Isabelle Davis


she puts down her wine. her wine is always red and for us to put it down is a sign of something heavier. we are not a heavy family but my feeling is that this is reactionary. my feeling is that we have worked hard to lose a bad culture and rebuild. still, the past arrives inauspiciously, presenting itself in a way that cannot be ignored, only documented.


he was a police officer and she was the manager of a donut shop.


the way this story begins is the way it would were she on a stage, were she going through her stand-up act. she pauses for laughs in all the right places and only brakes it out every once and a while. only when she wants to grab the room. pull us in.


my dad motions to me. i better be writing this down.


my recollection of their courtship is just them having sex all the time. a lot of giggling behind closed doors.


my stand up begins: my family is as american as divorce. that’s why we have so much of it. but of course, my parents are still married. it’s just their parents that split and re-split and recovered.


my mom’s parents divorced after two children, only to reconnect at the county fair and marry again when she got pregnant. after the second divorce is where we begin to have questions.


my mom barely acknowledges them, the questions. she will answer when she wants to—which is to say, later. she knows how to tell the story of her mother’s third marriage better than we can direct her. we’ve been done with food for a while now, and to suggest dessert would be to break something in the room, a type of magic which allows stories to be told as long as we all stay in one place.


for a second she can only examine her fingers— long like her mother’s. she used to manicure my toes the darkest shade of pink— one to protect me. at her wake, i stood on a stage and read a poem i didn’t write. it spoke of a god i never heard her mention. my throat closed itself before the second line and everyone’s eyes insisted on a continuing. so.


i wore a red velvet dress at their wedding. nancy made it for me and i thought it was the most beautiful dress that had ever been made. i really did.


at his father’s second wedding, my dad ate the entire wedding cake. or. that is how the story goes. imagine him: all red hair, skin that glows in the sun, his fists filled with vanilla on vanilla. imagine the sickness that followed. the way he can no longer eat anything quite so rich, so desert-like.


the mistake repeated with wafers and chinese food. a history of overindulgence.


after chemo ends, wine appeals to my mom again, it returns to her and overindulgence does not follow her the way it does him. she cannot learn to unlove. the wine we drink is always red, even in the deepest heat of the summer. the color is nothing like blood. still, after a while, her doctor recommends cutting down, and she commits to only drink on the weekends except for the weeknights on which i am home. when she will make a special exception.


i have to tell you, i think he was a psychopath.


she has stories, then, about belts. the choices he— bob, the third marriage— asked her and her brothers to make involving belts. but tonight she skips over them, and for that i am thankful. i don’t know how to record what i cannot fathom. that sting, yes, but it falls secondary to that anger.


i remember reading a story with my mom for a book club. i am old enough to read it aloud with my finger pressed up against ink, trying to get it into my skin. in the book, the older sister stepped in front of the younger sister when their father got angry. she absorbed what her younger sister could not.


she, my mom, grew up in a small town. then the family split, downsized, regrew horribly. bob, the police officer, moved them to something smaller. a lonely town of two-hundred. they found themselves surrounded by green covering yellow and by other white people in poverty. this middle america. this overwhelming lack of other and of money. her own father lived in a trailer park in a different small town. she calls the people around him white trash. when he had the kids in the summer they would take the trailer to burbank or to the outskirts of disney world, never really going in.


she refers to this poorness when talking about her own whiteness. it is different, she thinks, than my dad’s whiteness. the whiteness of winnetka. the whiteness of the daughters of the american revolution.


when she says this my dad rolls his eyes. he knows how she lied to other kids in the summertime when they asked her how she convinced the sun to live underneath her skin. her body accepted light in the way theirs could not, and in doing so became a novelty. she told the other kids her grandfather was native american, but she knows nothing of his roots. today people question her name, the irishness of it in contrast with her body. she works just as quickly, explaining her maiden name is mcnemera. it is really peters. the genericness of our whiteness is inescapable.


he was mean, he was really mean.


my dad’s mother and step-father practice a religion i do not understand. mostly in the media, it is a joke but their newspaper is respected. before the chemo, they urge her to skip it— to skip medication in general— to trying praying instead. she stands up from the lunch table and finds the water. the lake fills with lily pads and other green but my mom’s wingspan is almost six feet and she knows how to hold her breath for hours. my sister and i sit in our boat, watching her cross and recross this tiny lake.


on some weekends in my childhood, i spend the night with these same grandparents at their home in winnetka. this is much less cool than their cabin, but the drive is six hours shorter. the attic bursts with american girl dolls and their teacups. they were always clean plate rangers.


in the morning we go to the church my dad no longer attends. when he went to college he had to get all his vaccines at once. he was puffy for days and after that, he began attending less. when i go i try to not think about all these stories about all these men that i do not understand. i try to just listen to the organ. the walls say GOD IS LOVE and we would stand in front of it with that organ pulsing and my dad’s mom would ask me to read it for her. it felt warm in the way everything else didn’t there.


my mom inherited from her mother a lack of god. but still, the service found its way to the megachurch in urbana. the one her sisters attended. my mom whispered wakes are for the living.


i remember coming home from school and telling my mom, “i did not cry today,” and it being a big deal. really important.


i inherited my oceans from her and so even in the face of warmth i know how to pull salt water out of myself.


on the way to a small town outside of another small town, we listen to ira glass listen to a girl talk to a statue of paul bunyan. he towers over everyone in the woods, a man among the trees. what is paul bunyan made of? ira glass wants to know. the owner says this statue is no statue. the owner says he’s made of, the same stuff as you or i, only more of it. i worry if this is what all men are made of, really, physically. more.


when i talk about npr, my grandpa turns to my mom to ask when and why i got so sophisticated.


but i am midwestern by way of chicago. imagine my body into great lakes.


i grew— like plants do, so slowly but quickly enough to notice if you pay attention— here. at a party a guy tells me i’m very obviously from the midwest, i have that sensibility. he says this like an insult but then tells me he is from florida.


mary stopped him. she was always stopping him. thank god.


once my mom’s mom took me to florida. we stood on the beach and let ourselves burn and our skin bubbled and it was the worst kind of beautiful when she wrapped me in a towel and took me back to the hotel room.


we find my mom’s ex-stepsister on facebook and she is beautiful. her red hair falls to her shoulders and i understand immediately the types of spells she can cast. when they were still stepsisters, she convinced my mom to hide in a sleeping bag and zipped her up. she would not let her out until my mom begged for it. on her profile, she talks a lot about god, a lot about self-improvement through this force, this magic. is it hereditary or learned to be sadistic?


earlier that week we drove through a part of town on a saturday, the people here believed in the same god as my mom’s ex-stepsister, but they did so differently. the men kept their beards long and the women wore wigs over their real hair. they walked all over town on saturdays and they wanted nothing to do with us.


we do not look for bob on facebook. my mom smiles— we know him to be dead.


i stop trying to write fiction as soon as i begin. i learn the best lies are concise.


and then, you know, she stopped him herself. she punched him back.


that blood. i hope it didn’t gush exactly, just bubbled beneath his eye. there are colors that can appear on men that tell you everything you need to know. purple. green. when those colors grew on my grandma no one said anything. they directed her to more fashionable scarves, bigger sunglasses.


i hope he physically lost bits of himself until he became made of less than her.


after the blood did what it needed to do with bob, my grandmother walked back into her house, back to her three children. she rolled her shoulders back. she opened a bottle of red red wine. maybe zinfandel, but probably something cheaper. when i go to a dixie chicks concert with my mom i cannot remember if she drank much alcohol at all and my mom laughs, she says, oh, she was a bit of a wino. i barely remember her drinking anything now, other than diet coke. i have never seen my grandfather, her first two divorces, drink anything but his brother died at 35, cirrhosis, my mom explains.


addictive personalities run and run. maybe you should try taking like three days off wine? see how it goes.


when i come out to my grandparents— slowly, separately— i let them believe i am a lesbian. bisexual is a hard word for people to understand, it does not roll off the tongue easily. lesbian is easier for everyone except for me. i think my mom’s mom would have understood. i think i would have told her as she painted my nails red. but that chance passed me and so now i just whisper it to her earrings. they glimmer in the sun and i take them off just before sex because the backs press hard into my skin, reminding me.


i take them off on the day i meet my roommate’s mother and aunt. they are from st louis and they talk like it. they have dyed their hair red. their suitcases are pink with rhinestones. these women might as well be my grandma but they are alive and they are not patting their laps, telling me they miss cuddles. they politely ask what i write about. but it’s my roommate they call sweetie.


can you stop writing about me for a minute? can’t you write about your dad for once?


imagine a diamond of dirt surrounded by grass and imagine a girl in the middle of the dirt. that brown can sneak onto her skin for months. it can hide through so many showers. she brings her arm around her body like only a trained rotator cuff can manage. only one person stands in the dirt with her and he crouches in the corner she faces. he dedicates his legs, his back, to this way she brings her arm around her body. to the way she pushes her feet into the dirt.


on a show my mom loves and my dad finds cliché a man tells his mother-in-law, in my family, we went to baseball games every sunday. and it was special, it was our ritual. this is an explanation. he doesn’t go to church.


the key to pitching is that all the power rests in your legs, in the way you push yourself off the mound, toward the batter. we spent so many hours, so many days, making that yellow hit and hit and hit the right spot. i can’t remember what we talked about. did we talk? only if i brought up something first. just the two of us, making holes in the dirt with our feet.


or during games when i made a mistake, how he walked out to the mound. how he rested his hand on my shoulder and asked if i needed water or something.


the worst person i’ve ever met? like in my real life? bob.


the parade passes us twice. no music playing, just maybe twenty veterans and some boy scouts standing in a boat being pulled along by a car. on their first lap, the mayor of our town waves at the seven of us who have happened upon our front lawns at the same time as this congregation of lameness. my dad wears neon and a bright red face and by the time they go by us again, his siblings have arrived. his sister stands out on the sidewalk, waving or doing something close to respect. his brother sits next to me on our stoop, we surround ourselves with ivy.


we do not talk about afghanistan but i am thinking of the only thing i know about his two years there: a picture of my uncle, eighty pounds skinnier than he is now. he’s smiling a ghost smile and in his hands there’s a goat and behind him is an afghani translator, holding a knife. looking at the picture now he laughs and it is real, he says, we were so hungry we barely cleaned it. he says i’ve never tasted something so real. about the parade, he looks out at these half-heartedly held flags and says, i will never be a part of something like this.


later on the same day, we drive together from one place to another three times because it is moving season. we drive through an underpass to which people are also relocating. the place is lined with tents and people in camouflage. and how many of these people have been failed again by the country they wanted to protect?


a red minivan sits in front of us, blinkers on, and we sit waiting instead of maneuvering around this woman, unpacking her belongs into a tent. someone honks and my uncle puts his foot to the gas almost too fast.


bob was also once in the military. i can’t remember what branch but my dad, a civilian surrounded by marine brothers and a marine father and marine uncles, makes a joke about the navy.


i don’t really want to talk about this. what about jack? that’s a nicer story.


my mom has all of her mother’s jewelry except for the pair of gold and topaz earrings i am always taking on and off. the matching necklace and ring don’t maintain timelessness as well, and they wait on my bookshelf. the bag that holds all of the rest, the bag my mom holds onto, is leopard print and pink. so was her luggage and the majority of her clothing. most of it will never be worn again— too tacky for anyone less endearing than my grandma to pull off.


the most tasteful thing inside is a ring that my mom does not believe is real. the diamond isn’t huge, but it’s big enough. jack proposed to my grandma and her yes wasn’t ever fulfilled. she just had him over to watch movies. her sisters liked him. he gave her christmas presents that she didn’t open in front of us.


their love, it was quiet. maybe the quietest thing she ever did.


the wine we buy is always red and it is never more than ten dollars a bottle. my mom makes her choice based on the prettiest labels. my dad fills the glasses almost to the brim, he calls this a davis glass.


Isabelle Davis is a student and Pushcart Prize nominee. She works as an editor for Big Lucks Books and Probably Crying Review. Isabelle is the author of the chapbook, I’m Sorry Because This is Not About Sex. Her work can be found or is upcoming in The Iowa Review, alice blue review, Qu Lit Mag, Quaint, and others.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *