Stute’s heels clipped my toes as he rocked back, half in and half out of the doorway to our apartment. He was ten then. I was eighteen. I had my hand on his back, and I could feel how stiff his small, hard muscles turned, as if he was clinching everything. The word “um” cracked out of him, just a splinter of his little voice. Liminal moment. I should have run. I should have left right then. I should have grabbed my little brother and hauled his skinny ass away, taken a train right out of Louisiana. Sometimes at night I whisper it: I should have. I should have. Making my voice the wheels of a train. I had enough money in tips saved that we probably could have just run.
Maybe we could have, anyway.
I didn’t need to know what he saw in there. I didn’t need to look past the doorframe. I knew “um.” I knew that sound, that squeak. I knew it meant we were about to cross the threshold into crazy.
It was not new to me, the world on the other side of that door.
I have known it my whole life. It has been everything.
Even the story of who I am.
When I was small, my mother would sometimes tuck me into her lap and tell me how Stuart Roosa flew an unborn forest round and round the moon in 1971 and then sprinkled the earth with it. Her voice was always earnest, every sentence a sacred truth. I can tell you word for word the story of my mother finding one of those seeds and hiding it in a locket. I can tell you how one day, when she was very lonely, she gobbled up that seed to make me. When I was a child, I did not fall asleep to Cinderella’s broom strokes and ballroom dancing. Instead, my mother told me of how her fish-white belly, iridescent with life, grew heavy and cratered with my weight. I branched out inside of her, and my fetal limbs, long and searching, pierced her brain and left her addled.
That is her myth. [End Page 147]
She has paranoid schizophrenia, and when she misses her medication (which helps only a little anyway), she wears an honest-to-goodness tin foil hat. I do not know when she stopped taking it this time. I hadn’t been counting the pills like I should.
Stute was ever hopeful, even clinched like that in the doorway. “Momma?” he said. He is black hair and black eyes and hope, not a bit of him matching either our mother or me. I knew his father, and I wonder how such a kind man could have left his baby boy with the two of us. How, as he’d fled our mother’s madness, he hadn’t taken the child, hadn’t clutched the baby to his chest, shielded him from what he must have known the future held. But he did leave, taking nothing with him, disappearing before the crib was even put together.
“Momma?” Stute said again.
It’s amazing how long you can stand by an open door and not look in. Hours, days, years. Ten-year-old Stute growing old as we stood there, my hand on his shoulder now, his voice tumbling around in that government-funded apartment, rolling around in our mother’s silence. But he stepped forward and then my hand wasn’t so much holding him as being held by his movement. He was pulling me. We were in. No turning back.
I looked around, and the tendons holding my jaw tightened. I had no idea that Saran Wrap came in colors, pink and blue and minty green, spring pastels. Mother had glued every hue to every wall, and she stood shaking in the center of her kaleidoscope, the covered windows streaming in cathedral-colored light.
I didn’t realize she was crying right away. Not until Stute was tangled around her, hugging her and whispering the same nothings I’d whispered to him when he was a baby, hungry and scared...