Chapter 3 of EXQUISITE CORPSE
Harwich: August 1989
Eli & Michaela
Darkness, darkness, and more darkness. And silence. Long enough that you start to fidget in your seat, long enough that you turn your head one way and then the other to see if anyone else is as restless as you.
Then you remember: you’re the only one in here.
Thunder rattles the theater, so loud through the speakers that surround you on all sides that you imagine Zeus and Thor hurling bolts at each other to prove—once and for all—whether it is Greeks or Norsemen who have the bigger dicks.
Then, finally, the screen fades in from black.
Your grandfather’s cottage stands defiant against the winds whipping off of Nantucket Sound. Freshly painted blue shutters slap against the weathered gray-brown shingles of the place, but the house as a whole seems to be shrugging off the bitter breath of your family’s cranky, middle-aged God.
High above, Zeus and Thor harumph in unison at this interloper, this one god to rule them all. “Why, back in our day,” says Zeus to Thor, but Thor is already drowning is sorrows in mead and doesn’t hear his fellow thunder deity at all.
(Of course, that’s not really in the film. Not really. Your mind is just wandering, as the minds of you and your antecedents have long been apt to do.)
For more than three-hundred years, the descendants of Silas Silver have lived here. And for every house that has fallen—and every Silas—another has risen in its place. Even after the memorable gale of 1844, which had taken half of the house and all but the boot of their patriarch, the Silvers had just kept on keeping on.
Grampy, son of the ninth and last Silas, stands on the front porch of this home he built for himself the same summer his old man’s Victorian burned to the ground. He stands off to one side of the frame, perfectly positioned according to the rule of thirds, and a love for your filmmaker niece steals you from the dream of her narrative for a moment. But then the film cuts again and you’re drawn back in. The shot now is of Gramps from the chest up, thirty feet of that lovely old man livening up your mother’s lemonade with the last of a bottle of Stoli.
He looks back over his shoulder and the film cuts to a close-up of the window, a birthday cake cooling on the sill, and now you know when you are.
It’s 1989, and it’s your 10th birthday. Your mom is behind the camcorder, which she got when she turned 32 earlier this month. For the first time, you suspect where this story is going.
Grampy is back on screen again, sipping at the lemonade, and you can see a weariness in his eyes. You imagine him thinking about his old man as he sighs. That’s what he is now: the old man. The oldest of men, it feels like. He can only pray that if he lives as long as his father—another 25 years—he will never become as shriveled and bitter. He think’s he’d rather die.
You know that all too well. He’s only got another five years left. Not even. You start to count off on your fingertips. Four years and a few months.
But for now, up on the big screen your cousin and her wife have rigged up in the theater they’ve made of the old man’s old garage, he is still there. He is still here.
Grampy watches the giggling children of summer renters run from the sands of Red River Beach as the storm rolls in, watches them as they race down Old Wharf Road with their towels held over their heads. The torrent bombards the weakening walls of the sand castles they’ve left behind. Steam rises off of the hot black pavement. And you can see in your grandfather’s face a longing to be on the road again, with his trumpet and his best girl and all of the old gang. As he smiles, he longs for the swelter of a New Orleans dive in the middle of July—his sweat so heavy and thick that the music feels like real work for once.
Cut to that cake again. Then back to the shot of Grampy as his nose catches the scent, as he wiggles his nostrils for the camera. An old favorite of the kids and the grandkids, that gesture. But he pretends like no one is watching. He’s no actor, has no training to speak of, but he knows enough not to break the fourth wall.
“Tomorrow begins the fall,” he says to no one in particular. And no one in particular corrects him. No one would dream of correcting him, of letting him know that tomorrow is only September the first. No one is going to tell Elijah Silver that summer doesn’t end for another twenty some-odd days. He knows what he’s talking about, thank you very much. At least when it comes to things like the seasons, goddamn it.
He sips some more lemonade. “Has it really been so long,” he says, “since I unlocked these windows and threw open those shutters? Wasn’t it just yesterday that I took my sister’s old easel out of the attic and set it up for Michael? And how long can it have been since Trevor drove over from Hyannis to tune the piano for Veronica? A whole summer?” He shakes his head. “For Christ’s sake,” he says, waving his free hand toward the barn he’d made a garage the moment this land was his and his alone. “Matthew and I still haven’t gotten that damned car started.”
The camera holds on an over the shoulder shot of Gramps as he walks toward the porch swing. The barn is in the background, obscured by sheets of rain, but you are feeling more confident than ever of where the filmmaker is going with this. Grampy leans across the swing and pokes his head out into the rain.
Cut to: an old man with his eyes closed, smiling as rain drops pelt his buzz-cut head. You have the same bad skin that he does, so you know how much this must sting at first. But you know how soothing it will eventually be, to feel the rain soothing the patches of scalp he scratched raw during his morning argument with the eczema that’s plagued him since boyhood.
His eyes blink open and he stares intently off screen. Stares, you realize with a knowing nod, at the barn.
“I wish I could do more for her,” he shouts over the deluge. “At least today,” he says. “It is her birthday, after all.”
This is followed by as unsteady a handheld shot as you’ve ever seen on the big screen. It’s your mother walking across the yard, you imagine. She’s in the rain, holding the camera in place on one shoulder while she tries to keep the whole kit and caboodle dry under the umbrella she clutches in her free hand. You remember the umbrella. A black beast of a thing with Michael Keaton’s Batman emblazoned upon it. One of your birthday presents that year. Or, well, it was supposed to be. But then came the storm, and there were no others to be found, and your mother was never one for sentiment when practicality was also a concern.
You remember her shaking it out as she stepped into the garage and found you—as the camera finds you now—staring at the pin-up calendar that hung in there, in that place where girls weren’t meant to be.
The garage was dark and cool in the summers of your youth—a refuge from the heat, from your family, and from the boys who tormented you on the beach. You liked to sit in there by yourself, in quiet solitude, in the rumble seat of the old Ford, and you liked to brainstorm comebacks for your next encounter with the townies who called you Shamu.
But most of all, as Tracy’s film emphasizes right now, you liked to look at the calendar. You liked to imagine that one day the pounds would fall away from your body like marble from Venus, that one day you would be pretty enough for a calendar, even if you’d never think of posing for one—and pretty enough for a townie, even though you’d never give a townie the time of day.
Your mother sets the camera down on the bumper of the car, just enough of the chrome in the shot that you get a total 80s flashback when you notice the reflection of the big, honking contraption. But the story on screen pulls you right back in, your mother stepping into frame.
“You still you think it’s weird?” asks your mother.
You remember how close she stood, her shoulder brushing against yours. You felt like she wanted to hug you or something. But you did not want to be hugged. In fact, you wanted to take a step away from her. But you didn’t, because you knew that she would just close the distance anyway.
“It’s weird,” says your mother.
“What?” you say. And though you know this isn’t what she means by weird, you add: “That Grampy keeps a calendar that’s 15 years old?”
You remember catching a smirk on your mother’s face, but all that the camera is capturing is her backside. Her perfect ass, you realize. You’re just about as old now as she was then, and your ass hasn’t looked that good in years. You look at the screen, at the ten-year-old bottom of your frumpy former self—smooshed into those Care Bears shorts that hadn’t fit in two years—and you chuckle to yourself. Considering what you had to work with, you turned out fine.
Your mother fingers the pages of the calendar, flips forward to September, then October, and so on. Then she lets it fall back to August. In the theater right now, today, you laugh at a detail you had never noticed: your grandfather’s calendar might have been 15 years out of date, but he still kept it on the correct month.
“She was a beautiful woman,” your mother muses.
“She still is,” you tell her. “Only she’s not Grampy’s woman.”
Your mother turns to you, the camera catching her in profile as she sets a hand on your shoulder and looks down at you. “She was never anyone’s woman,” your mother tells you. You study her face, trying to find some emotion there (since her steady, trained doctor’s voice gives nothing away). You didn’t find anything in her eyes then, and you can’t see them clearly enough now.
The ten-year-old you on the screen shrugs off your mother’s hand. She shakes a finger at Mum, then at the calendar, as she asks, “Why does my father’s father have a pin-up calendar of my mother’s mother?”
“Every garage on the east coast had this calendar on their walls, Ashley. My dad gave them away with every spare part he sold. A catalog and a calendar of photos he shot of his wife. It’s how they built their business.”
“But why did Grampy keep it?” Little Ashley asks, and you note that she—you, you remind yourself—doesn’t seem to give two shits about Grampy appreciating the beauty of another woman. What concerns her—you—is who this particular woman is.
Mum puts a hand on each of Little Ashley’s shoulders now. “His wife’s been gone seven years now, Ash. And her husband”—your mother nods at the calendar—“has been gone twice as long. They’re close, Ash. They always have been.”
Little Ashley squints and grimaces. Through clenched teeth, a mumble so garbled by the camera that there’s a subtitle: “How close?”
Silence. Your mother doesn’t answer. And the filmmaker lets it hang there, lets us imagine the unsaid.
Good on you, Tracy is what you think. You’re proud that your niece, unlike so many in your family, has learned to appreciate the power of subtlety and nuance. Ambiguity, too.
Up on the screen, Little Ashley turns her attention back to the calendar. The filmmaker inserts a panning close-up of the calendar, obviously filmed years afterward. And you marvel once again at the beauty of your mother’s mother. She’s seated on the hood of a rusted jalopy, the polish of her every aspect standing in stark contrast. She’s wearing a crocheted body suit with a plunging neckline, intricate patterns of white yarn pulled tight over tanned flesh. Beneath the bare minimum of fabric needed to keep her breasts from spilling out, the suit opens again to reveal her midriff. A pattern of diamond-shaped openings runs from her armpit and down her side, over her hip where she’s planted one hand as she slumps ever so slightly forward, and then down the one leg she’s got crossed over the other. It looks like her eyes are closed, but really they’re focused on the the free hand that’s pulling a lock of her golden hair away from her perfect head. Every inch of her skin is a shade of bronze; there is make-up also, but nothing that draws attention away from the monochromatic mix of beiges and browns, coffees and chocolates.
The film cuts back to Little Ashley and her mother—your mother; why is this so hard to remember right now?—and they are staring at the calendar again.
“It’s all an exercise in titillation anyway,” says your mother. “See the way the stiletto’s dangling from her naked foot? See the way that cloth is juxtaposed against flesh.”
The juxtaposition of cloth and flesh, you think to yourself as you shake your head. The title of your brother’s goddamned dissertation, right there in the aphorism of your mother. When did she say that to Michael? you wonder. And then: did he give credit to Mum in the book? You’re not sure, because you still haven’t read it.
Little Ashley pulls a bag of potato chips from the pixelated shadows of the past, and she pulls you back into the film as she does it. Then she plunges a greasy hand into the depths of the bag. You smile as you remember fishing around for the last few crumbs.
And now you have a craving for Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion, which your cousin and her wife do not carry at their theater’s concession stand. Which is sacrilege. They’re trying to keep the odor in the space to a minimum? Well, fuck that. Haven’t they ever heard of theater of the nose?
“…the right piece of fabric in the right place,” says your mother. “That’s all it is.”
Which was easy for her to say. If it hadn’t for the varicose veins that crept like vines along the length of her hips and thighs, your mother might’ve been able to make a calendar of her own. You weren’t blind, even little you. You’d seen how the men at your father’s company picnics looked at your mother, whispering to each other over their beers—hating to see her leave, but loving to watch her go. And you weren’t deaf either. You heard your brother’s friends teasing him during their sleepovers, making crude jokes and bold proclamations.
“…besides,” says your mother, wrapping an arm around Little Ashley’s shoulder and giving her the hug she’d been waiting to give from the start. “Physical beauty isn’t everything. Your other grandmother was a… what is the word Grampy likes to use?”
“Substantial,” says Little Ashley.
“Yes,” says your mother. “Edna—Grammy Silver—was a substantial woman. And that didn’t make her any less beautiful.”
“It did make her die though” says Little Ashley. Then she shrugs off her mother’s arm, stands, and walks away.
She—you now, for maybe the first time—runs her hand along the Ford’s front bumper, heading toward the camera but not looking at it. You peered down at your own reflection, you remember, at the way it doubled the size of your face, the number of your chins.
You fought the urge to punch the car.
“You think I’m lying to you?” said your mother.
“No,” you said. “You’re telling me the same thing that the beautiful people always tell the butt-ugly people.”
“Ashley,” she began, “you’re not…” But whatever it was that you weren’t, she couldn’t say.
You faced your mother. “No, Mum, I am,” you said. “I am ugly. But here’s what you don’t know—”
“You have always been too concerned with appearances—”
“—I’m not always going to be ugly—”
“—the right clothes, the right toys—”
“—and I’m not always going to be fat—”
“—if you focused on your schoolwork as much as you focus on—”
“—I’m going to be pretty one day!” you shouted. And then, after a deep breath to calm yourself, you told her “Pretty is power, and it takes an ugly girl to know that. I’m going to be pretty one day, and then I’m going to show all of you how it’s done.”
The film cuts to black. Over the black screen, in the same Lombardic script your brother once used to letter your family tree, the title fades in.
“Exquisite Corpse,” it says. And then, underneath that, smaller and in a simple geometric sans serif: “a film by Tracy Silver.”
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