My dog’s ashes are currently in a small silver gift box on my bookshelf. I loved my dog, but I hate that ugly box and its stupid tassel.

When my husband and I decided to cremate Bernie, we thought we would scatter his ashes along one of his favorite hiking trails, but doing so is illegal where we live. I hated the idea of us furtively dumping a baggy of remains in the always-crowded park. It didn’t feel like an appropriately jubilant celebration of his life.

I used to work on an organic farm in California, living in a barn full of horses and riding tractors through fields under the warmth of a gentle fall sun. I was a Beatnik then more than now – among hippies and flower children, believing everything I was told and digging all the world in some glorious young innocence.

I was obsessed with Kerouac and Ginsberg, and with the notion of wilderness. I read too much for my own good; my head full of dreams and naïve thoughts. I’d read Into the Wild, a lot of London and some Thoreau. I was obsessed with Big Sur and becoming free of the constraints of humanity. I loved the idea of the writer disappearing into nature.

When I came upon a bicycle one day I realized that I had the chance to disappear for a while. I told my boss at the farm that I was going to wander into the wild and he laughed and said “ok” and gave me fifty bucks to prevent me from starving.

1. There is this photograph of my maternal grandmother holding baby-me.  I’m maybe 8 or 9 months old, decked out in a pink jumper and a stunned expression, as someone off-camera were dangling a particularly baffling toy, or warning me about junior high.  I’m sitting on my grandmother’s lap and she has one hand around my waist and the other delicately supporting my right hand.  We look poised for a dance.  Her eyes are closed, the look on her face one of pure, dreamy contentment.  Someone told me recently that there is no less-complicated love than that between a grandparent and grandchild.  My grandmother’s face certainly suggests this.  She looks like an angel.

2. When my brother and I were small, my grandmother would make us picture books.  She wrote the stories (I remember placing orders over the phone, Illinois to Texas – “The main character should be named Samantha, and I’d like it to involve an elephant” – and then the moment of unbearable excitement after it had arrived in the mail but before I’d read it), drew the illustrations, and stitched together the pages made from wallpaper samples.  I suspect this is what inspired me to want to write in the first place, what made me think of books as things that people I knew made, that anyone could make.

3. In the photograph, she wears on her left hand, which circles my fat baby waist, a green jade ring I always admired.  When she was dying they cut her rings off her swollen hands.  Her hands had always been so delicate.  My strongest sensory memory of her, next to her powdery scent of Chanel No. 5, is the feel of the silken skin on her soft hands, her tidy nails always filed into little tips.  After my grandmother died, my mother had the stone from the jade ring reset and gave it to me.  I’m wearing it now.

4. My grandmother always wanted to be a writer, or perhaps I should say was always a writer.  When she died, my uncle (a writer) sorted through her things and excavated some of her work – breezy gossip columns she wrote for a Kansas paper under the name Betty LaBette, a humorous radio play, a dramatic short story about young families living in New Deal housing in 1940s St Louis, type-written letters and journals.  She corresponded with the journalist (and ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway) Martha Gellhorn, who encouraged her to continue with her writing.  Her stuff is good, too – lucid, smart, funny in a self-deprecating, vaguely Erma Bombeckian way.  (From a letter: “I always feel the less you know about the man you marry, the more interesting it will be to get acquainted with him afterwards, which has amply proven so.” Ha!)

5. Shortly after my grandparents eloped in 1936, my grandfather (who had been a journalism student when they met) found God and decided to join the clergy.  His first gig was as rector at an Episcopal church in Alma, Michigan.  My grandmother, who had loved the bustle of St Louis, where she was involved in local politics and the Women League of Voters, was now, as my Uncle Jim writes, “sort of the local mad woman of Chaillot, locked away in a tower in the tottering castle next to the church banging away at an ancient portable typewriter and emitting blood-curdling whoops and hollers whenever she thought she had written something especially funny or blood-curdling.  She was very bright, truly eccentric and certainly had never bargained for the life of a middle western small town preacher’s wife loaded up with brats, scoured by the shrewdly appraising eyes of parishioners whenever she left the house.”  He adds, “when we were small, the penalty for interrupting her at her writing was often a wildly unsettling outburst, even if one were bleeding, especially if one were bleeding.”  I love this.

6. I think of the photograph when I see my mother hold my daughter, her first grandchild.  I am awash with nostalgia for something I didn’t quite experience, for a moment impossible to remember.  It’s part hormones, part exhaustion, part overwhelming, crushing love.  My grandmother has been gone for a while.  She never got to see me publish my first book, never got to meet this baby, who, I think, has her forehead and nose.

7.  I am writing this in a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, surrounded by other people tapping into their laptops, their faces moonily lit by half-written screenplays and novels.  I picture my grandmother riding her bike around some small town, books stuffed in the basket; toiling away at a story after the kids are in bed.  There are all these connections between us — the writing thing, but also weird things like proclivities towards reading in the bathtub, or swimming, or eating avocados plain.  I often think, If only she were alive today!  We have so much in common!  But do we, really?  I think she may have been braver, better at ignoring what people thought of her.  She was an eccentric in times and places where eccentricism was not nearly so accepted or expected as in current-day New York City, where I have landed.  She read a lot and wrote a lot for her own pleasure, just for the sheer joy of it, because she couldn’t not.  She raised four children and when she finally had a moment to breathe, instead of devoting herself to writing she took up teaching poor kids how to read. In the end, her greatest work was her family, her long love affair with my grandfather, her life. When the days with the baby seem long, or I am feeling sorry for myself because I haven’t had a moment to write, or haven’t achieved some level of success, or something, I think it serves me well to think of her – to look at this picture and try to access that contentment, that happy, dreamy moment of almost dancing.

It was the night of my dear friend Clara’s birthday party. I can’t quite remember if it was a momentous year–round number, the beginning of a new decade–but I do recall having party nerves and that I’d be going solo. I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time or, if I was, it wasn’t serious. Or maybe I was seeing Mark but he was out of town. None of these details matter, really. This essay is about me and how good I looked at Clara’s party.

During this time I’d been introduced to a man my cousin Daphne referred to as “The Genius.” She called him that because of his remarkable ability to transform. “The Genius” AKA Coleman was an African American man in his, mmm, I’d say late forties at the time, who chemically straightened Jewish girls’ hair. He probably also straightened the hair of women of other persuasions but my breadth of knowledge of his doings only went as far as my cousin Daphne, me, whomever might’ve been sitting in his beauty salon swivel seat when I’d arrive for my appointment, and anyone who’d show up as my final touches were being bestowed.

Actually, our relationship was deeper than that. This picture is bringing about a flood of memories and I’m remembering that Coleman and I would have many a heady conversation. He was a teacher for special needs children and did hair on the side. Hair had been his main career for many years but then, it would seem, he needed something that felt more meaningful. I can’t think of many things more meaningful than making a girl with unmanageable hair feel beautiful, but different strokes, am I right? So we’d talk about his teaching and a little bit about his family. We also tended to talk about controversial situations involving race. I can’t recall anything verbatim but I do know we tended to be on the same page. I worked in TV at the time and I’m pretty sure things came up about the lack of roles for African American actors and, if I’m not mistaken, whether or not Eddie Murphy meant to pick up that prostitute or if he was simply being a nice guy.

Alas, Coleman is no longer. In my life, I mean. As afar as I know he’s still alive. He ended up making a permanent move to Sacramento and I made a move to try to accept my natural curl. But during the time that Coleman was around, things, and my hair, went rather smoothly. Suddenly, I had control. Straight hair made me feel like my life was together. I felt pretty.

So the night of Clara’s party while I had, like I mentioned before, party nerves, and was rocking it solo, I knew my hair looked good. I mean look at it. It’s all straight and shiny. But not too straight… there’s still some body to it.

 



I guess that’s it. I know it’s kind of vain to pick a picture just because you think you look good, but trust me, these days if you get a picture of me, most of the time one or both of my eyes is closed, my hair is suffering from frizz, and what I mean as a knowing or smartass smirk comes off as looking bothered. Here I’m clearly enjoying myself. I’ve spent some time with good company, had a glass of wine or two, and celebrated a great friend. Sometimes it’s the small moments that need to be remembered.


You must always consider the following—

Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

It’s your duty, friends and brethren, to contort even the measliest of facts. Don’t tell the truth—conceal it. But, absolutely, amp it up if you can. And for crissakes make us laugh or make us cry. That’s not asking too much.

I figured I’d give it a whack. I took to it seriously. Too seriously? Perhaps. But history is serious business. And when I look at the photograph my heart flutters. It is, hands down, my favorite photograph ever. It’s also a somewhat uninteresting photo. Just two boys standing in a front yard in 1985. Arriving at this conclusion, my heart settles into a deep state of languor. Galaxies of dust awakened from adulthood inertia swirl about looking to settle again.

The photograph arouses memories: watching Telemundo and chomping on warm tortillas…Mr. Lechner’s stinky pigeon coop…the burned-out shack filled with saucy Polaroids and unopened packs of Garbage Pail Kids cards…games of Butts-Up against the church wall…Atari at the alcoholic’s house…the phantom Klansman that stood before my bed every night for weeks, robbing me of sleep…the failed repossession of my General Lee Big Wheel from the Mexicans on Helgessen Street that ended violently.

All of these memories are barely stories, hardly tellable. They’re sentimental soundbites, if anything.

Backstory can be interesting: I spent my youngest years in a small two-bedroom house in an unincorporated neighborhood on the outskirts of Palatine, a suburb nested on the northwestern edge of Chicagoland. Our house stood amongst homes of varying design and color, of all shapes and sizes, and no two alike; individuality by design was paramount in this neighborhood.

No two families were exactly alike, either. I can recall truckers and stock brokers, illegal immigrants and Vietnam vets, all living on the same stretch of asphalt.

My neighborhood sat kiddie-corner to a sprawling forest preserve. Forest preserves are the only access most suburbans have to wilderness. But, by and large, most stick to the bike trails that encircle the preserve, well-distanced from the sticks, casting the woodland an ambient backdrop.

But I grew up on Woodland Road, and Woodland Road was in the sticks. It did not suggest any of the tidy vinyl-streaked uniformity that one expects of a suburb proper.

This photograph was taken by my mother. It shows me and my childhood best friend caught doing whatever boys did in 1985. We’re both blond, ruddy-faced, and grubby, distinguishable only by height (I’m the shorter one). That kid and I did everything together. Where I ended and he began was simply a matter of physics.

We’re standing beside an odd V-shaped tree, a sort of Siamese pine. The lawn is plush and overrun, in desperate need of mowing. But no one nagged you about it. The driveway running alongside us looks like an accident, spilled gravel, and there’s construction debris piled up at the foot of it. Behind my best friend and me looms a towering wall of leafy green. This looks nothing like suburbia. This looks like Louisiana.

Of course, now everything’s changed. That great wood land across from my first house has since been leveled and supplanted with a bunch of ugly vinyl castles. Last I visited, baby trees had been planted on the front yards of these new homes, ensuring a partially shady future for what was once my unincorporated Eden. Even my house had been leveled.

The first story I ever knew:

I was riding the bus home from school one day. The bus turned onto Woodland Road and lumbered past my house, as usual. As the bus passed my house, heading toward my bus stop, the back end took a hop, propelling every kid into midair. We’d run over something. One of the sixth graders sitting in the back seat, nearest the emergency exit, pressed his sweaty finger to the window and called my name. Everyone looked out the back window and let out a collective gasp.

Patsy. My puppy. She was dead.

She lay in the road curled in a ball. It looked like she was asleep on the warm asphalt.

And that bitch of a bus driver had done it.

We had just gotten Patsy. The bus driver pulled up to the intersection of Helgessen Street and Woodland Road and let me off. I didn’t drop my bag and run screaming like kids do on TV. I didn’t abandon my backpack and sprint up to Patsy and drop to my knees, tiny fists clenched, and scream, “Why, God, why!” Instead, I ambled down Woodland Road toward my house, humiliated. Patsy wasn’t dying. She was dead.

The sun burned high and hard. My mother placed Patsy in a cardboard box and weaved the flaps shut and set the box beside our driveway.

It was a long afternoon. Neighborhood kids came by, one by one, ordered by parents to express condolences—but really to see a dead dog. I undid the flaps and opened the box and showed them Patsy, balled up tight, her eyes clamped shut, white teeth locked in one final gnarl, flies banking in on her. Early bird gets the worm.

Then we lamented. My neighborhood comrades told me they couldn’t believe what the bus driver did to Patsy. We turned our bus driver into a wicked succubus. Medusa. The Wicked Witch of the Northwest ‘Burbs.

I played the good guy for a while.

The Tragic Tale of Patsy Versus the School Bus. My first story. My only complete memory of Woodland Road.

If I wasn’t on that school bus there would be no story.

And the photograph, that’s life before story. An artifact of innocence, a snapshot of two dumb little kids getting dirty, exploring the woods, at war. Woodland Road is and never will be a street of dreams. It’s just a strip of asphalt that’s still there, even though my house, my friend, those woods, and my dog are not.

Childhood is but a dream.

These are my grandparents, Grandma Sweetie and Papa Owen, standing on their porch in Inglewood, not eight blocks from the Forum, where they lived for thirty-odd years. Allegedly, a white picket fence once stood in front of the house. But as far back as I can remember, the white picket fence just sort of laid there. And it wasn’t white. For the last ten years or so, their house had no front door. Don’t ask me why. Just a screen. No lock. This is Inglewood we’re talking about! But nobody ever gave Sweetie and Owen trouble, and I’m pretty sure that had nothing to do with the fact that Papa Owen looked like a juice man for Santa’s mafia.

 

 

I don’t even know my grandmother’s real name. Everybody called her Sweetie—her family, the neighbors, the mailman. I’m pretty sure her mail said Sweetie. She may have looked like an old bag lady, she may have smelled like stale Old Golds and freezer-burned ham, but Sweetie had the soul of a swan. She was the loving driving force of our family, a tender locomotive, who drank twelve Hamms a day, popped Tums like Tic Tacs, and ate nothing (and I mean nothing) but Swanson frozen turkey dinners, scrupulously avoiding the peas and carrots. If Sweetie was a tender locomotive, Papa Owen was a runaway train. He was ten longshoremen trapped in a phone booth. He was fifteen Cossacks crashing a retirement banquet. Papa Owen had a little dance which he often performed on weekends, which led from the sofa to the bathroom. It was choreographed by Jerry Lewis and a fifth of bourbon, and went something like this: He would lift himself from the sofa, pirouette, trip over a chair, knock over a lamp, laugh, and fall flat on his face. He would then stand, stumble to the bathroom, and hurl the contents of his stomach into the sink. Encore performances would follow, in intervals, until he passed out.

My lifelong love affair with baths began at Sweetie and Owen’s house when I was just a runt. They had this metal contraption that looked like a vacuum cleaner that you could stick in the bathtub. It would shoot out jet streams of hot water. It amounted to a portable, low-maintenance Jacuzzi. I would sit in the tub for hours. Every so often Papa Owen would stumble headlong into the bathroom to finish his dance. He would say: “Feels good on your little pecker, don’t it?” Then he would say: “Aaaawoooolka. . .pfff. . .pff. . . eeeeeeeyaaaaaalka. . .pfff. . .pfff.”

It did feel good on my little pecker.

The photo you see here is technically the only photo I have left of Sweetie and Owen—the only photo anyone has left of the two of them together. But there’s another image of them which is indelibly burned into my mind’s eye, an image which is nothing less than my grandparents’ story. The third act, anyway. In this other image, the one that no longer exists outside my mind, Papa Owen is slumped at the kitchen table with Sweetie, who is wearing her customary nightgown (agoraphobic, she never got dressed or left the house). Her hair is the wasted gold of a burnt lawn. It got that way from cigarette smoke. Her eyes are downcast. Not from wounded vanity, but from what appears to be a long preoccupation with something doomed and oppressive. Her hands are hidden beneath the table. You get the feeling she’s wringing them under there.

Papa Owen is seated to her right with one elbow propped on the table, which appears to be the only thing holding him up. He looks waxy, slightly transparent, embalmed. He’s wearing a light blue shirt, which is too tight at the arm pits. The collar was probably stiff once. Yet, somehow, Owen manages to make it look like a white shirt with no collar at all. He wears, as always, his elfin beard, coarse and wiry. On top of his beard sits a handlebar mustache which, like Sweetie’s locks, is tobacco stained. His hair looks unkempt but upon closer inspection one notices that it’s in fact combed. His eyes are beady, blue-gray, and laughing. Not the impish laughing eyes of mischief, rather the pointed laughter of a small but hard to swallow defeat. Still, there’s an unmistakable glimmer of determination in those laughing eyes that is only enhanced by his smile which, though half obscured by beard and mustache, seems clearly to have dirty jokes leaking out the side of it.

Taken together, these two venerable, slumping personages strike a balance that is not symmetry.

The kitchen is murky, but lighted just well enough to discern Owen’s shadow, though not Sweetie’s. Behind them, fastened to the faded floral wall paper above their heads is a bulletin board. There’s all manner of cards and papers fixed willy-nilly to it, although looking at Owen and Sweetie and the general state of things, it’s hard to imagine the significance of these artifacts.

They’ve just finished dinner. Owen has cleaned his plate. Sweetie’s plate, pushed to the side, is still half full. The table is riddled with dirty platters, coffee cups, a disproportionate number of forks, and a sticky bottle of salad dressing. In the very center of the table, the dramatic center of the photograph itself, as though it were placed there like a statement, is a heaping bowl of spent chicken bones and gristle.

I think about this picture often, and from time to time I hold it in my hand. Recent years and a number of circumstances have allowed me to penetrate this photograph in greater depth, to identify nuances so subtle as to be invisible to the outsider. And the more I am able to distinguish within this picture, the more I am haunted by that damn bowl of chicken bones.

For Sale:

2000 Cannondale SP500. Purple. Hybrid tires; perfect for streets and light off-road terrain. Climbing handles (worn), speedometer (needs new battery), pannier rack (no pannier bags) and shiny red bell (brand new, never used) included. Recently had full tune-up with no rides since.

Only one accident.

A small child.

15 months.

Struck.

The speedometer read 11.8 mph. I was flying. It was an emergency. I had forgotten the doohicky at home and rushed back to get it. I thought taking my bike would shave a few minutes off the return.

12.0 mph. NO BICYCLES ON SIDEWALKS was stenciled in reflective white block letters on the gray concrete-paved pathways. I considered it. Laughed. Surely that doesn’t apply to me. This was important. Necessary.The doohickey.

12.2 mph. My legs tingled with a lactic buzz. The park was nearly empty. A beautiful morning. Autumn sunshine filtering through turning leaves. I felt the cool October wind pep-smack my cheeks as I stood and pumped harder. I was nearly there.

12.4 mph. 12.6.

I saw her. Over by the fence. Playing with her nanny. Everything pink and cottony. Shiny tendrils. Her knees were spongy. Bouncy. She smelled, no doubt, of mushy Cheerios and Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. She smiled.She had tiny pearl-button teeth. I smiled back. She darted.

12.8.

The first tire knocked her down. Things began to move at 1000 frames per second. Endless slow-motion. I lifted up my body in a vain reversal of gravity, hoping to lessen the weight as the second tire scorched a black imprint across her perfect pink pants. Mid-air, for surely I had been able to hoist not only myself but my bicycle with the super-human strength I had acquired in this molasses-thick time-space aberration, I threw the bike into the stiff grass, far from the tiny pink ball that lay, stilled, on the cold gray pavement; the bright white stencils, nowhere in sight.

She didn’t make a sound. She just looked up at me; batted the long blonde lashes that curled away from her sapphire eyes and smiled her pearl-button smile. I counted six. The nanny, barely old enough to be without a babysitter herself, rushed across the sidewalk. She scooped the girl up. I knew the child should not be moved. Not without a paramedic. I, at least, knew that much. Before my own mother had let me baby-sit, she made me go through a Red Cross training course. I was certified.

“We should call 911,” I heard myself say, still swimming through my slo-mo water world. “Her mother should know. There could be internal injuries. I hit her with my bike.” The reality hadn’t set in. I was deep in crisis-solution mode.

“No,” said the nanny with an accent as thick as borscht. Her voice shifted into a minor key. “Not the mother.” Piano. “Not the mother.” The nanny quickly brightened and started bouncing the child up and down: a horsey ride. “She’s fine. You can forget about it. Finish your bike ride. Look! She’s not even crying!”

It was true. The child hadn’t shed a tear. But surely that was shock. There could be something internal. I stopped the nanny from her game and started to inspect the child. As I ran my hands across her limbs, checking for bruises, bumps, breaks, I noticed her tiny pants were pin-striped; ruffled at the ankle.

I gingerly touched her doughy thighs. I felt two firm, fat sausages underneath the soft fabric, now spoiled by thick, greasy track marks. As I gently applied pressure to her legs, her cherubic face turned fuchsia. She began to howl.

In the blink of her tear-soaked, blonde curling eyelash, I went from 1000 FPS to 6. Fast-forward.

“You have to get this child to the emergency room,” I ordered, “Right now.”

In a single step, I was on the curb of Central Park West – a taxi waiting at my side: trunk and passenger door open, ready to receive the bulky stroller, nanny and child.

“I’m coming with you.”

The nanny shook her head. Her eyes bore into mine. “No. Trust me. You don’t want to meet…” and her voice dropped again. Più piano. “…the mother.”

I hastily scribbled my information onto a piece of paper and pressed it into the nanny’s clammy hands. I watched as the cab sped southward; the screaming, broken child in the backseat.

I began to walk slowly back into the park. Numb. I think there was somewhere I had been going. Somewhere important. An emergency. I felt something pressing in my pocket. The doohickey. Oh. Right. The doohickey. There were people waiting for me.

The white stenciled letters started screaming: NO BICYCLES ON SIDEWALKS.

It was then the tears came. Slowly. Spontaneously. I wasn’t crying. It was worse.

Internal.
Bleeding.
Concussion.
Brain.
Damage.
Ruptured.
Permanent.
Irreparable.
Injury.
Death.

These words began to implode within me, crush me, double me over with something beyond grief. I passed the spot. My bike lay quietly in the grass: still green, but crunchy. The end of its season. Of course no one had stolen it. How could they? After what it had done.

After what I had done.

“It was an accident,” they said. “Kids bounce,” they said. “Don’t worry,” they said.

I stared at my telephone for nine hours straight. I could not breathe.

Eventually he called. The father, not the mother. Pianissimo. Not the mother. No.

“Minor bruising. No concussion. Just a little shaken up is all.”

I asked for her name.

Anya.

I’ve tried a few times since then to get back on the bike. I got a shiny new bell. A tune-up. New tires. I’ve made jokes about that nanny. About how she was probably fired. Possibly deported.

But every time I push the pedals, it’s impossible not to feel that first bump; to hear the smack of a soft skull meet the sidewalk. And then, that inevitable second, always feeling my weight sink down into her little fat sausage legs, wrapped in dough.

Only one accident.

A grown woman.

36 years.

Stuck.