Authors: Novella Carpenter
My sister had a squat farm too. She raised chickens and goats on a chunk of unused land in her village in the South of France.
“I caught the nutria in a trap last night,” she said. A nutria, a large rodent that had been preying on her chickens.
“I ran up to the bar, to the old guy who I borrowed the trap from,” she said. “I said, ‘I caught the nutria! Can you come and kill it?’; and he said, ‘I’m too old for that—you do it,’ and went back to eating his bar nuts.”
So she ran down to the garden with a sharp knife and thrust the blade into the trap, and killed it. Not wanting to waste the animal’s life, they ate the nutria. She even saved the hide and tanned it. Then used the fur to make Amaya an Indian princess outfit.
“Holy shit,” I said. “That’s badass.” I was in awe of her moxie. Then I remembered that I had done a similar thing a few years before. I killed an opossum once with a shovel. It had killed some of my livestock, and I went berserk, decapitating the predator. That rage.
While we talked, I remembered an entry in my sister’s teenage diary: “My sister and I got in a fight last night . . . ,” she wrote. “I talked about how I got different things from mom and dad. From both sides I get different things. From my father I get anger, frustration, laziness, and survivalness—for lack of a better word. “Will” to survive. Then I asked if she got the same thing.” No wonder my sister and I got in a fight over that one. I’ve always wanted to pretend that I was nothing like my father, but surely I have inherited some of his tendencies. I majored in biology in college, and years of goat
breeding had reinforced what I learned: You are essentially a product of your parents’ genetic line. You take on their physical and mental traits.
Riana was getting more and more like Dad. Living in a remote place, gathering wild food, tanning hides. She was also getting into tarot cards and following vision quests. I didn’t ask her about her paranormal activities—it just seemed too out there.
I asked if she had ever worried about the crazy genes in our family. That they might have been passed on to Amaya. She told me that she hadn’t worried about that. She felt like she and Benji were destined to be together, destined to have Amaya.
Riana met Benji when she was in her thirties. My sister always liked guys from different countries, even in high school, and when she met Benji in Las Vegas, at the Paris Hotel of all places, the attraction was immediate. At the time she was living a fast lifestyle in Los Angeles, where she regularly got Botoxed and had collagen inserted into her lips. Those materialistic years were her form of rebellion against our mom. But standing there on the dance floor of the hotel, dancing with Benji, she knew that he was The One. He would whisk her away, first to Paris, then to the South of France, and she would steadily lose that drive toward the superficial and settle into a new, slow life.
Their meeting did feel fated. In 1970, in a village in the South of France—a few kilometers from where my parents were getting busy conceiving Riana—another couple, Chantal and Patrick LaGarde, were doing the same. Benji’s parents. Even Mom, who, remembering Dad, always advised us to “Never meet your husband on vacation,” agreed that these
two were meant to be together. They eventually moved back to the region where they were both conceived and there they conceived their daughter.
“It took Benji and me a year,” she reminded me when I told her I still wasn’t pregnant, and that I was feeling ambivalent.
Before signing off, Riana said she had some bad news to share. “I’m having hot flashes.”
“What?” I asked.
“It’s a sign of menopause,” she said flatly. I knew about hot flashes, but I associate them with my mom, not my sister. In addition to the itchy hot feeling, Riana had other early menopause symptoms: joint pain and fatigue.
“Oh, man,” I said, “You’re too young for that!” She had just turned forty.
“Yup, it’s what the French doctors told me,” she said before saying good-bye. I threw a chewed-up piece of four-by-four into a pile I was planning to burn. I would turn thirty-eight in two months.
• • •
“Monkeeey!!” Bill yelled as he rode up to the farm on his bike a few hours later.
“Hey, dog,” I said when he came into the garden. I showed him the work I had done on the farm beds, and as we poked around, talking about what to plant for the fall, I mentioned my sister’s condition.
“Peri what?” Bill said.
“Peri-menopause. When you stop making the eggs,” I said.
“Well, you know, she’s real skinny,” Bill said.
“Maybe that’s the problem,” he said, and squeezed my love handles. Then I realized that he was worried that if my sister’s reproductive years were coming to a close now, mine couldn’t be so far behind either. I was running out of time.
Newly enlisted, George Carpenter, 1955.
few days after talking to my mom on the phone about Dad’s violent streak, I got a package in the mail from Mom. It contained old photos of Dad and a military plaque that read “U.S. Army Armed Forces, Sgt. George E. Carpenter. Enlisted 30 May 1955, Honorably released 24 March 1958.”
After Grandma Jeanne died, her regular cleaning woman had found the military plaques and photos and, not having Dad’s address or contact information, sent them to my mom.
“I don’t know why she sent them to me, or who would want these things,” my mom wrote in a note to me.
They’re for me
, I thought, as I unpacked the box. I silently thanked this woman who cleaned out my grandmother’s house—and my mom, for hoarding things that were probably painful for her to see. The military placard had a cartoonish illustration of combat soldiers against a blue background. The soldiers were
wearing helmets and backpacks. They were running forward with long guns, with eyes cast forward, hopeful.
The photos were taken in Korea. There was a shot of my dad, looking like a gangly teenager, wearing military gear and shoveling snow on the ground. Another one of a thin, rickety tent that must have been home for him while in Korea. Bleak and cold.
The military paraphernalia reminded me of a strange moment from the summer in Idaho Falls when my dad had come to visit me. He had stayed a second night in the closet. In the morning, we went to the farmer’s market. While we eyed the Mormon peaches and baked goods I sensed he was feeling antsy and wanted to leave. I loved going to the market, I enjoyed meeting fellow farmers and being part of the scene, but my dad seemed more and more agitated as we wandered through the stalls. “Look, we gotta go,” he finally said and grabbed my elbow. We walked toward a bank parking lot, away from the crowd.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, rubbing my elbow.
“It’s just that crowds—I can’t take it. I have to constantly be on the alert.” He pulled his cowboy hat down over his forehead. He sounded—well, crazy. “I have to watch my angle, who can attack, what I would do,” he muttered. I had chalked it up to him being a feral guy who spent too much time in the woods communing with nature, so that the sounds and sights of the city, even a small one like Idaho Falls, had been a shock to his system, like Crocodile Dundee in Manhattan. Had something happened to him in the military that made him so cagey? Did he have, like soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, post-traumatic stress disorder? PTSD could be repressed, and then get triggered by stress or other circumstances.
• • •
After looking at the photos I headed to my office, which is twelve blocks away from my house, along a gritty corridor of Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Along my walk I passed a highway overpass that had become a homeless encampment. It’s locally known as The Jungle because in order to reach the camp you have to first climb a tall chain-link fence then hike up an ivy-shrouded hill. At the top, a thicket of trees offered some privacy from the highway. People post notes on the fence for the residents of The Jungle. One memorable one read, “Jim: Makita is in labor. Go to the hospital.” It always smelled like piss and pigeon shit nearby.
I continued walking and passed West Grand Avenue, where the Oakland Veterans Administration is located. It’s an outpatient center—a place where veterans of foreign wars go for meds and physicals. Though I passed it every day, I had hardly paid attention to the VA before.
A group of vets hung out in front of the building, waiting for the bus. Many of them used canes or were missing limbs. Across the street from the VA there was a park with benches under a cluster of ponderosa pine trees. There, old and young men played chess and smoked. A man with a shopping cart was yelling threats over and over again. I looked around to see who he was fighting with—his yells were deep and serious sounding. But there was no one there, just his shopping cart and an invisible tormentor. The VA bus idled up to the stop, and I read the motto, written in cursive on the back of the bus:
SOME GAVE ALL, ALL GAVE SOME.
I couldn’t help but think of Dad. How different was he from the shopping-cart pushers? They scrounged for cans and metal while he scrounged the forest for scrap wood to
make his living. I wondered if something had happened to him in Korea.
• • •
Later, when I came home from my office, I looked for a journal I remembered keeping during a rough patch in my life when I was homeless myself. I searched through the piles of stuff I keep in the shelf near the fireplace. I found it: a journal with a green cover with an Idaho license plate bolted to the front. A gift from my dad. As I thumbed through the pages, I had a sense of vertigo, of falling, back into a past I didn’t want to remember.
I found an entry from a dark night in 1994. I was twenty-two years old, in college, living with eight roommates in a squalid house we called The Cabin. That night I was drunk and sad—another guy had rejected me, told me I was “too intense” for him. I put a butter knife in a dirty oven and waited for it to warm to 350 degrees. This rejection was a pattern; I just didn’t know how to act around guys. I remembered that diary entry of my sister: “You hear that girls look for a man who is like their father . . .” What about girls who don’t have a father?
When the knife was good and hot, I took my shirt off and carried it out to the back porch. It was a cold night, a chestnut tree was losing its leaves outside. As I held the knife to the flesh on my ribcage, I heard a sizzle and closed my eyes against the pain. In my drunken logic, I figured I would give myself a stigmata like the one Christ had, just under his rib. I was a martyr for lost love. The burn welted up and oozed for weeks. I still have a white scar under my right breast, a reminder from a difficult time.
Things weren’t all bad, though. In class I had become
fascinated by the natural world, the one that had so drawn me when I was a child. I became a biology major and worked in a lab for an entomologist, keeping his assassin bug breeding program on track. If one of the black beetle-looking bugs bit me, I might lose an arm, the venom from one bite was that potent. I never worried, and kept their cages clean and fed them caterpillars for food. The bugs would pounce on the caterpillars, inject them with poison, and then sip their liquefied innards with their long proboscises.
I had another lab job in the next building over, in the human fertility clinic. I collected oocytes from hamsters, took the brown-bagged samples from shame-faced men, and kept the masturbatory room free of stray pubic hairs and restacked the titty magazines. My boss at the clinic once let me look under the microscope at the sperm. I watched the little guys swim industriously toward the enormous hamster ovum. I wanted a boyfriend desperately. But not just any guy. I found myself drawn to the dark brooding types, the misanthropes.
I finally found one who would have me. He worked at the Lusty Lady strip club as a janitor. He was tall and rail thin, and had tattoos on every inch of his body. My favorite tattoo was a Virgin Mary who lived on his thigh. She was traditional except bees were swarming around her mouth and you could see they inhabited her womb too. The tattoos almost made him seem not human. He was a painter of dark and gothic images, and accordingly wore chunky industrial-looking clogs. Our first date involved going to a morgue in the basement of the science building where I worked. There weren’t any bodies that day but we did get to see some human livers. The lab guys next to the morgue were casually dissecting the livers while sipping Cokes.
From there, things didn’t go well. He was definitely not into normal and healthy. I lost my virginity to him, and rode my bike home the day after, across the Lake Union Bridge, in agony, but feeling victorious. We continued dating for a few months but I usually found myself lying in his cold bed feeling empty and lonely.
It was during this period that I gave myself the stigmata; I dropped out of college soon after. I was twenty-two and found myself living in a van. I cooked meals on a Coleman stove, took sponge baths in the back of the van, and scrawled in my journal, trying to figure out what to do with my life.
• • •
In my living room in Oakland, I continued to read from the journal I kept during those dark days. “Riana told Mom I act like Dad now,” I read. “Which fascinates me. Maybe I should drive to Idaho? Tomorrow I’m going to get Dad’s phone number and call. Oh, man, I’m excited about the adventure I’m going to have!”
I had to laugh when I read that. I’ve been trying to get my dad’s phone number my whole life.
Shortly after I wrote that entry, I had my accident.
I had migrated to Portland and was working as a dishwasher by then. One night, riding my bike home from the restaurant, a piece of tenderloin beef stolen from the restaurant’s walk-in tucked into my pants, I ran a stop sign. A car did the same, and clipped my back tire, sending the bike scrapping sideways across the street, my left leg caught up under the heavy metal frame. The boozy-smelling driver silently handed me a cigarette as we examined my mangled Raleigh three-speed. I stood, flamingo-like, on my right leg—my left leg hung off to the side and felt numb.
A few days after my accident, thinking that my foot would heal in a matter of weeks, I jumped in a van with some hippies I had been living with in Portland. They were going to New York City, and I invited myself along. I propped myself in the back of their VW bus, and, as the states blurred by, I watched my foot turn from red to purple to a faint yellow by the time we got to New York. My plan was to stay with a friend of a friend in Brooklyn; he had a studio apartment in Carroll Gardens. He let me stay for a few weeks, but after that I had to leave, and I found myself homeless and still limping from the accident. I was trapped in the city, penniless. I spent nights riding the subway, scratching at the dirt on my skin, which came off in coils. One night a guy sat across from me, and when I looked up he was pulling at this giant plastic thing and making guttural sounds. I realized the plastic thing was his dick. The masturbator stared at me, and instead of fear, a hot rage trickled down into my heart. I went berserk, attacked him, kicking and hitting him until he fled the subway car—I wanted to kill him with my bare hands.
Meanwhile I wrote letters to friends, never mentioning my problems, keeping it breezy and romantic sounding. Now that I thought of it, they were akin to my dad’s postcards to me. I hoped someone might read between the lines and figure out that I needed saving.
As I browsed through my journal, I saw the photo. It’s a self-portrait, taken on the bed of a cockroach-infested SRO in Harlem. By then I had found a job dishwashing for $4 an hour. The long days spent standing were killing my injured foot, but I had to pay for the SRO. I ate the food that came back to me in the dishwashing galley, but it was never enough. In the photo I look gaunt and scared. In another, there’s a double exposure taken of me with the city behind me. Around
my neck are a pair of dog tags. I don’t remember how or where I got them, but they hung from a metal chain and I would finger the braille-like name and number: Carpenter, George, RA2877979715 T56.
I slammed the journal closed, feeling shaky and disoriented. Maybe my dad was right; maybe I
torn into him like a cur dog: a dog seeing its own reflection.
• • •
Eventually I got bailed out of New York by a friend, my college roommate. She happened to be driving to Cornell and offered to pick me up in upstate New York. When we met up in Poughkeepsie I was a mess; I had a limp, my clothes were filthy, and I clutched my army/navy store rucksack like a life preserver. She drove me to her mom’s house in St. Paul, who took pity on me and had me do odd jobs until I earned enough money to get home to Seattle.
Once I was back in Seattle, my mom loaned me some money, and I found a real house to live in. I went back to college and finished up.
Then, when I was twenty-five, I met Bill.
Bill seemed to love my faults. At his Capitol Hill apartment, he dumpster-dived for food and discarded objects that were broken but beautiful to him. He told me he liked my crooked teeth, my greasy hair, my tattered clothing, the white stigmata scar. My intensity was met by his intractable calmness, like a hot knife placed in cool water. I often felt like one of the things he had fished out of the junk piles. In turn, I was attracted to his somewhat uncivilized behaviors, like blowing his nose with a tube sock, wearing ripped jeans, and keeping a crazy head of hair. My story has a happy ending. I finally
met someone who loved me, and that love made everything seem possible.
I put the journal away and stared out at the garden. I felt like I had just time traveled. I could only vaguely remember what my life was like back then. That past self was a stranger to me—a young woman having a hard time, and yet not really upset about it. Just surviving, like my dad.
Based on what I had seen in Orofino, Dad was putting on a brave face, but he was in desperate straits, just like I had been in New York. He clearly needed help now. But there was no one to help him. Just me.
I was the only one who knew how bad things had gotten for him. I wasn’t scared of his violent temper: I had one to match his. Maybe I could return to Orofino and help make some improvements to his cabin. Together we could clean up his house. Dig a new outhouse. Set up a rain catchment system. I was his daughter—maybe I could help mend what his friend John called his “broken fences.”
But it was more than just wanting to help. I also wanted to finally break out of our pattern. I felt like I could control our destiny, to change our way of being toward each other. I sent him an apology and proposed that we get together as soon as possible—in October or November.
The next day, my father had already replied to my e-mail that I should come back, he would be ready for me. I booked my plane ticket for the end of October.
I was going back to