Getting Warmer

I have a hard time quieting my mind. For the past few months, I’ve tried meditation, and have given up many times in frustration. I don’t have that yogi breath that is deep and loud and even. I hold my breath when I’m concentrating. I lick my lips when I’m nervous.

Where am I going with this? Well tonight, for the first time in quite a while, I wrote for myself. I didn’t write out of guilt or obligation. And the whole time I held my breath and licked my lips and picked the cuticles on my fingernails. One thing at a time, Ali. One habit at a time.

Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” has been my earworm for a few days, and it’s a bit of an anthem. Unfettered and alive.

I’m almost done with this story, and will post the final soon. I’m starting to post fragments again until I finish. Still more ideas bubbling, and thinking my writing, after this, may move into some pretty rad and fantastical territory. Magical realism. Pah! Let’s get weird with it. For now, some standard fare…

***

My grandma lived in another time, but we did too. It was 1988, but the town was running to catch up with a decade that moved too fast. My big brother wanted technology that was straight out of an H.G. Wells novel while we were still battling with a 1956 Maytag refrigerator. When we got our secondhand Atari 2600, Grandma would squint skeptically at it, as her time with us shrank in favor of 8-bits and achy thumbs.

When my grandpa died the year before, she had digested the death within a week. She wore black for the funeral and never again. She stopped pulling her hair tight and let it cascade like spider silk down her back. She grew more flowers and said fewer words and kept reading the Bible before bed and in the cool blue hour before dawn. I was eight, and I thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world.

I remember every moment I spent with my Grandpa because there were so few of them. He preferred my tomboy sister to my lacy teddy bear tea parties. But I lied to Grandma and asked her questions about him, pretending to be interested in the answers. I brought a steno pad and pen and wore the serious face on an on-the-scene reporter. She responded to this line of questioning by brushing my hair until every knot was combed out and my scalp tingled. On the best days she would make a plump French braid down my back, secured with a neon pink pony barrette.

Easter was grandma’s favorite holiday, and we were in the middle of all the preparations in which she delighted – foil-wrapped eggs in baskets, bundles of white lilies that she arranged with pollen-stained hands. Sunrise service. Rolls that rose like Jesus. She gathered all of it in her arms – even the bunny that clucked like a chicken on the TV commercials.

Dad took her to a check-up on Fat Tuesday. The widower doctor flirted with her while listening to her heart, so that a good flutter could not be distinguished from a bad one. All her life she was surrounded by boys – she still called them that even when the hair sprung from their ears and they shot spittle from their mouths. The constant object of desire and forever somebody else’s wife. She was diagnosed with nothing but a bum knee that forced her to sit every hour or so, and the doctor gave her a prescription for when the pain was bad.

After receiving her clean bill of health, Dad took her to buy the Easter ham. She cradled it all the way home like a new grandchild wrapped in swaddling cheesecloth.

That year I decided that I was old enough to voice an opinion on the matter of holidays, and while she wiped down wine glasses from the China cabinet, I told her that I preferred Christmas because the presents were more to my liking and black jelly beans made me gag. She stuffed her cleaning rag into a wine glass and turned to me.

“Well, Jesus was the first zombie, so shouldn’t you kids like Easter even more than I do?”

I stared at her. It is my first memory of being able to raise my skeptical left eyebrow, a talent my siblings never learned. The undead were a part of my brother’s comic books and Saturday afternoon movies on Channel 3. My tenderhearted, jitterbugging grandma couldn’t know or understand.

“What’s the matter? You think I just sit at home all day looking at a wall? For goodness sakes sweetie, I do turn on the TV once in a while.”

She confided her penchant for the gruesome, and I didn’t cover my ears.

She watched reruns of Dark Shadows. She’d seen a Saturday matinee of Night of the Living Dead when she was 24 and Grandpa was out of town. Seen all of its terrible sequels. Had her own rental card for the video store, and on days when it was just her in the house, drove her Pinto and came back with old and new slasher flicks. The manager knew her by name. Never had a late fee. The decayed flesh of a zombie didn’t phase her. She bought Raisinettes and Coke while watching brains being spooned from their skulls.

When I asked her why she kept all this a secret, she told me that one day, when I was grown and maybe had a husband and little baby, that I might want something of my very own, that belonged only to me.

Two nights after I became acquainted with my grandma’s pastime, two nights before Easter Sunday, my dad came home with a fat envelope from which he pulled four tickets he had won in a radio call-in contest. They were for that evening’s Passion play, put on by a traveling theater company that specialized in religious spectacle. He explained to me that this play told the story of Jesus’ resurrection, and that he wanted me and my sister and brother to go with Grandma.

While I was still confused by exactly what I was about to witness, he smoothed my hair and pat my back.

“You promise to be a brave grown-up girl even if you see bad things happen to Jesus.”

My grandma went wild, kissing my dad on his cheeks and hugging him tight. She winked at me. I had what I would later recognize as the belly swirl of excitement that parents have when their children get a glimpse of presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

So much of childhood is made of up of things that terrify and fortify, and a Passion play fit snugly between both. There was the stiff and pale usher who grimly handed us programs with shaking hands, the dim light in the cedar-scented theater, the boom of Ten Commandments-level bass that convinced us that Charlton Heston would play the role of Jesus. Roman soldiers with gleaming swords. Abuse. Thorns. Blood. Toil.

Every few minutes Grandma would whisper clarifications or demonstrations in my ear.

“That is Pontius Pilate”

“This is where Judas is about to betray Christ”

“Don’t tear the program, I want to save it in the Memory Box.”

The crucifixion was graphic, and Christ’s body glistened with blood under the hot stage light. Each time a nail was hammered into his muscle and bone, the sound guy would set off a thud of bass that made my heart fall to the floor. Sniffles could be heard in the audience, and my sister gasped and wailed when Jesus died and every instrument in the pit let out a warped wail.

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