Everything I know of us was contained in a photograph with small cursive, curled edges and yellows imbalanced. A baby and an old woman. Not frail, no—she was all arms and breasts. Farm stock but elegant. I’m hoisted up on her hip. The back said 1976, the last year she would know. The roses were still there, and the sun made her squint.
I remember how the sun felt on my fat cheek, how it filtered through the green furrows of the patio’s roof. I remember her perfume, like cloves and dust. Her wooden jewelry and winged glasses. Easter, or Fourth of July—I could be four months old or seven, I can’t guess.
Her name was Alyce. The newspaper spelled it wrong. A few sentences about her death, followed by the report of a neighborhood tire slashing.
My sister, pink and screaming, was named after her, and we moved into the house that waited for her to return to. The nubby couch became ours, the china and silver, the roses that never bloomed again. It was a head-on collision—a drunk and my great-grandmother and tule fog. My mother demonstrated years later with wooden blocks. You wouldn’t remember her, she said.
When I was five, I stood in front of the classroom with a chiming, pink ball as big as my head, meant for rolling across a kitchen floor. I said it was a gift from my great-grandmother, who got it in Hawaii, and that I had been there with her, in Hawaii, on her hip, before she died. I remembered Hawaii as green-lit, a patio with coral roses and bags of briquettes. My teacher warned my mother that I was a storyteller.
Leg-length from the nubby couch was the coffee table I kept my feet on when I watched cartoons. Its drawer had TV Guides, thimbles, a half-finished cross-stitch with the same chicks and bears she put on my Christmas stocking, the one I had come home from the hospital swaddled in, sometime in the middle of January’s dismal comedown.
Christmas Eve, the stocking hung above my incubator. A nurse fed me from a bottle. It may have been my mother’s milk. Christmas Eve, in another hospital, my great-grandfather slipped away. The cancer had spread from his lungs to his brain. Alyce was widowed to the music of sleigh-bells and beeping monitors. Christmas Eve, my mother slept in a bed bought with money from a Hallmark card. She felt the absence of my movements, a still and silent room under her hand. Though I do not remember this Christmas Eve, I recall five days earlier, clearly, sounds getting louder as I moved through tight darkness to sudden light.
My great-grandparents had a collection of old bottles in the backyard. They were chalky with dust and cobwebs and evaporated rainwater. Most of them were green. White rays angled off their necks, making shapes on the fence.
On the other side of the fence lived a teenaged boy. We called him the naked man because he often stood in the middle of the cul-de-sac with no clothes on. Two uniformed women sat in our living room and asked us questions. My mother kept the curtains drawn.
These days, I tack the Christmas stocking to the wall because I don’t have a fireplace. It is big enough to put a newborn baby in. It gets filled with candy and small soaps. What I want is a cushion-cut peridot to keep in the depression of my throat. A shard of thick bottle to make ghostlets on my lover’s chest.
When my mother brought me home from the hospital, she didn’t know who I was. She stayed in the brand-new bed, crying, as my father measured inseams at the menswear store. She said when she looked at me, she could only think how easy it would be to kill me. I don’t remember the time at the shopping mall, when she gripped the wall to stop herself from pushing me off the balcony. I don’t remember the time she painted the ceiling with Hershey’s syrup. I don’t remember her screaming that evil had possessed her, screaming don’t remember.
The California sun was hard and white—made cracks in the concrete, lines in my mother’s face. It over-exposed, made chaos like bugs under a kicked rock. My Hawaii had feathered edges and dappled surfaces. Its hues were plump. I used to find a sturdy branch in our backyard elm to straddle, a way to revisit. From there, I could see my mother kneeled in the dirt with pruning shears, my sister playing with her dolls. I could hear a plane, the sprinkler’s refrain, the naked man’s Led Zeppelin.
I surround myself with translucent green. Silver-specked begonias near every window, the long limbs of devil’s ivy strung around the ceiling. I collect glass in shades of emerald and olive—faceted candy dishes and dimpled goblets, seven-ounce 7up bottles rimmed with rust. I want all my sunlight to reach me green, as the breath of leaf.
In a previous bedroom, I hung green Christmas lights above my floor mattress. They provided the calm of understory, of underwater. Now I have the afternoon off-cooling of a window tree, its whispering shimmy, its squirrels and jays.
I remember the gunshots waking me. My mother in a white nightgown running to protect me. I remember the flashing lights, the sirens. The naked man had aimed at his father, the bullet skimming past his head. It went through my parents’ bedroom window and lodged into the closet door. I never saw the naked man again, but I went to stare at the bullet hole every day.
Long before her skull was crushed, before the smear of headlights on the 1, before her widowness, I think Alyce wore costume baubles and bejeweled combs and red on her lips. Drove through marine layer to Volpi’s because they still served in a back room where men like my great-grandfather smoked and rolled and shuffled, hotskinned boatmen from the Azores, from Sicily. She drank neat to feel the warm loosening of the pictureless memories that make us smell our own skin.
Like me, Alyce was born under the archer’s stars, in the first cold month, everything crystalline.
I arrived two minutes after midnight, during the full moon, months early. I looked like a kidney. That day, my mother had wanted her aunts to come see the tree, a small, proud thing, tinseled and angel-topped. She put packaged cookies on a plate and then sat on the vacuum-banded carpet, looking for something else to clean in her tiny apartment. She didn’t know yet the placenta had detached, that the world inside her was collapsing.
The 1 snakes through swells of green hills, brights on, brights off. It drops into poolings of thick sea air, rendering my eyes useless. I’ve slammed on my brakes for a scrap of mist I mistook for a woman. The last time I took that stretch, I was with my mother. We didn’t say anything as we passed the spot of the accident. We were headed to the old ranch, the place my great-grandfather grew up. When we got to the gate, I opened it as my mother drove forward. Cows hung their heads through the fence, watching.
The house had become a fleshless thing, all perpendicular lines of light and shadow. Through the kitchen floor a tree grew, disrupting the geometry with unruly green. This was the last place Alyce had been, forty years before. The stubborn beams had not yet been stripped of their gypsum and lead, made fluorescent with lichen, cradling bird’s nests in their bony angles.
I asked my mother if she remembered the teacher calling me a liar. If she remembered the pink ball, the naked man, the bullet hole, the green bottles.
It’s all so fuzzy, she said.
I remember, crystal clear, Hawaii. The sound of it on Alyce’s mouth as I kept her wooden necklace in mine. I remember that green afternoon.
But why Hawaii, I asked.
Her brother lived there. She went often.
This information, a key I hadn’t expected to fit, didn’t care if it fit, didn’t care if a key or not a key or delusion.
But you couldn’t possibly remember, my mother said.
The photograph no longer exists. No photographs exist. Not china and silver, nor the letter my mother wrote me when I was in the incubator, words replacing the scent and warmth we couldn’t give each other. When my mother’s house burned down, all the green around it turned black.
Karleigh Frisbie Brogan holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Portland State University. A native of Santa Rosa, California, she currently lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and house plants. Her work appears in Lana Turner, NAILED, Water-Stone Review, Zaum, and elsewhere.