Reunion with Estranged Thems

by | Meg Tuite July Day 2

This is what I can do today and is a bit flat. I didn’t get to the point of writing out of the awkward situation. It was going to be a brief piece about spontaneous combustion or something similar, but instead, I sit in a head cheese sandwich. Maybe this is just the intro that gets cut out of the real story??? It likely isn’t finished, but it went where it went. Something I read that Meg wrote gave me permission to write about my mother’s kleptomania, so thanks, Meg. She has appeared in my writing as a terrorist and in other guises. People reading this should know I do have compassion for mentally ill people, but it’s not showing up much in this piece. I hope it doesn’t offend, and I’m open to suggestions.

Devon, AWOL since the day Grams died, 12 years ago, now leans against the torn floral arm of Grams’ davenport, with me flanked by Di, my estranged schizophrenic mother, also MIA (for two decades). Devon is my father, although he bragged unabashedly I was more like his younger sister, and, to be honest, he was like my derelict older brother, a narcissistic musician rarely seen except when he stopped by Grams’ for sandwiches or cash, both devoured like Starburst candy. Taking and being fed was as evolved as relationships ever got with Devon, and sadly, once Grams couldn’t make sandwiches anymore, there were extended echoes we learned to endure on his rare calls.

I never called them by normal parent names as “mom” or “dad” would trigger a gag reflex, then dangle on my tonsil like a dry wood depressor. Don’t think I didn’t try, as I was a polite child burdened by my own sense of propriety—but quickly learned convulsing never sparks the hearts of visitors. Nor did I call them by their proper names, Devon or Di. It was always “hey you, them, they, him, or her,” and mostly I’d let someone else initiate a conversation about them, or, if they were present, I’d point or gesture towards them with my head cocked like a fat gun.

They were both absences of a sort, so I developed a language of lack to match the drought of their visits. Yes, it was lazy—and very effective. And if you think I sound like a bitch, well, the secret weapon to use against narcissists is to withhold the candy supply. “Don’t feed the narcissists” was my mantra, even at age ten, if you can believe it. Aloofness is not an artful weapon, for sure, but it freed my energy and attention for more important things like frog collecting, comic books, and building corn stalk canopies. My second favorite weapon was garlic, which I devoured before they visited, and unleashed like a breath of bad fairy dust if they came too close. It worked on Christopher Lee. . . so it was good enough for me.

In case you haven’t figured it out, my grandparents raised me. This was a wonderful, lucky and fortunate thing, as were the mounds of pickled garlic in the bottom of Gram’s canned pickle jars.

Last time I saw Di was at her sister’s funeral, which she wanted to skip to go junking. We accidentally stayed at the same hotel, or the universe put us there, or maybe it was the only hotel in Ovid, a scrubby cow town in a Midwestern vacuum. 20 years had passed since our last meeting and she wanted to tell me everything she accomplished in that time. I sat, back aching, in an uptight no-armed chair in her peach hotel room, as she filled in my blank spaces with urgent, choppy Baptist tales, the dented Chevy truck the pastor gave her, the exploding Florida yacht with the Cuban drug dealers, the anti-abortion protest in which she was arrested . . . her many lives. She paused briefly to dump the Ho-Hos and bananas she had lifted from the 7-Eleven onto the bed. I recalled the giant purses she carried in my childhood, her spindly, adept wrists and the circular, toe-tipped dance she did after lifting useless shit from the aisles of K-mart, or Kroger . . . before stores and civilians were armed with cameras . . .

Eventually, she shifted gears and talked of her love for my father. “We could have been stars, a rockin’ duet, had I not left him,” she sobbed. Truth was, neither could sing a lick, but Devon’s adept guitar playing and handsome, Rock Hudson mug, raised snakes from baskets and rivaled the mermaid’s song. He destroyed multiple women, one after the other, like clay pigeons at a skeet event. While some part of Di had heard about Devon’s antics, she stayed protected by her own delusions, indulging her alt-universe of stardom and romance, which omitted us kids, but was, I tell you, really OK.

Then she jagged some more, between childhood, random, anger-inducing bits of story, and the other lives she might’ve led. I was polite. She was, well, unwell. Unmedicated. No query was made about me, my sibs, our adventures, education, or relationships. Nothing. But to say an unmedicated, abusive schizophrenic is also narcissistic is as redundant and assholey as saying a tiger has stripes and is carnivorous. Well, that’s a crappy analogy, and yes I am an asshole, but know I forgave her for leaving us by the end of that evening which I thought she might need to hear.

The next day, when they marched my aunt’s dead body post-service out the reception/dance hall/pole barn door, I slipped out the side exit unnoticed, and we didn’t speak again for years—until today, where I sit sandwiched between Di and Devon like a filmy, flecked piece of head cheese left over from the funeral feast . . .


  1. Meg Tuite

    Hi Koss!
    I wrote a fucking saga. I lost it! The fucker sucked itself into the cosmos!
    Getting to the point! This is brilliant! Through the child’s eyes. YES! It has the capacity to bridge into a huge life. All that has been taken from this precious observer.

  2. Meg Tuite

    You can either rock this into a novella or novel? Or let each fragment, each moment, each episode be its own bride.
    I am blown away by your work! Keep moving and I’m so excited that you blast the edge always!

  3. Meg Tuite

    Your work is stellar and doesn’t hold back on the shit. That is what I want to read! Absolute family. Do not resuscitate into bullshit. Let the reader live through the panic, anxiety, anger, horror, numbness!

  4. Meg Tuite

    I lost another page of comments to you! FUCK! I will send you an email.
    You are outstanding!

    • Koss Just Koss

      Hi Meg. You are too kind. Thank you. I am sorry your saga disappeared into the void. I’m not sure what to do with this piece. I keep wanting to write a memoir, but I think I want it to be a book length zuihitsu. I think the reason I have been doing poems is because it’s easier to segment experience. Even trying to write flashish stuff (like today). I feel there is an epic cesspool about to boil over . . . I appreciate your comments and support. Want to tackle your other prompts. I appreciate in your writing that you don’t shy away from the gritty stuff . . . Love your work too.

  5. Faye Rapoport DesPres

    Stellar work like this just leaves me in admiration. You definitely DON’T “shy away from the gritty stuff” here either, as you say about Meg’s work above. This piece reflects courage and skills I still am working on and that inspire me in both your and Meg’s work.

    I think this is amazing, cliche as that adjective is. It amazes me in the sense that it flows so easily from one moment and sentence to the next, as if there was no effort in writing easily about something difficult, details dropped to make it real and visual, adjectives just right. I could pull out many sentences I loved, but this phrase REALLY stuck with me: “…she stayed protected by her own delusions…” In some ways, I suppose we all do, though for most of us those delusions just help us survive in a painful world – hopefully without neglecting or harming others.

    This piece also made me think of an old and dear friend of mine whose mother is schizophrenic, and what he has been through and the anger he holds while still caring for her.

    Yeah, amazing.

  6. Faye Rapoport DesPres

    I forgot to add one thing. You asked for suggestions — the only thing I’d possibly suggest is to not have the narrator apologize! “And yes, I am an asshole…” No, narrator, you’re not.

  7. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Koss, I want a whole book or maybe volumes, or some such… of this. Your writing is revelatory, and the idea of addressing the core of the almighty American family structure, and specifically the nuances of mental illnesses, is brave and no-holds-barred. Gripping stuff here. Keep working in this vein, it’s liquid GOLD.

    • Koss Just Koss

      Thank you, Robert, for your insights. Yes, I suppose I am from an “American” family . . . It frequently isn’t the one the poetry world wants to see . . .

  8. Sara Comito

    Hey Koss, so glad you could “go there” with this. I don’t sense a lack of compassion, just truth telling. The title is super compelling. Like Meg, I thought many incidents you highlight could be pulled out as its own story. There’s so much here! I think you do such a wonderful job in the telling that you could even condense in places, and we’d still get a clear picture. For instance, “They were both absences of a sort, so I developed a language of lack to match the drought of their visits. “Don’t feed the narcissists” was my mantra, even at age ten.” Brilliant language. Can’t wait to see how you develop this. Very excited for you.

    • Koss Just Koss

      Thank you for your reading. I’m not sure about the title. It has two right now . . . I often have two titles and two endings, strangely. Fun weekend and see you (and your writing) some more.

  9. Aimee Parkison

    The character is alive because of the voice and tone. You do first person narration so well, making the character-narrator believable and compelling through the voice and confessed details. What personality in these words! I agree with the comments above that say this feels like it might be leading to a longer fiction, maybe even a novel. Wonderful fun to read!

    • Koss Just Koss

      Thank you, Aimee. That’s good to here. I probably need to venture out and do some first person that really isn’t me . . . Glad you enjoyed it.

  10. Jacqueline Doyle

    I like the way you lead us into the scene the complex characters and relationships: a bit like a play, or a play with a voiceover narrator such as The Glass Menagerie. But then there’s rich backstory that you wouldn’t get in a play. Love this: “They were both absences of a sort, so I developed a language of lack to match the drought of their visits.” I agree with the others–this sounds like it could be the beginning of something much longer.

Submit a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest