Writer in Residence · 06/18/2010

The Year Away

October

I left my shoes on the rubber mat next to the side door. If there wasn’t room on the mat, I had to put my shoes on top of the boots. Then, I had to make sure the bottoms of the boots were always on the mat. That way, any dirt that was still in the boot cleats stayed on the mat. It didn’t get ground into the side door steps or, even worse, the carpet inside. My aunt Lillian didn’t allow dirt inside the house at all.

When I put my shoes on top of the boots, I had to turn them upside down so that the soles didn’t get dirt on the tops of the boots. I needed to be careful when I moved those shoes later. If they were at all dirty when I put them down the right way? The dirt dried, and flipping them over could fling dirt all over the heavier boots.

What I should have done, Lillian told me, was walk my shoes over to the corner of the garage and pat the soles against each other, over the patch where there were some tulip bulbs. “It’s good for them,” she would say. “The tulips grow better because most people are in the habit of cleaning off their shoes over there. It’s easy, see?”

Empty bottles went into the mud room. My uncle Tony took care of those. For a little while, they went outside the mud room door. When there was a grocery bag outside the mud room door, Lillian would mention it. “Tony, there’s a bag outside the mud room door.”

Then: “The bag is getting full.”
Then: “I’m going to need to get around that bag to straighten the ladder on the wall rack.”
Then: “I don’t want to trip over that bag while I’m cleaning up the garage. I might break my leg again.”
Then: “I hope the smell doesn’t start up in the garage like before. I don’t want it to smell like beer in the garage.”
Then: “Raccoons are attracted to the smell of beer.”
Then: “I think I heard the bag tip over in the garage. Julia, did you hear it?”

I stopped bringing bottles of pop to the house two weeks after I went to live with my aunt and uncle. I drank water from the tap instead, even though I had to hold my nose in order to get it down.

+

November

I met Sharon at JC Penney. We were looking at the same circular rack of sale clothes, but walking in different directions around it. “We have to stop meeting like this,” she said when we bumped against each other again, and I laughed.

She reached next to me and pulled out a blouse. “I’m sorry to keep bothering you, but you look so put together. Do you think this color would look good on me?”

I just had on a blue turtleneck and corduroys, but I thought purple would look good on her.

“Hey, have you had lunch yet? Christmas shopping always makes me tired.”

“I just ate,” I lied.

“Come with me anyway,” she said. “I’ll buy you a coffee.” Then she told me her name.

I’d never had coffee before. It was more bitter than it smelled. I tried not to make a face, but I don’t think Sharon noticed. She wore big earrings and a peasant blouse and she smelled like a dark red candle my mother had liked to light that past summer, before she died.

“I have had grilled cheese sandwiches all over this country,” she said. “The ones here in Buffalo are some of the worst.”

“It’s the lake water,” I told her between tiny sips. “We live right by a giant body of water that no one can drink from or swim in. It smells really bad miles away sometimes. That makes everything here some of the worst.”

“It’s too bad,” Sharon said. “Some parts of this place are really pretty.”

That was when I decided to show her. The worst that could happen was that she wouldn’t understand.

Sharon had a yellow Datsun in the shopping mall parking lot. “We aren’t going somewhere far, right? I don’t have a lot of gas right now.”

“Not at all.” Half an hour later, we were there. The sign was the same, even though the people were different. CHRISTMAS TREES. CUT YOUR OWN.

“Park over here.” I pointed to a corner than I knew couldn’t be seen from the house.

Sharon raised an eyebrow, but did what I asked. “Are we going to steal a Christmas tree?”

“Better.” I led Sharon the way I remembered, letting the road fall away from view on the right. The trees seemed different, even though I knew they were the ones Mom and I had planted just a few years ago.

“How do you know your way around here?”

“I used to live here,” I told her. “Before my mom died. Then I moved in with my aunt and uncle.”

“Oh,” Sharon said. “I’m sorry.”

I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find it. At the same time, I wasn’t worried. It was like the mists in Avalon, in the King Arthur stories Mom used to read to me. In my heart of hearts, I knew it would be waiting.

We turned a corner, and it was. There were only pine trees. If you stood anywhere else on the property, you could see and smell other things. The house, the barn, the road, the empty fields, the cars. Here, all of that was gone.

I heard Sharon stop behind me. “This is beautiful.” I almost fell to the cold ground because she still didn’t know how beautiful it was, and I was the one who would show her.

“Close your eyes,” I said. “Breathe.”

No big stagnant polluted lake. No exhaust. No manure. No fried cheese. No soap. There was the crisp air, its stinging sharpness. It was the trees breathing in reverse to us, but still in a rhythm that made sense. The trees knew they were being noticed after months that added up to years of being ignored. Even though I was sure that they could smell the trees that had come and gone before them, they weren’t afraid, and they weren’t sad. Everything was the way it was supposed to be.

For a second, I thought I was a branch in the wind brushing my hand. But it was Sharon. “Julia,” she said. “I can tell this is your home.”

+

December

The fallout shelter in Lillian and Tony’s backyard was there when they bought the house, right after they were married. “The other house we looked at, it had a pool,” Lillian said. “Believe you me, I’d trust someone with a fallout shelter before I’d trust someone with a pool.”

Lillian decided it was time to make sure I knew how to open and shut the door, and she had me do it on a gray afternoon while I waited for Sharon’s yellow Datsun to pull into the driveway. I swung the wheel, flipped the levers, and pulled. “Don’t go in,” she said, even though I knew better than to take a step anywhere with dirty shoes. She reached in and flipped on a light. I could see some cupboards, a table, two bunk beds against the back wall. “I have a sleeping bag in the cupboard, in case all three of us are here.” Lillian brushed her hands off on her apron.

The main color in the house kitchen was orange, but in the shelter kitchen it was green because Lillian thought we would miss green things in there. For Christmas, Tony and I bought her green placemats, dishtowels, utensils. Olive, avocado, jade.

“They’re lovely!” Lillian held them up, still folded. “I can’t believe you remembered!” She could never believe we did anything but forget.

+

January

Dear Julia,

I know I’ve been really bad about writing you and I’m sorry. Especially when I think about how you used to always listen to my bogus problems and never complained. I’ll always treasure that. Remember Homecoming and there were like fifteen people in the booth at Clarkson’s? And the waitress had a hissy? That was so cool!

Life at Niagara U is pretty great. My roommate Cathy gets me into lots of parties. As long as we can act sober for a minute when we sign back in? No problemo. My favorite booze is definitely schnapps. If you ever get a chance to try it, you should.

I’m really sorry I didn’t see you over winter break. It’s just that I was so damn busy. My Biology exam was one of the last of the semester. Then Christmas came, then Mr. Deegan called and wanted me to work every day at the dry cleaner. I told Brenda if she saw you to have you call me or come by the counter and say hi, but I guess she never did. Brenda is such a nerd.

So how are your aunt and uncle? Does your aunt still do that thing with the silverware on your dinner table? I always thought that was so funny. Do you have a job? Met any foxy guys? It wasn’t until I got back here that I realized I haven’t heard anything about you. That was a big bummer.

Have a great rest of the winter, and call me when I get back this summer!

Take it easy,
Michelle

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February

Sharon asked me to come to a meeting. I had been to meetings with Sharon before. Twenty of us would sit in the community room of the grammar school and listen to a meditation on a cassette tape. The voice was relaxing and the room smelled like pencil shavings and sandwiches. Then we’d get in her car and go to the room she was renting and just hang out.

“This is a special meeting, though.” Sharon said. “Carol really wants to meet you. And I promise, she is very cool.”

Carol was tall, and had a long French braid. She told us that she had been a real estate lawyer before she was called to be so much more. Her meditation was the same as the cassette tape, but it was different to hear just a voice, and no hissing.

Sharon walked me right up to her when the meditation was over. “This is Julia.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you!” Carol hugged me. She used a laundry detergent that I had brought home once because a commercial said it made clothes smell good. It did. Our clothes not only smelled like flowers instead of soap, they smelled like fresh air from a story. Real fresh air smells like dirt and manure and rotten food and honeysuckle and brake fluid. But Lillian tucked the box of detergent into the back of the cupboard because it also set wrinkles, and made them difficult to iron out.

“We’re looking forward to sending you to Creation Home,” Carol said.

Sharon put an arm around my shoulders. “I need to talk to Julia about that.”

“What’s there to talk about? There’s great work being done out there, and there’s plenty more work to do.”

I looked around the room, and for the first time it seemed like everyone was looking back. No one was talking. No one was putting on coats, or hooking purses over arms. It made me want to go sit in Sharon’s car, except that I would be letting all of them down. I didn’t have to let anyone down, if I didn’t want to.

“It’s all right,” Sharon slid her grasp down to my hand. She squeezed it a little. “This is a lot to take in.”

“I know,” I said. Carol reached for my other hand, but I only really felt it after I felt the tears. “Yes.”

The people surrounding us had listened to Carol like I had. They still said nearly nothing. They clapped, instead.

+

March

Carol was waiting for me at the Sacramento airport, which was smaller than the Buffalo airport. She had on jeans that were clean and fit her well, but had been washed hundreds of times. She didn’t smell like the detergent anymore, and that was the first time I was in the way of understanding that I had finally arrived where I was meant to be.

I knew California would be different. I hadn’t understood how. It was as if someone had taken the place, bent some folds into it, and carefully plucked out the trees and grass, replacing them with slightly different ones. The sun’s lightbulb had also been changed.

The driveway of Creation Home was dirt and the paint on the house was a plain white. There were no shutters or curtains. Carol spoke more quickly when I saw it all. There was a pool with a folded metal stepladder. I could see the water between the top two steps. Inside the house, the kitchen floor was faded wood. There was a small patch of linoleum in front of the sink. The community room had no chairs because everyone sat on the floor.

There were women and men, my new sisters and brothers. The sisters smiled when they saw me looking. The brothers didn’t look at all. They bowed their heads, or glanced at the sky, their hands, a window with no curtains.

Carol showed me my bed in the dormitory barn. Six women slept in the room. “I’m told Minnie snores,” Carol said. “If she gets loud, the others wake her up.”

When we went back outside, Creator was on the porch, surrounded by brothers and sisters. He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t handsome. He was happy. He had a light inside that I knew was his alone. Carol pointed him out to me exactly four seconds after I knew this. “Not someone you’d notice on the street, but he’s —”

“He’s someone you look into,” I heard myself say.

Carol nodded. “You’ll do just fine here, Julia from Buffalo.”

Creator looked up. He looked right at me. He smiled, and he waved me over. I had to go. “Thanks for the tour,” I called over my shoulder to Carol. Carol saw where I was looking. She smiled, too.

Creator’s eyes were blue. “You’re new here,” he said.

He was waiting for me to speak. I couldn’t. I nodded instead, and that was when he took my hand. “Welcome to Creation Home, friend! Can you tell me your name?”

“Julia.”

Creator squeezed my hand, just like Sharon had done, what already felt like hundreds of years before. He brought it up to just short of his own face, and held it there for a moment. Then he let go and walked away, toward the house.

I used to have a garden, before I was Julia from Buffalo. But I’d stopped that a few years before. It wasn’t worth it. The arguments, the rubber mat at the door, the polite smiles when anything I grew made it past that rubber mat. There was a garden at Creation Home. Carol hadn’t shown it to me on the tour. I didn’t ask to see it. But it was where my dinner came from.

Everything on our plates was wrong. The tomatoes were flat on one or two sides. The cucumber had skin that was shriveled in some places. Lettuce wasn’t frilly on the ends, it was holey. The apples had bumps, bruises and pits. Everything was something I put in compost, in its and my previous life.

In the end, all I took was a peach. I spent twenty minutes sitting at the table, noise all around me, pressing the delicate skin to my nose. Not for the peach itself. For the tree, for the dirt underneath. I knew it wasn’t beautiful. But I knew it was there.

I didn’t sleep that first night. I told my roommates it was excitement and jetlag. That was partly a lie.

Creator had smelled of pine sap, and nothing else.

+

April

FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION
FO: Sacramento, California
TELEPHONICALLY SA Thomas R. Morgan

WIRETAP ORDER REF: 564434CA042
REF2: Mark Daniels, AKA The Creator, AKA Marcus Derry, AKA Mark Derry, AKA Michael Lewis
REF3: NR Route 20, Meridian, Sutter County, CA, AKA Creation Home
REF4: (580) 521-4673

THIS DOCUMENT CONTAINS NEITHER RECOMMENDATIONS OR CONCLUSIONS OF THE FBI. IT IS THE PROPERTY OF THE FBI; IT AND ITS CONTENTS ARE NOT TO BE DISTRIBUTED OUTSIDE OF THE AGENCY WITHOUT AUTHORIZATION.

The following is a recorded telephonic conversation between FEMALE L and FEMALE J on April 15, 1978:

(RINGS SEVERAL TIMES)

FEMALE L: Hello?
FEMALE J: Hi, Aunt L—-. It’s J—-.
FEMALE L: Hello J—-! How is California?
FEMALE J: It’s nice.
FEMALE L: I had a chance to go there one time because my friend M—- went to a real estate convention and there was going to be an extra bed in the hotel room and she figured why let it go to waste? But then T—- and I decided to go ahead and order the dishwasher and I had to be there for the delivery people. There wasn’t another delivery time open for two weeks after that, which is ridiculous. All they do is take it out of the box and plug it in.
FEMALE J: Yeah, I remember that weekend.
FEMALE L: That dishwasher is a waste of money anyway. Why use it when you have to wash the dishes before you put them in anyway? But T—- wanted one for the kitchen, so…(sighs)
FEMALE J: Yeah.
FEMALE L: He asked me if I wanted a microwave the other day, but I don’t know if I would use one of those for anything. How is the food at the farm?
FEMALE J: It’s pretty good.
FEMALE L: I thought you would like the food there, since you said it’s an organic farm and all. I know you like to do your gardening. I was wiping down the work table in the garage and I found your gardening gloves. Do you want me to send them to you? I can put them in a box and send them out.
FEMALE J: That’s okay. I have new gloves here.
FEMALE L: It would be a good idea to have an extra pair, though. In case your gloves get a hole in them, or get so muddy that you can’t bring them into the garage.
FEMALE J: We don’t have a garage.
FEMALE L: You don’t have a garage? Where do you put outdoor things?
FEMALE J: We have two sheds.
FEMALE L: But no garage? What do —
FEMALE J: The car stays outside.
FEMALE L: (loud sigh) We would never do that.
FEMALE J: It doesn’t rain much here, Aunt L—-. It doesn’t snow. So there’s no —
FEMALE L: There’s no rust. Like the cars in Florida. T—-‘s coworker is getting into a business where he buys cars cheap in Florida and sells them up here for a lot more money because they don’t have rust on them. He’s been —
FEMALE J: Yeah, he talked about that when I was there.
FEMALE L: T—- went with him one time to bring back a Camaro and it was just too much. He had to take a day off from work, and he packed a couple of lunches that just ended up going bad in the car trunk.
FEMALE J: Aunt L—-, I have to go. There are other people waiting for a turn to use the phone.
FEMALE L: Oh, okay. Listen…um…there’s something I’ve been meaning to say for a little while now. I’m real sorry about S—-. About your mom, when you came to live with us.
FEMALE J: Thanks.
FEMALE L: It was so awful. I didn’t want to say anything then. No one should have a heart attack that young. Everyone kept telling me at the funeral how bad they felt. And she looked so terrible. It wasn’t right.
FEMALE J: Thanks, Aunt L—-. I’m sorry, I have to go now.
FEMALE L: Okay. Your uncle and me are proud of you.
FEMALE J: Bye.
FEMALE L: Wait, what’s your address so I can send the gloves? I don’t want —
(DISCONNECT)

+

May

Listen to me.

I want you all to close your eyes for a moment, and reflect. I want you to reflect on a word. That word is home.

That word opens a lot of doors, doesn’t it? Sights, sounds, smells. A lot of good associations. Home sweet home. There’s no place like home.

Although that’s not always a good thing. There’s no place like hell, either. But that doesn’t mean we want to be there, go there, return there. And it is sad that for many of us, the ideas of home and hell have much in common.

But there is a beauty to the idea of home that no one can ever take away from you. You can always create home. You can always recreate home. You can always build a new home. It can hold everything and everyone that you need. No more rejection. No more pain. No more disappointment. No more responsibilities for which you did not ask. It is utterly yours.

That is what The Creation is about, both in the world and in this place. It’s about home. A home with everything you need. Nothing more, and nothing less. It’s about saying no to the things you don’t need. War. Persecution. Greedy excess. You may think you must accept those things as facts of life. I am here to tell you that you do not have to accept them. There are thousands of people all over the world who have made the choice not to accept them. Who have made the choice to Create, instead of destroy.

You are here because you are the embodiment of that yearning – that ache! – to make a difference.

You are here with me because it’s your destiny to fully commit to our vision. To join me in love, in friendship, in fellowship, in devotion. In Creation.”

+

June

It was my turn for Sharing. No one had to say it. I knew what to do. I stood up and took my place in the middle of the circle. “I’m Julia, and I have been an instrument of destruction.”

The circle seemed smaller from the inside than it had from so many times on the outside. Already, two of my sisters were crying. Destruction was always what we Shared.

“When I was eight years old, my parents punished me for a bad report card. They wouldn’t stop yelling, and I ran outside because my ears hurt. My father ran after me. We had a Christmas tree farm, so I ran into the trees to get away.”

The breathing in the circle was faster. My father had actually died when I was a year old. He had been a lot older than my mother. I didn’t remember him at all.

“Share with us, Julia,” I heard someone say. “Let us help Create you anew.”

“He followed me into the Christmas trees,” I said. It was real as I said it out loud, like the world had finally been cracked open. My father wasn’t the friendly ghost that my mother had said he was. I said words, words said truth. I looked at my hands. They were shaking.

“What did your father do to you?”

“He grabbed me from behind, and he pushed me into the dirt.” Even though none of it was true, I could smell the cold ground more than I ever had, more than when I had snuck Sharon onto the farm. That meant I had to go on. “He…he had his way with me. He made me an instrument of destruction.”

Hands reached into the circle. I didn’t take them yet. I saw what was left to be done, what there was for me if I could do this for two more minutes. I curled my arms around my stomach and looked at my feet, in their battered old Keds. Anything, not to look at the outstretched hands. “I haven’t been with a man since then. I’m afraid I’m destroyed, too.”

I felt hands on my back, on my arms, on my calves. I heard soft murmuring, sniffling, coughing. I smelled the wet sorrow, but my mouth was dry. I saw the ground beneath the floor. I knew the truth wasn’t always where the next step should go.

+

July

No one at Creation Home wanted me to go outside at night. The sisters told me stories about killers who preyed on teenagers. They were the same stories that Tony used to read out loud from the newspaper at the breakfast table, except now I had a starring role. I would be chloroformed and then locked in a basement. I would be stabbed, shot, strangled. Why couldn’t I just sit in the community room and knit?

“I’ll go for a walk with Julia,” Creator said when he heard what we were arguing about. That ended the discussion.

We walked down the dusty driveway until we couldn’t see it beneath our feet. We were so close together that when one of us put a foot down crookedly, we crashed into the other. “We have to stop meeting like this,” Creator said in the dark. I laughed because it was such an ordinary thing to say, when so much around me was extraordinary.

“Here,” he said, and reached for my hand. I thought he was going to hold it, but instead he pressed something into it – cold, metallic. A flask. “Have some. It’ll do you good. It does me good all the time.”

I unscrewed the cap and pressed it into my palm, so that later I’d be able to look at the ring-shaped welt in my hand and remember that all of this was real. Then, I took a small sip. It was like liquid candy canes.

“Good,” I said after I swallowed, and Creator laughed while it burned a light fire to my stomach.

“I’m glad,” he told me. “You need to be taken care of, Julia. You need to be nurtured. You need to be healed.”

I screwed the cap back on the flask, and held it while we looked at the stars.

“So many of them,” Creator said. “And they look so close, but they’re millions of miles apart.” I felt his hand brush against my cheek, and I wondered how he had found my face so quickly in the dark.

Carol found the flask in the yard the next morning. She knocked on the door to Creator’s room, and handed it to me without saying a word.

Other sisters at Creation Home told stories about Creator’s record player, his bottles of wine, his bed a hundred times softer than any in the dorms. But mine was the only story I ever heard that started outside, under the stars.

+

August

The water in the swimming pool was green. Green was all right. If the water was hospitable to living things, it couldn’t be bad for us. I would have worried more about getting poisoned from too many pool chemicals.

Polly came out to the pool with me sometimes, because we all watched out for each other. Polly and I would jump off the diving board and swim a little, then we would sit on towels by the ladder. Just like all the high school girls I’ve ever known.

The pool smelled like algae and suntan lotion and a little like compost because it was downbreeze from the bin. Suntan lotion was approved because one time one of the brothers spent the afternoon swimming, and got sunburned so badly he went to the hospital for a week. So that adornment was all right, because it kept us safe from scrutiny. I never would have said it out loud but it was good to go to the pool for the suntan lotion smell. That was a smell that had never made me worry – unlike bleach and gunpowder, two smells that were okay at Creation Home.

“Do you know how to do a handstand underwater?” Polly asked, and then did one. It was complete – she pressed her ankles together, even. Polly came back up and smiled at me. “Gymnastics class. Here, try. I’ll hold your legs when you’re up.”

I could hold my breath to tip my head, but once my hips turned, everything was wrong and reversed. I was backwards in an upside down darkness and the usual safety – standing up – wouldn’t work. I kicked at Polly’s arms because I had no other way to tell her. For a few seconds, she gripped my ankles together tighter. I felt the water rise into a new chamber of my nose and kicked again. I felt my foot hit her face and that time, she let go. I flipped into a backfloat before I could stand up. My nose was filled with water and snot and that corrosive banana smell that’s in pool water that goes too far in.

“Sorry,” I gasped. Polly rubbed her jaw, and glared at me.

+

September

We make popcorn because as far as we can figure, that is the only food permitted by Creator this week. Grown in our garden, not raw but not cooked. That’s what he’d said in weekend meditation.

“It’s like a riddle sometimes,” Maura whispers. We all know not to say anything else with Carol and Polly in the room. Carol is Carol, and Polly likes to report people just so she can get more time with Creator.

“I like popcorn,” I say, because I do. My mother would make it on Sundays before Wonderful World of Disney. Two Jiffy Pops, usually. The first one always burned. Lillian and Tony never made popcorn.

“Want to shake this?” Carol points the pot handle at me. “I have to go outside for a minute.”

I take the handle. It feels good because it’s cast iron. Cast iron has been around since before we were born, and will be around long after we die. I shake the pot and a fresh breeze blows through the window over the sink. I close my eyes and breathe it in. Juniper, cut grass, a faint wisp of motor oil.

There’s a rustle that isn’t the popcorn, and I open my eyes. I look out the window and there is Carol, walking with Creator. They are walking hand-in-hand toward one of the two sheds in the yard, the one that has been locked ever since I got here.

The rustle had come from Polly. She’s buried her face in her long, flowy skirt. Her shoulders are shaking.

“See?” Maura whispers again. “It’s a riddle.”

Erin Fitzgerald’s stories have appeared in DOGZPLOT, Monkeybicycle, jmww, Everyday Genius, PANK, and many similarly excellent online literary publications. She is the editor of The Northville Review and lives in western Connecticut.

+++

posted by Roxane Gay