of the blame lift from my shoulders. So we find each other, it can’t be helped, and are generally safer for the finding, I thought, nodding my head with the forgiveness you allow yourself when times are hard. And generally’s pretty good, considering. I reached for the healing plant — my old touch-comfort — and slid my fingers up each long arm in turn, pulling off the dust, wiping the many mouths. The better to breathe, my darling, I thought. The better to sing, for you, my sweet, are the last living thing I dare to touch with love.
Then I pinched a leaf and did my cuts.
But as the smugness of my satisfaction wrapped around my mind, I tripped over the true ugliness of that word, smug, and knew it for the sin it was. For suddenly I saw my people like I was having an early-morning dream in color — an endless swarm of pig-like creatures crawling through the mud between the factory and the kitchen, the used-parts stores and the Nearly New, picking up what trash and government cheese they could find to patch their lives together until it all became the one, the ever-lasting dreadful day, and how one silly pig trying to escape the pig-sand was pulled down by the stupid, stomping feet of the others and buried for good.
I turned to the mirror to blot out that horrible image, but when I saw my own tiny eyes half-buried under sweaty layers of fat I understood the personal truth of my vision and how it came to be. How one day, between pushing the wolf’s nose out the window with one hand and putting the big pot in the little pot with the other, somehow managing to light a fire under it all and even give it a stir now and then — how one day, between baby-this and baby-that and God a’mercy kick the dog out the kitchen with one foot and rattle the stove with the other — how, on one thoroughly average day, your whole life takes that final hit that changes everything and nothing because it’s your whole life being shifted and way over in the far corner where no one ever looks or cleans the little trick-peg slips down the little trick-hole and before you know it you’re tail-nailed again, hunkered down and going in circles, still wanting better but not able to touch it, barely even think it.
Certainly not make it.
For me it was bearing the nightly burden of little Henry Pratt climbing Mount Lurleen for thirty-seven years — pushing, crawling, crab-desperate to get somewhere — as I lay there, sorting laundry in my mind, figuring bills, listening to the already kids screaming for dinner and yes, finally, I was done. A mind like mine must have comfort, I decided at that moment, for look at where suffering has landed me.
‘Used to be alive.’
Nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard that, even though I felt, more than heard, the words. Which made it worse, for there was a touch to it that I did not care for, like a little red snake had uncurled itself in whatever warmth I was making with my visions and slipped its way through the grey at my feet to rub against my leg as I sat, disappearing in the quiet so deep I wasn’t sure I could feel my own fingers. I touched my mouth — still closed — surprised at the sadness of the hurt that shot through me after the shock of the words wore off.
‘All of you, Lurleen,’ the voice whispered like an ugly gossip, lifting my chin, forcing me to listen. I shook free, grabbed my rails and strained to see around the wall, half expecting one of them to be standing there, grinning and pointing me out to the Devil.
“Well, if I did, I got nothing to show for it ‘cept them!” I hollered, waving my hands in front of me, trying to break up the cloud of memories the voice was riding on.
‘You had powerful thoughts and feelings about better, Lurleen. Kept your mind above the roof and rent,’ the voice continued like the smoothest rumor. ‘Had powerful sufferings, but you took it straight on, Lurleen. Never ran from, never ran to, but stood in the presence and received your blessing. You were planted deep, Lurleen …’
Rocked to a sleepy peace by the hearing of my name over and over — by the fact that someone or something was actually talking to me — I side-stepped the voice on some skinny bridge and walked straight into the land of dreams where I saw myself before the true troubles had hit. I cried out and tried to run forward, but something cut, I tell you, and I could not go there. I lowered my face to my hands in a belly-wash of sadness and squeezed my eyes, striving for the dullness my ears had found, but brilliant flashes of my old life splashed across the black like a crazy chopped-up movie running double-fast. Ghostly children running through the house and squawks of wild laughter all walled up with piano tinklings and tears swirled across my eyes with the hidden screams of doors slamming and animals bleeding, birthing into the eternity of us kids running and running till crazy with laughter and tumbling onto the grass like shaking candy at the sky. But also one far cat moaning low, mouth near the ground, and small hands shaping the air above the rough dirt mound of one rag doll with one rag dress buried at sunset in memory of the unspoken bundle under the midnight rocks and later, clothes snapping on the line and a bigger me on my knees with my hands deep in the summer garden, focused and solid and true. And food! Huge plates of food of my own making!
“I did, I surely did. I remember! What happened, Lord? Where did it go?” I moaned, no longer wanting to stop whatever was happening for there was a powerful sweetness to the pain.
‘ . . . and the whole house sang and you called the tune until all your plans and hard work were slowly pushed into the muddy river of stupidity by them, Lurleen, that constant hair on the tongue of your grace that you will never spit out. Never, Lurleen, never.’
Finished, the voice stood back and faded like the man I had seen walking under the last streetlight on his way out of town as Daddy and us older kids slowly drove past from seeing Mama off at the hospital. Never forgot that empty, stricken face looking straight into the darkness and how I wanted so badly to reach out and touch him that I had to sit on my hands — and the sudden, uncontrollable hunger that flooded my mind.
“So I sat and sat and grew fat,” I whispered through my fingers, “and wanted no more bad to happen. To me.”
I felt the presence of squalid damnation as the walls squeezed tighter and the floor jerked hard and the bulb rattled and flashed above my head. But as I kicked my feet above the ground and struggled to rise, I was filled with an indignation that brought my head up quick.
“I said it!” I cried out. “I done confessed my sin! Ain’t that what you tell us to do, Lord? Can’t help if it’s the Devil got me first!” I shouted, searching the air above me for some twist or thickening of forgiveness. “I couldn’t stand to be alive like that no more. I know I done turned rotten inside but it’s better this way! Lucy’s gone, damnit! Aileen just, the whole world knows Wayne’s in prison and what for, and now Henry’s going down quick. Ain’t no cotton for that, Lord!”
I leaned forward the best I could and sobbed like a baby as the demons of pain and disappointment fled my heaving body, leaving me balanced inside, is all I can think to call it — then I closed that door for good. After a time, I dried my tears, shanked my hair down over my ears to hide my plugs and slowly moved myself back out amongst Them. From the way they stopped chewing and stared you’d think they was watching Lazarus jitter-bugging with a monkey. I wouldn’t know, though I felt a lightness such as I never felt before. They fell back like wheat in the wind as I walked straight up to my special-made chair and began my new life. Ain’t heard nor spoke a word since. Now, if that’s a broke mind then so be it. Broke mind don’t mean but one thing to me and that’s blessed peace as the world slips through, tasting like Eternity. Tasting good.
The others come around on special days, their tongues pushing dark air back and forth above the endless parade of mouthing, red-faced babies. I hold the creatures, when offered, smell the fresh-cut ginger of their bodies, run my hands over their butter-smooth skin and pretend to smile. But secretly I’m feeling for the source of the curse — be it heat or lump — so I can learn it with my hands and squeeze it out, this ongoingness of stupidity. I lift them till we’re touching noses and wait for their eyes to open wide. Then I go inside and pray for the barren womb, the twisted and meager seed. And don’t come out ‘till their breath blows cold.
When they’ve gone to bed I sneak with my eyes. Down the hallway, there, under the flower table, a little brown floor-face shining up. I’ll wait hours, if need be, then heave up and push off. Quick like. Another to hide, to slide in. Won’t tell you where. Like seeks like in the dark. Makes like in the dark. Magnets of faith and knowing, they are, these seven penny years I’ve rocked, and don’t you dare tell me it’s time to start counting. Don’t you tell me nothing. They are mine.
After a rather extended and varied second childhood in New Orleans, MATT DENNISON’s work has appeared in Rattle, Bayou Magazine, Redivider, Natural Bridge, The Spoon River Poetry Review and Cider Press Review, among others. He has also made videos with poetry videographers Michael Dickes, Swoon, and Marie Craven.