A gathering of the family today without a death. A rare occurrence. Normally it is a loss that pulls our shortly-flung ranks back to a home base. Not today. Just hot dogs and hamburgers and my-how-you've-grown or my-how-you've-lost. There is always more exclamation at the loss. That is what we notice. We notice that M- arrives without kids or husband in tow, alone in her round, yellow car. The brakes squeak as she stops next to my grandfather's old truck. The angular bones of her face scrunch up. She juts when she speaks, each sentence a punch, a cut, a kick in your gut. Her hips have grown larger, I notice. I try to notice the putting on as well as the taking off. A small black ball pierces her lower lip. That's M-.
There's also LA-, J-, S-, and A-, younger than M- by five or six years. All of them mid-twenties. Most have metal in their faces and live among concrete and glass. Pierced eyebrows and tongues. Splashes of color on calves, shoulders. They seem wild to me, that bunch, too open in their ways. I'm more pulled into myself, like an elbow on a cold day. I recall them all as toddlers that followed me around. Kids with locked knees, dumb with their motions, shy. S- fell asleep in my lap once, now she lurches about, making loud mention of her butt. They all seem so far away even though they are right here, glinting under the Texas sun.
My grandmother: a prune in a lawn chair. She makes these little laughs around her cigarette, the smoke oozing out between her fingers. With each of her laughs, she deflates. I never recall her thick with laughter, but I watch her now in her chair in front of the box fan, bored and somewhat puzzled by the children. She shrinks each time she exhales. Perhaps laughter is like an ovarian egg bundle-one only has so many to last a life and near the end the tank hollows.
There's also T-, who has HIV. Thin and brown. Shaved head. He wears a Bluetooth phone all the time on his ear. Looks like a Borg, only not bad-ass. He's constantly moving. Never sits. He smiles, but it's a motion like kissing a pane of glass. T- is an empty room, his movement an attempt to discover the edge of himself.
Others as well, parents of the metaled-out kids: J- and N- and D-, the last two my mother's sisters. My brother with his shorts on, black socks and balding head. Three or four more that I don't know, others pulled in by the youth. They move fast, as if they expect things to happen now. Perhaps it does for them. I suppose all the glass they live around reflects the world back to them, throws out the images they crave. I imagine M- there catching an image and stamping it to her lower back like a tramp. I reach down and fill my palm with dirt. M- looks at me with a face sour as a young raisin. I let the dust fall through my fingers. She doesn't understand. She flings herself at bright reflections in the glass, sees another lonely person there clamoring toward her.
Most of them suck on their cigarettes and sweat. T- walks around spraying Listerine on the tables to keep the flies away. He insists it works, but we all flick our hands about our faces, watch the flies launch from our hot dogs.
My grandmother's house. Thick with rock. Chalky with grout. It's stout, her house, the trim great inches of brooding wood, joined with angular black nails. She recently had everything redone. New paint. New appliances. A brutal ripping of memories from the house. Hardly anything of my grandfather left in here. One picture there, smallish, above the square TV that's barely watched. She chose colors that he wouldn't like, fast colors one finds curved around soda cans. New soft furniture, round pillows with tassels. The main room has been rearranged around the empty spot where my grandfather normally lounged. His chair is gone, of course, but there is obviously an area there, left wide and open, though his presence has been hushed elsewhere. Each seat in the room faces that empty gap.
The sun doesn't find its way easy in this house. At our house a couple of hours away, wasps sneak in through open doors and then fling themselves at whatever light they can sense, understanding that a motion toward that is possible escape. It's the same here with shadow. Shadow strikes out, arches along the wall searching for cracks and open spaces to flood; it mutes the color that's been flung everywhere. None of the plants in the house are real now that he's gone.
I sit here in the living room after lunch with my daughter. Everyone else playing horseshoes or wrestling. They have a love within them, these kids. They demonstrate it through collisions and wedgies. My daughter is ten months old and tired. I rock her and hum. I hum row row row your boat and twinkle twinkle little star. Slowly, she loosens in my arms. Like a bolt stubborn with rust, she seeks to hold her position to consciousness, but once broken free, she spirals off and is gone. People used to being around babies have a fragile motion when they see one asleep. The tattooed and spangled kids bustle about as normal, sheepishly offer apologies when she stirs. I wave them away. I want them out, so my daughter and I can sit quietly in the room with my grandfather's absence, a man she never met. She curls her little fingers around my thumb and vibrates from something she's dreaming. I wonder if it's that empty space. Has it reached into her? It felt like a startle, that shake she had, the stiffening of her right leg. That's when she grabbed my thumb.
I'm here, I whisper to her. Her hair stands straight out like she's been electrified. The spot on the top of her skull pulses gently. I'm here, I whisper again. She settles more deeply against me. I hold her, wrap what's strong about me around her. I close my eyes to shut out that empty spot where he should be. If I could breathe hard enough without waking her, I think that my breath would slide around the spot-or perhaps get sucked in. The room is leveraged around that loss. All the newness in this house is hollowed. M- feels it too. The loss camps with her; it's why she's scrunched up and sprung out. She hides in the reflections of other things, unable to discern the source of light. They all do. With my eyes closed, it feels as if the absence in the room is larger than it really is, that if I were to draw in too deep a breath, what the room lacks would loom into me.
Brad D. Green lives in North Texas with his wife and two children. He nurtures a strong dislike for skunks. Other journals kind enough to publish him are Johnny America, Side of Grits, The Shine Journal, and Grasslands Review. He'd be happy if you take a gander at his blog, Elevate the Ordinary.