Mind

Published on December 14th, 2023 | by Brett Ann Stanciu

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Inside Out: Going Mad and Garlic Greens

When my daughters were three and nine, a friend’s mother and her new-to-her lover drove their powder blue Cadillac from Mississippi to Vermont. The mother wanted to buy a gallon of our maple syrup. Their Cadillac hung so low in our driveway that a stray cat would have to squeeze beneath the back axle. The blue paint was pockmarked as if recovering from long-ago car acne. Wedged between the stepfather’s gold tooth and a missing upper incisor, a cigar smoldered. The lover and the mother towered over the landshark car, swaying slightly as if they were stilt-walkers in a parade.

The mother’s head swiveled around our daughters’ swing in the apple tree, my garden bean poles. “Jesus, I wasn’t expecting Heidi of the Swiss Alps.” The stepfather smashed the cigar dead on the Cadillac roof and saved the butt in his jacket pocket. “Those kids look like you could leave them by the side of the road, and they’d fend for themselves. Scrappy things.”

My husband smiled so widely I could see his teeth, too.

*

Cedric’s mother exuded an aura of a dirty river running fiercely, chock-full with the bruised-heart debris of foster kids taken in and given back, of screaming midnights and whiskey bottles hurtled through screenless windows, of untallied absences while the famished kids slammed empty cupboard doors and bellied up to free school lunch. She wore a t-shirt that emphasized her sharp breasts, scripted with a curved smoking pipe and Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

Her Heidi comment was spot on. I was pursuing with a maniacal intensity an emerald-meadow, wildflower-dense fairytale family life. I had failed to see that my husband idolized Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. His vision wasn’t a family cozied around meals of melted cheese beneath a thatched roof, but a lone dissatisfied man hammering Chopin on a piano in the back of a pickup. The denouement was skipping out in a stranger’s semi, whereabouts forever unknown. From the outset, this plotline predicted separation.

*

The rub was, of course, I loved him.

His oval eyes were the hue of alpine rivers, of forget-me-not blossoms, of my childhood’s treasured Crayola crayon sky blue. I didn’t envision that his eyes would turn inside out, that the capillaries of quartz that squiggled through his azure irises would expand and devour that exquisite blue, the familiar landscape of his eyes transforming into a stranger’s. To my ears, the language of his realm was gibberish. Friends and acquaintances warned me he was using drugs — and not just the cannabis that saturated Vermont. He had packed cardboard boxes with pans and clothes and drifted out of our sunlight-filled house to a borrowed travel trailer he had parked beside our driveway where he cooked his favorite childhood meals of miso pea soup and boiled potatoes smashed with butter. When he drove off in his pickup, I slid my hands through his sleeping bag, beneath his t-shirts and socks lumped on the floor. The truth was sadder than street drugs. Like his eyes, his mind was turning inside out.

He moved jerkily, twitching his shoulders and hips, his eyes shot through with that gleaming white, grinning like a hand puppet. “I’ve got all these thoughts!” Then, like a collapsed balloon, he would diminish, retreating to that trailer and hunkering for hours in a chair by the window, picking at a rip in the knee of his workpants, licking his moving lips and ruminating. He ceased working as a carpenter and expected me and our daughters and what he called The Community — an ex-felon, a few well-to-do lonely widows, scofflaws who had lost jobs and busted relationships — to safety net him. Bring me firewood! Listen to my stories! To my way of understanding, he wanted to dwindle to a little boy again, cherished son, indulged with pancakes and ice cream for supper.

As he retreated into Holy Innocent, I transmogrified from Heidi of the Swiss Alps to a mother version of Munch’s The Scream.

*

The way this story is supposed to play out is that the children and I went on with our lives. That didn’t happen.

The polite, clichéd version of this story bends towards acceptance, embracing the power of love and persistence. That didn’t transpire, either.

Instead, I went to court. The judge removed my now Former Husband’s name from the house deed. I sold the house and moved down the mountain and into the village. Our oldest graduated from high school, became an EMT, went to college, moved in with the boyfriend. The youngest entered high school. I worked for the town, balancing debits and credits, wrote a book, raged about no child support. Our furnace gave up its mechanical ghost; my brother paid for a replacement. A bitter wind screamed through the gaping hole in our former family of four at holidays, birthdays, seven seasons of soccer games, the school concerts where I sat on a metal folding chair alone, knitting. Within my heart’s ashy embers, I secretly hoped for a miraculous cure, that My Husband — now Former Husband — would arrive at the house I had bought for our children and cats, his pickup heaped with split firewood, passenger seat laden with flour and oats, turtle beans, Udon, bunches of parsley and kale, crinkly packages of the Newman’s Own chocolate crème filled cookies he and his daughters loved.

In my bare feet, I would walk out to meet him, my hair more sooty than sun-streaked. I would hold out my ringless hands, my youthful impish joy throbbing again in my veins. All these years I had been raising our daughters, solo, I had never forgotten his knobby wrists, the way the sun transformed the hair on his arms and wrists and fingers to shimmering gold. I would wrap my hands around his wrists and ask if he was proud. Hadn’t I done well raising our children?

*

Five years post-divorce, on a Monday while I was washing egg-and-butter-smeared dishes and thinking of nothing more than the payroll checks I expected to write that morning, my oldest daughter texted. The woman my daughters named The Grifter, who lived with my Former Husband, had phoned with news. My children’s father had Covid, and The Grifter believed he had given up hope. “I can’t go down with him,” The Grifter told my daughter. The Grifter was signing out, au revoir, adios, arrivederci, heading elsewhere.

I skipped work. In the rattly Honda my oldest daughter had bought and paid for, month by month, my daughters and I drove those five miles back up the narrow dirt road to the mountain where the four of us had lived. My daughters’ placentas were buried in the garden. We walked single file along the path through the hemlocks where my children had gathered tiny pinecones. Early spring, the leaves were mere nubs. Light fell through branches on the trilliums scattered among last fall’s dead leaves.

The cabin he had hammered together perched on a hillside, a skinny board-and-batten structure on piers like Baba Yaga’s hut on its scrawny chicken feet. The windows were dark as slate shingles. There was no sign of any human life: not a wisp of smoke from the metal stovepipe, no muddy boots on the doorstep. The youngest daughter wept. Without knocking, my oldest and I creaked open the hut’s door. She scaled the loft ladder and spoke to him steadily, all that EMT training kicking in. His voice murmured.

The floor was swept, the washed dishes turned upside down in a rack, a gray dishcloth spread to dry on the lip of a dishpan. I knew this order was from The Grifter. She had cleaned crumbs from the tiny table, hung up the jackets on pegs, paired the boots beside the door, and walked down the path, leaving him maybe to die.

In the entryway, our wedding photo was propped on a shelf, he in a white tux, me in the flouncy dress my mother had sewed. He had not yet begun balding. My head with a crown of baby’s breath flowers didn’t quite reach his shoulders. At twenty-six, my cheeks were sprinkled with acne, my smile radiant, guileless. The photo was bordered with a silver frame his sister had ordered for us, engraved with our first names. I had thrown the photo and frame in the heap of ashes from the woodstove behind our house. Every day, The Grifter must have seen my flower crown, my happy eyes, the ash that clung to the crack across the glass, jagged through our chins.

*

My oldest cajoled her father down the ladder. The four of us walked single file through the woods.

At the Honda, my youngest commanded the keys and drove. All the way down the mountain and to the ER, I silently remarked that a bastardized version of my dream was realized: we were all four together, driving again, as we had done so many times as a family. In the backseat, he philosophized like an Alice in Wonderland character, What is the essence of a mask? Does a mask belong to a toe or an elbow?

My oldest ordered, “Just put on the goddamn mask.”

He obeyed.

The hospital wouldn’t harbor him. That afternoon, we dropped him off with an acquaintance. He didn’t thank the children or note my lost Monday’s worth of work.

Home again, the sisters scrubbed the Honda’s backseat. I snipped the season’s first garlic greens in the garden I had spaded, five years ago, and sautéed these in butter for our dinner omelet. All night, the spring peepers chorused, heralding spring’s bounty, their mellifluous melodies filling our house.

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About the Author

Brett Ann Stanciu is the author of Unstitched: My Journey to Understand Opioid Addiction and How People and Communities Can Heal (Steerforth Press, 2021). A recipient of a 2020 Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant and a Vermont Humanities Foundation Grant, Stanciu’s essays and fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, Memoir Monday, Taproot, Hippocampus, Vermont Literary Review, The Sunlight Press, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Long StoryParent Co., and Green Mountains Review, among other publications. Her novel Hidden View (Green Writers Press, 2015) portrays the challenges of a hardscrabble family farm. She lives in a small village in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and blogs at stonysoilvermont.com.



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