'The Urbanite' cover
From The Urbanite #5: Strange Relationships
Mark McLaughlin, Editor & Illustrator
Urban Legend Press P.O. Box 4737 Davenport, IA 52080 USA

Family Affair
by Jeanne Cavelos

At the airport I sense their secrets, stored safely in lockers until the festivities are over. The family reunion is in progress.

I walk down the street toward home. The dark houses are cold with moonlight, and the night seems empty, like a vacuum, as if distances are an illusion and can compress in a moment to intimacy.

My family's house is on the left side near the end of the street. I live there with my mother, father, and older sister. The house sits up on an artificial hill, dominating the neighborhood. The garage is built into the hill, and retaining walls of bluestone hold the earth back on either side of the driveway, so that driving into the garage feels very like driving into a grave. Lately I've noticed that some of the stones are coming loose, and I think of all the dirt behind the walls pushing to get out, the pressure building, building. It could bury us.

As I approach the house, I notice a figure in bright red and yellow is seated on the retaining wall. The head swivels toward me with an unnatural smoothness, like the head of a doll, or a searchlight. Painted white and red, the face is a jolt of brightness. Its eyebrows are arched high, like my mother's after she's finished with the eyebrow pencil and ready to go out. The clown's smile is foolish, ridiculous, but its eyes are full of knowing. At that moment I would give anything to run, to be elsewhere, but I cannot move. Its gaze stops on me, penetrating me like a shiver. I am bare to it, no chance of hiding. Its eyes tell me that I am powerless, that I am a clown.

I walk down the dark hallway in my family's house. There's a dim light at the end of the hall. I'm holding a napkin with a very important discovery written on it. My father has given it to me, but I can't read it in the darkness. I must find out what the napkin says. I flick the light switch in my sister's bedroom. It flickers briefly, then goes out. The lights in the other bedrooms are dead. I reach the end of the hall and go into the kitchen. The light there is gritty, yellow like an old movie. Someone is hiding behind the curtains. Since the curtains end at waist height, I can see the legs of a man. He peeks out at me, then comes out of hiding. It is Billy Crystal, the actor from the TV series Soap . He's a relative.

Billy is afraid, he tries to warn me of some danger, but I don't listen. I read the napkin, struggling to commit the contents to memory. It's something that can change the world if only I can remember it. Secrets can destroy us.

The napkin says (trigonometry formulas) , and has a diagram of a triangle with the sides and angles labeled. I try hard to memorize it.

Billy Crystal pulls me toward the living room. The light is dim in there and it has a strange subliminal flickering quality to it, like black light. Aunts, uncles, cousins sit on the sofa and easy chairs, visiting, chatting. Their voices are somehow muted; I can barely hear them, as if I exist in a separate dimension. Billy points toward the far end of the room, the bluestone fireplace. Lying in front of it, as if they had just crawled out from behind the stones, are two bloated purple bodies. A section from one of the bodies, like a large purple roast, lies to one side.

She has drowned them, I suddenly know. Though their purple skin is smudged with dirt, I know that they were drowned, and that she did it. The knowledge unfolds inside me like a secret written on a napkin and I want to cry or scream, though there is no name, no face attached to the she. As though she is hidden behind a mask.

The aunts and uncles don't seem to notice the two bodies. I think of going to get help, but I can't think who can help me.

A voice, a whisper through tissue paper, calls my name. It comes from downstairs. I go down the stairs to the basement half buried in earth, my breath coming up short. The walls are gone, made now of earth that pushes inward, inward. Great clots have fallen out onto the floor.

In the doorway to the garage--which now looks more like a tunnel in the dirt--lies a body, wrapped in a blue silk kimono like the ones my father brought back from Japan for my sister and me. I crawl into the tunnel-like space and push the clots of dirt back behind me until I can kneel beside the body. I turn it in my arms. It is light, nearly weightless. As I turn it the kimono crinkles like brittle paper. The hands are wrinkled, the fingernails long and yellowed. The head comes to rest against my arm, stiff gray hair scratching me. The face is shrivelled beyond any act of nature, dry grooves of pain etched into the slack, aged surface. The head drops back, limp. The neck is smooth, so smooth and shiny it looks almost like plastic. The skin is young and tight, pink with health. The neck is my sister's, but something has happened to her. The youth has been stolen from her so that someone else could have her life, her beauty.

Her last words fill the air with grit. "she did this to me. she hurt me. she hurt me." It had never been a secret.

I had known all along.

And I had done nothing.

I gasp for air and struggle to dig my way out.

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Updated Jun 5, 2003
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