Story & photos by Montana Jones—a similar version was published in Canadian Woman Studies literary journal.
Sunday morning my family is seated at the kitchen table, by the window overlooking our yard. The pan of frying bacon is spitting out hot greasy remarks onto the stovetop. My mother flips them like retorts. “If you don’t, then I will,” she jabs. “Call her.” My father pours himself a coffee, stirs for a good long minute.
I sit, eyes riveted to my drawing, hand glued around a pencil crayon, which is stuck to the paper. I dare not move nor make a mark. If I do, my mother will surely explode, my father fragment. By freezing the moment, holding still, nothing will happen. It almost always works.
Before my mother found whatever it was she had fished out of my father’s coat pocket, I was working on my third drawing this morning. I am trying to perfect a family portrait, but can’t get it quite right. My signature in the corner on the bottom is good though. “C-e-l-i-a”, in bright yellow letters.
I have drawn individual circles, mother in one, father in another, my brother and my cat Mishu, our old house near the top, and me in the middle. I coloured starbursts around them, with the longest arms reaching out to join the others. The entire background is filled in black. But when I pull back to see, it just looks like little faces peering out of dots in the night sky. I need to connect the dots, so they will be all together, like a family.
My brother is concentrating on prying apart his fork tines with a spoon. He drums his foot against the table leg, louder and louder, but our parents don’t seem to notice. The clatter blends into the growing tension filling the breakfast air. I cannot figure out how it can be so silent and so deafening at the same time.
“You have to end it. End it now,” says my mother in a tight voice.
Her words sound just like last week. Like those swelling seconds before hot water rose up and flowed over the sides of the bathtub. She had left the tap running to answer the phone, and forgot about it. She’d been yelling at my father who had called to say he’d be home late. I’d seen the water level rising higher and higher, but sat silent, fascinated at how my mother’s voice rose up just as the water did.
“I’ll tell her myself!” my mother finally spills over, and I flinch, jolted back into this moment.
My father doesn’t seem to be sitting so much as floating in position over his chair, like he might drift off at the first opportunity. “Dorothy, please,” he says. I could swear he rises another inch, and picture him expanding, his belly a swelling red balloon that pops the buttons of his shirt. I’m afraid that if my mother utters another word, he will lift off. Just float outside and up into a sky pure azure, with clouds so fully blown they look as if they’ve been creamed into whips of white. Higher and higher, a round little red speck escaping into the blue.
“I thought this was all behind us,” my mother says angrily, “You told me it was over.” My brother clunks his foot faster.
“Call her!” she shrills. “Call her right now!” She thrusts the telephone receiver at my Dad, stretching the coil till the black body leaps like an elastic band across the kitchen table. The cord takes along the ketchup and jug of orange juice in its crashing descent to the floor. A pasty red island of sauce begins to form streaky pink beaches where the orange juice pools around it. A sharp triangle of broken bottle glass perches atop the tomato sand like a transparent Christmas tree. I pretend it’s a palm tree. I think of how the oozing mess is the exact colour of sunsets.
“That’s it Charles! It’s really over between you and her as of this minute,” my mother’s voice was wavy like a breaking radio station. “I won’t be made a fool!” I think of April Fool and Raspberry Fool and don’t know why my mother could be so angry at either. I like the idea of being a prank or a spongy pink dessert.
My mother grabs the phone back and dials with a shaking rigid finger. I am afraid it will snap like one of my pencils.
“For heaven’s sake, Dot,” my father sighs. He gets up to rescue the charred smoking bits and proceeds to make bacon sandwiches. Both my brother’s legs are motoring now, jarring the table in steady beats that makes the cutlery rattle with each kick, like a drum roll preceding some spectacular event.
“Dorothy, you are becoming hysterical.” He says this in the same tone that he might state her eyes were blue. It is enough to make her slam the telephone down and come at him. He calmly heads out of the kitchen. Grabbing the frying pan handle, she hurls it like a Frisbee across the room and it bounces off the wall before landing. My father has already made it to the hallway and continues on upstairs. My mother goes after him, a screaming stream of assaults flowing from her mouth. Transparent bubbles float from her cartoon lips, and pop empty as the angry words burst out. But I can’t hear the actual words; just mellow gurgling like an aquarium.
Then there is no sound. Our parents took it with them upstairs. I look at my brother, who has suddenly stopped his manic beating. He blinks wide-eyed back at me. Then he delves into a new project, using the fork to mindlessly etch initials on the dining room tabletop. He seems oblivious to the background noise from the second floor. I want to say something to him, but I know we are in two different places, in two separate moments.
The unfinished sandwiches lie on the counter, white bread waiting with flat open arms, decorated with burnt smudges of pork, no second slices to cover and protect them. To make them complete.
On the wall where the flying pan hit, a horsetail of dark grease has appeared, staining the flowered wallpaper. Long, artistic, bacon fat brushstrokes connect the little petals that repeat across the wall. I am impressed with the creativity of this talented black skillet, now motionless on the floor. I wonder what other brilliant paintings it might one day create, achievements dependent on the intensity level of my mother’s furor.
Clutching pencils and paper, I slip off the chair, step over the now flattened island of ketchup and on my way to my room check the walls of the bathroom, living room and hallway for signs of past arguments I might have missed. There were probably works of art all around me, chips and streaks, sculpted and painted by objects thrown.
My family moved here only four months ago, at the beginning of summer. It was a fresh start, my mother said, as if our old house was stale and crusty. It was away from the city that seemed to hold too many complicated people mixed into my parents’ lives. I wonder how soon we will have to move again, when this country house will form its’ own dried layer that cannot be skimmed off and freshened.
A few of those people from before were already overlapping into this new life. I never really see them, but they are creeping in just the same. They are the nameless ones in my parents’ arguments, they are there in the spreading ketchup, and the grease stained wallpaper.
If I could just get the portrait right then maybe—maybe—the spontaneous art would stop appearing. Maybe those other people would stop surfacing too. It’s as if all the moments in our lives are random dots drifting off in different directions. My mother’s dots, my brother’s dots, my father’s and mine all aimless and separate. I don’t know how to connect all the dots of moments together and get my whole family in one place. I have this idea that if I could, that’s what a family is. Connected. Sharing and remembering the same moments.
Tonight my father is working late again, and my mother’s been talking a long while on the phone in little murmurs and coos. With supper in our laps, my brother and I have instructions to watch television and not interrupt her. Our cat Mishu sits between us, trying to scoop morsels from our plates. Between Spaghetti-O bites, I start over on a new portrait, and make the background as black as night. I spell my name out next, in the bottom corner, because that part is easy.
I remember one day in school my teacher had the class look up all the meanings for our names. It was fun until I had to read out loud that Celia means blind, and the other kids started to tease me. I’m “the artist” in our class, so I insisted if it were true, then how could I see to draw? And I know I see a lot of things nobody else ever sees. But I didn’t say that part.
After Walt Disney, my mother appears and puts us to bed.
~ ~ ~
It could have been the warm plasticine pad of Mishu’s paw against my sleeping cheek that woke me, or murmuring voices rising out of my dreams. I was upside down again, feet by the headboard; rumpled blanket wrapped around one leg.
My toes padded cold and quiet out into the hallway darkness. I heard a low voice, my mother’s, different somehow and swirling with a deep one, their tones together hushed and unfamiliar, melting like the warm red haze behind closed eyelids.
At the end of the hall they were framed in the doorway, the white porch light edging their joined silhouettes like two frosted figurines on a wedding cake. My mother looked so pretty outlined in lace light. I must have made a sound, because her head turned and she quickly pulls away.
She starts toward me, “What are you doing up honey?” She sweeps me up before I can speak, as if one word spoken here might fall and shatter letters on the hallway floor.
Tucking me into bed, my mother has her own voice again. “Now you stay in bed, and go back to sleep.”
“Why were you kissing that man?” I ask, the covers across half my face. I test the fuzzy wool with my tongue. I can blow and make my breath stay in a hot circle on the blanket, just for a few seconds.
No answer. Then, “He’s my friend. Don’t you always hug and kiss your friends?” her voice stretched thin and high. “Now sleep”.
I tried to picture my father with his lips against the shadowed man’s mouth. I think it was one of the grown-ups at my parent’s last party. I had seen the men laugh and clink their glasses together. But never kiss.
“’Night sweetie,” my mother pushes down on my forehead as if this will make me stick to the bed.
Mishu on the pillow vibrates into my ear and I push my face into her warm tickly cat belly. I chant softly “Mishu, Mishu…”
“Miss you too…” says my mother as she closes the bedroom door. The cat’s rumbling purr fills my head, till the pull of sleep gradually ripples my dreams into soft, dark fur fields that muffle the distant murmuring.
~ ~ ~
A summer’s day, people outside on their lush green lawns, wielding rubber hoses and washing their cars, firing up the barbecues, kneeling in their gardens, plucking fat monster worms from their viney worlds. Kids scramble onto the streets chasing runaway balls. We are in our old house. The warm sunshine fades and the sky grows gray and dark, it is cold but no one really notices but me. It feels like a very bad place, despite appearances. I look up into the sky and see torpedo-like silver shapes everywhere, falling almost in slow motion, as if suspended, like a ballet of nuclear bombs, and I know that when they complete their gradual descent they will obliterate every living thing, spectacularly—and expect no applause nor encore. I know about nuclear bombs from a program my father watched long ago, he’d said it wasn’t real when I began crying at the mushroom clouds and bodies. I frantically try to gather my family, to find them and get them to look up and see the danger, to escape underground together. There is an underground of strangers amassing, the man my mother was kissing, and a woman with a telephone for a face, all trying to get somewhere, to a safer place. Though I know it does not really exist. It’s futile down there in the tunnels, filled with panicking people turned violent with their fear. Almost better to stay above ground and wait. Lawnmowers and barking dogs fade out, painted over with a high-pitched constant, the shrill insistent buzz of cricket song sounding from the falling metallic silver orbs. So piercing the noise it is mistaken for lulling quiet. Row upon row of ordered, slowly advancing dots filling all open space, everywhere. Coming so slowly, it seems that time has ceased already. In the dreadful stillness, they speckle the entire sky like wafting dandelion parachutes on a perfect summer day, only this time, in this dream, my father is a tiny red balloon drifting high above, escaping into the blue. His broken string trails behind, disconnected. My mother is the Dot waving at him to come down.
~ ~ ~
I wake abruptly, eyes wide. I’ve had that dream again. For the first time, I think of how well my mother’s nickname fits. Dot. Short and hurried, brief and pre-occupied. Just like my mother. I wonder at the coincidence. If my mother’s name fits so perfectly, why am I not blind?
I get out of bed and go down the dark hallway, this time to the front door. The whole house is still except for the snoring of my father, now home and asleep. I can hear his rhythm, constant like the heartbeat of the house. I go outside.
On this new night the sun has long dissolved behind the tree line to the west, and the sweeping combs of grassy field surrounding the house are alive. I close the door quietly behind me and sit on the top slab of limestone steps, lean back on my hands and look up.
Imbedded in the huge dome of a sky above, crystalline stars waver in their brilliance. Below, the stars seem to be reflected across the black meadow, where hundreds of fireflies shimmer and burst with momentary light, then fade and work up to their next brilliant instant. Again, a few lightbeats away, and again, till the entire ground, as far as I can see, is alive with an orchestra of growing and fading flashes, mirroring the stars above in a fantastic few moments that seem at once perfect and magical.
On the quiet black canvas, I can hear them whispering in a tinkling fairy-like laughter. Fragile, like tiny glass bells, ringing just to me.
In this moment, I suddenly know that every flash of light before me, every glimmer, are all the moments of my life so far. All the collected dots concentrated into tiny bright sparks born and extinguished. The ones yet to fire their brief white brilliance are my future, the moments yet to unfold. I wrap my arms around my knees and watch, knowing that somehow I painted this most beautiful of pictures all by myself.
Like paint, the endless black runs off all the corners of the night, and even though the firefly dots are scattered, I know they are really all together, connected by something invisible. It is the very thing that makes them so beautiful. I see it all, and this time feel no urge to connect the dots.
I stand up and slip quietly inside the house to wake up my little brother. I need to show him this vision, this family of light. He has to see it too. If he does, I know that one day both of us really will be connected, sharing and remembering these same moments.