Marble, Necklace, Clock
Chelsea Laine Wells
When I was in elementary school I had a cat’s eye marble - clear with a blade of red like a fish fin twisting through the middle. I loved it. I don’t know why. The joy of little things, I guess, or maybe there was hope in owning a part of the heaving world I could clutch still in my palm until it slipped with sweat. Sometimes I sucked it like a lemon drop. The glassy click against my molars was like the first scattering break of pool balls - a comparison that would come to me years later as an awkward teenager at a youth group meeting in a Methodist church gameroom. No one told me I would choke on the marble because no one was watching. I didn’t choke, and was mildly disappointed that things like that didn’t ever really happen. (Until they did.) I spit out the marble and dried it on my donation-bin jeans. Then I hid it in my sock drawer. It was only mine because no one knew I had it. I had nicked it from the grimy Danish cookie tin filled with my father’s random life detritus - nails and screws, broken necklace chains, coins, lighters that sparked but didn’t flame, a zippo from a dollar store, pocket knives, keys that opened nothing, the cellophane strips from the tops of Camel cigarette packs, all of it infused with a sharpness like spoiled metal. The smell of physical closeness with him. Cigarettes in a closed car baked with heat, metallic sweat. Like blood. That would occur to me, later - that the fin of red ribboned through clear glass was like a drop of blood the moment it touches water, before it has had a chance to diffuse. That first shocked moment when everything is still separate from itself, segmented second by second. But back then it was just a marble. Our blood was still inside of us, mostly. By the time that changed I had lost the marble. If I still had it now, I would alternate between carrying the totem of it with me, self-righteously, self-importantly, and forgetting it at home in a drawer, just like I do with the painful aftermath of coming from someone who chose to die the way he did.
My father wore jewelry. Part of it was growing up poor and needing excess - however pitiful, as it came from Oak Cliff head shops and dollar stores - that could be touched and weighed and proven. Part of it was bucking the Dallas ISD teacher dress code. Part of it was just his general flamboyance. He had that addict charm, that coke-speed-crystal-weed, three-beers-in, bar-chaos charm. He could get away with anything. All the way up through the end, in his constant feverish attempts to find himself and be that person, he wore necklaces, earrings, rings. The end went like this: after decades of suffering his soul died before his body, and for a while he stumbled forward against the dragging double weight of the living carrying the dead. So he took care of it with a gun in room 112 of the Mount Pleasant Comfort Inn, and then all that his death entailed, including a plastic evidence bag of his effects, was my responsibility. The effects went like this: watch, wallet, lighter, ring, earring, pocket change, bottom plate of dentures (top plate destroyed). When I looked at the inventory I saw also: gold necklace with lion-head charm. I remembered this necklace and was sure I hadn’t seen it in the seconds before I shoved the bag under the passenger seat. I made myself take things out and look. It wasn’t there. I called the coroner. Things get stolen from bodies, they told me. We’re so sorry for your loss - these well-oiled words. I’m not angry. There are other things to be angry about that matter more, or maybe more to the point, nothing matters enough to be angry about. Certainly not that necklace. Certainly not a yellow metal lion-head charm, embarrassingly large, from a grubby, hope-desolate pawn shop on Jefferson Blvd. But what I’d like to ask the person who took it is this: How did you get the blood out? I wasn’t able to. In the back bathroom at my mother’s house, standing over her sink scrubbing with lavender hand soap and melting wads of toilet paper so nothing we owned would have to bear the indelible stain of him (anymore), I tried. The corrugated flint wheel of the lighter, the notches in the strap of the plastic gas station watch, the ridges edging the coins (not the teeth - those I destroyed with a hammer). I dug at him with my fingernails, the water so hot my skin flamed and numbed, breathing in the blood and lavender and sharp metal that reminded me of the Danish cookie tin but in reality came from gunpowder and the oil on the sawed-off shotgun he used. He clung so deep I couldn’t get at him. I can imagine how he insinuated himself into the links of the chain, the carved angled of the lion’s open mouth. That’s what I want to ask: not how you brought yourself to reach around the neck of a body whose head was like that - we all do desperate things - but, how did you grind him out? How did you eradicate a past that so completely drenched and tarnished everything it touched and settle yourself with what remained? How did you fix it?
After, I had to make decisions about what to keep. There was so much left behind once the tide of him swept out. My father always said, why buy one gift that costs twenty dollars when you could buy twenty one-dollar gifts? So when he was mentally present enough to engage with a holiday, or when he felt he had something to make up to us (often), my mother and sister and I received dozens of dollar store purchases individually wrapped in Greensheet newspapers and brown packing tape. Stuffed animals, ceramic figurines, off-brand perfumes, cheap notepads with pens attached by an elastic loop, snowglobes, keychains, coin purses, picture frames, sickly sweet candles. These cheap, unwelcome efforts littered my childhood and adolescence. As a teenager, after the divorce, I shoved everything in cardboard boxes under my bed so I didn’t have to look at it. Everything he gave me I added to the boxes, sometimes still sealed in a lumpy envelope addressed by his clumsy hand. After he died the boxes stayed there untouched, tops open like graves poised for exhumation. A year or so passed, and then one day, an object asserted itself. My cat had been diagnosed with feline Leukemia. On his last night, he scrabbled into the boxes and hid himself there. I lay on the floor listening for him. The depth of my vigilance was so extreme that the world around me fell away. I could hear his breathing, and his end-of-life comfort purring, and then, rising to the surface of my perception as though from a depth of water, the ticking of a clock my father had bought me years ago. Beating like a doll heart. This sudden assertion of a presence that had invisibly been there all along, like a ghost clearing its throat. A few days later I pulled out the boxes and dug around for the clock - the ugliest clock, some patriotic monstrosity with an eagle and a flag - evidence of my father’s sense of humor. He knew I wasn’t patriotic. He was always trying to elicit a laugh, watching me with hope and longing, but nothing was funny to me. Sometimes not laughing felt righteous. Sometimes it felt like kicking a dog. When I finally managed to cull down the boxes, I kept the clock and a few other things that were meant as joke gifts, like a bluebird statue randomly outfitted with two rapidly blinking red lights. I didn’t know what was right to keep and what was right to get rid of - I never do. My memory of him is self-serving and cluttered with a thousand broken plastic things. Maybe it’s good that he tried to make me laugh sometimes. Maybe it’s good that I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. The truth of this, like all things, is prismatic and dependent on momentary state of mind, equally useful in skewering myself and in letting myself off the hook.
About the Author: Chelsea Laine Wells has been published in Flapperhouse, Paper Darts, PANK, Hobart, The Collapsar, Hippocampus, The Butter, Third Point Press, wigleaf, and Heavy Feather, among others, and won a 2015 Best of the Net award. She is managing and fiction editor of Hypertext Magazine and founding editor of Hypernova Lit. She and her teacher/writer husband live with their children and animals in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, TX, where she teaches freshman English and creative writing at a public high school. You can read more of her work at www.chelsealainewells.com.