One summer day when I am twelve, before he moves into our basement bedroom, Michael teaches us how to make Clams Casino. Michael has a regular place at our dining room table. He and Mamma are best friends. They smoke and laugh together after dinner, his lopsided grin under wavy black hair bringing out the deepest green of her hazel eyes. On Daddy’s days off from his job as a meteorologist, mapping storm forecasts, he and Michael sit at the backyard picnic table and drink cans of Stroh’s. My father is mostly bald and round in the middle. Alone, he reads history books and pencils letters into the small squares of crossword puzzles. I am his namesake, or would be, if I were a boy. Instead of Jimmy Junior, I am Jenny.
In that summer of 1978, Daddy tells Michael stories about Iceland, my mother’s home. They talk about the problems of the world, and my father’s blue eyes mist over as he says, just look at all the things we have to be grateful for! My father calls me Yenny, as my name is pronounced in Iceland. He says to me, quietly, I’m not allowed to have favorites, but if I were, you would be the one. I always smile when he says this, but I am careful of my father, who sometimes breaks things late at night.
Today, Mamma stands next to Michael at the kitchen sink. Her head barely reaches his shoulder. Michael presses a blade into the tender seam of a clam shell, then twists until it snaps open, exposing a mound of flesh resting on its own blue-green reef. He says: Ragna, I’ve seen guys stab themselves right through the palm doing this, so be careful! She smiles and takes a turn—soon she wields the knife like an expert. I help sprinkle the clams with a blend of cheese, bacon, and spices, then stare into the oven as they bake, transfixed. The wild blue crabs that we scooped out of the Chesapeake Bay to add to our feast exhale bubbles from their crusty mouths. They scrabble against each other in the confines of the stainless-steel sink.
Michael laughs with me and my sisters as Daddy uses long metal tongs to hoist the crabs to the stove. Pinching claws wave and grasp at one another until the legs of two giants are clamped onto the legs of two others. A crustacean chain travels through the air and lands into the belching steam-pot. My father holds down the lid until the crabs stop fighting. In the dark heat, the blue shine of their shells transforms to brick red.
We fill glasses with lemonade or beer, then pull down the can of Old Bay seasoning from the cupboard. Layered sections of The Washington Post protect the kitchen table, set with wooden mallets, small knives, and stacks of paper napkins. We sit in a circle and toast in Icelandic: Skal! First, we eat the clams, and Michael is pleased as we marvel at the tastiness of Clams Casino. Then, we settle in to pick our crabs—removing the top shell and pulling translucent cartilage away from segments of tender, white crab meat. The afternoon stretches into dusk. I use a wooden mallet to break open the hard shell of a claw and dissect its pieces, chewy flesh still holding the shape of pincers.
I put my hammer down and look into my mother’s face. I absorb her concentration and her pleasure in the day. She lifts a morsel of back-fin to her lips, holding the delicate bite between her thumb and the edge of a serrated steak knife. She doesn’t drop a speck, wastes nothing. The afternoon sunlight dances on her cheek, and happiness shimmers all around us. After Michael dies the next winter—and as my mother lies waiting to die the summer after—this is the moment that stays.
The front yard of our house in Hillcrest Heights slopes down to 23rd Parkway, a pair of busy one-way streets separated by a strip of patchy grass. Mowers prowl along the median of that curved parkway, roaring as they throw up shredded grass mixed with dusty trash. Across the parkway, sunk below view, is a shallow creek, a flat-bottomed channel of slick, red-stained concrete. A tall vertical drain feeds runoff from the maple and poplar woods that grow beyond the school yard above. In the evening, from the slab of our front step, the dividing line between Maryland and Washington, DC is a streak of sulfur-yellow streetlights.
On the last day of his life, I see Michael standing in our doorway. A friend has given him a job in a court-reporting office downtown. He’s trying to be better, more than just a drifter renting our basement bedroom. But I’m angry with Michael. My older sisters have told me that he and my mother are having an affair, and the shame of their lie lands on my shoulders like hot ash. I am the youngest, the last to understand. Every day, I pull more deeply into myself. Michael has felt me fight my need for his attention. He tells me that winter that he should probably go away, but where? My heart sinks at the thought. Michael stands in the doorway on that last morning, and a light shines all around him. When I call his name, he turns to smile at me and tilts his head. “Where are you going?” I ask.
The basement of our brick house in the Washington, D.C. suburbs has been transformed into a TV heaven where Mom and Michael spend hour after hour together. A green stuffed chair is set under the angled reading light. Mom’s tall vodka and 7up bubbles on the table, and Michael’s tumbler sheds water droplets onto a coaster. In 1979, Mom is 52. Her face glows with pleasure in Michael’s company, laughter waiting at the corners of her delicate lips. His face is angular, lit up by grooves around his eyes and mouth when he grins. They laugh about how her Viking forebears prowled the Irish coast in their longboats to steal his Gaelic ancestors away to the land of fire and ice.
My mother’s American name, with an unrolled r, is Ragna. But in Icelandic, her name is more complex, with sharp edges: Ragnhildur: Fighting Woman. Her narrow shoulders bend toward Michael as her carefully combed hair–darkened to an auburn shine with a box of Nice N Easy–falls forward over one ear. She angles her body toward her friend, her accent softening while they drink and talk together. On the cusp of womanhood, I sense the crackle of heat between Mom and Michael like a spark of static on my fingertips. My solar plexus registers the power her beauty wields as his eyes linger on the lowered zipper of her mumu. “Wow,” he says.
For as long as I can remember, my mother’s hand holds a drink by late afternoon. But how long ago has this friend from the pub lived with us? I don’t know if Daddy minds—he is in the background as Mamma and Michael decide to fold their lives together, like nested paper notes. Michael rents the green basement bedroom, his jeans and shirts tucked into the tall bureau emptied when my sister Kristin moved away to nursing school. In his top drawer, just one step and a sharp left turn into his room, I find his overflowing baggie of marijuana. I pinch a joint’s worth into a black film canister every week, and this bounty makes me temporarily popular at G. Shugart Junior High School. Michael lives with us for a year, I think, his face smiling into Christmas pictures, his lighter on the living room table.
Michael looks at me in that turquoise polished kitchen. Copper pots gleam from the wall, suspended from a simple set of hooks my father attached to a board and hung above the stainless-steel sink. When I want to be good, and no one is around, I will take down each pot, admire the profile of the Revere-ware patriot in his tri-corner hat, and rub all evidence of heat or food or neglect from the base of those pots. Their shine is a barometer of my own willingness to be seen.
Michael leans back against the counter: How was your day? Who asks me that? Who waits calmly and seemingly soberly until I get home to that house–so often empty of sisters and parents–and asks how my day was? Only Michael. He is from Pennsylvania, I think, where he has a daughter a bit older than me. I don’t remember if I met her at his funeral. There was some reason he never saw her, but I got used to him being there, every afternoon, happy to see me. How was your day? Then later, Mom and Michael stay up late watching the downstairs color TV and sharing an ashtray. Did Michael drink vodka before he came to live with us? Or was he more of a beer guy? And how many times did Michael tell me, “I’m not an alcoholic, I’m a drunk”? He wasn’t sober when he said that, just buzzed and ashamed. His head drooped slightly to the side when he drank. And when he said he was a drunk, not an alcoholic, it was clear that in his mind, alcoholics were better people.
Before Michael, my parents’ arguments erupt from their bedroom in rare molten blasts. They get home from a party or from the bar, and my father pleads, Ragna, come to bed! When she doesn’t, their rising voices vibrate terror through my bedroom wall. She screams, I knew I married a weak man! Then his heavy footsteps reach her, and he tosses her into the wooden slats of their closet door. Daddy’s voice becomes a wordless growl as he shuffles into his pants. Car keys jangle, and he is gone. In the morning, his station wagon is in its regular place against the front curb. No one says anything the next day, as if nothing happened. But I watch the aftermath, purple hand-shaped bruises on my mother’s arms, slowly fading to invisibility.
Is Mamma 51 when Michael moves in? He’s a few years younger. When my father isn’t at work, he stays upstairs after dinner, watching Masterpiece Theater on the tiny black and white TV perched on the bedroom bureau. Downstairs, Mamma and Michael are beautiful as they move their attention toward one another, back and forth, like the clink of ice in a glass. She pulls strands of purple cross-stitch floss through white linen, shaping tiny exes into iris petals. Her sharp needlepoint scissors, finger holes shaping a golden stork’s head, rest on the table. Michael is in her line of sight as they watch TV. CBS News, Heart to Heart, Magnum PI, show after show, episode after episode. Commercials are for drink refills.
They hear my cautious tread on the staircase and my pause on the landing. I am the youngest of seven, her baby and her witness. I see Mamma and Michael drinking and looking for something inside each other to explain their need for one another, to understand how his anchoring presence holds her safe and steady. My wise child self feels their love and hears the laughter they bring out, the healing joy and desire. My wise child knows I need him to be here–her happiness also fills me.
Michael gives Mamma a shamrock necklace, four leaves shaped in delicate gold, a tiny emerald in the center. It rests in the soft hollow above her collar bone. On her wrist, a tiny Viking ship dangles from a charm bracelet. On our dining room wall, a dragon-shaped map of Iceland.
The day after I see him walk out into the morning, a stranger finds Michael’s body in an alley, not far from his office in DC. He’d gone on an errand for work and not come back. An autopsy shows that his skull is cracked, most likely caused by a hard fall during an alcoholic seizure. But my mother doesn’t believe it. She insists he’s been mugged, even though his wallet is still in his pocket.
On the day of Michael’s funeral, I am shaky, off to the left of myself. A tiny, trembling bird moves up from inside my knees to the back of my throat, then back down again. The bird chirps that because I saw the light all around Michael, I could have saved him from dying alone in that alley. Your fault, the bird peeps. Your fault.
Michael is Catholic, and the casket is open. It smells bad in that place. He wears a tweed jacket that my mother has pulled from his closet. A green tie that snugs up under his chin. A tiny stitch is visible under his lip. The chill of his body conveys the nothingness of him. I hold Michael’s cold fingers and ask God to change His mind. My mother pulls me gently away and leads me to a chair. A tear glides down my father’s cheek.
At our house that afternoon, a small group of friends talk quietly around trays of cold cheese and crackers, of canned oysters and sardines. My mother’s face is puffy from crying. Dark smudges of mascara shadow her eyes.
The week after the funeral, I carry a note from my mother to my chemistry teacher. It reads, “Please excuse Jenny from school. A friend of the family was murdered.” The shock on the face of this sharp teacher-woman—whose class I’d slept through for weeks despite longing for her approval—stuns me. I walk to a seat in the back of the classroom. I refuse to watch as her fingertips scratch incomprehensible equations onto the chalkboard.
That spring, my mother spends most of her days in bed. My father, his face lengthened in sorrow, holds my mother as she cries. One night, my sisters and I convince Mamma to go to the movies with us and see John Belushi in Blues Brothers. She refuses at first, her face bitter and resolute. But she relents, silently fuming at this intrusion into her grief. But oh–her bursts of laughter in the dark theater! How long has it been since her face took that shape and movement? When the movie ends, I don’t see her laugh again for a long time.
In the weeks that follow, I feel a helplessly intense desire to be good, to earn my mother back. I stop smoking pot. After Michael dies, our family cries in church together. And relief bubbles unexpectedly. No one is speculating anymore about what Mamma and Michael are doing or not doing when none of us are home. For a while, we grieve together, without factions or whispers. But then we disperse, as if propelled by a drop of detergent on a dishpan oil slick. Dim sunlight hangs over the muddy back yard as I sit alone in my room.
Yet Michael lingers. More than once, I hear his step, distinct as a fingerprint, creak the stair treads as I lay in bed. Mamma looks up to see him walk into her bedroom, full of life, beaming a smile at her before shimmering away again. Even in death, he is awkwardly and persistently in the house.
My mother has one of her ulcer attacks, gripping her belly as she stands at the kitchen sink, then shuffling slowly to her bed. As a little girl, I would try to help, bringing her a glass of milk with my small hands. But now I know that alcohol makes ulcers worse. I know that smoking will give her lung cancer. When I see her drinking and smoking alone in the dark, a sourness builds up inside me, black and smoldering, like hate. I decide that doing things like going to class, telling the truth, and not stealing are not my things.
I crouch in the drug store, stuffing a chocolate bar into my sock while appearing to browse for gum. I take cigarettes and dollar bills out of my mother’s purse. At school, I nap through my classes, head on my desk, then walk down the hallway with a crease on my cheek. I put chalk dust in my French teacher’s coffee cup and sneer with a classmate as we watch her drink it. Madame is terribly awkward, shabbily dressed in red and white sacks of dresses or too-tight polyester pants, her brown hair pulled back into a stringy ponytail. I hate that she goes to our church and is aware of our murky loss. I detest her decency and her kindness.
Some coward goes to the school office saying that I bragged about putting drugs in the teacher’s coffee, and I am called in to see the school nurse. Here’s where my bravado fails me. I love the school nurse. Short, with jet-black hair, she is smart and steady and hard-working. She asks to see what pills I have, so I pull from my pocket a little blue box containing one orange multivitamin. Whatever that means to her, or whatever she has heard about me, her face flames to crimson and she snaps at me: You should be horse whipped.
My father sits alone at the white kitchen table and types a letter of resignation to the Weather Bureau. We are moving to Florida. Daddy says nothing about watching me unspool; his rescue is direct and unspoken. As the house fills with cardboard boxes and packing tape, my mother decides to have the ulcer operation that her doctors have long recommended. On a summer morning, a surgeon’s knife cuts out most of her stomach. Mamma lies wordless in an antiseptic hospital room, incubating one raging infection after another. She endures a second stomach surgery, then her left eye swells with bacteria. To relieve the pressure, a new surgeon pierces that delicate orb with a needle. One hundred nights she sleeps alone in that narrow bed with metal rails.
Sorry and afraid, I sit with Mamma long days, reading her Ann Landers’ advice column and watching her slack face as she does. Every noon, while a nurse drains her belly wound, I go downstairs and spoon Dannon blueberry yogurt into my mouth from the hospital cafeteria vending machine. The days become mechanical and remote. As another doctor’s scowl lands on my mother’s impassive face, I feel the end in her. I see her turn toward Michael and freedom.
My sister and I go to Florida to start our new high school, staying with our aunt. I feel dull, riven. On a Saturday, Mamma develops sepsis, and the doctors tell Daddy to prepare himself. As I sit in church the next morning, my mother wakes up asking for food, newly able to lift her head from the pillow. She wants her hair washed. The nurses bring a cake and balloons when she is discharged, everyone so relieved at her sudden desire to live.
Soon, she arrives to our new house a mile from St. Joseph Sound, where blue crabs stray into baited wire traps. A small kidney-shaped swimming pool glimmers in our yard, and armadillos roam in nearby Hammock Park. My mother is pale as blank paper, smiling as she leans on my father’s arm. She comes home sober and learns how to eat again with her fragment of post-surgery stomach. Brushing my hair off of my forehead, she says, You don’t need to get A’s in all your classes. It’s okay to just relax sometimes. In that small house with no downstairs, I slowly get used to having a mother again.
We don’t talk about him, but Michael visits my dreams every night. Under the night-time whir of the ceiling fan, I walk next to him—happy in the way only he made me. Then his dream face pales; he stumbles and dies before my eyes. I learn to keep myself awake at night. I sketch a coffin and put it on the refrigerator in our tiny colorless kitchen. I join my high school’s Christian club, where we pray holding hands in a circle. Night after night, hallucinations take me to the foot of the cross. My parents worry outside my bedroom door, but I can’t stop the spinning whirlpool inside me. Fainting again and again; no breath, no center, no gravity. Hyperventilating in geometry class, I pass out, sliding from my desk to the floor.
With visiting Icelanders, my father drives to the Ringling Brothers Art Museum in St. Petersburg, a cooler of beer at my mother’s feet. She has started drinking again. I stare at a canvass of the marble-white skin of crucified Jesus, wounds weeping. I drop unconscious to the polished floor. An hour later, in line at the emergency room, I do jumping jacks. A nurse in teal scrubs tells me, You just need to calm down, before sending us home. Eventually, a therapist prescribes pink sleeping pills in clear bubble wrap. Mamma and Daddy give me one tablet at night, and over a few weeks, I learn to sleep again. Slowly, I tuck Michael away, into a small steady place under my rib cage.
I hear Mamma and Michael’s songs, a soundtrack that binds them together and that reveals them to me in an instant. He looks at her in the car as Lionel Richie croons Once, twice, three times a lady. She turns up the volume, lifting her wrist from the steering wheel into a shaft of afternoon light. Michael’s smile to her overflows with admiration and regret. And I love you. And I love, you. The music places a gift between them, wrapped in lavender tissue paper, beautiful, beribboned, and fragile.
From the home stereo record player, Little Feet sing: If you’ll be my Dixie Chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee Lamb, and we can walk together down in Dixie Land. The needle rides the grooves of that album day and night. Yes, that guitar player sure could play. Michael sings with his eyes upturned and hopeful, not hitting a single note, and my mother laughs encouragingly. I’m drawn into their bright circle, where there are no fights. I see the part of her that has never berated him, and I feel the part of him that never breaks things. At night, Mamma and Michael are downstairs, happy. I go to bed and it stays quiet. I feel relief in every off-key note.
I miss them together, how they complimented one another. She spiffed him up. He calmed her down. The tone he used to say her name was a balm that steadied me toward solid earth. I still feel his surprised gratitude at becoming one of us. Just for a little while, of having a family. As I watch my parents dance together on their fortieth wedding anniversary dinner cruise, I touch my finger to the shamrock necklace Mamma gave to me. The weight of shame gives way to the purity of appreciation, beyond time and beyond the reach of judgement.
I see Michael standing in the doorway that last morning, ready to go. His dark hair is illuminated, and his lanky frame shines in a way I have never seen anything shine before. I want him to be still for an instant so that I can take this light into my body. I want him to stay.
“Where are you going?”
“Where do you think? To work!” And he flashes that crooked, loopy smile, and steps through the doorway.
Jenny-Lynn Ellis lives and writes in Denver and in Fairplay, Colorado. A student at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, her essays have appeared in Dreamers Magazine, The Colorado Sun, and Down in the Dirt. She blogs at themoreiwrite.net.