Elisabeth Geier: It’s the Mud, It’s the Mud
The summer the Mormons came to visit, my brothers and I took off before they had unpacked. The twins got my room. Uncle William took Mark and Andrew’s room at the end of the hall, with Ettie, his second Mormon wife. Second as in re-married, not additional. They weren’t that kind of Mormon. The kind of Mormon they were: the twins would french braid each other’s hair every morning, into butt-length ropes with two inches of split ends. Uncle William wore heavy leather boots everywhere he went and he was getting over drinking, always chewing gum. Ettie the second wife wore long, denim skirts. The baby had a face like an elbow, rough and red. They all glared at us as we shot past them to the van. I drove, Doug put on The Concert at Central Park, and we did donuts in the high school parking lot while Paul Simon sang about cigarettes and pie.
That night we listened to William and Ettie have sex. Through the air conditioning vents in the downstairs den, where we spread out on the couches and the floor, we could hear the rhythmic squeaking of Mark or Andrew’s bed. This went on for several minutes, then Ettie groaned as if trying to lift something heavy. Then it was quiet, then we joked and laughed for several minutes, then it was quiet again and we went to sleep. At breakfast Andrew imitated the groaning noise while taking the lid off a jam jar. If Ettie or William understood, they did not let on; Ettie squeezed honey into their mugs of herbal tea, while William poked a fork at the bacon. The twins sat in the window seat and did their braiding, and the baby sighed and gurgled in Ettie’s arms. My parents shared a newspaper at the table, and didn’t look up when the boys and I left for the beach.
Our parents never told us not to leave when we had guests, never told us not to call the Mormons names behind their backs. They never told us not to do any of the things we did, which is probably why we all have clean records and college degrees. When my mother was twelve, her father Angelo went to prison for half a year. Easy prison, white collar crime, I don’t know the details because she won’t talk about him much. When I knew Angelo he had Einstein hair and was making clocks out of photographs and old cookie tins. It’s easy, you punch a hole in the thing and stick the battery-operated clock parts on either side. This was his next big moneymaking scheme, one in an apparently long line of flops. The only Christmas we spent with him, he gave us all t-shirts that said Worlds Greatest Grandkid. I wouldn’t wear mine because there was no apostrophe, and I told the boys not to wear theirs because we couldn’t all be the world’s best.
On a cliff in Santa Cruz that day, the second day the Mormons were there, all of my brothers wandered too close to the edge. There was a trail and a sign and they ignored them both, and I pictured the cliff crumbling, all of them splattered below on the sand. You guys, I yelled. Step back. My heart rattled its way to my tongue and I stuttered, they all laughed, they all eventually took a few steps back. Sometimes it feels like worry is my only expertise. I was well past childhood then, we are all past well-past now, but still my first job is to protect them, even when they don’t know they’re in danger. Especially then. When Mark disappeared last year, days without a text message or e-mail, I called everyone he knew, I posted messages on Facebook and spread the word among a network of faceless friends. When he came back word spread just as quickly, and everyone said well that’s Mark for you. He likes to go off the grid. Right now he’s somewhere in Mexico. Mark is somewhere in Mexico; Andrew and his wife are in Washington, D.C.; Doug is writing his screenplay in L.A.; I am keeping track of them all. If they are keeping track of me they are saying things like: Nina is still in Palo Alto, holding the fort. Nina is fine.
When I was born, my father told my mother, It’s a boy! as a joke. They had known I was going to be a girl. Then my mother passed out, and dreamed for minutes of raising a second boy. She saw Doug and I as twins, digging holes together at the beach, in matching swim trunks and water wings. When she came to, my father said Patty, it’s a girl, and she frowned and said Oh, but she was such a darling little boy. Conclusions can be drawn.
This, too: when I was five, I almost drowned in an Australian’s swimming pool. My mother and her friend were talking in lounge chairs, cooing over Andrew in his little sailor suit, and I was riding a boogie board around the deep end. When I fell off and went under they didn’t notice right away, and then they did, and here is the memory that flickers like a filmstrip through my brain: my mother handing Andrew to the Australian, my mother adjusting her bikini bottoms after standing, my mother carefully removing her watch and placing it on top of a towel before diving in to pull me out.
Uncle William, Ettie, and the baby died that fall. The newspaper headline said Carbon Monoxide Kills Family of Three. Maybe “family of three” sounds better than “three members of a family of five,” or else the story went out before the reporter found out about the twins, who were at some kind of Mormon youth sleepover event the night it happened. When nobody came to pick them up in the morning, they walked three miles home. I imagine them laughing together, like they do when they think no one is watching, and singing all the way. home At the funeral, my brothers and I sat in the second row, Andrew and Mark between Doug and me. Our mother and father sat one row up, each holding the hand of the twin at their side, the twins holding each other’s hands in between. I imagined cutting off their braids. Before the service we were given rare instruction from our father: don’t make faces, don’t make noise, Nina and Doug, act your age. The baby was dressed in a little white gown, his little gray face relaxed. Mormon babies aren’t baptized, but they go to heaven anyhow, because children are blameless and pure. When Uncle William converted and married his first Mormon wife, my mother and her parents had not been permitted to attend. They had sat in a waiting room at the temple in Oakland, and gone to the reception in the park up the street, a consolation prize for the unsaved. When Uncle William married Ettie in a non-temple service, years after his first Mormon wife left, my mother and father had been permitted to watch, but not take part in the ceremony. When they planned the service and cremation for Uncle William, Ettie, and the baby, they were allowed to do whatever they wanted, because my mother was the official last of kin.
Mormons believe in a celestial kingdom where righteous families are reunited after death. The Holy Father and Son are there, broken bodies are restored, all good saints become immortal. I don’t believe in heaven but if I did it would be less sacred kingdom in the sky, more beach house with sand in the floorboards, a potluck or barbecue every night, radio turned up loud in a crowded kitchen, and a door always open to the sea.
In Egypt last month, my brother Andrew and his wife kissed inside a tomb. They drank Coca-Cola in front of the Sphinx and gave too much money to enterprising locals with a nose for suckers and basic English skills. They sent expensive postcards to their family and friends and almost missed their flight back to the States. I know this because my sister-in-law wrote it in her blog. When Doug gets married I will be his best woman — I will wear a tuxedo and tie, if need be. The tradition of sisters being attendants to their brothers’ impending wives, whose awful idea was that? I will welcome this woman into my family, but I will not be her best friend. I will stand beside my brother; I will not go to the bachelorette party, or listen to his wife talk about her hair. If this one starts a blog, I will not read it. Doug will have to tell me everything himself.
When I was six and Doug was seven and Andrew was three and Mark had just been born, our parents took us on a motor-home trip to visit our father’s family in Wisconsin. Dad drove, Andrew played with Lincoln Logs on the drop-down dinette, and our mother rocked the baby and cried. Doug and I made a fort in the back, and invented a band called the Naked Monkees. We took off our clothes and jumped from bunk to bunk, singing songs by the actual Monkees, inserting “naked” into every line. There is a tape of this performance somewhere, in a box under a box, in a closet in our parents’ home, recorded on a brown Fisher Price cassette player with built-in microphone and four giant buttons on top.
Hey hey, we’re the Naked Monkees. People say we naked monkey around.
Take the last train to Nakedville, and I’ll meet you at the station.
Another Naked Valley Sunday.
Loud giggles, a thump when Doug miscalculates a jump, then our mother saying Enough, Dad shouting You heard her, and the click of the recorder turning off.
After the Mormon funeral, our parents took the twins to their house to pack a suitcase, and Doug drove the rest of us home in the van. On the way, we played a round of Grandma’s Trunk. I was digging through grandma’s trunk and I found an abalone shell (me). I was digging through grandma’s trunk and I found Barry Bonds and an abalone shell (Doug). I was digging through grandma’s trunk and I found cooties, Barry Bonds, and an abalone shell (Mark). So on and so forth, all the way through Zeppelin-comma-Led (Andrew, who had just discovered classic rock). We never knew our actual grandma, but this is how our grandfather Angelo died: he fell down and hit his head. He was in an assisted living facility, but nobody checked up on him during the night; who knows how long he was on the ground, how long he was conscious or not. When they finally found him in the morning he was not, and he never woke up. They kept him alive for almost six months, because Uncle William was afraid to pull the plug. Doug and I promise each other we will always pull the plug.
When our parents and the twins got home that evening, when negotiations of our family’s new era began, my brothers and I did not leave. We sat in the den with the girls and let them watch the Disney channel for three hours straight. We made them hot chocolate and gave them the best seats on the couch. We tried to give them comfort. We tried to let them in. Now, the twins are at college in San Diego. When Mark talks about them, he says my younger sisters. When I talk about them, I say the twins. If somebody asks, who are the twins, I say: my cousins who lived with us after their parents died. Sometimes my sisters feels easier, but it never feels like the truth.
On the way to Santa Cruz, there is a stretch of road that feels like flight. Highway 17 takes a curve through wide swaths of redwood, and no matter how nice the day on either side of the mountain, the shadows of big trees make it dark. You take the curve too fast, the radio signal goes out, it’s just static and the road; you could be anywhere, any time, and you are flying. There are rumors of ghosts in the woods, girls lured from gas stations into trucks, used and dumped off the side of the highway. When we took this drive as a family, when we were younger and our father drove the van, our mother told us the same story every time. We can all recite it back:
Your uncle and I went to the reservoir almost every day. Of course they don’t allow swimming or boating anymore, but at the time it was the place to be. We took the morning bus from Los Gatos and stayed at the reservoir all day. We caught the bus home in time for dinner with your great-grandma every night. One day we were paddling around the reservoir on a log, and the log rolled, and all I remember thinking is I’m dying, I’m dead, and then a man’s hand pulled me out of the water. He saved William and me, said careful there, campers, and swam away.
When I was a kid, after my own drowning scare, I asked my mother if she had been afraid when she fell off the log. She said no, not really, but she was upset later when she noticed her purple bathing suit had torn in the roll. When I asked if Uncle William was scared, she said he was, a little; he was a very sensitive boy. When Uncle William told this story, the one time I heard him tell it, the man who saved them was an angel of the Lord: Your mother and I were in danger, and God saw that, and He sent help.
When my brothers and I started repeating this story for the twins, we embellished it into myth. The log was on fire. The reservoir, too. The man was a magical fish. Your father was glowing gold when the man pulled him out, and our mother had starfish in her hair. On the drive to the coast, which we haven’t taken together in some time, the boys and I always listen to Phil Ochs’ “Tape from California” over and over again. The song is long and boring, and we love it for that. When he was thirty-five, Phil Ochs changed his name to John Butler Train and hung himself in his sister’s house. I tell my brothers that if they ever take their own lives, they better not do it in my home. What I mean is: don’t leave me. Don’t ever leave.
The summer before Doug started college five hours away, months after the twins took over my bedroom for good, we drove to the coast as a family to scatter the Mormon ashes near the sea. We did it in the butterfly preserve at the twins’ request; they took turns pulling handfuls of ash from a plastic bag, letting it go into the wind. The boys and I watched from a respectful distance as fine, gray dust settled on nearby plants, on the boardwalk path, in the creases of the twins’ braids. When they were done, they handed the bag back to our mother and wiped their hands on their recently-purchased jeans. We all walked back down to the beach, my parents holding the twins’ hands. I stood looking at the waves and when I couldn’t take it anymore, I ran in. Clarification: I ran as far as the edge, then I walked in up to my waist, then I sat down and let the inadequate waves roll over my head.
My family and the twins were halfway back to the car when I caught up, sucking saltwater from my hair, broom skirt dragging in the sand. I sat on a towel in the way-way back and avoided my mother’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
What are we going to do with you, they said. What are we going to do.