national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

Working Autobiography

(with special commentary from Sheep Skin, Coffee Table, Futon, et al.)


Very Small, Molly Greene

“When the Guest is being searched for, it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest
that does all the work.”—Kabir


Age one hour

I am born underwater. I imagine it looked like this: a sun-speckled, water-damaged photograph of my family and midwife looking down at me from the edges of our rented birth-tank. A sort of reverse baptism minus the hokey religious stuff. Mom wanted to have her next child underwater too, but they had to go and be twins. Twins are too risky, so I am her only water baby.

[Sheep Skin felt honored to be the first material touched by her infant skin after she was extracted from the heated water, the warmth from the previous life below her wooly surface replaced by the new life above.]

 

Age 5

I eat cheesy grits and watch Oprah on Saturday mornings. Distracted, over-sized spoon feeding child-sticky mouth (hair, face, arms).

[Coffee Table winced at the falling cheesy grits. Eyed them catching in her soft curls and cursed the inattentiveness of parents whose bedroom arguments were ill-concealed by Wall and Door.]

Dad would come home at dusk most nights. Brown glass bottle in hand, blue chemical on his work clothes. The blue meant I couldn’t hug him. It was the poison he used when working in the woods. That’s where Mom and Dad met—the woods. Tree-planting out in Arkansas, living off cans of beans in the back of a covered work truck. When they moved to Georgia, they started their own tree-planting business, “Green Wave.”

“Green Wave,” Dad told me, because if you looked real fast across the tree line, all you saw was a wave of green.

 

Age 6

I look real fast across the living room. T.V., parents, futon, bookshelves, sisters; a blurry photograph water-damaged by the tears in my eyes. Six is the year I learn about Divorce. It sounds like: “Your father and I are separating. We don’t love each other anymore.”

[At hearing these words, Futon wished to gather the small girls in her wooden arm frames. She knows divorce is a granite-rock concept for children.]

I learn a lot about Counselors, too. They sound like: “Some couples are just better off separated. It doesn’t mean they don’t still love you.” I stare shyly at the walls of the bright counselor’s office and smile when it seems appropriate. But every day I’m really just waiting for someone to tell me that on Mother’s Days we will still take family canoeing trips down the Broad River and come home and eat Sloppy Joes together.

 

Age 7

I enter “recovered alcoholic” into my vocabulary. This is Dad and this means no more brown bottles at dusk. Instead, these are replaced by AA meetings on Sunday afternoons. During the meetings, my sisters and I are left downstairs in the church basement with the creepy life-size Bible character figurines. We play “school” with Mary and the three wise men. But Jesus has to sit in the corner.

[Cobbhouse Basement of downtown Athens enjoyed the company of the small children of alcoholics on Sundays.]

 

Age 10

I watch Death. It stares back in the form of a cow with wide, wet eyes, blood flowing down its chest.

[Dead grass noticed the blood, was grateful for its thick warmth against November’s subtle repenting chill.]

Dad’s new house means the El Salvadorians who plant trees for him can come over to celebrate good seasons. They enjoy drinking, gambling, long walks on the beach, and annually staking a cow through its beating heart. They take turns drinking the blood from the hollow stake.

It’s a different cow every year, but not really. The only thing that changes is the positioning and shape of black spots against white canvas. The life-blank expression is always the same. I watch a man, blood dripping from his grin. It drips down his chest and coats the gold cross around his thick neck.

Dad’s new house is for his new life. It means we can now live half the time with Mom and half the time with Dad, so Dad isn’t just a weekend dad anymore. But I liked having a weekend dad and going to visit his trailer. It didn’t have heat, but we had Cajun music and Dad would turn it all the way up and let us dance on his feet instead of the cold, hardwood floor. That’s how Dad met Linda, at a Cajun dance in Atlanta. And now they can go to AA meetings together, only she meets with the Al-Anon group because it was her parents who had the problem, not her.

 

Age 11

[Every morning Piano was awakened by the manipulation of its own rich tones.]

Dad sings “rise up, rise up, sweet family dear.” For a long time I think it’s a song he made up. It isn’t until I go to college that I realize it is the Kundalini Yoga “Wake-Up” song, something he picked up from that commune in New Mexico where he’d spent the summer after the divorce, when he first gave up alcohol. He’d left in Mourning and come home in a Turban.

I ask him about the turban one day. He smiles brightly and pats the chair for me to sit next to him. “You know, you were my first step in recovery. It was you who got out of bed that morning and asked me to take you to church.”

“Why would I have done that?” I wrinkle my eyebrow skeptically.

“I don’t know, we’d never taken you guys to church before. Maybe it was something you picked up from one of your school friends. All I know is something keeps slapping me in the face saying—“‘Wake up, there’s something greater than yourself out there.’”

 

Age 13

My mom decides she doesn’t want to share us anymore; her contempt ignites into flames of lawyers money tears. When the three-year fire is extinguished, Mom has disappeared in the flames. Moves to North Carolina with her new husband convinced we chose Dad over her. Maybe I did. Dad coaches our soccer teams, takes us rock-hunting out West, talks to us about movies, ancient poets, WWI in Casablanca. Mom isn’t even sure where Morocco is on a map. Can’t speak grammatically correct English, can’t hear me over her T.V. shows, can’t just hug me when I don’t make the soccer team.

[Morocco felt justifiably insulted.]

 

Age 14

I cry with Fear about once every week. Hard, panicked, desperate. Sometimes I think about waking up Dad and Linda for comfort, but part of me worries I’ll alarm them. As if they haven’t yet realized what I realize. And I don’t want them to, either.

I signed this contract with Fear back around second grade and should be used to its consistent visitation by now. I lie in bed until it blankets my mind. There is no relief against the slideshow of thoughts it forces me to process: I am going to die someday. I will have to do it alone. Everyone dies alone. I will be alive when my parents die. This last thought is why I signed the contract. A need to mentally prepare myself for the moment when the oxygen to my brain is completely cut off by my inevitable realization that what I loved has become nothing but a shell of the tangible.

When I wake, Fear has capitulated itself to Logic and Composure.

[Fear would like to note, in his own defense, that his persistent visitation was merely a common side-effect of divorce and the breaking down of families into smaller units.]

 

Age 16

I pick up the ashes with my bare hands and throw them into the Gila River of Clovis, New Mexico. They feel like this: the silty smoothness of the residue of a fireplace. Not like this: the charred remains of my grandmother, who was born along this river. I didn’t really know her; she lived alone in New York all my life, mourning the loss of Grandpa.

I would like to find some version of God someday. Not the plastic, Bible-school God, but the real, dirt-under-your-fingernails God. The make-you-not afraid-of-death God. I want to, but I can’t. I tell myself I do, but when I lie awake at night, I am not convinced. And I’m afraid that when I’m 70, lying awake at night, I will still not be convinced. I will end up like my grandma. Depression, stationary in her chair; awaiting death, with only scotch for company.

 

Age 18

My summer looks like this: picking blueberries teaching English mulching grapes baking bread homemade cobbler pick-up soccer. All against the backdrop of Jubilee Partners, a refugee resettlement center in rural, northeast Georgia that hosts refugee families for two months at a time before sending them to Atlanta to resettle.

The riddling of holes through a life-organ sounds like this: the tear-strained, poor English of a Burmese refugee mother as she holds your hands—“Thank you, teacher”—then takes one last look at her temporary home in the countryside before leaving to the heavy permanence of Atlanta. Atlanta with its callous-heart walls, low-income apartments. Now she can work in a chicken factory. Wake up at 3AM for the two-hour drive to Loganville in a van with six other Burmese adults who are also experiencing a better life here in America.

I cry all morning as my hands plant sweet potatoes, dig weeds.

[Sweet Potatoes were grateful for the gentle pressure of tears against the red Georgia drought.]

When I return to my room, the sheet of dust-sweat on my face and shoulders awakens against the Georgia summer breeze entering the open windows of the un-air-conditioned community house.

[Walls remained still, though she saw them as crumbling. Sheep Skin was frustrated with her own inability to provide comfort in the heat.]

I call Dad. He says, “By the end of our lives, our hearts should be riddled with holes so that love flows freely though.”

 

Age 19

I live just outside the callous-heart boundaries of campus in a unit much like an apartment in the City of Death. I miss the summer when I was 19 and I crave the dust, sweat, and tears. Having something outside myself to cry about. It’s not because of the cow that I don’t believe in God or even because of the refugees. It’s because when I look real fast across the cityscape, all I see is a wave of gray.

 

Age 20

Hospitals make me anxious: I.V.’s, bedpans, mint-green coated suffering. I don’t want to go in, but Linda called and said Dad has a problem with his liver and the doctors are keeping him for a while to run tests. She speaks calmly but I hear the tautness in her voice. I hang up the phone and allow the panic to loosen itself in the form of tears. He hasn’t had a drink in 13 years. This can’t be happening.

I enter his room. It smells like calm sterility. He smiles when I come in and I hug him awkwardly, afraid to look him in the eyes. Afraid to disturb the wires attached to his body. He’s so much smaller in the hospital bed, but I can see he’s still himself. He jokes with the nurse as she changes his I.V. bag. “I’ll have grape this time, please. Or strawberry if you’ve got it.”

A few days later a family friend from AA calls me: “How’s your dad doin’?”

“Good. It was just a fluke bacterial infection. The doctors said they expect a full recovery. He should be out in a few days.”

“Well, good. We’ve been prayin’ for you guys here at the meetings.”

“Thank you.”

 

Age 21

I awake in Marrakesh. The light through my eyelids glows red-orange against the sunlight piercing the room. Too bright when I unshut my eyes. But when I slide my eyelids on, the colors shift red, orange, yellow. Red orange yellow, again.

I decided to study religion in college. Figured that if I couldn’t get God into my heart, I could at least get it into my head. So, I study Islam here in Morocco.

The Call to Prayer sounds like this: a man crying poetry into a microphone that amplifies the words across the city five times daily. But it also sounds like this: soft and tender, when it provides the first words to ever greet the ears of a Muslim baby.

I ride a camel deep into the Sahara Desert in the South of Morocco. It feels like the edge of world. Like where all the extra, thousands of stars go to hide. I lie in my sleeping bag and look up at the night sky, so big I can feel its weight pressing against my chest. A sky so big, it feels like being in the middle of the ocean.

I think of something from one of the books of Kabir poetry my dad gave to me: “When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—you will find me in the tiniest house of time.” And I fall asleep on a patch of the miles of sand.

[Backpack watched the sleeping girl and mused that, to say that she was searching for the Guest would be an understatement.]