I’m all afterglow from the National Book Festival yesterday and so, I hope you will indulge me if I drop part of Chapter 1 of my novel, Libertytown, here today. Here goes:
where r u
I cannot sleep. Again. All these stories.
My fifth night in my new home, well, really, my old home, and as has so often been the case with passions into which I’ve thrown myself, tumbling, staggering, and refusing to consider the possibility my first instincts might – just might – be a mistake, I find myself again at two a.m., just like my first, second, third, and fourth nights here, panicked, unable to figure out what to do when the inevitable morning after arrives.
What have I done?
Two hundred and ninety seven boxes and I have no idea where to begin.
It does not help that in my precipitous rush to pack up and relocate the accumulated treasure and detritus that has become my life, I threw the Ziploc bag of screws and hardware required to hold together my bed frame into one or another of the two-hundred and ninety seven boxes which were dropped in no particular order, with no particular plan throughout this house where, many years ago, my aunt, Sissie, occupied this bedroom where – should I ever find that Ziploc bag of brackets and bolts – I will reassemble the bed made by the great grandfather I never met, whose name I no longer recall.
Sissie told me his name, once, one of the many things she passed on to me I seem to have lost, buried in some recess of my mind beneath other more essential fragments of knowing now layered over my past, like the hideous equine themed wall-paper with which some previous owner has defiled these walls, concealing the pattern Sissie had searched out after having seen it in a photograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Paris apartment, a toile of forsythia-yellow and cream stripes, vined through with pink and red roses.
She loved that wallpaper, and only last week when I visited her in the Record Street Home, she had again believed herself in this room, as if it were still all those years ago before my family lost – or, rather – sacrificed this house we’d called Libertytown in hopes of keeping something else, which too, we ultimately let slip away. Twenty-two years ago, when last I walked through these empty rooms on that day after the estate auction of so much I’d held dear, I was twenty years old, the only one of we six siblings there, carrying out the fragmentary remains of the seventy-five years the family Parker had lived in Libertytown. None of us has proven very good at holding on to things.
Or one another.
The Parker family no longer exists in any configuration recognizable to the child I was when first I spent my Sundays and summers here with Sissie and her stories. All those stories. We are not – I am not the same, so it only follows, the house would have changed as well. But, when we leave things, we imagine them forever after as they were at the parting. Those phantoms of all those years walk with me tonight, scarier than any ghosts.
I am petrified.
And furious. I can’t bring myself to begin digging through these boxes to search for those screws and I cannot forgive the equine lamination now obscuring Sissie’s idea of bohemian fantasy. I want it back. I want her back.
Three months ago. My regular Sunday visit. Sissie had been meandering through time, more confused than usual, her once brilliantly sharp and facile mind hurtling on a dizzying chase through her nine decades, beginning at a moment when I was still her twelve year old “perfect Parker.”
We were in New York City.My first time. She had made into reality that which had been only possibility. My first Broadway show. Debbie Reynolds in Irene. From the tuning of the orchestra through the final bow I was in rapture. After the final curtain we joined the line stretching the length of the Matterhorn tall escalator in the Minskoff Theatre for Miss Reynold‘s autograph. I was hypnotized by the kaleidoscopic vision of the city framed through the glass walls of the theatre lobby; not just the endless streets and towering skyscrapers I’d read about and seen on television, but the visceral, sensual realities of the city that had wrapped its arms around me; the heady aroma of taxi fume and subway grate exhaust and urine and uncollected garbage and too many people in too small a space, the grit, the smell, the noise, the rush of energy and danger and desire that pulled me into its embrace, where I was willingly ravaged by its seedy beauty as it whispered its chiaroscuro promise that it could see into my soul, that it appreciated things about myself I had not yet discovered, that it would be there for me, always, awaiting my return, knowing that we belonged together, that only it could make me feel this way, and thus, claimed me as its own.
As I neared the live and in person MGM star of Singing In The Rain, Miss Reynolds was surprisingly tiny and gamine, like a sprite, and despite the charm and attention she lavished on each patron ahead of me as she sat perched atop a bar, legs folded beneath her, I felt certain she would recognize my unworthiness. Instead, she recognized my flummoxed awe, and after having gotten no response when asking my name, leaned into me and placed her hand on my shoulder and crowed to the crowd, “I’ve made this beautiful young man speechless, I‘ve still got it! Who should I make this out to?”
Sissie told her my name and she inked with flourish the message, “To my beautiful Parker, thank you for making me feel beautiful too!” after which she touched my cheek and gently sent me floating away on a cloud of her honeysuckle scent and kindness.
It was on Broadway with Miss Reynolds that Sissie spent much of our visit three months ago, but then her voice would change, like Sally Field in SYBIL, and she would jump from one to another of her selves, another time, taking me with her.That day I also became her brother, my father, and she asked with impassioned disapproval of tone, “Why would you marry her, Joe?”
I had no answer, he had no answer, and so, “Oh Joe, she didn’t?” And the fervid disapprobation in which Sissie held my Mother but had hidden from me with such vigor for so long, was again revealed.
I also became her dearest friend, Mary, who’d lived for forty years with her companion, Jane, and never once disclosed the true nature of their union; and I was her own favorite aunt, Mabel, who’d answered a quite different calling to become Sister Anthony, Mother Superior of the college Sissie had briefly attended; and too I played Miss Anne, another of the parishioners who’d attended the daily six a.m. mass at St. Peter’s.
I was glad to be whomever it was she needed me to be, since that was what she had done for me during my torturously long and trepidatious stumble toward adulthood, but that day three months ago the slender thread of was and is and could be that tethered the two of us snapped, for the first time, and I became a stranger of whom she was afraid. I had moved in to embrace her, our goodbye ritual.
“Who are you?”
“It’s Parker, Sissie.Your nephew.”
“What?You’re not my nephew!He‘s a little boy. A sweet little boy.”
She began to shake, tears started to fill her eyes, “What have you done with my Parker?”
In that moment, I was forced to face the last possibility she would render into reality for me; I would lose her.
I have not visited her since.
It was later that day when I saw the “FOR SALE” sign in front of the home my family had called “Libertytown” and pulled off at the dangerous curve on which the house sits. Where once the disparate brown stones of its long, rectangular edifice had formed what seemed to me a solid, smoothly sturdy sanctuary inside which I was loved and protected, now, they were nearly invisible beneath a shroud of weedy, desiccated vines which in their creep obscured some of the windows, and there seemed beneath the sere ivy to be ominous bulges and crags, as if the house might at any moment determine it could no longer hold itself in place, and crumble to the ground.
The voice of Libertytown whispered to me from beneath that veil, warning that its abandonment by my family, the Parkers, had instigated this dissolution and only my return could forestall further, fatal withering away.In that moment, that day, was born the ridiculous expectation that by returning to the actual physical location of my beginnings, by rebuilding and redecorating and rebirthing this place, I might achieve the ephemeral balance all my various gospels and dogmas told me was my birthright. I determined I would reclaim and restore it.
And so I’d called the realtor. Immediately. Without hesitation.
How many lives have been ruined by this easy availability of the technology to instantaneously act on every passing emotion and whimsical impulse, thus defeating the reason and common sense that comes with deliberation and meditation? The danger of these techno-vations is causing me to seriously consider becoming a Luddite. It wouldn’t be my first theological leap. There doesn’t exist a religion I haven’t studied, a self-help book I haven’t read, nor cosmic or New Age theory with which I haven’t experimented in a lifetime spent wrestling with my genetic predisposition toward the tragic end. Still, no matter the orthodoxy to which I’ve adhered, my four decades of journey have not led me home.
Home? There’s no place like …
I might have taken heed of Dorothy Gale’s triple click of her ruby heels and loss of glorious Technicolor for dead end Kansas black and white, or listened when Thomas Wolfe explicated the calamitous results of you can’t go home again, but neither stopped my capricious arranging to meet with the realtor to tour Libertytown four hours later.
I’d promised my oldest friend, Vincent (he prefers I say “longest friend, Vincent,” and yes, he means it just that way) I would pad the sparse Sunday matinee audience at his dinner theatre, Mandreucci’s, so it was only after suffering through what had to have been at least my seven millionth viewing of Bye, Bye Birdie -which I hate, but not as much as I love Vincent – when I found myself, forty-two years old, about to walk into a house, the insides of which I’d last seen twenty-two years earlier.
When I entered what the latest set of owners had designated as the front door I should not have been surprised that it seemed to me as if I was somewhere I‘d never been, betrayed by doors and walls and colors and smells that did not belong there, yet, in the same way that I have often been shocked when accidentally catching myself in a mirror and given to wonder, “Who is that fat, gray, middle-aged person there?” before the disappointing realization of, “Oh, it’s me,” I had been equally unprepared for and disappointed by the reality of the rooms being so unlike the shapes and sizes of my memories, those images imprinted all those decades ago when I’d lived my brightest hours. Like me, however, the rooms had undergone metamorphosis, shaped by the influences and energies of the lives and loves and dreams of those others who’d been there. Lost along the way had been the peeling living room wallpaper with its once yellow crocuses which had faded unto dimness before my birth, replaced by a smooth dry walled neutral Colonial blue-gray I’d seen too often in the homes of the Martha Stewart inclined, a flatness of surface and shade and newness that had obliterated the echoes of wood-stove smoke and family history that had comforted me as a child. Replaced as well were the worn carpets and ashy gray wood finishes remembered from my youth.
What had been two empty storage rooms were now a modern kitchen with stainless steel appliances, a double range and gas stove-top. A space once filled with obscure and unidentifiable treasures left behind by the generations of my family who’d temporarily docked in Libertytown when the sea of life had left them otherwise homeless; those just beginning lives, or those tumbling through rough patches, who would move in and out of what seemed to me this magical castle, and would inevitably leave behind that which no longer served, the forsaken clutter of so many lives becoming the toys and tools of the imagined existences my little sister, Rebecca, and I had created in the abandoned rooms full of the discards of our family’s past; had now been plumbed and recessively lit. What had been my bedroom when I lived there, which prior to my tenancy had been bedroom to an aunt and uncle when they first wed, the living room of my family in the months immediately following my father’s death, the bedroom of my oldest sister when first she experimented with leaving home, and finally, the room in which my grandfather spent his last months, had now become what the realtor called a “great room.”
Since we’d sold Libertytown, five different owners had resided there, and none had been up to the challenge of repairing the results of my family’s seven decades of loving dishabille. As I walked through, I was horrified by the combination of deterioration and senseless alterations that seemed to have drained the once magic space of its light and love, shrunk it from the tumbledown mansion of my youth to a normal sized, crumbling fixer-upper. What had been made new, the smoothed, re-plastered and dry walled walls of some of the reconfigured rooms, and the refinished floors, already showed signs of decrepitude as if no amount of renovation could forestall the senescence of the skeletal structure beneath. In a frenzied, and now, it seems, ill considered but not uncharacteristic rush to save and repair in hopes of redeeming my own wasted life, I had made a lowball offer which had been accepted.
And so, here I am, back in Libertytown. With these two-hundred and ninety seven boxes.
And all these stories.
When Sissie lost me that day, I wanted to run, call for an aide, but instead, I waited out the disappearance. She returned, and I did what I often do when the distance between who she is and who I remember becomes too great; I tried to bring her back to me with the Pacquin Hand Cream she has always loved. I can no longer find it in grocery or drug stores, and so I order it on line in packages of four from Vermont Country Store. It’s like whipped cream of lanolin and slightly soured honeysuckle, another talismanic scent for both of us, and I hope it will camouflage the odor of antiseptic unguents and unmistakable wafting of creeping, encroaching death in the air at Record Street. As I soothe it into her clawed hands and twisted feet, the skin of which have thinned and dried into etiolated fragility, threatening to evanesce into dusty shards as have the sepiaed, deteriorated pages of the prayer missals and poetry notebooks she’d kept as a young woman and passed on to me (along with Broadway and disapproval of my mother and the bed made by my great grandfather whose name I cannot recall and the hardware for which I have lost in one of these damned boxes in these damned ruined rooms that used to be safe, that used to be our home) I am frightened by the transparent quality of her skin.
No wonder her memory and self have flown; her flesh can barely contain her.
I imagine her life force evaporating through this thin layer of dermis, all exposed nerve and sensation, the protective outer layer long since worn away. The surfaces of her hands are so browned, so brittle, like the once lilac scented tissue paper with which she’d line the drawers of the oak wood dresser companion piece to the bed I cannot now assemble, protective layers between the wood she’d drown in Scott’s Liquid Gold once each year, those now faded, crumbling tissue linings which I have never been able to bear removing, rotting away bit by bit, attaching to my boxers and t-shirts, so that I am always seeming to carry around some part of who she was and what she did and the safe world she tried to make for me. Her skin is so cold and her pulse so dim, as if her heart has all it can do now to keep itself beating and is unable to afford the effort to send warmth and vigor to the extremities of hand, foot, or brain, and so, like her memories, her limbs are wasting away from neglect.
I rub and I remind, but there will never be new skin here, and there will be no new adventures for the two of us, and the trembling of her hands as I try to soothe the lotion into them reflects the vibrating terror strangling my heart as I realize that she is flaking away from the outside in now, becoming a part of the horrid fog of active dying permeating the air there at Record Street, where not all the jars of Pacquin left in the world could cover the stink of so many imminent goodbyes.