Peeling out the cantilevered drawers and hinged trays of my great-grandmother’s syskrin: levels and chambers beveled and lipped like a tackle box, the polish worn rough with touch long ago, then buffed smooth again by the hands of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren always palming its contours, digging through its contents. And I’m peeling out the memory of it, too, that wooden box like a channel marker all through my childhood. Through every house, it stood proudly at, say, the end of a couch, or alongside my mother’s bed until the lease ran out or the sheriff’s department taped an eviction notice to the door, and the time came to wrap it with blankets and tuck it into the back seat of the car in preparation for another move.
Getting back to it, remembering it, what do I get back? Inside were the materials for my great-grandmother’s sewing, notions toward a craft I never saw her perform. Had she given it up before my birth, or just before I was old enough to take note? Or did she continue, sewing only intermittently and out of my sight? If stopped, why kept? Inside: translucent plastic trays with spools of thread bleeding their colors through. How I would unravel them: take a strand beneath my fingers and roll the little wooden wheel around the rocking chair to see how, sundering, the string could catch—and be caught on—whatever it touched. To see what webs and patterns grew, to test their tensions. Pinking shears with their jagged, crocodile dispositions. Blue, white, and pink measuring tapes—these I’d roll tightly, spin the slick flat length around a crimped metal end, press as tightly as possible, watch it spring apart anyway.
I would arrive always at a squat pot of dark India ink, take it, unscrew its wide white cap and dab a finger into its black belly where, hidden and old, its contents lay partially dried. I would impress a little divot there to glint and shine like a pitted black olive, look hard at the crescent mark I’d made. The light caught on its edge: small and perfect. And on my finger, a bit of the curded ink would stick. No amount of spit or dish soap would fully clear it out of my nail bed, or from the little looping rings of fingerprints. Each time, I returned the ink to where I’d found it buried. Laid it deeply beneath the trays of thread, the scissors and measuring tapes, and old yellowed envelopes (which I didn’t mentioned before—just know this: in the syskrin: envelopes whose contents I never pored through. Not for fear, nor to uphold a personal sense of boundary, or of discretion, but because I saw them for some reason not as things-that-hold. Not other containers, enclosed there like the guts of a Russian doll beckoning, yielding further findings, but as whole objects: singular, complete, and solid. Besides, they smelled medicinal with age—like black licorice, or the insides of pill bottles. Like other things, not of the syskrin. Odd and different. And this loadedness, this hinting-at was enough to send my curiosities inward—remembering, imagining—or to flit me away, distract. I’d set the envelopes down absently—still wondering, still chasing that smell—and never get around to tearing them open).
The ink: I’d leave it there, in the basest part of the wooden box. Set right the conditions for my next rifling. Recreate a way to, again, discover. Where else have I known that ink’s luster? In rain-slicked asphalt—summer, 1995, the whole sky sweating, heaving. In chipped, broken bits of old coal underfoot in the woods, remnants of forgotten fires. How the eye darts. How it wishes to lead the body to where it lands. On the edge of a scene—there, over there, away.
Used to be, I could find a stone—any stone—and wrench some use from it. Here, a stone perfect for skipping—flat and smooth, enough width to pinch between thumb and index, spin with a wrist's good flick. Here, a small and roundish stone perfect to lob up, crack fungo style with a bat or hard stick. Here, a pointed one for etching into wood, a chalky white one for drawing on the brick of the house’s back wall. Here a brittle one that chips apart under the weight of thumbs—what’s that one used for? For chipping apart.
When skipping, one tries one's best to count each slap against the surface and hopes for an onlooker to give a glance just as the flats of stone and water meet. This was the routine those days by the pond as a boy. For a quarter hour I would scour the pebbled beach for a few just-right stones, then in just a minute or so, I’d toss them all back into the water. Each time, I’d turn back to my mother and shout Did you see it, did you see it? Yes, she’d say, even if I knew she hadn’t. When my brother visited on weekends, he and I would take handfuls out of the blue gravel driveway, toss them in the air, and vacate the scene before they rained back down. I have believed in this breed of moment since before I could pinpoint what it meant: of all things, security. A boy in a backyard entertained for a second. A stone tossed up. A moment that hangs, bobs somewhere just inside the sweet space between rising and falling.
I did this again, recently, on a walk along the Chicago River’s north branch. It’s rare that I give myself time to pick up a rock and do something with it, and, memories of childhood still vividly brimming, I’m often acutely aware of that deficit of opportunity, which registers in my stomach as slow, wrenching nausea. I picked a flat stone up and I tossed it, trying to display a bit of roughness for my lover, who sees me mostly as a sort of eccentric dandy, I think. I enjoyed the impishness of it, recalling the washed greys of The Andy Griffith Show streaking across the thick, bowed glass of the wooden console television in my grandparents’ den. The claret shag, the dated pickwick paneling of the walls, me on my stomach whistling along.
Skipping the stone, I tied my delight to the thought of preserving something I felt was slipping away—some essence of innocence, some idea of simplicity. I was getting back to. . . . Back to what, though, really? Of all things, back to watching television. Why fixate on Opie’s mottled gray form—striped shirt, freckles, fishing rod—instead of on my own actual involvement in that selfsame scene? I fished often, walked the woods even more, always a stone to find. As we look back, it’s easier, maybe, to remember looking. The gaze is incestuous like that, and after a while sees itself more readily than any object it might fall upon. And memory makes spectators of us all.
On the riverbank, for a second, I felt what it was I loved so much in tossing stones as a child: the chaos of breaking up a calm surface. That and, oddly, the practiced, perfected method of doing so. One wishes such private pleasure could be made fully known to others—handed over, passed, palmed, tossed.
A story. Years ago I dated a girl, Julia, one of the great early and fleeting loves of my life, whose parents divorced in the months after we’d gotten together. Any way I might describe the difficulty she had coping with that sudden, shearing change would be invariably reductive and altogether short of the mark, so I’ll stay right out of it. I’ll keep it obvious—it was hard on her, especially as it happened in her first semester away at school. I offered, in what meager way I could, support, but found myself ultimately unable to do much more than nod along as she vented and cried. One of the only constants in my parents’ relationship is that they’ve never, in my life, been together. What could I say to comfort her? Nothing—absolutely nothing—and anything I did express came out skewed, by her or by me, into bitterness.
One spring while we dated, she and I visited her father’s cabin in the uplands of west Georgia. He and his new girlfriend, on one of the evenings of our stay, suggested Julia and I try the newly installed steam shower—together. It’s wonderful to have someone scrub your back, they offered. Use the sugar scrub. Such intimate knowledge could have been discovered through the experience of having done it themselves. What do I make of it? The whole thing had a baffling hum: generally vibe-like, though which particular vibe, I’m unsure. Maybe I was uncomfortable with the insistence, expecting a trap to be sprung as soon as I moved to the shower, her father testing my manners and intentions. Maybe I was put off by how cloying it seemed: her father struggling to offer some version of the other side in contrast to her mother’s home, where we were forbidden from so much as sharing a bed. Maybe the two of them, the older couple, just felt too familiar, trying to share in some idea of the youthful relationship, in which exuberance often undoes discretion. In sixth grade, gobs of us would sit with our puppy loves on the steps after school, one couple daring another to kiss, and so on, and so on, and such taunting goaded us each into our first experiences of another’s body: awkward, hurried, and minding always the performance, which was perhaps more necessary to the scene than any sincere desire to kiss. Of course we wanted to, we always wanted to—but in those moments we got to. Had to, really. I once whispered a request into the ear of a friend: he should dare my then girlfriend and me to kiss, really kiss, for some number of seconds. He did, and I looked to her and shrugged—Well, we have to. . . .—and leaned in. And she leaned back. And we both knew how constructed it was, I think, though that didn’t lessen my capacity to have a good time, my mouth on hers, my tongue awkwardly mashing against her face.
With Julia, though, it was different. She and I stepped into the steam unceremoniously, unexcitedly. We felt we had to, and maybe even, at the outset, wanted to, so we touched one another’s bodies. Though we did so lightly, numbly, whatever pleasure we might have found diminished by having been told precisely where it lay. How to get it. Later in the night, her father and his new girlfriend slipped into the outdoor tub together with a bottle of chardonnay. To what extent was it a shared awkwardness, this coarse untethered romance? They felt, maybe, just as odd as us.
Still, beneath this moment stirs something that still makes me shift uncomfortably: that I’d been made somehow an accessory. Had been made to trade in the guilt of implication: Julia and I had been given the repayment—if one could stretch to call the awkward shower that—ahead of the favor: don’t tell your mother about us, and I won’t say a thing either.
I did use the sugar scrub—scooped it from its squat jar with two fingers, scraped it into my palm. I laugh a little now, thinking about that. It seemed like solid advice, and maybe I wasn’t so totally resolved to resist her father’s encouragement as I imagine myself to have been. Well, I have to. . . . I applied it to her back, but did so robotically, in a told way—the way, as a boy, I listlessly emptied the trash or did the dishes when commanded, dragging the strained black mass of plastic across the kitchen floor, throwing away forks too caked with food to warrant the hard work of scrubbing. It felt so transgressive to touch her: the private moment invaded by the insistent guilt of—even there, concealed as we were, hidden—insolence. How can it be that in a moment of such demanded, such insisted adulthood—go, be alone together, naked, wet, with our best wishes—one feels most like a child?