Donna D. Vittucci
by Donna D. Vitucci Nominated for a Pushcart Prize
The ghosts watch us quietly, for what else have they to do? Our lives exasperate them. The children have never minded their elders, they whisper to one another. We hear their voices as frost crackling the windowpane. We flitter along, basking in stupid, baking in it, hooked on junk, bleary with peering through the dark and trying to spy falling stars. You can hear the ghosts hum, if you still yourself and blot out the rest of the world. They’re always there, have ever been there, and they’re stacked thirty deep back to the continent where the sea laps in summer and the forest gilds fingers in winter. What’s in us is passed down from those poor souls, brave as they were but yes bored too, with the urge to roam. Perverse as we are, we dig the earth and plant seeds instead of our longings. We eat the dishes of home to remind us, we blot up the overlooked spills of soup with the soppies. May we refrain from tears.
Mom used a word I heard nowhere else: vetch. My parents didn’t swear very much. Hell, dammit and Jay-sus, but not the F-word, not even bitch. Vetch was her catch-all substitute. She called several people vetches—mostly criminals or bad people on television programs, especially soap operas, which she watched faithfully. The word means a climbing herb, clinging, with blue flowers, from Anglo-French, and before that back to Latin. How it traveled, in Mom’s experience, to imply a big meanie, a despoiled person, I cannot say. To me it sounds gypsy-like, and in my head it appears black and drippy, vampire-ish, vamp-ish, seductive, mean, brutal, disdained. You would not want to be called a vetch, much less be a vetch. It might have been her most violent curse. Please, may she never have thought me a vetch.
A second family-coddled word: banshee. Stop crying like a banshee. She cried like a banshee. I didn’t know what a banshee was for a long long time. Somebody who cried a lot and probably loudly. But a ghost? A wailing dead spirit, dead or predicting death? A spirit wronged and seeking a revenge denied in life. This must surely have come down from our Appalachian kin.
Sometimes pronunciation or misunderstanding created our family language. For the longest time I thought an ear egg was an actual egg. I knew ear hurting was what Daddy called ear egg. It brought to mind Mommy’s darning egg, that wooden drumstick. Come to find he meant ear ache. Oh.
He said bretzel for pretzel. He called green peppers mangoes. School taught us the real world and then home language seemed so quaint and backwards. Oh, to return to that innocent made up world once more, to sit in the Boomer Road kitchen with the shiny tablecloth where a wash rag could easily clean up spills so where you rested your elbows you got wet, to stick the tiny little yellow plastic ears of corn into the ends of real corn on the cob Mommy just picked from the backyard and shucked and boiled up for us. Chomp into it. Oh, that we could chomp into it all and swallow it, pass it through us, become young and whole again, all the brilliant gold kernels still to taste, all trials and heartache still in future shade.
Mommy spent her time worrying over bills she had to fold like a bad hand of poker, over her children running and climbing trees, over the rent money she had to scrape together, over a slow month for my dad’s sales, over that knocking sound when she accelerated the car, over the incoming storm. Would Dad’s bonus check be enough to cover the Christmas toys she’d put in layaway at Checkers back in October? She was the ultimate fretter. A permanent crease marred her brow. She laughed with us, but worry wobbled her gap-toothed smile. Not calling her hilarity false; only that she never let us know how close we were to ruin.
In summer, their room was the coolest of all in our second floor apartment because they had the window exhaust fan. We stood in front of it and its force obliterated our talking. Once she tore herself from her ironing, she ordered us outside, worried we’d lose fingers playing close to the fan blades.
“Stay out of the garage,” she said. “Red hornets nest in there.”
We were petrified of being stung; we drew our fear from her. And yet we ran barefoot through our half-clovered lawn.
“Don’t play under the porch,” she said. “Mice.”
She had us help take laundry down from the backyard clothes lines, and under the porch, alongside the Wardway fuel tanks, was where we stowed the clothes props. We shoved those tall wood props under the porch like medieval lances, imagining skewering the mice while fearing that’s exactly what we were doing. In our haste we came away with splinters in our palms.
Before she could fish out splinters, she had to sterilize the needle by passing it through a match flame, magical as alchemy. Our tearful abracadabras didn’t banish what came next.
“That could get infected,” she said, twisting open the fearsome little bottle. She marked our palms messy red at the center like Jesus hands. “It’s medicine,” she insisted at our crying over Merthiolate with its wand of pain.
I can’t guess how many St. Joseph’s aspirin I chewed during nights of childhood insomnia. Even at that young age, I was my mother’s daughter, worries over-riding sleep, my dried-out eyes all day long at school the next day.
Never underestimate the degree of gentleness in her broad flat fingers, in her permanent frown, in her willingness to give up a new coat. We were growing out of ours; hers was merely wearing thin. One winter she wore a rain repellant zip jacket Daddy got for free from Autolite. Did we say she loved to iron? Such a peaceful enterprise, your hands among all the folds and clothes of your loved ones.
The snow ball bush kept the Ford hemmed in on that side of the driveway. It was an undertaking to get out of the car. So stay inside a minute, don’t hurry so to leave us. Rather, won’t you push in the lighter and while it heats up tap out a Winston, dear Daddy, smoke with us again? The hornets will wait. The lawnmower will wait. The hamburgers on the grill need more cooking anyway. Give us five minutes, tops. Let us sit on the hump in the back seat and find tobacco treasure in the ash trays in the doors. Smell my fingers. There you are.
Daddy enjoyed work and he was good at it. He never thought of not working except as some hazy ahead-day whose hill was not part of the horizon. He worked until he turned eighty and then said enough. “What then,” his colleagues asked? “What plans?” “I’ll work on my stamp collection,” he said, “finally put that in order.” Stamps he’d been saving for sixty years, a mass of envelopes and countries represented that no longer existed. The Congo, before it was Zaire and then embraced its Congo name once more. Birds in rich and colorful plumage, exotic animals, men in native headdresses, commemorative buildings and people, historic American figures, the Queen of England, marsupials, popes. He didn’t touch a one of them. They remained in their sleeves and their sheaves and their tissue paper.
We remember their names. We try remembering their words, their sayings, the ways they scolded and praised us. They didn’t share many songs. We weren’t a family of musicians, though Daddy and Uncle Al waxed on for years about their infamous “We Three Kings” duet from when they were boys at St. Monica’s. As children we were treated to their re-performing each Christmas Day in Grandma’s basement. They needed little encouragement once they’d slung back a few Manhattans. The brothers held lit red tapers and Danny, our cousin, accompanied on the accordion. Grandma turned down the electric bulbs for candlelight’s true effect. They wore white dress shirts and dark ties, their hair greased but falling forward into the loose DePiero curls some of us were lucky to inherit. “Ohhhh-ohhhh, star of wonder, star of night…” All of us listening, all of us in attendance, all of us related, some little cousins holding hands, we launched into that lead with Dad and Uncle Al into “star of wonder” like we were soaring the sled ride of life’s tallest hill. We had nowhere to go but down.
In the basement the many of my dead hang on hooks. When we cleaned out the toys, there sat so much we had forgotten. Children’s eyes growing right out of their potato heads amazed at the games we played, the stuff needing playing with, and we stuttering against all the prizes. Lean in, dearie, the ghosts say, we wish to kiss your lips. We of course desire their kisses back, we cry out for them in dreams, and grab up the sleepy mists before they fade. Sheet hems and ant trails in the dirt, the invisible carving the landscape. We nod where they tread, where they stomped our elephant hearts.
String of Flowers
My grandfather, while in his sixties, died of a heart attack in the later part of 1967. I used my mother’s father’s death as the excuse for why my test paper wasn’t signed—the one and only time I faked out Sister Stanislaus. I was among her fifth grade pets and lying to a nun had never been a thought in my head until then.
My mother’s was the signature we sought for tests and report cards: Mrs. Richard Danemayer, Dorothy Danemayer. Understandable that I wouldn’t dog her with such a piddly request when she’d just lost Grandpa, so I forgot the test completely, even though I’d earned a one hundred percent and had nothing to hide. I dribbled into a puddle, my uniform skirt and sweater-warmth too confining, as Sister walked the classroom aisles collecting our tests. Such a stickler for commandments, this time I was afoul of the rules and embarrassed to my core when she called me to her desk for explanation. Grandpa was my grabbed-out-of-the-sky reason why I passed mine forward without a signature. Sister smiled at me in her typically mild-mannered-nun way, an understanding that should have let me off the hook. Need for my mother’s signature was waived, fifth grade proceeded, and I told no one I ill-used my grandpa and my grandpa’s death.
The next summer I begged Mommy to let me stay a week at Grandma’s house.
“Marianne next door always spends a week on her grandma’s farm,” I said. I imagined it a place of chickens and goats and fenced meadows far away, but maybe it was really only a few streets off. We ourselves lived in a plenty rural area—everyone’s yards disappeared into woods, met up with creeks, cow pastures, sheep, and ponies. We were loose in Eden those endless summers, but this particular year I begged for a week at my grandmother’s. Her manicured ranch house on a subdivision cul-de-sac was no farm, but rather a chain-link fenced square of backyard.
“I’ll dust her furniture, I’ll pull weeds,” I said, “just ask her if I can stay a week.”
Since Grandpa’s death she lived alone, except for Uncle Terry, in his twenties, driving a Hostess truck full-time, and negligibly there.
I try to imagine the phone conversation, the reasons my mother gave Grandma, and how she parsed my request because she rarely asked my grandmother for favors. However it happened, Mommy and Grandma decided I could pack my Barbie suitcase with clothes for a week on Hyacinth Terrace, no chores necessary. Grandma kept an impeccable house, a house that smelled of ironing, detergent and the well-oiled sewing machine she set up on the dining room table. She wasn’t a woman who needed help.
Her house had three bedrooms: one for her and one for Uncle Terry; the third had been Grandpa’s. Grandma directed me from her room to the bleached white chenille bedspreads covering a pair of twin beds.
“You can put your things in there.” His room, where I would sleep, Grandpa gone not a year, his clothes in the closet and drawers, I knew, because once Grandma left the doorway I checked those places. My every act of snooping gave off its waft of furniture polish and pressed cotton. His pocket knife and Buffalo nickels and a small stack of folded plaid handkerchiefs sat on the doily on top of the bureau. At night I put my wristwatch next to his.
I brought with me some paperbacks to read. I sat at the kitchen table and looked out the big picture window that opened to the square backyard, then further over the chain link to watch horses in the corral of the farm property at the rear of my grandmother’s. Forty years ago, even the cul-de-sac was not far from the rural. I munched pretzel nuggets and Oreos and dreamed of riding those horses. I wondered how I could manage to meet them, pet them, ride them during the next seven days.
Grandma caught me mooning. She said, “Play with Beth next door. Don’t you want to play with Beth?”
Beth’s mother was Shirl. How many times I heard Mommy talk of Grandma going on about Shirl this and Shirl that, Shirl said, Shirl did. Shirl might be a goddess but her girl Beth had a horsey face. I’d met Beth before. Beth and I had nothing in common except we were the same general age. We fake-played together for the grownups’ sakes where they could easily observe us so they wouldn’t suggest twice. Beth was about as close as I’d come to the horses.
Grandpa’s room had a small black and white television on a metal stand that he must have watched before he slept, before he died. Which bed touched the dying man? Which bed would give me nightmares? At home I had a night light, had other sisters in our single room, and with one I shared a bed. When night fell, Grandma slept behind her closed door, another pair of twin beds in there, with rose red chenille covers. I knew she would not suffer foolishness, she would call my fears niggling.
I kept Grandpa’s television on low the first night. The TV’s otherworldly blue lit the room and my eyes popped open to it big as creek stones. I fell asleep late, after Johnny Carson. The second night, with the television off, my eyes adjusted to the dark until the flimsy sheer curtains appeared alongside the outlines of moody furniture. Again, with eyes snapped open, alert to things that might move, I watched the glow-in-the-dark dots on the night table clock, I watched for Grandpa’s ghost. Once I could hear the first morning birds, I managed to sleep, the Clorox-ed sheets pulled up to my nose.
The next night, as she readied for bed, Grandma said, “Turn off that television,” but I pleaded, “Just let me watch The Fugitive. It’s the end; he’s finally going to meet the One-armed Man.”
I was happy to have the TV’s light and noise, to delay until the 11 o’clock news, which scared me further with assault and robbery reports. I switched it off, climbed up into bed, and waited for Grandpa’s ghost. Sometimes I felt like I’d stopped breathing, then I’d need to catch up on my breath. By this third night, I was exhausted.
In the dark, my adventure at Grandma’s faded into lonely, unwholesome fear. Fear of what? Of everything. Of everything so ill-arranged and leaking. Of no child but me in a room that last belonged to a man who’d died too young, whose death made my mother cry (a mother who never showed weakness), a grandfather I cannot remember exchanging one word with, his heart-less end now haunting me. But he did not appear. Instead, a fly was buzzing the room.
I definitely heard a fly buzz. I switched on the light and investigated the walls and ceiling and furniture. Nothing. Lights off, my sucked-in breath and me settled under all kinds of covers even in summer, feeling safer with the least of me exposed. The buzz. With one ear in my pillow I cupped my hand over my other ear so the fly couldn’t crawl in, but the buzz carried on inside and outside my head.
I’d be crazy to go in and wake and tell my grandma of the buzzing. She turned on the light, searched my room, found no fly. She squinted at me. “Did you watch that show?” She knew I had. “That show’s got you upset. You’re imagining.” Well, I was a good imaginer, a top-notch imaginer. “Stop imagining,” she said, “and go to sleep.”
Lights off, and she departed. Lights off. The buzz, the buzz, the buzz. Another night’s sleep lost, and I didn’t know how I’d make it through the rest of the week but we came to find Grandma was already done with me. The next day she sent me home. She’d endured the Depression; now that was something to lose sleep over. She couldn’t reckon with a girl’s silliness. And I couldn’t tell her my fears rose up from all Grandpa’s leavings claiming every hanger and table-top inch of the room, readying to smother the breath right out of me even though I’d nothing but loved him, in the way all little girls love their grandfathers, in the far-off and impersonal, in the partnering of Grandpa and Grandma, where the two were in fact one. What to do now with only half of such a pair, and how to face down a ghost to whom I somehow felt indebted in a house where I couldn’t even mention his name?
Recall those bright painful years that ascended our backs like ice climbers, the spike in the spine, up one more rung, everything else around us stripped, our shoulders jagged with hoarfrost. Heaven help us, we loved her, loved him, loved them both, loved them all, the way water loves ice and aspires to be it.