- Purchase/rental options available:
River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative 6.2 (2005) 54-61
[Access article in PDF]
Gertie is my favorite aunt, her apartment is four miles from my house, and I haven't seen her in twelve years. I got lost trying to find her, so lost that the fifteen-minute drive stretched to an hour, so lost that I navigated one-way tubercular streets with a map across my knees before I found the Doughboy guarding Lawrenceville—Penn bends into Butler, I knew that, I didn't really forget—and I have to force myself not to run to her when I see her across the room. My sweet Aunt Gert in her fawn-colored suit with satin lapels and rhinestone angel pin, her hair, as ever, upswept and immaculate. I lean in to touch her arm and study the fine familiar fuzz on her cheeks, the broader, softer version of my own jaw line, and the rafts of pink roses that cover her coffin and climb the walls.
When I was three I tried to raise my grandfather Boleslaus from the dead. Most of the time he terrified me, but flat on his back he seemed almost harmless, and this scared me even more. I scaled the kneeler in front of where he lay, pulled myself up to the coffin's edge, touched my face to his and bellowed: WAKE UP, GRANDPAP! I ascended instead—hands around my middle lifted me up, and my father, Boleslaus's youngest son, took my hand and led me down Butler Street to a newsstand. Some of the happiest times in my young life took place with my father in newsstands, lost among the magazines and candy. To this day the mingled sweet scent of newsprint and sugar fills me with narcotic contentment. On our way we decided to share a pack of Chuckles.
"You'll have to eat the black ones," I told him, three years old and already confident of what I could discard. "I don't like the black ones."
"I think we can arrange that," he replied, twenty-nine and both of his parents dead.
I learned long ago the risks of resurrection, the ease of mobility with the [End Page 54] past cast aside—that page of the map that won't fold back on its creases. But not until this moment did I see that some forsaking is irrevocable, that four miles is nothing compared to the distance of your own descent, and you draw close to the lovely, finite face of your dead aunt and whisper, I'm sorry, I am so sorry.
A man in a mud-brown suit and a mullet keeps staring at me. He tramps past the door of the viewing room in his big old shoes and ancient haircut, spying on our mourning; in Pittsburgh, "nebby" is what they call his kind. I see no family resemblance—he must be here for another viewing—but I know him. This city throbs with places and people sunk in the past. You can sense the undertow on this block of 44th ruled by the Holy Family Church of Our Lady of the Angels Parish, where my father served as an altar boy, where priests still hear confessions in Polish, where Rubinkowskis have lived and died for a hundred years. The Walter J. Zalewski Funeral Home hunkers alongside, and across the street sit row houses showing the same flat faces from fifty years ago, decades of dirt gentrified off a few. It's dirt people think of when they think of Pittsburgh, huffing factories and filth—downtown streetlamps blazing in daylight, laundry hung out to dry grimier than it was before washing, panoramas from Mount Washington of a world choked with bands of black smoke. Now the mills are gone. There is day and night, though it is still sometimes difficult to see.
I suppose it was logical that I would end up here, where buildings fall and streets disappear, but the skyline shines clean and untroubled. I, too, labored at untraceability. I submerged myself in work and...