Carla Kirchner is a poet, fiction writer, and writing professor. Her poetry chapbook, The Physics of Love, won the Concrete Wolf Press 2016 Poetry Chapbook Award and will be published in the fall of 2017. Her fiction has recently appeared in Literary Orphans, Rappahannock Review, Eunoia Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Gravel, andUnbroken Journal.
Answers to All the Important Questions
Well, I was a tiny thing. If I had a self before then, I don’t remember it. It was a Tuesday, the thirteenth of March, nineteen and twenty-eight. In the morning, the sky was a strange shade of blue-gray, a brooding color. And that whole brooding sky was pressing down on the place where I lived with Mother and Daddy. I was sad because I was too young for school, and I didn’t want to be stuck inside that little house all day long. I had planned to make mud pies. I felt gray that day.
You can’t visit it.
Because of the fire—the whole place is gone. Mother and Daddy was bringing the preacher home for Sunday dinner. The brown smoke filled the whole holler so thick they couldn’t even see their house, which was half-way up Push Mountain. Everyone from around here will tell you that the valleys are deeper than the mountains are tall. The rocks are worn to nubs with worry, and then the bottom fills up with all that pain. This whole place is rock. Mother used to say if you fell and cut your knee deep enough, you’d find a mountain underneath all that skin and bone. Mountains have memories, too. They hold every hurt and happiness inside of them in layers.
No, I never did hold much with church. I reckon you can find God anywhere, if you care to look hard enough. I prefer the springs, myself. There’s water running underneath everything around here, which accounts for all the caves. Jack and me had a piece of land with a little spring on it. That water was bright blue, so blue it seemed unnatural. I could sit for hours next to that water. I’ve got some real peaceful memories at that spring. The water didn’t do much more than trickle, but it was enough to wash away the day’s ugliness for a while.
Only your mother can answer that. I loved her the best, and I loved her the best I could. And your uncle’s accident didn’t help.
Yes, I suppose you do look a bit like your mother—the same green eyes and strawberry hair. And freckles. She always had lots of freckles, more each summer. You don’t look exactly like I thought my grandson would. You’re tall for a Conway. Maybe you take after your father in that respect. I wouldn’t know.
All I got left is my memories, and there’s plenty of them.
A few years ago, a reporter came here all the way from Springfield wanting to do a story on me for the paper. He had on blue jeans with a pink shirt. I always thought there was something funny about a man in a pink shirt. “You have an incredible gift,” pink-shirt man said. “Bull crap,” I said. I can remember what I did every single day right down to the fine details of time and clothes and weather. It’s like somebody’s made a movie of each day that I can pull one out anytime I want and watch. But what good is that to anyone? He got real mad when I wouldn’t talk to him. He was sitting right where you are, on that very sofa. Then I threw him out.
Yes, there’s some good memories. But all days exist in my head the same. What I mean is, I remember every little thing about the bad days just the same as I remember the good. February 24, 1947, is good one. Your mother was little, seven months old. She was setting in the kitchen of the tiny apartment we rented from Mrs. Klein, back before Jack and me was together. Mrs. Klein minded your mother when I worked at the shop. That apartment was one room with the bed over the steep steps and an itty bitty stove with only two burners and an oven so small it wouldn’t hold a cake pan. Your mother was sitting next to that stove and smiling at me as I fed her mashed string beans from a little silver spoon. “Here comes the fish,” I said in my nicest voice as I moved the spoon to her mouth. And just then, I had the best feeling. I looked at her open mouth and its sharp teeth and pink tongue lying there like a fat worm, and I knowed that feeling was love and that love was blue like the apartment walls.
You’ll need to ask your mother about that.
I’m sure your mother has all sorts of stories of how I was horrible to her. But that’s not exactly true, see. I remember every single thing that I ever done. In detail. The big problem was that we both was so alike. “You get me a sandwich,” she demanded one day in May 1950. She was three. She demanded a lot. Each time I set down with a magazine by the sunny window, she’d want more and more. “I’m thirsty,” she’d whine, even with a glass of water setting at her feet. And she kept wetting her pants. She knowed better. I’d take her to the toilet, and she’d piddle pretty as you please, but she refused to tell me when she had the need. So if I left her too long, there’d be a huge wet spot on her periwinkle rug and she’d laugh and laugh.
No, it was out of spite. It was sure enough out of pure spite. It got so the whole house smelled like mess. She was stubborn like that. Then I got married and had Jack Junior. And then the world loses all color completely and you can’t find where you put yourself because you’re too busy with other people and all their wants.
These days I want Bourbon for breakfast. It’s a balancing act, and Bourbon helps me balance. It gives me a blue feeling. When I drink, all these memories get mixed together. The good and bad bump and slide against each other until I almost can’t tell which is which. All them bad times do less knocking and walking around in my head. They tame and calm, like the beagle we had when the kids was little. He was white with dun and black spots. We called him Sputnik, after the satellite, and Jack learned that a few drops of whiskey in his water bowl would keep him nice and quiet all night. Without it, he howled and howled to beat the thunder.
Now, Daddy had a photographic memory, too, but his was for reading. He could recite all of the Ozarks County phone book and half of Ivanhoe, the part he managed to read before he left school. And also the newspapers and pill bottles and whatever other scraps of print he ran across. Mother was as sweet as you please, but she weren’t touched, as she liked to call me and Daddy and Will. Will, he could remember all the tiny bits of happenings, like me. My sister Kim has an awful memory, or at least she used to. But she’s still holding on to that time she says I stole her man right out from under her nose. And Elmira and Donna was always just regular run-of-the-mill folks when I knowed them.
Daddy? He died of a brain aneurism. Mother died of a broken heart. Last time I heard, Will was somewhere in Kansas. Kim’s still got herself all twisted around the past. Donna’s disappeared. And Elmira was the youngest of all of us. I’d been out of the house a while by the time she was growed. She was a roller derby queen until she got into dancing at them clubs. Garnet, she called herself. When she got too old, she used to clean the mirrors, and then she made costumes for the younger dancers. I don’t know what she could have made them out of—dental floss, I guess. Seems silly since what little clothes there wore they took of anyways.
The day you mother was born is not something I like to think about. The pain was pink and red. And I didn’t have nobody there in the waiting room. I called out for Mother plenty.
Well, people didn’t look kindly at that type of thing, having babies with no husband. I can still remember Mother and Daddy’s faces when I told them about your mother, though I didn’t know she was to be mother then. It was January 1, 1946. There was still wet rings on the coffee table from the party glasses the night before. “Mother, I have something I need to say,” I said. We was sitting on the tan couch. Its fabric was woven, tweed like. “I’m gonna have a baby,” I said. And she looked at the walls for a minute, and then her whole face crumpled in on itself like a piece of wrapping paper. And that danged couch was cutting into the back of my legs, and my shoulder was all wet from Mother’s tears. And when I finally could get up, I had little pink lines on my calves for hours and hours. And that’s all I want to say about that.
The whole family’s whispered about me for years. But it ain’t Christian to judge people. “Tramp,” my sister said once to my face. It was the Christmas of 1943. She was hot because she’d brought home John to meet the folks but all he wanted was to fool around with me by the apple tree out back. I couldn’t help that this boy preferred me. He stood real tall and blue in his Navy uniform. He had soft hands. Kim was prettier than me but so serious. She’d found Jesus sitting in a pew at church. That’s just what she said—seed him sitting there next to her. Said he told her to be good and obey all God’s laws. From then on she was all about “Thou Shalt Nots” and “Don’ts.” Jesus never said such things to me. Course, I didn’t listen much to Him neither.
No, that soldier weren’t Grandpa Jack. I met Grandpa when we was living with Mrs. Klein. Jack was a good man, and one of them is hard to find. Our wedding was at the courthouse. August 4, 1950. The sky was blue as a robin’s egg, and so was the dress I wore. “You are now husband and wife,” the judge said. And I looked all around that room—at the mint green walls and the rows and rows of wooden chairs and the little blue piece of felt the judge put his gavel on. I knowed I’d remember it all. And on that day, I wanted to.
Jack was a real good father, ‘specially considering your mother weren’t his. She always loved him better than me. And he doted on Jack Junior. Jack kept them, you know, when I went away for the first time to Briarhill. Men didn’t take on such work back then.
One of them places for crazy people. I had what they call a nervous breakdown. I spent the first week alone in my room trying to forget. Everything was black and white. And I wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t because all them memories showed up in my dreams. But after the shock therapy, that got better.
Just a little tingle. Then the whole world got fuzzy for a while, and I could finally think about the future without the past worming its way in. There was a cool, blue world inside my head, like a big spring. And I could sit in that blue water and think about anything I wanted. It was something, while it lasted. Then it stopped working all together. Then I had to go back home.
Every good thing leaves.
Like Jack. Like Jack Junior’s crash. Like your mother. Or 11 March 1958. I was walking down the aisle at the grocery when it happened. One day I was going to have a baby, then I weren’t. It don’t do to talk about such things. My second husband, Bernard, left me some money. And I get Henry, my third husband’s, pension. So I get by. Now I just try to outrun the memories and jumble them all up in my brain. Up is down and down is up. That’s what life’s all about--staying one step ahead of the blackness.
I tried movies for a while, drug myself to every matinee for a whole year. I hid malted balls and cokes in my handbag. On February 8 I seed Steve McQueen drive his orange sports car through the air. I hoped I could make new memories with movies, nice ones, exciting ones. Ones I could pull out and smile over. I wanted the movies to mix with the movie memories in my head, but they never felt right. I thought about that Steve McQueen movie over and over again after Jack Junior’s crash.
I’m not sure I’d like to talk about that.
It was a little MG, flame orange. A convertible. No roof at all. If there had been, things might have been different.
November 7, 1975. I was ironing a shirt for Bernard when I got the call. The sky was a real ugly shade of pink, and I got so upset I scorched a hole clean through that shirt, right on the chest, over the heart. Ran right into a brick wall, they said. Didn’t even slow down any. At his funeral he wore a gray pinstripe suit that belonged to his daddy. The pants was too long, but no one noticed. I wanted his casket open so I could see his face. They worked for hours wiring his skull back together. And they put him in a wig. That’s the only think that looked dead about him, that silly little mouse-brown wig.
Yes, but not enough. And then there was that whole thing with your mother.
She told me I didn’t do right by her. Stood over there by that very window and wagged her finger at me, “You’re a horrible mother” she screamed. That was October 20, 1980. She had on a red blouse with white flowers, a pink sweater, and a pair of blue jeans. Your mother’s tears was clear. They weren’t no color at all. I’d always thought tears was blue.
I still don’t know. It don’t matter no more, I guess.
Now, you don’t have to go so soon. Ain’t there nothing else you’d like to know?
My best and my worst memory is the same--June 6, 1932. I was seven years old when I first seed it. I was standing outside by the garage right under the old locust tree and my dress was sticking to my legs on account of the damp air and all them mountains was staring at me. But when I looked up the sky, it was the prettiest shade of blue. No clouds. Just a whole world of blue. And I could pretend I was flying up into it, away from Mother and Daddy’s shouting. Away from the rocks and the scratchy dress. I was all-over happy. And it was because of that blue. I’ve been searching for it my whole life. But now I think all that looking was a waste of time. There won’t never be another sky like that one, won’t be another blue exactly that color.