*Image: “Turbulence I” by Laura Teti, 48″ x 48″ Acrylic on Canvas
Bring Out Your Dead
By Rebecca Fremo
He repeats the lessons from yesterday: “Only aim at the target. Never touch the trigger til you’re ready to shoot the target. Never point it at people or up in the air. Animals could get hurt.” Cyrus, nearly seven years old, is as serious and earnest as I’ve ever seen him. His two front teeth are beginning to emerge from his gappy gums. His hands curl tightly around the pistol that extends from his pale arms, still chubby with baby fat.
Around us the western Missouri countryside is green and lush; near the end of August, it’s so humid that my curly hair poofs up into a nest, trapping gnats. Apples already drip from the trees across the lake that my friend, Cim, and her husband dug themselves with a backhoe. The lake introduces Cyrus, my youngest son, to fishing, paddle-boating, and the wonders of algae. His twelve-year-old brother, Ellet, loves to fish but refuses to swim in the murky green water.
My friend knows my house rules: the kids don’t have toy guns at home. They’re not allowed to play “killing games” on the Wii. She knows that I, like the rest of us, sat glued to CNN in 1999 as Columbine unfolded in horrifying Technicolor. Then again in 2003 for Cold Spring and Red Lake, both in my current home state of Minnesota. And then, impossibly, Sandy Hook in 2012.
The gun fires.
(Cyrus fires the gun.)
The gun has been fired (by Cyrus).
Cim makes sure that both boys wear protective headphones over their ears, as well as safety goggles. She warns us that the actual noise a gunshot makes is much different than it sounds on television.
The gun fires again.
(Ellet fires the gun.)
The gun has been fired (by Ellet).
I am a bad mother. I watch my first grader and then my sixth grader shoot at paper targets with the small pistol.
I rationalize what I’ve just done. My thirty-year friendship with Cim clouds my judgment. I remember shooting a BB gun at YMCA camp as a child. Children shoot things, I explain to myself. Children can shoot.
Every so often an Amish buggy wheels by Cim’s front yard on the gravel road that leads back to the small town of Windsor. Beautiful black horses glisten in the 97-degree Missouri heat. “Shiny,” I say.
“Wet,” she replies. “They’re sweating.”
Cim and I drip with perspiration in the Richmond, Virginia heat. It’s July, and we’re out at the Pony Pasture, part of the James River Park System populated by giant boulders and teenaged sunbathers, who dart from rock to rock, navigating their way back to their coolers and packs of Marlboros. It’s 1986, and Philip Morris Company, where my dad works, provides tobacco products unapologetically to the masses. Rival R.J. Reynolds has not yet eliminated Joe Cool from its Camel packaging.
I am breaking my mother’s rules. I’m swimming in filthy river water instead of the heavily chlorinated Wembley Swim Club pool. We have a family membership there each summer. That’s where my parents think I am. I should be helping us get our money’s worth. I should not risk catching some awful disease from E. coli-infested waters. My mother’s voice rises in my ear. I fight my own compulsion to run to a payphone and tell her the truth about where I am, to log every waking moment of every day so that she’ll always know I’m safe. I try to let the gentle lapping of the James River wash away the gnawing fear, though of what I can’t be sure.
Cim wears her signature white crochet bikini, which shows off her fantastic body, now tanned a deep bronze. Her black curls fall down past her shoulders, and her green eyes catch the sun. I’m wearing my usual multicolored size 16 one-piece and a terry cloth cover-up to spare the rest of the sunbathers a look at my enormous ass.
I leave for college in the fall. Cim’s getting ready for her senior year of high school. Born just six months apart, we’re not in the same graduating class, and we go to different schools. I’m at the cushy new school built for the affluent suburbs of the West End of Richmond in 1980. She goes to an older school, right by the movie theater and the only drug store in town that still delivers. Even though our homes are only two miles away from each other, the lines that separate our worlds are clearly drawn.
My parents are not crazy about Cim, whose mom works at Wal-Mart and whose dad runs a fishing excursion business. Cim is not intimidated by my parents’ authority—by anyone’s authority, for that matter. Cim sleeps in a mu-mu and eschews a brassiere. She has a loud, throaty laugh and cusses at inopportune moments. She blasts Lynyrd Skynard and sings Janis Joplin real loud. She drives a zippy Toyota Celica and we can smoke in her car. And freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
Ten days after we return from our trip to Missouri, the story of the nine-year-old girl from New Jersey who accidentally killed her firearms instructor with an Uzi first breaks. It happened at Last Stop, a tourist attraction in Arizona, just north of Las Vegas, a fantasy shooting range where even automatic machine guns can be shot by tourists. In this case, the girl’s parents captured the whole thing via cell phone video. No charges were filed.
Normally I would have joined the chorus of finger-pointers, flabbergasted that a mother (nobody ever points the finger at the father in these situations) would let her child hold an Uzi, let alone learn to shoot one. But maybe I am that kind of mother.
My kids had handled one of Cim’s pistols, about six or eight inches long, a six-shooter. Cim drilled them on the rules long before they stepped outside, allowing them to hold the unloaded gun first in the house, showing them how the pistol worked. She described the dangers of guns, the responsibility of shooting a weapon. She made them recite all the rules back to her before she brought them to the makeshift range outside. She helped my boys understand cause and effect, choices and consequences.
Outside, she showed us her range: a paper target tacked to a tree. A huge hill of dirt rose behind it. She doesn’t shoot her gun anyplace else on the property, not even over the lake, for fear that a stray bullet could land in a neighbor’s yard. “Never shoot in the air. Never aim at anything but the target,” she had repeated.
Cim’s rules settled me. Rules protect us. Rules keep us from succumbing to the chaos of the unplanned or accidental. Rules prevent negative consequences. No cause, no effect.
But still, my kids had handled a gun. They had shot a gun.
Cim and I lean over the Galaga machine, eyes on the target in front of us, while she shoots maniacally. It’s late August, almost time to go back to school. The Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin” echoes through the empty sub shop where we both work, mostly weekends during the school year, but we do some regular weekday dinner shifts during the summer. Our buddy on the inside, the night manager, lets us stay late to party after the shop has closed. My mother thinks that we’re already at Cim’s house, spending the night. We shoot our video space enemies as they descend in regimented formation. They are the enemies that we can always count on. Their moves are predictable.
Our Richmond, Virginia home always appeared orderly in the physical sense: toys put away, VHS cassettes stashed neatly in plastic drawers, bathtubs scrubbed with Comet after every use—the house rule. My mother’s neat cursive instructed me via lengthy notes left on the kitchen table when she went to work. Cold cuts in the fridge—new Faygo diet root beer in the utility room. Back by 5:30. Dinner at 6:00. Barbecued chicken and macaroni. Love, Mom. But she painted the living room trim an anguished apple green, out of place with the Early American-style Ethan Allen furniture. The color was jarring; it was as unpredictable as the woman who chose it, a mother whose obsessive-compulsive disorder and crippling anxiety would not be diagnosed until I was in college.
She didn’t punish my younger brother and me if we did something really bad—crashed a car, landed a speeding ticket. But she completely flipped out if our laundry didn’t get put away. She kept tabs on the number of times we visited friends, making sure things were even. Don’t invite her back until you’ve been to her house, she cautioned me. God forbid we left the house in torn blue jeans. You are a reflection of me, she reminded us. Apparently one could look at a child and see the bad mothering.
I initially dread the trip to Missouri, anticipating the constant bickering between the boys, the secret arm punches that Ellet will bestow on Cyrus, how Cyrus will spit at his brother to retaliate. I’ve never taken such a long trip without my husband or our oldest son, Winston, who needs to stay in Minnesota this summer for marching band. But all the way to Missouri, Cyrus and Ellet seem remarkably content in the car, thanks to a compilation disc that Aunt Cim made for us. It consists entirely of butt songs: “Shake Your Booty” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot, a Tim Wilson cut called “Booty Man” (my personal favorite). I know the language is inappropriate. But I’m so relieved to hear the boys laughing.
My kids and I typically maintain order on long trips by taking turns choosing the music. That’s the mini-van rule: everybody gets a one-hour music turn. But on this trip, thanks to Cim, nobody has to sacrifice in the name of familial peace. We play the booty disc over and over. We don’t even need to take turns.
In her compact living room, Cyrus and Ellet fight over whose turn it is to pet Cim’s tiny dog, Pickles, while he hides out in the laundry room. In the kitchen Cim prepares milkshakes in her blender, using vanilla ice cream and plenty of Hershey’s syrup. Cim’s handgun remains in its holster at her side, but the boys don’t comment and neither do I. We’ve been at her house for two days now, and we’ve grown used to its presence—the gun accompanies Cim when she’s riding around in the paddle boat, or in the yard feeding the chickens. She wears it while she plays Monopoly. For a blissful four days, Cim does the cooking, the driving, the shopping. It is summer and we are drinking milkshakes with my oldest childhood friend in a setting that I can only describe as pastoral.
As soon as I finish my senior year of high school, we learn that the theater department at my college is mounting a production of “Hair” during my freshman year. Cim helps me prepare. She plays the soundtrack over and over again at the sub shop after work. She and my boyfriend sing gleefully along at the top of their lungs while I learn all the songs. It is our summer of love.
Nearly one year later, Cim visits campus to watch me perform in “Hair” on closing night. I’ve already decided to transfer to a school closer to home to study English literature instead of theater. After the show we spend the night in my tiny, sweltering dorm room. In the corner, by my twin bed, there’s a neon-pink sign, a stolen souvenir from the protest scene at the end of the play. It says, “lay don’t slay.”
The heat of a Virginia summer is bearable if you stay in the water by day and only emerge at night. No matter how thick the air is, once the sun goes down, the world seems to open itself up again. I am home again for the summer, spending the night at Cim’s, glad to be away from my parents. I’m eager to start my sophomore year as a transfer student, and I’ve dropped the theater major. The new college is closer to my boyfriend, the sub shop night manager, with whom I’ve just begun having sex. I’m certain he is the love of my life.
I am high, of course. I am usually high at night in the summertime.
Cim and I walk down Lauderdale Road, giggling softly in the dark, passing a tiny bowl back and forth, relishing one last August night. Our shadows are long in the moonlight; the lean legs that I wish I had flash in front of me. We talk about who we love and what we do to them and we are high and it is August in Virginia and as soon as we get back to Cim’s house we raid the freezer.
When you are a teenaged girl and you’re high in late August in Virginia and you’ve just taken a sweaty walk in the night, there is nothing more satisfying than strawberry Frusen Gladje, which is tragically no longer available. For the rest of my life I will associate that particular freedom with strawberry Frusen Gladje. And I will wonder what happened to both of them.
“Bang!” Ellet and Cyrus shout at Pickles, pointing their fingers like guns. They’ve blocked the doorway out of the living room, and poor Pickles can’t escape. “Bang, Pickles! Lie down!” Pickles knows this trick, but it’s no use. My boys are not dog whisperers.
I keep one watchful eye on them in the living room. Cim and I are in the kitchen, where she fries potatoes in a cast-iron skillet. I lean against the pale pink hutch she brought back from an auction, then admire her new kitchen faucet. Cim loves to blend the old and the new; she wants and appreciates things that others would just throw away.
Soon Pickles jumps the barricade and runs to his dog basket behind the kitchen door.
The boys turn on one another. “You’re making him run away!” Cyrus shouts.
“Pickles loves me! He’s running away from you!” Ellet shrieks. Cim continues to cook. I know that she longs to step in, but she holds back.
“Breakfast, guys.” Cim brings eggs, toast, and fried potatoes to the table. “Better get in here quick before I eat them all.” Cyrus runs for the kitchen. Ellet sticks his foot out to trip his little brother, but pulls it back when I catch him doing it.
It is late October, 1987, and I call my parents to confess. My new college is in Williamsburg, 60 miles away from home. By the second week of my sophomore year I start driving home each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after class to see my boyfriend. Soon I am skipping classes altogether, staying with him most nights. Now, I explain, I’ve missed three straight weeks of classes and will fail for the semester. My parents arrange a “medical leave,” citing my erratic behavior. They pack me up and take me home. I don’t think I have a real medical problem. I figure I just don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
I sit at my white desk in my old pink and green room writing a resume. I used to be a smart girl with skills. I am terrified by the prospect of going one single day without health insurance. I need to be able to explain my gap year if I ever go back to school. Miraculously, I score a full-time clerical position with UPS, including a generous benefits package.
Cim is also gainfully employed; she has a new job at Builder’s Square, a home improvement store. Cim and I pack our stuff and search for an apartment. We want to live downtown, but we can’t afford it. We rent a two-bedroom apartment just off Gayton Road, about a quarter mile from where I grew up. My mother hates the apartment because drug dealers live in that complex.
Cim and I celebrate our first Christmas together there with our boyfriends. The “lay don’t slay” sign leans next to the sliding glass patio doors, which we cover with a tie-dyed sheet. We play house and smoke weed and bake Christmas cookies. We sit cross-legged on our dingy, rust-colored carpet and listen to Janis Joplin.
I know the carpet in my childhood bedroom was kelly green, that my parents gave me that green carpet for my thirteenth birthday to celebrate my bat mitzvah. “Pick any color carpet you want,” they said. And I picked kelly green, to go with my pink bedspread. Preppy pink and green.
I remember the texture of that carpet, slightly scratchy, and I remember sitting on it for hours, looking out my bedroom window, wishing I could be anywhere but in that pretty pink and green room.
My parents shared the bedroom almost directly across the hall from mine. Room darkening roller shades and woven drapes kept the light out, so my mother could nap in the afternoons.
I remember the white record player my parents gave me for my ninth birthday, the birthday when I wore a red sundress. I remember that record player and listening to my Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album over and over again, sitting on my canopy bed with the sun-bleached pink coverlet.
Only a vintage vanity set and her wedding portrait adorned my mother’s enormous walnut dresser. As a preteen, I’d stare at that portrait, trying to recognize the woman that became my mother. My father’s towering armoire sealed away his belongings, including a spindle full of receipts (we’ll never lose one at tax time) and a handgun locked in a metal box.
I remember my mother, lying awake beside my sleeping father, waiting for me to return home safely from high school play rehearsal. I’d stumble down the hallway, then poke my head in to their bedroom. “How’d it go?” she’d ask, hoping for backstage stories. I was glad she couldn’t see my bloodshot eyes in the pitch blackness.
I remember the bullet hole in my door, and my dad patching it up with spackle, smoothing it down until all I could see was a lump about the size of my fist. I know that my mother shot my father’s gun and the bullet went into my bedroom door and my father tried to fix that hole. I don’t remember when she shot the gun in the house. She never acknowledged doing so. I just know that the story of the hole in my bedroom door is part of the story of my house, that it’s part of my story and my mother’s story and that we don’t talk about it.
My car lurches forward as I shift to first gear. I pull out to enter the Gayton Road intersection, and there she is, impossibly, moving east on the same road. I see her brown eyes widen, first with fear and then with fury, as she realizes I’m driving around on a work day. “What happened?” my mother mouths to me as I drive past.
I should keep driving west, toward my apartment.
I think it is April. I know it’s Tuesday, because XL 102 plays two Pink Floyd songs back to back. It is the middle of the day on a Two for Tuesday in April, 1988.
I should be at work at UPS, at the Delivery Information office, and I should be goddamned grateful to be there, to be a college drop-out with a goddamned job.
I shouldn’t be driving at all. I should be in English literature class at my new college. I should be lugging anthologies around the storybook campus, reading under canopies of pines.
The sub shop where I used to work is just down the hill to my right. Flowering clay pots dot the other storefronts at the shopping center. I should keep driving west. Instead I make a U-turn and head east toward my childhood home.
I think I checked myself in. I think my mother phoned her new psychiatrist to arrange it. Or maybe I told my mother the name of the therapist that I was starting to see, and he arranged it.
Somehow or other, it got arranged.
I saw my mother catch me driving in the middle of the day when I should have been at work. I think I saw her realize that maybe she didn’t always know where I was, that maybe I lived a life that she couldn’t control. And just one last time, I gave in to that inexplicable desire to explain my actions to her.
“What happened?” I read her lips as I drove by. Only I didn’t know what happened. I wanted somebody else to tell me.
I turned the car around and followed her back to my family’s house. I remember the screaming apple green paint in the living room, where I sat, weeping on the couch, unable to explain why I’d left work in the middle of the day on a Tuesday, risking the job that made it possible for me to live a life apart from my parents.
Soon we moved to the avocado green kitchen. The phone cord spiraled across the butcher block table as my mother stretched to search for a pen and paper. I listened while she spoke on the phone to the admissions people at Charter Westbrook Psychiatric Hospital.
I think I left work early that day because I had a breakdown. I think I went on lunch break and never went back to the UPS Delivery Information call center.
I don’t think I wanted to die. I think I wanted somebody else to make decisions for me for a while.
When I get to the hospital I recognize a girl from summer theater camp. I think her name is Elizabeth. She sings like an angel and has pretty red hair, and a tiny bit of peachy fuzz over her lip. Her wrists are bandaged in thick gauze. Everyone’s wrists are bandaged at Westbrook.
The hospital staff instructs my parents not to answer the phone if I try to call them. They tell my parents that I will try to resist once I get there, that it is perfectly normal for depressed nineteen-year olds to get to the hospital and then decide that a hospital isn’t such a good idea after all (kids!). And I do try to call them. I do decide that the hospital isn’t such a good idea after all. But they won’t come to get me. I make one more phone call.
The nurse tells me that I am being released “AMA”—against medical advice. She says that my parents will have to pay lots of money, because now insurance won’t cover the day I just spent there. The nurse tells me I am a selfish girl.
Cim picks me up from the hospital. Cim and her boyfriend, riding to Charter Westbrook like the goddamned cavalry, probably high, definitely irreverent, like a Monty Python sketch come to life. “Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!”
They bring me out. And like that corpse in the sketch, I get better.
The boys and I arrive at Cim’s house, sweaty and dead tired from eight hours in the car. She sends us back to the guest room to change into our bathing suits, and then leads the boys and me to the lake out back for a swim. I look dubiously at the green film of algae that covers the areas closest to shore.
“How about we start with the paddle-boat?” Cim heads back up to the shed for the life jackets. A small canoe is also moored by a primitive looking dock.
The boys slide into the paddle boat with Cim’s husband. I take the canoe with Cim. As soon as we all push off, it’s apparent that the paddle boat is taking on water.
Soon Cim’s husband is lugging one boy under each arm, laughing, as he moves to shore. The empty paddle boat slowly begins to sink as the sun goes down.
“God, what would your mother say?” Cim laughs as she snaps pictures of my muck-covered boys. As Cim and I head up the hill toward the house, she reassures me. “The hose is right outside the kitchen. We’ll get them nice and clean before you go in. No harm done.”
I believe her.
Cim taught me to pee in the woods. She nursed me through my first marriage and divorce. She drove from Missouri to Minnesota, straight through, alone, in the middle of December, for my second wedding, braving sub-zero temperatures to stand by my side and sign the marriage certificate on a clear, frigid day.
My mother never missed a play performance, never failed to show up backstage with flowers for me, no matter how small my part really was. She paid every penny of my college tuition, even after I dropped out for a year. My mother loved me fiercely and violently. But sometimes we remember things differently. Like the hole in my bedroom door, my father patching the plaster, leaving only a bump to remind me that a mother would shoot a gun in a house where children lived.
Ellet shoots the gun twice and decides that he’s had enough. Cyrus shoots it once, but seems far more interested in playing with Pickles. Cim takes the gun from Cyrus and puts it back in the holster. She pats Cyrus on the head, reaches for his hand, and walks him back up to the house. I hear them laughing together through the kitchen window. It’s summer in Missouri and the apples still drip from the trees and my children do not leave me to pursue a life of crime. The patients of Charter Westbrook Hospital hide their arms inside long sleeved shirts, even in the heat of a Virginia summer; I relish the warmth of the Missouri sun as it radiates across my bare skin.