Orange Can of Kerosene

I stood out back, with an orange can of kerosene in my right hand, looking at the overgrown grass, hanging tree limbs, and corroding nails through the roof shingle lying at my feet. All times when walking in the yard I was careful; the fallen shake multiplied daily. Soon the roof underlayment would be viewable from the street. Snow covered the descended pieces in winter and in autumn they were concealed by leaves. Those were cozier times; I could light a fire. The chimney smoke distracted from the balding roof, deciduous trees and autumn leaves peppering the ground; the celebration of fall transformed my signifying dilapidation into beauty. On summer days the yard was dry enough to discreetly pick the bits up after a day’s work, though it was the type of neighborhood open drapes display the booty of wealth-commitment; earlier in the day someone may have already had a peak.

“Margery, you back there?”

It was seven o’clock in the morning. I’d gotten out of bed three hours earlier than usual, having written a goal the night before: improve the lawn, intent on earning a Yard of the Month sign.

“Open this damn fence.”

It was spring and the house showed itself for what it really was—raggedy. My mother more than complemented its disposition; she explained it. More haggard than the falling roof, dirt lawn, and pond of a pool at the home she had come to visit, mom’s syncopated outfit of paint-stained grey sweatpants, winter boots with missing laces and cotton shirt showcasing her braless, drooping breasts mimicked a look of mental illness toppled with poverty—a far cry from her days as a Mary Kay representative. Still, to the observant her appearance was eccentric as opposed to poor. Her boots were quality and the new double cab truck she had just parked in my driveway nice. It had been fun acquiring that truck. I secretly gained approval from the trust and pulled up to her home–the family home–in a maroon Chevy extended cab pick-up. I was certain she would love it. She didn’t. So we went back to the car lot and test drove a few vehicles. I never said, “Mom, I reached out to the trust and they are going to buy you a truck.” But she knew it was in the bag and too late to argue by my confidence in dealing with the car lot owner. That is the way we often were; she talked and I tried to listen. But I am more visual, and I am still learning the virtue of patience. She always took too long to get the point. And she felt arguing was a form of communication. So there would come a time, many years later, when we would communicate without words. That type of poetry brought her joy. She chose a white Ford: “My daddy drove a Ford,” she said. “A T-Ford.” I wrote a check and we rode home.     

 “Margery!” She shook the unsteady fence we’d repaired together, only we’d used nails too short, and now, just three weeks later, the pickets were loose and slated to join the fallen shake.   


She shook again. A score keeper, she felt her efforts earned such roughness, her good work having resurrected both the fence and my career trajectory, the latter through a gentle push toward higher education. “Here is James Rhatigan’s card. He’s the vice-president of WSU. He said to come see him.”

“Why don’t you take a summer course and see how well you like it?” Mr. Rhatigan offered after showing me around campus. “We could probably find you some scholarship money.”

“I will certainly take a look at the offerings and enroll as soon as possible,” I promised before leaving, pensive at Mr. Rhatigan’s unawareness I was a twenty-two year old high school dropout in a bad marriage with three children. My plan had been to become a real estate mogul who collected rent checks and wrote fiction. I didn’t need school for that.

But I’d given Mr. Rhatigan my word, and it would be stupid to let the opportunity pass, so I went home and called Butler Community college to set up exams to acquire my GED. Within a couple of weeks, GED in hand, I enrolled in a summer faux finish painting class, skills I would use some three years later as a divorced mom of three in a home purchased with a subprime loan in a condition implicative of many foreclosed homes—which it had been. Soon, I would be preparing to head off to graduate school in New York and unable to sell during the market crash of President W. Bush’s last year in office.

I peered through the fence slats at the woman who for many years cleaned up after my messes, their messes, everyone’s messes before thinking about her own messes, which had turned into hoards of memories kept in clutter. “My mind is backwards and I am trying to work it out,” she told me many years later in the billiard room, the pool table covered in mail. Her face was nice that day. In her one good eye I found sincerity; vulnerability was only shown when desperate. She needed no one. “I’m gone sell all this shit and go live in a cardboard box! I’m gone disappear!” she would threaten when frustrated. Because “the harder I try, the worser things get,” she would say. But then, what do I know? It would only be when I cleaned the family home one last time that I became aware of her failures, when an abandoned home and its contents, along with surfaced repressed memories, told. But what of my failures?

Irrefutable is she stood a woman tired but strong. Even on her deathbed, she stood. That Amazonian built woman with the Tina Turner-like legs and ability to authentically connect to individuals across spectrum and class decided her fate with an affirmation several months earlier: “I’m gone die.”

But on that spring day, on the other side of the fence at sixty-five years old, she was still tougher than me. And there she stood, seven o‘clock in the morning, shaking the fence we had fixed together to prove it. She’s crazy. Mom knows if the fence falls she’ll be the one holding the horse while I whip him.

After a final deep inhale of gas, I put the can down and opened the gate.

“It’s about got damn time. I don’t bring my ass over here to stand outside waiting.” 

“Well, why do you?”

“Who in the hell you talkin’ to?”

“It’s seven o’clock in the morning,” I responded while avoiding eye contact.  “Why did you have to come so early?”

“I gets up at five o’clock every morning. I gets things done early. That’s what’s wrong with you. You too got damn lazy.”

“These ain’t the cotton pickin’ days, mom. You can’t expect me to be like you. I went to private schools for goodness sake!”

“I don’t give a fu—”

“And I was up. I finished a term paper late last night and still got up early. Was just about to cut the lawn until you almost knocked the fence down. I suppose we’re gonna have to work on that now instead. Thanks a lot.”

Mom eyed the gas can by my side. Other than my total submission, she wanted nothing more than my appreciation for good, hard physical labor. “Oh. Mama’s sorry.”

 “Well, let’s go on in and get something to eat before we wrestle with the fence.”

Turkey and pepper jack sandwiches were enjoyed before mom shot a look of you will be in pain if not physically then financially because you won’t get a dime from me unless you prove you don’t sit on your ass all day that consisted of tightly clenched lips and a blank stare to which I responded by quickly getting up, going out to the yard and mowing both the front and back lawns, thinking all the while about the boots I’d been salivating over online every night for the past eight days. Grass cut, I came in the house, proud of myself, to find mom cooking croquettes and in good spirits. I hopped up the stairs, added the boots to my shopping cart and skipped back down ready to eat, studying mom’s face as she prepared supper. 

She had big, high cheeks with hallows underneath wrapped in red-undertone brown skin.  She matched the leaves outside, coordinating with the season itself. In fact, she matched all the seasons, unlike me, a diluted version of her—much weaker and only able to take small doses of certain things, necessities of life really, such as the sun. Not that I looked weak and not that I was ugly.  Beyond the fluff—light skin and long hair, from certain angles my face shows symmetrical (although I have a deep scar at the top of my nose from removing a mole that she swore to disown me over). And all my life I’d taken pride in inheriting her brown eyes and not dad’s blue, unlike my older brothers whose eyes are somewhere in between. “I don’t know if ya’ll are one hundred percent human,” I used to say to them as a kid.

Mom did not see that pride. “You gone do me just like Pecola!” she would yell when angry. I discovered who Pecola was when I was around thirteen; it broke my heart. Had she not raised me? Had I not once been in her womb? There would be no Imitation of Life. She believed I would somehow one day be ashamed of her, that I would try to pass for white.

The truth of how she saw me: Margery is fragile! Mom tried working the delicate nature out of me. She whipped it, yelled at it, coddled it, yet it not only remained but grew until it became me, who at nineteen had never truly dated (aside from a boyfriend at fifteen who dumped me for refusing to give him a kiss after five months of all-night phone conversations about random things, including the inception of rainbows and why I liked the word idiot) and married the first hood rat in close workplace proximity. By twenty-six I was a divorced single mother of three and college student whose biggest claim to independence was my real estate empire consisting of three homes. Slowly, my big fixer upper grew into my identity.

I watched the corners of mom’s mouth as she slept on the top grain croc embossed leather sofa in the den. This was a normal dance; we were so intertwined neither mother nor daughter could decipher one’s limbs from the other’s, nor knew whose hold was tighter or dependency stronger. I wondered how I would finally check out the boots in my virtual cart.

Painting the dark brown cedar siding adobe white was my second act of renovation. The first was ripping up the carpet in all three bathrooms. Then I painted the exterior trim Navajo pink. Ha. It blended too well with the bone colored brick, so—not wanting to paint over brick—I replaced the double exterior entrance doors and painted them soft turquoise. Voila! I planted ryegrass, red bushes, and stark white azaleas. Each rhombus in the two yellow textured garage panels I painted a different custom blended, muted shade to resemble delicate stained glass. I gaze out of my living room wall of windows at the neighbors’ flavorless homes; I will have the best home once the roof is replaced.

There go the new neighbors returning home. We’ve never spoken. I’d never spoken to the older couple they purchased their home from, either. Maybe it’s the house? I have never had a conversation with the couple living in the house across the street from my driveway, either. Mom has. One day we pulled up to my home in my Land Rover and while I was unloading the girls, mom must have walked down the driveway. After calling her name and looking for her, I peered out the garage door and spied her in my neighbor’s driveway holding court to an audience of one, “Psychiatry Kills” printed prominently in white across the black t-shirt she often wore as representation of her Citizens Commission on Human Rights membership. I quickly shut the door, anxious about what she might be saying. Later she told me the husband was in fact a psychiatrist, and his wife kept looking out the window until she finally came outside yelling, “Honey, I found the cucumbers!” 

There is a sort of tension in Rockwood, like that of warm air moving through cold air resulting in snow or foggy drizzle—an icy essence, one big blizzard, a war for whiteness, an undisturbed frost biting everyone’s ass but other flakes. 

And it is hard to see the dirt through the flakes. And we have to eat dirt to live. “I almost died as a baby until they put chicken piss in my ear,” mom, still asleep in the den, once said. If chicken piss saved her life, than surely chicken poop would be good for the dirt and help my plants grow; it did. I look in the mirror and notice a vein in my forehead. It reminds me of a beautiful cousin who too had a visible vein in her forehead. That somehow makes mine more acceptable. As kids, we would cut through the graveyard located approximately halfway between our homes. I would turn my head away from her, afraid she would see the tears swelling in my eyes for the unknown stories of the men, women and, particularly, children’s tombs we passed. But then I’ve always been a weeper.

One of those children was my mother’s premature daughter, her first child born for her second husband a decade or so before I came along. But that marker I never saw. My very cousin, whom I used to walk with, is now buried there, never reaching thirty, transitioning on Christmas day.

I look down at the veins in my hands; are they green or blue? I trace them, not knowing where they take me. They only guarantee an eventual connectedness to dirt. 

And so it is.

Mom once decided, at some point in time during my childhood—maybe after her dream home became a drug house (though she did no drugs), after my dad broke his wedding vows, after she she stabbed him near the mailbox at the street, after the home became a safe haven for countless, after, after, after, it was a good idea to paint the white siding on our mostly red brick ranch style home orange. The trim, already black, was painted blackity black. I recognized the house was then ugly, but I did not know according the streets it was haunted.

A year before she died, she had no water in her home for a couple of days. The owner of four properties, the big house by then back to white siding and black trim complimentary to the red brick and all the fixings expected in a custom built corner lot home and the furniture to match, with an account quickly exhausted and unreplenished by a loan she’d given her baby sister, my aunt, the mother of my beautiful cousin, unpaid by my uncle after my aunt died suddenly and was buried next to her daughter, the beautiful one with the vein through her forehead, could not pay her bill. And I, having fallen from New York back to Kansas, had not the financial means to help.

So I took a large white plastic barrel over to one of her properties where a crackhead I’d hired to renovate the house ran a water hose out to my car and into the barrel, filling it with water. And my daughters and I rolled the water though the expansive front yard, my oldest brother watching before helping to lift it onto the porch. And my mother’s face lit up at what I had done–physical labor.

And when the real adversity hit: homelessness, cancer, single parenthood, relocation, I stood. Because that’s all I ever saw her do.

Even in my name I stand. How I hated it growing up; but she was right to call me after my NASA engineer paternal great aunt who never had children of her own. “I have an ugly name. You would really name your baby after me?” Aunt Marge asked mom.

Mom would be buried on Halloween 2015. Black and orange. “She kept sliding off the hospital bed and onto the floor,” my second eldest brother said at her funeral. “I kept wondering what she was doing; I kept putting her back on the bed. She kept sliding off anyway, onto her knees.” He testified: “Then I realized what she was doing; she was praying!”

Always in my heart. Happy Mother’s Day.

Irene Hanna wearing w white fox sling and holding a Mary Kay Cosmetics trophy

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