Staying at their mother’s empty home, Alani attempts to tie up the loose ends of their mother’s life while grappling with the painful memories that—in the face of their mother’s disease they’re terrified to lose. Meanwhile, the memories inhabiting the house slowly grow animate, and the longer Alani is there, the longer they’re forced to confront the fact that any closure they hope to get from this homecoming will have to be manufactured.
This beautiful, tenderly written debut novel by Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers winner John Elizabeth Stintzi explores what haunts us most, bearing witness to grief over not only what is lost, but also what remains.
|Arsenal Pulp Press, Limited
|6.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering for it. You know?” I said nothing. “Well you know,” he said, impatiently, “why do people suffer? Maybe it’s better to do something to give it a reason, any reason.” James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues
When the doctor calls I’m standing in the kitchen in my little house in Minneapolis, drinking the grit-end of this morning’s coffee I’ve just microwaved, and as soon as the doctor says the words about Hedwig Baum about mother the girl who runs away comes back into my bones. She takes over like a wave of fear, or a surfer on the back of one. The first thing she does is put down the coffee and get me into the bedroom, to grab the old camera from its place atop the cabinet where I keep all my gear. As soon as my hands lift that old, coated brass machine, and as soon as she’s slung its strap around my neck something that I do most days, only without her—I know she’s built up too much momentum to stop. To stay.
This camera, this old Leica III, was her camera. Mother’s, the mother whose dementia the doctor is telling me has appeared to have taken completely her already dwindling capacity of speech. The dementia she’s been living with about half as long as the seventeen years she had with me. While the doctor talks into my ear the girl pulls the piece of luggage out from under the bed, luggage that I don’t think I’ve used since Genny and I went to Chicago, in 2007, for a talk I was giving on the body as an indirect object in figure-based art. The talk that came after I’d watched the I-35W bridge collapse into the Mississippi from the bridge’s east twin, watching it and Genny’s trust for engineering and the infrastructure and our world fall out of sight. Luggage I’d not used since I tried to take her away from here to try and pull her out from that.
“We’ve been keeping an eye on her,” the doctor says, as the packing continues, “and she hasn’t spoken as far as we can tell in roughly a week. Her responsiveness to being addressed has also decreased. She has had accidents. Well, more.”
This is the first time the running girl has come to usurp my body since I ran away to Hamburg, Germany in 1991 to escape Genny and the relationship I’d thought I was in, to try and get away from the me that I’d been living as, which had suddenly felt like a lie. The first time the running girl ever took over completely was when I ran away from mother, from Winnipeg, with Genny when I was seventeen. In the middle of the night, having removed the window of my bedroom with a pry bar. That was the last time I was there, in Winnipeg almost thirty years ago.
That night was the first time this girl grabbed the camera. The first time the girl got her way. Mother was not speaking then, either. But for a different reason.
I’m sure that I’ve said things to the doctor, I’m sure I’ve been asking questions, for clarifications. I’m sure some part of me has, but I haven’t been there to take note of them. The longer the conversation goes on the more I’ve been following the hand, the more I’ve been using my legs to move the body through the house to grab the things the running girl’s hands wanted to grab. Bedroom to bathroom to bedroom to kitchen to bedroom to living room to bedroom. I cannot figure out what to focus on: the hands grabbing from my gear cabinet a lens for my Hasselblad and my old copy of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses I stole from my high school library, or the doctor who is talking about a recent study about similar aphasia in patients with Alzheimers. I focus on neither and fade into the relative peace, focusing instead on the breath in the body, until eventually the luggage is zipped up, ready, and I’m standing over it with my phone still pressed to the side of my face. I listen to the doctor but there’s nothing, just silence, because the phone call has already ended in one way or another without my realizing. I pull my phone from my ear and the side of my face is left with a rectangle of sweat.
I text Karen to tell her I won’t be able to make it to the board meeting of the collective. That I have to go out of town. When she calls me a minute later, as I knew she would, I’m stuffing the luggage into the back of my little car. I stop to stare down at the vibrating phone in my hand until it stops. Until Karen goes to voicemail. Then I close the trunk and climb in.
I know that Karen won’t call again, that she’s going to rush to my house, to try and catch me, to try and get more information from me, but as I turn the car on I know there’s nothing anyone could do to stop me. The studio is a seventeen minute drive, in good traffic. I’ll be heading in the opposite direction.
As I pull my car from the curb, not knowing the next time I’ll see this little house of mine, but not really caring about that house at all, I do look across the street to Genny’s house. I tried not to look, every molecule I own was instructed not to look because I knew how much that would hurt, and I knew that there was nothing I could do to stop that hurt from coming for me and for Genny both. She won’t understand and she will also understand too much. I don’t call her to let her know that I’m leaving, don’t call her to let her know I’m going back to Winnipeg for the first time since we ran away together. I know that if I called her to explain before I’d made it far enough from the city to turn back, I’d never be able to make it. And I have to. Some ancient signal has been sent up to rally me back. Some signal that has told me that the road to Winnipeg, to mother, will be too overgrown if I stay way any longer than this moment. The call from the doctor has proven that it has just turned from late to too-late, but if I’m going to close any of the windows to my past, if I’m going to fight against the drafts, I have to go back right away. To make it to mother, to that city. To pretend I’ve come back just in the knick of time.
The running girl has a history of doing things far too late, of running from one burning building into another’s sparking start.
As I drive north out of the city, toward Winnipeg, I try not to think about Genny, sitting unbeknownst in her office and evaluating plans for this highway or that bridge while I drive. I fail. I throw my phone into the back seat out of reach as I look at the clock and imagine her getting a call from Karen at this moment, as Karen drives toward the empty parking space in front of my house, Karen letting her know that her partner has ran away. Suddenly. Again.
While I drive I keep telling myself not to look back at the phone and by the time I fail that, too, I’m too close to Winnipeg to turn the car around. This is happening. Just north of Fargo, parked at a gas station, I finally turn around and pick up the phone from the seat. The sky is dark, spitting softly on my car. There’s a voicemail waiting for me from Genny, six missed calls and a string of texts. It takes all that I have to text Genny back:
—I’ll call you tomorrow
Then, I turn off the phone. I don’t need it for directions, for getting anywhere. I’ve already memorized the route from all the times I stared at the map and traced my finger along the here-to-there. From all the times I put the addresses into Google Maps, just to see, just to kill some time. Years and years of that, zooming in on my phone and using the farthest tip of my body to trail all those highways north. Transcribing it into me, those directions.
But before I pull out of the gas station I look down at myself, bound up and packed, black jeans and a dark tee. I get out and go into the trunk and pull out a dress, a bra, and my makeup bag and I ball it all up and go into the station’s bathroom and make myself that girl.
The Memory Palace
You close your eyes and turn around and there it stands, two stories tall, board and batten siding painted white too-many-years ago: your memory palace. The cement walkway, with weeds growing through cracks from so many winter thaws, snakes up to the grey-blue door. A big, portrait window stares out from the first floor, stares from the living room. Two small windows glare down at you from the floor above. Sometimes, when you turn around to face the palace you are outside the old, picket fence, where the metal mailbox hangs, but most of the time the fence is not there. So you can walk right up to the door without opening a gate that you never really knew closed. So you can go up the single step onto the landing, open the door, and go up the half step inside.
The rest of the street, the rest of the city the world is not here. To make the palace work, you have to approach it excised from its contexts. Alone, as the house never has been.
Without distractions, without other places to go instead, this is the only place there is. There is only weather if you choose to have it, but there is always wind. Sometimes blowing you toward the palace, sometimes blowing you away. On the lawn, the grass is long and wispy, moving with the wind like tendrils. Like a pit of snakes. When you approach the palace, you do not step off the cement path, and on the path, you try and avoid every single crack. You fail.
Inside the palace should you make it there is everything in your life that you need to remember.
It has been twenty-seven years since I last drove across the border between Manitoba and Minnesota.
It has been twenty-seven years since I stepped on the sidewalks in Wolseley. In downtown. Since I stood on the bank of the Assiniboine River. Or the Red River. Or at the Forks, where the two rivers merge.
It has been twenty-seven years since I stood on the landing of the house, put my key in the door since that key lifted the pins in that lock and turned.
It has been twenty-seven years since I saw mother’s chest rise and fall, in breath. Since I could not feel my fingers while I hung my coat in the hall.
It has been twenty-eight years since I looked up at that Winnipeg sky, in the middle of the night, laying on Tom’s lawn beside him, trying to find stars.
I have carried that key for mother’s house with me every day, since the night in August when I last walked away from that house without locking the door behind me. I’ve carried it every day for twenty-seven years.
It has been thirty-two years since I heard mother laugh, thirty years since I heard her cry horrible, deep, unhelpful sobs and thirty years since I told her that I loved her and she mumbled incoherently into my ear.
Fifteen years ago, Genny and I had a connecting flight in the Winnipeg airport, when coming back from her father’s wedding in Edmonton. But we didn’t leave the airport. We waited in the airport for six whole hours, watching tired but happy people happy to be home filing off flight after flight.
The little brass-colored key to her house, for twenty-seven years, has sat next to the keys of apartments, offices, studios, and cars. Each of the other keys have changed, been replaced, each one but hers. It dangles beside the wheel. Clinking, likely, only too quiet to hear as I drive.
It has been four days since I saw a photograph of mother. Three weeks since I’d last called the home to get updates on mother who’d still been speaking, somewhat. Eight years since she was first diagnosed with dementia. Three years since I coordinated with Dorothea, the day-nurse I’d hired about eight years ago, to move mother to the home. After she’d had an accident, that we agreed to dub an accident, and had to be placed in a controlled environment.
One year since I started needing to take out loans.
It has been twenty-seven years, twenty-seven years since I drove on this highway, the I-29. Only the last time, I was going south, instead of north. It’s dark and I’m passing Grand Forks and I can almost see behind the headlights I pass in the dark rain: them. Genny Ford and I: Alani Baum. Two kids escaping two untenable worlds. The static-y radio playing over the speaker, from a station back in Fargo, could well be the same exact program from that night.
If I don’t listen closely, I know that I can convince myself of that. And behind their eyes Alani’s in the car that passes by? The running girl. Inching away with a determination to stay away, but all the while starting the long, long odyssey that I’m completing.
Before I got the call from the doctor, my life had gotten into a steady routine. I woke up, walked across the street from Genny’s little house to mine, made myself coffee, answered emails, went to teach, or office hours, or to work on an exhibit at the collective’s gallery, then came home and walked back across the street to Genny’s. After years of chaos, I’d finally felt like I’d made living into a machine. I took a step every day, at a set pace. I paid bills on time. I submitted grant applications weeks before they were due. I didn’t miss the meetings with S.K. to review hir thesis portfolio and the long essay ze was writing to accompany it. I didn’t run to my office to find hir sitting outside my office’s door, frustrated-yet-doe-eyed, like I had throughout the first half of the fall semester sitting under my nameplate that read MX. A. BAUM forty minutes after I was supposed to be there. Ess began arriving to find my office door open, with me inside it, sitting, ready to talk to hir about the folder of prints clamped under hir tattooed arm.
I wasn’t myself, is what I mean. I’d become a clearer cut version of myself. I’d figured out how to best appear ordered, found a way to have my body become a thing I could hide in again. I was stowed away. Exiled. My photography was suffering, by which I mean that between teaching two courses and advising S.K. and my work at the collective: I wasn’t doing it. My photography suffered because I didn’t have any me to give, to pour into its form.
Genny started distrusting it, I think—the new clockwork of me. The building up of the spring’s tension, clicking along to the time. She had never known me to be like that, not for so long.
But at the same time, it felt like a sort of vacation, too. As if my body was getting ready, I think, for something to happen. One of those things that you know is coming without actually knowing it, without actually telling yourself that you know it. Something that no matter how long you crouch and set your hands on the rails, you can’t actually sense that the train is coming.
But the whole time, some part of you knows that it is.
Then it hits you.
Static overtakes the voices on the Fargo station, a few miles south of the border, and I switch through the stations, searching for another to the south of me. I listen long enough to hear someone say where they are from, switching quickly away from any that hit me instantly as Canadian. When the station tells me it’s in Thief River Falls, I keep it there. The signal has already started to lose itself to the buzz, but I can hear them. I can make the words out. A woman talks about how the rain is probably going to continue in northern Minnesota for the next week.
The whole drive, I’ve been doing this. Changing to radio stations to the south of me mostly talk radio and sticking them out until they fade to static, switching from stations in Sioux Falls to St Cloud to Wahpeton to Fargo to now Thief River Falls. I want to feel like this is happening slower than it is. I want time to slow down, to convince myself that I have more time to get ready to see mother. I’m using the rain as an excuse to drive five miles under the speed limit.
At the border checkpoint in Pembina, I inch forward behind two SUVs and a pickup. When my turn comes, I roll down the window, letting in cool, wet air that chills me in the dress. A young man with pointy, blonde hair looks down at me sternly from his booth as I hand him my Canadian passport, my German passport safe in the glove compartment, because both had been packed. The agent squints at the photo, looking back and forth from it to me.
“Where do you live, ma’am?”
“Minneapolis. I’m from Winnipeg.”
“What brings you to Canada?”
He scans my passport into the computer and looks down at me, taps it against his desk under the window, glances in the back of the car. Softens a little.
“Cool camera you’ve got there. Some sort of special occasion?”
“Just haven’t been back in a while,” I say, suddenly feeling the weight of mother’s camera hanging against my belly.
“Busy busy busy,” he says, tapping my passport. “Any drugs or alcohol?”
He stops tapping my passport, hands it down to me, eyes already on the car behind me.
“Have a good night.”
As I pull away, I realize the packer has shifted from under the jeans and binder I’d taken off in Fargo and sits in plain view on the passenger seat. I pick it up with one hand and stuff it down a leg of the jeans.
S.K. came to my office hours the second week of the first of my classes ze’d taken. The class was a studio course on portrait photography, and it was Ess’ first year in the program. My office hours were 2:00 to 4:00, and I showed up at 3:50. Ze was sitting on the floor in front of my door, on hir phone, fidgeting, working frantic on it, and nearly fell over and hit hir head on the wall when ze noticed me come around the corner. As I apologized for being late, Ess talked over me, telling me about how much ze liked our class, and cutting right to the chase before I could even sit down at my cluttered desk: “could you be willing to be my advisor for my thesis?”
I smiled at hir. I’d felt paternal about Ess as soon as I’d read out the names for attendance and ze said: “Present, but my name is actually S.K.! I don’t go by that. People,” ze said, turning side to side, to contain the rest of the class “just call me Ess.” I’d felt paternal about hir again when ze that second class—specified hir pronouns.
“I’m only visiting faculty, so I don’t advise very often,” I said. “And I don’t really know your work yet.”
As I said that, ze put hir hands on the desk. Gripping it hard. It wasn’t until then I noticed all the little tattoos ze had, dip and poke, hardly visible on hir dark skin. I never asked if ze gave them to hirself. “I know. I know. But I know your work. I’ve Googled you so much.
I stayed up all night looking at stuff. I tried to listen to lectures online. Your work is about bodies and mental health. Depression. Like in Shavasana ” I put my hands up, as if to slow Ess down a little, while actually hoping to stop hir in hir tracks. Ze’d not yet disclosed to me that ze was bipolar, but I could feel the manic energy. Ze continued hir sentence as I talked, ending only as ze hit the end.
“Okay. I’ll talk to the department head, and make sure they’re fine with it. Send me your portfolio, and a little write-up about what you have in mind for your project, okay?”
Ze jumped up from the chair, pulled hir backpack from hir back and pulled out a folder of photographs printed out on cheap printer paper. Nearly slammed it on my desk from hir fervor. I smiled at Ess, and picked it up. Ze stood staring at the folder.
“I’m not going to look at this now. My office hours are up. I’ll email the head, okay? I’ll let you know in class.”
Ze stood there for a moment before realizing that I was asking hir to leave. Ze threw hir backpack back over hir shoulder, and beamed as ze backed out of the office. As I heard Ess make hir way down the hall I got up and went to the door and called out:
“My work, it isn’t about mental health! It’s about memory.”
From down the hall, at the stairs, I heard hir call back: “Whats the diff?”
Sometimes when you come to your memory palace, the grass has grown over the cement path to the door, writhing and hungry, and you can’t bring yourself to take the first step.
Sometimes, the path is there, and you walk down it—staring at your feet, to try and avoid stepping on the cracks and after a long time you stop and look up and realize that the path has become a circle on the front lawn, with no exit and no entrance. So you have no choice but to open your eyes. But most of the time, you do make it to the door, and laid out in front of the door like a welcome mat is a frame that holds a photograph. Inside is the earliest memory you have. Depending on the day, this memory changes. Before you open the door, you look down at it, and try your hardest to remember and relive whatever it is that you see. To pick up and lower that memory into the rushing water of the tour you’re about to take, like an anchor.
Sometimes you get to the door and you don’t look down. You forget or refuse to and you just open the door. Sometimes you look down and the frame is empty, or gone. Sometimes when you don’t look you step on the frame and break the glass on your bare feet, tracking bloody footprints into the palace.
But when it is there, after you look down at it and live through the memory for a moment, you open the door, and as you take that long first stride up over the jamb over the memory and into the palace you try not to imagine the glass of the frame being cracked from previous failures at recalling it.
It’s important to remember that every time you get here should feel like the first time.
I’m about an hour south of Winnipeg by the time I switch the radio to a Canadian station. Outside the car, between the little towns I pass through, the night slithers across the prairies unhindered. The water in the ditches keeps getting higher the further north I go, my headlights bouncing off the surfaces in the dark. Floodwaters following me north, because it has been raining in Manitoba and northern Minnesota pretty steadily for the last few days. I know that it has because my weather app has three locations set: Minneapolis, Hamburg, and Winnipeg, and for the last few days there has been a small animation of rain on Winnipeg.
The rain is heavy and slow at once, and I can see no further than twenty feet in front of my headlights. Because of the darkness, I can’t see behind me at all. All I have is forward. A weatherman on the radio talks about the seasonal flooding that Manitoba is slipping into.
I grow tired of the talk, the monotony of the punctuation, so I switch to FM and stop at a Winnipeg station playing rock music. As I get closer to the city, the music gets crisper. As the blurry road signs show fewer and fewer kilometers between myself and the city, the clock reads 1:24. By the end of it, the trip will have taken about nine hours instead of the estimated seven.
Eventually, the city comes. I reach the perimeter highway and merge into an anticlimax that takes my breath. I turn onto the loop, counterclockwise, and the city is little other than a short glow in the leftwards rain. I keep going, trying not to look left, until I hit a red light for my turn onto St. Mary’s road which will take me to the heart of the city. As I move into the turning lane I can feel my momentum begin to wane. I am so tired. The turn signal is clicking.
The rain is battering the roof. The whole highway is for me and half-a-handful of others.
As I wait for the light to change, as the turn signal bores through me, I scan radio stations and land on a new one, playing a song by the Hip.
My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in?
New Orleans is sinking man and I don’t wanna swim
I don’t teach full-time or tenure track because I don’t have any kind of degree. When I was thirty I took a GED night class for a few months and passed the exam to close that conversation, but otherwise I never went to school. The department head had hired me as a visiting professor after I’d gotten a lot of attention locally, and more than I cared for nationally. A visiting professor who refused to stop visiting, who could run back to where they came from any time.
I didn’t want to be full-time. I had the collective, I had Genny, I had grants. I got by and lived lightly. My cupboards were bare but for whiskey and coffee beans. My fridge was empty but for beer, creamer, and shelves of 35mm, 120mm, and large format film. I took a lot of freelance jobs. I shot unconventional weddings unconventionally. I held a nominal salary as the executive director of the collective.
I had no interest in going to school for photography, or art history, or anything like that. I didn’t care to learn the history of it. I learned as I went, running into a colleague in the lounge who had a pile of photography books on the table and flipping through them. Picking up some famous names I’d not known before Weegee, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe and striking up conversations with those same colleagues, often as they were trying to take breaks, scribbling down book titles to search the library for later. Delving deep into each from there. The only course I sat in on at the university was a seminar on Ovid that was taught by Dr. Hanigan, walking into the little lecture hall with my worn, stolen copy—the wrong translation—of The Metamorphoses under my arm.
My knowledge of the history of photography has mostly come from when I stumbled upon it. The only historically famous photographer I really knew when I was hired to teach was Ansel Adams, because mother hung a print of his in the hallway. It was the only picture hung in the whole house. The moody landscape “Tetons and the Snake River.” Though I didn’t know it was his until I ran away to Hamburg, Germany and met Erwin Egger. A photographer who held Adams especially that print in high esteem.
I didn’t really have an interest in seeing how photography was done before. I got that from Wegman, from Mann, from my colleagues, from the students in my classes. From Erwin Egger and mother. I got as much as I needed from that. I got the scraps of history of technique like gossip. They carried history forth with them, corrupting it, bending it into things that worked better for their purposes. I learned everything I needed from that.
When I get to the door of the memory palace, to start trying to remember everything, the earliest thing I can remember the beginning that I find in the frame is often a sample from several kinds of memories.
Most often it’s a memory of myself taking some definitive childlike actions: like digging holes with a gardening trowel in the backyard of what would become our house. Other times, it’s a moment of fear: like sitting in my mother’s arms, asking her where the woman we lived with, and who mother was hired to care for Ilsa is now that she has died. Sometimes it’s the moment I came home from my first day of school crying to mother because my teacher had informed me I was exactly a girl.
Sometimes the earliest memory has nothing to do with me, has nothing to do with a moment, but is simply the image of something I saw at some point, or something outline that my mind sampled or boiled down into a single, invented instance: mother doing yoga in her studio, mother taking photographs of happy couples in the living room. Sometimes it’s a memory of being in a place, is the feeling of sitting in that living room, of sitting in the hall outside the closed darkroom, of being beside a river, each without an event. Without any story to let the memory move.
Sometimes I get to the door of the memory palace and the memory is a memory from far later in my life, like the memory of the moment Genny found me upside down and stuck in a child’s swing in a playground in winter. Never the moment I got stuck in that swing, or from the minutes after, but the moment she showed up seemingly from nowhere and pulled me free. Our first real moment together.
Sometimes, also, the memory is even later: me removing my bedroom’s second floor window with a pry bar and climbing out of the house on a rope made of old clothes and bedsheets.
But sometimes when I sit down to remember it all, when I close my eyes and go to the door of the memory palace, I realize that my life never began at all. That the door into the palace is not there. Or that I am outside the picket fence, and the fence is fifty feet high and impermeable, with a huge NO TRESPASSING sign painted in letters taller than me. The lid of the metal mailbox opening and closing high above, laughing me out of my head.
As the light turns green for my turn, I don’t turn, but merge right and keep moving north on the perimeter to orbit the city. The weight of the day, of the distance, is crashing into me and I tell myself that I want to try and find a weaker spot to break in through, though I know that if I can make it all the way around the city, I’ll drive all the way back to Minneapolis.
I drive around Transcona, cross the fat Red River I can’t see in the dark and the rain, see the blinking lights of the last planes of the night drooping onto the tarmac of the airport. I keep driving around the city until in the dark of the forward ahead of me—two-thirds of the way through completing the circuit—I can imagine what I’m going to pass. Blurred orbs rise into my head, refracting through the rain, the huge stadium lights.
The Assiniboia Downs.
I slam the brakes, and thankfully the highway here is dead. Ahead of me, I know there’s an exit, that I can turn there without getting close enough to see the Downs which of course would not be illuminated but instead I find a dirt access over the median where police cars probably station themselves. I break the law because it’s closer.
I’m afraid that if I get any closer than I need to if I get close to that huge mud circle where the horses race I will be devoured by it. I’m not ready for that. I can barely make it as is. So I drive across the lumpy access and retrace my way along the perimeter, no longer fighting against the stream of time, and as soon as I get to the exit that I know will take me down toward mother in the home in Kildonan—not to her house in Wolseley—I take it. Slowly, after a few more turns, the home a smaller building than I’d imagined shows up just beyond the intersection. The building is barely lit. There are bricks, windows, people inside I cannot see. Mother. The light at the intersection is red. Visiting hours are still at least five hours off but I’ll wait in the parking lot, in my car. I will see mother first before I go back to that house. Her house. Our house. The memory palace.
S.K. took nearly all of my courses, after I agreed to advise hir. Ess was starting hir thesis project earlier than most students—the first semester—and often made huge bursts of messy progress while ze was manic. Sometimes, though, ze would miss a week or two of classes because ze wasn’t able to get out of bed.
Ess’ original project was about growing up queer and black on the outskirts of a small town south of Kansas City, Missouri called Peculiar. Hir project titled: Outside Peculiar was largely landscape photos from the area surrounding Peculiar, with self portraits interrupting them either in parts or in whole. Many of the landscapes were several photos roughly stitched together using Photoshop, because the camera that Ess used was the camera on hir old, cracked, Samsung cellphone. “A queer choice” Ess called it, by which ze meant a choice based out of necessity as well as against photography’s normativity, against the fetishization of the megapixel and its conflation with “quality.”
In the pitch for the project at the beginning of our work together, S.K. wrote: “These open spaces and small towns in America are not often thought as being black or queer. They are where the white and the cis and the straight are assumed to flourish. And they do. They are crabgrass in the spaces. They overtake. But if you stop and look at the soil you see they are not the only weeds that grow.”
I wake up in my car in the parking lot outside the home, mother’s Leica was still around my neck, its old Summar lens folded into the body and capped and gut filled with the roll of film I’d been failing to fill for the last two months. Film that’s empty because nothing of note passed by me. No idea. No image. No body or variation in my psyche that needed to be pasted onto the reactive plastic. Nothing came to me but the old, thick fog of dissociation, the feeling that I am not myself, but that if I were I’d rather be dead.
My neck itches at the weight of the old leather strap. My packer and binder and clothes sit beside me in the passenger seat, tangled. When I parked here last night, I didn’t make a pillow out of anything, I just leaned back my seat and closed my eyes and eventually opened them to today rising into the gray sky.
Morning in this new place clutched by the same old place.
It isn’t raining right now, but it will. I open the door and stand beside the car, stretching, breathing out my popping muscles, shaking out my stiff legs, straightening the dress that feels wrong. Exhausted. Terrified.
All I want to do is give up, is to get back into my car and drive away, is to turn on my phone and text Genny just kidding! be back soon but I know that I won’t be able to make it.
I’ll just slow down and turn around again, get back here and turn around again, again and again. Slowly making it through the labyrinth of back and forth before my inertia surrenders to here. To her.
As I walk towards the home the time between myself and mother shrinks. Her camera hangs at my belly like a pit. The door opens and there’s a nurse at a desk, in scrubs that are not supposed to look like scrubs, in the same way this home is not supposed to look like a hospital even though it is. “I’m here to see my mother? Hedwig Baum?”
“Oh, of course,” she says, standing up behind the desk and handing me a clipboard where visitors sign-in. She’s short, a good foot shorter than me, hardly taller now than she was sitting down. “She woke up a little early, but she’s usually sharpest a little after waking,” she says while I finish writing a name that doesn’t quite fit over me Allie Baum and put the clipboard down. I follow her down the hall. She walks so slowly.
“How long has it been since you visited, again?” She asks.
“About a year or so.” “Well.” she says, quiet, as we inch along a hallway of closed doors and cold tiles. “She’s changed some since then, as you know. She has a lot more difficulty hearing, especially lately, so you will want to talk a little loud. But you will want to use a conversational tone. She responds very well to tone. We also cut her hair, so don’t be too alarmed. She was having trouble with it being so long. Getting it tangled up in things, tying it up in knots, trying to braid it. Things like that.” She stops, looks up at me. Smiles in a way that is supposed to feel warm. I don’t tell her that mother had never once braided her hair. “It’s a lot more manageable now.”
The door is open a crack, and beside the door is an aging piece of card stock printed with her name. Hedwig Baum.
“Thank you,” I say, trying to place a smile between us as I stare over her to the door. I start to move around her toward it.
“Would you like me to come in with you? Help you? I’ve worked with Hedwig a long time, and I know all the little tricks to get her to notice me.”
I grab the door handle before the girl starts to panic, tries to tell my body to run away.
“I’m fine,” I say, forgiving her duty with a half wave with my free hand. “I still remember all the tricks.”
I push in.
When I think about mother, the first thing I think about is her body. Her long bright hair brighter than mine small chested, a dim scar on her belly from where I blew through her. Tall. As much as I try not to, I can see her in my length in the mirror. Which is why I don’t own a full-length mirror. Which is why I avoid them. Why I rarely try clothes on at the store.
When I think of her body in motion, I imagine her body doing yoga. I imagine it through the bars of the vent between her studio and my bedroom. After her body, I remember the feeling of her presence, the gravity she held in our creaky house. The gravity of the noise and the silence both, depending on the year, the month, the day. I remember being pulled back to that house after those long expeditions at night with Tom. Every time every time but once finding her there. Waiting up for me. Every time not a single word between us.
What I haven’t been remembering is the sound of her voice. I haven’t been remembering it because I’ve been trying not to. It’s easier to believe she never said a word, that she was mute, than thinking of her falling in and out of her muteness. First because of the electric storm of depression. Now because her brain has lost so much of its charge.
But as I’ve gotten closer to her, I’ve heard her a little. Not the words themselves, but her voice stacking upon itself in an unintelligible cacophony. Into static.
I walk into mother’s room and there she is: a silhouette against the gray light of the window. She’s sitting in a chair in a baby blue blouse and her hair is very short “Manageable.” Her back is to me. I don’t know if she’s actually looking out the window, and if she is, if anything is sticking. I’ve never seen her stare out a window from behind before, I only ever saw her staring out a window toward me at night waiting for me to come home. My eyes adjust from the dimness of the hall. I squint. I try to make distinction between her skin and the light. The door behind me closes with a click. I approach, slowly, counting down the tiles between us. As I get closer the unfolding of the forced perspective minimizes her. She’s so small. Her shoulders are like wire clothes hangers, her wrists like thumbs wrapped in pink wrinkled leather. Her scarred hands are two collections of raw bubbled webs. They’re wriggling on her lap. From my perspective, they’re the only part of her that’s moving. When I stand over her I can see that she’s wearing the restraining belt that keeps her from getting out of the chair. The doctor’s voice from the call comes to me: “She forgets she can’t walk anymore and has tried too often, so we’ve started to buckle her in.”
I stand over her for a while, taking her in, fascinated and hurt. Time has brittled her. Twenty-seven years away. All those years gone, turning her long hair blank white, letting it be chopped off for convenience, to make her seem more put together. Letting all that hair be thrown away. No strand of hair on her head was there ten years ago. I imagine the nurse at the desk, armed with a scissor and grasping those long, drawn out strings of mother’s dead cells thousands of feet of graveyards of her. I imagine her clipping it all off.
I look down at mother and I can smell her, that clean, hospital soap smell that lacks any breadth of humanity. I could move my hand four inches and touch her shoulder. Just four inches and I can break through decades of gone.
I don’t move. I stand in the soft shadow of her and I forget completely what she used to smell like. I’m muddled to how precisely her hair used to tumble down her back. Am suddenly unsure what color her hair used to be. Standing near her like this, silent, I hear my heart beat and realize the cacophony of her voice is gone.
Mother’s old camera hangs down off my neck. In the perfect dark of the camera’s head the film stands dormant. The camera’s eye jammed shut, capped and collapsed into the body. The camera is a promise weighing down at my belly, the thin leather straps digging into the sides of my breasts. As I breathe in the camera gets closer to mother. As I breathe out it gets closer to me.
I step back, quietly even though I know she can’t hear me. I’ll come back tomorrow. Someone will. I turn and walk back toward the door and as I go I can sort of remember her again, mumbling in her bed when I was fourteen and she was doped up, trying to say something incoherent after being brought back from Selkirk. As I get near the door to her room I remember my little hand buried in her tight palm, remember walking back from the liquor store with an empty wine box on my head. As I get back into the hall I remember the smell, just a little, of chemicals and sweat and her when she came out of the darkroom, exhausted but sometimes smiling. The darkroom where faces, bodies, and angles all began to appear on wet blank paper.
I get to the nurse’s desk and I somehow tell her, “Mother is asleep right now,” and make for the door. Mother is asleep, her eyes open. She’s enjoying letting the day into her head. As I step out of the door into the cool air, I remember when the car stopped outside of our house and they carried mother in that morning, the man from the mental health centre in Selkirk and my best friend Tom, to the bed where she would mumble. I remember the heat of the sun on my skin as I stood there on the lawn and watched. I wasn’t wearing shoes. The dew was nearly gone but the grass was still cool. You could smell it. Mother’s hands were limp and one of her slippers sat empty on the sidewalk.
The light rising in the light gray east is a false prophet. I get back into the car. My bones fit back into the lumps of the seat better than they fit my body while mother’s camera floats on the waves of my uneven breathing. As I put the keys in the ignition I remember the man handing me mother’s keys and a bag of her personal effects—her purse, her Nikon with her fast 85mm lens, her small coat—after he’d finished helping Tom get her into her bed upstairs, telling me that she should not drive, but that someone should go and pick up her car from the Downs. Then, he handed me a bag filled with her medication.
I turn the ignition on and crank the heat and drive, slowly, out of the lot and toward her house, away from the home where mother is unaware that I just stood behind her, that I was only inches away from her. I pull away from the home, south, toward the place I grew up and ran from, the dark for which my light-thirsty stem grew wide, seeking the warmth of the sun.
The horizon to the southeast of the city is dark and tall and endless. Widening. The water levels of the Red and the Assiniboine are high enough, but more rain is still coming to drown us out.
History is, too.