Kathy Conde’s fiction has appeared in print and online at CutThroat: A Journal of the Arts, South Dakota Review, Underground Voices, Word Riot, and others. She has recently won prizes and scholarships from Crab Orchard Review, Salem International Literary Awards, Good Housekeeping, Writing by Writers, and the Aspen Writers' Foundation. She earned an MFA at Naropa University and is past fiction editor for Bombay Gin, Naropa’s literary magazine. She lives in Colorado with her husband and son.
THIS IS THE PLACE WHERE IT ALL BREAKS DOWN:
A FAMILY ALPHABET
2nd Prize in the 2014 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
We’re a bunch of addicts and co-dependent lunatics, God bless us, but we love each other. Used to be you get us all together and there would be excitement in the air—you couldn’t predict what was going to happen. Who could hit the lowest bottom? My parents didn’t touch a drop, but my younger siblings and I were competitive about it. Being the addict was cooler than being the one affected by the addict.
When I was a kid, I went camping with a friend and her family. I noticed right away how they hugged and kissed each other. When one of them got mad, the other got mad back. They were not running for cover. Their eyes were not glazing over. No one reached for a belt or a bottle. They just yelled. And then they were done.
Don’t ask, burp, call for help, disagree, enter a room too quickly, frown, gripe, hiccup, interfere, jump up and down, know too much, look pitiful, make noise, need, open your mouth, pout, question, reason, slurp, talk back, utter a word, vibrate, wail, yell, zip too loudly.
I had a recurring dream when I was little that my mother was a monster chasing me around and around the sofa. She was always about to catch me but never did. It was exhausting.
I would get a buzz from any kind of speed I could get my hands on. Despite the teeth-grinding and nose-running and babble, I adored the way it felt. At school they called me Fast Rita.
When there was a moon I would go out. White light filtered through the curtains, kept me steady as I waited for everyone to fall asleep. I had to wait hours to be sure. I was the oldest of five and shared a room with my sister, Angel. I always knew when she was asleep. I could hear her breathing from the other side of the room.
The top step always creaked. I learned this the first time and froze, didn’t move for a full five minutes. Now I stepped over it. I could feel the sleeping breath of each person as I floated down the stairs.
I turned the knob with exquisite slowness. The moon was calling me, promising breath in a chest not crushed. This meant more to me than any consequence.
Wet skin, warm asphalt, stolen cars, cigarettes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, tongue after tongue, semen, sweat, dripping magnolias, humid stars, Johnny Walker Red, crickets, scraped knees, honeysuckle, escape.
We lived in a middle-class American neighborhood we thought constituted the central reality of the universe. The walls were papered with black and white geometric patterns and lion heads. Each bedroom had a phone shaped like food. There was orange shag carpet in the den and the TV was always on. We watched Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best in the afternoons. Mom made sure the pantry was stocked with cupcakes, chicken noodle soup, and potato chips.
- bodily organs; viscera
- the guts
- the part least known, most to be trusted
After my parents’ divorce, I was living out of a truck in Wyoming. Our brother, Paul, was an addict and was getting married. We were all together in Georgia for the event, and the photographer arranged us like a chorus line in front of the wedding cake, Mom with her five kids. There would be a separate shot with Dad.
The wedding was at St. John’s. Mom worked there and was a member. The Episcopalians were tolerant of us. The priest was divorced and remarried and understood the importance of a glass of wine. The guests were mostly Mom’s friends, including many members of the congregation. They looked on, smiling, when Paul couldn’t get the vows right.
Angel was a bridesmaid at the wedding. The only one of us kids who did not do drugs or drink, she had no buffer against the alcoholic chaos, so she had started smoking cigarettes. I saw her behind the church, lighting up. She looked like a cherub on fire in her poofy pink dress.
Mom and I were putting away chairs in the parish hall after the guests had all had punch and cleared out, when the choir director walked in and pulled out a joint.
“Hey, girls,” he said. “How about a little red bud?”
“What?” my mom said. “Here?”
Oh my god, my mother knew what red bud was.
“No, of course not,” the choir director said. “In the kitchen.”
I went with them, feeling like my mother was someone I had just met. She had always been into strict rule enforcement, laying down the rules herself as if she’d pulled them from a burning bush. She used to go through my closet and find pot and have talks with me about what I was doing to my brain. Maybe she was feeling wild after her divorce.
I took small tokes, thinking this might seem weirder if the dope was good.
knowing who you are
I was oblivious to the edges. I could go from flying high, knowing where I was, to black-out drunk without seeing it coming. There was little distinction between sleep and hangover. I often mistook myself for others or others for me.
We went to the post-reception party at Mom’s house, the house where I grew up and where Mom still lived with Angel, nineteen, David, fifteen, and Shanna, twelve. When I walked in the door, the pot smoke was thick.
David, leaning on the wall, said, “Rita, you see my new Camaro in the driveway? That baby will do eighty-five in three seconds.”
I said, “Don’t you have to be sixteen?”
“Who’s gonna stop me?” He seemed to be asking if I was going to try. It was hard to believe I had carried him around on my hip for the first few years of his life.
I got to the hall and there was Dad knocking on the bathroom door. He was there for the party. Angel told me whenever he came over he acted like it was still his place. He had a beer in his hand and he was weaving back and forth. As long as I’d known them, my parents had both been strict teetotalers, surrounded on all sides of the genealogical tree by addicts and alcoholics. This made them very tense. It was good to see them lighten up.
I went back to the living room to see Mom on the couch with Paul and some of his friends. She was holding her breath.
Yes, it’s true. I want to control you. I’m tired of denying it. I want to control you. I want to control anyone within a hundred yards of me, like that one who keeps yakking over there. I want to control everyone I pass when I’m driving, the slow ones in front of me, those speedy ones coming up from behind. I want to control the ones I see on TV, especially on the news. I want to control the tanks that point their guns at children. I want to control the soldiers inside the tanks, control so complete it’s like squashing them beneath my thumb. I want to control my thumb. I want to control how the toilet paper sits in the holder. I want it to roll off from the top, not from the bottom.
Eat. Medicate. Drink. Medicate. Sleep. Medicate. Walk. Medicate. Work. Medicate.
Angel has a good heart, and whenever she had a spare moment I know she wished our family were more like the ones she saw on TV. But most of the time she was busy with our younger brother and sister. Although they could feed themselves whenever they were hungry with handy packaged foods from the pantry, they had many needs.
David needed attention, which he demanded in unique ways. One time he pulled a shotgun on Angel’s boyfriend.
Shanna was constantly in need of being found, usually in apartments full of spaced-out young people who could afford good drugs.
- to be avoided
- capable of swarming; attracted to my brothers like bees to honey
Angel said, “What’s the deal with our brothers? Why can’t they just be normal like we are?”
She looked at me like I was going to know how to answer. I bit into my sandwich.
“Okay, you’re living in the back of a truck, maybe not so normal,” she said. “But at least you don’t have any guns in there.”
“You don’t, do you?”
“Well, there’s this little Beretta. For bears.”
She stared a minute, then handed me a picture and said, “Look at this wedding picture. You can’t even see Paul’s eyes. Why would he want to get high before his own wedding?”
I remembered my best friend’s wedding where she had everyone in the wedding party drop acid before the ceremony. If I were to guess, I would say it was because celebrating meant being stoned. I don’t think there was any actual irreverence intended.
“Why can’t we all be normal and nice to each other?” Angel said. “That’s how it should be.”
I had no answers. I avoided saying how I felt about the word “should.” She looked able to crush her cigarette out on the back of my hand if provoked.
Mom started dating a philosophical golf pro. After one glass of wine she would become very sweet. She doted on him and was coy. This was a new side of her.
Mom and her boyfriend invited me over for dinner. After dinner we drank William’s Pear Brandy. I was known for wild displays when drunk. I told them about a friend’s dog who barked incessantly and humped the leg of anyone who came into the yard. I got down on my hands and knees and barked, to show them the kind of barking I was talking about. Then I humped my mother’s leg.
Those were the good years. No one had died or gone to prison yet.
“The photos from Paul’s wedding? I don’t know,” Mom said. “That was fifteen years ago. There might be some in the boxes in my closet.”
In the boxes was a jumbled mix of photos from 1945 on. Distant past and recent past blended. No story line. Mom knew I was digging, so she offered, “We were happy.”
I came across a photo of me with David during his period off drugs, when he started a family and a business. The photo was taken after doctors in Spain thought I had breast cancer and put me on a long waiting list to be treated. David bought me a ticket to the States the next week for surgery.
When I went back to Spain, he called every few days to see how I was feeling.
Some years later, David threatened to kill some of our family members when they tried to intervene in his addiction.
“Take it easy,” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“A .44 magnum, that’s what.” His breathing was uneven. “They better not come near that door.”
I knew they were gathering outside his office because I had just gotten off the phone with Paul. David growled. I could hardly hold the phone and felt the miles between us like paralysis.
“C’mon, put the gun away. You don’t really want to shoot your own brother.”
“The hell I don’t.”
I’m writing on behalf of my brother, prisoner number GDC1079858. His sentencing is next week.
David was a good citizen before the meth. He created a company that provided jobs, coached little league, built a community playground, and was a loving father.
I believe he needs help for addiction, not prison time. Please have mercy.
Sincerely, Rita Limon
David went from jail to prison, fighting for his sanity, or losing it, while the rest of us walked around like refugees. He was in on drug related convictions and not for killing his brother—some fierce angel must have intervened that day.
- communicative; makes its presence known
- reliable; always sickens, maims, or kills
David arrives at the funeral service in florescent orange and with a prison guard escort. No cuffs. Dad lies in a coffin. David goes to the bathroom to change into slacks and shirt. We cram into a small sitting room, anxious for him to join us. It’s crowded in here. He opens the door, eyes veiled. He cracks a joke. His kids approach him slowly. They seem to be trying to decide if they should move like zombies, like the rest of us, or joke with him. The choices are agonizing. They do both.
We’re directed toward a larger room beside the chapel. They’re going to bring the coffin in for a viewing limited to immediate family. Dad’s immediate family is huge. We move down the hall like a herd of water buffalo. David is at the center of the herd. His clothes don’t seem to fit. My brother, who always looked so sharp in suit and tie, seems to be wearing someone else’s clothes.
The rest of us saw Dad’s body earlier. David approaches the coffin quickly, like someone who wants to add one last comment before the train pulls out. He sees Dad lying there like a fallen tree and receives the blow without falling down. The funeral director brings in a screen and sets it up in front of the coffin. He projects a video he made from photos we gave him yesterday. There’s Dad, dancing, laughing, eating, fishing, working.
During the service, the Baptist preacher takes the opportunity to do a little sales pitch for Jesus. He points out that we will all be dead someday and asks if we have secured our place in heaven. He booms, “Raise your hand if you’ve been saved.”
The women of the parish have cooked for us. We’ve just buried Dad and now we’re sitting down to five different kinds of meat, twelve vegetables, three breads, eight pies. The women serve us, care for us tenderly. David takes several helpings.
After we’ve eaten, the prison guard comes and whispers in David’s ear. David smiles, a wry smile, and goes to the bathroom to change back into orange. He comes out, makes a joke about his wardrobe, tells us goodbye.
I feel my feet in my shoes, the gap when he opens the door. Outside, the stars reel through waves of sky.
While David was in prison, the rest of us got clean and sober. He was the unknown. It was as if our family history of shock treatments and cold showers and ancestors passed out in public needed a place to land. As if he were holding the space for it. For us. In his sober years, his kindness and generosity had showed him capable of this.
Or was it just the power of meth?
I spent the last few nights imagining David with his face against the asphalt, head spinning, taste of rusted metal and tar. At this point, I think he can’t even feel his body, just a vague awareness inside his head that he’s still alive. Brief flicker of his other self wanting its life back, its kids, its relative freedom. I know finding his face on the asphalt when he wakes up only makes him hungrier. From prison he had told me, “Everybody who’s in here for meth wants only one thing when they get out.”
When he got out after a few years, got a job, and started seeing his kids, we all wanted to believe he could stay clean. I told myself his mangled language and buckled eyes were because of the years in prison. That would change anybody, wouldn’t it?
This is the place where it all breaks down, where nothing works any more: comfort food, shopping, mothering with a mission, concern for the earth.
I got the call last week.
“He lost his job. Passed out at his desk. Someone saw him yesterday face down in the Mini-mart parking lot.”
We’re not fooled by our own sobriety. The fallen is one of us.
I feel this incredible intimacy with asphalt. The stinking tar smell, the bitter echo in the mouth, the black ocean under the eye, the rumbling of cars.
©2015 Kathy Conde
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'Fishing the Wind': story by Kathy Conde at Underground Voices
'Movement': story by Kathy Conde at Word Riot