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Adrie Kusserow


LaFamiglia by Gari Melchers

It was August in New York City, it had just rained the smell of garbage and sour milk. Late one night through our window, the dull thuds of punching. Rising up, a gurgle, like a small brook, of body fluid driven up the throat. The moans, mouse high and light as milkweed. Two doors slam, the car screeches off. An eeriness hung about, but not for long. After excusing itself briefly, the night gathered its skirts and sat up straight again, whisking any evidence off its lap. The next morning, the blood pennies sprinkled about the sidewalk shone a bright red, cheery as a child’s finger painting. The rest of the blood had been sprayed away.

Back then it took very little for my mind to revisit my father’s gruesome death, but anything smacking of a cover up would do. I never saw the news the night they showed his crash. I only have my imagination  – lean god with stunning profile splayed across the metal gills of the car, scrunched like an accordion, my blood spattered mother trying to pry him out in pieces. My father, groaning through bubbles and foam, moans surfacing light as fairies. His limp spine draped like a Dali clock on the steering wheel, broken jaw flapping like a porch door in the wind. Without having been there, my mind could only throw metaphor after metaphor on the incident, hoping one would stick.

The day of the accident, I was in fourth grade when Mrs Farmer pulled me from the lunchroom of sloppy joe steam. I was aggressively licking the sides of my Devil Dog’s vanilla crème hoping to run out early to recess. She whispered we needed to go home, her puffed cheek against mine. She smelled like weakness, like adrenalin had been nibbling at her insides. I knew her body had been feasted on by some kind of horror. She exhaled completely, the horror busting through the mouthwash, her breath rotten like the mushrooms that covered our woods. She told me nothing, but I knew there was something tragic housed inside her that was coming for me.

When I shimmied into the front of her Chevy, I felt my body slide, while my mind flew to some distant planet, until only a small black speck of it remained on the seat beside her. My mind felt coiled, alert, calculating, black hole dense, waiting for the predator to reveal itself further. I later called it spider mind, crouched and suspicious, ready to flee to the farthest edge of its orbit at the smallest touch of its web, ready to look down on planet earth with suspicion and a strangeness that startled me.

After they told me, the horror spread down Kusserow road, all across Beartown Road, down into the stained glass gloom of the Catholic church, then moved on to Pleasant Valley and River Road. It went where it felt at home first. To my best friend’s house with her own dead father and gaunt, chattering mother.  I could feel the horror sink into the sad autumn light, the slumped shoulders of hills, the quiet unassuming moss.

From then on, it ran out of places to spread, so it moved into houses, schools and stores unmarked by tragedy, and they didn’t know what to do with it, but domesticate it. It got so desperate it went inside the slick cafeteria at Browns River Middle School, where the tables of middle schoolers shrugged it off and kept eating their bologna sandwiches. It even tried to assault the guidance counselor. But she would have none of it. She knew where to put horror, to medicalize it with a sterile and definitive DSM label, while slipping me a pill with a V on its back, and letting me hide in a closet that smelled of ammonia.

After that I had a disorder that barked like a sargeant. Directions, protocols were to be followed, experts to be consulted, therapists guidelines to be followed, pills swallowed. Each time my horror’s raw scream tried to jump out, it saw no one it knew, turned around and jumped right back into that DSM label, feeling stamped, cramped and lonely, but accepting it as my fate.

During the two months of his coma days, the town felt like a factory, one that I wasn’t allowed to work in, only to receive packages from, each house boxing up the horror of my father’s death in Tupperware and Amazoning it out in sympathy that stunk of plastic wrapping. So that summer I hung out solely with my friend who’d been gutted by her own father’s overdose when she was still grade school pudgy.

We took to the woods, we let the earth absorb what school, hospital and church couldn’t deal with. We took the slipcovers from her mother Mary’s chairs, placed them on our heads like nuns’ habits and walked the vast stretch of field up to Casey’s Hill. Even then we must have sensed who might be able to handle our horror. Nuns and nature. We figured nuns knew what to do with tragic unexpected death so we mimicked them as we walked. The solemn vespers, the candles. But we were pagan nuns, opting for the moon, birch bark, moss, fairies, newts and stone. At the top of Casey’s Hill we’d rotate and face the moon, and chant something solemn. We were drawn to whatever stayed undone, opened, leaking, raw, yeasty, to whatever could not close itself. Grief rose from us, like the smell of baking bread. Everyone else was too busy to follow us into the woods, only the dogs followed tight at our heels.

In the end, I remember the black figures spotted about the hill where we put my father into the earth. Like feeding a baby, spooning the coffin deep into the soil. Shadows big as whales slid across the fields. The earth opened, the body forked in, stiff and white in its box. My father would stay down forever, swallowed by the Northeast Kingdom, worked on, worked on in ways I wasn’t supposed to imagine. It was in the hasty cover up of the casket that I felt a violent response, a repugnance toward the oncoming surge of docile, dopey but well meaning sympathy, the laying on of manicured hands, of gentle, meek, hugs that repulsed me, their smoothing and coddling I wanted to kill, swat back like flies and run.

So I ran away.

Listen, if you want to keep your children around, next time, lock this town down before it reaches to soothe and tame. Let the horror be fully consumed, let it be digested, but still misunderstood  – let it bust open the sutures of  our understanding,  then very slowly move on.

What I’m saying is, at the very least, for a little while longer, keep it caged in horror.


About the writer:
Recently published work by Adrie Kusserow includes “Quarantine Dreams” and “Revised Lonely Planet Guide to Holy Men.” Kusserow is a poet and anthropologist teaching at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. She works with refugees internationally as well as in Vermont. Kusserow has two books of poetry published by BOA Editions, Ltd as part of their American Poets Continuum Series. Her poems and creative non-fiction have appeared in The Best American Poetry, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Green Mountains Review, Plume, Juxtaprose and many other journals and anthologies.

Image: La Famiglia by Gari Melchers (1860-1932). No medium specified. No size specified. 1895/6. [Cropped to remove frame.] By free license via Sailko.

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