Before Books, There Was Belinda Bruner From Broken Bow

Before Books, there was Belinda Bruner from Broken Bow, singing from the tops of trees. The urge to narrate is pre-linguistic; we’ve listened and repeated stories with our bodies in dance, with our mouths in song, with pictures, gestures, and marks along trails.

I come from a long line of story-tellers who, in multiple languages, presented me with my history. Long before my conception under the chinaberry tree (just out of sight behind the lilac bush) my grandmothers fought wars, crossed rivers, drank dirty milk from a five-gallon bucket, and dragged themselves bloody over ice in order to ensure the safety of their offspring.

Signs in the sky have long been our guides and in 1910, during unrest in China and the sacrificing of virgins in Oklahoma, a gentle priest knelt in prayer outside of Mexico City as his group of villagers reached the summit of the cerro to worship and wait. Mark Twain, who had lived to see Halley’s Comet twice, died quietly. The priest, acknowledging his mistake, suggested the people return home. My great-grandmother was one of these villagers.

Like the comet, story returns, different with each rendering; touched by particles in the atmosphere, seen by millions of earth-dwellers, and pulling revisions into its orbit; the comet of 2061 will have the same brilliance observed by Marquis Cang and Tycho Brahe. Perhaps it will shine even brighter for having been seen, spoken of, photographed, marveled at, worshiped, fondled by jet forces and space debris, molded by outgassing and other sounds of silence.

What child can resist the taste of snow? Before books, taste and touch were all; we learned through our bodies. And again in the paradise of art. This is why I write.

Plumbing

Playing church, we baptized the kittens
in the rain barrels, over and over.
They never wanted plumbing,
my grandparents, even after their children
were grown and able to pay for it.
Six gallons of water per flush,
my grandma would say, and shudder,
and shake her head. Boiling rain water
on the stove for our bath in the metal tub,
she carried the kettle out behind the smokehouse,
making ten trips or more. Watching the steam rise
from the gushing spout, we wanted Mr. Bubble
but instead we got Pine-sol added to our bath water.
No bubbles, but a hypnotic, medicinal scent
that soothed our bites and lacerations
and sent us to bed warm and fresh
as Easter, the skin beneath our pajamas
smooth as the plastic eggs opened in April
by greedy hands searching for a sweet
or a fifty-cent piece. I hoarded mine,
but she spent hers as soon as she could.

That summer, when my sister returned from
Girl Scout camp, Grandma said we were too big
to sleep together anymore, and I was moved
from the bed to a cot on the porch. I hated
my sister then, hearing her hum the gospel songs
we sang to the kittens, in that big feather
bed all by herself while I tossed and turned
on the thin, metal-boned cot. Certain
a tarantula would jump up onto me, I
remembered all the creatures we had found
and tormented during the day. Their sounds
would haunt me at night, the itching returned,
and I lay awake for what seemed like hours,
Power in the Blood a far-sounding echo beneath
bullfrogs and night birds and something I
couldn’t identify buzzing near my ear, growing
larger and more menacing through the night,
while my sister, I imagined, couldn’t be
bitten, couldn’t be touched, was not afraid,
and something was swimming in the rain
barrel beside my cot, and there was no moon.

Published in Switchgrass, 2017

Headlines

When his daughter was one
he babysat by letting her
eat the parts of the paper
he had finished,
and the mother would come home
to find them both on the floor
with newspaper, wet smudges
of contentment around the open baby mouth,
two faces marked with newsprint ink,
a proud, self-sufficient father.

Back then he read every tiny word, but
with faltering sight comes a fondness for headlines.
He can see the large, bold letters
and he likes the way writers use words
to capture his attention.
If the caption pleases him, shows promise,
he will slowly polish his magnifying glass
with his handkerchief, wrinkle his forehead,
and hunker down to read.

Overpass Order Overlooked
This one is about rival cities
that signed what they thought
was the same agreement,
but with each paper’s editing
came a different meaning—
Citizens to See Senator Concerning Revision
Some he saves for his daughter
(she writes, he thinks)
because she is an English major,
or because once she told him
she had a yeast infection—
Toss Panties In Microwave, Doctor Advises
Some helpful hints
make more sense magnified—
OSU Students On Budget Prefer Gravy Train
so he cuts out and sends her the whole
story, while others are self-explanatory
and give no need for further reading—
Dance Friday
or, like today, are so vivid and revealing
that he needs only the first dark words,
and is happy to let his glass hang
around his neck, smeared and dispensable.
Today his daughter is home to visit.
They share the Sunday paper over diet Cokes;
on her way home from church the mother
will pick up some food; the headlines
are spectacular, and with a little imagination—
Clever Cow Escapes Slaughterhouse
he can guess the rest.

It’s Still Water

Sometimes you wish you hadn’t come back
to gaze upon this lake. But you drove over a
thousand miles from New England, and through
Nashville on a Saturday night, all your belongings
In the back of an Indian-green El Camino, to this
land of giant grasshoppers. Every one of them
chewing tobacco under the big sky. Herds of bison
startle your memory, and the moon follows you as
you stagger through honeysuckle vine and briars,
seeking a place flat enough to rest your head.

In the summer, you—like the rest of us—
catch them and let the brown sulphuric
juice drip through your fingers. In winter,
you can live on any you saved for leaner times;
there’s more than you know what to do with,
and wherever stridulation occurs musicians will
rise from the noisy ruins of tanker trucks: Reba.
Garth. And little Patti Page from up by Poteau.
Perhaps you. Broken styrofoam huddles at every shoreline
boasting more miles of it than any other state.

How is that even possible in the land-locked
and barren plain? For it’s all man-made, you see.
Lake upon lake to protect us from ever having
another dustbowl. Nothing is natural but the red
clay, the salt flats, and the secret bottomland
below the Kiamichi Mountains, not even your
mother’s heart which came off a frat boy when
he tried to fly and hit concrete below the waving
Oklahoma flag. We wouldn’t have survived without
federal interference, socialist troubadours, and
money oozing like molasses into every crevice,
so that no one is innocent; none have clean
hands. Every last one of us is sticky somewhere.

Yet you’re back, looking for your grandfather’s
name etched into some still-standing monument
made by the WPA or the CCC, the stories crossed
up in his last year but the eyes clear until the end.
You’ll find us here like the day you left us for points
north, here where genius cardiologists shake hands with
fishermen spitting into white cups; the jeweler’s wife,
with her famous soprano lilt, checks on the livestock
by means of a pair of two-bit binoculars, and both
airports are named for men who died in a single plane
crash. Stillwater. You’re here because you’re home.

Radio Summer

I did not simply cry as an infant.  I was a full-blown hysteric.  Within weeks of my birth I turned red and developed intense heat rash all over my body.  Everything bothered me.  The blankets bothered me; the heat bothered me; I screamed when I was held and I screamed when I was put down.  Some forty years later I would be diagnosed with kinesthetic ADD and put on medication.  But in May of 1963 the pediatrician had a simpler solution: “take off all her clothes and stick her under the air conditioner.”  He sent my parents home with a smile and pat on the back.  They were too mortified to tell him that they did not have an air conditioner.

As a new accountant, my father kept the pair of them on a strict budget.  My parents grew up poor and believed that a more financially secure life would begin with budgets and savings.  With 10 dollars a week my mother ran the household, buying groceries, soap, toiletries.  Their one extravagance was that when it came time to purchase an alarm clock for my father to use to wake himself up for his first accounting job they bought a clock radio instead of a 39 cent basic alarm.

My father often stood with his body inside the refrigerator in a pose of deep concentration.  He counted the eggs in the refrigerator every evening when he came home from work as his way of helping my mother keep tabs on the budget.  “There are 7 eggs,” he remarked.  “We had 4 this morning for breakfast.”  He looked at my mother with respectful apprehension, knowing full well that the day had begun with a dozen eggs.  “Did an egg break?” he asked, hastily adding, with the love of the newlywed, “it’s OK if you dropped one, darling.”

My mother beamed at her beloved man.  He was a man of virtue and responsibility, and she felt proud to be able to tell him that she shared his concerns.  “I used one egg in the cornbread,” she explained, and elaborated upon the cup of cornmeal, cup of flour, the two teaspoons baking powder, one teaspoon salt, and two tablespoons of sugar.  “After I mix the dry ingredients I add two tablespoons of oil, one egg, and a cup of milk.  It takes a lot out of our staples but it should last for a couple of days.”  My father gazed down at her proudly; “how about that,” he said with admiration in his voice.  “Who would have thought cornbread had an egg in it?”  He said this as though my mother were the most clever wife in all of Choctaw County, and he kissed her on the mouth, and pulled her up from her seat, holding her close while they swayed to Lefty Frizzell on the clock radio.  He was losing his blues.

That June they drove home from the doctor’s office in silence and put me to bed in my crib.  My hysterics kept everyone in the brick four-family apartment building awake all night long.  Naked and red, I thrashed helplessly and angrily, seeking relief.  There was no breeze to be felt in the Oklahoma summer.  My parents got up grimly the following morning and began the routine again except that today there would be no walk to the park in the flimsy stroller, my mother’s only escape from the apartment.  How could one stroll a naked baby in small-town Oklahoma in the 1960s?  It would bring shame upon my father for my mother to neglect me so in public.  Weeping most of the day, my mother fanned me with newspaper, attempted to breastfeed me, walked with me and jiggled me.  At 5:15 she looked out the window and down the sidewalk in anticipation of my father’s return from work, and relief for her in the form of another human being to walk the baby.  He did not appear, and as my screams intensified she began to lose all hope.  She put me down, in nothing but a cloth diaper as plastic pants would worsen the rash, and turned on the clock radio.  No one could mistake “Lovesick Blues” for a lullaby, but it hardly seemed to matter anymore.  She lay down beside me and despite my screaming she fell asleep for a minute.  Or maybe it was two.  Desperate for the screaming to stop, she picked me up again, her own agitation and crazed terror fueling mine, and she went once more to the window.  This time he appeared, without his jacket and tie, and as he came nearer the apartment she recognized the burden at the top of his side; his left shoulder and hands supported the large window unit air conditioner.  He carried it into the living room, installed it, and turned it on.  Within seconds there were only two sounds in the room; the exhaust chamber churning out the hot air and the DJ reading the 6 o’clock news.  By 6:30 the three of us were breathing deeply and peacefully; the steady roar of the air conditioner providing a shuddering bass underneath Patsy Cline.  She was “Back in Baby’s Arms.”   

The Alamo

At El Mercado, tourists snatch
up sombreros and molcajetes;
on the boats at nighttime,
bored children drag their hands
through the river in spite of the
guide’s warning; their parents allow this.
My best friend apologizes to me for being white
and purchases a Frida Kahlo print. Don’t look
at the men with guitars, she whispers,
they’ll come over and ask for money.
I not only look at them, but I smile,
a smile that says come here, vienes aqui.
Cinco o veinte, they mutter flatly,
a question that has lost its inflection.
It wasn’t always like this, I tell my friend,
when my grandfather was a mariachi
he serenaded women at their windows,
patched up marriages, cured depression
which, like everything bad, was attributed to
the evil eye. After he was old, his tenor dropped
to a baritone, he had a sparkle in his eyes
that cajoled the washed out women,
their knuckles raw, their backs aching.
Even after his stroke, there were songs
on his leathery face, a drawl and swagger
like a Mexican John Wayne. Illiterate
in two languages, he signed report cards,
Agapito Jimenez in deliberate cursive writing,
a little shaky, smears where pauses were
recorded as blotches. I offer a twenty,
and ask for “Alla en el Rancho Grande” for starters;
my friend chatters as the singers begin
their routine; bored and embroidered, they stare
into a distant place. Maybe they can’t bear to see
the light in my eyes. Maybe they still fear el ojo;
looking away is their charm. Their faith
in a god’s eye, they sing in monochrome,
stiff and practiced as a pencil in the hand
of my grandfather, strumming guitars
like scratching their bellies, they fix a gaze
on some place in a memory, somewhere, I hope, alla.

Oklahoma State Fair, 1967;

I am lucky. In my mind I see myself playing with the black and white Snoopy dog perched high above my head with the other stuffed prizes. My dad, with my brother on his hip, put a quarter down on the red circle and, bam! We scored. The painted lady loomed over me; my small voice, my conduit to the outer world, failed me as “black and white” came out sounding like “red and white”. Realizing she couldn’t hear me over the screeching of Ferris wheel gears and the bellowing of the cotton candy barkers, I desperately pointed, and the magically large lady reached up for the teddy bear right next to the Charles Schultz-inspired canine. Too polite to complain, and with everyone congratulating me for picking the red circle, I pretended to be happy. I held on to that red and white teddy bear for years, and I learned that no matter how hard I tried I could not make myself be understood.
Some writers turn to creative nonfiction as a way of making sense of their experiences. Scores of articles and some books are devoted to explaining this as a craft. I will throw my five bucks into the pot and raise by venturing to say what I think it means to create naked nonfiction. To me, it means entering the outer world with my inner world wide open, bringing with me my past failure to be heard. Perhaps this time I will connect. Perhaps not. But I will use these experiences, these red and white teddy bears, as motivation to try as opposed to an excuse to remain silent. Maybe, in the next exchange, one of us will walk away with a black and white Snoopy dog nestled firmly against our skin, a gift for successful, primal communication. Too soft-spoken, too shy, too polite, one might decide to settle for less. Unlike my little brother, who at 2 years old was gregarious and outspoken enough to decide we were not leaving that state fair booth without a prize for him, too. My whimper was answered by his bang; kicking and shrieking my brother thrashed the urgency, and to be fair, my dad turned back and reached in his pocket for another quarter, this time placing it on the green triangle, Clayton’s choice.
Twelve dollars and fifty cents later my brother triumphed, or one might say, my dad left the fair booth in relief, destined to manage the family budget a lot more leanly that September. I don’t remember eating nothing but beans and cornbread for a week. I see a photograph—me with a red and white teddy bear half my size; my brother with a long, mean-looking green alligator (way before reptiles were popular). This photo reminds me to get my naked on; reminds me, too, that no matter how lucky I am, sometimes I will need to take a leaf from my brother’s book and just scream.
Belinda Bruner, editor
Creative Nonfiction

After Tax Season

Next to, of course, April, January is the cruelest month
with profit and loss statements and payroll reports
all due by the calendar year and the days being so short
it was already dark by the time he got home, pencil
smears upon his white cuffs, his hard black shoes
waking us as he paced the hall, tense and tortured.
But after the deadline, time changed and pencils
turned into crayons, presents and trips and music;
we watched our father dance with our mother to Don't Be Cruel,
the twist his only move in months that didn't involve
tapping on a ten-key, pushing paper around on a desk.
Sometimes it doesn't pay to write things down.
But when I was six, my father won the money
for my first bicycle in a Christmas Eve poker
game, taking money from other number crunchers
who spanked their children if they caught them counting.
Though he told the jokes, that was never his style.
When I was two years old I was attacked by a one-eyed
rooster. For therapy, my father let me watch him
kill that rooster, let me help Grandma fry him up
then they told me to eat him. Sometimes the richest
man in the county wears old overalls and drives a beat up truck;
when he offered his prospective CPA a can of Prince Albert
and a pack of rolling papers, the deal was sealed for the man
who couldn't wine and dine but could roll his own cigarette,
soft, counting thumbs wiggling, tongue wetting his lips
delicately caressing the paper. Adding machine tape
curling as one of the first toys in my memory, the
numbers always add up, and if they don't, what is the
first thing you check for? We knew it then; we all know it still.
The important things happen after tax season.
Once, the robins that came back and nested
every year in our oak tree came flying to the patio door
screeching, and when my father went out to see
what the commotion was about, they flew around
his head, like they were asking for help. He looked
up at their nest and saw the giant blacksnake,
menacing and thick, preparing to wrap itself
around the nest. My father shot that snake,
and we saw it fall from the tree branch to the ground.
The next year, when the robins returned, my brother
had reached puberty and gotten a .22 for his birthday
so he shot the birds. Things like that stuck with my
father, like the answer to the question that preserves us:
check to see if your balance is divisible by nine,
then look for a transposition. Some of us are looking
still, searching for a balance of zero, divisible by everything,
the answer always nothing.

Published in Facets, February 2006

Spanish

Sometimes I let it get
so far away
I have to call it back
like a child calls the moon
and imagine
that I live it
and breathe it.

The language died
with my grandparents.
I used to lie in bed at dawn
and hear my mother
call her mother,
the words rippling and definite
like soft whipping sheets
on the line,
the inflected question
always answering itself,
like a child’s cry of
Where’s the moon?
Knowing the answer
never stays in one place,
but is always coming, following.

Published in Midland Review, 1987

One-Man Band

I remember his darkest secrets as instruments
tied to his little body, harmonica glued to a hanger,
Simon and Garfunkel lyrics copied copiously,
magic marker ships sailing across his pants;
his love of ellipses brings me to this place,
finding sheet music again, marked and wrinkled
as if unwanted, like a baby about to be given
away, ink on its foot, vernix in its creases.
Following movement with those eyes from day one
I wrote for him, deep blue they were, then marbled.
He tested color-blind for school, choosing
not simply the wrong answers, but exactly
the answers the sight-deprived would indicate,
much to the examiner’s excitement. We laughed,
certain he could see the world as clearly as anyone,
and besides, an artist’s genes were there for the taking.
I came when I made him, like my parents before me
under the china-berry tree of stifled pleasure-sound
when summer, summer was singing and now I find
he’s here again, looking at me as my mouth searches
plum, papaya, paradise crawling on my belly and finding
food. Never again will nourishment be the same,
I thought. And still he comes to me, ritualistically
gripping down, tablature on his sleeve, organic
diaper in his trouser pocket, holding his daughter
out for me to love and relinquish—he’s a one-man band
at three again, showing me the words as I try to picture
what he sees: gray for green, brown for purple,
cornucopia of muted color, silent oh’s of pure, relentless loss.