This is all a puzzle. This is myth and legend. This is a tale and another that when lined up together show a truth few knew and none wanted me to see. First, let’s hit a dark room lit only by an antique oil lamp, then we will go back 46 years to a series of events that make no sense until you look at them just so.
In the humble house of a Pizza Hut manager sits Rose and Jesse. Wind is outside unbearable to stand in, with a world covered in half an inch of glimmering ice. It is winter and I am a sophomore in high school. The worst year of my life. Less has been kicked out. Grasp is stuffed in his bedroom, hiding from everyone, and I am drinking a mug of hot chocolate while Rose drinks her seventh cup of coffee today.
The ugly yellow rocking easy chair is empty, the television off, and on one side of the couch turned to look at the other is Rose. On the other sits Jesse. The light is dim like it was the night Bramble left us. The warm glow of a soft flame flickers in an old oil lamp that Rose only pulls off the mantle for special occasions. And as the wind screams, she looks at me and smiles.
“You’re going to break my heart.”
“This again,” I say. “That is not going to happen. You are the most important person in my life. I will always love you and care for you.”
See, she is talking about a prophecy. She went with her siblings one day in Milwaukee to a fortune teller who told her the child she loved the most was going to break her heart. They were all told one piece of information they carried with them. None of those prophecies had come to fruition yet, but this one was talked about all the time.
Now when she became a Christian, the narrative changed. She couldn’t believe in a fortune teller anymore because it wasn’t Christian, but she still needed to hold it over my head, so she changed it to a vision from God. But as the source changes, the story never does. The guilt it brings for an event I will not commit bears down on me, and I cannot stand it tonight.
Was it the wind? The pressure of the heavy ice on the world? Was it the loneliness or the dim light and the memory of Bramble? None of it for sure can I point to and say, this is the thing that made me change the subject like this, but I did.
The fireplace pops, spitting an ember at the mesh steel curtain, and I look at her and smile. “That will never happen. I give you my word. But I can tell you what is true. I don’t want to tell it, though. I think you need to tell it.”
“Tell what, baby?”
“Tell me about the day I was born.”
“Oh, that is a good one. So much of it is a blur of pain and fear, but I can narrow it down for you real quick. You and I were alone.” Rose says, sip of her coffee and she looks up at me with a smile. “Grandma was supposed to be with me when you were born, but she was out of town. I think she was in West Virginia visiting family. She was supposed to be there but was gone. Your aunt was babysitting Less. Char was in Georgia. He was stationed there at the time. I had come to Milwaukee to be with my mother, but she was gone.”
“You said that.”
She laughs and waves a hand in my direction. “Shut up. I am trying to tell a story.”
“You always yell at us when one of us says shut up. Rules, mom.”
“You hush your mouth. I’m The Mom. I can break my rules if I want to.” More coffee and she is out. She rises and heads for the kitchen. I follow. The kitchen is dark, but neither of us want to turn on a light and break this magical scene, so she fumbles in the kitchen for the pot and she pours herself another cup. I lean my elbows against the breakfast bar and look at her in the shadows. She stands the other side, and her black eyes gleam from under her red hair.
“We were alone,” she says. “We will always be alone. You came into this world with just me, and that is how you will leave it. Or me. How I will leave it. One of us will die first. I hope it is me. I couldn’t bear it if I had to bury you.
“Anyway, I was alone, without anyone by my bedside, and you came. You nearly killed me. Your head was as big and as hard as it is right now.” She reaches the distance and raps on my head with two knuckles. “Sometimes they cut the woman so the baby can come out without trouble, but they didn’t do that and I ripped. I ripped from hole to hole.”
“Mom? Really? You’re going to talk about your holes with your son?”
“Part of our story.” She turns and walks into the glowing yellow living room again. We take our seats and she sips her coffee. “Your hot chocolate is getting cold.”
“Marshmallows never melted.”
“Half melted marshmallows are your favorite.”
She is not wrong, and I slip one in my mouth.
“When they took you away, the doctor did his best to sew me up, and when he was done, he sent a nun in to pray over me.” She shook her head. “They expected me to die. I had lost too much blood. I was torn too badly. You almost killed me, mister.” She pointed a finger and I bowed my head.
“My sincerest apologies. I was big?” I knew the answer but I asked it anyway.
“Ten pounds three ounces. Biggest baby anyone in our family had ever seen. And you made a mess of me when you came out. That nun said she would stay with me all night, and if I passed, I would not go alone.
“Well God had other plans for us. You will speak on a pulpit for him one day, and I guess he just wanted me to raise you and be your mother. So here we are.”
“Do you want to talk about Bramble?” I said. “We haven’t for a while. I know you miss him.”
“The one that got away. Everyone has one. Everyone has a love they just couldn’t make it work with. Bramble was mine. We had a few months together, but he wanted to party, and I had two young kids and I needed a stable home for them.
“He was gorgeous. Fun. We loved each other from the moment we met. He ran with your Uncle Wrath in that tight group of his, and when Uncle Wrath would come home from school, he always had his boys with him. I was doing chores and Bramble would help me or just talk to me while I did them. He was kind, like you. He was handsome. Like you, but different. He loved me. That I know. He loved you, too. Never really connected with Less, but when I was with him, I felt safe. He just had a way of doing that.”
“Tell me the motorcycle story again,” I said.
“It’s my favorite story about him.” I drained my mug. “Yours, too.”
“It was big…”
“Well you know Char was in Germany, stationed there in the army.”
“This was before you were born. I had Less and I didn’t have a home, so your grandma and grandpa took me in. To pay my way, I had to do all the cleaning and cooking. Less had mixed her sleeping hours around and was up at night. I couldn’t let her cry herself to sleep because it would wake your grandparents, so I had to stay up to take care of her.
“When does it not suck with her?” she said.
I didn’t contradict The Mom, and I knew she wouldn’t be on the subject of Less for long, so I let it go. There was no walking that war back anyway.
“Cleaning during the day. Up with Less at night. I got almost no sleep, and I was exhausted when I finally went to Germany to be with Char. I remember the plane ride was so stressful with a young baby.”
“Nine months. Maybe. I don’t remember. Too young to be traveling with. We flew to Germany, which is not around the block.”
I laughed. “Not at all. How long was the flight?”
“I really don’t even remember. It was long and I couldn’t get any sleep. When Char picked me up, he had bought this terrible sports car. It was a stick, which he could not drive. Had no idea how to get it in second gear. He drove it all the way home in first. Sometimes we were in forty mile per hour zones in first gear. The thing was revving so loud it was insane. Everyone looked from the corners, they knew he was an idiot. Sounded like a damn siren. Anyway, when we got into the apartment, I remember it was dark with no real furniture, and when he turned the light on, I saw that right there.”
She pointed to a massive crucifix. It was over two feet wide and four tall. Wooden with a plaster Jesus that Uncle Ball had repainted when we lived with him in Milwaukee. It was beautiful and she sighed when she looked at it.
“The previous tenets had left it behind for me. It told me that God was with me and I vowed never to get rid of it. It will be yours one day when I pass. Anyway, I was so exhausted, I just dropped into bed and fell asleep instantly. I slept for—”
The fireplace sparked again and she turned to look at the dying flames.
“Yes, two weeks. If you know all these stories, why do I have to tell them again?”
She stood, grabbed a new log, and carefully placed it on the fire. A second, and within moments it was raging again.
“You gotta tell the stories to me over and over again, mom. It will be important one day. I just know it. I don’t know how. I don’t know why, but these stories will save me one day. You lived it for a reason. I hear it for a reason, too.
“Now tell me about your teenage years.”
“The Hell I lived when my mother went to work?”
“Well, with grandma at work, I was told I had to clean the entire house and cook all the meals. None of the other kids had any real chores. And if Wrath and his friends came by, I had to wait on them hand and…”
The lines are there. All the pieces set in that one long night. Those stories were important. We can see why now.