Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Swimming Underwater / Chapter One / The View

   The view from the hospital window is of the old neighborhood, experiencing the past as present. Rooftops and trees along Bernardo Street two short blocks away. Where it intersects on the south with Florida Boulevard its lane-like narrowness is apparent. Ten houses squeezed along its length and there's North Street and beyond that Roselawn Cemetery. There are whispered lies long ago of ruthless blacks digging up new graves for valuable rings, but strolling through the headstones forty years ago, reading inscriptions and calculating the time between the chiseled dates, there is rarely fresh dirt, just weeds and plastic flowers bleached white by the sun.
   The house on Bernardo is still there in memory. Where I grow up. Where, later, Dee and I raise our daughters. Although now among oaks on a few acres 17 miles east in Walker, Louisiana, moved years ago after my father died, the house still resides a short distance from the hospital, a simple frame design built in 1941 by my father and his father, Papa Cothern. Two bedrooms, front and back porches, kitchen, living room, one bathroom. The table in the kitchen is there also, in that phantom house on Bernardo, a reminder of a time when family and food are still linked, when meals are markers of everydayness; chrome, tubular legs, formica top, 1950's to the max, the surface of the table bears its history in nicks and mars and scars from countless gatherings: field peas and okra and tomatoes and corn and butterbeans and summer squash and hot dishes of black-eyed peas that slip off the crocheted table pads and darken the polished surface, boiled crabs, platters of fried chicken and bream and bass and rabbit and squirrel and crawfish tails, bowls of strawberries and milk from Louisiana Creamery left on the doorstep before dawn, lemon and egg and coconut and apple and cherry pies.
   But there is other food as well, different: fried squirrel heads cracked with a tablespoon, tiny white brains scooped out. sardine sandwiches on mustard bread, butter and sugar sandwiches, fried Spam sandwiches loaded with mayonaise, Vienna sausages and its petroleum-like gelatine.
   And then there are the holdiays as land mines.
   The entire pot of soupy cornbread dressing before stuffing the turkey sitting on the table, father, three sheets to the seasonal wind, taking it, feeding it to the dogs, saying, Well, Goddamn, that son'bitching squirrel dog dove straight into that stuff.
   On the 4th of July, folded towels on the kitchen table under buckets of homemade ice-cream and fireworks in the backyard, the lighted punks like fireflies in the evening air; the holiday turkey and ducks and hams and enough pitchers of ice tea and lemonade to dot the table like sentinels; more food at Christmas and, glancing from the kitchen into the small living room, presents spilling downward on both sides of the tree in an avalanche of foil wrap and curly ribbons of green and red and gold, carols of goodwill and sentimental journeys trumpeting from WWL in New Orleans while my parents argue silently with each other through the doorway, my mother in the kitchen, frowning, getting back a disapproving tilt of the head from my father in the living room, his recliner upright, the air of seasonal generosity around them electrically charged with potential arguments like explosive coal dust in a mine or chaff in a silo.
   Once, long ago and late at night, peering into the kitchen from another doorway, brother Wayne's head above mine, one eye each to the crack in the bedroom door, mouths rounded in astonishment, father smashing every plate, saucer, cup, whatever, in a raging windmill approach, jagged pieces of china like the broken oyster shells of the driveway covering the floor entirely, surrounding table and chair legs and the soles of mother's shoes. The image remains, not what is being shouted by father or the placating words from mother, but the sight of her hands, open, palms toward him, an image not of exposed silver grains on paper stored in the brown suitcase with other photographs, but one of memory, not subject to yellowing or the septia wash of time.

(Chapter One to be continued.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Swimming Underwater / Prologue

   Daughter dying and I'm mentally clipping newspaper articles.
   Been doing it for years. Some are gruesome dealings like the lady soprano in Metairie who hacks up her best friend in the church choir because best friend is having an affair with the soprano's husband. Choir-mates. Both women, soprano and alto, faces upward, concentrating, the name of the Lord on their lips as they strain for clear notes. The description in the newspaper article of the polished kitchen floor is about the detectives slipping on the waxy tile from all the blood. Another clipping concerns a pregnant woman visiting the French Quarter who is shot in the stomach, bullet lodging in the brain of the fetus. Labor is induced, then baby undergoes surgery.
   Both okay.
   Random shooting not yet solved.
  Interest never waning in the dark dealings of human misery, the newspaper so filled with death, dismemberment, the reason for collecting them because of the oddity losing its appeal in sheer volume, clipping articles becomes even more selective.
   Humor and irony rule.
   The darker and funnier the benchmark the better.
   John Lewis Jones tells judge and jury that a voice from the dead told him to rob Max's Superette in Fat City. He loses the case when he adds that the voice also told him he could keep the money.
   Or these headlines:

   Bible-quote contest loser sought in killing.
   Golfer hits hole-in-one, drops dead in Mass.
   Assistant coroner commits suicide in autopsy room.
   Mugger hits mob boss's mother, 94.
   Woman scattering son's ashes drowns.
   Award-winning foster parent convicted of molestation.
   Husband, wife shoot each other at church.
   Man holds chickens hostage in effort to ward off police.
   Five posing as New Orleans police stop real officers.
   Gun safety lecture misfires, leaving N.H. minister dead.

   Or one of my all time favorite headlines (which one way or the other tells the entire story about us all):

   Man on hike to prove people good, robbed, pushed from bridge.

   Aware that people I loved have died in this hospital where I was born, having lived long enough to be confounded by those facts, daughter struggling to live, to survive the very efforts at saving her, Dr. and nurses frantically replacing a dislodged trach tube in the hole in her throat, I stand in the hospital corridor, thinking about my daughter, clipped headlines flashing in my head like the one about the Colorado man who is killed bungee jumping because he is attached to a cord that is 70 feet too long.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Swimming Underwater / The Memoir

   Instead of posting snippets and fairly self-contained narratives, what follows from this point on is more of the same but from the beginning on of a memoir entitled Swimming Underwater, about growing up in south Louisiana, being able to stand at my daughter's hospital window and look over the old neighborhood, aware of what went on down there and aware of what is being played out in the room behind me, my daughter, Jennifer, critically ill and in a coma from viral encephalitis.

   Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything in daily life. So it was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all--and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.

Monday, October 3, 2011


   Unlike the Wilsons, my mother's side of the family, the Cothern family never has a reunion, not until long after my father and his parents are deceased. Uncle Kellon, my father's youngest brother, finally calls one day and says he invited the entire family for a Sunday get-together at his house on Blackwater Road. Good idea, everyone says, why haven't we done this before?
   Uncle Dulith's family is the last to arrive, approaching the rest of us sitting in chairs under some oaks. When he is close enough, smiling in his sly way like always, as if perpetually amused by everything around him, privy to humorous secrets the rest of us can't fathom, the resemblance between Dulith and my father is so uncanny it is my father standing there in the shade among us. A glance at my brother Wayne, mutual shakes of our heads and deep breaths, feeling faint myself, scalp prickling coldly like that day in the hospital when a heart attack claims my father at age 58.

    The day after Laurie's first birthday on Bernardo Street, I stand beside the bed in the emergency room, watching my father's fingers moving across his own shoulders, showing the doctor where the pain is. I tear through his wallet after my father tells me to get the typed paper listing the medicines he has been allergic to over the years.
   A note I retype many times over the years--each time another medicine needs to be added because of some adverse reaction.
   So I find the last note I typed years before on a hot afternoon after school--little dreaming I will be there to hand the note to a doctor, both of us standing next to my father in the emergency room, him sitting up in the bed, retching into a chrome basin from the pain in his back.
   "What about Demerol?' the doctor asks that Sunday after quickly reading the list. "And what the hell does etcetera, etcetera mean?"
   Seeing Uncle Dulith at that first Cothern reunion is like standing there in the hospital with no answer for the doctor; the feeling of fainting and the absurdity of safeguards because the memory of a man can be so strongly stamped in another's face.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ordinary Days

   My earliest childhood memory on Bernardo Street is standing in the baby bed in the back bedroom, holding on to the slats on the side, looking at Uncle Porter with his broad animated face as he booms wordsounds at me while handing me a red Prince Albert can he is squeezing and producing tinny popping noises. Still in the baby bed, eighteen months old or thereabouts.
   But I've lost touch with everydayness back when. I am those patterns. It's easy to recall the time in the second grade when a borrowed pencil is licked on the point to make a darker mark on the paper and then the lender-kid across the aisle says he dipped it in poison. It is important that I believe him?--or that I put my head down on the desk and cry because I will never see my mother again? Or the morning I go to the grocery for my father and get short-changed and get a beating for it. Or my father making a big show of trying to save my cat who has gotten trapped under a pipe and choked to death, giving him artificial respiration as ants march in and out of my cat's nose. Can rehashing all this put me in touch with all those other days when there are no clashes? All those ordinary days that seem not so special at the time.