If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir

If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir

by Jessica Hendry Nelson

Paperback(First Trade Paper Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


If Only You People Could Follow Directions is a spellbinding debut that reimagines the memoir in Jessica Hendry Nelson’s thoroughly original voice. In these linked essays, Nelson’s fearless writing and hypnotic storytelling centers on the story of three people: Nelson’s mother Susan, her brother Eric, and Jessica herself. These three characters are deeply bound to one another, not just by the usual ties of blood and family, but also by a mother’s drive to keep her children safe in the midst of chaos. The book begins with Nelson’s childhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia and chronicles her father’s addiction and death, her brother’s battle with drugs and mental illness, her own efforts to find and maintain stability, and her mother’s exquisite power, grief, and self-destruction in the face of such complicated family dynamics. Each of the book’s chapters concerns a different relationship—friends, lovers, and strangers are all at play—but at its heart the book is about family, the ties that bind, enrich, and betray us, and how one young woman sought to rise above her perilous surroundings.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619024670
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 01/13/2015
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 7.70(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jessica Hendry Nelson earned a BA in English from the University of New Hampshire and an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Alligator Juniper, Fringe, and PANK. A chapter from this book, "The Whitest Winter Light," is a Notable essay in Best American Essays 2012. Currently, she is the senior nonfiction editor of The Fiddleback, a literary journal, and lives in Colchester, VT.

Read an Excerpt



A FEW DAYS after our father is arrested near our home outside of Philadelphia, I find a Bible in the nightstand drawer. This is our third night in this New Jersey Shore motel room and we are getting restless. We are tired and stoned and our mother sleeps on the other twin bed with her mouth open, snoring loudly. I am fifteen, Eric is thirteen, and we are at home wherever we land, the three of us, together. Here, the window shades are heavy and purple and dust crowds a slip of light. I am sleepless and giddy. Eric opens the Bible. Many of the paragraphs are underlined and with such force that the pages are ripped and stained ink blue. This is a dark and quiet hour and there is flickering from a muted television. Eric whispers passages to me and we laugh like much younger children. We don't read Bibles, don't need Bibles, don't feel anything but the pulse of the weed and a wet wind that blows past the blinds. I touch my brother's cheek to see if his skin is as hot as it looks, pinprick red, as if all of his blood is being lured to the surface by the damp heat in this room. My brother's complexion is darker than mine anyway, kissed by the whisper of Eastern European roots, while I am like my father, fair-haired and pig-belly pink.

This room, it hums with the promise of rain.

"Here," I say, "feel my head," and he does, squinting at me and deciding we feel just the same.

I know suddenly we will paint our toenails black and my brother says, "All right then, do mine."

When we were little kids, our father often hooked a tiny sailboat to the back of his truck and drove two hours to Chesapeake Bay. It was a Sunfish with a bright-yellow hull. He taught us to sail around the peninsula while my mother fished from shore. She waved at us every time we turned around, her cigarette bouncing between her fingers like a rock 'n' roll song. The Sunfish didn't last long, rusting away in the backyard like some overgrown lawn ornament, so my father's old- money parents started chartering boats for the whole family. We sailed all over the Chesapeake Bay for weeks at a time, eating the thick stew that my grandmother would thaw on an electric burner each night. I remember I wore the same white dress every day because I liked the way it blew in the wind when I stood on the bow of the boat. When the warm air whipped through my hair and up my thighs, I felt my first shudders of romance. Often, I would kneel down and wrap my arms tightly around my knees until I felt something like leeches, swollen and slick with blood, slide down my thighs, my crooked little toes. The harder I squeezed, the more powerful I felt. I thought myself a renegade, which is a word I'd read in Anne of Green Gables and took to mean something akin to royalty, though I wasn't sure how. Also, I liked the feel of the letters in my mouth, the rolling consonants and the hard suffix. Ade, blade, swayed. I could rhyme for hours, watching the tops of my feet change colors in the sun.

What a stark contrast to our lives back home, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where everything looked like the dirty underside of a couch cushion and evenings were spent in the back room of Skip's, the bar around the corner. Not that we minded Skip's much. At least we were allowed bowls of peanuts and oversweet Shirley Temples. Occasionally, Dad would hand Eric and me a fistful of quarters for the pool table, which we didn't know how to play, but we enjoyed making up our own games anyway. We'd sit cross-legged on top of the green felt and let our knees clack together, a sound like hollowed-out chicken bones. First person to fit a whole pool ball into his or her mouth won. Or we'd pretend the blue chalk was war paint and I'd draw arrows across my brother's smooth forehead, cartoon skulls on his cheeks. Later, we'd squeeze into the cab of Dad's pickup truck and wend our way home, six blocks at five miles per hour, reeking of cigarette smoke and spearmint gum and belting "American Pie." Our mother's parents paid the rent for the small, two-bedroom ranch house we lived in, all brick and linoleum and brown shag carpets. It was half an hour from Philadelphia and five minutes from them. We lived at the bottom of the street, the least affluent part of the neighborhood, which grew increasingly middle class as you ascended the hill. Our neighbors were mechanics, grocery store clerks, barbers, construction workers, bartenders. They were mostly white. There was a lot of stuff everywhere; I remember that. Old cars on jacks, broken toys and lawn ornaments, tires and tools and creaky swing sets. I could see the city skyline when it was clear. I would run around barefoot all day.

We ate lots of stew on those sailboats on the bay, and we listened to the tapes that my father liked best. Bonnie Raitt, Led Zeppelin, the Indigo Girls. We crabbed in the marshes, and I remember my mother being dismayed by how much Eric and I enjoyed dropping crabs into boiling water, my brother poking at them with a wooden spoon as they tried to escape, while I screamed and giggled and kicked at the stove like a maniac. In the mornings, my father let us steer the boat while he trimmed the sails, ducking beneath the boom and quickly wrapping the rope around his arm. He moved fluidly, assuredly, manipulating the huge Island Packet as if tuning a violin.

When my father was still young and whip-smart and licking his wounds with alcohol, his parents paid a large sum of money so that he could join a crew from New England that sailed down to the islands of the Bahamas. He'd been a solemn boy, too much in his head, and he'd felt a nameless pain he was too proud to mention. It was grotesque, like something left out to rot, and so he kept this hazy sorrow to himself and used booze to dress it up for a day, a night, a few goddamn hours. This was before the days of AA, of higher powers and twelve steps and endless Styrofoam cups of coffee grinds and cigarette butts. Before babies and their shit-heavy diapers, wet mouths, and oversized heads. Before talk therapy. Before asbestos removal jobs and wrecked cars. Nights so hot and black they burned like a solar eclipse through his insides. Before little league games and parent-teacher conferences. Before he fucked the three-hundred-pound housewife next door for a couple of Klonopin. Before she killed herself with the rest.

Before all that, I imagine him long-limbed and cherry red in the sun, tossing ropes to shore and tying his Boy Scout knots — a doomed, affable expression beneath curls of Nordic white hair. With his right hand he tosses the anchor into the water, feeling for the weight and dredge of the sand, the faintest vibration, the last job well done. He leans back against the mast and lights a cigarette and surveys this new velvet landscape, colors he hadn't imagined could be so saturated, and then tosses the pack to a friend.

It's March and we should be in school but we're not. This isn't unusual. Even though our father hasn't lived with us for years, my mother still thinks it best to take off every time he "falls off the wagon" and gets arrested, as if distance alone could protect us. This time it's drinking and driving and unpaid fines from previous arrests for drinking and driving. There were a couple of sober years, when Eric and I were in early elementary school. Since then, he's had at least two DUIs a year, and he cycles from jail to rehab to halfway house and back again. Occasionally, he'll manage a few sober months in a halfway house, and occasionally he'll stay with his mother in anticipation of getting his own place. During those months, there is lots of talk about the future, of our own bedrooms and weekends spent watching movies and skiing at the Pocono Mountains, but it never happens.

"Same old, same old," Eric sings, "woo woo woo."

The drive from Philadelphia to the Jersey Shore takes nearly two hours. We know it well; we do this at least twice a year.

Eric always falls asleep the moment we leave the driveway and wakes up, as if by instinct, the second we cross the bridge into Sea Isle City. Today when we arrive there aren't many fishermen — it's still too early in the season — but a few grizzled diehards lean heavily on the bridge's steel railings, hooking their lines with wet strips of haddock or hunks of clam. Or else they sit on overturned buckets with one hand on the rod, the other holding a sandwich made with white bread, and watch the tide turn. Eric and I always make a game out of who can spot the first catch, the angry curve of the flounder's belly like a silver scythe in the sun. There is something heroic about fishermen — all that faith in the dark.

The bridge trembles as we speed across it, the men frozen in their various postures; our car shoots into the sky.

We rent putt-putts, as Dad used to call them, every summer when we're down the Jersey Shore. That's what we say in Philly: not "at the Shore," but "down the Shore." They are tiny, sputtering things with single engines that just manage to get us from the dock on the bay over to the nearby marshes where fish are hiding in the grass roots. A home video features one of these early trips. My mother is doing her first "Voodoo Fisher-woman" routine for the camera — a subtle performance — her eyes squeezed shut, her lips pursed like a fish. Slowly and meditatively, she calls the fish to her line.

"Here, fishy fishy fishy," she whispers. "Here, fishy fishy."

My father laughs convulsively in the background, one hand on the engine, the other holding a can of Budweiser. Eric looks up at him and laughs, clearly more excited by his father's ebullience than his mother's performance. I smile girlishly from behind the camera before inexplicably holding up a peace sign in front of the lens, as if anticipating the brevity of these good times. All here together! I might be trying to say.

IN THE MOTEL room, we don't talk about where our father went or why. Because I don't know better, I envision the process of entering jail to be like checking into a hotel. I see my father walking up to the desk of his own accord and receiving a key to his room, following an old woman with puffy red hair down a dark hallway, and trailing his old corduroy suitcase behind him. Or maybe it is more like the rehabs we used to visit — large, empty lobbies and television sets that were always on mute. Outside, clusters of unshaven men in blue jeans and flannel shirts sit around picnic tables smoking and playing cards. It was at one of these rehabs that I learned how to play poker, the only card game I still play well.

The next morning we eat sticky buns on the beach and rinse caramel and shredded napkin from our fingers in the frigid water. All along the Jersey Shore it is overcast and chilly, but not yet raining. We watch the sandpipers chase a receding wave, ecstatically pecking at the sand until the tide turns, a deep breath, the next wave exhaling and tumbling after the birds. They skitter away in unison, legs straight as stilts. The planet's longest-running game of tag.

"We okay? Everyone okay?" She is checking, again.

We are still okay. Eric wants to go watch girls dance in bikinis. We heard on television that somewhere nearby MTV is taping its Spring Break Special. This is part of the reason we have come to Sea Isle rather than Ocean City, where we usually go. The other part has to do with unfamiliar terrain and liberation, our mother thinking the two identical. Eric is too young to get into the MTV dance party, he tells me later, but he will watch the girls through slats in a fence until a big man with an earpiece chases him away. Mom wants to read her book on a bench near the boardwalk, under the red and white Johnson's Popcorn awning. I tell her I'm going to the beach to do some homework. I am fifteen now, I argue, and can spend some time alone for christsake. She looks at me, tired, and nods. We are all tired. I take off down an alleyway to smoke cigarettes and search for reusable trash. I find an empty inkwell near a chain-link fence and consider it a good day. The bottle's opening looks like two hungry, porcelain lips and suggests an era I've never known but suddenly miss, like a phantom limb or an estranged twin.

Sea Isle looks like an abandoned circus; electric signs pulse into the fog like lighthouses. Old men huddle outside brick bars in twos and threes while cigarette smoke drifts out of open doorways into the morning. A spitting rain coats the sidewalk. I notice a storefront that reads We Sell Beer and Gold. Several blocks west, a cop slowly crosses the intersection on a black horse, the beast's tail whipping at low clouds as they turn down another alleyway and amble out of view. I'm sure I am losing my mind.

According to the local news, this is the first of many days of rain. Gutters churn. A pair of seagulls pick at the trash that is tossed out of curbside streams. We could drown in fog so thick. When I find Eric he is huddled behind an empty shake shack trying to light a joint with a pack of matches. He is hunched over and haggard-looking, like a bit of flotsam cast out from an errant tide. I don't ask about his missing shoe.

"Where's Mom?" he says, picking a loose pot leaf from his tongue.

He is crouched very low to the ground and in this position he resembles an old man. He is a pale kid, skinny and tall. Lately, the flush of adolescence has drained from his cheeks. Instead, gray pools of exhaustion settle beneath his eyes. His hair is always messy now, even when he tries to gel the bangs straight up into the air — as if he's in the habit of running into walls.

"I don't know. Probably trying to flirt her way on to MTV."

We are angry at her these days, though neither of us could say exactly why. Probably it is easier to beat up the parent who is close enough to field the blows. Last week she came home drunk at five o'clock in the afternoon and ordered us both to bed. It was the first time we'd ever seen her drunk, and we are hell-bent on never letting her forget it. There is only room for one addict in this family, and that position was filled years ago.

"I lost my shoe," Eric says.

"I see that."

"Hit?" He holds out the joint, a sloppy job that smokes too much on one side.

Eventually, a day will come when I realize with horror that I was the one to introduce my little brother to drugs — handing him his first joint at twelve, sneaking out with him in the midnight hours to take hits from a pipe made from an apple, heaving barrels of change to the local Coinstar to finance the evening's entertainment. But now, that day is still very far away. Now, we are still a team. He hasn't yet lost control and we can still distract ourselves with games of hide-and-seek, run-and- return, here-I-am-now-I'm-not.

"Nah," I say. "But can I have your other shoe since you don't really need it now?"

I've been thinking about his shoes a lot lately, real dark leather and long as platters, the shoelaces missing. I've considered adding them to my collection of planters made from old shoes, which are clustered on my windowsill. I felt the shoe pots added a real sense of irony to the space, and Mom agreed, until I planted yellow geraniums in her only red pumps. I'd been reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the shoe pots became my homage to the central metaphor, and also to Francie, who I imagined as my spirit sister. Our daddies even have the same name! I thought. Our daddies don't have jobs!

"A Geranium Grows in Funk," I wrote on an index card and taped it to the wall next to the window.

I once glued pieces of a broken mirror to the wall above my bed, the shards of glass positioned to look like an exploding heart. For weeks, I shuddered through dreams, tiny cuts forming down my abdomen, and woke up with pieces of glass in my hair. Eventually, I gave up and took it down. I inserted the shards into some of the dark earth in my shoe pots. In the winter light they look like melting glaciers.

MY BROTHER AND I walk down Ocean Avenue toward the boardwalk, Eric shoeless, both of us tiptoeing around broken bottles, paper bags, and chicken bones. I make him hold my hand, not because I am particularly fond of him, but because it looks to all the world like I have a boyfriend. And there is nothing I want more than to look like I have a boyfriend. A girl with backup. I have no idea how to relate to boys other than my brother, so a real boyfriend is out of the question. It would just be nice to look involved, like Carrie Kid and Chris Caruthers, who stumble down school hallways as if they're in a three-legged race. I am in love with both of them on different days.

We pass a man sitting inside a wooden hutch at the entrance to an empty parking lot. He doesn't lift his head as we shuffle by. He is reading a paperback that is swollen with moisture, the pages buckled like waves. He doesn't seem to notice the shutters banging in the wind, the warm rain sliding down the back of his neck.


Excerpted from "If Only You People Could Follow Directions"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Jessica Hendry Nelson.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: A Letter to Eric,
Here, Fishy Fishy,
Pretend We Fell Asleep,
The Whitest Winter Light,
The Present,
A Second of Startling Regret,
The Dollhouse,
Height of the Land,
She Feeds Them,
In New York,
If Only You People Could Follow Directions,
Notes on the Never Ending,
The End of the Earth,

Customer Reviews