So, let our shadows do the talking. High noon and the dark circles under me and the saguaro are loud with sweat. By the time my shadow abandons me, it is stubborn, howling, more coyote than man; yours shrugs toward the cirrus clouds, my new horizon home.
There are two lies waiting after this poem. I am a prism,
each day’s light bends inside me, inverting
the things I see, like the man punching wads
of bulbous dough in the pizzeria next door.
The best pizza I’ve ever had was in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
My college friends forgot that the booths filled up
early on Thursday nights. I stood at the end and danced
with men who were just trying to get to the restroom.
Two sets of those friends will marry each other and later
one of the women, Jeannette, will sit at that same booth,
trying to wave away seventeen years with Lee. “Maybe
you should travel,” I will say. Strings of cheese stretching
From the sizzling pan between us to the slice on my plate.
“People used to travel out of state to divorce all the time.”
The day’s light will bend inside me like Jeannette’s sigh.
“Still the proper way to do it.” She will chew with her mouth open.
This is the first photograph that I ever saw of my grandfather, Ralph James.
He is standing next to his older sister, Eva, in her kitchen in Flint, Michigan, sometime in the 1950s. Their youngest brother, Bill, who is visiting from Virginia, stands beside them.
If you knew my father—and to a lesser degree, me—you would instantly recognize the man on the right as our ancestor. That smirk, the way he pulls down his chin and sets his jaw, is exactly how my father smiles when a camera is pointed at him or after he says something he finds particularly witty. The half-moons under his eyes reflect back to me every night when I look in the mirror. His one bony knuckle at the base of his middle finger is my one bony knuckle.
It’s easy to understand why this photo was special to me when I received it. But I’d like to tell you why it’s still special to me a decade later.
As I mentioned, I had never seen my grandfather before receiving this photo. At the time it was taken, Ralph James was father to 4 children, none of whom he had custody over. His eldest daughter lived with her mother, Ralph’s first wife, in Iowa. Ralph’s younger children—my father and his siblings—were taken by the courts when they were small.
As an adult, Dad didn’t know much about Ralph. He knew Ralph was from Council Bluffs, Iowa, because Aunt Eva, the woman in the photo, had maintained a distant relationship with him as he grew up. Its with that information that I started researching the rest of the family.
Over the years, I’ve found out Ralph’s father, Noah, had also been an alcoholic. Noah spent his meager income as a cabinet maker getting blitzed, forcing his wife to scramble in order to feed their eight children. The kids went hungry often. Newspaper articles informed me that Ralph’s first wife had divorced him twice for domestic abuse. When I told Dad that, he said he did remember Ralph getting rough with his mother. A cousin recently told me that Ralph’s eldest daughter traveled to Flint about the time that this photo was taken. When she returned from that trip, she decided to never talk to Ralph again. In 1972, Ralph died penniless, forcing my dad, who had remained estranged from him, to pay for the burial.
The more research I did, the worse Ralph looked. Arrests, abandonment, blame. There were so many reasons to believe he was a broken, miserable soul. I convinced myself he was a loser, and he very well might have been.
But take a look at the photo again.
Find Eva’s hands.
See how tightly she’s clutching Ralph’s waist? See how my grandfather’s hand rests on his brother’s shoulder? There was love there.
As I mentioned, I know that look on my grandfather’s face. I’ve seen it on my dad’s face; I’ve probably made it myself.
Actually, I know I have. It’s the face I make when I’m proud. And that’s why this photo has remained special to me over the years. In that moment . . . with his family . . . Ralph James, my derelict grandfather, was proud. He was wanted. With this image, there is a possibility in my mind that he was more than the papers I’ve dug up on him and the stories I’ve heard. Oh, he made unforgivable mistakes, absolutely. His decisions or his lack of making decisions very much shaped my father’s life. And my own. Thankfully, it turned out positively for me and my brothers. Because of Ralph, my father set a goal to be present and reliable, to swear off drinking. A goal Ralph could never manage in his 66 years on this planet. Though, I should mention, toward the end he tried to fix things with my dad. He did try.
But back to the photo and that smirk on Ralph’s face. Back to the fierceness with which his sister clutches him. The camera captured them in dual acts of defiance. Their eyes speak volumes: “Yeah. Go ahead and take my picture. Let people judge me. Who are they to me, anyhow? My family still stands beside me, and the world can’t possibly know what we’ve been through.”
The amulet glowed violet. The planets and stars on my pointed hat swirled until they became a single comet chasing its own tail. The required words fell to the ground next to the ramekins of herbs that powered this spell. A giggle resounded in the room, bouncing off rafters, pinging down corridors toward the far reaches of the castle.
And then, outside, the animals rose into the air.
The sound was a rhythmic whooshing at first, like servants sweeping the courtyard outside a bedroom window, but it grew in intensity. Let them arrive on their own time. Let them enjoy the view of the trees from above and stretch their new wings as far as they could. Soldiers as important as these needed to gain confidence; they needed to experiment with weapons and find talents on their own.
Through the window, the first of them dotted the charcoal sky. What is the opposite of a shooting star? That was them. They wobbled in the night, some drooped, some soared. But they all heard the calling and joined their brothers and sisters in flight, and their growls thickened the air like fog.
In the valley, lights came on in the village. The miners and lumberman surely grumbled about the noise interrupting their precious sleep. There was work to be done in the morning, of course. Forests to raze; minerals to harvest. The terrible ways men occupied themselves these days. They would see in the morning, however, that tonight’s commotion was only the beginning.
In an hour’s time, hundreds of dark comets loomed above the town. Those that the spell affected early were accomplished flyers by now. It’s amazing what creatures can adapt to when they have no choice. They flew higher to spiral in down-draughts, swerving past the newest of the airborn.
The first of them finally alighted on the sill of the largest window of the castle. She was beautiful: thick white fur, coal black eyes lit with interest, the delicate mushroom of her nose. Her front paws bent in front of her awaiting instruction and her wings were two columns standing behind her like balustrades.
The wind carried a voice from the village through the window in that moment as if to announce her arrival.
“Bears with wings!”
More specimens flew into the room. They arrived in a myriad of colors—golden, tawny, roan, black. Each with intelligence glinting in their eyes. They did not greet each other; they just found their own space, sat, and patiently waited. Well, that’s not exactly true. Having never been in a human dwelling before, a few poked at the curtains and candelabras. One tried to guzzle wine from a decanter on the table.
When the rafters were full and there was no space left to sit on the floor, I showed them four drawings. The first was of a group of red flying bears picking up rocks and plugging up the mouths of mines. The second was of gray bears stealing cows and pigs from farmyards and placing them safely in open fields. In the third, the bears dumped the red water from the streams and rivers near the butcheries onto the town, and in the fourth, the bears lived happily on the earth and in the sky with humans to fetch their berries and honey.
The bears nodded, wings aflutter, and with a hurricane wind, they were gone.
The amulet, still in hand, beamed emerald instead of violet. There was nothing to do now but clean and wait for a better world.
I followed the cries deeper into the woods. “Keep talking, little girl. I’m coming,” I soothed. Her yelps bounded into the ABC song. At L, the smell of lemon cake. At S, my lantern addressed a scarlet coat. At Z, we held hands and picked zinnias for Grandmother.
I heard some scratching and clomping like one of the goats had wandered onto the front porch again. Setting down my knitting, I came outside ready to scold some lazy farm hand, but instead, I found a balled-up little girl, no more than eight, on the settee, pretending she was asleep. I hoped no neighbor had driven past and seen such filth at my door.
She wore a strange shirtwaist: white with blue sleeves attached. I said to her, I said, “You get on now, miss. I know how your kind work. I feed you and the next thing I know twenty of your kin come to my door a-begging. Us proper folk have rough times, too.”
The peculiar girl swept her fine hair from her face, and that’s when I noticed her skin. Right ugly, she was. Her face as blue as the china in my curio and shining bright, too, as if she’d swallowed a dozen torches. After glancing at me, she tucked her head back under her arm.
I stood over her a might longer, and when it was clear she was staying put, I trudged back through the house to fetch a broom. The girl was gone when I came back, though. A skein of green yarn lay where I’d found her. How’d she know I knit?
I searched the house, attic to cellar. I had Cal, the farmhand, rake through the hay in the barn. No sign of her. The rest of my day was spent looking out windows, searching for flashes of blue.
The next morning the girl was back on the porch. Seeing her there was like seeing a ghost.
I said to her, I said, “Thank you for the yarn, young’un,” and she nodded. Then she pointed to the flower bed next to the stoop. The soil showed dark against the rich greens and purples of the azaleas. Not a weed in sight. She held her hands out to me so I could see her chipped fingernails and scratched up fingers. She smiled something fierce and rubbed her belly.
“Well, come in, then,” I mumbled. What else could I have done? The little wretch was thin as a picket.
In the washroom, I poured water into a basin. The girl stared at it. “Go on,” I urged, and when she didn’t move, I said, “are you mute, girl?”
I washed and dried my own hands, then pointed at her. She mimicked my movements, giggling. It was good to hear the sound of a child in the house again. She giggled all the way to the kitchen, where I laid out some cornpone and a tomato. Its red contrasted the blue of her hand.
When we heard footsteps coming up the back stairs, the girl stopped laughing and her eyes widened.
I said to her, I said, “That’s just my farmhand bringing the corn I asked for. You know how to shuck?”
The girl growled and ran to a corner of the room. I could see her tangle of hair peeking above the counter of the hutch. The idea of fleas struck me.
The back door swung open and lanky Cal stood holding a basket.
“Morning, Widow McCrae. Found some right fine ears for you.”
“Thank you, Cal. Put them there.” I looked to the hutch. “Don’t be rude, little miss; say hello to Cal.”
Cal scanned the empty room, while I stepped closer to the hutch. The girl was gone. In her place lay clods of dirt and three of my good knives.
“Where’d she go?” I said, more to myself than to Cal.
“A little girl. Blue. Her skin is blue. I just fed her for doing work.”
Cal gave me a look you’d give a horse that crowed like a rooster. “I’ll check the yard,” he said, scratching his forehead.
Alone in the house again, I noticed the shadows in the room, hiding under the icebox, crouched in the pantry. How did that girl keep jumping in and out without so much as a squeak? I thought as I washed the knives she’d stole and put them back in their drawer. Crumbs still dotted the table, but I had eaten some myself before I found her. My silverware, my china, the envelope of money Louis left me in his will, nothing else was missing, but when I stepped onto the porch a message greeted me.
Green yarn spelled out WILL RETURN in cursive letters across the rug.
Jason appeared in the doorway of the living room with a long velvet sash loosely wrapped around his jeans and t-shirt. He cocked a hip, and the red fabric shivered in the glow of my reading lamp. Ridiculously fake diamond earrings flashed below the trendy fringe of his haircut. He held a small bolt from which the fabric hung slack.
“Wow, you’re dressed to kill,” I said, jabbing a finger in my book. My chair creaked with the sudden movement. “Which production is it for?”
“Hello, stranger.” His voice came out breathy and deep. He dragged a single finger down one page of the open book. “That isn’t by chance a Raymond Chandler novel you’re reading, is it?”
“No, it’s a different kind of pent-up love story. ARoom With a View. Which Chandler is it for?” Jason volunteered as a costumer at the community theater.
“The Big Sleep. I’m thinking this will be for the femme fatale’s first scene.” He tightened the fabric around his torso so it fit more like a bodice and brought a wrist to his forehead, which emphasized the bulge of his bicep. “I was up for that part, you know, but they decided to cast someone more manly.”
He sauntered across the room, rolling his hips and unspooling fabric across the floor. A stick of incense burned on top of my desk. He picked it up and held it like a cigarette. The transformation was complete.
“Miss Vivian Sternwood,” she said. Her emphasis on the last syllable made me laugh, which made her drop character long enough to explain that Sternwood was the actual name Raymond Chandler gave his femme fatale. She continued. “Charmed, I’m sure. And you are?”
These metamorphoses fascinated and unsettled me, as did everything else about Jason. Since he’d answered my Craigslist ad three years ago, he’d never mentioned friends or family. He never dated, as far as I knew. If it weren’t for the constant humming of his sewing machine, I’d think he disappeared as soon as he stepped into the small box of his bedroom. An actor waiting in the wings for his next entrance. The theater only needed him to deliver his finished costumes. His only weekly routine: a hushed phone call every Sunday night in his room. I made sure to be around for it in case he ever came out and wanted to talk; he never did.
I took Vivian’s hand and kissed it. “Philip Marhomo, my dear. You look ravishing this evening.”
She smirked and scanned the room.
“My, it’s dark in here, Mr. Marhomo. A girl might think she lives with a vampire.”
She was right; the sun had abandoned me. Incense smoke casted a haze across my IKEA furniture, across Jason’s second-hand television, across the red carpet of crushed velvet at my feet. I’d been reading a long time.
Vivian floated around the room, turning on anything with a switch. Soon, lamps blazed. Jazz from the stereo and a Bogart movie clamored for attention. When she finished, she pointedly faced me and dropped the velvet. She wasn’t naked underneath, but the effect was still shocking. My ears turn crimson. She closed the book on my lap, put both hands on the arms of my chair, and leaned in.
“So tell me, my vampire roommate, do you want to bite my neck?”
Her five o’clock shadow encircled her full lips. Each atom between us spun counter-clockwise. I’d never had the spotlight of his… her attention so fully. She lingered, awaiting my answer.
I swallowed hard. “Only if no bullet- or dust-biting follows.”
She slid into my lap, curving her arm around my shoulders. “And if I let you, could you forgive my rent again this month, detective?”
The room refilled with light and noise. Vivian became Jason again.
“You know you don’t have to do that,” I said. “If you’re running behind, I can cover. It’s no big deal.”
It was Jason’s time to feel uncomfortable. He thanked me as he stood. His door clicking shut felt like a rebuke somehow.
Velvet still pooled on the floor. I felt compelled to pick it up. As I did, the city hummed behind the Venetian blinds, the neon streets reached out, the rain fell.
I made a ritual of turning things off—the ceiling fan, radio, television, all the lights except for the one I read by. I tried to re-enter Forster’s tale, but I couldn’t focus. I wanted to be ready for the next show.
John Kelly Junior, son of John Kelly and his second wife Susannah Osborn, was born on October 8, 1807, in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. He married Parmelia Downing on September 8, 1842, in Logan County, Ohio.
In the 1850 census, he is with his father and uncles, John, Peter, and Nathaniel Kelly in Logan County. His wife Parmelia and three children, Josiah, Addison, and Darby, are listed along with a schoolteacher Rodolphus Pettit, a laborer Elonzo Hutchison, and a girl Rebecca McNeal, probably a servant.
The 1860 census is difficult to read. According to the index, John and his wife now have six children, all boys. One of them is named John (long sigh). Rebecca McNeal is still with them, so maybe a family member rather than a servant.
All of the Kellys are there in 1870 as well. This time there are eight children, only one daughter. (This is an error in the census: They had six sons and two daughters.) There’s a Nathaniel in the family now. Looks like the oldest, Josiah, got married to a Louisa. They live next door to John’s cousin Mary Kelly Neal.
So far, it seems like John is a potential match. He’s the right age; he didn’t marry Parmelia until he was 35 years old. He could have easily had another wife and family in that time. He was on my list until I read this biography:
John Junior is probably not the daddy, though he could have had a fling. Would he have named two sons John, though?