Multiple Choice (2)
A couple of things:
1) At about the same time Grandma Ruth died, my sister got engaged to be married, and
my mom bought a new car.
2) I feel I have, for a while now, been trailed by ghosts.
Regarding (2): When Louisa and I lived in Tempe, Arizona, in our broom closet (provided the brooms were dwarves with buzz-cuts) of a first-floor, one-bedroom, one-bath apartment, the front yard of which was a parking lot, stucco-walled-in with a potbellied dumpster on the far end, the backyard of which was a neighboring djembe drum-playing heroin addict’s apartment (his name was Charlie and he claimed to have subsisted solely on the Sonoran Tiger Salamanders who languished in the parking lot’s short-lived rain puddles during monsoon season, puddles which evaporated in less than twenty minutes post-rainfall, giving way to tar so hot it remained in a perpetual state of semi-softness), we began to notice a presence—feral or indigenous we couldn’t determine—infiltrating our small living space.
At first, the presence asserted itself via drastic and, given the blistering, eye-whites-expanding-in-their-sockets heat of the region—all fucking year long—welcome drops in temperature. I’m talking about a drop of about fifteen degrees over the course of about fifteen seconds which, during tornado season in Illinois would have been common, but which never happened in Tempe, Arizona, especially within the temperature-controlled ambit of our perpetually A/C’d apartment, hydrochlorofluorocarbons dripping from the walls like malarial perspiration. Caramelizing onions at night in the little kitchen, or wiping away Louisa’s massage school anatomy class study guides, grease-markered onto our bathroom mirror, with a handful of Cottonelle one-ply (I used to joke that the sole advantage of living within the Phoenix, Arizona sprawl was the lack of mosquitoes; that only one such Culicidae had adapted to the region and survived hidden and thereby legendary somewhere in the desert, surfacing like Nessie once in a sweaty blue moon to be mis-photographed and discussed with heated friends over heated Herraduras; I used to joke that I spotted it, the Lone Mosquito of Phoenix, Arizona, one night while dropping a tequila’d turd, dancing on, suckling in vain from Louisa’s grease-marker rendition of the cervix) we would feel it, the damn-near protean drop in temperature, the chill that ran from the bases of our spines to our inner ears, spreading outward, starching our body hairs, vellus and terminal, this new ghostly cold threatening to pluck them completely, rendering our dermis bare, prepubescent, glabrous as early junior-high. We would drop spatula or wooden spoon, ladle or tongs, and stare at each other, try to shove reason up into the crevices of this saprogenic sort of chill, less saurian than oddly erotic, birthed perhaps in the same kind of confused phallicism that clung to the walls of the junior-high boys’ locker room and inspired us to say things freshly vulgar that we didn’t yet understand, couldn’t quite, still smooth both above- and below-the-belt, make gel.
Louisa and I would drop utensils and try to stitch sense out of history, neighborhood, newspaper clipping. The Scene One Apartment complex on the corner of University Drive and Hardy was known, a handful of months before we moved in, as one of the primary crystal meth dens in the Phoenix metro area. In the parking lot that fronted our place, drug-related shooting, stabbing, beating, raping, overdose, and explosion after shooting, stabbing, beating, raping, overdose, and explosion took place over the course of years. Our landlords, cross-eyed, tobacco-stained, and obese desert rats straitjacketed in sunburn so tenured it no longer burned, but became simply the skin out there, assured us that months before we moved in, the complex was “cleaned-out”—arrests were made, property was seized and fumigated, drapes and carpets were ripped out and up, replaced with fresh, non-poisonous fabric. Regardless, the place, as testified by the red-painted street curbs fronting it, bore the heaviness of blood-spill, the stench of death. While we lived there, it was not uncommon for a cop to knock us awake in the middle of the night with the official, side-fist-pounding Open Up! sort of knock, telling us that a car in the lot had been broken into or someone had been stabbed behind the dumpster, and had we seen anything? So for these reasons, we told ourselves, letting go of the devices that stirred our food from burning: the drop in temperature, the (and it took us a while to muster the courage to lend it this label) ghost.
On top of this, this was the summer of 2005 and Phoenix decided to ice its 120-degree cake with a pair of simultaneously-operating serial killers: The Baseline Killer (or Baseline Rapist, so named for his prowling of Baseline Road—a pair of his victims found a block from where Louisa attended massage school night-courses— who escalated his criminal activity from robbing at gunpoint a Little Caesars Pizzeria to murder, and who disguised himself in a Frankenstein mask, or as a homeless man and raped his targets before shooting them in the head) and the Serial Sniper (or Serial Shooter—who later turned out to be two men, or shooters—who began blowing away dogs and horses before going randomly after human pedestrians, especially those on bicycles, a vehicle which, at the time, served as my primary mode of transportation to and from work and graduate class at Arizona State University). I would wring my hands until Louisa came home from night class, and she would wring hers until I came home from teaching undergrads or talking with other nerds in a cinder block classroom about the poetics of space. So, on top of our apartment complex having been steeped like Rooibos in death, the entire city was gripped in this fist of fear, this cult of anxiety about setting foot outdoors into the be-pricked and be-bulleted heatwave, the communion with Son of Sam a pale Conferva indeed.
So we took, Louisa and I, some thin comfort in the reasons behind the ghost. We even named it what we would have named our dog had we, respectively, the ovarios y cajones to take care of, feed, water, walk, and satchel the excrement of an entity other than ourselves: Iago—a name which did not make us feel calmer about the situation. And the situation soon escalated from temperature to appliance, specifically the stackable, top-loading washer-dryer that came with the apartment. The motherfucker was the noisiest washer-dryer we’d had the privilege of sharing our poetic of space with, oftentimes drowning out the bedroom TV’s max volume, depending on the channel, as there was inconsistency there. Discovery: soft. VH1: loud. We would be loafing in bed, watching a Seinfeld rerun or a documentary about the domestication of the housecat, the machine deafeningly laundering our clothes just outside the bedroom door, when, in an instant, we would hear, far too early for the wash-rinse-spin cycle to complete itself, the machine go silent. We looked at each other. Together, we left the bed, the blue TV glow, the walls that likely still held the molecules of methamphetamine, and watched with gaped mouths the washing machine, the lid having been raised, defy gravity. This, followed by the sag in temperature. The free-falling cold. We closed the lid, reignited the cycle, stepped quietly back into the bedroom and, five minutes later, it happened again.
This became Iago’s modus operandi and I hoped we could together reach a modus vivendi. For months on end, Iago would raise our washer lid when no one was looking. I felt the accompanying temperature drop most when home alone, at night, preparing dinner solo—smoked salmon fettuccine with spicy tomato sauce maybe—waiting for Louisa to return home from massage school, avoiding the modus operandi of the Baseline Killer, safe enough to draw her diagrams of the circulatory system on the bathroom mirror. To smooth the fear like a wet bedsheet, I began talking to Iago, saying things like, It’s OK, it’s OK. I’m fine with your presence, I’m happy to share this space with you, and so forth. It didn’t work, and was probably bullshit anyway. The washer situation continued, and we had to live with it. One night, fed up, after a couple shots of Pyrat rum bought on sale from Top’s Liquor, inspired to test the cosmos, close off the portal, I set my 30-pound unabridged dictionary on top of the washer lid after starting a cycle of whites, convinced that, with this book, I would foil Iago, force this fucking ghost to utter its namesake’s famous sentences, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.“
Louisa and I retired to bed, flipped on the TV. Not two minutes later, during a commercial for Aquafresh, we heard the washer stop, followed by an echoic BOOM!, followed by the by-now traditional drop in temperature. We got up. We approached the washer-dryer, its lid raised, an open mouth, my toddler-heavy unabridged dictionary downturned on the yellow tile floor. We totally spazzed out. I picked up a knife. Louisa began rummaging around the fridge for her water bottle, thinking that the ghost would somehow be averse to its spray. Since we were planning a trip to see Louisa’s family in South Africa, we had certain vaccines in pill form in the refrigerator door, and a whole mess of live typhoid capsules went spilling across the kitchen. I flipped the dictionary over in part with the flat of the knife. It had been opened to the E’s. The first complete entry on the left page was for the word eidolon, definition: a phantom; apparition, derivation: Greek, eídōlon—image, idol; from eîdos—shape, form. We scooped up the typhoid, put down the knife and the water, closed the book, restarted the washer, and ran into the bedroom, under the covers, mutually crooning Fuck with a very extended u.
We called our friend Henry, the Apache medicine man, who said something to the effect of, “Dude, don’t worry about it. This kinda shit happens all the time.” He drove that night to our place—the hairiest man we’ve ever known—and stayed until 2am performing some kind of exorcism ceremony—chanting, shaking a rattle made of hide, drinking rank drum water, burning cedar and sage (which I’m pretty sure violated a codicil of our lease agreement). This didn’t work, and we lived with Iago and the washer-dryer occurrences for over a year, eventually coping via dumb joke, telling ourselves the ghost left behind some unfinished business, some—yes—dirty laundry, singing, in post-dinner semi-drunkenness the shitty, likewise named Don Henley song.
A year later, we moved out of apartment and state and Desert Southwest for me to chase an academic job in Upstate New York. There, we moved into a rural house about half a mile up a gravel path from the main road, three miles south of the Canadian border in Alexandria Bay, right on the St. Lawrence River, in the part of the regional snow-belt with the thickest buckle. Our sixty-something landlords lived next door and they divulged to us that their mother/mother-in-law died in this house a mere month before we moved in. We never asked in which room did they discover her body. When choosing a bedroom, we rolled the die.
As the area attracted a bunch of Manhattanite boaters in the summertime, the main road, in the winter, was adorned with seasonally defunct and iced-over Go-Kart tracks, batting cages, jet ski rental shacks. Our landlords constructed and ran, in tourist season, a giant hedge-maze called Mazeland (which my mom, when she came to visit, called, like some low-rent Jackie Mason, Mazel-and, Yiddish for Luck and, or, depending on the role of the l, Luck land). We lived about fifty yards directly behind it. That, in the dead of the seven-month-long winter, I had visions of disappearing insane into the maze à la John Daniel “Jack” Torrence in The Shining, is obvious. That our newly rented house came with its own top-loading washer-dryer, and that the same fucking shit started happening with it as in Tempe, Iago trailing us across the country as if it were Louisa and me, and not the specific place, it was after, is less so.
That we feel Iago walking with us, playing, here in Oaxaca’s early Christmas, the role of protector—oracular bodyguard—and not spook, as Louisa and I walk among the midges and gnats, skinny-legged spiders and spastic moths—plump imago after plump imago (the plural of which, deliciously, is not imagos, but imagines) back toward our short night’s sleep at the Hotel Suites del Centro, firework and cigar smoke drying our throats, has nothing to do with anything resembling obviousness. Not tonight. Louisa takes my hand and we shudder, tired, chilled, thinking of the saintly dead, and of airplanes. Not at all.
Multiple Choice (1)
A couple of things (reminder):
1) At about the same time Grandma Ruth died, my sister got engaged to be married, and my mom bought a new car.
2) I feel I have, for a while now, been trailed by ghosts.
And a disclaimer: We have fled, my wife and I, to Oaxaca, Mexico after having spent the last year living in my parents’ house on the outskirts of Chicago, nursing my mother through her battle with cancer, our marriage desiccating in my old childhood bedroom. We have fled away from something definitive, and toward the sort of marital nebulousness that manifests itself as jet lag, intestinal duress, mild intoxication on the local hooch, and this village market.Neurotically, we have been overusing the word, recover.
Regarding (1): Grandma Ruth is, in memory, among other sour smells, canned salmon and mothballs. She kept the latter in every enclosed space of her East Meadow, New York home, the home my father lamentably declared cost her less than he had just paid for his 1984 Datsun 300ZX. He had his mid-life crisis a bit early and, in addition to purchasing the car, he began dyeing the early gray out of his beard. I had not, and still haven’t, ever seen him clean-shaven. Grandma Ruth, even at this stage, continued to over-mother him, and as my own mother, still young with still-unpermed hair, shuffled my younger sister and me into the red, red kitchen, weary after our flight from Chicago, that combination of smells was the first thing to greet us, soon followed by the cellophaned Brown Bonnets—soft-serve vanilla ice cream dipped and coated in a hard chocolate shell—from Carvel’s, the ice cream franchise also responsible for the likes of Hug Me the Bear, Fudgie the Whale, and Cookie Puss.
Invariably, the pantry door would be open, stocked with boxes of Froot Loops and Cookie Crisp, the “sugar” cereals that my mother would not allow us kids to have at home. And behind these boxes, carefully tied sachets of mothballs, their camphor stink commingling with the salmon patties Grandma Ruth always flipped in the kitchen, whenever we first arrived from Chicago. My mom hated them. My father, on the other hand, thought they were the living end.
Ruthie, until the day she died, even after succumbing to a wicked bout of Alzheimer’s, reverting to a childlike state, often screaming out Putz! Putz! when there weren’t any putzes around, her ruined brain evoking the drool-drenched scenes of her own birth and accumulated tragedies, the disease for her somehow polyglot and gibberish, edged with misremembered pogrom and fin-de-siècle, during which she ate only Jewish-themed sweets she enjoyed as a girl—chocolate-chip mandelbrot, apricot jam rugelach, matzo brei with plenty of dark brown sugar—remained, for better or for worse, a spectacle of a woman: to me always, the hunchbacked Jewish grandmother with dyed orange hair, thick swaths of baby blue eyeshadow, and garish, bubblegum pink lipstick. I’m sure she hid the true nature of her skin behind other powders and creams and greases, but that revolting blue, and that sick pink remain the most indelible. Before she lost her mind (an event which my mom would argue occurred for Ruthie in utero, at the moment her fetal ganglia, already orange-dyed, began to gel), her morning routine reflected her dedication to face-paint. Before my family could leave the house for our typical diner breakfast, we would have to wait for Ruthie to complete her ninety-minute make-up routine.
She would allow me, after five minutes of obligatory, playful protest, to photograph her, newly made-up, with my Polaroid Pronto SX-70, in a series of unflattering poses—her eyes narrowed and tongue hanging out, her cheeks puffed and hands fanned, thumbs wedged into her ears, her mouth scowling, pointer shoved up her nostril in some bitter defiance—maybe against me, or her coming death, or my father’s bellowing for her to hurry up her Clairol-sponsored procedure.
No matter: she is canned salmon, mothballs, and chalky rouge. I still smell the ghosts of her salmon patties every time Louisa opens a can of tuna, which she often did during weekend lunchtimes in Arizona and Upstate New York, the stench driving Iago, if only for a few moments, back into the depths of his portal-tube. With it, Louisa would prepare something involved—perhaps a variation on pasta puttanesca, that Campanian dish of stunning “dirty” flavors reputed to have been created by Neapolitan whores.
We would eat it thrift-store couch-bound in the quotidian A/C of our Tempe closet apartment, or sitting under the front porch overhang in Alexandria Bay, watching the pre-Thanksgiving rain thicken to an embryonic snow, and, invariably, in the ur-tinniness of the canned ichthyoid, I would be transported to that kitchen in East Meadow, bearing those illicit cereals and the red Naugahyde breakfast nook that squeaked so loudly whenever we shifted our weight. I would see my mother making her “gag me” face as my father eagerly devoured a plate of salmon patties; see my sister laughing, her mouth carrying a small vacancy—her first lost baby-tooth. I would swallow hard, and tell this shit to Louisa.
So: At about the same time Ruthie died, my sister got engaged to be married and my mom bought a new car. It was a shockingly hot summer day in Chicago. The news had been warning the elderly and parents of small children to stay inside, crank-up the air conditioner. I remember hearing about a bunch of people dropping dead, people who didn’t heed the advice, or didn’t own an air conditioner. This was heat-as-topos, humidity-as-hebephrenia. Still, post-Gacy Midwestern decency prevented the serial killers from taking advantage.
In this weather, my mother and sister drove the suburban streets to the wedding dressmaker. My sister was due for a fitting. My mom, who was likely beginning to feel the stirrings of disease, synaptic flashes predicting baldness, drove the Honda CRV, odometer proudly boasting its infancy. This was a car Grandma Ruth would never get to ride in—another in a series of cars that, like certain foods, restaurants, dishes, beds, seem to mark the pockets of my life by the mile.
They pulled into the parking lot; one of those lots that fronts a busy street. My mom hated those—hated having to reverse directly into traffic. The sky was a cracking blue. My mom opened the driver’s-side door and stepped out into the sun. My sister opened the passenger-side door, and, excited to see the alterations that had been done on her dress, leapt onto the burning asphalt. Something, as yet unknown, materialized as if in mid-air inside the car, tumbled end-over-end, to the floor of the front passenger side, and rolled under the seat.
They had both, in discomfited periphery, seen it.
“What was that?” my mom asked.
“I don’t know,” my sister replied, and was already bending into the car, reaching with her arm beneath the passenger seat.
What she retrieved was small enough to fit into her hand, to disappear if she closed her fingers around it. What she retrieved was slender and warm. She held it up so my mom could see—a black plastic tube of lipstick with a clear top. Already the sun had started to burn the backs of their necks. They both knew right away, cocked their heads like a dog’s at the teakettle’s steam-whistle, chilled by their own, more familial Iago. In this heat, in this lipstick, the entire Chicago shrunk, overcooked, overdried, insufficient, and with a paucity of rubrics and resources by which to judge such heat, such lipstick. My sister lifted the clear top and, spilling into the summer air between them, a plume of scent—mothballs, salmon patties, chalk. The lipstick was that sloppy sick pink that Ruthie so favored, wore proudly with her blue or green or purple or orange papier-mâché earrings that she would purchase every winter at the Thunderbird flea market in south Florida. My sister peered into the tube as if to find an easy answer, and saw that the lipstick had been pushed down as if with a finger.
Ruthie came of age during the Great Depression, her father was a furrier and, like so many, had little money. As such, Ruthie never wasted a thing. I remember watching her, so many mornings in East Meadow, as she dipped her finger into a near-empty tube, and wiped the pink dregs over her lips.
So, they both knew. Still, my sister felt compelled to say, aloud, “This is Grandma’s,” as if to test the cosmos. But the cosmos had said enough, opened the nebula like a mail slot, a stackable washer-dryer, and pushed this lipstick through.
At the wedding ceremony, my parents and sister organized to have a seat in the front row left open. On that seat, bearing witness, so small in such a large sea of white cloth drape, sat Ruthie’s supernatural tube of permanently-pressed lipstick. This capped channel. This black plastic tunnel with pink light at its end. Perhaps it’s best that she attended in this incarnation. She wouldn’t have approved of the wedding food. As someone who once declared (to my passionate dismay) that she’d rather eat leftover pizza crusts than the black-olive oil poached salmon she ordered at a gourmet restaurant in Chicago, she would have labeled my sister’s choice of hors d’oeuvres “too fancy.”
As much as my mom and sister knew that day, I know. The ghosts are watching. The ghosts of people. The ghosts of food—amaranth and ortolan. Every time I eat cold leftovers on a porch on the cusp of winter, or pig brain tacos off the street in Mexico, I know. Though I have become what many call a “food snob,” I realize that there is often honor in food I would normally dismiss. Honor, because these foods, however processed and modified, bear the weight of memory. Maybe not mine, but someone’s. As long as food is loved, who’s to say it’s not good food? Surely these culinary outcasts can join the ranks somehow—I certainly don’t want to offend any ghosts. So once in a while, because of salmon patties, canned tuna.
So when Ruthie succumbed to Alzheimer’s and ate only sweets—the stuff she loved as a child—the rules had changed. If sensory desires can circle back, if the present can twist and spiral and revisit the past, overlapping just slightly, perhaps with just a little imaginative alchemy, we can make of the mundane something gourmet. A larger-than-life grandmother. A Froot Loop soufflé.
Regarding (1) and (2): So when I say, I know, what I really mean is: I know I don’t know shit. I’ve never been good at these things; at deciding what they really are. I have trouble distinguishing between hornets and horseflies, swallows and moths, home and away. Back at the Suites del Centro, late, after organizing a 6:00am wake-up call with the night clerk, Enrique—a wet-noodley sixteen-year-old boy in a black button-down with daisies sewn onto the shoulders—we watch a staticky half-hour of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, dubbed into Spanish, on a rabbit-eared thirteen-inch. In its lacteal light, frosting the entire room as if a shitty-delicious franchise ice-cream cake, as Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill the Butcher, dubbed by a Mexican voice-over actor who takes rasp and baritone really seriously, growls, Maté al padre. Ahora, voy a matar al hijo, Louisa and I take off each other’s clothes, examine ourselves in the full-length mirror, crested with an Aztec sunburst. In our low sounds, and the sounds of the passing-out city, all alarm-clocked mythopoeia. Afterwards, we shut the television, kick the blanket to the floor, pull the white sheet over us. Louisa traces numbers between my shoulder blades, and I guess, in Spanish, what they are.
About to fall asleep, “Ocho?” I say
“No,” she says.
I have trouble distinguishing between this bedroom and others. On my back, I can’t tell if that’s Louisa’s finger, or her breath.
Matthew Gavin Frank
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks. His essay collection/cookbook, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, is forthcoming November 2015 from W.W. Norton: Liveright. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he tempered his gin with two droplets (per 750ml) of tincture of odiferous whitefish liver. For health.