I no longer save anything, my life is a steady effort to shed the litter of time; but when I was too young to understand the covetous nature of memory, I preserved the casual souvenirs of my life with a hoarder’s passion, with the true dedication of an archivist. Nothing was too trivial for inclusion in the large red-spined letter boxes I was given by my uncle Jack, nothing so ordinary that it did not acquire, by association with my life, the aura of a relic. Rescued from oblivion, guarded against neglect, I stored myself carefully against extinction.
When Jack died last summer, I spent a long afternoon in the attic of my mother’s house, cleaning out this treasure trove, leafing through the tightly packed boxes carefully, at first, and then with increasing speed. Slippery with heat, irritated by the sheer bulk of time, my fingers slid through the cataloging of decades. Inside the stacks of musty boxes were not only layers of cracking photographs, letters, English class compositions crowned with good marks, but strata of trivial mementos, too: ribbons from an old dance corsage, piano recital programs in which I had not even participated, a common stone, as large as a walnut, and Vera Ellen’s autograph. There were faded postcards from national parks, football programs, get-well cards signed by names utterly unknown to me, and, amazingly, a crushed paper cup. I remembered, finally, that Jimmy Hobson had drunk from that cup, it was the touch of his lips I had preserved, though I could never unravel the mystery of one lone cigar ring, carefully protected in a Saran-Wrap pouch.
Out of a dozen fat boxes, I retained only three photographs and a small packet of letters from Jack. The photographs showed my parents, arms self-consciously entwined, posed against the backdrop of the Smoky Mts. on a long-ago vacation trip; Magoo, our old basset hound, trying to sit in my brother’s lap; and Jack, his baseball cap riding backwards on his head, holding up a thick string of fish and smiling fiercely into my camera’s eye.
Jack’s letters were ordinary, dull; filled with commonplace advice expressed in the most unimaginative clichés. Writing to me, pining with homesickness at camp, he said, “Don’t give in, Fanny, things will look better soon. Yesterday at Mitchell’s Blue Hole I landed a 4-pound bass. Love, Jack.” Or again, when I had written from college, complaining of the tortures of being young and put-upon, he wrote: “Dear Fanny: I’ve been young and I’ve been old, and believe me, young is better.” There was one letter from the time I had spent hitching around Europe, having dropped out of school for one disastrous semester, thinking education superfluous: “I used to think you were just climbing fool’s hill, only now I think you are determined to survey it too, inch by inch.” It took him a long time to forgive me for that bit of idiocy, and I’d kept the postcard he sent me the next winter, when I returned to the fold: “Fanny,” his belligerent up and down pen strokes say, “Are your legs good and tired? Stay on flat ground from now on, like a good girl.”
Fanny, he called me, all my life, a name that reflected as accurately as a mirror the tenor of our relationship: slightly bawdy, inclined to silliness, and based on a singular combative instinct as hard as bedrock.
“Show me those britches,” I am told he insisted, from times I cannot even remember. “I hear you’re a funny girl, I hear you’re sporting purple pants.”
This would drive me to fury; even at three or four, I was belligerent by nature, a direction reinforced, no doubt, by a normal child’s tendency towards literalness.
“You used to pull your dress up over your head,” my mother said, “to show him he was wrong. Then turn around to stick your bottom out. And the look on your face, you got so red,” she said. “It was such a stupid game, just like Jack to turn it into ritual. And before you caught on to the fact it was a game, his name stuck.”
“Let’s see that fanny,” Jack would dare. “Whoever heard of purple pants.”
In later years, when I was seven or eight, I refused to hike my dress over my head, but would happily engage in unending arguments over the possibility that my underwear was not lily-white. “You want to bet?” I’d ask.
“Sure, Fanny, what’s your offer?”
“Don’t call me that, my name’s Nora.”
“Couldn’t be. I hear around town that’s what folks call you.”
“They do not, you’re just making it up.”
“Are you calling me a liar? Would I lie to you?”
This stopped me, for awhile. Lying, my parents taught me, was a mortal sin, though my relationship with Jack seemed beyond the proscribed limits of family conduct, no matter how my mother blustered around, shushing us when the conversation got out of hand.
“I wouldn’t trust you to cross the street,” I told him, and my mother, snapping to attention at the dinner table, said, “Watch your mouth, Nora, and pass your brother the potatoes, please.”
But my brother Dan’s time at the dinner table was too short-lived to require an extra helping of potatoes. He was sinking fast into one of the severe laughing fits which Jack’s presence often caused. Perhaps Jack had made a face across the table at him, too quick for my mother to notice and scold, allowing one eye to slide loosely towards his nose, as if it were keeping tabs on the other, or had simply raised an eyebrow in Dan’s direction. My brother, at ten, was so susceptible to silliness that often the slightest hint of Jack’s attention dissolved him hopelessly.
“You may leave the table, Daniel,” my mother said. “Take your plate into the kitchen, if you like, but control yourself, please.”
“Ah, Ma,” Dan gasped, then abandoned himself to the helpless shaking of his body. “Haw-haw-haw,” he shouted, relinquishing control completely.
“Son,” my father said, “do as your mother asks.” And Dan staggered from the room.
Jack said, “Sorry,” anticipating his brother’s admonishing expression. “I didn’t do a thing this time, I swear, I just looked at the kid.”
“If I had your talent, I’d go on TV,” my father said, “instead of wasting it around here. Make us all rich.”
“I’m going to stop asking you to Sunday dinner if you keep torturing that boy,” my mother said. “And you, a grown man.”
“Now, Susan,” my father said, indicating the large platter of fish Jack had supplied. “Don’t go giving him ideas. I can stand his company as long as the bream are biting, anyway.”
The truth being that my father’s tolerance for all manner of foolishness was infamous in Greenlove, Mississippi. His small pharmacy ran continually on the bare threads of credit, he trusted everyone to behave as they said they would, while Jack’s office supply store, directly across the street, stayed always in the black. Sometimes at night, when they assumed me safely asleep, I would hear the three of them discussing this situation over a last cup of coffee.
“I simply can’t understand it,” my mother’s mournful voice said. “Here Jack is with all his accounts balancing nicely, even though he spends far more time out in some swampy place than he does behind his cash register. And Sam puts in banker’s hours, then goes in the middle of the night to fill emergency presciptions half the time—and look here.”
I knew she was holding up the heavy ledger books she kept for my father, weighing the cumbersome thickness of debt in her hands. I could almost see the precise, clear tracks of her handwriting within the outwardly identical ledgers she kept for Uncle Jack.
“Well, school just started,” Jack said, taking up for his older brother, as always. “Everybody needs paper and pencils, you can’t go to class without supplies.”
“And everybody needs toothpaste and deodorant too,” my mother said, “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I can’t ask people to pay for medicine they need and can’t afford,” my father insisted. “What kind of man is that? What shall I say: No, Mrs. Harbison, I can’t fill this penicillin prescription, I can’t let you have that digitalis until you settle your account?”
“But nobody ever settles his account, Sam, that’s the point. Three months after they’re well again, they’re still owing us. I bill them and bill them, we spend more on postage than I can stand, but they all know you won’t do anything, so they keep using you.”
Jack said, “Susan, calm down, it’s not half as bad as that. Be glad you’re got a man like Sam. I don’t see you starving.”
“I give up,” my mother said then, inevitably, “I simply give up, I’m going to bed.”
When she’d gone (I could hear the ledgers thump as she stacked them on the kitchen table), the clear sound of ice cubes falling against glass floated up to my room. They had gotten out the Scotch bottle, my father and Jack, for their good-night toddy, and their voices curled softly together for an hour longer. But I could never hear these conversations, though I strained to do so, sometimes creeping as far as the darkened top stair to sit shivering and holding my breath to catch their words. Their lowered, intimate voices simply blurred into a musical bass rumble, punctuated only by my father’s suppressed laughter from time to time.
I longed to hear this private talk, I longed to hear the jokes Jack must be telling, yearned simply to see my father attending an ordinary activity, like conversation. For my own intuition had told me, early on, that the oppressive cloud of debt, which colored the very air of our house, stemmed as much from my father’s distraction as it did from his tolerant nature: he was absent, my father, quite simply removed from the commonplace world, his mind on Keats or Milton or on the pages of some obscure medieval tract. I had been behind the counter in his pharmacy, I had seen the steady flow of library books propped urgently beside carefully labeled jars of medication. Words filled his head, the rhyming, rhythmic words of voices his fingers followed across the printed page, as sure as footsteps. He did not so much leave this world to travel on the roads he found in books; rather, he visited us here, always pleasantly, until he was permitted free access once more to the real and palpable dust of his native place.
Often, in those late night bookkeeping conferences, my mother would say, “O, that damned Depression,” saving her curses exclusively for this, the Great Depression, which had robbed her husband of his education and determined the necessity of his assuming the reins of family business, a mere drugstore.
Sometimes, my father smiled, watching Dan and me, his eyes ringed with the surprise of discovery. I knew what he was thinking then, though I could not have put it into words. He was thinking simply of the astonishing genetic game of chance, watching his children as they charged across the lawn with Jack, as they leaned their heads attentively together while Jack threaded greased line through a casting rod. His son, whose interests lay entirely within the restrictive principles of engineering, whose devotion was claimed by the stress of steel, by the buttressing weight of girders. His daughter, who spent her waking hours dreaming of lures that danced across the dawn mist of waters, who followed her uncle into the rubble of corn fields, hunting quail, when she was not paralyzed before her bathroom mirror, gazing wistfully at her face. We circled each other like friendly but alien beasts, mute with incomprehensible distance, tranquil with acceptance, though sometimes between us, darting irritably back and forth, my mother requested attention to the unanswerable refrain of her days. “I give up,” she said. “I just give up.”
Though she never would. She had chosen my father gladly and would do so again; had gladly welcomed Jack’s presence in our lives with unthinking affection. But it was between Jack and me that the surest bond formed. We carried it between us like a piece of invisible rope that anchored us together. Even the ritual of family stories strenghtened these ties.
“You might as well be Jack’s own daughter,” my mother said. “Do you know when you were born and they brought you out for your father to see, everyone started to laugh? Half the town was sweating out your coming, walking the floor with your father, and when you were presented for inspection, they all hooted.”
“”Looks like Jack squashed down to a peanut,”” my father remembered someone saying. “”Looks like someone squeezed Jack until he was new again.”“
Jack was tall and rangy, but solidly built, and his face had the planes and lines of Indian cast. He had dark, bushy eyebrows feathered with grey, and his hair was a pure white, even from when I remember him most in his 40’s and 50’s. I don’t ever recall seeing him wear anything other than chino work pants and tee shirts, which he bought from the high school athletic department, though surely he wore proper cotton shirts to work. He had a singular disregard for his appearance, for the vagaries of style or fashion, though he spent hours leafing through the catalogues which arrived from L. L. Bean.
“Imagine, looking like you at one day old,” I told him. “No wonder I haven’t got a chance in hell of doing right.”
“Fanny,” he said, “you were one beautiful baby, all right.”
My mother often stumbled into the kitchen at dawn to fret over early, breakfastless risings. I was off to fish Angel’s Pond with Jack, balancing rod and tackle box while I drank from the milk bottle.
“Don’t leave your germs for all of us,” she said, and held out an unnecessary glass. “Whoever heard of a 15-year-old girl out in the black of night with a pail of worms.”
“I graduated from worms years ago,” I told her, ignoring the empty glass. “Jack’s teaching me how to cast by feel. You can’t see anything for hours, but he knows in his wrists how to hook the line just right.”
“Hush,” my mother said, “Your father had a 2 a. m. call.”
Later, Jack said, “Limber up your wrists, Fanny, just give it a flick from the inside bone.”
I did as he instructed and felt the greased and ready line sail out exactly where my own thoughts aimed it. “Don’t talk so loud,” I told him. “You’d kill me if you were fishing the other end of this pole and I said a single word to you.”
“My voice is soft as water,” he said, and I saw him tilting a pint bottle of vodka, then heard him gasp.
“Let me have a swig,” I said, “it’s cold.”
“Not on your life, but I’ll tell you a story.”
Jack’s drinking stories were tales of violence and folly, of sturdy citizens sent lurching towards foolishness. He told me of Dr. Browder’s fondness for limericks, of deputy police chief Hubbard’s conversing in pig Latin, of my own father, once, his line hooked in a cypress root, standing in the wallowing, flat-bottomed boat to recite Henry V’s speech. “”We few, we lucky few, we band of brothers,”” my father warbled, jerking at his tangled lure.
“You know old Pinky Lawrence?” Jack asked.
“Sure, he works at McIntyre’s Insurance, the guy with one leg.”
“Well, seems when Pinky’s drunk that fact completely slips his mind. Pinky finished up a pint of Jack Daniels last week, then tried to help me throw the line ashore and fell plumb in the water. “Sorry,” he said, when he came up. “I was walking towards the wharf and clean forgot I couldn’t, anymore.”“
“That’s awful,” I said, trying not to laugh. “You get them drunk on purpose.”
“He asked for a swig, same as you,” Jack told me. “O, but you should’ve seen him, balancing there. It was a sight, until he recalled who he was.”
Sometimes whole weeks passed by without any of us seeing Jack at all. Even within the narrow confines of small-town life, this was entirely possible, given the varied schedules of our days and the demands of Jack’s own idiosyncrasies. With my parents caught up in the duties of work, with Dan and me swallowed more and more by the needs of school and friends, we did not even think to miss him until the week-end. But if Dan and I did not see him at the weekly high school sports event, then we began to worry.
“Store’s closed again,” Dan might announce at Saturday lunch, after we’d missed Jack at the football game the night before.
“I’d like to know how he does it,” my mother said. “That place is closed more than it’s open.”
And then if at Sunday dinner his ready plate continued to gleam mutely next to my own, we knew he was off on one of his trips. Sprees, my mother called these absences. “Well, he’s off chasing trouble again,” she’d say. “He’s far too old for these sprees, how can he keep this nonsense up?”
He might be gone for three days or two weeks then, appearing finally as abruptly as he’d vanished, the store simply opened one morning, his familiar form glimpsed again in the crowded Friday night grandstands, the baseball cap pulled down low over his forehead. When he arrived for Sunday dinner, we all skirted the issue of his absence carefully, my mother only allowing herself the luxury of asking politely, “Did you have a nice time?”
“Fine,” Jack said, “just fine,” as if he had simply returned from a tedious business trip. In a few days, the smudges beneath his eyes were lightened by sleep, the bruised look on his pale face cleared, and he was himself again. Like a man recovering from influenza, he daily gained back his normal strength. I used to watch him then, closely, disturbed by the slight trembling of his hands, by the pallor of his skin. And once, sitting on the dock as we watched our corks bob in the oily water, I asked him simply, “Where’ve you been all week?”
Jack flipped a cigarette butt into the water and we watched it drift by our lines. “Across the river,” he said finally. “Just over there, nowhere you want to go.”
I looked down the curve of our lake to where it nosed into the Mississippi River, and scanned the far shore. Nothing there but trees, old cypress stumps, and tatty fishing shacks. They sold bait there, all up and down the water, tackle and beer. “That’s only Arkansas,” I told him, disappointed and utterly bewildered now, expecting to hear him say Memphis or Jackson; New Orleans, at least.
“I know,” he said. “No place at all.”
Sometimes, unable to contain myself, I picked at him relentlessly, probing for a weak spot in the solidly private front he displayed. Surely, I thought, there must be a reason for his solitary life: he had been hurt in love, perhaps, or was simply afraid of allowing himself such emotion; he had some hidden deficiency, maybe, some secret fault or vice beyond the occasional benders across the river. I fantasized, with all the fuel of adolescent ignorance, an utterly mysterious past event or a present secret, second life, anything to solve the riddle of such chosen isolation. The bare and unencumbered outlines of his days seemed somehow threatening to me, empty and hollowed out with space.
“Julia Carson ought to buy shares in your business,” I said. “It’s clear to me she can’t use all those office supplies. She just comes in to see you.” This was true: I had been around helping with weekly inventory enough to know that she appeared on the flimsiest excuse: she needed paper clips, a marking pen, some yellow legal pads.
Jack said only, “It’s your turn.” We were playing hearts in his garage apartment, the rain that had forced us off the lake streaming down the windows.
“I counted twice in the last two weeks she’s asked you to supper. Why don’t you go? She’s good looking enough, she seems okay.”
“I went,” Jack said. “once. And that’s my trick, keep your hands off it.”
“She lives in a museum. Everytime I moved, I knocked bric-brac off a table. She has antique furniture with skinny legs,” he said. “She collects silver spoons.”
“What’s so terrible about that? We’re talking about her, not her spoons.”
“Things,” Jack said. “We’re talking about things.”
“It seems to me you could do with a few things yourself,” I said. “You’ve lived here forever, and it still looks like a motel room. How can you stand it?”
“I’ve got plenty of things, important things,” Jack said. “You’re just too blind to notice.” He slapped down the four of clubs and leaned back. “You lose, as usual.”
But I was already studying the spare outlines of his room: one lumpy couch, where we were sitting, and an old cracked leather chair; a tarnished brass reading lamp hung tiredly behind the chair, and there were two undistinguished end tables hugging its sides, their tops covered with Bean catalogues and pipe equipment. In the small bedroom, I knew, was a narrow bed, more cot than bed, with a steamer trunk, and in the kitchen, a scrubbed pine table with four ladderback chairs, their ruffles frayed and prickly. Plain white curtains hung at the windows, my mother’s work, and the walls were absolutely bare, except for a calendar that hung next to the stove.
“Not one painting, not even a photograph,” I said.
“I couldn’t stand looking at the same thing every day, year after year,” he said. “There’s nothing I like that much.”
“Not even one picture of Grandpa,” I said, beginning to take it personally. “Never mind Dan and me.”
Jack pointed to his sunburned temple. “Here,” he said. “It’s in here. Why would I hang your silly face on my wall?”
“And no books,” I said, “not even last month’s magazines. You might as well be passing through.”
Jack said, “Well, I am—just passing through. So are you. And I told you you didn’t notice anything,” and indicated the floor, where a pile of books leaned against the thick leg of the leather chair.
“Library books,” I insisted, “aren’t the same. And where are all these important things you talk about, please?”
“All around you,” he said, “if you had any sense.”
I walked around the room then, fingering objects I had grown so used to seeing that they seemed invisible now: a bowl of acorns, three fat buckeyes, a rock veined with fool’s gold. On the window ledge, a jelly glass filled with drying mimosa blooms, their feathery edges faded to white; one small quail egg, speckled with grey, and a small, bleached bone, the knuckle joint gleaming.
“But this stuff won’t be here next week, so what’s so special about it?”
“There’ll be new stuff, as you call it, next week, as important as this. And I won’t explain it to you. Any girl who goes around putting her life in a box is hopeless enough.”
“Don’t you ever get lonesome? Don’t you want to have a family? You’re not getting any younger, you know; you’re going to miss the boat.”
“I’ve got a family,” he said.
“I mean your own wife, I mean your own flesh and blood.”
“I can do without a wife,” he said. “And as for my own flesh and blood, I don’t care about that. Do you think for one minute I’d waste time on you, just because you’re family, if I didn’t happen to like you too? Although today you’re being such a solid pain in the ass, I could easily do without you.”
When I was older, the summer before I left for college, I began to visit the two or three joints at the ragged edges of town where liquor was brought in paper bags, where a fourpiece blues band played on Saturday nights. And that was when I finally saw that Jack did have a social life, after all. It had simply been hidden from me by time and by places forbidden to my tender years. Even now, Marino’s roadhouse was strictly off-limits, though when Jack cocked his head at me, as my date led me onto the stamp-sized dance floor, I only looked him coolly in the eye and smiled, daring.
“If it’s good enough for me, you’re not too good for it either,” he had told me too often in the past, referring to a wide range of situations I had impertinently questioned: lunch served in his kitchen directly from the skillet, his refusal to buy a new car, his habit of drinking warm beer.
I would see him talking intimately with the waitress from Doe’s Drive-in, or laughing at the bar with the girl who worked the counter at Hudson’s Cleaners. These women were always bleached and tacky, they wore bright dresses that hugged their bodies, pushing up their breasts. They chewed gum or smoked lavender cigarettes. Sometimes, on Saturday nights, I saw him at a crowded table of men only, the table top filled with empty Budweiser bottles, smoke encircling their shoulders like a fog. Or simply sitting off by himself, talking to the bartender and still wearing his fishing clothes. We waved to each other at such times, though never spoke, and he kept his silence.
Jack came for Sunday dinner, as usual, the night before I was to leave for college. It was a subdued occasion, the conversation lazy and distracted. Dan, who was a sophomore at the state engineering school, had already left a week before, but since he had long ago outgrown his helpless reaction to Jack’s goading, even his presence at the table would not have made a difference. Jack had only recently returned from a five-day spree, and though I could see him attempting to spark up the atmosphere, his efforts were pale and shaky.
My mother filled a tray with coffee cups in the kitchen, stacking them angrily. “This nonsense has to stop soon,” she said. “He’s too old to carry on the way he does.”
“I know,” I said, “but there’s nothing you can do, so just calm down.”
“Oh, I wish you weren’t going,” she said, and smiled at me sadly. “We’re so proud of you, your father’s so happy, but I’ll miss you.” And she gathered up the tray quickly before I could respond.
My father was proud. He had read the catalogue of courses offered more than once and asked if he could keep the letter I’d received announcing my full scholarship. I’d opened the last of my red letter boxes and retrieved it for him gladly.
When I walked Jack to his beat-up car, we stood together for a moment, looking up at the darkening sky. “Fanny,” he said, “Sam’s so pleased, Don’t you goof-off up there, don’t you let him down.”
“Of course not,” I said. “Why on earth would you worry?”
“Because I know you, honey,” he said, “as well as I know myself.” Then he slapped me gently on the behind and got into his car. “Rain tomorrow,” he said. “No fishing until Tuesday.” And I stood and waved him off until he turned at the corner, heading home.
There was no funeral to return for ten years later when my mother called to tell me of Jack’s death. He’d left a letter of instructions, asking to be cremated and requesting no services whatsoever.
“He was so young, only 61,” my mother said, and I knew that beyond her grief, she was thinking with terror of my father. At 66, he still refused to retire completely, though he had hired a younger pharmacist to do most of the work and no longer opened up shop for emergency calls himself.
“Had he been off across the river lately?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “The last trip he made was three or four months ago, but he was gone for ten days that time. I never tried to stop him,” she said, “but if I only had. . . .”
“Stop Jack? Don’t be ridiculous, Mother. Listen, I’m coming home.”
She tried weakly to dissuade me, then admitted she was glad. “I have to clean out his apartment,” she said. “I can’t bear to ask your father for help, and I just can’t face it alone.”
When we opened the door, my mother bustled into Jack’s small rooms, all business though I knew this old, familiar irritability masked a pain she could not negotiate.
“You take these boxes into the kitchen,” I told her, “and I’ll do the bedroom.” And watched as she rushed gratefully off to a neutral space.
I stood in the living room for a moment, holding my breath, waiting for Jack’s presence to fill the very air he had abandoned, but after a moment, I let go. The pain I had expected, the grief, like a blow, never fell. It was simply Jack’s room, and he was gone. Though as I opened the steamer trunk near his bed, I half expected still to find some precious and mysterious objects, hidden and guarded through the years. Some telling token carefully squirreled away. What I found were simply neat and faded stacks of clothes: tee shirts, underwear, clean pressed Bean bandanas. In the closet, his cotton work shirts hung, and his oil-smudged chinos; beneath, two pairs of sneakers and some heavy work boots in a noncommittal row.
I filled two cardboard boxes with these, then stripped the bed and folded up blankets. In the kitchen, my mother was opening and closing drawers while I wandered around the small living room, collecting what there was: three library books, the minuscule clutter of pipe equipment, and a weekold bill from the electric company. When my mother came in with her kitchen supplies, I was gathering the last stray objects for my own half-empty box from their place on the window sill: a small turban gourd, two mussel shells, and one soft, grey feather. In a jelly glass stood a cluster of sycamore burrs, like small, papery stars.
“Is there anything you want?” my mother asked. “He left you the tackle box and his rods and reels.”
“No,” I said, “nothing.”
“Then let’s drive over to Goodwill now, please, and be done.”
Later that afternoon, while my mother fixed supper and we waited for my father to return home from work, I carried load after load of my attic hoard out to the back yard. Then I filled a large wire trash container and set it afire, feeding the flames with handfuls of paper and dumping the emptied letter boxes on top. I watched as the boxes charred and crumbled, as the fire turned from orange to green and back again, then added, finally, my briefly rescued scraps: the three photographs and Jack’s packet of letters.
“Nora,” my mother called from the back porch, “it’s far too hot to go to all that trouble. Why not just throw it all in the garbage?”
But it was flame I was after, the weightlessness of ash.