Origin Stories

Joe Bonomo

In church at Saint Andrew the Apostle, the mutterings of prayers and rejoinders had little effect on me beyond the sibilants, ssssssss that slithered into my sinuses and down my spine, splitting me in two—part penitent, part boy—the language sluicing through me, dissolving me, siphoning from me any attention to orthodoxy, or prayer life, or offering up—as it is in heaven, Give us this, forgive us our sins, those who trespass against us, the s’s a slippery slope into sensuality, a sounding of words, the ssssssss of a wronged tongue in my mouth, thessssssssof pulling down my classmate’s zipper, the ssssssss of Yes.


In a dream that I’ve re-told myself for years I’m sitting on the roof of our split-level house on Amherst Avenue, facing north, facing Wheaton Regional Park and all of that dark, facing dark houses but for one or two lights inside, and I hear a rumble, very low at first, only heard, but then soon felt pulsing through the foundation and the house beneath me, up between my legs into my ribcage and throat and sinuses and the house lurches forward and I look down but don’t have to, really, to see that the house has become a train moving forward and I’m sitting on top, at the front, holding on now for fear of falling off and we’re chug chug and off, leaving the town behind, my family and friends behind, my house the imagined transport to leave home, sad, as all dreams are.


I slept in the same bed with my younger brother until I was 10, and he was 7—at night when I had trouble sleeping he taught me to “rock,” to lie on one side, fold my bottom arm beneath me, and roll gently back and forth back and forth until I got light-headed with sleepiness. Sometimes we’d do it in tandem, sometimes I’d feel him on the opposite side of the narrow bed while I was half asleep, the room dark and his silhouette moving soundlessly back and forth. Other times we’d both be up and hear the TV downstairs or our older brothers talking in the kitchen or the bedroom next door, and we’d pretend that the bed was a raft lost at sea, pitching and reeling in an ink-black storm—precisely where, in what ocean, off of what coast, we didn’t pretend, it was more scary if we felt without naming it that the bed was so far from any coast as to be undiscoverable, tossed away, forgotten, and we’d shiver with chills and manufactured giggles, but I knew that we’d soon fall asleep and that the nightmare of the dark, gaping ocean would blessedly recede, and that tomorrow we’d wake up and turn on the radio and that season’s hit—The Eagles’ “Best Of My Love” or Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” or Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”—would pour into a sunny room, and the forbidding ocean, not yet plaguing my dreams as it will in the future, is nothing but a sky-blue, yellow-tinted playground in Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki that I’d borrow from the library.


Down in the rec room, my younger brother and I are listening to the Jean Knight’s “Don’t Talk About Jody,” a scratchy b-side, and we’re hooting at the funky bass and the syncopated falsetto before we know funky or New Orleans Sound only that it gets into us and works its way out irresistibly, we dance and giggle—but I spy him later, leaning on the chain-link fence between our yard and the Roeloff’s, staring into the middle distance, his self-consciousness promising that more misery awaits. You see, I’m in the back screen porch now, I’d come out to get a cookie, or to let Molly in, and I see him alone at the fence, but what I see I can’t name—as what he sees, he can’t—only that he’s turned away, his back is tiny, his face complicated, clouding-over, though I have to imagine the face I don’t see. He’s a half-familiar figure in the middle distance. Had he just come back from his psychiatrist? Had he obsessed again, erasing and erasing and erasing his crossed-out homework list until it shredded? I promised myself I wouldn’t do that again. What was he thinking at the fence, at the border between.


Family lore is that my younger brother took his first steps as a toddler when he let go of the stereo console in the living room. He’d been peering in at the record going ‘round and ‘round, turned and, grinning, wobbled a few steps and fell. His defining moment. His origin story. Mine is this: my younger brother took his first steps as a toddler when he let go of the stereo console in the living room. He’d been peering in at the record going ‘round and ‘round, turned and, grinning, wobbled a few steps and fell, and I wonder whether this is true, if whether stories we tell about the family matter because they happened or because they have the richness of fiction, its possibilities and playfulness and contrivances, its funny endings and thoughtful themes, because they take root and grow, propagating in all manner of random urgencies, story-seeds flying and landing and nourishing in surprising places to grow even stronger and brighter next year. Beauty no less valuable, no less useless. My brother’s forever turning, forever grinning, forever tumbling—whether it happened that way or not, he’s stilled in that version of events. He’s told. A story lingers because it matters, whether it occurred as the calendar does or inside an imagined truth that speaks no less accurately.


Joe Bonomo’s most recent books are This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began (essays) and Conversations With Greil Marcus. A four-time “Notable Essay” selection at Best American Essays, he teaches at Northern Illinois University and appears online at No Such Thing As Was (www.nosuchthingaswas.com).

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