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Fall 2014

Agora Fall 2014 Pence

Eight Family Snapshots



Orange chrysanthemums in the forest, metal-can light, photographer cooing, “Say Money!” and my father, brother, and I did. The sun was nowhere and would not have admitted to hanging out with us anyway.

I knew what the fake forest disguised, knew what the picture disguised, knew it was one more step toward being the adult who fists her hands, holds down the floor, and says, No.

The sun is busy today with homework, and so I sit, a grown woman, in my office, lights on at noon, feeling at once too thin and too full, slipping away and fattening up. I stand and it happens: the chrysanthemum blossoms from my elbow; a leaf moves from northwesterly wind.

My first act in this world was to wrap my hand around a crazy man’s finger. This is why when I walk into a room people think, “Poised.” Something charming about learning how to walk off-balance all one’s life. Thank you, I should tell the crazy man. But I have this red canoe that’s ready to shove out across the lake, my food sack of apples and peanut butter. There’s no room for anyone else.


Right, I didn’t make room.

My first act in this world was to wrap my hand around a crazy man’s finger. This is why when I walk into a room, I turn around to see if I need to hold the door open for a wild-toed man in a black coat, rushing in before it closes.

That’s Dad in the front row. Since his ego is so wide, it got the choice spot: elbows on the fake Olan Mills fence. We all cracked a different sport on our faces. Dad puffed like a cock-fight. I strived for underwater swimmer, face serene, absent.  Lee would never admit it, but he hinted at ballerina. Before we came for our family photo, Lee and I discussed how drowning would be a wise way to take Dad down.

Once, Dad rose to a place made entirely of little top hats and gold-knobbed canes. And now, as adults? Simple, is what we pretend.  And everything that means: milk, manners, red canoes, secrets, and strings of fat colored lights on the roof in December. The blink and the non-blink that don’t wake the neighbors. 

Stop it. Say it straight.

Fine, okay. It’s noon. I’m standing in my office, and I still do not know what sort of person can ignore another person suffering. Can allow her own father to be homeless. Yet, I am that sort of person.

Another snapshot:
Once I snuck out of bed at hearing the ah-ah-ah of someone trying to breathe normally again. The ahs came from the kitchen, and I wanted to know what he was doing: drinking, smoking, watching porn? I hoped for something XXX. Excitement came when the slit of light from the fridge cut across his robed body. It closed black. And he sank down before even getting out a beer, sat cross-legged, sobbing.

Make it stop. Would you just make it stop? he asked no one in the room.

Even at age nine, I knew he was a man more lost than any child. Knew I wouldn’t take him by the hand and lead him back to his room.

During this same year, Dad told me how he had discovered a field of tiny bats that didn’t hang in caves, but to grasses. Bats like grasshoppers. He’d rap one, and it wouldn’t move. You know what that’s like, he said. You know.

This was the year he could not sleep. This was the year his car hit a tree and then went into the field littered with the grasshopper bats. Nothing happened except the mirror broke off. Nothing happened except that I became the echo of that wreck. Something smooth, untouchable.  Chiding.

The picture of now is too ordinary to mention: countertops with the morning’s toast crumbs. A plant wilting but not flopped-flat. Everything in mid-action between living and lived. Shamelessly overjoyed to feel the absence of him, I sometimes walk to the linen closet and stare at the simplicity of stacked towels, red bag of extra dog food. Fall is coming. I will plant butter lettuces and kale for fun. My house manages to let in light from some window throughout the day if there is light to be let in. The thing remains inside that told me to crawl back to my bedroom and leave him crying. It has teeth and a good pair of running shoes. Both the dog chasing the runner and the runner fleeing from the dog. When they meet at dusk once it finally cools enough to jog, they first stiffen before realizing: Oh, it’s only you.

I sense a confession is wanted. An office, like a ribcage, follows orders that were decided before I came into the picture. I refuse a confession because I have nothing and too much. So I’ve been doodling faces, taking naps, avoiding. I fiddle with facts. The width between eyes determines the size of the brain. It’s simply an issue of space and giving space. Like man’s determination to find miniature bats hanging in grass after a car wreck.

The red canoe that shoves out over the Saran-wrapped waters—this is my selfishness. I would not trade it. In that contest for survival, where does selfishness fit in? I have a dog that I love partly because she’ll stop eating when I near her bowl in case I want her food. Then again, subservience is what keeps a beta alive. Maybe the dog that bites off half a child’s lip is giving in a way I don’t understand. I can cross the lake to the other shore and make a fire with twigs and trash, make a campsite, say: I built it. I’ll sleep here. I’ll leave it. And I’ll do it all again. My own hand connects the dots for me, points out each dipper, each snake, each indisposed queen.