This Land Divided
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Isla Eidson had every reason to believe in herself and every reason to know she didn’t. Why else would she be sitting in the old ’49 Buick convertible she shared with her mother as if she were in hiding. Isla patted the steering wheel rhythmically out of affection and nervousness. Old but cute. She didn’t care that its fenders were riveted with decay from the salt they used on Utah roads in winter, that the color was rusted down to a washed matte-maroon that practically camouflaged it against the foothills. Still she wished for something else right now. Something less tank-like. Less distinguishable. If she hadn’t put the top down, it would be easier to hide out. She turned the radio off and sat in silence looking at her grandparents’ house at the edge of Holladay, a small farming community turning suburb at the edge of Salt Lake City. She felt exposed even with shadows of giant lilac bushes and cottonwood trees shuttering the late afternoon light. It was a simple task, one she often did. All she had to do was walk across the lawn, open the door and deliver sheet music from Eldridge Music Store to her grandmother, but she didn’t want to do it.
She also didn’t want to turn around and go back home. This was her place, her land as much as any other Eidson. This old adobe house had been built by her grandfather, Brock Eidson, and her polygamist great-grandfather, Hart Eidson. The house and land was in Isla’s soul, both sweet and scary, like a dark spot in the core of a sugar apple. She wasn’t about to let her fears—whatever they were—keep her away. Archer. That yearning for him. Trying to darn the different parts of her life into one. Fill up the hole. She tried to remember what she’d rehearsed to tell Gram Harriet. She feared she wouldn’t remember. Knew she had it wrong. Knew it wouldn’t be enough.
Isla slowed her breathing, watched her younger cousins, small versions of herself and the other cousins she had grown up with. The women in the Eidson family—pretty much everyone in Utah—gave birth young and their years of fecundity continued undiminished, like peas skimmed from a pod, quicker and easier after the first pea burst from its protective sheath. Some of these youngsters were nearly two decades younger than Isla but were still of the same generational slot.
These first cousins were running in and out of the screen door that slammed against their rumps with each misjudged exit. The dog, a mutt with remnants of herder in him called Old Black Joe, sometimes took the slam for them if he didn’t negotiate the swing just right. Isla knew this game. It would continue as twilight shrouded their figures into small screeching ghosts. In the back, through the house, out the front. There would be no adult interference and the children would wind down on their own like tired tops.
There was one major difference between this group of cousins and the one that played the same game when Isla was their age. Both groups would have looked the same. Kids of all ages. Grass stains on the knees of their jeans, hems of skirts losing their stitching. Blond hair tangled, clinging to wet necks and foreheads, all things to be avoided according to her mother and all the things she loved the most about being part of this place. Back in Isla’s time what couldn’t be seen by the eye surely tainted the atmosphere of any family gathering; these children were all Mormons, and Isla was not one of them.
It was certainly not this difference in religion that prevented Isla from opening the car door and walking up the lawn, for that difference, though usually unspoken and unacknowledged, had been one she had lived with for nineteen years now. Her mind started that dizzying spiral again. This day she carried a sprouting decision she must make along with the Mozart and Debussy she must deliver. This errand. No, this place, the only place she felt rooted, could influence that decision though she couldn’t see how.
“Isla. Isla. Isla-la-la!” One cousin began the chant. The others joined. The car had been spotted. A multitude of cousins with fjord-blue eyes abandoned their game. Clinging to her skirt and hanging from her elbows and arms like marionettes, they escorted her in a rush along the path they had been taking. Old Joe nipped at her heels herding her along, the smells of grass trod into pulpy paths and children wet with excited play following their trajectory.
Gram Harriet—Isla was the only grandchild to call her anything other than Gram or Grandma Eidson—was in the kitchen telling fortunes from the vaults of teacups to the parents of the crew of youngsters trailing behind her. No one had turned on the bare bulb hanging above the table. No one wanted to break the spell. The dim evening light in the room gathered the colors of Gram Harriet’s hair—bright, metallic like pink gold—just as the strength of her presence had gathered the youngest four of her nine children to her. No one saw the wrinkles that shredded a once smooth expanse on her forehead or the eyelids laden with the gravity of time; they were here for her predictions of vacations to come and of changes to be made in life, changes Gram Harriet expected—sometimes demanded—them to make.
Great Grandmother Crystal sat with her hand on her daughter-in-law’s arm, a supportive appendage. She was shrunken with osteoporosis. Her frail body was like a bunch of snap beans, showing all the under structures of her being in ridges and lumps. Gram Harriet said, mostly when Crystal wasn’t around, that Crystal had been the best mother-in-law a body could ask for. She also said, in disconnected conversations scattered across the years, that this home never seemed like her own for it had been Crystal’s before her and was Crystal’s still.
Now Grandma Crystal’s head shook in tiny patterns of negativity as each fortune was told. Isla was not sure whether this minute disapproval was from a stroke she had suffered or because she did not believe a whit in the proceedings. Once Isla had asked during a similar fortune-telling tryst, “What do you think, Sweet Crystal?” Crystal smiled and tilted her head toward her daughter-in-law. “Harriet is doing the fortune telling here. I am along for the show.” Her voice had been like the reedy sounds from a Peruvian pipe, a non-committal wavering between octaves, a strength of purpose in the notes.
As Isla entered the kitchen with dog and children clustered about her, Bernice, the oldest sister, was watching her cup being prepared. The sound of the upside down china cup chimed against the china saucer in the twilight. A personal future secretly arranged itself in the splotches of coffee grounds that appeared in the over-turned cup away from the eyes of all present. The children grew silent. Everyone waited for Gram to pronounce what the grounds had revealed. This process was so ingrained that no one seemed to notice that telling fortunes with coffee grounds was not the way it was usually done. All were aware that both tea and coffee were forbidden by the church. All were willing to break the rules for a good eye-opening jolt of joe or the convivial projection into the future.
Only Gram Harriet could decipher the messages in the cups and, because this one for her daughter was not to her liking, she swirled the last drops of coffee to rearrange the patterns a bit before she began.
“I see angry energy unfolding in your cup,” Gram said. The silence now broken, the cousins screeched for their fortunes, too, leaving their aunt to unravel the dire Delphic message later. Gram put teaspoons full of spent grounds into cups of Postum, the dark-grain brew she substituted for caffeine-ridden coffee, and that was good enough for them. Isla wrinkled her nose as they gulped the yeasty stuff nonstop. Each of their cups was subjected to the wizardry of triple turnings amid childish exclamations like the whispers of evensong. This ceremony was a family secret. No one mentioned the coffee outside this twilight kitchen because it was forbidden for the devout. No one was clear about who might disapprove if the fortunes were mentioned, so they weren’t.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a multi award-winning author of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Her HowToDoItFrugally series of books help writers and retailers worldwide. Learn more at www.howtodoitfrgually.com. She blogs at http://SharingwithWriters.blogspot.com and tweets @FrugalBookPromo.
By Kevin O’Keefe
1st Chapter of A Fire Somewhere – a memoir by Kevin O’Keefe
All my memories are locked in a house at 8 Woodbine Avenue. Whatever happened (and I still cannot be sure of what “it” was), I know it happened there. We moved there when I was eight and left when I was twenty. Whenever I am back in Larchmont, New York, visiting my mother or three siblings (out of the six) who live nearby, I drive by Woodbine. Something about it still pulls. Is it the apple blossoms that drop their white petals like snow in May? The back stairs that creaked when, as a teen, I snuck back into our home after skipping out? The slow sizzle of the dying embers in one of the five fireplaces? Some misty hand of memory pulls me out of whatever home I’ve made in the world and drops me, with all my ambivalence about Larchmont and my conflicted love toward my family, back to Woodbine.
We were royalty once. It was the early seventies. We were the O’Keefes. We lived in the same neighborhood as the Mooneys, the Auerbachs, the Boyers, and the Clearys. We were big Catholic families whose kids went to St. Augustine’s school. We played tackle football on fall weekends and swam in Long Island Sound or country club pools in the summer. We lived under large oak, beech, and chestnut trees, trees that cantilevered out and canopied streets with the same names. We thought it was heaven.
The sweep of the gravel driveway in front of my childhood home resembled a scimitar. It emptied out to the two streets—Larchmont and Woodbine—that made the leafy corner. Our house was built as a shingle-style in the upscale section of town named the Manor. The shingles had been replaced in the 1950s, well before we bought the house, back when there was a stucco craze in home remodeling. Homes in Larchmont were privy to the vagaries of trends, and to own a home, especially one in the Manor, was to take on certain historical responsibilities.
People walking by might say we lived in a mansion. We didn’t refer to it that way, but it was big enough for all seven kids to have their own bedrooms. Yes, the stink of privilege was on me and sometimes I even knew it.
You entered the house from under a porte-cochere in the center of the driveway. The front door was oversized and had an old-fashioned brass lock that never worked properly. Then you passed into a vestibule with another door that had a stained-glass window and into a large foyer, presided over by a chandelier. To your left was a library with dark wood paneling, tons of books, and an altar my father had erected to himself.
All of my adult life I’ve hesitated to tell people where I grew up, because I didn’t want to be judged by them. As if their judgment could ever be harsher than mine. I hate being defined, boxed in, or otherwise understood as Larchmont. I hate the subtle class differences between the haves and the have-mores that made me feel as if I didn’t belong, the understated competition that I participated in while at the same time trying to pretend it didn’t bother me, the country clubs and cotillions where I wore my rented tux, the alligator shirts and Top-Siders on the freshfaced, white-teeth kids like me.
Our scimitar driveway had gray gravel an inch thick, and any arriving car announced itself through the louvered windows of the sun porch. We lay about on floral-patterned couches watching TV and waiting for Mom to return from the Grand Union with groceries. When she did we’d empty the back of the Ford Fairlane of more than a dozen large brown paper bags and then return to Gilligan’s Island.
Am I the ghost that haunts the present owner’s home? When the waitress comes with the check and I don’t see it or her, is it because I am frozen on the third-floor landing listening to my mother weep in the middle of the night? When I drive from New York to Vermont and cannot recall Massachusetts, is it because I’m hiding in the broom closet during a game of tag? When I’m reading a book and don’t remember the main character’s name, is it because I’m sliding my turtle down the edge of the third-floor bathtub and into the putrid gray water?
All my changes, all my secrets
All my beginnings, triumphs and despair
All my scars, grief and poetry
They’re all trapped here, buried beneath the rose bushes, clipped near the hedges, taken out with the garbage, folded next to the laundry, burnt with the dinner rolls, Lemon Pledge–rubbed into the dining room table by Betty—our black maid from nearby New Rochelle.
Eight Woodbine Avenue: storehouse of complexity, mansion of insight, watermelon of memory, hall of mirrors, house of horror, home sweet home.
You haunt me and I long for you. Take me back, Woodbine, to the thick lawn beside the scimitar driveway that cut me in half.
Kevin O’Keefe has published stories in “Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood,” “The Commons,” “The Brattleboro Reformer,” “Spectacle,” and poetry in “Meantime.” A Fire Somewhere is his first book. He is the founder of Circus Minimus, AYCO, and along with Erin Maile, the practice and community of CircusYoga.