been saving the dead since I was a kid. I've got two boxes full of them under
my bed -- a Donaldson's shirt box and a sweater box from Dayton's. I like sleeping
on top of them. I figure it lets them enter my dreams, live again in my mind.
My sister thinks I'm crazy and she says this is proof. She says if I'm not careful,
I'll get as bad as Mom.|
No one's as bad as Mom. I don't even think the loonies on this bus -- the ones who smell like pee and mutter to themselves all the way through downtown -- are as bad as Mom. Like the guy in the stained leisure suit who got on at Marquette. He's sitting by the backdoor half-talking, half-singing to himself. Every now and then he stops and yells fuck or something. Jocelyn's been looking back at him and saying All right! Keep it down! but she can't just stop the bus and force him out. Not that she'd do that anyway. Jocelyn says sometimes they'll ride all the way out to the end of the line and then back downtown just to stay warm or dry, or just to do something different. People like that you expect to be crazy. You don't expect your own mother to be.
My sister thinks it's the fact that Dad died that makes me obsessed with the dead. Actually, what she says is, is the fact that Dad died so tragically when I was on the brink of puberty has created my fixation on the non-living and that I am, in all likelihood, a latent necrophiliac. She's been talking like that since switching her major to psychology last term. She thinks she has all the answers to what's wrong with our family.
I don't know all the answers but I do know this: she's wrong. Number one, I've been fascinated with the dead long before Dad was one of them. Number two, Dad didn't die tragically. He was drunk and slammed into a tree and killed himself and the woman riding with him. Stupid definitely but not tragic as I see it, except for that woman. Tragic is when a twister sucks a baby out of his crib and drops him two hundred yards down the road. Tragic's when a plane crash-lands on a busy highway. It's when a good-looking man who's had way too much to drink convinces some poor lonely lady to get in his car and he smashes into a tree so hard that the engine ends up practically in the back seat.
At least, that's how my cousin tells it. She used to date the guy who towed the wreck away. We don't know who the woman was or why she was with my dad though it doesn't take a genius to figure it out. Even back then, I knew what Dad was. I've asked my cousin if her boyfriend knows anything about the woman but she just shrugs. No one ever talks about her. Especially not my mom. Never my mom.
It was my mom, actually, who got me turned on to the dead. All my life she's been trying to contact them. It's been going on since I was born. When my brother was three, he got pneumonia and died. A freak thing really, my sister says. My mother was so upset she went into labor and I was born six weeks early on the same day my brother died. I've been told grief can do that to a woman.
My sister says that before then, Mom had just been a little odd. It got worse with my brother's death and has been going downhill since. She doesn't bark at the moon or see pink elephants. It's nothing as obvious as that. Nothing like that guy back by the door who's punching the air and saying stuff I can't understand.
My mother figured because I was born so close to when my brother died, our spirits must be intertwined. For years, I believed I was made up of half-live, half-dead boy; that my brother was a coil running through my body, shaping it.
My mother regularly held seances with me to reach my brother, until my father had had enough. They never seemed to fight so much as they did when it was about my brother. I'd seen my father angry enough but these fights were something different. He'd get a look like angry and someone just kicked him in the gut twenty thousand times. And my mom'd get such a faraway lost look I started to believe maybe she could get over to the other side and was there looking around for someone familiar.
After a few big blowouts, my mother started conducting the seances in secret. She came up with a string of reasons she had to take me out of the house. I needed new shoes for the Spring Sing; there was a make-up CCD class; I had to look for a special book at the library. Instead of the library, where we went was the old shed of an abandoned farm down Route 14. The farmhouse had fallen apart years ago and most of the barn had gone in a twister. The shed was the only real building left.
My mother took me there five birthdays in a row. It was never my birthday so much as it was the day my brother died. Everything, my mother insisted, pointed to favorable conditions for a connection. The last time we went there was on my 12th birthday. The shed smelled like old wood and animals. My mother pulled three big candles out of her purse, the pillar kind she was sure wouldn't tip over. "Last thing we need is a fire," she said and winked at me. "That'd be the end of this." She placed the candles in a triangle and lit them. We sat face to face, hands joined around the flames. My mother shut her eyes tight and called my brother's name over and over. It scared me to watch her. After an hour or so, she gave up and we headed home. "We're getting closer. I can feel it. Now, remember, I told your father we were going to visit Mrs. Krenstad. If he asks, she's feeling much better."
Three months later my dad was dead and my mother and I went back to having seances at the kitchen table. I missed the sneaking around. I liked the idea of getting away with something forbidden. I liked having put one past my dad. I loved leaving him out. All that was different after he died. My mom didn't have to fear anyone. It seemed to make her stronger, more determined in her quest. "C'mon son, they're waiting for us!" she yelled one night and her nails dug so deep into my palms they drew blood.
It was never my brother I wanted to reach. He had nothing to do with me. But he's the reason I got interested in the dead I guess. All the while my mom was chanting his name, I had my own litany of the dead. Not always, of course, but at least a couple years before Dad died, which is how I know my sister is wrong about my obsession with the dead.
It started with Scholastica Books. They came around school twice a year trying to sign kids up for their book club. Most kids, if they ordered anything at all, went for book collections of Mad magazine or stuff. The first book I ordered was Walter Lord's A Night to Remember. My sister, who hadn't read the brochure, told my dad I was ordering a girlie romance book. "No son of mine's gonna read a goddamned nancy book!" my father yelled and pounded the table while my sister stood behind him and stuck her tongue out at me. They were two of a kind, indefatigable it seemed. I think that's why I both hated and was in awe of them. My mom and I shared a bond, sure, but nothing like what my sister and father had. Mom and me were like the last two kids picked for dodge ball. Dad was team captain and my sister was A #1 pick. You can't stand up against stuff like that. Not in your own home.
Which is maybe why I was slow to see how crazy Mom acted. When you've got one ally in this world, it's hard to accept she's whacko. But still, she stood up for me. "It's about the Titanic. It's an important book Karl," she insisted when he yelled at me. "Our son's got better things to do than chase skirts through the pages of some book."
I wasn't all that sure what she meant but I liked the sound of it. When they delivered the books during fifth period, I tapped anxiously on the desk waiting for Mr. Bessel to shut up and start handing out our orders. I ran from the bus home to my room and stayed up all night reading chapters like "There's Talk of an Iceberg Ma'am" and "There's Your Beautiful Nightdress Gone" and "Go Away. We've Just Seen Our Husbands Drown."
If my sister wants to know tragic, she could start there. And if she wants to know all about my obsession with the dead, she could start there too. It doesn't take a genius and since she is in college and a psych major, she ought to be able to figure it out. After Dad died, my mom said that was it for college for me, only way for me to go is to get a scholarship. I'm not even going to try. Reason: I can see my sister sticking her big ugly tongue out at me when I get the reject letter. I know I'm not good enough. I don't need a letter and my sister rubbing it in my face.
Besides which, I can't find a college where I can study disasters like the Titanic. Which is all that interests me really. Survival in odds like that. You've got to admire the people who survived, even if they shouldn't have. Like, no steerage passenger should've survived; the odds were just too great against them. But some did -- five decks below water, they got up top just as the liner was finally going under. They got into lifeboats and lived and I want to know how, why.
See, that's the thing I do during seances with my mom. She calls out for my brother, my father, grandparents. Every dead relative and friend she can think of. I go through the passenger list. It's sick maybe, useless at best, but I've pretty much got the thing memorized. First and second class at least. Steerage has a lot more names and harder to pronounce but I can give you the ones who survived. There weren't many so it's not so impressive but still, I'm the only one at Anoka High who could do it. Hell, I'm probably the only high school student in all of Minnesota who could. Who knows, maybe all of the United States.
Here's why: They were the first ones under my bed. Except then, they were the only ones so I slept with the book under my pillow. The way I see it, it's not so different from those subliminal language tapes they sell. "Learn French In Your Sleep." My knowledge of the passenger list is no more useless than knowing how to say stuff like "My name is David. My shirt is blue. Where is the cinema?" No one cares. If you end up in Paris, how many times do you think you'll say "My shirt is blue?" About as many times as I'll say that Mrs. John J. Astor survived the sinking, along with her two children, but that her maid, Mr. Astor and his manservant did not. All knowledge is useless until proven otherwise. I might be on Jeopardy say and the final question is "Titanic survivors." You may be held up at gunpoint on the Paris Metro and be ordered to describe your shirt or be shot. The thing is, you never know. "Who is Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon?" I might say to Alex Trebeck. "Ma chemise est bleu," you might say to your mugger. You never know how things are going to go.
Walter Lord's book was just the beginning. I've gotten every disaster book since that I can get my hands on. Last Voyage of the Lusitania. Alive! Nature's Disasters. I know about most of them. How the Morro Castle was set fire to by the ship's radio operator to cover up a murder. How that girl on the Andrea Doria fell from her bed right onto the deck of the Stockholm after the collision. Coconut Grove. Hindenberg. All of it.
I read the books on the bus on the way back home from work at the travel agency my mom and her best friend Ramona own. Ramona does most of the real work. It was decided Mom didn't interact well with clients. She was always trying to talk them out of their vacations, suggesting a weekend in Thunder Bay would be better for them than two weeks in Ireland. If she found out a couple had children and were planning a trip without them, she'd refuse to book it. She actually yelled at one couple who were planning a second honeymoon when she learned they had an eight- and five-year-old they were leaving with relatives. She made the woman cry. Mom keeps the books now. She's real good with numbers. Much better than she is with people.
I work at the agency half days. It's an arrangement through the Vo Tech program at school. I figure it's a program the school set up for kids they didn't know what to do with and wanted off campus. It's mostly kids you'd think don't have much of a future. There're mostly hoods in Vo Tech -- potheads who go off to an auto body shop for the afternoon. A few girls go to a daycare center. Then there's me and Steve -- the school's two queers. I come to the travel agency and Steve goes to Aveda and learns how to cut hair and do make-up. It's his dream, he says, his passion.
My only passion is disasters. Jocelyn's gotten to know me, since I'm usually the only one on until last stop. "What's today's disaster?" she asks. I tell her what I'm reading and sometimes, when the bus is empty, I sit up in the front seat and read to her. I like riding alone like that with Jocelyn. My mom tells me I should wait until she leaves at six and go home with her but I'd rather ride the bus. On the bus, you're not expected to have anything to say.
Sometimes all I do is think about dying. But it's not like my sister says. It's just fascinating. Sometimes I fantasize about the bus going out of control on an icy road. I see us spinning through an intersection against a red light, Jocelyn fighting the wheel and brake. I see the UPS van slam into the side, see the bus flip and roll, the glass shatter. I see all these passengers cut and bleeding, trapped beneath twisted metal. I help the injured through an open window, where paramedics and the UPS guy pull them to safety. I manage to raise Jocelyn's unconscious body up to the door, where rescue crews take her. I'm the last to leave and the UPS guy hugs me tight, cries and tells me how sorry he is. I squeeze back and tell him everything'll be okay. I can imagine the news reports that night: "Several people owe their lives to 15-year-old Jayce Lundquist after a bus accident killed four passengers. The dead have been identified as . . ." and this is where my mother hugs me to her and tells me how proud she is of me. This is where the kids at school realize they're wrong about me being such a big fairy. This is where my sister calls to say she is sorry.
Anyone can be a hero. Take Elizabeth Duckworth. She was my mom's age when she boarded the Lusitania. After the torpedo hit, she got her cabin-mate's five-year-old son safely into a lifeboat. When she was picked up by a fishing trawler, she jumped back into a lifeboat and rowed out to help pick more people out of the water. Even crewmen weren't willing to do that. Of all the people in all the disasters, she's my favorite. If I'm ever able to reach the dead, I want to talk with her.
I've read enough to know what to do, what not to do, in a disaster. I made the mistake of telling that to my sister. "So Godzilla attacks, how do you escape that, huh?" she said and blew her cigarette smoke in my face. Sometimes it amazes me how stupid she can be. If an earthquake ever hits Madison, she won't know what to do. I can see her running into the street and turning back to see the building she ran from collapse. She'll scream in horror and get struck by falling concrete and killed. Never look back. You'd think she'd have grasped that lesson by now, devout as she is, but she hasn't. She's always looking back. She's always seeing Mom and Dad when he was alive and how Mom drove him to drink, drove him to see other women. It's like she's the seismologist who traces the quake back to the epicenter, points out all the weaknesses along the fault line. Me, I don't care how it happens, I just know what to do when it hits.
What I do at the travel agency mostly is file itineraries. Slow days, it's hard not to think of the disaster potential. What if the Nelson's flight to Boston crashed and we had sold the ticket? You have to be prepared for something like that. The paper's full of stories about plane crashes and train wrecks and stuff.
I don't know when I started clipping those articles out of the paper. Sometime after Lord's book I guess. Anything about crashes or hurricanes or fires or stuff. It was after Dad died that I started on the articles about weird accidents, unknown victims, missing persons. There's always been something about that phrase "The dead have been identified" that's made my stomach jump a bit. It's repulsion and fascination both I guess. They never used that phrase in reporting my father's accident. I kept all the articles I could get. Only my father was identified. They've never figured out the woman. It was bigger news in Rochester, where it happened, but in the Cities it was just a short item in the Metro section. I've seen the copies my mom keeps in her scrapbook. In the sentence, "An Anoka man and an unidentified woman were killed..." she's cut the reference to the woman out with a razor blade. She even cut "was" out from some other article, placed it in here so it reads "An Anoka man was killed..." Every plural she's made singular. Me, I've kept the full articles. All the Rochester ones plus what they ran in the Star, the Tribune and the Pioneer Press, even though they were short.
We're on the edge of downtown and the crazy guy and most of the others have gotten off the bus. I move up front to maybe talk with Jocelyn. She has a big smile for me. She's always smiling. Whistles a lot too. I've never seen anyone so happy so much of the time. She looks at my worn copy of A Night to Remember. "Reruns, huh?"
"Always reading. You getting ready for college or something?"
"Naw. I just like it."
"Wish my boys had read like you. Never could get them to open a book. Too interested in ball and cars and girls."
"None of them interest you much do they?"
I feel my face flush hot.
"That's cool. None of it needs to. But, you know, you ought to pull your head outta those books of the dead and do a little living of your own."
I stare out the front of the bus. Three more stops until the last one. I wish Jocelyn would just gun it past my stop and we'd keep heading east. I could read to her, tell her about my dad. I could tell her the main reason I don't want to go to college is that the thought of living in another building full of guys terrifies and excites me. I could tell her about the seances and how my mom's redone my sister's room for my brother. How she's filled it with the clothes and toys she managed to save, all his old things plus new stuff she's bought. She's always buying him something. My older brother: always three, always perfect. I could tell her all that as we rolled across Wisconsin, Michigan, through all those cities I've seen on the itineraries I file: Flint. Cincinnati. Pittsburgh. Maybe we'd go to Lakehurst to see where the Hindenberg crashed. Or go to New York to Pier 54 to stand in the spot where Elizabeth Duckworth struggled with her two bulging straw suitcases to board the Lusitania.
"Last stop," Jocelyn says. I get off the bus and stand there watching her maneuver the bus through the turn-around and head back to town.
Today's the anniversary of my brother's death. It's also my birthday but my mom barely recognizes that. It's sixteen years. Tonight she'll have hot dogs and grape popsicles, his favorite food, and the table will be set for four: me and her plus my dad and brother. My gone boys, she sometimes calls them. And then there will be the séance. And then she'll go to his room, show him all the new things she's bought and around 4 in the morning, I'll wake up and find her crumbled on the floor, soaked in tears and sweat, and I'll have to wrap the baby blanket around her shoulders and get her to bed and all the while she'll keep calling me by my brother's name.
I get home and head straight for my room. I pull the boxes of the dead out from under my bed. I spread them all out on the floor and they seem somehow like old friends. The guy who got buried alive in the grain elevator down by Wyndom. The men from the Edmund Fitzgerald. The woman whose body they found washed up on Nicollet Island, minus her ears. The passengers of Flight 414.
The envelope with the clippings about my dad and the woman is taped to the top of the box. I pull them out, stare at his face. My Grandma sent the papers a photo of him from just before he and Mom were married. It's weird finding your dad good-looking but he is and I can understand why she went for him. I put the clippings back and put the envelope under my pillow.
I stuff all the other clippings back in the boxes and carry them outside. I dump them in the old barrel we use for burning leaves. I toss in a couple matches and watch them go up, the flames licking the barrel rim.
I go back into the house and start cramming paper bags full of my mom's séance candles, fishing magazines she's saved for my father, overalls and Colorforms she's bought for my brother. I can't stop grabbing stuff. I can't even see what I'm taking. I make three trips from the house to the barrel. I just stand there staring after throwing the last bag in. The flames are shooting high out of the barrel now and cracking and popping a lot. I just keep staring into the flames and I see her, Elizabeth Duckworth, pulling the dead to safety. I can identify each person whose hand she takes and helps to a boat that will take them all further away from my mother. She smiles at me as she lifts my brother into her arms, then turns and they're all gone; the boat has disappeared through the flames. I know I'm in for it when my mother gets home, but right now, by this fire, I've never felt so good.