Madness with Grief
M. Kaat Toy

Publication October 2021!

 

 
Binding

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ISBN 978-1-60489-300-7, Trade Paper, $17.95

ISBN 978-1-60489-302-1, Hard Cover, $27.95

Also available in Kindle and e-book!

 

Excerpt from Book:

One winter night during Eleanor’s senior year in college she and her brother Teddy, older by two years, stood in the institutional light of their central California home propped up by the green- tiled kitchen counter. Actually they were sloping, on very separate places, against the counter which curved around the intensely familiar kitchen.

Eleanor felt the air of intimacy was strong enough to bend light. The scene, to her, appeared as if reflected in an insect- eyed surgical light. Knowing their parents were out, they had coincidentally returned—she from her academic absences, Teddy from the prolonged nearness of his house in town. This meeting in the presence of queer angles of light was a rare chance for her to question her brother aided by an atmosphere of drunkenness and calculation.

She went into the den, removed a plaque from the wall, and returned holding it closely, knowing Teddy knew what the plaque said: “Third Place. California High School Music Awards. James Jasper Lihte. Saxophone.”

Mornings when she was ten, she would finish her breakfast as her big brother, Jamie, older by eight years, rangy and remote, walked in rubbing his dark eyes, tired from late nights practicing with his rock band, Lost Celestials. He was their leader. After school he was the drum major on the football field. But in the mornings he was simply late.

“You’re burning the candle at both ends!” their mother would scream at him, as if it were unnatural, as if it were something criminals did to escape.

Eleanor laid the plaque on the counter. “I’ve been thinking how different we might be if Jamie wouldn’t have died.”

The events in their lives were probably explainable, justifiable, not really negative at all when viewed with the proper attitude, having a bright side, a silver lining, she thought. Perhaps the silver lining was the lure of death, she considered, conceded.

Teddy shrugged his shoulders, threw back his head, and took a long swallow from his beer. He put down the empty can.

She continued. “If he would have finished college then you might have finished. It would have been different if he would have been around, if he would have made it through, don’t you think?”

Teddy shrugged again and opened the refrigerator. She moved to help him, slipping a beer can from her hand into his then moving back.

“We might have all been teachers,” she said. “If Jamie were teaching music, and I were teaching, you might have gone into teaching.”

Teddy smiled a little then popped the top.

“I guess it doesn’t matter. At least you’re making money. Do you like working for Dad?” Their formidable father was a contractor, the best around people said.

“It’s all right. It’s pretty hard, but it’s not as bad as people think.”

She picked up his ashtray. Dampening her finger under the water tap then dipping it into the ashes, she drew a thick black trail that curved at each bend of the counter, replenishing the mixture each time the streak began to thin.

He extinguished his cigarette under the faucet and got another ashtray from the windowsill.

“I was thinking of going to Jamie’s grave,” she said. “Have you ever been back?”

“Shit,” he responded, then walked to the dining room table to look at the mail.

She dipped her finger into the water and ashes again. “Just thought I’d ask. No one ever talks about him. Mom and Dad won’t talk about him. I feel bad asking them. I think they feel guilty.”

“They don’t feel guilty. It wasn’t their fault. They loved him more than anyone.”

We all loved him more than anyone, she thought.

“You don’t really blame them, blame them for what happened, do you?” he asked.

Of course. Of course not. It was the fault of the number line that reached out from the kitchen corner of this house into infinity.

Sentences dissipated in the air between Eleanor and her brother.

“Why do you think Mother and Dad had those football players live here after Jamie died? Don’t you think it was strange?” she asked.

From when she was eleven until she was fifteen, her father invited home a good-looking football player from the junior college to placate their mother, to take Jamie’s place.

“They thought it would be good for us. They did it to help us.

They didn’t think about it. And there was room.”

Of course. There was room. The house was obligated to fill itself, to make room for the needy.

Teddy came into the kitchen, picked up his beer, and turned toward the sink, sucking slowly. She realized she would never know in what ways he was lying. She asked why her displays of affection, her questions about his work and social life, her interest in what magazines he preferred caused him to become angry, preparing for his answer by concentrating on the loud buzz of the light overhead, forcing herself to become intrigued with its glare.

“It’s not you. It’s just that first it was Jamie then Grandpa. You know how they used to say, ‘He’s his grandpa’s boy,’ the big deal about Grandpa.”

She nodded. Teddy, born on their mother’s father’s birthday, the only child their mother saw something of herself in. Their grandfather had paid special attention to him, but their grandfather died the year after Jamie did.

“Then it was Greg. When I heard about him, smashed inside his car, his dog standing guard outside, that was it. I just didn’t care anymore.” He bent his head back, sucking his beer. Greg was his college best friend.

She had forgotten so much, not counted so many things. That was why it never added up. She remembered Teddy coming home from work one summer afternoon, changing his clothes, going to Greg’s funeral, then going back to work. That fall he moved out and didn’t go back to college. He had been studying drawing.

She thought she would make Teddy cry by asking him questions. She thought that was why he wouldn’t talk. But now as tears ran out from underneath her hands, he didn’t cry at all. In her mind she argued with him though, insisting he have a different response, one more like her own, that he fan Jamie’s black mark and suck on the dying smoke.

She felt herself slipping to the floor, down the smooth white wooden cupboard door as she did as a child. Sitting there, slumped and undisturbed, she looked at the linoleum and remembered the death of her brother as marked by lemonjellocake, marshmallowfruitsalad, boredom and emotional roulette, her grandmother’s bright red coat at the funeral. A time of confidences thrust upon her.

She watched Teddy put his beer can in the trash. As he put onhis coat, she stood and followed him out to the patio. “Remember that time Mother brought home that cake on your

birthday?” she asked.

“And I asked if she bought it because she was having

company, he replied.

“And she got mad and said no, it was for you,” she answered.

They laughed. For their mother, company came first, then their father, then the kids.

Teddy picked up an orange from a sack on the barbecue table and tossed it to her, a singularly friendly gesture. As he crossed the yard, she tossed it back. He walked out to the driveway, and she stood at the gate, her hands on the metal crossbar, watching as exhaust rose off the tailpipe of his red Porsche, and he disappeared into the dark.

She imagined a parade of little cars trailing him down the hill, then circling back, not really wanting to leave, having merely felt obligated because of the parents and the hour. Parked in a line, their doors swung open like chorus girls’ legs, and leather-clad young men hopped out. It was a magic show as the girls swung their legs back into position, and the men mounted motorcycles and turned in tight circles. Smiling and turning on bright yellow motorcycles, they dipped and curved in giant slalom passes; then, in pairs, they swooped through each other in double-crossing figure eights. There were magenta streamers on the handlebars and packs of cards distributed on the spokes, and the effervescent men wore black leather and blended into the night, leaving only smiles and white headlights and yellow motorcycles and magenta streamers.

In a lighted stadium the young men lined up wearing white football uniforms with gold numbers, holding their matching helmets at their sides as they stood ready for the band leader to pass. Dressed in gold and white, he wore a drum major’s busby hat nearly as high as his baton and carried a saxophone to one side. The men fell in behind him, marching and twisting and high- stepping for her pleasure, until the band leader moved them too quickly off the field, and she was left with her white and purple hand upon the gate.

 

 That summer Eleanor found herself living in her parents’ big white house on the hill. She had expected to be married and settled by now, but, as her father pointed out at her graduation, she didn’t have a boyfriend or a career. Instead, she lifeguarded at the public pool outside of town. She had always worked, but she thought of work as something to do until her real life came along. Now her real life was here, and she was surprised by how disappointing it was. She gave herself until the age of twenty-five; then, if her life hadn’t improved, she would either invest her savings in surgical breast implants to make her bust line more pleasing or put a pistol to her head and blow her brains out, which was what she dreamed of.

In the morning when she arrived on her bike, seeing the pool sparkle gently like a pale blue jewel cheered her, but by afternoon its surface glared fiercely in the heat trapped under a dome of hazy western sky. The dry but fertile valley her family had lived on for three generations was ringed by mountains that shut out the rain. All day she skimmed away piles of crickets and June bugs that came in from the fields. Tar-splattered oil field trucks passed by and farm trucks overflowing with cotton, cantaloupe, or chickens in their cages. Heavy-bellied crop dusters raced over miles of uniformly green rows, dropping powdery white pesticides or oily herbicides. The hot winds smelled of sulfur, cow manure, and rotted onions.

“What happened to my happy little girl?” her mother asked when Eleanor came home tired and discouraged.

“It’s too bad you’re a girl,” her father said. “Otherwise we could make a place in the business for you. You could be making money like your brother Teddy.”

As a child she had wanted to be a lifeguard like her brother Jamie. She loved watching him, handsome and cocky with his white teeth and dark tan, flirting with the girl guards in their white suits and blowing his whistle at the kids. At dinner he peeled his burnt shoulders, laughing at their mother’s disgust.

Now she stood roasting on the same deck, a whistle in her hand, but pretending, uncertain. In all her years of lifeguarding, she had never saved anyone. The opportunity had not presented itself though she tried to stay ready in case it did. She thought it might give her life meaning and worth. Besides, she had been trained for it: “Tow, throw, row, and go!”

Ever since Jamie died she had been trying to rescue him, to pull him back at the moment before his crash, but she had no training for that. It took a month for him to die of the injuries to his head. For those four weeks, she studied the pictures and articles in the town paper telling of his life and deteriorating condition, then of his funeral arrangements. Her parents refused to talk about him. In the coffin, his face was reconstructed where it had smashed through the windshield. No longer ruddy and strong, it was pink,

the color of a woman’s pancake make-up.

“It’s not him! He doesn’t look like that!” she had screamed. Her parents stepped away from her as she looked up at them then, she stepped closer to her big brother than she had dared to for a long time. For months after, when she set the table, she’d set it for five instead of four. Her mother would have to correct her. Like a buoy, she marked the place where he went down, not letting her family forget.