Briggs Avenue by Trace Ramsey

clothes pins on a line

Mid-summer and the rain approaches without much warning. The wind comes up first, sucks a bit of the humidity from the air, and cools things down. It is only late afternoon, but the streetlights pop on after the first heavy clouds move in to drape the sky. Traffic outside calms then disappears as the rain falls fast, a gray curtain. The rain is thick. It hangs like rope connecting soil and sky, makes seeing the house across the street nearly impossible. We sit in the living room, each of us watching the storm in our own way.

Lightning runs along a tree down the street. The strike isn’t terribly close; I couldn’t hear that particular electric buzzing. But the thunder comes right on top of the flash. It is loud like a train passing through the house. The cats scatter, their nails digging into the wood floor as best they can. The house shakes, dishes vibrate in the stainless steel sink. Tennessee drops the book she was looking through and runs to me. I sit in the rocking chair, looking out onto the street. We were all talking about the amount of water coming off the roof until right up to jolt, how we couldn’t wait until the new gutters and roof got installed. Tennessee hugs my neck tight and the three of us go silent. The rest of the storm moves through quickly, all the thunder becoming distant and muted.

Post-storm yellow light enters the house. Raindrops along the edges of the storm windows invert the world and become tiny depictions of reflected reality. I watch as that pale and bright yellow gives way to dull green and eventually to the purple of an urban evening. The street lights stay on, hold the night off, hold us all in. After the storm I am scared of what can reach us out in the darkness. Tennessee slides down from my lap, grabs one of her stuffed animals and wraps it in a small blanket. She talks to it as she carries it from her mother to me and back again.

Tennessee goes still as she leans against the couch where Kristin sits. “You lost your baby, Mama?”

Kristin removes her eyes from the window and looks at me while she answers, without hesitation or sigh, “Yes sweet’ums. But someday there might be another one.”

* * *

The morning after the storm, I look out the divided window of our back door. I don’t blink. My lips are dry and fastened in a tight line across my face. A taut wire clothesline runs through my stare. Wooden clothespins clasp the otherwise empty wire. They are aging out there in the elements, darkening and staining with a subtly fragrant mildew. I count the pins slowly and silently. I try to take my time, but I get distracted by the line itself. The green plastic coating of the wire is wet with dew. Small drops of moisture form like pimples along its length. I start counting all over again and try to really focus my attention on this impossibly simple task. Once, twice; I stop only when I get the same count three times in a row. This is as close as I come to meditation. It isn’t working.

Grackles move around the pokeweed that grows thick near the fence line. The birds’ greasy metallic backs and tails always look wet and slick liked waxed fruit. They squeak and whistle amongst each other as I grab the handle of the door. The birds quickly fly off, pulling their grouping back together somewhere farther down the street. Other birds stay and wait; a fledgling mockingbird clings to the top rung of the fence. It is guarded and fattened by each of its parents, one of them feeding the child while the other yells into the yard. The shrieking bird spreads its wings in a threat to something beyond my narrowing vision, something that means nothing to me because I cannot see it.

I slap my face hard. One slap, three slaps, no use counting anymore, just hit me. Can I even describe what this is like, this knowledge that sadness is coming for me, and there is nothing that I can do to stop it? Even this physically violent method does nothing to disperse the coming storm. I am lightning connecting with a transformer on a pole; I am a race horse that just broke its leg. There is no stopping what has happened from linking with what will happen. I stop hitting myself and count the clothespins for a fourth time. I force myself to know that I am loved, that this disease can surface from time to time and I can get through it with just that basic knowledge, that understanding that someone inside this house cares whether or not I exist. I mutter it to myself: Someone needs me.

A chain link fence squares off our backyard. Sections of the fence are buckled from old injuries, indentations from where tree branches fell and snapped in pieces. The branches are long gone. A young, thin pecan tree rises near the edge of the fence. Several of its branch tips are covered in the gray tents of webworms. Hundreds of orange headed worms will eventually drop to the ground to pupate in the fall. White moths will rise from the leaf cover and proceed with a life cycle that is easily observed. When we were kids, my brother and I would spray the lower tents with hairspray and light it all on fire. The worms would smoke and wiggle and pop in the flames. They would plunge to the ground like burning rain, and we would stomp them thoroughly like there was nothing else to do.

Tennessee finds me at the door. After a few moments of back and forth with her, I open it, and we leave the house and hurry out into the yard. A children’s moon rests over our shoulders, a gray and flat disk passing in and out of the valleys of a few mountainous clouds. The sky is otherwise light and pale blue, reassuring. We come out here because, as I stood at the door slapping and muttering to myself, Tennessee came up behind me and made a fuss about wanting to pee in the grass. We have no problem with her doing it. We just want her to do it in the backyard.

“Ten, you can’t pee in the front yard right now. You have to wait until after the complete collapse of society makes it acceptable.”

“You promise?”

“I promise. Until then, only in the backyard.”

Like me, she enjoys this feral act of letting go. I was raised in the country and could piss wherever I wanted. My father was the lead to follow in this regard. Whenever I visit his house, I piss on the barn just like I did as a kid. This act helps me recall that I am part of something much broader than myself; no matter how deeply I get buried emotionally, no matter where I happen to be physically, within me there will always be nutrition for something else.

After my parents split up, I lived with my mother and brother on a busy road near town. We only lived there for a short period of time. It was a stopover for us, a cheap duplex with cable television and bunk beds. The busy road did not deter me from pissing outside. One morning as I peed on the cement blocks of the foundation underneath the kitchen window, I looked up to see my mother and her new boyfriend looking down at me, faces furrowed deep with anger.

“What’s the big deal?” was all I could think to say. After I went inside and when my mother wasn’t looking, her boyfriend (my future step-father) hit me hard on the back of the head.

* * *

Tennessee digs her fingernails into the green outer hull of a pecan that fell from our tree. It fell before the nut inside was ready. After ten minutes of scraping the edges and tips of the hull, her fingers and palms have turned a sickly yellow. She holds her right hand to my ear because she has discovered that her sticky hand makes a slight noise as she unfurls her fist. I take her hand gently and look it over. The space under the tips of her nails is stained black like she has done nothing with her time on this planet other than dig barehanded in thick, rich soil. The lines of her palm are darker than the rest, the crevices of the folds holding harder to the stain. I take her hand in mine, ball her fist within my fist and press it all to my forehead. I close my eyes and envision that I am connecting to the ground through my child, imagining I can somehow travel through her and bury the coming sickness underground among the roots and the larvae and the constant dampness.

“Can you step on this, Papa?” She asks me to crush a pecan under the heel of my shoe. I comply. She fetches more. A greasy wet streak forms where I press my weight down on each nut, smashing it into the concrete patio. The smell that rises as the unripe nuts come apart is strong and green like raw firewood. Tennessee keeps the pecans coming, and I keep crushing them until the concrete is frothy with the natural oil and water that emerges from the seeds.

A small pile of nut meat and sharp shell fragments builds on the patio. I tell her that I am done crushing for now, that I just want to sit here and look out into the fence line and try to breathe deeply and correctly. I want to sort myself out as my vision continues to narrow and tremble. But she doesn’t understand how to stop moving, how to stop learning and receiving information, how to just take all the material and sort it into neat stacks of knowledge. She convinces me to stand up from the chair to look closely at what we have done together. I find it ugly and gross. Tennessee puts her hands into the pile and squeezes.

A squirrel runs up the tree behind us and out into the branches high above. The scratch of claws on bark is unmistakable. The squawk that follows as the creature calls out warnings to its peers is also distinct. Leaves fall as the animal crosses the expanse and jumps to another tree. I swear at the squirrel under my breath for no reason other than it seems like the sensible thing to do. These are the weird and brief moments when I think I can still mitigate and challenge what is happening by deflection and self-control. I am running out of ideas.

“Do you hear that squirrel, Ten?”

“What’s that squirrel saying, Papa?”

“I don’t know. It seems unhappy with something, maybe unhappy with us.”

The squirrel’s noise stops. There is a temporary silence as we kick and throw the nut pieces out into the grass below the clothesline. By evening all the good pieces will be gone as the critters come out and lay claims among the clover and wiregrass of the yard. The mice and the birds and the opossum all have their moments when they are alone and can appreciate all this smashing I did with the heel of my foot.

A block away, the siren of a fire truck starts up and all the neighborhood dogs begin to howl along. Tennessee giggles. I focus on the dogs’ reactions without thinking of the tragedy beyond the siren—the highway accident, the house on fire, the body in the street. My emotional connections are rerouted or broken. I breathe lazily through my slightly open mouth and just stare at the ugly, rusting, and intertwined diamonds of the chain-link fence.

Tennessee hugs my leg again, and I feel nothing, shake her off. Petty and unreasonable irritation builds. I sigh hard, groan harder, grab my face with both hands and push up from chin to temple over and over again. The sound of my rough hands on the stubble of my face is sharp and familiar, but it isn’t familiar enough to ground me. I am in too deep; there is nothing more for me to do than go lie down and sleep through the worst of it, rise in the morning and continue taking the medications that thankfully make these instances short lived.

* * *

Tennessee wakes from a bad dream. Her cries wake us. Kristin and I roll over to face her and calm her in the darkness of the room. She can’t put her words together to explain what went wrong. We try the usual lines—“Everything is OK, sweet one. Mama and Papa are right here. What’s wrong, sweet’ums?”—but there is nothing we can offer her except diversion. Diversion is familiar, something I know a lot about. I sleepily ask her about a book we were reading before bedtime, and she instantly becomes silent and then talkative, but serious.

“Bears don’t ride bikes, Papa.” We talk it out for a few minutes and she is calm and yawning and welcoming the pillow as she lies back down. I am jealous and wishing I was so easily distracted and mollified.

I can’t go back to sleep. I think about the dream I just had where Tennessee saw my long dead grandfather. He had a line of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all waiting in a line to see him and meet him as he sat still on a couch. Everyone was crying, myself included. It was that hard and cathartic dream sobbing that I have sometimes. It was a chance for me to just dump sadness like a heavy bucket of water that had no place to go, no growing tree to nourish.

In the dream, everyone came to realize that my grandfather was dead. We prepared to carry out his dying wish, which he had written on a large piece of paper on the floor. It said, “I want you to burn this house down with me in it.” I woke up just after we had crumpled a bunch of newspapers and phone book pages under the coffee table and sparked up a lighter.

Whenever I wake up in the night, I look in Tennessee’s direction and find the lump of her tiny body among the blankets and stuffed animals. I reach my hand for her head and leave it there for a moment before moving down to her ribcage. In the otherwise still darkness I wait for her breathing to move my hand up and down a few times. This touch is a reassurance before I go back to sleep, a little ritual to make sure that she is there and alive and safe. It is also another way of grounding myself, observing the reality of this love right there beside me.

I want her to know, almost unconsciously, that if she has the same problems that I have that I won’t leave her to figure them out on her own. My hand will be there for her, helping her press back against the weight. She will come to understand that there is nothing more sinister or beautiful than genetic inheritance. It is strong and robust but also callous, unsympathetic and oblivious. Because of that, the same disease of depression that has a hold of me may exist within her.

No hard feelings, Tennessee, but this is you now, this is how you got zipped together, how the atoms aligned. Nothing I do can change that; we all take these chances when we decide to reproduce.

Tennessee may want answers to why she feels this way or that way, why she can’t seem to shake sadness on otherwise warm and sunny days. Just as I did, she will want to know what the problem is, if it is natural or if things will ever be different. She will want to know if she can fight through it like a tiger at the throat of its prey, or if it is best to just wait it out, deal with it as best she can at that moment and not delay in seeking treatment.

Whenever I can, whenever she might be able to understand, I’ll tell her, “Tennessee, I am sorry about the burdens, but I wanted so badly for you to be here.”

trace ramsey author photoIn 2014, Trace’s first book—an anthology of their zine Quitter (Quitter: Good Luck Not Dying) – was re-released by Pioneers Press. Trace is currently writing a memoir entitled Carrying Capacity for publication in 2016. In December 2014 Trace received a certificate in documentary arts in nonfiction writing from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Trace is a recipient of the 2015 Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artists Award in Literature. Trace lives in Durham, N.C., with their partner and children. Trace’s website is www.goodlucknotdying.com.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Paula-Bailey

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  • Kristen

    God, that’s a hard hit. I know that place. I don’t like knowing other people share it, but hearing how you get through it is powerful. Thank you.

  • An utterly gobsmacking piece about the burdens depression and parenting and the poignant joy of giving life. This is well-done, Trace Ramsey.