I spent last night laughing out loud with my sister about the holes in the kitchen wall of the house where they all lived years before I was born. My sisters, early acclimated to tornado weather and our parents’ fights, used to pretend that the two, fingertip sized holes were made by an outlaw’s bullets—shots gone astray when the saloon girl grabbed the gunman’s arm as he swung his six shooter up from his hip, aimed right at the head of her true love, the intrepidly handsome gambler. In actuality, those little beady eyes of vandalism had been made by a kitchen fork, the two pronged, sharp as an ice pick kind that my mother had intended for my father’s heart.
I’ve seen my father duck at the last minute. He was agile and still enjoyed a good goad long after the affair with the fork was history.
“A towel?” he roared in laughter when once she threw a damp cup towel across the kitchen, “Is that the best you can do? Oooooh, my knees are a’knockin’ now!” And so she threw a baking dish at him. Corning Ware does, in fact, break, though it cries out its end with more of a clang than a shatter.
As the ringing of breakage subsided, we discovered that she also had a pot lid—more clanging, that—she had a phone book, she had a can of spray paint for some oddball reason, she had an electric mixer, and, finally, a can of creamed corn, which just grazed the bobbing top of his bald head and left a bloody skid mark. I won’t say what came next, but it all ended with a typical Kraft spaghetti dinner and a puzzle on the table afterward. Storm rolled in, storm rolled on and now we laugh about Helen’s stories, like one about the three months that we ate nothing but grits because she had a food compulsion and couldn’t have other edibles in the house.
Or the time, many, many years later, when, after weeks of begging her second husband to get rid of a raggedy fishing shirt given to him by his first wife, she set it on blazing, lighter fluid fueled fire, “Wear the piece of shit now, you old sonofabitch.“
Or the time she drove her huge boat of an Oldsmobile down the wrong side of I-35 for ten miles because, “No one in their right mind would go all the way down to the exit! I only wanna go right there. I can see it from here, and the cars coming this way can dadgumwell see me!”
Once, when I was small and she thought I was too sick to take care of at home, she bundled me up, took me to the emergency room and told them I was having seizures. I wasn’t, but when I said this to her, quietly, secretively because I knew not to contradict her in front of anyone, she simply said, “Well, if you were having seizures, how would you know? You’d be out of your head. So, for all you know, you were.”
Then there was the night she poured a can of gas on our neighbor’s fruit tree because he’d asked her to move our garden hose from along the property line so he could mow. Gas is hell’s water: the tree died.
There was the time she broke into our old apartment to steal back our piano, and the time she pretended to be Navajo so we could shop at the government commissary, and the time she went out for a weekend trip and didn’t call for six weeks. Meanwhile, I was home, alone, with strict orders to ration my food and not to tell a soul.
And the year she moved and threw away every picture of any of us that had ever been taken.
Or the time she showed up at my house a week before my wedding with a car, a big car, full up to the roof with packages of toilet paper and a huge, anchorishly heavy black plastic garbage bag of pennies. She had decided to leave her fishing shirt husband and move in with me and my intended. “I tried to bring stuff you’d appreciate. I can’t help it if this is what I thought of when I thought of living with you.”
Once, she took up a collection from the old folks at her retirement village for a hardship that was really a whim to drive back to Texas on a revoked license in a car she’d begged us to take care of and then called the police and reported stolen. She got kicked out of the retirement home, wrecked the car, and lived to pawn her diamond rings and accuse the housekeeping staff at her new retirement village of theft.
Then there was the time she reported her home care aide to immigration and very nearly successfully had him deported even though he was from Utah.
Or the day before she died, when I got in my car, after hours of sitting with her in her room at the last stop group home, and discovered a hornet buzzing around inside with me, slamming itself in a rage against the windows. I pulled over and flung my door open, running to what I imagined a safe distance until it found the way out of its trap.
In life, there was no safe distance from this bottomless drink of radioactivity and vinegar-spiked Everclear that was the woman I would have called mother if it hadn’t felt so much more natural to simply call her by her name—she defied the boundaries of the superficial roles of life. She was all her, for her.
Last fall, I wrote a story about a woman who finds a way to murder her son-in-law by reporting a petty crime to the police as though he were a suicidal terrorist. My grad school advisor worried that the woman was too willing to hate for no reason, too disposed to behavior beyond the normal range of eccentric thought. I worry about writing so many older female characters that are simply batshit crazy. But they are mean in a funny way, from this distance.
Last night, I sat laughing with my sister because we were savoring again the shock of the first time we realized that when she did things like throwing pronged forks at our father’s heart, she meant in that moment to kill him. Her commitment to her actions was whole and in its wholeness elicits a kind of awe.
I would like to be as committed to my actions as she was to any one of the thousand inexplicable violences she perpetrated, any one of the hundreds of thousands of incidental curses she leveled. Laughing at it all is a silver net, and maybe this semester, as I grad-school my way through the year, I will find a way to write about her bad beauty. And it will be funny horror, hilarious gore, a genre for Helen.