By Tammy Greenwood
Tammy Greenwood, 1999 winner of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation award, has permitted us to publish Broken, the second chapter of her novel in progress, which she writes, is about a young woman dying of breast cancer. Throughout the novel she reflects on her fourteenth year when her mother abandoned the family and she wound up in an inappropriate relationship with her music teacher. She is now coming to terms with her culpability in the affair and his ultimate demise, as well as her mother’s abandonment, and finally her illness.)
If summer here were made of colored glass, this is the way the light would shine through the summer I turned fourteen: new leaves the green of dreams, fat June bugs’ metallic wings, and the color of breeze. Not spring. By early June, the mud of the dirt road leading from our house to the lake had dried up, leaving a path of quartz and mica under bare feet, shiny enough to make you imagine that diamonds instead of Fool’s Gold were piercing your winter skin. I picked the rocks up in handfuls and let the sun pour through my fists.
The road to the lake from our house was a corridor of green and sunlight, and after walking for two miles there was this: a yellow sail, the red hint of a lost kite, and the blue, blue of watery summer. Azure lake, white at the shore, and silvery fish. It was clean and bright here, not like at the murky pond with its sawdust bottom near our house. Here the shores were made of grass instead of dirt, and you could swim for hours without getting an earache. The sepia colors of the dark woods where we lived became brilliant, alive here, and this summer I wore bits of purple in my newly pierced ears. If summer here were made of colored glass, I would remember this one as amethyst.
The clarity of this summer is striking to me now. It seems that it would be clouded by everything that happened afterwards, but instead it hangs in my memory like a strand of colored glass beads: each bead a small gem, moments stolen and then strung together. Vivid. And intact. I keep it somewhere safe now, in a place where no one can find it, going over the beads like a rosary when I can’t sleep. And in my hands are the fragile remnants of the last summer that I believed the world to be a kind place. The last summer that I could see promise in something as simple as the curve of the moon. The last summer that I believed I knew mother.
My mother was an artist. That wasn’t her word; it was mine. But she was. She told people she was a housewife, a stay-at-home mom. And who would question that? She had a convincing story and the proof of no job, two children, and weathered hands. She was reluctant to talk about what she really did with her time. To strangers especially. But inside our home, we knew the magic she was capable of. To my brother Quinn and me, she was not only a mother but a sorceress. She made life incredible in a place that was otherwise unbearable. That is why my father loved her. And why I wanted to become her someday.
The shed behind our house was where she worked. There was only one bare bulb hanging down from a cord in the middle of the room, but sometimes she would stay in there until long past dark. I could see the shed light from my bedroom window, hear the music coming from the little radio she kept in there. It wasn’t a proper place for an artist; there was no heat in the winter other than the small electric space heater and no real way to keep cool in the summer. But she never complained. It was her place in the world, she said. She didn’t even mind the dirt floor or leaky roof. The smell of rotten wood or the one smudged window.
She was a collector of glass: fractured pieces she gathered from the shores of Lake Gormlaith, the town dump where Daddy worked, and other peoples’ trash. And in her shed, she transformed the slivers into stained glass panels that hung in every window of our house. She never bought the glass, though she could have in Quimby at the hobby shop; there were so many things already broken here. Beer bottles break when thrown, so do glasses and vases and lamps. Windows shatter with angry fists. Debris is easy in a place where people are sad.
We lived two miles up the road from Lake Gormlaith, away from the Vermont Life pictures of serenity and summer homes and ascending loons, deep in the woods where some people still managed without plumbing. We lived among those people whose poverty could be seen in the length of their faces, in their tired speech, and in the heaviness of their eyes. Everyone here was hungry. Everyone here knew too much about pain.
There was a time before, when Daddy and most of our neighbors worked at the furniture factory in Quimby, turning trees into pulp and pulp into plywood desks and night stands and entertainment centers. There was money enough then for Sunday breakfasts at the Miss Quimby Diner, new shoes from Payless, even a trip down to Boston or Atlantic City every couple of years. But when the furniture factory closed, the men didn’t have anywhere to go during the day anymore. There were no jobs to go to.
Arguments exploded like gun shots in these woods where there used to be only the silence of water. And when people weren’t yelling at each other, you could still hear the hushed angry whispers rushing through the tops of the trees. Desperate anger. Anger made out of empty pockets and empty refrigerators and empty promises. And so my mother gathered our neighbors’ destruction and made it into something good. She rearranged their fury into transparent miracles that only needed a little light to come alive. She kept the shards in an old card catalogue in the shed, each wooden drawer labeled by hue. By degree. Each row was a different color, and the first row was red. Poppy, ruby, scarlet. Crimson, maroon. Burgundy. Carmine and wine. You’d never know there were so many shades of anger.
Daddy was lucky. When he lost his job at the factory, he found a new one right away at the landfill in Quimby, collecting money from the summer people who brought their tidy bags of coffee grounds and banana peels in from their rented camps at Lake Gormlaith. By July, every camp on Gormlaith would be full, and the summer people made enough garbage to keep Daddy busy ten hours a day: mildewed bathing suits, broken water skis, watermelon rinds. Corn husks and inner tubes. In the summer, he came home smelling like other peoples’ garbage, but sometimes he would bring my mother some shimmering thing he’d found poking out of a trash bag, or buried under a pile of dirty diapers. He’d polish the pieces as if they were gems and offer her the broken bits in the same way.
Of course, there was pain in our house too. I would have to have been blind not to notice the sad way he extended his hand to her, and the reluctant way she accepted. I would have to have been deaf not to hear their careful arguments at night. My father’s job at the dump was a seasonal one, and we all knew that summer would eventually end. And as much as we despised them, we relied on the summer people. Soon enough they would return to their real homes in New York and Connecticut and Boston, taking their money and their trash with them. The end of summer was a desperate time, even for us. I knew that instead of shopping for new school clothes, I’d have to pick through the summer people’s leftovers dropped off at my Aunt Boo’s thrift shop. In the winter, every winter, he had to find someplace else to work.
The first couple of years after the furniture factory closed, he worked pumping gas at a friend’s station, but it closed when the big Shell station opened across the street. This year, he didn’t know where he would be working. My brother Quinn had taken a job at the Shop-N-Save as soon as he turned sixteen. But despite my mother’s pleas to please let her help, to find a job in town waiting tables or at one of the shops, Daddy insisted that she stay home, that he could do enough. He said that she hadn’t married a fool. That he would give her the world he’d promised when she first loved him. And this made her angry. In my room, I held a heavy pillow over my ear so that their words couldn’t find me. The slivers here weren’t made of glass but of her sighs and his tears. But my mother was a magician, and she could mend things.
What I choose to remember, the beads my fingers linger on, are these. The days when Daddy and Quinn were at work and my mother belonged to me. The days that we went hunting for glass. We made picnic lunches (cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches, bottles of Orange Crush or lemonade) and walked for hours, waiting for the sun to catch in the blue or green of something broken. Of course, sometimes we could walk all day without finding anything; some times the beach held nothing for us but tangled fishing lines, a soggy shoe, and wet plastic bags. But other times, we’d find piles of glass in the road, the glorious remnants of an accident. Or a perfect piece of cobalt that used to be a wine glass. Those days, we felt like explorers or pirates. And we would sit down under a tree and eat our junk food picnic as if we had been journeying for days without food, and count the shattered pieces as if they were medallions of gold.
Will you sing for me? she would ask later as we lay, bellies full and brown, on the blanket she had spread by the water.
And as I sang, she would close her eyes. Sometimes it scared me, how far away she seemed, as if my own voice could send her away. But when I stopped, when I swallowed the only beautiful thing I knew how to make, her eyes would flicker open again, and she would return to me. She was already farther away than any of us knew.
In the evenings, she would put the pieces we had found together. “Look,” she said.
I had tip-toed outside, past my father snoring softly on the couch, and our greyhound, Sleep, who was doing just that on the front porch, to the shed. It was July, and the air was loud with crickets and the distant sounds of fireworks. The Fourth of July wasn’t for two more days, but the summer people were impatient.
It was so warm I didn’t need the sweatshirt I had grabbed on my way out. The door to the shed was open and light spilled onto the wet grass. I could see my mother’s shadow moving across the walls inside. I knocked softly on the open door and peered in at her. She held up the pane of glass to the one bare bulb.
The glass was indigo: not quite black, not blue. But beyond that confused color was the certainty of ruby and emerald and amber. The verity of red and green and yellow. It was an explosion, but somehow still perfectly intact.
Outside, the air cracked and burned with Roman candles. And as I sat on the wobbly stool while my mother worked, I thought about the possibility of explosion. About calmness, and sudden detonation. Watching her hands work across the broken pieces, I felt almost sick with appreciation, but there was no way to tell her how much I needed her.
That night after I crept back into the house, nearly tripping over Sleep’s long body in the kitchen, that sickness stayed with me. It settled in my stomach and shoulders all through the night. If I’d been able to articulate that feeling, I might have realized that I missed her. Already, and she wasn’t even gone.
The next day was brilliant and we walked all the way to the lake to lie in the sun. The grassy place near the boat access area was littered with empty fireworks shells, burnt at the edges and quiet.
In the summer, we didn’t worry about what would happen when winter descended. In the summer we didn’t worry about money. About food in the cupboards or that my feet were growing so fast I would need new boots again once snow fell. In the summer, it was just me and my mother, searching for broken treasures in the mud.
The clarity of that summer still surprises me. Sunlight struggling through the green of new leaves. The marbled pink of a sunburn and tumblers filled with pink lemonade. I suppose the sun might have blinded me a little. With the beads of sunlight in my fingers, even now, I skip over the ones made of milky glass, the gray beads that would not let the light come through.
These were the days when Daddy didn’t go to work. The migraine days. The days when he closed his eyes and saw falling stars. On those days, my mother didn’t seem to know what to do. Normally, we would have walked to the lake or through the woods to the Pond where some of the best glass lay buried in dank mud. But with Daddy home, lying on the couch with a heating pad pressed against his temples, she stood in doorways, looking lost. On the migraine days, the TV was always on: game shows, soaps, talk shows. She pretended to be absorbed in programs I knew she had never watched before. She jumped every time the phone rang, because once when someone tried to sell her life insurance, Daddy grabbed the phone out of her hand and demanded, Who is this? When Daddy was home, we didn’t go hunting, because every time she walked near the door, Daddy would reach for her, asking, Where are you off to? And then she wouldn’t go anywhere. Not to the lake for picnics. Not even to the shed to work. But then Daddy’s migraine would disappear, as quickly as it came, and he would go back to work. And when he was gone, the light returned, and I had my mother back again. I suppose the sunlight blinded me a little, to the dark days.
There were other dark days like these, interspersed amid the more gentle colors (the green of grass after rain, the soft orange of peaches in a basket, and the violet of the sky outside my night window). But on these days, the gray days, I could see the worry in her face and in her hands. I could hear it just under the surface of her voice. At night I listened to their whispers, pretended that their voices belonged to crickets, to bullfrogs, to loons.
“We’re going to Quimby today,” she said one morning in late July.
“Hmmmm,” I nodded. I was busy pushing scrambled eggs across my plate, thinking about how I might ask her for a new pair of jeans for school. I had grown five inches since last summer; I was almost as tall as Daddy, and my clothes didn’t fit anymore. But today was the first day in two weeks that Daddy had gone to work. We didn’t have any money for new jeans.
“Piper?” she said.
I looked up from my plate.
She was standing in front of the sink in her nightgown, and the sun was shining through the sheer fabric. Inside the giant nightie, I could see how small she was. It embarrassed me. I looked back down at my plate.
“I think I’ll bring some of my pictures to the artists’ gallery,” she said softly, like a question.
I looked up again. She was running her fingers across the counter. Nervous.
“You should!” I said, surprised by my own voice.
“You think?” she asked, hopefully. “You think they might be able to sell them? Maybe to the summer people?”
That afternoon I helped her gather her stained glass panes and we took them to the artists’ gallery in Quimby. While she met with the owner in the back office, I wandered through the labyrinth of jewelry and sculptures and quilts and paintings. I was amazed by so much beauty in one place and wondered what it would feel like to be able to buy something. To reach into my pocket and pull out enough money for the velvet crazy quilt. How it might look spread across my old bed.
My mother was smiling when she emerged from the back room. The handsome owner of the shop had his hand on her back, as they walked back into the gallery. When she saw me, she smiled shyly. She blushed when he wrote her the check for the pieces and squeezed my hand tightly as we walked back to the car.
At the Miss Quimby Diner, she said, “Order anything you want. Anything!”
We got hamburgers and French fries smothered in gravy. I’d never tasted anything more wonderful. On the way home, I could still taste the salt on my lips. We rolled the windows down and sang, together, at the tops of our lungs.
But when she told Daddy that night at dinner, when she handed him the check like a gift, he turned silent. Quinn stared at his plate and disappeared into his room right after dinner. I didn’t know what to do with myself in all that quiet, and finally, reluctantly, I left them alone. And later, the words that crept under my door. Trust and cheat and whore wound their way into my dreams. He asked her, in whispers like pins ‘s, Do I have to watch you twenty-four hours a day? And I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to imagine what would happen to us if he never left the house again.
A month later, my mother stopped getting out of bed in the mornings. Daddy’s headaches were keeping him home for weeks at a time. Quinn was stealing milk from the Shop-N-Save, eggs and packages of sliced cheese. Summer was almost over, but the air was still hot. Sticky and stifling.
One morning, after Daddy hadn’t gone to work in three days, I thankfully awoke to the familiar sounds of his work boots shuffling across the linoleum, and the sound of Quinn cracking his back, twisting first left and then right. And finally, the rattle of Daddy’s truck disappearing with the two of them inside down the road. I waited until I couldn’t hear his tires crushing gravel anymore until I crawled out of bed.
I had taken to sleeping in one of my mother’s old slips to stay cool, and in the kitchen, in my mother’s tattered lingerie, I poured the last of the coffee into a mug. I wasn’t supposed to drink coffee, but today I didn’t care. I kicked the screen door open and went out to the porch. Sitting on the rusty porch swing in my mother’s slip, drinking the forbidden coffee, I pretended things weren’t falling apart. That it was just another summer day. But my mother would not get out of bed, and there were clouds caught in the tops of the trees.
Inside, I walked tentatively down the short hallway to the door to my mother’s room and peeked in.
“Morning Piper,” she smiled, rolling over to look at the clock.
I sat down on the bed, and she reached for me with her little hands, motioning for me to lie down next to her. Sometimes lately I felt like she was the child; she was so small. But when I lay down next to her and she put her little fingers in my hair, suddenly I was the kid again.
“Is it nice out?” she asked. Her breath was musty. I knew what she meant was, Is he gone?
I nodded. “It will be. It’s cloudy, but it’ll burn off.”
“Promise?” she asked softly.
“What do you want to do today?” She smiled.
I shrugged. She hadn’t wanted to do anything for weeks, and I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
“I told Gray’s sister I’d help her clean out the rest of his house. She said we can take anything we want.”
Gray Wilder was our closest neighbor. He lived about a quarter mile down the road from us, near the Pond. He had died that spring. He was the first dead person I knew. I was curious, and the idea of spending the day on an adventure with my mother thrilled me.
“I was thinking we might be able to find some things to sell at Boo’s,” she said.
My heart thudded dully in my ears. I wondered what Daddy would say if she came to him again with another check. My hands shook with the prospect of another night listening to those words. But she held me so tightly, I couldn’t say No. She needed this. She needed me to agree. And I missed her.
We walked to Gray Wilder’s house carrying suitcases, and the sky threatened rain. It felt like we were running away, but the suitcases were empty, and I wasn’t wearing any shoes. My mother walked slowly, noticing things: a late raspberry, the red almost brutal amongst all that green. A hornet’s nest in the top of a tree. With her gestures, she tried to make all of this beautiful – to distract me from the gutted out car over the bank near Gray Wilder’s house and the bag of trash somebody had dumped there. But my eyes lingered on the plastic Valentine candy box, empty aspirin bottle, and single filthy sneaker.
Gray Wilder’s house was a trailer on concrete blocks. It smelled like an outhouse when my mother finally found the key and let us in. I’d never been inside a dead person’s house before. Suddenly, I didn’t want to be there. We collected a few things from the living room: a clock made out of a lacquered piece of wood, a wicker magazine rack. Two candles made of layered wax that looked like a sunset. But the smell got to me soon, and while my mother scoured his garage for something worth something, I waited for her outside on a rock, picking the dead skin off my feet. The sky rumbled angrily.
After a long time, she finally came out with something wrapped up carefully in the pages of a dirty magazine. She unwrapped it quickly, tossing the crinkled pages on the ground. In her face I could see something like desperation, as if her very happiness depended on what was inside the glossy pictures of skin and hair and lipstick. I couldn’t help but stare at the fragments of women’s naked bodies, at their pubic hair, shaved into tiny triangles and at their swollen breasts, their colorless nipples. I made myself turn my away, looking up instead at the red glass vase in her hands.
“That’s pretty,” I said. I wanted her to know she had found it. The perfect thing that would save this day.
She set the vase on the rock next to me and looked at it. Without sun, the glass was dull and dark red, almost brown. I could smell rain coming. I could hear thunder somewhere not too far away.
“Boo will love it,” I said. “She will. She has all of those vases, the Depression glass ones, remember? But she doesn’t have any red ones. I bet we could get twenty dollars for it.” My words were tumbling, eager and clumsy.
She picked it up again, smiling, and ran her fingers across the rim. But she hesitated half way around, her smile fading. “There’s a chip in it.”
“Where?” I asked, as if it couldn’t be true. As if she could have mistaken this imperfection. I stood up, went to her, looked at the glass. The chip was small but certain. The vase wasn’t worth anything.
She set it back down on the rock and walked away from me, disappearing into the garage. I picked the vase up and cradled it, briefly, like an infant in my arms. I set it back down, embarrassed and felt the first cold drops of summer rain on my shoulder.
She was inside the garage for a long time. I could hear her feet shuffling across the dirt floor. When she came out again, she was carrying a hammer. My throat felt thick. She scooted me out of the way and contemplated the vase again.
I looked at her, and her face grew soft. In a glance, I asked her to please stop.
“It’s ruined,” she said, her eyes pleading with me. “Already.”
I stared at my hands. When I looked up again, she was standing over the vase with her eyes closed. When she swung the hammer back, her shoulder blades were sharp, like a bird’s wings at her back. And the vase made a sound like music when it shattered with one gentle blow.
Tears welled up in my eyes but did not fall. I blinked hard.
She sat down next to me and leaned her head on my shoulder without taking her eyes off the pile of crimson shards. There was no sun shining through the fragments. It was just a pile of glass.
And then she stood up and brushed the broken pieces into the palm of her hand. She looked at me sadly. “Sometimes things need to get broken,” she said.
I suppose I should have known then that it wouldn’t be much longer before she was gone. I should have seen the dull prisms in her eyes as we walked home in the rain with two suitcases filled with the dead man’s things. I should have noticed that all the sunlight had disappeared.
The only thing that remained of my mother after she left was glass: In every room, her glass paintings, her slivered pictures reminders that there was a time before. That there was a time when things were almost beautiful here. The pane that hung in the window over my bed was the last one she made before she left and never came back. She used every color in this one, and at the very center was a piece she kept in the crimson drawer in the shed: the bubble of red from the glass vase transformed into a small heart inside the chest of a bird without wings.
The summer I turned fourteen, she made me understand. In summertime, that it was not the glass that was beautiful, but the quality of light behind it. It was the sun, not the shards, that mattered. And when I peered through the heart (eyes squinted against the moon or sun), the world looked a different way. I imagined that this was the way she might have seen things. When I forgot the tilt of her head or the smell of her hair, I looked through the bird’s heart to the world outside my window and imagined that I was her and that this was what she saw.
And that fall, when she was already gone, autumn sunlight shone through the red and made spots like blood on my sheets.