The birthday cards would arrive the third week of May, sporting shaggy puppies or calico kittens waiting patiently in the heated darkness of the mailbox for me to find them.
Mom would scarcely have pulled in the driveway before I was yanking at the bulky sliding door of our VW bus, struggling with its weight, Mom yelling for me to wait. Wait!
She’d already broken a finger on that door – caught it inside the hinged, angry teeth of the latch. That door needed a whole lot of momentum to get started and even more force to stop it — mere flesh and tendon and bone wouldn’t do it. Mom’s finger, to this day, is crimped in the pattern of its wrath.
That door was unforgiving, but I was undeterred.
I risked a tanned hide and functioning fingers to break free. Because those cards were special. I never got mail. Or at least, I never got mail from anyone other than her.
And they always arrived promptly that third week of my birthday month, right along with the humidity and Maypop blooms.
The grass would be high by then, my professor dad too wrapped up in final exams to pay it the proper attention it deserved. Gypsy, our mare, did her best to manage the bounty of the yard. Staked in the center like the point of a compass, she wandered in ever-widening circles, fringing the fragile new grass with her wide, yellow teeth. She left half-moon pressings from her hooves, pressings that snapped and lifted like a jerky time-release film as she moved on.
Back in the pasture behind our house, the land was pocked with her hoofprints, half-moons and crescents scattered in muddy galaxies, hardening as the sun waxed hotter toward summertime.
Back up front, horse-flies buzzed angrily, eyes bulging, mouths working greedily at Gypsy’s flanks. (I recently learned that only the female horse-flies bite. They saw and hack at flesh – leaving a slurry of blood and disease in their wake – all in an attempt to nurture the next generation.) I raced obliviously past the feeding frenzy toward the dusty mailbox at the side of Molly Bar Road.
It wasn’t just the cards that excited me. It was what was inside them that I couldn’t wait to see. One year, it had been a single stick of Fruit Stripe gum, another, a crinkled packet of Kool Aid.
It was the 1970s version of “blind bags” – those infectiously addictive foil-wrapped surprise packs the boys beg for every time we’re in the checkout line at Target.
(My four-year-old boys call them wine bags. They have trouble with the bilabial “b” sound, which means I live in constant fear that DFACS will show up at my door one day because they announce to anyone within shouting distance that they love wine bags and they need more of them. Well, me too, boys. Me too.)
But I understand the fascination with the potential of a hidden surprise. Because even though there was never anything big or costly inside my 1970s version of a blind bag (and not in the present-day version either), I couldn’t wait to see what I would find.
So birthday cards filled with artificial fruit flavors — that was the memory that assailed my senses as I took a trip out to my mailbox this week to gather a couple of birthday cards.
But then another one slipped in… a murkier one… one of dim lighting and sticky lipstick and a loaded gun. Well, I really don’t remember the gun, just the gunshot. And maybe it’s not even a memory, at that. Maybe it was all a dream…
There are four memories that were dredged from the deep recesses of childhood this week — situations that have moldered themselves into inconclusive scenarios that may or may not have actually occurred. One involves the birthday cards and artificial fruit flavors. Another involves the lipstick and gunshot. A third, a rabid pack of Rottweiler dogs. A fourth, a ride in a garage lift while a mechanic changed our oil.
All are memories from my childhood past. Two are happy. Two are not. Two are dreams. Two are not.
I’ve already told you about the Fruit Stripe Gum and Kool Aid and birthday cards. That’s a good one.
So now let’s talk about that memory of the rabid pack of Rottweiler dogs (three of them — Cerberus un-conjoined and running free) chasing me through a gray forest smelling of decay, their barrel chests echoing with their howls, their canine teeth gleaming with their drool. I spill out onto a moonlit meadow with them close on my heels, and I stumble and am overcome. That’s not a good one.
And then there’s the memory of the inside of a professional garage, the smell of tires and oil, the sounds of engines revving and the clanking whirr of a lift. My sisters and I rise slowly above my mother, dressed in a pale lemon shift with white eyelet trim and the mechanic, dressed in green coveralls and grease. They are both laughing. That ones pretty darn good.
And then there’s the lipstick and gunshot memory. I recall an old chest – an old chest aged nearly to black with iron bands – or leather ones maybe – and we were hunkered down next to it. Until we weren’t. Until my mother gathered me and my middle sister up on her hips, our baby sister bouncing in amniotic fluid between us, and fled the scene.
… Maybe. Maybe there was no chest. Maybe there was no gunshot. But there was lipstick. I remember the lipstick. Lipstick dragged over porous flesh and caked into flaring nostrils. Lipstick slashed across high cheekbones and pressed over eyelids with pupils rolling wild underneath A fun-house-mirror-of-melting-clown-face… That one is anything but good.
This week, I stopped my own domesticated mom van (a Town & Country, not a VW — its teeth tamed via remote control and motion sensor) — to collect my birthday mail. And when I did, a horse-fly buzzed in the periphery of my mind and commenced to sawing open a whole slurry of wholesome and diseased recollections: the taste of fruit stripe gum, the sound of creaking car lift, the feel of canine incisors, the sight of scarlet lipstick, and the smell of smoky gun shot.
I collected the mail and left the heat of the mid afternoon sun for the heat of the repressed memories busily snapping and lifting like a time-release film.
And I sat down to write what I saw…