By Devin Murphy
Featured Image: “Shoes” by Vincent Van Gogh
One night a month, people in my hometown outside of Buffalo, New York, put their large trash items on the curb for the sanitation department to pick up the next morning. Our neighbors would drag out old Whirlpool appliances, ironing boards, and whatever else the weekly garbage route couldn’t take. On those evenings, my Dutch immigrant mother loaded me into her rusted-over white 1970 Chevy Caprice station wagon with its vinyl side panel, and we’d slowly cruise the streets picking through the refuse.
From where I was slouching low in the passenger’s seat I’d get this fishbowl feeling as she slowed down and parked in front of those houses. Each home gave off a sense of neatness and order that seeped into their lawns. It always made me feel as if strangers were looking out their windows at us—or worse, people we knew. The idea of being watched made me want to pull my lower lip over my head and swallow myself whole. But my mother was unfazed as she picked discarded rabbit-ear antennas, steel rods, sheet metal, chicken wire, aluminum siding, rebar, large bolts, coffee cans, aluminum fruit cans, and every scrap of metal or iron and tossed them in the back of the Caprice.
She walked from lawn to lawn on the sidewalk while I inched the car along beside her. I nudged the gas pedal and braked with my tiptoes. I wasn’t big enough to see over the steering column, so I navigated through the line-of-sight between the dashboard and the top of the enormous steering wheel. When we had to cross an intersection, she’d get back in, drive across, and we’d start down the next block.
Once, we found a pile of broken rebar that she needed my help loading. A jagged edge of the steel stabbed the padding of my palm, so my mother tossed her frayed work gloves at me. I wiggled my fingers into the extra space of each finger-sleeve. The extra material knotted up and twisted against what we were lifting so it looked like I had a man’s hands that had been pummeled by a hammer. We tossed the rebar in the back where it shook the worn suspension and clanked against everything else we’d collected. When we finished she cupped her hand on the back of my neck and her palm feathered up my hairline. It shocked me that her hands were not rough or callused. For a moment I looked beyond her bandanna and worn clothes and remembered she was a woman men always found attractive. She had L’Oréal Excellence #10 black hair from massaging dye onto her head every Thursday night while leaning over the kitchen sink. She had long strong legs from running until her knees gave out and biking incessantly after that, which often aggravated the violent protrusion of veins in her calves. Being outside so much gave her skin an olive brown shade. The rest of my family got our father’s Irish pallor. Despite my never noticing her accent, men found it exotic and always asked me, when she wasn’t listening, “Where’s she from?” Tiny had asked. After she told him, he’d always call out, “Hello, Dutch Lady,” every time he saw us. Tiny was a packrat. I heard there was medicine that could have helped him cure that problem. People always talked about Tiny like he was a news story, so I wasn’t sure what about him was really true. I know that he probably had a glandular problem that made him so large, that his Grizzly Adams beard covered half the ‘A’ on the 1950s letterman sweater he wore everywhere, and that his blue Suburban with both bumpers and three doors held together by rope and duct tape, was filled to the roof with trash that burst out the windows.
Sometimes, Tiny’s blue Suburban and my mother’s station wagon would end up on the same streets, trawling opposite sides of the road until they’d meet toward the middle. Then I could see Tiny’s whole face scrunching up with his manic blinking, his beard lifting and dropping over the middle button of his sweater. “Hello, Dutch Lady,” he’d say.
We tried not to talk to Tiny.
There was something mangled-up and wanton in his voice that made me not like him. If Tiny was close, I’d get out of the car and help my mother. I took the odd protective energy I was feeling and focused it on trying to claim all the best trash before he did, as if we were in some twisted arms race. I’d place extra value on useless things for the sake of competition and insist that we add what I’d found to our pile. Then, all of a sudden I’d realize I was in a stranger’s yard. I was eleven years old and wore beat-up baseball caps with sweat stains watermarking the misshapen brim that kept the shaggy hair from my eyes. I was always in need of a haircut. My sisters were ten and four years older than me and had sought sanctuary elsewhere. The oldest had fled to college and did everything she could not to come home. The middle child, who by birth year alone bore the worst of my parents’ problems, was so pissed off at everyone that I was terrified of her. I tried to stay quiet and ask for nothing to keep from stirring up any problems, and my silence landed me here—my mother’s little helper. I’d look up and feel like the whole neighborhood was tucked behind their curtains and looking out at us. I’d look around and see my mother, and Tiny, and wonder if we were all in need of some medication to make us better.
At the end of those gathering excursions, my mother would drive to the old warehouse in downtown Buffalo that had been converted into lofts. I’d help her drag everything into her studio, and we’d add to the piles of metal from our previous trips that lined the scuffed drywall. She’d splattered the walls in bright purple and pale orange paints to add color. There was an old couch and mattress in the corner and workbenches covered in canvases and half-squeezed tubes of acrylics curled up like salted slugs everywhere else. We’d never stay there long. If we met people in the hall she’d usher me out after quickly introducing me as her son.
The studio was a place my mother went to disappear. There she lived a life other than the one she lived with her family—the life within the family was riddled with secrets, conflict, and unproductive behavior. At the studio she took the materials we gathered and arc-welded gigantic abstract sculptures. I pictured her bending into the shower of molten orange sparks bouncing off the dark faceplate of her helmet—the blue-tongued coalescence of metals drawing her closer to something that only she saw among the junk piles. I studied the beaded melding points of the work she brought home. Each joint somehow balanced heavy materials in intricate and subtle curves that she spray-painted vivid colors so the whole thing looked like electrified raw minerals geysering from the earth.
I would piece the following together over thirty years: my mother’s eardrums had been scarred from the percussion of Allied bombs exploding all over Holland when she was an infant. This would go undiagnosed until she was an adult. “I couldn’t hear well in my classes so I wasn’t that good of a student. I just sort of lived in my own fantasy world,” she told me. As an eight-year-old she spent a year bedridden with jaundice. She made her twin sister and friends play beneath her window so she could at least watch them having fun. She got held back a year in school due to that sickness, and being older and taller, she was put in the back of the classroom where she couldn’t hear anything. I would be an adult when she told me this is what led to her being known as the “dumb twin.” I saw that phrase ping off some exposed nerve within her and I understood why she left Holland when she was eighteen.
She was twenty when she met my father. My father was a San Francisco city kid who spun out of his own insane childhood with tragically alcoholic parents. He never nuanced his past for me, but I knew several vague details. His mother was a church organist. His father was a night shift beat cop in the Golden Gate Park District. He helped people cross the street after church and that’s where he met my grandmother. My grandfather was always armed with an ivory-handled Spanish-American War model Smith and Wesson revolver. They had nine miscarriages before finally having my father and his two younger sisters. By then they were old parents and tragic drunks. My father helped raise his sisters. The police, my grandfather’s coworkers, would bring my grandfather home instead of jailing him on his binges. On one of those binges he shot my grandmother with that ivory-handled gun while my father was home. I never asked where she was hit. In those days, they used to send drunks to asylums, so my father had visited his mother in institutions many times before she died when he was eighteen. He’d mentioned Langley Porter when talking about my grandparents enough that I thought it was the neighborhood they lived in instead of University of California-San Francisco’s Psychiatric Hospital.
When my parents met, my father was skinny from being so nervous all the time, and it wouldn’t be for many years that my mother would understand the depth of his controlling nature, issues with alcoholism, and the sanctuary he found in books. Though they never talked about any of these things openly.
When I was seven, the Caprice’s predecessor got hit from behind by a Dodge truck that pushed the back bumper into the engine block and through the oil pan. The collision doubled my mother over the steering column. It broke her sternum and ribcage, and punctured her right kidney. She spent two weeks on a morphine drip, and three months in the hospital. The doctors told my father she was going to die, and he wore that on his face every time he looked at me. When she didn’t die and finally got home, she told us, “There is no way to describe the dreams I’ve been having.”
“Try,” I asked her.
She just shook her head, and said, “I can’t,” as if the stories melding together in her work had already bled away into the fantasy world she spent her whole life creating. I imagine that world must have been so much better than the life of the “dumb twin” where she could hardly hear, was bedridden, broken, in an incredibly strained marriage with a tightly coiled and intense man, and where she had only come across one other garbage sleuth—Tiny, the gargantuan hoarder of trash.
She displayed her work in craft fairs or galleries, but most of her sculptures never sold and ended up hidden by a seven-foot wooden fence surrounding our backyard. One of those sculptures had three twelve-foot strips of curved iron balancing against each other on a pivot that kept them moving like waves. One day, when I was twelve, I bent one of the tips of the metal wave down so it bowed into the grass and launched a fistful of gravel twenty feet in the air when it sprang back. Those stones froze for a moment at their peak in the sky before raining down on me and all that interactive art in our yard.
Our house was across the street from a gigantic cemetery on the corner of a minor thoroughfare into town. When those stones froze in the air, I wanted to knock down our fence so people could see we had a sculpture garden and not a junkyard. Mostly, I wanted that fence to be completely malleable. I wanted to be able to pick it up over my head and place it around my family at various moments of my choosing, showing only what I wanted, giving me some measure of control over how we were perceived.
I’d lift the fence up and show my mother wielding the blue flame. I’d show my father, the philosophy professor, on a couch surrounded by knee-high piles of books—his eyes consuming the page in front of him as if chasing something inside of himself. I’d show him tossing on his long black winter overcoat and wrapping a soft purple shawl around his neck that accentuated his whitening hair, and how that outfit made people tell my mom, “Your husband even looks like a professor.”
Then I’d slam the fence down around her gathering trash. I’d slam it around my parents always screaming at each other, slipping out on Tuesday nights for marriage counseling—leaving our house full of a heavy tension I was too afraid to ask about. I wanted to hide all that as well. I’d hide the time my father got so frustrated that he went out to our front yard where he tried to clean Halloween graffiti off our sidewalk by pouring gasoline on the concrete slabs to burn it off, and how the match lit a flame that shot ten feet over his head.
“What is he doing,” I heard my mother at the living room window. Her voice sounded deeply disappointed in something.
From inside the house I could hear the people driving past and honking as he dolloped more gas onto the corner like a magician whose trick had gone horribly wrong. Commuters must have taken offense to the sharp contrast between the serenity of the dead beyond the cemetery’s cast-iron gate and the lunacy of the living tending to their homes. As I watched my father I had the image of orange flames spreading across the whole array of autumnal leaves on the ground—each leaf igniting at the stem, burning orange up the midrib and veining out across the blade until that vascular flame touched the next leaf, and the next, until someone, someone I knew, would eventually end up standing in front of me saying, “Your father burnt down the neighborhood.”
Our neighborhood was between the university my father taught at and my mother’s studio downtown. The location was a compromise. Moving there was their unspoken attempt at saving their marriage. My mother, who grew up just south of Amsterdam, would have liked to live closer to the artist community in Buffalo. My father wanted to be near the university which he commuted to over an hour each way. I’m sure neither one expected their location decision to keep them driving in opposite directions every day, leaving me in the middle.
It was as if neither knew how to handle where they were, so they each went about nurturing and finding direction in their own inner lives. When they met back again, they opened our home to childless people who were unbalanced, greatly desiring or silently needing their help. There were artists named Hugo, Malcolm, Alice, and then Jim, the suicidal eighty-one-year-old widower who fell in love with my mother. My father’s friend, Luke, was a one-eyed Trappist monk, who had spent twenty-nine years adhering to a vow of silence at monastery. Luke came to dinner and talked as slow as a person could but he never shut up. We also had deadbeat painters come over with six-packs as barter to watch television shows they liked, and schizophrenics who were used to my father giving them rides around town when he saw them. One of his gay students who was disowned by his family for coming out of the closet stayed in our extra room for a semester. They all marched through our house that I only wanted to find normalcy in. Often, they’d stop in reverence of the art. “Dear God! Where did you get this?” Luke asked, as he ran his thumb up the coarse flume of a metal sculpture spanning from the top of a bookshelf to the ceiling.
“My mom made it,” I said, as I stepped up to the side he wore the eye patch on. I thought the influx of oddballs in our home, and the surprise of how her life was shaping up was why my mother clung to her art. Though I liked to think my parents found versions of their better selves in their art and readings, versions that pardoned their inability to mesh into the suburban community I was growing up in. “The base is made out of an old propane tank we found,” I said.
On days my parents went their separate ways, my mother arranged for me to check in with the Flowers, our elderly neighbors. “It’s a step up from being a latchkey kid,” she’d told me, her smile fading as she listened to her own words. “They have the number to my studio building,” she added quickly.
Some days, Mr. Flower would load me and his liver-spotted poodle in his Ford Country Squire and drive us to the back of the cemetery where the north and west borders met and dropped a hundred yards off a sloping ravine into Cazenovia Creek. He backed up to the cliff, next to the tree with the “NO DUMPING” sign screwed into it, and open the back hatch of the car, and I helped him toss the contents off the hill. I heaved the ceramic tops of toilet bowls, moldering boxes of old National Geographic magazines, and anything else he’d emptied from his moth-ridden basement.
“You’re too young and I’m too old to get in trouble,” Mr. Flower told me when I pointed at the sign on the tree. “We’re the perfect team,” he assured me as glossy photos of African elephants, South American jungles, and outer space fluttered down that gorge.
When I told my mother about this, she made me walk her to the gorge to show her. I thought she’d want to pick through the sloping debris, but when we got there, she had me help her find a way down to the creek through the conifers and oaks clinging to the ravine wall. When we found a path that led us to the water, she stopped at its edge and said, “Perfect. Let’s go,” and turned to walk back up the trail. At our house we grabbed gardening shovels and handfuls of black industrial-strength garbage bags and headed right back to the creek bed, where we scooped away at the topsoil until we hit gray clay. Our shovels made sucking sounds as we scooped clay into the bags and lugged it all back to our house. I struggled back up the path with the heavy bags hitting against my hamstrings with each step.
From then on, we went to the banks of Cazenovia Creek every time she wanted to work with clay or throw a pot on the pottery wheel. At the time, I was sure she never thought what it looked like to people driving by on the street who saw us carrying heavy black bags and shovels out of the graveyard, and as I walked, I was picturing our malleable fence walking with us, shifting to cover us from view.
Part of me wanted to yell at every judging or confused set of eyes that I imagined were on me, “Fuck you! My mom will take your trash and make it fly.”
I asked myself what hidden need was pulling at my mother to do these things, and what was my father looking for in those libraries of books, as my mother cast the clay from the riverbank into pots on a pottery wheel, or fired a collection of goblets and plates in the kiln we kept in our basement. I didn’t know if I was supposed to burn with such a need or claw some task for myself out of the landscape.
Once I cracked my head open on that kiln after tripping and diving headfirst against it. My mother held a dish towel over my bleeding scalp in the backseat of the Caprice while my father sped to the emergency room.
“That Goddamn kiln!” he kept saying.
“It’s going to be fine,” my mother repeated. When she lifted the towel up to see the cut we all saw the redness soaked into the cloth. “It’s going to be fine.”
“Hold it there. Hold it on.” my father yelled, and it felt as if my bleeding was the cause of all their tension. I kept quiet, as I always did, not wanting to stir anything else up. Staying silent seemed to be what we were all doing, and what held us together.
After getting seventeen stitches, I paid more attention to what actually came out of her kiln. She made the glazes herself with a pestle and mortar. From the kiln she’d pull eloquent vases that bloomed from the neck like lilies and crocuses that were so fragile I never touched them. The pottery she couldn’t sell would end up on our shelves, like the sculptures in the yard, and the paintings on the walls.
“If I’d stayed in Europe, my work would sell,” she once told us, justifying why such things were ending up in our home. Our family was her only consistent audience. It had never occurred to me that selling her work was her goal. Though not selling it must have taken the luster out of what she was doing.
The paintings rotating on our walls correlated to whatever period she was in. Several boys from my sixth-grade class stood at the shrine of Naked Women #17, during my mother’s “Live Art” period where our walls were fleshed with her life-sized drawings of naked people that she framed herself. With her oil paintings, I’d focus on the colors first, as the abstract designs seemed to hold their meanings too tight for me to grasp.
Then there was her fascination with Indonesian shadow puppets. She painted a large series of them using dark pastel acrylics. The puppets were solid white reliefs against prismatic colored backgrounds. They looked like Nefertiti-esque skeletons frozen in terrifying pirouettes. Traditionally the puppets had been used to ward off evil spirits and act out plays about good and evil. She’d bring the puppet paintings home one at a time. My father and I would stand around the walls with her, looking at what she had just put up, wondering if we were supposed to interpret some meaning she could not express any other way.
There is one painting especially from the shadow-puppet phase that still makes me ask what she was trying to get at. It is the brightest of the shadow puppets and the only one that has stayed on the same wall after it was put up. The white outline of the puppet is more demonic than the rest, as if the dark silent shadow at the center of our lives had been emboldened to dance. I positioned myself between my mother and father in front of that painting when she unveiled it.
“This is one of your best yet!” my father said. “I like the colors,” was my input.
“St. Augustine thought that the mind was the closest thing there was to a representation of God, because it was a producer of infinite images,” my father said. “This painting suggests that. It’s like the movement of the lines tells the story of the creature. This is its first step we are seeing—and we can stand here forever envisioning its next. It can fly or collapse, it can attack or kneel at your feet. Its action is in the process of infinite becoming.”
“This feels wonderful,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I was talking about the painting itself or standing there with them, but my mother kneeled next to me and engulfed me in her arms.
When she hugged me I tucked my chin into the nape of her neck and looked up at the shadow puppet painting. There were blues in there that in my subsequent travels all over the world I have never seen, and a flush of red that descends into every other shade of red that exists. I have been looking at this painting for years now. Each fleck of paint rattles with things we never said—with my voice softly murmuring above the silence of our home that I too was in the process of becoming, and though this silence had become a part of me, I would not live in it forever. But I was soaking in my mother’s art and what that said about her past disappointments and desires, and I was weaving it all together, and there was no avoiding the lovely weirdness of it, no fence to contain or hold back all that loneliness and love she must have looked for so many ways to share.
I look at that painting and know our problems were not exceptional, that they did not sink us, and I use the colors to stitch together our narrative, mashing in everything I needed to say and never will for fear of stirring up the painful past. I look at the colors and think, what a gift they have laid down for me, like acrylic gold among the inevitable trash.
Devin Murphy is the national bestselling author of the novels The Boat Runner and Tiny Americans published by Harper Perennial. His recent short stories appear in The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, The Sun, and New Stories from the Midwest as well as many others. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University.
Originally appeared in NOR 11.