Book excerpt

If Nights Could Talk

A Family Memoir

Marsha Recknagel

St. Martin's Press

1the arrival


Jamie was on my porch. Standing in the door in his black leather jacket, black jeans, and combat boots, he blocked out the porch and streetlights, even the light from the moon. His eyes were hard to see behind the long swath of greasy hair pulled down to cover half of his face. At first, I only saw the wild hair falling around his shoulders. I remembered the way my father often had brushed my bangs out of my eyes and I would swat his hand away. I knew not to touch Jamie. The writing on his black T-shirt looked as if it were scrawled in blood; slowly it came into focus: The Dead Kennedys. I had been in the sixth grade when Kennedy was shot.“Hey, Jamie,” I said. I heard myself say it as if from far away. The name, which had meant so much for so long in our family, didn’t seem to fit him. “Hey, Jamie,” I said again as if to assure myself he was really Jamie. He seemed to grow larger the longer we stood facing each other, and I imagined if I let him in the house he would fill it with darkness.We stood in the triangular wedge of the opened door, which seemed perpetually ajar, half-open, half-shut, held as if by its own geometry, but really suspended by the drama of the one who stood asking, though without words, to come in. I remembered my high school boyfriend, Pike, warning, “He’ll follow you. He’ll end up on your front porch someday.” Pike had meant my brother, Jimmy, and at the time I’d been angry at the prophecy and at his fear of the prospect. How incredible, I thought, that it was my brother’s son who was finally on the porch, and he looked so much like my brother I couldn’t move my body in space, couldn’t make my mouth say “Come in.”My house glowed lamplit yellow behind me, and I felt its particulars pressing forward—the portrait my friend from New York had painted of me in pinks, reds, and purples; the two dogs, one yellow, one brown and black, both jolly at the prospect of a visitor, tapping their paws on the honey-colored oak floors as they came to see who was at the door. We were all lively commotion in contrast to Jamie, who was part of the night, a question waiting for an answer. I wanted to tell the hulking boy that I’d carved and shaped and clawed this bright life into existence. I wanted to shout, “You can’t come in. You will bring it all in with you.”Jamie ducked his head as he stepped into the foyer, pulling his jacket around him as if trying to hide how large he was, as if trying to make himself smaller to accommodate me. The last time I’d seen him he’d still been a boy, but now he was a teenager who had shot up to over six feet with shoulders like a linebacker’s. He reminded me of a Matisse sculpture in which the human figure is barely emerging from the black stone, still at war with the inert mass that holds it back.My next memory of that night is of Jamie sitting on the edge of my bed, playing a video game he’d brought with him, sitting like a hypnotized six-year-old, mouth gaping, blasting small scurrying figures into splintered flashes. There was a dull look of deep satisfaction each time he pressed the button on the Sega CD control. I sat behind him on the bed and felt he wished I’d vanish too, along with the rest of the world. Slack-jawed, mesmerized, Jamie looked stoned. Here, I thought, finally, the boy I dreamed about for ten years, who in my mind was perpetually sweet and vulnerable and at the mercy of his parents. And he was now grown monstrous, a furrowed, overhanging-browed Frankenstein grunting his yeses and no’s.I watched him watching the screen and saw the familiar fat cheeks that many of the Recknagels have, saw the creamy skin marked with huge red splotches, places where he’d scratched pimples into sores. His eyes were those of my brother. Hound-dog eyes.I left him zapping enemies while I made up the bed in the guest room as if I too were hypnotized. Over the bed is a mahogany-framed set of photographs: black-and-white portraits of my brother and me taken when we were five and six. Thinking Jamie wouldn’t want his father—even as a small boy—peering down on him, I took it down, but before hiding it away, I stared into the faces, studying the girl with her Buster Brown haircut dressed in a starched pinafore, and the boy with a buzz cut wearing a white shirt almost the same color as his pale face. In the portrait I’m smiling a coy, shy smile. I’d recently had surgery to correct my crossed eyes, but when I was nervous they still crossed, and I remember the photographer becoming frantic, making me look up, then to the side in an effort to trick my eyes into coming together. In his photograph my brother isn’t smiling. He is holding his arms over his head as if in an appeal to be lifted up. The pallor of his face blends into the parchment white of the background as if about to disappear.A friend once questioned why I kept the portraits on the wall, thinking it was some sort of self-torture. The portraits were a shrine for me, a place to honor the dead relationship between me and my brother. In 1958, when my brother and I walked down the stairs to sit for the portraits, we’d held hands. The photographer had looked up from under the brim of his hat as he bent over his suitcase of bulbs and lenses and asked my mother, “Twins?” It was a common mistake, and my mother laughed as if pleased.I could hear the beeps of Jamie’s video game in the next room as I sat with the portraits in my lap, looking out the upstairs window and rubbing the dust from the glass with my shirttail until, as if I’d rubbed Aladdin’s lamp, I saw the other house, the one where my brother and I grew up—where we grew up together. The house in Shreveport—the family speaks of it now as “the old house”—was a two-story stucco surrounded by trees with a wide front porch and yellow French doors. In spring, green mold crept up the stucco. Sometimes whole years would go by in which my brother and I wouldn’t see any neighbors. Across the street lived Old Mr. Jones, one of Shreveport’s first oilmen. At the end of his winding driveway was a miniature oil derrick kept painted bright white; the street number sat on top in black letters as if oil were spilling over—a gusher that had made possible this stately southern mansion. Next to his house was a Christian Science church, a behemoth of Greek architecture. On our block there was only one other house that was visible from across a wild hedge of azaleas and camellias, dogwood and pecan trees. It belonged to the Hamiltons. In the eighteen years I lived there, I never met the Hamiltons. I knew Alfred, their black gardener, who tended the roses that hardly anyone ever saw. The Hamiltons were old money, Mother had told us, and spent most of the year in Florida, living off their oil production. I would sneak into their still garden and bend down to look into the goldfish pond to catch sight of the huge imported orange-and-white fish. A statue of a young boy, whose penis spouted water in a graceful arc, was in the middle of the pond. My brother, timid and scared to follow me, would be peeking from behind the bushes, his expression, as usual, midwhine, ready, as always, to break into tears. He always seemed to know I’d leave him behind. Now, I thought, we are estranged, a perfect word for what it describes—being a stranger to someone who was once beloved. The night Jamie appeared at my door, I hadn’t seen or spoken to my brother in ten years.I heard Jamie’s snoring in my bedroom and went in to see him slumped over sideways, his mouth open, his mustache like a shadow. The two dogs looked from the sleeping giant to me as if questioning what we were to do with him. Jack, the corgi mix that had followed me home the year before, curled on the edge of my bed, his fox face alert and questioning. Rose, the Airedale, sniffed Jamie’s boots, wagging her tail at the power of the odor. Bending down, I looked him over, inspecting the big hands spread open in his lap, his forearms, the scraggly beard that was shocking in its blackness. As he lay in a heap in my room, I examined the Celtic cross he wore around his neck and scanned his neck and arms, looked at his fingers. His feet were splayed out, the laces of his boots untied. He didn’t have on socks. His feet, I knew, must be raw and blistered from the long walk—eighteen miles, he’d said—from his parents’ house to the bus station, and as I stared at his feet, I noticed a small round yin-yang tattoo on his ankle bone. I could tell it was homemade, a pen-and-ink-and-knife do-it-yourself, dug in and painted by hand. What else, I wondered, was beneath his bulky clothes?I squatted down and looked at the face in repose, a face I’d know anywhere. The resemblance of Jamie at sixteen to the way my brother had once looked was like having the past doubled and redealt. While staring at the TV screen, Jamie had worn the same vacant and dreamy expression I’d seen on my brother’s face when he’d escaped into the world of The Three Stooges, Tarzan, The Late Movie; it’s the look deaf people sometimes have. My brother had made himself deaf when he was sixteen by placing his head between large stereo speakers, one for each ear. He’d wanted to block out the world. He had been sent away from home, first to a school for the learning disabled, then to a military school from where he wrote our father, “I hate you so much I hate myself.” After military school, where the cadets teased him mercilessly and ran him around campus, lap after lap, for being plump and afraid and homesick, he came home six feet tall, on Ritalin, and chain-smoking one cigarette after the other. During his teens he was silent most of the time, bathed a pale blue from the television screen that he watched in the dark sunroom. Those had been the terrible years—for my brother, for me, for the family.That night, looking at Jamie, I told myself, as if chanting a mantra: This is Jamie, not Jimmy. This is Jamie, not Jimmy. As I stared at him, I wondered if this were some cruel cosmic joke—that I had to relive what I had tried so hard to put behind me.I shook Jamie awake, and with his movement the smell of the Greyhound bus he’d traveled on to Houston was released into the room. The whiff of diesel and old grease and smoke and bad times reminded me of the oil fields and the filling stations where I’d hung out as a kid. I stepped back and onto Rosie’s paw. She yelped and Jamie awoke.“Jamie,” I said, “you have to get up.”He grunted and looked around him like a drunk old man and stumbled into the guest room, falling onto the covers face first.I’d just fallen asleep when I heard the first roar. Rosie raised her head to look at me with surprise. I stayed very still, listening, thinking perhaps it had been a car outside revving its engine. Again the sound—impossible to identify: beastly, hollow, ragged. I got up slowly, moving the covers away, then placing one foot on the floor, then the next, and walked on tiptoes toward Jamie’s room, barely breathing in anticipation of what I might see. There was only Jamie, making a sound like a drowning man’s last gasps amplified over a loudspeaker. I held on to the doorjamb and saw his back arch until only his head and feet were touching the bed, and then he’d let out a rasping wet moan before he crashed back to the bed. I held my T-shirt in a fist, perspiration rolling from under my arms down my waist. I began to pant rhythmically, the way an asthmatic will do when she hears the breath of others coming hard. The dogs shuffled behind me as I whispered over and over, “Shit. Shit.” Jamie seemed possessed or dying or both. He’d shudder after each spasm, then collapse back into deadweight. Then I’d count: one, two, three, and on until ten seconds would pass by, then fifteen. Suddenly he’d be gulping, gasping, grabbing for air, seeming to rise up from the bed to find the place of peace. He was more movie than real to me that night.I can’t say how long I stood and watched him rock the bed. My mind must have let loose chemicals that numbed me, made the sight seem unreal or faraway or both. In the dark Jamie seemed unreal. Or I did. I thought of the many nights I’d slept in the single bed he was riding as if it were a bucking bronco. I’d often moved from my double bed into the smaller room and the twin bed when I felt the house too big and empty. On some of those nights I’d longed for a child, knowing that the time for having one was passing me by. Looking at Jamie, I knew why I’d never had a child. I’d been scared I’d have a Jamie, a child like my brother had been, a child that would bring a family down. I tiptoed away as if Jamie were a bad dream I didn’t want to awake. Like a child I clambered into bed, and instead of stuffed animals, I pulled the nervous dogs to me, held Jack and Rose as tightly as I wanted to hold my life close.I was scared of Jamie.Maybe, I thought, he’d kill my dogs in the night with one of the daggers I’d heard he collected. I imagined finding blood smeared down the hallway walls, a trail that I’d follow to the terrible finale: Rose, sacrificed to Satan. As the fantasy played out in my mind, tears squeezed from my eyes, but I didn’t know it until Rose licked my face, nudging me with her nose. “Oh, God,” I whispered to her, the matriarch of my dog family. “Rose, Rose, what are we gonna do?”I’d heard he worshipped the devil.The next morning I opened my eyes and tried to hear if he was up. I felt furtive and sneaky, venturing into the foyer, listening for sounds. Suspicious sounds. I slowly walked into his room where every cover and both pillows were on the floor as if blown there by a bomb in the bed. The mattress was soaked in urine. Now I remembered my brother had wet his bed until he was in his teens. I stood still, feeling the lineage short-circuiting, loose and live.Then I heard water splashing in the bathroom. The simple sound of Jamie bathing made me feel better. In the bath he sounded like a four-year-old at play, or a seal, or a Labrador puppy. Water, I could tell, was everywhere, but I didn’t care. He was washing off some of my brother. It was a beginning.I placed my hands on the banister of the stairwell and looked at them. My right ring finger is crooked—the memento of a motorcycle accident at fourteen—and I often think of it as the part of me that can’t think straight. I gripped my hands around the wood of the banister and took heart in the strength of my hold. I can do this, I thought. I went downstairs to see what there was in the kitchen to feed such a strapping boy.IF NIGHTS COULD TALK. Copyright © 2001 by Marsha Recknagel. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.


Marsha Recknagel has an M.F.A. from Bennington College. She teaches creative writing at Rice University in Houston, Texas.