By Joyce Carol Oates

fear itself coverOriginally published in Fear Itself, Jeff Gelb, ed. information
Collected in The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque.

It was the most beautiful house I was ever to enter. Three storeys high, broad and gleaming pale-pink, made of sandstone, Uncle Rebhorn said, custom-designed and his design of course. They came to get me—Uncle Rebhorn, Aunt Elinor, my cousin Audrey who was my age and my cousin Darren who was three years older—one Sunday in July 1969. How excited I was, how special I felt, singled out for a visit to Uncle Rebhorn’s house in Grosse Pointe Shores! I see the house shimmering before me and then I see emptiness, a strange rectangular blackness, and nothing.

For at the center of what happened on that Sunday many years ago is blackness.

I can remember what led to the blackness and what followed after it—not clearly, but to a degree, as, waking vague and stunned from a powerful dream, we retain shreds of the dream though we remain incapable of making them coalesce into a whole; nor can we “see” them as we’d seen them during the dream. So I can summon back a memory of the black rectangle and I can superimpose depth upon it—for it could not be flat, like a canvas—but I have to admit defeat, I can’t “see” anything inside it. And this black rectangle is at the center of that Sunday in July 1969, and at the center of my girlhood.

Unless it was the end of my girlhood.

But how do I know, if I can’t remember?

The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the GrotesqueI was eleven years old. It was to be my first time ever—and it was to be the last time, too, though I didn’t know it then—that I was brought by my father’s older stepbrother Uncle Rebhorn to visit his new house and to go sailing on Lake St. Clair. Because of my cousin Audrey, who was like a sister of mine though I saw her rarely—I guessed this was why. Mommy told me, in a careful, neutral voice, that of course Audrey didn’t have any friends, or Darren either. I asked why and Mommy said they just didn’t, that’s all. That’s the price you pay for moving up too quickly in the world.

All our family lived in the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck and had lived there for a long time. Uncle Rebhorn too, until the age of eighteen when he left and now, how many years later, he was a rich man—president of Rebhorn Auto Supply, Inc., and he’d married a well-to-do Grosse Pointe woman—and built his big, beautiful new house on Lake St. Clair everybody in the family talked about but nobody had actually seen. (Unless they’d seen the house from the outside? Not my parents, who were too proud to stoop to such a maneuver, but other relatives were said to have driven all the way to Grosse Pointe Shores to gape at Uncle Rebhorn’s pink mansion, as much as they could see of it from Buena Vista Drive. Uninvited, they dared not ring the buzzer at the wrought-iron gate shut and presumably locked at the foot of the drive.) Uncle Rebhorn whom I did not know at all had left Hamtramck far behind and was said to “scorn” his upbringing and his own family. There was a good deal of jealousy of course, and envy, but since everybody hoped secretly to be remembered by him sometime, and invited to share in his amazing good fortune—imagine, a millionaire in the family!—they were always sending cards, wedding invitations, announcements of birth and christenings and confirmations; sometimes even telegrams, since Uncle Rebhorn’s telephone number was unlisted and even his brothers didn’t know what it was. Daddy said, with that heavy, sullen droop to his voice we tried never to hear, if he wants to keep to himself that’s fine, I can respect that. We’ll keep to ourselves, too.

Then, out of nowhere, the invitation came to me. Just a telephone call from Aunt Elinor.

Mommy, who’d taken the call of course, and made the arrangements, didn’t want me to stay overnight. Aunt Elinor had suggested this, for it was a long drive, between forty-five minutes and an hour, and she’d said that Audrey would be disappointed, but Mommy said no and that was that.

So, that Sunday, how vividly I can remember!—Uncle Rebhorn, Aunt Elinor, Audrey, and Darren came to get me in Uncle Rebhorn’s shiny black Lincoln Continental, which rolled like a hearse up our street of woodframe asphalt-sided bungalows and drew stares from our neighbors. Daddy was gone—Daddy was not going to hang around, he said, on the chance of saying hello and maybe getting to shake hands with his stepbrother—but Mommy was with me, waiting at the front door when Uncle Rebhorn pulled up; but there were no words exchanged between Mommy and the Reb-horns, for Uncle Rebhorn merely tapped the car horn to signal their arrival, and Aunt Elinor, though she waved and smiled at Mommy, did not get out of the car, and made not the slightest gesture inviting Mommy to come out to speak with her. I ran breathless to the curb—I had a panicky vision of Uncle Rebhorn starting the big black car up and leaving me behind in Hamtramck—and climbed into the back seat, to sit beside Audrey. “Get in, hurry, we don’t have all day,” Uncle Rebhorn said in that gruff jovial cartoon voice some adults use with children, meant to be playful—or maybe not. Aunt Elinor cast me a frowning sort of smile over her shoulder and put her finger to her lips as if to indicate that I take Uncle Rebhorn’s remark in silence, as naturally I would. My heart was hammering with excitement just to be in such a magnificent automobile!

How fascinating the drive from our familiar neighborhood into the city of Detroit where there were so many black people on the streets and many of them, glimpsing Uncle Rebhorn’s Lincoln Continental, stared openly. We moved swiftly along Outer Drive and so to Eight Mile Road and east to Lake St. Clair where I had never been before, and I could not believe how beautiful everything was once we turned onto Lakeshore Drive. Now it was my turn to stare and stare. Such mansions on grassy hills facing the lake! so many tall trees, so much leafy space! so much sky! (The sky in Hamtramck was usually low and overcast and wrinkled like soiled laundry.) And Lake St. Clair which was a deep rich aqua like a painted lake! During most of the drive, Uncle Rebhorn was talking, pointing out the mansions of wealthy, famous people—I only remember “Ford”— “Dodge”— “Fisher”— “Wilson”—and Aunt Elinor was nodding and murmuring inaudibly and in the back seat, silent and subdued, Audrey and Darren and I sat looking out the tinted windows. I was a little hurt and disappointed that Audrey seemed to be ignoring me, and sitting very stiffly beside me; though I guessed that, with Uncle Rebhorn talking continuously, and addressing his remarks to the entire car, Audrey did not want to seem to interrupt him. Nor did Darren say a word to anyone.

At last, in Grosse Pointe Shores, we turned off Lakeshore Drive
 onto a narrow, curving road called Buena Vista, where the man
sions were smaller, though still mansions; Buena Vista led into a
 cul-de-sac bordered by tall, massive oaks and elms. At the very 
end, overlooking the lake, was Uncle Rebhorn’s house—as I’ve
 said, the most beautiful house I had ever seen up close, or would
 ever enter. Made of that pale-pink glimmering sandstone, with a 
graceful portico covered in English ivy, and four slender columns,
 and dozens of latticed windows reflecting the sun like smiles, the house looked like a storybook illustration. And beyond was the sky, a pure cobalt blue except for thin wisps of cloud. Uncle Rebhorn pressed a button in the dashboard of his car, and the wrought-iron gate swung open—like nothing I’d ever seen before in real life. The driveway too was like no driveway I knew, curving and dipping, and made of rosy-pink gravel, exquisite as miniature seashells. Tiny pebbles flew up beneath the car as Uncle Rebhorn drove in and the gate swung miraculously shut behind us.

How lucky Audrey was to live here, I thought, gnawing at my thumbnail as Mommy had told me a thousand times not to do. Oh I would die to live in such a house, I thought.

Uncle Rebhorn seemed to have heard me. “We think so, yes indeed,” he said. To my embarrassment, he was watching me through the rearview mirror and seemed to be winking at me. His eyes glittered bright and teasing. Had I spoken out loud without meaning to?—I could feel my face burn.

Darren, squeezed against the farther armrest, made a sniggering, derisive noise. He had not so much as glanced at me when I climbed into the car and had been sulky during the drive so I felt that he did not like me. He was a fattish, flaccid-skinned boy who looked more like twelve than fourteen; he had Uncle Rebhorn’s lard-colored complexion and full, drooping lips, but not Uncle Rebhorn’s shrewd-glittering eyes, his were damp and close-set and mean. Whatever Darren meant by his snigger, Uncle Rebhorn heard it above the hum of the air conditioner—was there anything Uncle Rebhorn could not hear?—and said in a low, pleasant, warning voice, “Son, mind your manners! Or somebody else will mind them for you.”

Darren protested, “I didn’t say anything, sir. I—”

Quickly, Aunt Elinor intervened, “Darren.”

“—I’m sorry, sir. I won’t do it again.”

Uncle Rebhorn chuckled as if he found this very funny and in some way preposterous. But by this time he had pulled the magnificent black car up in front of the portico of the house and switched off the ignition. “Here we are!”

But to enter Uncle Rebhorn’s sandstone mansion, it was strange, and a little scary, how we had to crouch. And push and squeeze our shoulders through the doorway. Even Audrey and me, who were the smallest. As we approached the big front door which was made of carved wood, with a beautiful gleaming brass American eagle, its dimensions seemed to shrink; the closer we got, the smaller the door got, reversing the usual circumstances where of course as you approach an object it increases in size, or gives that illusion. “Girls, watch your head,” Uncle Rebhorn cautioned, wagging his forefinger. He had a brusque laughing way of speaking as if most subjects were jokes or could be made to seem so by laughing. But his eyes bright as chips of glass were watchful and without humor.

How could this be?—Uncle Rebhorn’s house that was so spacious-seeming on the outside was so cramped, and dark, and scary on the inside?

“Come on, come on! It’s Sunday, it’s the Sabbath, we haven’t got all day!” Uncle Rebhorn cried, clapping his hands.

We were in a kind of tunnel, crowded together. There was a strong smell of something sharp and hurtful like ammonia; at first I couldn’t breathe, and started to choke. Nobody paid any attention to me except Audrey who tugged at my wrist, whispering, “This way, June—don’t make Daddy mad.” Uncle Rebhorn led the way, followed by Darren, then Aunt Elinor, Audrey and me, walking on our haunches in a squatting position; the tunnel was too low for standing upright and you couldn’t crawl on your hands and knees because the floor was littered with shards of glass. Why was it so dark? Where were the windows I’d seen from the outside? “Isn’t this fun! We’re so glad you could join us today, June!” Aunt Elinor murmured. How awkward it must have been for a woman like Aunt Elinor, so prettily dressed in a tulip-yellow summer knit suit, white high-heeled pumps and stockings, to make her way on her haunches in such a cramped space!—yet she did it uncomplaining, and with a smile.

Strands of cobweb brushed against my face. I was breathing so hard and in such a choppy way it sounded like sobbing which scared me because I knew Uncle Rebhorn would be offended. Several times Audrey squeezed my wrist so hard it hurt, cautioning me to be quiet; Aunt Elinor poked at me, too. Uncle Rebhorn was saying, cheerfully, “Who’s hungry?—I’m starving,” and again, in a louder voice, “Who’s hungry?” and Darren echoed, “I’m starving!” and Uncle Rebhorn repeated bright and brassy as a TV commercial, “WHO’S HUNGRY?” and this time Aunt Elinor, Darren, Audrey, and I echoed in a chorus, “I’M STARVING!” Which was the correct reply, Uncle Rebhorn accepted it with a happy chuckle.

Now we were in a larger space, the tunnel had opened out onto a room crowded with cartons and barrels, stacks of lumber and tar pots, workmen’s things scattered about. There were two windows in this room but they were small and square and crudely criss-crossed by strips of plywood; there were no windowpanes, only fluttering strips of cheap transparent plastic that blocked out most of the light. I could not stop shivering though Audrey pinched me hard, and cast me an anxious, angry look. Why, when it was a warm summer day outside, was it so cold inside Uncle Rebhorn’s house? Needles of freezing air rose from the floorboards. The sharp ammonia odor was mixed with a smell of food cooking which made my stomach queasy. Uncle Rebhorn was criticizing Aunt Elinor in his joky angry way, saying she’d let things go a bit, hadn’t she?—and Aunt Elinor was frightened, stammering and pressing her hand against her bosom, saying the interior decorator had promised everything would be in place by now. “Plenty of time for Christmas, eh?” Uncle Rebhorn said sarcastically. For some reason, both Darren and Audrey giggled.

Uncle Rebhorn had a thick, strong neck and his head swiveled alertly and his eyes swung onto you before you were prepared— those gleaming, glassy-glittering eyes. There was a glisten to the whites of Uncle Rebhorn’s eyes I had never seen in anyone before and his pupils were dilated and black. He was a stocky man, he panted and made a snuffling noise, his wide nostrils flattened with deep, impatient inhalations. His pale skin was flushed, especially in the cheeks; there was a livid, feverish look to his face. He was dressed for Sunday in a red-plaid sport coat that fitted him tightly in the shoulders, and a white shirt with a necktie, and navy blue linen trousers that had picked up some cobwebs on our way in. Uncle Rebhorn had a glowing bald spot at the crown of his head over which he had carefully combed wetted strands of hair; his cheeks were bunched like muscles as he smiled. And smiled. How hard it was to look at Uncle Rebhorn, his eyes so glittering, and his smile—! When I try to remember him now miniature slices of blindness skid toward me █████ in my vision, I have to blink carefully to regain my full sight. And why am I shivering, I must put an end to such neurotic behavior, what other purpose to this memoir?—what other purpose to any effort of the retrieval of memory that gives such pain?

Uncle Rebhorn chuckled deep in his throat and wagged a forefinger at me, “Naughty girl, I know what you’re thinking,” he said, and at once my face burned, I could feel my freckles standing out like hot inflamed pimples, though I did not know what he meant. Audrey, beside me, giggled again nervously, and Uncle Rebhorn shook his forefinger at her, too, “And you, honeybunch—for sure, Daddy knows you.” He made a sudden motion at us the way one might gesture at a cowering dog to further frighten it, or to mock its fear; when, clutching at each other, Audrey and I flinched away, Uncle Rebhorn roared with laughter, raising his bushy eyebrows as if he was puzzled, and hurt. “Mmmmm girls, you don’t think I’m going to hit you, do you?”

Quickly Audrey stammered, “Oh no, Daddy—no.”

I was so frightened I could not speak at all. I tried to hide behind Audrey, who was shivering as badly as I was.

“You don’t think I’m going to hit you, eh?” Uncle Rebhorn said, more menacingly; he swung his fist playfully in my direction and a strand of hair caught in his signet ring and I squealed with pain which made him laugh, and relent a little. Watching me, Darren and Audrey and even Aunt Elinor laughed. Aunt Elinor tidied my hair and again pressed a finger to her lips as if in warning.

I am not a naughty girl I wanted to protest and now too I am not to blame.

For Sunday dinner we sat on packing cases and ate from planks balanced across two sawhorses. A dwarfish olive-skinned woman with a single fierce eyebrow waited on us, wearing a white rayon uniform and a hairnet. She set plates down before us sulkily, though with Uncle Rebhorn, who kept up a steady teasing banter with her, calling her “honey” and “sweetheart,” she did exchange a smile. Aunt Elinor pretended to notice nothing, encouraging Audrey and me to eat. The dwarf-woman glanced at me with a look of contempt, guessing I was a poor relation I suppose, her dark eyes raked me like a razor.

Uncle Rebhorn and Darren ate hungrily. Father and son hunched over the improvised table in the same posture, bringing their faces close to their plates and, chewing, turning their heads slightly to the sides, eyes moist with pleasure. “Mmmmm!—good,” Uncle Rebhorn declared. And Darren echoed, “—good.” Aunt Elinor and Audrey were picking at their food, managing to eat some of it, but I was nauseated and terrified of being sick to my stomach. The food was lukewarm, served in plastic containers. There were coarse slabs of tough, bright pink meat curling at the edges and leaking blood, and puddles of corn pudding, corn kernels and slices of onion and green pepper in a runny pale sauce like pus. Uncle Rebhorn gazed up from his plate, his eyes soft at first, then regaining some of their glassy glitter when he saw how little his wife and daughter and niece had eaten. “Say, what’s up? ‘Waste not, want not.’ Remember”—he reached over and jabbed my shoulder with his fork—”this is the Sabbath, and keep it holy. Eh?”

Aunt Elinor smiled encouragingly at me. Her lipstick was crimson-pink and glossy, a permanent smile; her hair was a shining pale blond like a helmet. She wore pretty pale-pink pearls in her ears and a matching necklace around her neck. In the car, she had seemed younger than my mother, but now, close up, I could see hairline creases in her skin, or actual cracks, as in glazed pottery; there was something out of focus in her eyes though she was looking directly at me. “June, dear, there is a hunger beyond hunger,” she said softly, “—and this is the hunger that must be reached.”

Uncle Rebhorn added, emphatically, “And we’re Americans. Remember that.”

Somehow, I managed to eat what was on my plate. I am not a naughty girl but a good girl: see!

For dessert, the dwarf-woman dropped bowls in front of us containing a quivering amber jelly. I thought it might be apple jelly, apple jelly with cinnamon, and my mouth watered in anticipation, we were to eat with spoons but my spoon wasn’t sharp enough to cut into the jelly; and the jelly quivered harder, and wriggled in my bowl. Seeing the look on my face, Uncle Rebhorn asked pleasantly, “What’s wrong now, Junie?” and I mumbled, “—I don’t know, sir,” and Uncle Rebhorn chuckled, and said, “Hmmmm! You don’t think your dessert is a jellyfish, do you?”—roaring with delight, as the others laughed, less forcefully, with him.

For that was exactly what it was: a jellyfish. Each of us had one, in our bowls. Warm and pulsing with life and fear radiating from it like raw nerves.

█████ █████ flicking toward me, slivers of blindness. Unless fissures in the air itself?—fibrillations like those at the onset of sleep the way dreams begin to skid toward you—at you—into you—and there is no escape for the dream is you.

Yes I would like to cease my memoir here. I am not accustomed to writing, to selecting words with such care. When I speak, I often stammer but there is a comfort in that—nobody knows, what comfort!—for you hold back what you must say, hold it back until it is fully your own and cannot surprise you. I am not to blame, I am not deserving of hurt neither then nor now but do I believe this, even if I can succeed in making you believe it?

How can an experience belong to you if you cannot remember it? That is the extent of what I wish to know. If I cannot remember it, how then can I summon it back to comprehend it, still less to change it. And why am I shivering, when the sun today is poison-hot burning through the foliage dry and crackling as papier-mache yet I keep shivering shivering shivering if there is a God in heaven please forgive me.

After Sunday dinner we were to go sailing. Uncle Rebhorn had a beautiful white sailboat bobbing at the end of a dock, out there in the lake which was a rich deep aqua-blue scintillating with light. On Lake St. Clair on this breezy summer afternoon there were many sailboats, speedboats, yachts. I had stared at them in wondering admiration as we’d driven along the Lakeshore Drive. What a dazzling sight like nothing in Hamtramck!

First, though, we had to change our clothes. All of us, said Uncle Rebhorn, have to change into bathing suits.

Audrey and I changed in a dark cubbyhole beneath a stairway. This was Audrey’s room and nobody was supposed to come inside to disturb us but the door was pushing inward and Audrey whimpered, “No, no Daddy,” laughing nervously and trying to hold the door shut with her arm. I was a shy child, when I had to change for gym class at school I turned my back to the other girls and changed as quickly as I could, even showing my panties to another girl was embarrassing to me, my face burned with a strange wild heat. Uncle Rebhorn was on the other side of the door, we could hear his harsh labored breathing. His voice was light, though, when he asked, “Hmmmm—d’you naughty little girls need any help getting your panties down? or your bathing suits on?” “No, Daddy, please,” Audrey said. Her eyes were wide and stark in her face and she seemed not aware of me any longer but in a space of her own, trembling, hunched over. I was scared, too, but thinking why don’t we joke with Uncle Rebhorn, he wants us to joke with him, that’s the kind of man he is, what harm could he do us?—the most any adult had ever done to me by the age of eleven was Grandpa tickling me a little too hard so I’d screamed with laughter and kicked but that was years ago when I’d been a baby practically, and while I had not liked being tickled it was nothing truly painful or scary—was it? I tried to joke with my uncle through the door, I was giggling saying, “No no no, you stay out of here, Uncle Rebhorn! We don’t need your help no we don’t!” There was a moment’s silence, then Uncle Rebhorn chuckled appreciatively, but there came then suddenly the sound of Aunt Elinor’s raised voice, and we heard a sharp slap, and a cry, a female cry immediately cut off. And the door ceased its inward movement, and Audrey shoved me whispering, “Hurry up! You dumb dope, hurry up!” So quickly— safely—we changed into our bathing suits.

It was a surprise, how by chance Audrey’s and my bathing suits looked alike, and us like twin sisters in them: both were pretty shades of pink, with elasticized tops that fitted tight over our tiny, flat breasts. Mine had emerald green sea horses sewn onto the bodice and Audrey’s had little ruffles, the suggestion of a skirt.

Seeing my face, which must have shown hurt, Audrey hugged me with her thin, cold arms. I thought she would say how much she liked me, I was her favorite cousin, she was happy to see me—but she didn’t say anything at all.

Beyond the door Uncle Rebhorn was shouting and clapping his hands.

“C’mon move your sweet little asses! Chop-chop! Time’s a-wastin! There’ll be hell to pay if we’ve lost the sun!”

Audrey and I crept out in our bathing suits and Aunt Elinor grabbed us by the hands making an annoyed “tsking” sound and pulling us hurriedly along. We had to push our way out of a small doorway—no more than an opening, a hole, in the wall—and then we were outside, on the back lawn of Uncle Rebhorn’s property. What had seemed like lush green grass from a distance was synthetic grass, the kind you see laid out in flat strips on pavement. The hill was steep down to the dock, as if a giant hand was lifting it behind us, making us scramble. Uncle Rebhorn and Darren were trotting ahead, in matching swim trunks—gold trimmed in blue. Aunt Elinor had changed into a single-piece white satin bathing suit that exposed her bony shoulders and sunken chest, it was shocking to see her. She called out to Uncle Rebhorn that she wasn’t feeling well—the sun had given her a migraine headache—sailing would make the headache worse—could she be excused?—but Uncle Rebhorn shouted over his shoulder, “You’re coming with us, God damn you! Why did we buy this frigging sailboat except to enjoy it?” Aunt Elinor winced, and murmured, “Yes, dear,” and Uncle Rebhorn said, snorting, with a wink at Audrey and me, “Hmmm! It better be ‘yes, dear,’ you stupid cow-cunt.”

By the time we crawled out onto the deck of the sailboat a chill wind had come up, and in fact the sun was disappearing like something being sucked down a drain. It was more like November than July, the sky heavy with clouds like stained concrete. Uncle Rebhorn said sullenly, “—bought this frigging sailboat to enjoy it for God’s sake—for the family and that means all the family.” The sailboat was lurching in the choppy water like a living, frantic thing as Uncle Rebhorn loosed us from the dock and set sail. “First mate! Look sharp! Where the hell are you, boy? Move your ass!”— Uncle Rebhorn kept up a constant barrage of commands at poor Darren who scampered to obey them, yanking at ropes that slipped from his fingers, trying to swing the heavy, sodden mainsail
around. The wind seemed to come from several directions at once and the sails flapped and whipped helplessly. Darren did his best but he was clumsy and ill-coordinated and terrified of his father. His pudgy face had turned ashen, and his eyes darted wildly about; his gold swim trunks, which were made of a shiny material like rayon, fitted him so tightly a loose belt of fat protruded over the waistband and jiggled comically as, desperate to follow Uncle Rebhorn’s instructions, Darren fell to one knee, pushed himself up, slipped and fell again, this time onto his belly on the slippery deck. Uncle Rebhorn, naked but for his swimming trunks and a visored sailor’s cap jammed onto his head, shouted mercilessly, “Son, get up. Get that frigging sail to the wind or it’s mutiny!”

The sailboat was now about thirty feet from the safety of the dock, careening and lurching in the water, which was nothing like the painted-aqua water I had seen from shore; it was dark, metallic-gray and greasy, and very cold. Winds howled about us. There was no cabin in the sailboat, all was exposed, and Uncle Rebhorn had taken the only seat. I was terrified the sailboat would sink, or I would be swept off to drown in the water by wild, frothy waves washing across the deck. I had never been in any boat except rowboats with my parents in the Hamtramck Park lagoon. “Isn’t this fun? Isn’t it! Sailing is the most exciting—” Aunt Elinor shouted at me, with her wide fixed smile, but Uncle Rebhorn, seeing my white, pinched face, interrupted, “Nobody’s going to drown today, least of all you. Ungrateful little brat!”

Aunt Elinor poked me, and smiled, pressing a finger to her lips. Of course, Uncle Rebhorn was just teasing.

For a few minutes it seemed as if the winds were filling our sails in the right way for the boat moved in a single unswerving direction. Darren was holding for dear life to a rope, to keep the mainsail steady. Then suddenly a dazzling white yacht sped by us, three times the size of Uncle Rebhorn’s boat, dreamlike out of the flying spray, and in its wake Uncle Rebhorn’s boat shuddered and lurched; there was a piercing, derisive sound of a horn—too late; the prow of the sailboat went under, freezing waves washed across the deck, the boat rocked crazily. I’d lost sight of Audrey and Aunt Elinor and was clutching a length of frayed rope with both hands, to keep myself from being swept overboard. How I whimpered with fear and pain! This is your punishment, now you know you must be bad. Uncle Rebhorn crouched at the prow of the boat, his eyes glittering in his flushed face, screaming commands at Darren who couldn’t move fast enough to prevent the mainsail from suddenly swinging around, skimming over my head and knocking Darren into the water.

Uncle Rebhorn yelled, “Son! Son!” With a hook at the end of a long wooden pole he fished about in the sudsy waves for my cousin, who sank like a bundle of sodden laundry; then surfaced again as a wave struck him from beneath and buoyed him upward; then sank again, this time beneath the lurching boat, his arms and legs flailing. I stared aghast, clutching at my rope. Audrey and Aunt Elinor were somewhere behind me, crying, “Help! help!” Uncle Rebhorn ignored them, cursing as he scrambled to the other side of the boat, and swiping the hook in the water until he snagged something and, blood vessels prominent as angry worms in his face, hauled Darren out of the water and onto the swaying deck. The hook had caught my cousin in the armpit, and streams of blood ran down his side. Was Darren alive?—I stared, I could not tell. Aunt Elinor was screaming hysterically. With deft, rough hands Uncle Rebhorn laid his son on his back, like a fat, pale fish, and stretched the boy’s arms and legs out, and straddled Darren’s hips and began to rock in a quickened rhythmic movement and to squeeze his rib cage, squeeze and release! squeeze and release! until driblets of foamy water and vomit began to be expelled from Darren’s mouth, and, gasping and choking, the boy was breathing again. Tears of rage and sorrow streaked Uncle Rebhorn’s flushed face. “You disappoint me, son! Son, you disappoint me! I, your dad who gave you life—you disappoint me!”

A sudden prankish gust of wind lifted Uncle Rebhorn’s sailor cap off his head and sent it flying and spinning out into the misty depths of Lake St. Clair.

I have been counseled not to retrieve the past where it is █████ blocked by █████ like those frequent attacks of “visual impairment” (not blindness, the neurologist insists) but have I not a right to my own memories? to my own past? Why should that right be taken from me?

What are you frightened of, Mother, my children ask me, sometimes in merriment, what are you frightened of?—as if anything truly significant, truly frightening, could have happened, or could have been imagined to have happened, to me.

So I joke with them, I tease them saying, “Maybe—you!”

For in giving birth to them I suffered █████ slivers of █████ too, which for the most part I have forgotten █████ as all wounds heal and pain is lost in time—isn’t it?

What happened on that lost Sunday in July 1969 in Uncle Rebhorn’s house in Grosse Pointe Shores is a true mystery never comprehended by the very person (myself) who experienced it. For at the center is an emptiness ███████ black rectangular emptiness █████ skidding toward me like a fracturing of the air and it is ticklish too, my shivering turns convulsive on the brink of wild leaping laughter. I recall the relief that my cousin Darren did not drown and I recall the relief that we returned to the dock which was swaying and rotted but did not collapse, held firm as Uncle Rebhorn cast a rope noose to secure the boat. I know that we returned breathless and excited from our outing on Lake St. Clair and that Aunt Elinor said it was too bad no snapshots had been taken to commemorate my visit, and Uncle Rebhorn asked where the Polaroid camera was, why did Aunt Elinor never remember it for God’s sake, their lives and happy times flying by and nobody recording them. I know that we entered the house and once again in the dark cubbyhole that was my cousin Audrey’s room beneath the stairs we were changing frantically from our bathing suits which were soaking wet into our dry clothes and this time Aunt Elinor, still less Audrey, could not prevent the door from pushing open ██████████ crying “Daddy, no!” and “No, please, Daddy!” until I was crying too and laughing screaming as a man’s rough fingers ████ ran over my bare ribs bruising ██████ the frizzy-wiry hairs of his chest and belly tickling my face until what was beneath us which I had believed to be a floor fell away suddenly █████ dissolving like █████ water I was not crying, I was not fighting I was a good girl: see? █████████ ████████████ ████████████████████████ ███████████████████████ ████████████████████████ ████████████████████████ waking then like floating to the surface of a dream as again the tiny pink pebbles exquisite as seashells were being thrown up beneath the chassis of the shiny black car, and Uncle Rebhorn rosy-faced and fresh from his shower in crisp sport shirt, Bermuda shorts and sandals drove me the long long distance back to Hamtramck away from Lake St. Clair and the mansions like castles on their grassy hills, on this return ride nobody else was with us, not Audrey, not Aunt Elinor, not Darren, only Uncle Rebhorn and me, his favorite niece he said, beside him in the passenger’s seat in the air-conditioned cool inside the tinted windows through which, at the foot of the graveled drive, as the wrought-iron gate swung open by magic, I squinted back with my inflamed eyes at the luminous sandstone mansion with the latticed windows, the portico covered in English ivy, the slender columns like something in a children’s storybook, it was the most beautiful house I had ever seen up close, or was ever to enter in my life. And nothing would change that.


Image: “jellyfish” by Flickred!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s