What Matters

Lisa Burkhardt’s anger surfaced on her skin just like her frecklesslapdash and intense. She bragged she inherited her Irish temper from her mother and I believed it. When Mrs. Burkhardt took walks around the neighborhood without her usual thick ’80s makeup, I couldn’t tell mother and daughter apart. And Lisa could rant for hours using only swear words and the occasional “off” or “balls.” A neighborhood boy once teased me in front of her about being her boyfriend. She leveraged her lanky 14-year-old body to pin him against a tree and asked “Why? You jealous, little boy? Do you want me to give you a smooch?”

I worshipped her.

It helped that her green and black tri-level house peeked into our living room whenever my mom opened the drapes. But I didn’t need a reminder to visit her because I helped her with chores after school every day. I never knocked; Lisa said anyone willing to help clean her house was welcome. Together she and I scrubbed their already-spotless kitchen and bathrooms while blaring MTV.

Lisa wasn’t always angry and swearing, though. She liked to call the mop Boy George, as in “Grab Boy George out of the closet, will ya?” One time when I asked her why Boy George, she jabbed a finger at its shaggy locks and its mascara-thin black seam and said “Are you kidding? It looks just like him!” Then she dipped him in a bucket and sang over the sound of dripping water: Do you really want to hurt me? Do you really want to make me cry? On Monday afternoons when her mom worked late at the cable company, Lisa liked to take shots of Southern Comfort. She always offered me some and I always politely abstained, then lectured her on the perils of teen drinking. My words never stopped her, though. That’s pretty much how our friendship worked.

 

One morning before school around Halloween 1985, I watched an ambulance back into the Burkhardt’s driveway. Blue and red lights flashed but no siren blared. EMTs opened the van’s back door. I couldn’t see who they carried out on the stretcher, but after the ambulance pulled out of the driveway I watched as the orange leaves settled back down on my quiet street. I didn’t see Lisa that day or the next. The rumor around school was that her mom had died of a brain aneurism in the shower.

I waited exactly a week to climb the steps to Lisa’s front porch. The open-door policy felt revoked somehow, so I knocked until Lisa yelled for me to come in. As I passed the bathroom I noticed perfume misters and several cans of Aqua Net hair spray and the telltale pink of hair curlers jumbled on the counter. Lisa was sprawled on the floor of her room, dirty dishes fanning around her head like pets waiting for attention. Her eyes stayed closed.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Why? You didn’t do anything.”

“Do you want help with the bathroom?”

“No,” she huffed. The red in her eyes matched the red in her hair, and I found myself in a stare-down that didn’t break until she looked up at the ceiling. “Don’t you know that doesn’t matter anymore?”

I slouched back across the street soon after, feeling like I’d failed a test. Our street widened after that. Lisa found girlfriends in her grade and spent less time at home. Despite the constant gaze of her tri-level, I never visited her again. She entered high school; I followed quietly two years later. She said Hi to me in the hallways sometimes and drove me home once with a cigarette jammed in her mouth blasting Guns-N-Roses the whole way.

Twenty years later, she friend-requested me on Facebook. A private message popped up. Lisa asked how I was. I told her about my life in Chicago, about my partner.

—Does he treat you well? she typed.

He does. He takes care of me when I’m sick. He sings to me when I’m sad.

—Good. That’s all that matters. 

The flashing green light in the IM window went solid gray and she unfriended me the next day.

The Closet In the Basement

On my ninth Christmas Eve, my parents went out— probably to finish Christmas shopping. They had put Arnold, my 17-year-old oldest brother in charge of my other brother, Hans, and me. Arnold told me he wanted to show me something in the basement. It was thrilling following him and Hans down the stairs. My brothers actually wanted to do something with me for once! This could go either very well or very badly.

Our basement has this closet in one corner that was locked year-round. That was where they led me. The door of the closet is made of raggedy, gnarled barn board slats. Up until that night, I was always scared of that door. It looked like what a gate to Hell looks like in old movies, you know? Now that I think about it, one of my brothers probably planted that image in my head.

Hans inserted a key into the lock, then threw open the door. Christmas presents! Tons of them in various states of dress. We ogled the ones that weren’t wrapped, and Hans showed me how to carefully peel back the Scotch tape from the presents that were.

Before I peeked at my first present though, Arnold prepped me on how to act surprised when I opened the gifts the next morning: “Remember exactly how you feel when you see what’s inside, Nathan. That way you can recreate it when you open this in front of Mom and Dad.” I had to ask what recreate meant. Once they told me, I couldn’t get over how smart my brothers were.

After we had our fill looking at the presents, we patted the tape back down. Arnold locked the closet door. When my parents came home that night, we were primly seated in front of the television, quiet as mice.

*****

A few weeks ago, Arnold told me he is moving to Seattle. It’s really good news. He needs a change. His announcement just shook me and I couldn’t figure out why. Then, I remembered the night my brothers showed me the Christmas closet.

That’s the memory that comes back to me whenever I walk into my parents’ house and see the presents under their tree. Now that even my niece and nephew are adults, the holidays are less about presents and more about appreciating being together as a family.

That’s what jolted me about Arnold’s announcement. His moving to Seattle is the beginning of the end of that. His son and daughter will still be in Michigan. He’s not abandoning us, but his Christmas visits will inevitably dwindle. I’ll feel his absence. I’ll want to go down to that basement and throw open that creepy closet door hoping Arnold’s in there waiting to surprise us.