In a galaxy far, far away, Larry lay dope sick on his parent’s couch.
This was before addiction had taken hold, flu-like, in the early years when he was immune to addiction — he was born free of the congenital disease — his immunity built by witness, by inoculating revulsion to his own family members’ personal struggles with the condition. He was a dope head romantic.
He’d done too much. Simple as that. Two bags the night before, and it was more than he’d ever even considered for personal use by an otherwise clean and sober person, a person who considered himself more than causally healthy, for whom the recommended eight daily water glasses had been processed and eliminated by midafternoon, or even earlier if that day’s morning included, like, a quick three-mile run. The night before, he’d Danced With The Devil. He played with nocturnal fire. He acted on impulse, like an animal, as in what’s meant by “the human animal” when people talk about passions and giving in thoughtless and irrevocably. Because first we’re, like, animals, and then we’re human, he thought, his head propped on a throw pillow, laying shirtless on his parent’s green couch, and feeling sick in places deeper than his bones. At first, we’re pre-programmed impulse, deep-brained, a long-haunted howl in a protoplasmic machine, he tells himself. It’s like, how’s a dog supposed to know chocolate’ll give it diarrhea, or worse: kill it.
He could think, that was the bright spot in the sickness, that he could think extra-vividly about one thing at a time, with forehead wrinkling effort. His head was wrapped in fog, his mind in a dense, cottony wasteland, but he could lock into a single conception and follow it like a torch burning ahead toward someplace he didn’t always want to be. This sort of cleansing refocus was at least part of the reason he even casually Dances with what is poison if you just come right out and say it; his use is like a ritualistic bath, or chemo.
It’s like the next day’s fugue and intense focus on certain gnarly issues were a major draw to the substance, when a taste for the substance came hounding. At that couch ridden moment his torch light shone on his aunt Laura, his mother’s sister, a (recovering) coke/crackhead and alcoholic for so many years she has an accent. Now sober, she still speaks with the signal slur and apocopes of the mentally deficient and the narcotized.
The first peculiarity he’d learned about his Aunt Laura, what now made her jut into conceptual torchlight: she was born on his mother’s 11th birthday. His mother brought this up all the time, at holidays, over dinner, during the occasional family reminiscence when aunties and uncles recalled little league games, or how one cousin used to run with his elbow held out at a funny angle. His mother openly talked about her dismay at being left alone in a house paralyzed in partum disarray, her unfrosted vanilla ring cake squatting on the counter after her parents vacated her labor-stricken childhood home. Then the distressing realization that she’d have to share her own birth’s celebration from that day forward. That her whole life-worth’s of birthdays would be halfway diminished was, for her as a preteen girl, devastating. She wouldn’t even look at her new sister for like the first three years. But she can laugh about it now, she says.
Their mother, Larry’s grandmother, took little-to-basically no interest at all in her Laura, her final born, for reasons another between-age Aunt ascribed one Christmas Eve to his grandmother’s only son. “Your grandmother never got over it,” between-age Aunt Margaret told Larry. “He was 9lbs, fully developed. This was a real baby, not a fetus. It wasn’t a miscarriage, which is awful, don’t get me wrong. I would know. My mother was devastated.”
For a brief flame’s flick, the torchlight illuminates a b/w photo of Larry’s maternal family gathered around his beaming, disorientingly young Grandmother, enormously pregnant with what would turn out to be Larry’s namesake; his stillborn Uncle. This framed photo had its place of honor on a shelf above the television, between his grandfather’s college football team’s Game Ball and his great grandfather’s framed folded American Flag. If you looked closely you could see a teacup and saucer balanced on grandma’s nine-month pregnant belly; the given reason what the photo was all about, rather than a stillborn child.
“There were no answers,” Aunt Margaret continued. They were sitting on a couch near the Christmas tree. The couch’s upholstery was a pastel chintz, and must have been about three couches before the green one he now lay on, deathly hungover from a double shot of high quality heroin. “She wouldn’t allow an autopsy. I don’t think it would have answered the questions she had, the bigger ones. She wasn’t very religious before that. She went to Christmas and Easter services, and confirmations and baptisms, things like that. After your Uncle Larry died you couldn’t drag her out of Church. She prayed every day for another son. She never told us that, but we knew. And then there was Laura.”
Larry’s maternal side’s family is more diligent about birthday parties and holiday dinners than his paternal side’s. Each maternal family member over the age of twenty-three is a college grad and wears cardigans over collars, and gem-colored corduroys, and gold necklaces with crosses dangling. They drink white wine by the liter without slurring or tripping, and never curse in conversation unless the conversation is about politics, and then the offending word is delivered in pressure relieving jest. They all have jobs with ambiguous administrative titles, in contrast to the paternal side’s house painters and plumbers. None of Larry’s mitochondrial relatives have come to in a precinct holding cell eating a cheese sandwich and urinating in full view of an intake officer. Or anything even close to that. And then there’s Laura.
And so Larry’s fog is sizzling away, opening to the torch’s touch then closing behind him. It’s unclear if he’s looking for something or being shown. He’s physically sick in a way that’s not comparable to alcohol’s hangover. He hurts in a way that demonstrates pain is “all in your head”. The idea of the agony is itself sick and diseased. He aches with physicality and with its nauseous idea. But the nastiest part of the hangover is the isolation, like he’s floating into deep space, a body contextless, with a view onto everything Larry’s known and experienced receding away silently. He’s flailing uselessly in a void, with no way home, is how it feels.
This other between-aged Aunt never came right out and said it but pretty much drew the picture that Larry’s mother and grandmother bonded over their shared dismay for the infant Laura, the birthday usurper and non-agnate dud, and tacitly abandoned her, and the other Aunt had to pretty much raise her as her very own while their father earned a six-day-per-week living managing the 3M Company’s microwave popcorn division and spending seven-evenings-per-week getting stoically drunk on brandy with other Company managers, and his being seen at home was like spotting Bigfoot. It’s like this other between-age Aunt Margaret had proud motherly memories of Laura and reminisced about them during Holiday dinners in Laura’s absence, while Laura was out doing God knows what.
One day, at in-between-age eight years old, cash money appeared along with Margaret’s morning oatmeal, and a cocktail napkin with “babysitting” written in her dad’s neat manager’s handwriting, which weekly money she used to buy nappies and cow’s milk she heated on the stove and bottle-fed to Laura. In her first live month, Laura wore crookedly taped diapers, changed twice, maybe three times a day, and was loosely wrapped in a cotton blanket with yellow stars embroidered across a field of blue. After a few weeks on cow’s milk and irregular changing the diapers began overfilling and leaked, and the blanket got a smell, and the family complained about it, the smell, never mentioning Laura, only the blanket. Margaret stripped her bed and swaddled Laura in her twin-size flat sheet, which was way too big for a four-week-old with diarrhea and weight loss issues. Laura disappeared in them and her swaddling looked like a laundry pile on the family den’s couch when she was hastily placed there. Margaret doesn’t even want to think about what happened on laundry day that one week, as her own flickering memory’s light illuminates a more sinister plot in her sister and mother’s tacit abandonment. So then Margaret dressed Laura in pillowcases with little holes cut in the case’s bottom, and she sewed her own socks to the holes to cover and warm Laura’s malnourished legs, and she carried her around that way pretty much every second of her between-age days. Aunt Laura was about as functional a family member as a stuffed doll. Margaret’s changing her diaper and feeding her a baba and coddling her on her lap during evening television viewing was barely glanced at and it seems like it was more tolerated than encouraged, she told Larry this one Christmas Eve.
Aunt Margaret was a pinot grigio gal. Larry can practically smell the memory his torch is burning. So it’s like a memory within a memory now, his aunt’s and his own twisting around and feeling each other. Aunt Margaret wasn’t even close to being drunk on her fifth glass. It must have been Laura’s six-month birthday, Margaret reckons, late August when her mother took them back-to-school shopping. Nobody even said Laura’s name anymore, it was like Laura was just as stillborn as Uncle Larry. “You couldn’t imagine it,” Aunt Margaret tells Larry with strange mirth, sitting beside him on what must’ve been three couches ago. “We went to Sears to buy new school clothes. I held Laura on my lap in the car’s backseat then strolled her through the department store in a hand-me-down baby doll’s stroller while they tried on new dresses and tights and shoes,” Margaret says. “I kept nagging mother for new pillowcases and asking the clerks where the bedding section was. Laura’s cases were so ratty compared to our new dresses.” When they got home from Sears, Margaret explains, she cut up old clothes and sutured them into smaller crooked-seamed versions, then dressed Laura and presented her to the family who said, “that’s nice,” without bothering to set eyes on them and went right on watching the evening television. Dressing her up, Margaret tells Larry, was like the only way she could get her mother and sisters to even unconsciously acknowledge Laura, “and so that’s how I learned to sew,” Margaret says as a matter of plain fact.
But then there was this one time she’d run out of hand-me-down clothes to unseam and reform, so she sneaked into her mother’s room hunting for old shirts and sweaters her mother would cut into rags and use to clean with. There was a crawl space behind the master bedroom’s closet Margaret used to hide in during hide and seek games and hadn’t hid in since she got too busy taking care of Laura to play anything even once in a while. In she crawls, searching for jersey knit or some other vestiaries material and instead lucks upon a stack of little boy’s clothes, folded up neat in boxes with taped pieces of baby shower wrapping paper still clinging. “These were your Uncle Larry’s clothes, Larry,” Aunt Margaret tells him, Larry remembers, and it’s like he’s throttled the boosters rocketing him further from home. He’s not feeling okay at all. Not at all. Larry’s torchlight is very sharp and reveals all sorts of implications howling deep inside his protoplasm.
Margaret says she was very pleased to discover that these little baby boy’s clothes fit Laura to an infant T, and so she changed Laura’s diaper and dressed her in a blue-striped sleep-N-play set with little booties for her tiny dirty feet, and Laura smiled for the very first time, Margaret proudly remembers. So then she carried Laura downstairs, cooing into her ear, and into the family den to display her to their sister and mother ensconced in couch cushions and watching eventide television. Only this time, she presses Larry to know, her mother’s attention was most certainly compos mentis when she acknowledged, for what might have been the first conscious time, her infant daughter gurgling happily and wearing her stillborn brother’s neatly preserved onesie. “She ripped her from my arms,” Margaret says, draining the last drops from a bottle of pinot gris into what would be her sixth glass if anyone was counting.
Aunt Margaret says she didn’t see her mother and Laura for a week after that. She heard them cry at different times and for long periods while she waited outside the master bedroom’s door, and slept there, outside the door. And then after a week, her mother appeared one morning, “wearing a gabardine skirt with black pumps, a printed silk blouse and a chunky necklace, and her Hermes bag of course. And just so chic and put together,” Margaret says. “She announced she was going back to work, and that we girls should be sure to do our homework after school and fend for ourselves nutritionally until dinnertime when she’d come home.” The whole subject of Laura was just dropped, again. Margaret found Laura laying on her bed, Margaret’s bed, naked as the day she was born, and Margaret didn’t go to school that year, and the craziest thing was that no one even bothered to check on her attendance, and it wasn’t until Laura’s third birthday that her mother finally said Laura’s name again. “Families are complicated aliens,” Margaret says.
Larry’s Aunt Laura was more myth than an actual living animal with whom he shared half his DNA and relatives. In some of his earliest torch lit memories Aunt Laura is actively absent, she’s “dead to the world” upstairs in her childhood bedroom during Sunday brunch at Grandma’s house after Church, or otherwise “out doing god knows what” during holidays.
Laura had a pet cricket that she caught among the backyard raspberry bushes and kept in a cage made from glued together ice popsicle handles. The cricket managed to live for years in there, he guessed because Laura took such good care of it. It chirped incessant three-chirp bursts from Laura’s bedroom that she kept darkened with blackout curtains sealed to the window’s edges with black gaffer tape. Larry hated crickets. They invaded his basement in October and drove him bananas with their dopplerized gibber. He couldn’t not hear them when he was trying to sleep, even after he stuffed Vaselined cotton balls into his ears, and wondered aghast at just how in the hell anybody found crickets’ chirring -soothing and sedative. He had to do something about them. He took his cat, Frankie Blue Eyes, into the basement and they hunted crickets. The amount of killing they did together over a weekend required changing the vacuum’s bag. After a while it became like a competition for body counts, it became fun, a game. In the following years Larry’d bare the crickets’ electrical whine, still audible through his greasy earbuds, and allow the basement time to stock. By late October Frankie would begin pacing daily near the basement door. When Larry’s mother complained that it was so loaded down there with bugs jumping around the washing machine that it looked like the space above a glass of Coke, Hunting Season officially opened. Ten minutes into their inaugural killing spree the basement floor was audibly covered with detached cricket anatomy plus the odd still-living thorax; leg- antenna- and wingless, vividly animate and drawing Frankie’s oral attention. A few crickets remained, hiding under the dryer or behind an old electric organ, from where Frankie flicked them skittering across the cement floor then pounced before Larry could scramble over to hammer fist it.
Larry was about ten and Aunt Laura would be twenty-three this one afternoon at Grandma’s house for brunch. Aunt Laura is “dead to the world” upstairs behind her closed door. It’s mid-November, high cricket hunting season, and her pet is chirping, Larry detects, but not in Laura’s room. His ears have been honed by several weeks’ hunts and can detect and locate crickets. He can practically see their sonic presence. He perceives the cricket has escaped and absconded to the bathroom in the hallway, is sitting probably behind the toilet on the tiled floor confused and searching for its own chirps’ echo. The memory is tinted ochre in the torch’s light. Larry crawls up the carpeted stairs on all fours, ready to pounce when he reaches the bathroom’s marble threshold. And so then he does pounce, catching the critter mid-leap and trapping it alive.
He felt it flick against his palms as he carried it, hand over cupped hand, to Aunt Laura’s door, unlocked Larry discovered, and ever so cat-like quietly he let himself in, patiently allowing his eyes to adjust in the +1 F-stop brighter-than-total darkness to deliver the insect to its popsicle stick cage. Laura’s room smelled different than the rest of the house; ammoniac and respiratory, he remembers. And it wasn’t only dark but also numbing quiet. He was jolted by the thought that he may discover her in there actually “dead to the world”. And then he just goes fuck it and flicks the light switch on the wall beside the door with the knob of bone on his wrist still bent and involved in trapping the cricket, and there before his torch lit eyes is the very scene of death, though absent any dismaying aunt. She’s still out doing “god knows what”. Her room looks more like an abandoned campsite than a bedroom. It took some looking around to process the chaos before he even noticed what the torch had burned its way around: crickets by the gross, lined along blacked-out window sills, in rows atop his aunt’s dresser, arrayed among crumpled tissues and half-finished and gas-lined glasses of water on her bedside table. Dead and inanimate but fully intact, and craftily painted with various super-bright nail varnishes — stripes and spades, hearts and polka dots — with hours-long intricacy. He stood mid-room, palms crossed and clasped, and spotted the cage, but in this same instant he heard the front door open and his Mother’s voice call “Laura?”, and now the torchlight snaps away and begins burning toward other unbidden memories.