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 . . .