Saturday, October 2, 2010

Saturday Musings, 02 October 2010

Good morning,

The pleasant chill of the room settles on my skin. Tingling slashes a line across my back, nudging, insistent. Winter claims you, it cackles: my first autumn shingles outbreak, a legacy from my son's childhood during which we contracted chicken pox together. I freely acknowledge that he made the better patient.

I heft my coffee cup, feeling the comfort of its weight, pulling a long draw of the dark liquid inside. The white cat, old, complaining, sneaks onto the dining room table, sensing that I will soon sink into some mysterious reverie and forget to scold her. My routines set the pace of the sentient beings in this household.

Last weekend I stood shoulder to shoulder with my sister, flanked by two of my brothers, in the parking lot of the church where my uncle's funeral Mass had just been said. My nephew captured the moment with my Blackberry, and I sent it around the world to every Corley sibling and uploaded it to Facebook. Ah, the rapidity with which we travel, a friend once remarked, upon learning that I had started my day in St. Louis, spent several hours testifying in Jefferson City, and ended with dinner on Kansas City's Country Club Plaza. That occurred in the 1970's, when a day trip such as I had taken still seemed onerous. Thirty years later, the picture transmitted from my phone reached one sister in Clinton, Missouri; another in Guatemala, and made it to the world at large before we left the church parking lot.

I leaned against the car window as my companion drove to the cemetery for the burial, wedged between my brother's Jeep and an old Impala, flashers and lights engaged, bright orange funeral sticker in the window. I drifted, sleepy, sad; and thought about my uncle: the quick flash of his smile; the deep, sweet crinkles next to his eyes; the cheerful tilt of his face. In the chaos of my childhood, Uncle Joe was a hero -- quiet, unassuming, steadfast.

My memories transport me to a simpler time -- a summer long ago, before I understood the ways of the world, both wondrous and wicked. One summer in between, when my brother Mark and I spent two weeks at Uncle Joe's home, safe in the simple section of the county where he had built a house for my mother's sister Joyce, with whom he ultimately raised nine children. In the long, cool expanse of their yard, we formed alliances and ran bases; we hoisted ourselves into the lower bows of trees and dangled in the night air; we threw ourselves into the passing wind, laughing, joyous, unbridled. No one screamed at us; no one shattered dishes against the walls of the kitchen; no one staggered, or collapsed, stinking of beer and too many cigarettes smoked in the stale confines of a small, crowded bar.

One oppressively hot afternoon, we languished, bored of pursuits that had initially thrilled us. My brother idly tossed a hard, unripe crab apple back and forth, from hand to hand. A flash crossed his face -- a look with which I was quite familiar. I know, he said. Let's have a contest! I shuddered, hung back, all too familiar with my brother's contests. But my cousins rose to the bait. A pitching contest! Let's see who can throw crab apples the farthest!

I admitted that it seemed harmless. We gathered the hard little nuggets of fruit that had fallen to the ground, making stockpiles. For an hour or so, we chucked them against trees and bushes, backing farther away each time we threw The person who could get the farthest back without missing the selected target claimed victory. Our ammunition thudded against trees and the side of outbuildings with a satisfying thwack, pulverized by the hardest throws, bouncing wildly when tossed by the likes of my lily-white, spastic hands.

Soon enough, Mark bored of throwing crab apples at inanimate, unmoving objects. He scouted for stray animals, but the heat had driven even the wild cats which lived along the roadside to seek the dark depths of uncut bushes. Glancing outward, to the street, Mark called softly, Passenger’s window, blue Buick, east bound.

The rest of us stood still behind him. He raised his arm and paused, before he let the crab apple fly, anticipating the quick crack of the dense fruit hitting the glass, the startled look of the occupant preceding the blur of blue as the car would move beyond our uncle's house and continue its travels.

I glanced at my brother, whose eyes were locked on his target, whose ears were tuned for the sharp sound, whose face held the eager thirst to be declared the winner at this game of pop-the-car. Without flinching, gauging his timing and aim, Mark threw with a snapping, sure motion, then grinned without taking his eyes from the car, waiting for the sound of his bullet hitting glass.

He had not anticipated that the passenger’s window would be open.

We heard the woman's yelp and saw the car jerk to a stop. Mark, with the quickest reflexes, turned and ran toward the back of the yard, followed by the other kids who fled after him with the speed of guilt. But with my crippled legs, I could not run, and even so, I froze. Thus was I caught, and thus was I pulled to the porch by the woman's angry husband and presented to my uncle, who had just gotten home from his job at the Fischer auto body plant. The man demanded an apology, which I whispered to him, head bowed, eyes on the stoop. My uncle also apologized, more loudly than I had, and with a resounding note in his voice that promised retribution. The man glanced at my face but I could not meet his eyes.

After the man left, pulling away from the curb with a backwards, disgusted glare, Uncle Joe summoned the other kids from the yard where they had hidden. We stood in a forlorn, repentant row on the kitchen floor. Considering, my uncle declared that we would forfeit dessert and spend the next day stripping the yard of its blanket of fallen crab apples and black walnuts.

We ate dinner in silence, broken only by soft requests for butter, or salt, or pepper, or more food. We listened to my aunt's gentle conversation about her day. Afterwards, we drifted to our respective sleeping quarters, finding unobtrusive pursuits with which we could occupy the last hours of evening without getting into further trouble. Uncle Joe relaxed on the couch, quietly playing his harmonica.

In the top bunk in my cousin Theresa's bedroom, I waited. It would happen soon enough, I knew. A heavy step in the hall. The door, banging open, rattling the pictures on the walls. The fierce look. The big hand, grabbing, pulling. The belt, slashing and relentless.

Music continued to drift from the living room. Lulled by soothing tones, I slept. When I awakened, hours later, sweaty and stiff, still in my jeans on the top of the covers, the house had been darkened for night. No sound broke its stillness.Then came my first moment of reckoning. At age thirteen, alone, in the quiet of my aunt and uncle's home, I realized with a cold tremor, followed by a long torrent of truth that poured over me like a river of lava, that nothing more had happened. Nothing more would happen. My uncle had not come into our room to slash and scar, and I suddenly realized that he would not. Here was a father that did not beat his children.

Years later, I stood on the uneven ground of a cemetery in North St. Louis County and listened to an Army honor guard play taps for my uncle. With the gentle press of my companion's hand in the small of my back, my own hand outstretched to soothe a weeping cousin, I closed my eyes. The haunting notes of Taps filled the air, but what I heard was the sound of my uncle, sitting in the darkened living room, playing his harmonica, while a bunch of silly kids quietly read, and whispered, and fell into a summer sleep, under his unflagging protection.

The black of late night has yielded to the pale, promising blue of an autumn morning. A half cup of coffee grows cold beside me. I hear the stead thump of the dog's tail, and from somewhere above me, the tinny sound of my radio alarm clock. I will rise, and stretch, and, after a few minutes, I will shake my hands with a sharp, sweet snap, and start my day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.