Autumn is my burden. My mornings come mid-afternoon. I crawl out of bed by the light between the purple velvet curtains from my failed second-marriage bedroom. I take a swig of vodka to wet my cracked lips, light a cigarette on the fumes of my next breath.
My eldest daughter is visiting. She got sick matching shots with me last night. I held her hair over the toilet I have not cleaned in months, surrounded by broken cakes of eyeshadow from my teenage years in the seventies, blue and mulberry with tiny sparkles, pigmented cotton swabs bent and broken. She staggered next door to my mother’s house where she is staying because she refuses to share my bed. She is too privy already, she says, to the things I still do with her father.
I water my plants, the only things I can manage to take care of these days. I pull my hair under a cap and pull on my soiled sneakers and cutoffs, despite the autumn chill. The trees have undressed themselves, carpeting the lawn in copper, ochre, and terra cotta. I grasp the rake and my pack of smokes, and start piling the leaves in the middle of the driveway. I drown them in gasoline, light a Marlboro 100 and toss the match into the heap.
I imagine my childhood home engulfed in fire, this farmhouse where I both began and ended up, moving first away, and then back in my fifties. My two girls barely speak to me. I toss my cigarette into the flames and slip on my work gloves, not minding the smoke in my face as I neaten the piles.
My daughter comes out on the porch with her midday coffee. She is tall and pale, like her father, in the sunlight. I prop my hand to my forehead, manage, “Morning. Feeling better?” and she nods in my direction, sips silently, needling me. My mother joins her on the porch. I look back down at the flames and rake more leaves into the crater in the center. The black smoke rises.
She Plays Loud
Everything is perfect at Mavis Farm until Uncle Ellis comes over, unshowered Uncle Ellis staggering down the hill to the farmhouse. Little Mara and Hilary stay every weekend with Pa and Granny at Mavis Farm, and they gleefully roam the perimeter, even cross the creek and trespass into Aunt Kay’s cornfield, but they are verboten from the hill where Uncle Ellis’s camper sits. Uncle Ellis cannot be trusted, they are told, not since that one time.
Mara sits on the piano bench in the evenings, practices her music. She plays loud when Uncle Ellis comes over to watch the country music videos on Saturday nights. He grabs the remote and turns up the television volume. Mara turns the fraying hymnal pages, props the book open with two other hymnals. She plays “Mansions Over the Hilltop.”
“Girl! Hey, girl!” Uncle Ellis yells over the ruckus, turning in the armchair with his supper plate on his lap. “Quit playing that piano!”
Mara finishes the hymn and flips through the pages. The country music blares throughout the house. Mara settles on “In the Garden,” and begins to play, slamming her fingers against the ivories.
Uncle Ellis turns around again. “Girl!”
Mara keeps playing. The TV speakers duel with the wooden hammers beating the strings. Alan Jackson versus Heavenly Highway Hymns.
Uncle Ellis clicks off the TV, flings the remote, and leaves his plate on the kitchen table on his way out the door. Granny fans the stink behind him, takes the plate and fork and dumps them into the trash. Mara places her thumb on middle C and stretches her pinky for the C one octave up. Someday her fingers will be able to reach.
My muddy shoes stamp more dirt into the floorboard. I scoot across crumpled Vantage cigarette packs on the bench seat of Pa’s pickup, smear my dirty palm prints on the windows. Pa, ignoring me, continues to light the dry, fallow field on fire with his Bic. He is smoking, as usual, as he sets aflame the shoulder-high brush near the back of his truck.
Usually Pa allows me to be underfoot, but today is different, and I am scared sober and slightly hurt. My hatred for being cooped up soon trumps my having been told to stay put. I press my nose to the glass and, with sheepish pecks on the window, campaign to be let out of the truck. The flames leap up, the wind blowing them towards the open tailgate.
The empty feed sacks back there will catch first, I think, and closer and closer the fire creeps. “Pa!” I shout, frantic, as the fire begins to inch toward the back tires. I catch a glimpse of black smoke in the side mirror. I imagine the pain of burning alive. Pa walks back, not hurrying. He turns the key in the ignition, but only a jagged racket from the engine and then nothing. The flames are devil tongues licking at the passenger window.
I think we will surely have to abandon the vehicle to the blaze and run for our lives. But Pa doesn’t look the least bit worried. He asks me to pipe down, and the truck cranks. He throws it into gear and speeds across the bumpy bottoms away from the burning field. Ruts and mud holes jostle the two of us, quiet. Pa removes his cap and wipes the sweat off his forehead with his shirt sleeve. I look back and swear I can see the tire tracks in the flattened grass leading right into the mouth of hell.
My Ponytail Plant
My mother texts that hospice would be nice, but she doesn’t have insurance. All the drunken threats have come down to an abscess in her nose and a staph infection. She does not fill her antibiotics, refuses to go to the emergency room as her doctor instructed.
“Sick of fighting life,” she writes. “All I see are these four walls. You have to think of my feelings, too. Do you think people in a nursing home are happy?”
“You’re fifty-eight,” I tell her. “You’re nowhere near a nursing home.”
“Love you more than I can say. I wish you had my most precious plants,” she says. “They’ll die tonight in the frost, I guess. No room to bring them in. Told them all goodbye this evening. Plants were my only company. I wish you had my ponytail plant. It’s very old. Coming here was its fatal mistake. I feel that about myself so much.”
“Do you need money for the surgery? We can pay for it,” I write back.
“Just letting you know, baby. Wasn’t expecting you to fix it. It’s okay,” she says.
I call her but she sends me to voice mail.
When I was seven my dog Peppermint died. He was old when we got him, and one day he simply disappeared. I called and called. Days later my father found his body under the bush hog on the tractor. He had lain on his side and wriggled underneath the blade housing.
I asked my father why he had been in such a place when he died.
He said because dogs go off to die. They hide from their humans so they can be alone.
“Do you need me to come down there and take you to the hospital myself?” I ask.
“Ha. Do not try. I’m not going to the hospital,” she says.
My grandmother tries. My sister tries. I book a flight down and stand outside my mother’s house in the rental car’s headlights, calling and calling.
Tamara Burross Grisanti’s fiction and poetry appear in New World Writing, Eunoia Review, and Chicago Literati. She is the associate editor of ELJ: Elm Leaves Journal.