June 27, 2010
At the Palace of Fruits on a summer evening, I wear red socks in my white sandals, my father carries a watermelon under his arm, my mother holds up boxes of sparklers, gold, red, blue, for my little sister and me to see. She takes a rubber band off her wrist and pulls her hair up into a ponytail. In the evenings, he comes home from work and pours bourbon into a tall glass over ice, she stretches up on her toes and puts her arms around his neck. His pant legs are gray and baggy. Her feet are bare. They kiss. The evening light slants across the tablecloth with the little yellow flowers.
Your sister was small, then, a baby, and your mother took her into a small white cabin. She said, don’t disturb us. We are going to take a nap. She shut the screen door. She shut the door behind it. It was summer. Afternoon. There was a lake. Where was your father? Was he prospecting? There was gravel on the ground. There were trees behind the cabin. It was hot and smelled of sun on pine needles. There was a lake. Your older sister and brother put you in the rowboat and then they climbed in. Your brother rowed. He rowed you out to the diving platform floating offshore. It was square, made of gray wooden planks. Then you and your sister were on the platform and your brother was rowing away. Did you have your swimming suits on? Were you going swimming? You dangled your feet in the water. Your sister and brother were arguing. He was rowing around and around the platform. There were white cabins on the shore, their windows shut against daylight. In one of them, your mother was asleep with your baby sister. You were not to disturb her. How old were you? Four? Your older sister? Twelve? The clouds were rising behind the trees now and a big shadow fell across the lake. The horseflies came out. They started biting. They were big with big gray wings, they had red spots on their heads. It was a long way to shore. There was thunder. The water got gray and choppy. Maybe you started crying. Maybe your sister yelled so loud that your brother finally rowed back to get you. You don’t remember that part, you remember only the gravel beneath your bare feet, the horseflies, the welts on your arms and thighs, and then you remember banging and banging and banging on the white wooden frame of the screen door.
My mother is playing the piano, Rachmaninoff, she loved the Russians, the difficulty of the phrasing. I sit on the bench beside her. She stops and looks at me. My mouth opens but there it is, the image as if from on high: a version of myself standing in the trailer behind the neighbor’s house. I am six years old and I am standing naked and the girl, my friend, is naked, and her older cousin, a teenager, is sitting there. He wants us to touch the hill under his pants and Hilary does. She reaches out one finger and she touches it. A flash of heat and yellow. Exit the body. Exit the trailer, the screen door slapping closed behind me. Hilary’s mother, her face in the kitchen window. Am I naked? Am I clutching before me the beach towel, the bathing suit? Or have I dressed myself? I try to remember. My mother has paused. She is patient. My mouth opens and closes. She says something about a man in the Bible who complains about having no shoes until he meets a man who has no feet. This is meant to comfort me. She begins to play again. Rachmaninoff. Out the front window, the begonias are a waxy red. Dig a fingernail into the thick fleshy leaf, leave a crescent moon, a mark so you can remember, a mark because memory is the continuous present, because memory is a room. If you mark it, you will be able to enter again, you will be able to see the light, the people, what they are doing, what they are wearing. Their mouths will move. But what is it they are saying? If you are very still, if you don’t breathe, maybe you will be able to hear the words. What did Hilary say? What did her cousin say? And you, what did you tell your mother? Memory is a silent room, a home movie from an old Brownie camera. A woman places a cake with candles on a picnic table. A man water skiis. A girl is wearing a pink leotard. She is tap dancing on the front porch with the begonias. Her empty hand, which one assumes will hold a black top hat on the night of the performance, tips the invisible hat on top of her head and then holds it in front of her chest, then tips it on her head again, then back on the chest. The look on her face is one of concentration. She is not smiling but neither is she unhappy. Then the younger sister, round and dimpled, dressed in fluffy white, hair in pigtails. She is delighted. She wears white gloves and at the end, she curtsies, blows kisses. She is a young girl doing a tap dance for her mother’s camera. Remember the ticking of the film? The way it melts across the screen when it’s over?
Beth Alvarado has lived in Tucson for a long long time and, every summer, she wonders why. Other excerpts from her memoir Anthropologies have been published in Seattle Review, Cue: A Journal of Prose Poetry, and Thin Air.