This is a vignette from age 3 that I have been working on.
When We Were Three
I am sitting on the pink porcelain tile floor of the bathroom in my childhood home. A bottle of St Joseph’s Baby Aspirin is on the floor in front of me, it’s contents carefully poured out two at a time into Dixie cups lined up in a row on the floor. Several of the cups are filled with water. The cups are tiny, but barely fit in my hands. Using a fork, I crush the aspirin, add water and stir. The water turns pale orange as the tablets dissolve.
Just a few moments earlier, I woke from my nap and found the house empty. I remember wandering the empty rooms, looking, seeking. All the shades and curtains are drawn to keep out the heat of the late-summer sun. There is a buzz of cicadas off in the distance, rising and falling in continuous waves. The house is dead, the thrumming of the insects outside heightens the sense of stillness inside. Outside is nothing but the searing glare of the bright white light of the mid-day sun. I have no awareness of the other houses on the block, or of the families, all the people of the neighborhood, the city, the world. I have no awareness of anyone but myself.
As I search the house, I arrive at the half-open door to my parents bedroom. I peek around the door. Mommy is napping in bed with my newborn sister. I want to wake her, but I know not to bother her. She has been so tired lately, caring for three children plus a newborn in the Texas with only two window unit air conditioners, one in the living room and one in my parent’s bedroom.
My two older sisters are at school, one in Kindergarten, the other in second grade. My father has gone up school. That’s what he says when he leaves for work every day –– “I’m going up school.” It’s a different school than where my sisters go. It’s where he goes to teach chemistry and do experiments in the smelly lab.
Mom is an artist. She is always painting on the walls of the house — lemon trees in the dining room, a window with views of boats in the entry hall, a european city square with a fountain drawn free-hand with Marks-A-Lots on the living room wall. But with the heat and a fourth child, she has not been painting lately.
Along with teaching me how to draw, mommy teaches me about life. She tells stories of her childhood in an impoverished neighborhood in Pittsburgh –– her father built their house, her mother died when she was 15, she and her younger brother and sister games played outside with the neighborhood kids because they didn’t have toys. She teaches me how to fix things around the house, how to paint walls, and how to and clean brass door knobs. She saves butcher’s paper for drawing and talks about carving Ivory soap and painting pictures with left over house paint. She talks about how Jackson Pollack learned to paint by peeing on rocks. She often talks of the government housing project called Terrace Village in Pittsburgh where our family lived when I was born. She didn’t like it there –– it was dirty and scary. She had to stomp her feet before opening the back door to scare away the rats when she took out the trash. An old lady next door was killed in her apartment and robbed for the change in her purse. Mom was home with three children under the age of four while my father completed his Ph.D. at Pitt. We didn’t have much money. Mom did what she could to make life better. She says she painted the concrete floors of the living room and kitchen with black paint then drizzled white and gold paint onto the floor. She says Pollock painted the same way. She painted windows on the walls, looking out to beaches, oceans and trees. She creates beauty and wonder, no matter how bleak the circumstances appear to be.
Mom likes to tell me stories. One of her favorites is the story of stone soup –– how someone started with a pot of water, placed a stone in it, and invited everyone in the village to add a few scraps of food until they had a feast. This is the inspiration for the soup that she makes every week out of leftovers and bones. I don’t like the soup, but I like the story.
My mother had often warned me to never drink or eat anything kept under the kitchen sink: Clorox Bleach, Old English Wood Polish, Comet, Windex, Brasso, Brillo. These are easily accessible, but they do not interest me.
On the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, as high as she can reach, is where Mom keeps the baby aspirin. She gave me some recently when I had a fever. “It’s orange flavored,” she said, “Like candy. It will make you feel better.” Although it was unlike anything I had ever tasted, I knew that candy was something special. I decided I liked it.
She told me that if I ever took too many pills, that I would have to go to the hospital and have my stomach pumped. I didn’t know what that meant, but the idea terrified me. I imagine a garden hose shoved in my mouth, down into my stomach, and attached to an elaborate Dr. Seuss-like machine with tangled tubes, jars of fluids, a bunch of belts and pulleys, cogs and pistons, driven by a large motor that sounds like a vacuum cleaner and smells of ozone and oil.
I push a chair to the kitchen counter and climb onto the grey and gold speckled formica. It is difficult to open the door of the cabinet. I nearly fall backwards as the door lurches open, I hold onto the handle of the swinging door to steady myself. Standing on my tippy-toes, I am able to reach the box. It is white and orange with dark brown lettering and colorful balloons — red, yellow, blue. I like the balloons. They look cheerful and hopeful.
I retreat to the bathroom where I open the box, slide out the bottle and pry off the white plastic cap. My heart is racing. I line up a row of small Dixie cups and drop two tablets into each one. After carefully crushing each aspirin with a fork, I pour water into the cups and stir. I imagine this is like what daddy does up school in the smelly lab, pouring fluids into flasks, adding chemicals, and stirring it all together.
I down one of the cups. It is bitter and sour and only vaguely orange-flavored — like Tang. Then another cup, and another. I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I hurry and finish off the rest by chewing the pills, one by one, chasing the acrid taste with tap water. I place the cups in the trash then put the empty bottle back into the box and hide it under my bed.
Later that evening, after dark, I am lying on the dining room floor, breathing heavily. My chest is heaving. I’m hungry for air, taking in deep gulps, unable to get enough, like an unquenchable thirst. My heart is beating in my throat. My ears are ringing and humming, louder than the cicadas outside. I feel funny. My lips and fingers are tingling — not in a good way. My eldest sister is sitting on the floor next to me, watching with a look of horror, ordered by my mother to sit with me and make sure I don’t stop breathing. Mom is on the phone in the kitchen, frantically dialing various people, describing my breathing, and asking what to do. After several more calls, she locates my father, who is still up school in the lab.
I do not remember much of what happened next. I remember being held down on a table, in a room with shiny green-tile walls and a bright light blinding me from above. My arms are taped to wooden boards and needles are being stuck into me by a crowd of concerned strangers wearing green pajamas. They keep sticking me, all at the same time, in my arms, in my legs, my feet, my hands. I twist and pull as I am restrained and held still. I wish they would stop. I count what I imagine to be hundreds of shots. One hundred is a big number, its more than ten. That’s all that I know.
I look around for the dreaded stomach pump. The room is full of strange things. It’s hard to see past the crowd of people. Is that the pump? But no hose is stuck down my throat, and the shots eventually subside. The people in pajamas are calm now. They step back from the table. I look at my arm. A thin clear tube runs from under a swaddling of tape around my arm up to a bag of water hanging on a hook atop a chromed pole. I am wheeled into a room and placed in a crib. My father is there. He tells me everything will be all right. I am exhausted and disoriented but feel secure with my father’s presence. I want to stay awake. I want this moment to last.
When I wake in the morning, my father is still there, sleeping in a chair next to the crib. This room and the events of the last twenty-four hours will remain in my thoughts for the rest of my life. Twenty-three years from now, I will return to this very same hospital as an Intern.
Kurt Biehl ©2014
Kurt I like how the story. I actually did the same thing at the same age while living on base in Okinawa Japan and remember the dreaded stomach pump. I’m drawn into the environment you create but I get distracted by thinking how a 3 year old would know big words (organic chemistery, cogs and pistons) or be able retain information about Jackson Pollack and the “challenges of depression”. He also woulddnt be able to grasp that raising 4 children is hard for his mommy. Is there a way to say “looking back I can imagine how raising 4 children made time to paint difficult especially in the August heat. All I understood was that she was tired and needed her rest”
Yes, that it is the problem with using present tense. I’m not sure how to make it work, but I do have a lot of vivid early memories, and when I remember them, I am right back there again, experiencing it in present tense as it happened with the added awareness of an adult.
I tried mixing it up, adult view with child’s view, to try to show that both exist simultaneously in memory – the added layers of understanding and interpretations as the story was discussed throughout my childhood. But I think it is just confusing.
In The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass has Oskar, the first person narrator, describing his birth as it happens with full adult awareness. But I am not Gunter Grass. I like the immediacy of present tense, but it has many challenges that I have not mastered. That’s why this is a draft and not finished work.