Goofy. He’s goofy. That is the second most frequent comment made about him. It’s something in the way he moves, when he cocks his head back and slumps his shoulders forward, smiles and guffaws when he’s amused. The first most frequent comment made about him is that he’s handsome. The tall, dark, goofy and handsome one. He looks like the offspring of a sassy runaway Irishwoman and a svelte Italian fisherman. But he is not. He has wiry hair—a mix of dark brown and copper that curls when it gets long, beginning at his ears. He says that the curls make him itch and he keeps it cut short, business like. He has always had overly large ear caverns. In summer time we always had to have a flashlight on hand to coax out the bugs that would fly in and crawl towards his eardrums—a deafening tickle. His eyes are brown around the pupil, fading into forest green. The lashes are so thick and long that they hold tears in longer than usual, like locks where you can watch the salt water rising before a blink and it finally falls and keeps on flowing. He is not the type to wipe the tears away, just the type to lower his heavy head and let them fall. At times like these it is impossible not to place your palm on the back of his neck, pull his head onto your shoulder, and pat his back. He will always allow it, settle into it until his weight is your weight, his goofy knees buckling against your own.
Letters to my former co-workers
- Mona: A six-foot St. Lucian mother who could grip eight gallons of milk in four fingers. When I asked you how you managed it you answered, “Have twins. You will learn that there are no limits to what one can carry.”
- Mike Z: Second shift grocery stock supervisor, weighed over 300 lbs and loved Tiny Toons, always with his hat on backwards, sober for 8 years. Thank you for placing one hand on the small of my back, apologetically, whenever I had to reach something on the top shelf of the freezer.
- Luke: was very proud of his eyes—one blue and one brown, like Kate Bosworth, he said. Luke, who stood in front of my full-length mirror turning slowly like a rotisserie, admiring his own heat. “I got these black condoms, did you notice? They’re called Tuxedo. They look good right? They did not.
- Jackie: A Jehovah’s Witness who made up her own holidays, kept a round brush under her register, a laugh like wind chimes, who would slip pamphlets about god and his mercy under my screen door and act coy about it later, “Oh, is that your house?” I never read them but I loved you for it.
- Lynn Ellen: Burlington City Market manager, a professional ballet dancer. Her walk was swift and upright, on the balls of her feet, her braids, in a barrette, swished behind her. For you, I was never late. To class, I was never on time.
- Ryan: listened to progressive rock in the perishable cooler, the kind of music that roars while it whines. He was six five and could have looked like a lumberjack except that he always wore clogs that scuffed the floor when he walked. He was bow-legged. He fell in love with a girl at the front desk named Fey who didn’t think that he was marriage material. He takes wedding photos now, named his company Pearl to moon. I think of you every time I see Birkenstocks or bricks of Cabot cheese.
- Joe: that summer at the state park, he knew the location of every blackberry bramble, parked the gator in quiet brush covered coves and took four hour naps unnoticed, loved Jim Croce and sang me Operator in the old Ford that had the starter we had to hit with a shovel handle to turn it over. I hope you never went to Ranger camp, and that you’re somewhere writing country songs instead.
- Joelle: had a pit bull that she called Piggy, a mild shopping addiction at TJ Max, big round green eyes that teared up often for the troubled teens we worked with, like the one we played Nerf ball and Dance Dance Revolution with on Christmas because his family didn’t want him at home. She had the kind of voice that always sounds like it’s yelling, and when she did yell she’d scream, “Excuse you?” Her black hair would whip around and she would follow behind, righteous like a hungry dog hollering. She laughed just as loud and more often. You taught me that in leadership, as in friendship, you have to take sides.
- Rick: at the book store, a misanthropic divorcee who was an expert in conversation, his father was a Darwinist and his brother a scholar in Religion. He had a degree in fishery ag and dreamed of building a cordwood house. I still owe you a dozen fresh eggs. I’m sorry.
- Pete: or Mr. K in classroom one. He had six or seven of the most difficult kids, from a 2nd to 10th grade reading level. They read Harry Potter and loved their regular schedule. He had a kind voice and when we needed it, it was always there, above the yelling, or in hushed tones, rubbing the hand of Christina who was autistic and would flail violently at us sometimes. He worked a second job as a waiter at a fancy Italian restaurant in Endicott. He made more money there than he did teaching. Everyone cried when he left and moved away with his long-time boyfriend, to study Special Ed at a University down South. He died suddenly in an accidental drowning not long after. You make me believe in heaven, because for you nothing else makes any sense.
Tupper Lake Asylum
It’s a tard farm. Says my father from the backseat,
What else could it be? Then he says, Susan,
what are you doing? Don’t turn in there! Jesus Christ!
You don’t know who might come running out.
Peter, she says red-faced, Don’t say that,
I hate people who say that, ignorant people, my god.
My brothers try, unsuccessfully, to stifle their laughter.
They are squished on either side of my father
in the backseat, already four or five beers deep.
They had stayed out on the water longer than the rest of us;
a challenge to the thunderheads in their canoe,
to cast their lines and linger in front of rich people
with their docked pontoons and posted property signs on shore.
My mother inches up the long drive. My father fidgets in the back.
I can’t believe her, he says, over and over, Who does this?
The place is clearly empty, calm down, I say.
No one’s going to pop out from behind the bushes.
You don’t understand, he says, I know what goes on in those places,
I had a cousin, Andrew, was in a loony bin once, we went to visit him,
scary as hell, I’m telling you guys, it isn’t funny, weird shit happens
in those places, you don’t even want to know.
My mother and I dismiss him, but something tells me
to Google the place on my phone, it pops up right away.
The first headline reads, “New York Times Investigates
Patterns of Abuse at Sunmount in Tupper Lake.”
A quick scan of the article reveals fragments like,
“abuse embedded in the culture…supervisor accused of four
different instances of physical and psychological abuse
within two months…an employee brags about beating retards
on his Facebook page…deeply concerned about the future
of Sunmount…a mainstay of local employment.”
The storm had chased us from our campsite,
Let’s find a dry place to sit and have a plate of spaghetti,
says my father, now complacent as we head further and further
away from the series of long white buildings, the perfectly
manicured lawn with a for sale sign staked on the corner.
Before we gave up and piled in the car he was standing
on the picnic table, fists raised to the heavens screaming,
Bring it on Fucker, Bring it on! More, more! Fuck you!
My brothers dug trenches around the tent to send
the water towards the swamp behind us.
All around us people were wiping the fog from their RV
windows to watch the Riff-raff battle the weather.
Cover your ears, they probably said to their children.
This is getting unseemly.
At the restaurant they seat us in a room by ourselves
with a statue of a squat Italian man. That looks just like my Uncle
Gene. Says my father, who makes jokes with the waitress by
over-pronouncing the Italian words on the menu.
My brothers drink more beer and the youngest walks
out of the place with a stein stuffed down his pants.
On the way out of town my father notes that every house
in this town needs a new roof. Every single one.
That night the sky is clear. The drunk ones fall asleep
by the fire, and the rest of us walk to the beach to see the stars.
There is red light hovering above the horizon.
Is that an airplane signal? It seems very big. Says my mother.
It glows like a paper lantern and begins to move.
We watch it for the next full three minutes in silence.
It gains elevation, then stops in one place for about thirty
seconds, hovers, it moves to the left, up again,
then it begins to get smaller and brighter until
it is red star that moves and winks, and swerves finally away,
up and to the left and it then it is gone.
My brother turns and stares at me and says finally,
Please tell me I’m not the only one who just saw that.
I say, I was just about to ask you the same thing.
Clara Mae Barnhart received her PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Binghamton University where she was the recipient of the Samuel Newhouse Foundation Award for poetry. Some of her recent work is published or forthcoming in Timberline Review, Paterson Literary Review, RiverTeeth Beautiful Things column, Gravel, The Comstock Review, FishFood, Manzano Mountain Review, Louisiana Literature, and more. She lives in Binghamton, NY with her loves; Eric, Angelo, Ellie, and Duke.