Category Archives: In Memoriam

In Memoriam: The Things They Buried in the Yard

hartnett-author-photoThere was a story my grandfather liked to tell, and it was my favorite one for bedtime. When my grandfather was a kid, a skunk got into the basement of The Women’s Club in town, nobody knew how. He had volunteered to help, had tried to get the skunk to walk up a ramp and out the tiny basement window. My grandfather didn’t want the skunk to be killed. He wanted to safely lead him outside. That was one reason I loved the story, because of how gentle and big-hearted it proved my grandfather to be.

But the ramp plan didn’t work, as best-laid plans never do; the skunk sprayed my grandfather straight on. He came home defeated, and his mother wouldn’t let him in the house until he buried his clothes in the yard.

Our yard?” I always asked, because it amazed me that my grandfather had grown up in the same house I was growing up in; my parents bought the house from the great aunts. It’s still in the family now. My father says he’ll die there.

Your yard,” my grandfather said. “You should dig those smelly clothes up,” he’d laugh.

I did look for his clothes, dug hole after hole after hole. Of course they’d disintegrated over the decades, but I didn’t understand that then. My mother still finds things our family buried when she gardens, glass shards mostly. “They buried everything in the yard,” she says, in a disapproving tone. We didn’t bury much when I was growing up. We buried tulip and daffodil bulbs and one deceased family pet, a rabbit. The fish we flushed, the dogs we had cremated. I wonder if my grandfather buried his dogs in the yard. Our family always had dogs.

One dog, a golden retriever named Frisky-Frisbee, got sprayed by a skunk once, and our neighbor told my dad to wash the dog with douche wash from the pharmacy. “Yes, that’s what I said,” she nodded, when he asked her to repeat herself. So that’s what my dad did, mixed douche wash with tomato juice and washed Frisky-Frisbee in the garage. My grandfather came over to help.

My grandfather was always over to help, and I wonder which house felt more like home to him: his house where he’d raised three children, or the house where he’d grown up. Of course, the house wasn’t exactly the same. My parents had the kitchen redone, a back porch added on, a new bathroom. But some of the furniture was still there, and the horsehair plaster walls still felt a little bumpy to the touch. Plus, there’s so much family history in the house. My great-grandmother died in my bedroom, I was told, and I wondered which corner she kept her bed in. I wanted my bed in the same corner, because I wanted to feel a deep connection to my family past. I believed in ghosts, but wasn’t afraid of the ones I was related to. I heard them all the time in the attic, or I did until my parents found out we had bats.

Irabbit-cake-cover’m thirty years old now, but that house still feels like home for me, in a deeply rooted way, a way that can probably never be fully replanted elsewhere.

For the past few years, my husband and I lived in an apartment a mile from my parents, a mile from the yard where my family once buried things they no longer wanted, not knowing the yard and what was buried there would stay in the family for a long time coming, an accidental inheritance. My grandfather died thirteen years ago, but first he made me a dog-lover, and a storyteller too, and I learned from him that it’s better to tell a good story than it is to tell the truth. He once told a bar full of people that he was Terry Bradshaw’s quarterback coach; really, he was a mechanic.

I don’t smell skunks as often as I did when I was a kid; I think the population is down. When I do catch the scent, I hold my dog’s leash a little tighter, and I breathe in.

Annie Hartnett is the author of Rabbit Cake, released this March from Tin House Books. She was the 2013-2014 Writer in Residence for the Associates of the Boston Public Library, and currently teaches at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband and border collie. Read more at anniehartnett.com.

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In Memoriam: Fuck Whale

Memorious is excited to introduce our new column, “In Memoriam,” in which a writer pays tribute to the memory of something or someone now gone.  For our first post, fiction writer and poet David Ebenbach tackles the complexities of (that’s right) Fuck Whale.

220px-david_ebenbach_005Do you know the story of Brigadoon? It’s a movie, actually, and the way it goes is that two Americans wandering through Scotland happen across a town called Brigadoon, a magical town that appears once every hundred years and only for a single day, after which it disappears again.

Fuck Whale was sort of like that.

When I was a junior in college I spent a semester abroad in Strasbourg, France. My reasons for choosing Strasbourg were vague and, in retrospect, not extremely compelling. Number one: I felt that, as a college student, I was expected to study abroad. Number two: I had some knowledge of French. (Specifically, I had studied it in high school but not at all since, which meant that I couldn’t speak the language, and my recognition skills were such that I could usually recognize whether a person was speaking French or not, but didn’t know what they were saying.) Number three: my Ohio college ran a study abroad program in Strasbourg.

So, I went, and, although I found good friends among my fellow students, I was still mopey and homesick pretty much the entire time. For most of my life, I had lived in one place—the inner-city neighborhood of West Philadelphia—and so even Ohio had been foreign to me; Strasbourg was another planet. Plus I was very, very, broke. In order to save money that semester I skipped so many meals (and the student meals were only like two dollars each, somehow) that I lost ten pounds. Plus I was actively pining, because I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman who did not, I think, realize that we were in a relationship at all.

Well, I tried to keep myself busy. I did a lot of journal-writing that semester, and I also took a lot of pictures. In particular, I took pictures of graffiti. I think the graffiti reassured this West Philly kid in the same way that a beautiful mountain range would have reassured a person from, what, Colorado? Maybe. It was familiar, is my point.

There was great graffiti in Strasbourg. Some of it was stenciled and layered and actively beautiful, but the bare-bones freehand stuff was pretty charming, too. Most of the graffiti was in French, of course, like “Quand on est mort, on peut difficilement se beurrer une tartine” (i.e., “When one is dead, it is difficult to butter toast”) and “FAITES CACA PARTOUT” (“Make caca everywhere”). So, that was good motivation for me to learn French. But there was also a little graffiti in English, such as in one half of this mini-debate about public transportation that I found on a wall:

NON AU TRAMWAY!” (“No to the Tramway!”)

“Tramway it is a better machine.”

So, public discourse across linguistic barriers. Even better, at one point that semester, when I was in an underground tunnel in Berlin, I came across “WEST PHILLY 89” written on one wall.

But nothing beat Fuck Whale. Or, I should say: “FUCK WHALE,” spray-painted freehand in black letters on a wall somewhere in the center of Strasbourg. But I mean it when I say “somewhere”—I didn’t seem to be able to find that wall on purpose. I would search and search through all the weird zigzag streets and not find it, especially when I wanted to show one of my friends in the study abroad program. But then, when I particularly needed it (say, on an especially homesick night), I would stumble across Fuck Whale. Out of nowhere, there it would be, like Brigadoon.

It was always a reassuring sight, even though (or maybe because) I didn’t know what the thing meant. Was it an expletive? (e.g., after hitting thumb with hammer: “Fuck whale!”) Or was it advice? Was it a smackdown of a particular whale? Was it actually a species that I’d never heard of? Who knew? Fuck Whale was a beautiful graffiti mystery.

fw1

A very young David Ebenbach

One thing I felt sure of: Whoever had spray-painted those words had what is commonly called joie de vivre (i.e., “not homesick”). I wanted joie de vivre, too. And if I couldn’t have it (I couldn’t), I wanted to be near it, spray-painted on a wall.

And so the semester went like that. I wrote in my journal; I traveled a little bit, as cheaply as possible; I skipped meals; I checked my mailbox constantly for letters from the woman I probably wasn’t dating; I took pictures; the city of Strasbourg moved from winter to spring; I learned some French. And eventually I did figure out where Fuck Whale was. I could get to it reliably when I wanted to. By then—the end of the semester—it was like visiting a former teacher for new wisdom. Though actually the wisdom was always the same:

FUCK WHALE, it would say.

TOTALLY, I would say in return.

In the end, I survived that semester, of course. I returned to the United States with enthusiasm (joie?) that was only slightly dampened by two initial encounters: one with an angry customs official, who was incredulous that I’d spent a semester in France because, if I’d wanted to learn French, I should have done it in America since “we’ve got better schools,” and then my first sighting of a t-shirt with the English language on it, which read Hangin’ and Bangin’. But anyway I made it, and I got on with my life. I was still pretty mopey (i.e., “mild depression that would ultimately respond nicely to therapy and some helpful pills”), but I was mopey at home, and that was nice.

screen-shot-2016-12-29-at-9-29-51-pmI have thought of Fuck Whale from time to time over the ensuing years. I still don’t know what it means. I still love it. And when, recently, a student of mine told me she was about
to spend a semester abroad in Strasbourg, of course I told her to look for Fuck Whale. But then she got back and told me she had never been able to find it.

More than twenty years has gone by since my own semester abroad, so the most likely thing is that someone has blasted the words off that wall. But I like to think that Fuck Whale has only temporarily vanished. That it will reappear one day, if ever there is someone wandering through that city, lost and glum, someone who’s missing something undefinable but crucial, someone who really needs it.

David Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches at Georgetown University. His fiction collections include Between Camelots (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) and Into the Wilderness. He has also published poetry collections, We Were the People Who Moved and Autogeography, and a collection of essays, The Artist’s Torah. He’s the Fiction Vice President at Washington Writers’ Publishing House and the blog editor at AGNI. His new fiction collection, The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is out now from the University of Massachusetts Press. 

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