SPOTLIGHT: In the Year of Hurricane Agnes by Michelle Reale

Venial, 1972

The weather never goes out of fashion. We were not born to be nimble. My mother’s pink curlers gripped her scalp with an imperative. The curl, she knew, would eventually fall, the acid rain a blunt instrument aimed at our vanity. We were guilty of so many things, but precipitation was not one of them. I existed within the aerosol mist of Aqua Net, fallout from the teased  fever dream of my mother’s voluminous  hair. It was my penance for the way I distorted all of my waking monologues into supplications. The clouds could have spelled any year. The sun had no expiration date.  The dark circles under my mother’s eyes spoke a transgressive silence.  The fatigue that dogged her often won. I covered my ears. The bra that pinched, white and blameless , hung on the line like an idea gone wrong. The cigarette in the ashtray crossed the boundaries of the feminine, but stayed within the margins exclusive of meteorological classifications. I would have been able to tell something of the crying on too many days of relentless sunshine, if only someone would have  had the temerity to ask me.

Tensile, 1972

All of my ancestor’s take a war stance. This is what it feels like to have been born into a life as atonement for someone’s sins. The usignoli sang beautiful songs in another country of origin, where my great-grandmother bled onto a mound as a sacrifice and then proudly made a donation to the Church.  One continuous day into the next and I sat beside my father at  Sunday Mass where the unctuous widow would be the first to arrive in her pew, and the last to leave.   I understood the times.  My family roused itself from a stubborn torpor and the sharp corners of my plastic scapular pierced my neck. I believed I might be a saint in training.   If there were beautiful songs to sing, they would sound like fractured  joy in retrograde.  Everything that came after felt like fever dreams with carillon bells—shrill, but fake.  Oh so fake.

Anthropomorphism, 1972

Anything can turn into loneliness. The cracked cup that sat vulnerable on the inherited kitchen table had a soul. In the same way,  guilt has a sound like a small, muffled squawk. I asked for witnesses to my memories. All connective tissue stripped, but bloodless. Every summer I contemplated survival, young as I was.  I collected details of our neighbors’ vacations then stood solitary in our cracked driveway  of the  family home watching as they, in vacation clothes, piled into the teal station wagon.  My father’s rose bushes were not  intentionally cultivated and were of the common variety.  They had thorns and I would mortify myself, not knowing it would be the culmination of all of the abandonment I would ever feel.  And true to abandonment, the pall of which would never leave me.

New Madrid Event, 1972

There were lessons to be learned about plate tectonics. I hugged the walls in a dark hallway in the middle of the night and entertained ghosts in elaborate dresses, one with such a dolorous profile, I might have cried out loud.  My parents slept the sleep of the overworked, always bereft of the past or the future in a subconscious way.  The ground really did a roll beneath my feet, like a slow and agonizing wave. I roiled inside in all of the ways that I was used to.  It was the only language I spoke, and one I was destined to teach others. Years later, I could spot the affliction anywhere:  the furtive look  over the shoulder, and the concentration of trying to run the clock in the process. 

On Any Given Day, 1972

The egg yolk, hardened on the spoon rest.  The rag by the back door.  The bar of Naptha soap in the dry bucket.  The transistor radio , tinny, and forecasting rain.  The wax fruit in the Fenton Milk Glass bowl.  The TV Guide with a coffee ring on the cover.  The plastic madonna with the beatific smile on top of the television.  The Sinatra album on the turntable. A pound of ground meat thawing on the kitchen counter. The floral bed sheet hanging out of the upstairs bedroom window, brushing against the stucco.  The stuffed church collection envelope propped against the toaster, ready for Sunday. The Harvest Yellow rotary phone, hanging on the paneled wall.   The Corning Cornflower 9-cup pot percolating on the gas ring. The wheat patterned cup, placid and patient, waiting  to be filled. 


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