Tuesday, February 12, 2008

novel beginnings

She’s not very tall. Average height. Skinny with a belly. Her long brown hair cascades down to the middle of her back. Full bangs cover her forehead.

Ezra lifts the final box into her baby blue 1982 Voltzwagon Vangon. The box contains her sewing machine and the tools to fix it. She whistles for her dog, a greyhound named Harry, who saunters over to the edge of the van door and hops in, gently wagging his tail in excitement. She slides the van door shut with a screeching sound and a thud as it closes. The keys jingle in the deep pockets of her flowing lime green skirt. She digs down to find them, picks the key to the van and climbs into the front seat. She sighs. A puff of stale, imaginary green air exhales through her mouth.

He’s been dead for only two weeks.

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Ezra-Elizabeth Curlee was born in the early morning hours of February 17, 1980. Blue eyed and bald-headed, her boasting parents were never-ending in their praise of the child. Later on, when Ezra went to college, they would remember she was out of diapers at 11 months, walking by 1 year, and out the door at 18.

She lead a relatively straight childhood. Growing up in a two story brick house with not too many dolls and only one My Little Pony, she spent her summer days playing war with the neighborhood boys. She went to daycare before elementary school, extended day care after middle school days, and extracurricular activities after her high school day. Once when she was four, a boy sneaked a kiss on her milky smooth cheek. In kindergarten her name was always on the board for talking, but she never got sent to the principal’s office. She always made A’s, honor roll, but never perfect attendance. During middle school, she was mean to a certain classmate who never showered and later, during a feminist philosophy course in college, she burst into tears over the agony she had caused then. While a teenager, she participated in dance, debate and theatre. She spent her high school days in spandex and painting sets for school plays, ensembles and on-campus assemblies. It all seemed right. She had a car, not the best, she had a boyfriend, the captain of the basket-ball team, she was published in the local newspaper.

Her parents, Reba and Harold, were proud of her. They would always say they were proud to be Ezra’s parents. “It’s our claim to fame, darlin’”, they would say whenever they saw her name in the paper, heard her announced on stage, and later when she finally graduated from college.

As a child, she refused to stay over night anywhere. Inevitably, on the eve of a slumber party or birthday sleep over, she’d come down with a stomach flu. Or she would brave the party, crawl into her sleeping bag, hyperventilate, and call her dad at midnight to come get her. She hopped into the front bench seat of the white stationwagon, tear-stained and embarrassed. It seemed the leather seats were always too cold or so hot they would stick to her first grade legs. He was never upset, but the bags under his eyes suggested he hadn’t slept either, he had stayed up waiting for her call. He’d crawl out of bed and crank up the car- through rain, through black ice. Ezra would snuggle up to his white Hanes t-shirt. His faint smell of cologne and Camel Lights soothed her.
During some childhood restless nights, she’d wake up with the sensation that someone was sitting on her legs, the paralyzing darkness seemed to hoarse her throat. She could barely cry out in the night. She was five. Her parents were dying a dreamed death. Her mom would tuck a King James Version of the Bible under her pillow, explaining that it would help calm her. It always did.

“Here Ezra” Reba whispered, “tuck this underneath your pillow, the Good Lord will calm your mind.” Her mother would sleep beside her, starching her back through her tshirt as she fell back asleep.

Ezra had grown up in the South, there was nothing odd about her attending church, going to youth group or Wednesday night supper. She can’t taste Boston Crème Pie without thinking of the rows of folding tables, paper table cloths and the chicklet-sized ice that melted so easily in her fountain Coke. Church ice, they called it. Because she grew up around it, she believed in it. She believed in dinosaurs, the cross, and the rapture.

She lived in books. One of her fondest memories lies captured in a photograph of her and her father. In the scene, are Ezra and Harold laying flat on her twin bed. He is reading her book about shapes and colors. Ezra’s eyes stare not at the pages, but at her dad’s stubbled face. Her small hand touching the end of his chin in total awe.

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She imagined his death as gruesome. Although her parents had never directly told her what happened, she knew her uncle Michael had died in Vietnam. His legs were blown off. The family said he didn’t have the will to live.

He was done with his tour in ’74, but signed up to go back to serve his country. His mom, his dad, they were all proud.

All that remains of him now is a washed out photograph, the memory of a proud son. He’s in green army fatigues. His tanned skin stretched tight across his bones. Delicate green eyes stare across the ammo thrown over his shoulder. He was 25.

“It’s important to remember that he didn’t die in vain”, Harold would reminisce. He would never talk about losing his brother. The havoc it reeked on his mother, on his fiancé, on himself. Harold would almost always allude to his brother’s pride in his country, something, “you kids today would know nothing about”.

His body came back in a coffin dressed in an American flag. He had a fiancé, Susan. She would wear his engagement ring on a chain around her neck for the rest of her life.

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Ezra’s grandfather, Max, belonged to a membership. Every week they held the meeting at a fellow member’s house. Ezra expected them to be segregated by gender. The women weren’t permitted to cut their hair. Harold had always liked long hair, but Ezra hoped that it was not for this reason.

The members didn’t watch TV, they listened to the radio. Max had been married three times. The members didn’t care. Ethel, his current girlfriend, lived down the hall in the senior living apartments.

Ezra remembers the first time she ever went to her grandfather’s apartment. It seemed weird that he had an apartment at all. Apartments were for college students, aging waitresses, young families- not senior adults. Seniors belonged in homes, or houses. They belonged with crown molding, hardwood floors, and actual framed art.

She entered the white-walled apartment with her dad. The bubbling of a fish tank filled the tiny space. She saw family Polaroid’s on the wall that, to her astonishment, were housed in plastic dog bowls. The dishes acted as a frame. Yellow tennis balls were mounted to the walls with string attaching them together. On the back of the toilet, there was a candelabra which had forks and spoons for candles.

“Interesting choice of decoration, pop,” Ezra would say.

“And all at the dollar store!” mumbled her grandfather.

Even though he had a bedroom, Max slept in his lazy-boy recliner. The Bible by his side for his daily mediations. The man had a lot to mull over. His seventy years of life, no doubt filling every pocket of air in that apartment, 3E.

He also gave back gifts. One year for Christmas, Ezra’s crafty Aunt Sue had made everyone in the family scrap books. The quilted book catalogue almost 50 years of kids and relatives. Ezra’s favorite photos where the square ones with the white borders. She especially liked the one of her dad with boxing gloves on. Max gave it back two years later. Wrapped up in a plastic grocery bag, the scalloped edged construction paper and cutesy stickers were too much for the old man’s conscious. He preferred not to think about it. That book came back, along with a personal back massager, a microwave, jackets…

“He don’t like extras, Ezra. You know that.”, Harold would say as he stored the returned gifts in the attic.

Max was never much a part of Ezra’s life. When she was born, he had ready divorced Harold’s mother, Bea. Every year for Ezra’s birthday, Max would send a card with as many dollars as she was old. After the seventh birthday, and even though she got older, he just continued to send 7 crisp one dollar bills. He also gave Ezra her first 50 cent piece.

Max would occasionally baby sit Ezra and her cousins. They would always order pizza. Max had this hobo routine that he would perform for the grandchildren. He would hike his pants up over his small gut, tuck in his tie and turn his hat upside down on his head. Chicka-hobo-casime, was his name. He did a song and dance, that Ezra remembers resembling the chicken dance. Once, Max slipped on part of a rug and fell. “We all thought we were going to lose him that night,” Harold said, 20 years later.
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Harold’s brother Steven makes him laugh so hard that he coughs. Ezra aches for Steven to be around. She loves to see her dad laugh so he falls over in a parallel line with the floor. His face turns red, his eyes well up. It’s enough to make Ezra laugh, just thinking of her father laughing.

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She watches him as they carry her wooden coffin to the front of the church. He doesn’t cry. It was the first day of winter.
Her childhood pastor delivers the eulogy, and then the congregation sang I’ll Fly Away. Some bright morning when this life is over, I'll fly away.

The family intermingled with each other. An estranged brother came to greet Ezra’s father. He smiled, politely, patted him on the back and turned to walk away. Another man, Ed- Bea’s second husband, stood alone in the front church courtyard. He always wore a pair of dark blue trousers with a light blue button down top. Short-sleeve in the summer, long sleeve in the fall. His hair was always buzz cut and the skin on his face looked as though it was melting.
“He wanted to bury her in cardboard box,” Harold said as he passed Ed. Still, no tears.

Ezra remembers when her mom had called from the hospital to say that Bea had passed on. According to family myth, Ezra dropped the phone from the walled receiver and turned ghost white. There’s an old Irish belief that Banshees- fairy-like women- visit the home of the family who is about have a relative die. The Banshees sounds like cats wailin’ or babies cryin’. Ezra swears she hears them almost every night.

Bea grew up in a small town outside of where Ezra was born. Her mother, Ollie, had married beneath her. The man was Tom Curlee. He was a carpenter. Ezra’s dad tells the story of how Ollie was riding along in a horse drawn carriage and came across Tom. Ollie was a learned woman, Tom a craftsman.

“He worked for fifty cent a week, Ezra. Look here, He was a good man. Honest. He used to take us rabbit hunting out the back of his house. Mum Mum Ollie would fix us biscuits from scratch and wrap them in wax paper.” Harold.

Virginia Beatrice Curlee was married to Max for nearly thirty years. He kept her unemployed and pregnant; yelled at her when he wanted to. Hit her if he felt it necessary. Until the seventies, Bea was compliant. Ezra will look back at photos and realize that Bea never looked happy in black and white. She looked happy in color portraits, always by herself. A bold white stripe of hair splitting her skull right in half. In ’72, Bea decided she wanted to go to work. So she applied, accepted and started without Max knowing. They divorced shortly after Michael died.

During her job at the hospital, Bea met many doctors who wooed her. They courted her, took her out to dinners. But Bea ultimately became infatuated with a rather convincing man, Edward Harris. They married. He was with her when she died.
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“You will be our first woman president, Ezra-Elizabeth!” Bea squeezed her tight against her angora sweater. Ezra was never sure exactly what had made her grandmother believe this. She was only 12 when Bea had made the prediction. When Bea laughed, she lifted her tongue out of her mouth until it almost reached the tip of her nose.

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