This story was originally published in Tishman Review.
Playing Squiqqly, 1953
1 The Yellowed Body
The sheets are clean and white and the pillows fluffed for the tenth time today and the tubes carry clear liquids in and yellow ones out. And he is lying there with yellowed skin, the look of nothing in his eyes and a hideous grin; he knew it would get him in the end, his grit and ability to take it all.
Or the family comes in by ones or threes trying to remember if they are angry or sad and the words to each other lose context beyond making sure the nurses keep him clean. And his eyes no longer see the secret place where he grew his shame, no longer see through the soothing words that beckoned his hand into forbidden gestures, no longer see through the fog where safe deniability hides the truth.
And the monitor that beeps, the only thing he ever let that close to his heart that hears nothing, that counts down the last million heartbeats until his nightmares are still. There is pain and it may or may not register and anyway he is lying there on clean white sheets, mute but crying out for one touch that will heal it all.
2 The Older Brother
And the hate for the older brother that keeps the yellowed body alive, the brother who whispered scary needs. The one who led him to the shed with weathered siding that can’t hold out the snow in winter. The place where scrap metal and old tractor parts rusting from wet dreams stand mute like a dying man but without the white sheets.
And playing squiggly where his little hands touched the forbidden body part, moved up and down in time to the whispered instructions passed on by the older brother.
3 The Secret Game
The older brother who learned to play squiggly in the first grade behind schoolyard pine trees where a gang of sixth graders promised games and friendship. The sixth graders who turned his yearning to be seen into ugly stories. The older brother who had his not yet formed attraction to boys and girls turned into a secret game for the sixth graders. The sixth graders who snickered at stupid people who believed that to play secret games signaled acceptance.
The older brother who heeded whispered instructions, believed urgent voices saying squiggly was what everyone did. Who got down on his knees and worshipped sixth graders, hoped for acceptance and validation and validated secret squiggly games for their ability to get results.
4 The Responsible Adult
The teacher who answered the older brothers’ question about the squiggly game. The teacher who hid behind a responsible voice telling the older brother “Just say no.” The responsible adult who made sure not to know what happened when the older brother , still a child, walked away. The child who told himself to just say no and closed the door to memory before his mind could awaken behind the pine trees.
5 The Boy Teachers
The sixth graders who told stories of the queer behind the pine trees doing boy on boy, and made themselves feel straight by controlling the story and how it was told. The older brother who became a caricature and carried the story in his gut.
The sixth graders who ran cornfields, swam naked at the swimming hole and lost themselves in the search for acceptance. The woods where they dropped drawers, closed their eyes and jerked off before laughing at the last one to cross the line from babyhood to adolescence. The field of grass where they chose sides and batted around bravado; where fly balls and innocence got lost behind the pine trees.
The sixth graders who heard the whispers about weird people in New York City that played squiggly for money and got beaten senseless whenever the straight men who paid them needed to prove they were not queer. The sixth graders who thought they could be in New York City without leaving town. The stories they took with them behind the pine trees when they found the older brother they were older than, the one who needed them more than they needed him
6 Passing On The Secret
The day the sixth graders moved on to junior high school and the older brother was left with no one calling “squiggly” behind the pine trees. The day the older brother finally felt the hole in his heart, the one he fell into. The days in the secret room where the older brother passed his pain on to the child who would become the yellowed body. The day the yellowed body became a band-aid to cover the hole in his older brother’s heart.
The yellowed body remembers hidden vodka bottles that drowned his secrets. Remembers arguments with his wife over nothing and everything. Remembers camping trips where maple syrup is poured over pancakes and excuses poured over slurred speech. Remembers taking his children to basketball and little league where everyone is afraid they at last know the real score.
7 The Last Days
The day his work mates notice his yellowing skin and bloated stomach, who plead with him to go to the hospital. The day the doctor puts him in the intensive care ward, where he refuses phone calls from family members who tell themselves this can’t be happening.
The night and the next day where his insides shut down one by one or hover on the edge of a knockout. The doctor’s urgent call and the speculation of how long he will hold out; the stories of stubbornness that reflect grandfather genes or maybe come out of a determination to outlast it all.
8 The Yellowed Body Speaks
The day when the yellowed body tries to sit up for the last time and no one can tell if the child is still inside trying to speak or some muscles just contracted in a certain way. The day no one wants to know the answer because either he calls to them and they can’t hear, or they would just rather forget the grotesque gesture.
The day the yellowed body finally has the last word, breathes out everyone’s fears and commands the family to finally bury the whole sad story.
9 The Next Day
The day the daughter refuses to bury the sad truth in the coffin with the yellowed body. Who remembers the gentle father’s hands holding hers on quiet walks along the river before he stuffed his pain into vodka bottles. Who turns her pain into safe boundaries that hold alcohol and careless sex out of tender teenage fumbling.
The daughter who finds the one guy who acts like the Dad before vodka and shame turned his body yellow, before the hospital bed sheets uncovered the awful truth she could not change. The guy who talks openly rather than drink quietly. The daughter whose sons and daughters will have one less reason to die.
Emily Pittman Newberry is a performance poet living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing explores the challenges of living as spiritual beings in a human world, of the paradox of life. OneSpirit Press published her first full book of poetry, Butterfly A Rose, and a chapbook now being used in art therapy for senior citizens. She also wrote the poetry for the artist’s book Water by Shu-Ju Wang. Her work has appeared in journals such as VoiceCatcher, Ascent Magazine, Chaos Poetry Review and Kind Of A Hurricane Press, who nominated her for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. Find her at www.butterflyarose.com.
Image credit: flickr / russellstreet