Excerpts from a Wisconsin Childhood by Suzanne McNear

BOMB 89 Fall 2004
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Those were staggering, broken days.

 

End-of-summer days when the sky was so wildly blue and the clouds came always in the shape of the bison of the Great Plains, one after another, immense, shaggy hump- backed animals with heads bent to the exactness of the land, the delicious meaty tongues arched out, herds of high-born, humorous creatures, hoofing it on the light- est breeze, their beards combing our bare spread toes, the shadows of their shoulder mantles grazing our arms and bellies as their bodies lumbered toward the west and a sun that would set as late and as formally as we once thought all suns set.

 

Our family had grown fat during the hundred years of winters. The forces of winters! We sat them out in our many huge pairs of airy brown trousers, a specific brown, the color of dog biscuits or fish pellets, that brown that is made from nutritious household pet food compressed into small packets.

 

We the fat people!

 

The up-rising parents, the whispery grandparents, the wild children. The mother, the father, shaking their limbs. The pumpies and noonies, odd, old things, dragging their moth-bitten blankets, searching under the dust ruffles for their hairpieces, their tiny teeth, their buttons. And us. Apple, Battle, Abel, Cain, Ego, me. Many of us.

Baggy and soft, doughy, sunk into easy chairs, big green armchairs, scratchy rose-colored love seats, poking our faces with our fingers or with pencils or leaky pens, pushing in there to give emphasis, to give ourselves a character. We shaped our soft, blobby bodies and heads, and black knowing holes of eye and mouth and nose appeared forthwith and did not close up with time, did not disappear as the doughy folds stirred and breathed a little and came back to surround the features we had begun to carry.

 

Loneliness made us fat.

 

Fear made us fat. The hissing and slamming. The angry parents stuffing each other into suitcases, plopping onto a steamer lid to press the prisoner down. Someone later peeking out, the eyes at the gap where the lock had been eaten away, watching, getting ready to spring.

 

The quiet that had such weight doubled our weight. The silence of the prairie was heavy and audible. We had heard it before we were born, in the music, in the housework that went on in the rooms where dust was being stirred into the sunlight, in the twanging of rubber bands that people stretched between their thumbs and forefingers to signify the stretching of time.

 

We heard the silence after we were born. It was the same. It pressed down over the town and over the raw grass and thin frozen puddles on sidewalks and old stained snow, and it rolled us back against our pillows, caught us under cold stiff sheets and heavy blankets and puffs, held us with our knees under our chins, our feet pressed together in prayer, both hands over our mouths to protect ourselves from being poisoned.

 

Waiting for sleep, we imagined the night, the intruder, the teaspoon slipping in, the silver tip sliding over our still-innocent tongues, then the red bitter liquid trickling down into our sleeping throats.

 

We prayed that we would not die. We prayed that we would not evaporate. Then we closed our eyes to watch while the outlines of our bodies melted and our fish-egg matter went up into the sky and became part of the universe.

 

We hibernated in the unseasonable fog. In our frozen mud nests. Unborn birds dreaming of sweets.

 

We coddled ourselves in our immense trousers and the too-small felt hats that bound our huge heads, and sported the green feathers of despair of little old men traveling on trains, and shoes from the grandfather who owned a shoe factory and who stored the shoes in our closets, so that whenever we wanted to look into one of the closets to see if there might be something interesting or silky in there we could just open the door a sliver, less than two fingers, before the shoes in their cardboard boxes began leaning toward us, the shoes tipping out, the smell of hides and tongues and shoe polish and boredom and feet burying us under them.

 

Our other grandfather—whose twin we thought was a dwarf or a miniature because we saw him only on Christmas Eve, when he danced on the table (the little fellow waving his beard and his arms and his rubbery trunk over the tapping feet of someone we did not know about, someone shrouded in blankets and lying perfectly still on the tabletop) while we sat down below on the cold marble floor with our legs bent and our black dancing shoes shining—also owned a factory, an enormous place where automobile mufflers were made, along with shiny jacks and lifts, which, during the winters, were also stored in the closets, where they crushed and silenced the restless shoes.

 

There was no rain that summer.

 

No bees. No mosquitoes. No wasps.

 

No flying blue bottles.

 

No no-see-ums.

 

The buffalo clouds moved across the sky, and the bald eagle, lording it over all from years of nests long decomposed, one withering and crumbling under another, in the top of the tallest pine, would leave its perch in the late afternoon and drop in a long sweep along the banks of the river, its yellow, starved eyes peering out of its baby-snatching face into our faces before we shouted and dove under the surface of the river and stayed down. We the older children, Apple, Battle, Cain, Ego, me.

 

The beetles had already begun to devour the insides of the shack down at the narrows, where we took ourselves in the rubber raft, paddling in the deeper parts, pulling the raft along over the stones, where the current picked up and where it was too shallow. The sun-baked windows were boarded and the doors locked, and the sound of eating could be heard from the water, the sound of prisoners munching, eating for their prisoner lives, teething at the walls, burrowing out, nibbling and nattering into the wood, so that one day after so much effort the beetles would fly up and the walls of the shack would crumble into the summer dust.

 

We swam for miles.

 

Slowing to pick bunches of watercress, floating and using our hands to move over the shallow places, crossing into the deep bays where the river widened into small lakes, sunning on the sandbars and pushing off again, taking the raft with Abel in it, Abel bouncing and rolling around in his life jacket, his big jelly eyes all wet with happiness, eating his sandwiches and going with us, going with the current, south and west toward the Mississippi.

 

We swam with our eyes open, looking straight down, seeing the sun on the water and on the buttered river sand, seeing the nervous shadows of birch leaves darting, the light and shadow wiggling over the blood-colored stones and white egg-shaped boulders and crabs scuttling, the shudder of the west wind on the surface of the water making it seem to us that we were speeding before ourselves, that we were horses galloping or that we were flying, that we were what we had always wanted to be, flying fish or not fish but sails on flat-bottomed hulls with eyes peering down from Asia, from Asia Minor.

 

During the last week of the summer the chairs from the porch took to floating on the water, and once the chairs moved, the tables followed. Then lamps ambled out onto the tabletops. The red poppy curtains fluttered from above. The Egyptian chimes appeared, and copper pots, and paintings of Indians and of ruffled grouse and mallards. Pictures of us, the fat white dough people, now baked a ginger brown. Silverware and the baby crib. The bathroom scales! Our bookcases with the Encyclopedia Britannica and The Diary of Samuel PepysThe Collected Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Forever Amber. The leather hassocks from India that we had stuffed with newspapers.

 

We sat out in the evening and began to tell stories we had never told before. Stories about old injuries, broken hearts, ruined hopes, the awful knowing, the turning away, unforgiveness, disappointment, early death, brains all molted up before someone was born, fever and blindness in someone who was just beginning to see, sight suddenly withdrawn, never to be considered again, terrible loneliness, tinny small hearts banging away, black-bitter, bog-bitten stories that showed the world could be a place where people with ragged hopes could get their little chewed-on pigs-fur purses taken.

 

We leaned forward. We took hands.

 

We formed a circle.

 

Overhead was the wide white swath of the Milky Way, the Northern Lights, sweeping banners of blue and violet and red and green, and after midnight, the meteors flying, firing off in all directions, so that we were sitting under a shooting gallery in the stillest place with no sound but the sound of our voices, a fish jumping, the youngest of us, Abel, who had not been out at night before, saying over and over in that squeaky alarmed voice, “Where sun? Where is sun?” Then the faintest rumble of the bison crossing, somewhere deep in the forest a tree falling, answering our questions about the mysteries of the universe as we imagine them to be.

 

When the stories had been told, we sat on. Waiting as we had waited all our lives for something to happen. Waiting to hear the sound of marauders coming, waiting to hear a door creak or glass shatter. We looked at our mother and father. They seemed to us like people in a bell jar, a couple outlined with light above them and the night climbing all around, a woman with a pretty, open face, a man gazing out from beneath the sputtering sky, two people not prepared to speak to us, to say now life was beginning, at last.

 

Then it was all over.

 

Everything ended.

 

Abruptly.

 

—Suzanne McNear has been an editor, a reviewer, and a longtime board member of The Modern Poetry Association. She lives on the east end of Long Island, where she writes and tends a small vineyard. Excerpts from a Wisconsin Childhood appears in Drought, to be published in September by Grenfell Press.

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Originally published in

BOMB 89, Fall 2004

Featuring interviews with Rodney Graham, Pierre Huyghe and Doug Aitken, Jerome Charyn and Frederic Tuten, Ben Marcus and Courtney Eldridge, Kaffe Matthews and Antony Huberman, Jonathan Caouette, Laura Linney and Romulus Linney, and David Levi Strauss and Hakim Bey. 

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