Archive for October, 2014

Houses, Homes #9: Pipes

His pipe collection. The walnut pipe holder for it.
Little curves to cradle the bowls, the stems held in place
in the two rows of three holes close to the handle. I know I’ll never smell anything
like that again—
the sweet earthiness of tobacco residue, the scorched wood, the plastic tips
where Dad’s lips would hug the stem in a tight embrace,
breathing in moments of calm, solace,
like when I put my face in my baby’s neck and inhale,
just like that.

Second-hand smoke didn’t exist in the 80s,
so I’d breathe along with Dad. He never told me to go away
when he needed to puff, and I’d watch mini plumes billow from the bowl
and out his mouth, a smoke snake trailing up and
disappearing into heaven.

Smoke lay in his beard. His bristly beard
that tickled my cheek. I can remember that tickle
but not the hug that brought me that close to him.

His pipe collection organised to be something that marked his days
from a particular time when tobacco came in a big tin can,
just like coffee. And I’d open the tobacco can just to smell,
like I would with the coffee. But Mom, she didn’t know

what those pipes were meant for
in this moment,
and now they are all lost, lost, lost,
and fallen. Probably broken, cracked, fractured,
buried in the earth somewhere with all the rest.

I wish I could hold a pipe in my palms,
holding the thing where his breath would pass in and out,
his breathing that he never thought anyone would care about,
but I do.

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Brandy will be reading from her book What Doesn’t Kill Us on Thursday, October 30, at Heartwood Cafe in Vancouver. Don’t miss this special opportunity to preview her unpublished memoir, alongside a presentation by Mike Boehm, an American Vietnam War veteran who has been committed to doing humanitarian work and forging peace and reconciliation relationships and projects in Vietnam for over 20 years. If you are in the Vancouver area, you do not want to miss this!


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Houses, Homes #8: The Porch

Thunderstorms engulfed us
and we turned off our televisions because
the electricity was gonna go out anyway.
We huddled inside the living room,
my nose smashed against the window screen,
and we counted in our own ways in our heads.

The deafening boom, crack, the silence of the thought
of a falling tree,
the metallic cadence I didn’t want to end.

Dad sat in the chair and stared out
the window facing the road, his left hand
propping up his left cheek, his index finger and thumb a backwards L
beside his ear, the rest of his fingers piled up and resting
on his upper lip, which sometimes twitched in a
fragment of a prayer.

Mom kept a close eye on her flowers, kept saying she
hope they don’t die.

I ran out onto the porch, Mom yelling at me to stay inside,
but I didn’t listen and she didn’t follow.
Barefoot. I bounded along the edges of the porch
where the wind blew the rain into the perimeter,
creating dark jagged edges then rounded hills,
water shadows, storm prints,
I’d put my toes in them
and sat on the porch swing watching the whole valley
get baptized. Dips in the porch became warm puddles
under the swing, so that my feet touched the earth,
water, and air with each arc I made. And the air—

the air during a rain like that, there on that porch,
the earthy humidity from the concrete mixing with the crisp wetness
from the sky, all that in my nose,
it made me drunk before I even knew what that meant or felt like.

On the upswing, I prayed to God for lightning to strike right in front of me
but far enough away. Supernatural fireworks made me pump my legs
harder. I wanted to kick the ceiling.
Rainbows never made me feel like that.

On the downward swoop, I wondered if I should go back inside
with Mom and Dad and worry about the protection of flowers
and whatever else, or if I should stay there and pump harder and harder,
imploring the boom, flash, and rainfire to continue. The storm was the only thing
that could make us so quiet.

My soles skidded on the porch with the break in the clouds.
I heard Dad get out of the chair and mutter, “Well, that’s over.”
Mom came outside to check on her flowers.
I lay down on the swing, my head clunked on the white wooden seat slats,
the rattle of the chains reminding me to inhale the last part
of that thunderstorm air.

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I just remembered how Mom always hovered over me while I was eating
when I was a kid, and how I used to hate it. The reason behind my
remembering is that I was just now staring at the Champ-o-Rado box on the table,
trying to translate “Naghahari ang Sarap!” based on what little I know
and context (“Healthy/Nutritious and Delicious”? Maybe not),
and on the bottom left corner of this box is a picture
of a mom hovering over her kid while she’s eating,
and they’re both smiling. It reminds me
of me and my mom. But we were never smiling.
Her hovering,
her watching. . .
It was like I could never escape,
even while eating.
Food was a punishment,
a threat,
a boring necessity.
Junk food was my first drug.
Anything I could shove into my face while watching tv by myself.
Crunchy, salty, fatty, full of chemicals—just like this healthy/nutritious
Champ-o-Rado. Sarap! And

My God.
It hits me.

We were never a happy family.

We had our happy moments, like going to Busch Gardens
or to the movies,
but even those memories are not framed without
hopelessness that no matter how hard we tried, we were never a happy family.

And now that Dad’s dead, we’re even worse.
He was The Knot that held us all together.
Now we’re just frays
blowing dangerously off into the wind in any direction,
barely attached to the place
we all used to be for 38 years.

A neighbour’s chimes bring me back
to the centre
out of this meditation.
My family loved chimes.
We had them on each side of our house,
to catch the music of all the winds.
I imagine each of us—the four of us—
smiling when we heard the chimes,
noticing them,
and it was quiet.

That was love.

It might have been one, two, or three fourths happiness,
not one whole. But

let’s use a puzzle metaphor instead.
Pieces of a puzzle never really fitting together,
but if you nudged them a bit,
close enough.


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You get out of the recliner (one of those that’s damn near impossible to get out of without a gigantic heave-ho), the one that’s facing the inside altar, and your feet smoosh into the pink carpet.

You open the heavy extra-insulated door, its rubber trim suctioned so hard into the frame that it makes a sucking sound like a dog vacuuming treats, when you pull it open.

You open the screen door, the frigid white aluminum stinging your hand, and you close that screen door as quietly as you can.

The first thing you notice is the cold because you don’t have a coat on (who would, sitting in a recliner in the living/dead room). Then you look for slippers to protect your sockened feet. Just wearing those slippers warms you up quite a bit.

In front of you, beyond the porch, down a brick path, and into the yard, sits the magic wishing well. That’s what you call it. In fact, it’s another place of worship in this house. Your mother wants Buddha to know that she is a faithful follower inside and out. She made your Christian father build this well for her, telling him that if he do that, Buddha and God make good thing for him when he die.

The well has no water. In the middle you find a place where your mother places bowls of pre-packaged food, fruit, and little plastic cups of water (the kind of cups you get in hospitals when they give you medicine). There are strings of lights around the well, twinkling 24 hours a day, and flowers surround and adorn it. There are also fake candles all around the brim of the well. You think, Man, if I were dead, I would totally love to hang out at this well. You imagine your dead family having a blast there, with DJ Buddha Belly.

You make wishes at the magical well, but you’ve never kept track of which ones, if any, have come true. You figure, your mom does it too—but she’s always so angry that it looks like her wishes never come true, despite her kneeling in reverence on the jaggy cement blocks, her grey prayer robes grazing the ground with its submission and her fervent belief that if she prays hard enough, good things will happen. They will. Maybe not in this life, which she’s pretty much given up on, but in the next, when she wants more than anything to have a life as a man.

You’re sad, watching your mother in supplication like that. In front of a well that has no water. Just a bunch of plastic, cement, metal, and all these wishes. Actually, you’re not sure anymore if you would like to hang out here when you’re dead.

You go back inside. It’s warm. The grandfather clock chimes some demarcation of time. You sink back into the quick-sand recliner, and you imagine your picture in the altar someday, and you imagine that it would be cool to hang out here after all because now your father’s picture, no, several of them, are here. And you make the most solemn and earnest wish ever: to be with Dad again, here, there, anywhere.

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Outdoor heat lamps in a city that slows down in the cold months,
they keep my memory of him warm on what will always be
a chilly foggy mid-autumn anniversary. My memory
is imagined. I never met him—my older brother
who died when he was some hours old,
for no reason that anyone could tell me. He just did.

Someone I’ll never look up to but always to whom I’ll look
behind to make sure he’s still tagging along.
His name is Biblical, and I always pictured
him to look like
baby angel jesus in the nativity scene on the rickety stage
at our small Methodist church where our outhouses
were the latest technology we had at the time.

David or Matthew or David Matthew—

however whoever remembered his name, like grace said
at Christmas dinner before we dove in and destroyed the high caloric bounty.

Matthew is how I remember remembering him from the time I knew him
when Mammy introduced the two of us,
so she could explain why Mom is the way she is.
That’s how I remembered Matthew–and the other brother we weren’t supposed to talk about.

I grew up in a house with women who were damaged by males
and the memory and loss of them. That’s nothing unusual.
I can understand that. But then again, I really couldn’t
until I was damaged by one, and then lost another,
and you wonder what kind of sick fuck the Universe is sometimes.

But I’ll always go back to a prayer on this day, one that I’ve memorized as such:

“Dear Matthew, I’m your younger sister. Please don’t be mad at me because I lived.
I wish you had lived too. I’ll always be your sister, and you’ll always be my brother,
and our mother shall always be our mother. Amen.”

And I’d whisper the same prayer to my other brother we can’t talk about
sometime later, soon. Autumn is funny like that. The lamps–not warm enough.

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A shot of liquor (currently, tequila) in an aquamarine blue shot glass I got in Japan,
every morning emptied and then refilled by Dad’s urn on my altar.
I smear sleep out of the corners of my eyes,
put my blurry focus on Dad’s photograph
say “Cheers, Dad,” throwing back the shot
he enjoyed yesterday.
I know he drank it because the tequila
tastes like flat dirty water by the time I down it,
less flammable than water coming from taps
in houses where they frack, sacrificing one sustainable energy source
for another, but safely, you know? Right, Dad,
it is a bunch of bullshit, isn’t it?
Let’s take another shot for that.

Dad and I share more stories and conversations now that he’s dead.
There was so much he forgot to say or kept to himself before. Some things
I wish I didn’t know, but I do now that I’ve inherited (took) his journals,
his once-private thoughts.
But, Dad, secrets never stay that way. People
always deny that inevitability,
the absolute showiness of that thing you want no one
to ever find out about,
the heft and oomph of silenced shame.
Yeah, another bunch of bullshit.
Another shot.

Is your secret safe with me, you ask.
Depends on how you define “safe.”
I will think about it, live with it, dream about it,
cry about it, tell my confidantes and possibly probably my therapist about it,
probably possibly write about it.
Some release, some nurturing,
whether or not you think that’s safe.
No one’s ever safe from secrets though;
best intentions are such foul tricksters.

Cheers, Dad. The more shots you and I take,
the faster these secrets will go away
to become something new,
our solemn Sunday salvation
where we can sit in honest silence.

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The 80s were our HEY!day.
Pool and hot tub and basketball hoop and
all the exercise equipment in the
basement, where Dad’s mullet and Mom’s poodle-perm
would be soaked with sweat
especially when the woodstove was blazing in the height of winter,
the exercise room becoming a sauna between
the red-painted cement blocks and the fake wood panelling.

The exercise, the Sunday afternoon movie outings,
the recreational trips to the saddest mall in the world were my parents’ attempts to salvage their marriage,
to get high off the fumes of a honeymoon period long expired.
Everything was bought new, and we were all so happy when we got
the Beta tape player, the Texas Instrument computer, and the maroon Chevy Celebrity that would someday die on its way to me in Los Angeles.

That’s also when Lee and Lien purchased their new bedroom set: a tall chest of drawers, the vanity dresser, and the poster bed, solidly built and glossy dark brown finish—
the fanciest furniture we’d ever had. The dresser was a vault of treasures from which
I knew I’d always have to wipe my fingerprints away with Pledge and Bounty
before anybody could find out that I’d been there.

They were running errands.
I was on one of my many archaeological digs.
I never had much time.

Crouched on the deep red carpet, I wrapped my fingers around the brass handle
and pulled open the door to the secret drawers. The hinges were so well oiled
that the pull was as smooth as cutting through softened butter,
that’s how satisfying, pleasurable it was.

I only really went to the bottom drawer, where all the real goods were.
Two old purses from Vietnam, one black and square, the other a maroon and white beaded clutch,
still smelling strongly of some sweet perfume from 1960s Saigon,
delicate handkerchiefs in each,
and heavy ancient Vietnamese coins that to me were worth more than gold.
Silk-thin letters in a language I didn’t know.
Black-and-white photographs of Lien and her friends on a beach,
their hair blowing in the wind the way celebrities’ hair blows in movie posters.

That mixture of smells: sandalwood incense, perfume, old metal, frailty and ink—
it was the only place I could experience Vietnam in the whole house. When my parents were gone,
those were the only times I could go to Vietnam, there on that red carpet.

The 80s were when my parents bought new things to hide the old.
That’s why it was the best time in our lives,
those in-between days.

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My life in Mifflintown is dissipating into memory.
The house, the land, the landscape, the people.
Pretty soon, all I’ll have to go back to will be graves and thoughts of where people, places used to be.
My Ghost Town.

My cousin and her husband live in Meemaw and Pap-Pap’s house now. Meemaw had this big open kitchen. I seem to remember yellow linoleum, or maybe it was yellow countertops, or yellow walls. And this neat isosceles trapezoid step up into the living room, with lots of plush furniture and bowls of plastic bananas and apples and clusters of purple rubber grapes that were fun to squeeze. And Meemaw had a

sun room with a
I’d glide for a long time and look at all her potted flowers, stare out into the road.
Meemaw would glide with me sometimes, when she brought over a stack of mail for me to go through—

“My eyes ain’t too good no more. Now be a sweetie and read some of this junk for me.”

I quickly went through the mail, discarding most but keeping the sheets of Easter Seals stickers. I was 10, but it wouldn’t be til my late teens, when Meemaw had already passed away from diabetes, that I learned the truth.
Meemaw and Pap-pap were illiterate. I never knew anyone who had this rare illness. I thought of times when Dad would tell me to show Meemaw how well I could read, and now I realized that he was getting me to tell Meemaw stories.

I read. We glided.

Next to Meemaw’s house was the trailer I lived in til I was 1. Beside it was Mam and Pap’s house. I liked our big house, but it would have been cool to live between Meemaw and Pap-Pap, and Mammy and Pappy—my godparents and grandparents. So much warmth on both sides, I’d think always.

Glide. Glide.
And the last time I saw her, she couldn’t see me. I looked into the opacity of her pale blue eyes, she turned her eyes to the sound of my young adult voice.

“Oh, Brandy, so good to see you.”

I bent to hug her
put my face into her frail neck.
Her arms fumbled and trembled
around my back.

I’m happy to see you too, Meemaw.
Glide. Glide.
See you next time. Next time.

Next time.
I’m starting to say those words with bottomless sadness.
One day, there will be no more “next time.”
One day, Mifflintown’s landscape will be full of used-to-be’s,
diaphanous slivers of an aging mind trying so hard to remember
and iron-clad regrets that the youngins won’t know at all no more.
Glide. Glide.
My town full of ghosts.

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Houses, Homes #4: Maps

My sister believes in Jesus but not in Facebook,
but she wants me to post a status about our family’s property
being on the market anyway.
Maybe, she figures, she’ll pray to her saviour, I’ll make an appeal
to mine, and all our shooting-star wishes will come true.

I open Zillow, type “17059” in the search box, and it takes me a while to get my directional bearings. I never knew whether we were north, south, east, or west of anywhere else. We were just

Arch Rock,
in the valley,
where all the Worralls live.
Yes, the Worralls.

(I think I can tell you which direction most points are in Vancouver, but in a town of 800, I’m fucking lost on this map.)

So now I see
The Two Red Dots
I’m looking for,
the house and further up the road, the land—
between Shady Lane and Cleck Road, with Stoner Road and Winding Creek Lane in the middle.

The flat white and gray electronic map with two red dots—it tells nothing about the rolling hills where I used to run a mile from our house to Mam and Pap’s, or how I would sometimes stop in at Aunt Betty’s on the way up the road, and how Aunt Betty would take a walk with me down Stoner Road back when it was just a dirt road with no name or sign, with a small creek where Dad would sometimes take me fishing but with Aunt Betty the mission was to collect a bouquet of wild flowers and a basket full of blackberries.

In the mid-1980s there was this guy flying around in a helicopter,
taking pictures of people’s houses and selling them the photographs of the aerial view and it was like

this perspective is amazing
because we never see anything in the sky other than birds
and wow, another person flew over our house just to take a picture of us!
And now, like the robins, sparrows, blue jays, and woodpeckers, we can see
the tops of trees, pixels of gravel—
our home looking so small that way makes it feel so important.

I’m pretty sure everyone in Arch Rock bought one.
We hung ours in the kitchen. Every morning, I sat at the table eating breakfast while looking at the aerial shot and wondering if I was eating breakfast at the time this picture was being taken.

So Red Dot #1, our house with the address 1789 Arch Rock Road—our road also didn’t have a real name back in the day, just RR#1—two letters, one number—that’s how small we were, and no lines down the middle of the road—I scroll through the pictures and see

where I used to sit on the porch swing and listen rumble of the Port Royal races travel over the hill every Saturday night,
and the slope in the yard between my and Davey’s house, where I’d tobaggan down in my blue saucer when we got the right kind of snow,
and the pool where Christians got baptized by the Methodist pastor (after which my mom served eggrolls) one summer,
the bed my dad lay in,
the living room my mom always prays to Buddha in (at the altar, on her Ipad),
and the orange kitchen counter, which apparently turns off prospective buyers who don’t appreciate how much retro/vintage is ahead of its time.

What I don’t tell my sister is that I’m praying to my unidentifiable god that the house, the land never get sold because you can’t sell always-and-forever homes. You just can’t.

It’s only now that I really notice the wind chime with seashells hanging on the strings from a rattan gazebo with a plastic bird inside. It hangs in what used to be the kitchen window, before the outside became inside when Dad added a room onto the house.
I’ve never heard that wind chime’s music before.
I want to go home to hear it,
to hear what it has to say.

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