Kristine Langley Mahler

The Parts No One Wants to Hear

My father in the garage, building furniture for our family, the familiar whine of the jigsaw like a baby’s white noise machine as he measured, cut, joined edges together into a corner, a cabinet, a dresser, a frame.

      My mother in the kitchen, coming home from work and cooking chicken and potatoes and rolls, spaghetti, lots of spaghetti, bringing the dishes to the oak dining table and calling us all in, where we said grace together, where my mother would ask us about our days, where I would snip and paste the correct parts into my response.

      My little brother’s fist in my stomach in that kitchen the afternoon I teased him about liking a girl, I said her name and my brother leapt up, barreling at me, my shame that I had accidentally revealed what he wanted to keep secret.

      My little sister, Most Popular Girl at Dixie Bee Elementary, Best Hands at Honey Creek Middle, her clear blonde voice singing in all the choirs, the little girl who talked in her sleep when we shared a bedroom, a kindergartner murmuring “I can’t read…I can’t read a book,” and I shook my head; I couldn’t remember a time I couldn’t read or the time I was once popular.

      The report cards which were checks but mostly plusses, no minuses, never any minuses, the CAT and TAG tests tossing me in gifted-track coursework across the board, my blank stares when geometry was introduced, the fractions I never learned to multiply, the periodic table I snuck across my lap during the test, the C- anyway, the frenetic fear that I had once been marked gifted, I was supposed to always be gifted, the low Bs and high Cs in every math and science course I took in high school, all gifted-track, all gifted-track, no one goes back.

      My thumb pressed over the speaker on the answering machine playback, muffling the problems so no one would think I had bad judgment.

      My mother on the phone to her friend back in Oregon just a month or two after we’d moved to North Carolina, I’m not worried about Kristine because she makes friends easily, her pride and my shifty uncertainty in that declaration; one friend had kept me occupied while the other snuck upstairs and found my diary in the most obvious under-the-mattress spot, I’d written about how my friend’s mother was never around, how it must have incensed my friend, how my mother had to invite the mother into our living room later, the mother clutching the diary I hadn’t even noticed was missing; I crouched at the top of the stairs, horrified, waiting to rip up the remaining pages once it was returned, flushing my words down the toilet.

      Sundays beside my siblings in the pews, the Mass washing over us, elbowing each other when the priest warbled a component which would have been better off spoken, reciting the Our Father with our hands clasping each other’s and the squeeze we silently passed down the line, turned, passed down the line, father to sister to me to brother to mother, our closed circuit of love.

      The off-brand CD player that broke within a month of purchase even though I’d spent five whole months of allowance on it, the Cranberries CD I’d ordered through BMG that I tried to play, the first thirteen seconds of “Ode to My Family” doo-doo-doo-doo-ing before it would skip, I wanted to hear Dolores’ ode to her family because I relied on mine; it took me a year and another five months of saved allowance before I learned that a happy family makes a boring story.

      The only place my stomach unclenched, the middle bench seat in the minivan with my brother and sister in the back seat, my mother driving, or my father, all five of us buckled up and the white cassette of James Taylor’s Greatest Hits pushed into place, my mother and sister harmonizing alto and soprano overlayers as I sang right on top of James Taylor’s vocals; it seemed like it would go on like that forever, my family the wall behind me as I tried to show them I could stay on key.

 


 

Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Her work received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review and has been recently published in The Normal School, New Delta Review, Quarter After Eight, The Collagist, Superstition Review, and The Rumpus. More at kristinelangleymahler.com or @suburbanprairie.

 


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