Kathie Giorgio’s third book, Learning To Tell (A Life) Time, was released in September, 2013, and debuted to an audience of more than 200 at the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, where she was the welcoming keynote. Lifetime is the sequel to The Home For Wayward Clocks, which received the Outstanding Achievement recognition by the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Awards Committee and was nominated for the Paterson Fiction Award. Her short story collection, Enlarged Hearts, was released in 2012 by The Main Street Rag Publishing Company, who also published her other books.
Kathie’s short stories and poems have appeared in more than 100 literary magazines and in many anthologies. She’s been nominated twice for the Million Writer Award and twice for the Best of the Net anthology. She is founder and director of AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop, an international studio offering online and on-site classes in all genres and abilities of creative writing. She also teaches for Writers’ Digest and serves on their advisory board. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter .
Excerpted from Chapter 3
Learning to Tell (A Life) Time
Main Street Rag Publishing Company
© Kathie Giorgio 2013
At the beginning of the book, 32-year-old Cooley (also known as Amy Sue Dander) is informed by a police officer that her estranged mother died alone in the family home. Cooley hasn’t seen or spoken to her mother in 16 years, not since the afternoon James Elgin, owner of The Home For Wayward Clocks, a clock museum, rescued her from a life of abuse at her alcoholic mother’s hands, primarily through being burned with cigarettes. Through the state, Cooley finds out that her mother said she had no children, and the house has been seized for payment of medical debts and back taxes. The state, however, does allow Cooley one last time to go through the house she hasn’t seen in sixteen years, to see if there’s anything of hers, or of herself, left there. This scene picks up where Cooley is brought to the house by the same police officer who brought the news of her mother’s death.
At the corner she’d avoided for so long, she stiffened. She knew as soon as the car swung around, she would see her mother’s house. Halfway down the block, on the left. A plain raised ranch, white with black shutters. An attached garage. A sidewalk leading from the driveway to the couple steps up to the front door. A black metal mailbox with the name Dander scrolled on it.
There it was.
It looked like the lawn hadn’t been mowed for awhile; it was longer than anyone else’s. Once her mother was on her own, Cooley doubted that the lawn was watched over much. The mailbox door hung open and envelopes drooped out, like half-heaved vomit. The garage door was closed, which it never was, when Cooley lived there. There used to be an automatic garage door opener, but it broke at some point, and it became easier to just leave the door open. The back door from the garage to the yard was always open too, so Cooley could come home and go right through, if she wanted to, without having to go into the house.
When she was a little girl, she went straight to the swingset. Dark blue against a golden sun. Sometime during middle school, she started slipping as quietly as possible to her room. She’d shut the door.
Now, she noticed that the house’s windows were dirty. It looked black inside.
Andrew parked in the driveway. Cooley got out and, since she couldn’t go through to the back yard, she walked up the sidewalk. At the doorway, she hesitated. She didn’t have a key. Was she supposed to have the key? A wave of despair, like a deflated balloon, went over her. But then she noticed a strange contraption hanging from the doorknob. It looked like a padlock with numbers, a large square version of what used to hang off her locker at school. “What is this?” she said to Andrew. “How can we get in?”
“It’s a lockbox. It’s okay, the state sent the combination.” Andrew pulled out a sheet of paper and then he set to work on the dial, whirling it expertly. A little door popped open and, from it, Andrew extracted a key.
Cooley wondered where the key came from. She wondered if it was her mother’s.
Andrew grasped her briefly by the elbow, as if steadying her, then he opened the door. Cooley felt blown over by the air that rushed out. Thick with the liquored-up smell she remembered. Wine and beer mixed with years of smoke. Her eyes watered. But she stepped inside and stood on the little foyer that always left her, left anyone, with two choices. Go up or go down. The stairs going up led to the two bedrooms and the bathroom. The stairs down led to the living room, kitchen, and powder room. There was also a short set of stairs down there that led to a small basement beneath the garage.
Andrew took up a post by the door. He stood with his back to the street, his feet shoulder-width apart, his hands folded neatly at his crotch. Cooley wondered if he’d been in the military. Then she looked up the stairs, considered going right to her room, but then descended to the living room instead.
She immediately felt disoriented. There wasn’t a blue couch or two blue chairs. Her mother must have gotten new furniture, but awhile ago, as this hardly looked new. There was a brown sectional sofa, and part of it was a sleeper, folded out into a mattress, bare and heavily stained. In a corner, there was a pile of sheets and a ratty blanket. A pillow rested on the top. The whole place stank as it always did, but this was overlaid with the new smells of vomit and worse. There was a metallic tang that made Cooley think of pennies.
And there were bottles. Bottles everywhere. Tipped over and upright, in groups and solo. But all of them, every single one, empty.
“Looks like the state hasn’t cleaned yet,” Cooley said. She looked up the steps at Andrew. He shrugged. “Can I…” Cooley motioned with her head.
“Sure. I’ll be right here,” he said.
Cooley was surprised that he was letting her walk through alone. But she turned her back on him and moved through the living room to the kitchen. Some of the kitchen cabinets hung open and she closed them gently, hiding the jumble of mismatched plates and tipped-over glasses. The coffee pot was empty, but the sides were skimmed over with a fine green mold. A mug, also green on the inside, sat in the sink. Her mother’s mug. Cooley wondered if it had been washed at all since the day she left. Since the day her mother threw it at her, hitting her squarely in front of her ear, bruising her with heavy ceramic, burning her with hot coffee.
It mustn’t have broken as it fell, because there it sat, in one piece, more green than the white Cooley remembered.
She looked out the window to the back yard. Her swingset was still there. The blue was darker than she remembered, but the rust was just as red, though more plentiful. Grass sprouted up between the slats of the passenger swing. The slide sprawled on the ground like a broken leg.
Cooley returned to the living room. The walls seemed amazingly blank. She knew there’d never been anything on these walls, not in the living room, the kitchen or the hallway, but they seemed emptier now that she’d grown used to James’ walls, lined with clocks. She wondered how she ever managed to live with nothing. After looking around one more time, Cooley moved up the stairs, passing Andrew, still standing sentinel at the front door.
At the top of the stairs, she could go to the right, to her parents’ room, or she could go to the left, to her room. The bathroom was straight ahead. Cooley could see that the shower curtain was shoved back, and it was half in and half out of the tub. She wanted to straighten it, just as she’d closed the cabinet doors downstairs, but she supposed she shouldn’t touch too much. The house wasn’t hers, after all.
Since her bedroom door was closed, she turned to the right, where the door was wide open. But Cooley knew better than to think she was being welcomed.
Her mother’s room was neat, which was unusual. It used to be just as messy as the rest of the house. But now, the bed was made, though the bedspread was still the same as the one sixteen years ago, and it was old then. The dresser top and bedside tables were cleared and empty and the closet doors were folded shut. Cooley thought of the open mattress downstairs, and she wondered how long it had been since her mother slept up here. Maybe she moved downstairs after Cooley’s father died? Though the bathroom looked used.
Cooley crossed to her mother’s closet and cracked it open. Here, there was familiar chaos. Bare and half-dressed hangers on the wooden rod, piles of shirts and jeans on the floor. She closed the door and moved to her father’s.
This one was empty. Not even a hanger or an abandoned shoe. The air smelled musty. On the shelf, there was a large book and Cooley reached for it. As soon as she touched the vinyl cover, she knew what it was. A photo album. She cradled it as she tried to page through it. Older photos, a lot of black and white, changing to faded color. Cooley wasn’t sure whose it was, her father’s or her mother’s, but she held onto it and backed away.
So. All that was left was what she came to see. Her room. It was just across the hall. The doors paralleled each other. Cooley always slept with her door closed; her parents slept with theirs open. Every morning, the first thing Cooley saw when she opened her door to step out into the day was her mother. Or at least the lump that was her mother. Buried under the covers, even in the summertime. Cooley couldn’t remember her parents’ door ever being shut. Even when she got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. As a child and a teen, she hadn’t thought about that. Now…she puzzled over it.
Cooley placed her hand flat on her own door for a moment. The house was so quiet. She knew Andrew was still there; she could see him out of her peripheral vision. He waited; a guard. Cooley let her hand drop to the knob and she pushed her door open.
It was all still there. All of it. The entire day that she left.
Her plaid bedspread, flung on top of the bed as she scrabbled underneath, pulling out the treasures she’d hidden there. Her desk drawers open, one pulled out and upside down on the floor. Her dresser, ransacked the same way. Her closet, empty except for a few rejected boxes of child-time toys. Over her bed were three acrylic paintings, her very own, done in her art classes. Most of her artwork, she kept hidden under the bed, because she was afraid her mother would throw them away. But these three, she put up, and hoped they would stay. She remembered being proud of them. She stood by the foot of her bed and looked.
A nude woman in blues, standing by a window and looking out. Nothing outside but black. Cooley remembered painting the woman, the way the blue of her body, the curves of her body, flowed onto the canvas, forming it, making a space where nothing was straight or edgy, but all was rolling and smooth and, with the blue, sad.
A shed, done in all blacks and grays, ramshackle, on gray grass with gray trees around it. A padlock, undone, on the door, hung silver. The door was cracked open and in it, there was one bright blue eye looking out.
Cooley remembered the shed, the real shed, shuddered, wondered why she ever chose to paint it, then forced herself to slide her gaze to the next painting.
A clock. Of course. But like Dali’s clocks, it was melted as it stood in the blue sky. Its face was twisted and slid sideways like a stroke victim. There were no hands. And the numbers were out of order. Cooley smiled. It was a good thing, really, that she’d left it behind. When she painted it, she intended it to be for James. But her perception didn’t fit his. James would have hated it. He would have wanted to fix the clock.
The room was dim and Cooley turned toward her window. The shade was tugged down. This was wrong. Cooley knew it should be open. She never closed it. Even at night, it was rolled up, so she could attempt to see stars. In the morning, the sun fell in, and on days it didn’t, she pretended it did. She always wanted as much light as possible. But the shade was closed now, even though everything else seemed untouched.
Cooley set the photo album on the bed, then crossed to her window. Tugging on the shade, she tried to raise it, but it just wouldn’t go. She fisted it and pulled harder, and then she yanked it all down. Shade and rod, right out of the wall. The sun crashed into the room and the dust motes sparked up to glitter.
Cooley stood in the sun and looked out into the back yard.
“Everything okay up there?” Andrew’s voice was a bit too high and Cooley wondered what he thought she was doing. She wondered if his hand was on his holster.
“I’m fine,” she said. “An old shade just fell. I’ll be right down.” She put her back to the window and looked again at her ruined room, washed now in sunlight. There was nothing she wanted here. There was nothing left of her here. Except maybe the paintings, and they were so old and it had been so long since Cooley painted that even they felt foreign to her. From another life.
Ione thought she might run into herself here, run into Amy Sue Dander. Amy Sue, whose bookshelves, Cooley remembered, used to hold stuffed animals and plastic rainbow ponies. Whose walls used to be pink before they were green. Amy Sue used to have a small mirror on the wall and she would brush her dandelion fluff hair there, the blonde a frizzy halo that she grew to hate. Cooley remembered breaking that mirror one night, when there were two new scorch marks on her arms. Amy Sue threw the mirror, threw it at her closed door and at her screaming mother on the other side. The glass shattered as if it was in slow motion, the shards impossibly individual in the air, turning and spinning and landing scattered on her carpet. Until her mother came inside and then Amy Sue broke. She was shattered. When she got back from school the next day, all evidence of the mirror was gone and it had never been replaced.
There was no Amy Sue here. Only Cooley, the black-layered girl who ran away. There was nothing here she needed. Well, she needed James, just like she needed him on that day, the day he came and got her, and he stood downstairs in the kitchen while she grabbed what she could. Only Andrew, no-nickname Andrew, was here now. James was deep in the dirt across town in the cemetery, and her parents were stuck in a Scrabble wall. Just like her mirror. Maybe they were shattered too. Burned.
Like she was.
Cooley convulsed. She hadn’t thought of it that way until now. That she’d cremated her mother. Turned her into ashes the way she turned Cooley’s skin into ashes, into marks and holes and scars. Her mother didn’t always pull the cigarette right away when it landed on Cooley. Sometimes she held it there. Sometimes Cooley screamed.
And now her mother’s whole body was burned. Cooley was transfixed suddenly, washed over, with the image of her mother’s naked body being scooped into a huge brick oven. An oven where flames leaped high and where her mother’s skin first glowed pink, then caught red, then turned black and she cooked like a steak. A steak on a grill, with flames leaping high. Too high, too hot, until the meat fell away from the bone into ash. Her mother was nothing but ash. Like the end of a cigarette.
Cooley shook so hard, she barely made it to the bed. She wrapped her arms behind her neck and tucked her chin to her knees and she waited and hoped the vertigo would pass. Her mother, in flames. All of her, in flames. What she deserved, after all. She got what she deserved. Every bit of her body marked by fire.
Cooley found herself wishing, for a moment, that she could have done it herself. Could have cremated her mother by putting one lit cigarette after another on her mother’s body. She imagined it, for a moment. And she imagined it as if her mother was still alive. Cooley knew just where she would start. Her mother’s left arm, dead center between the elbow and wrist.
She felt sick. There was nothing here she wanted. She felt so sick.
Getting to her feet, she headed to the door and then remembered the photo album. She wondered if she was in it. If maybe that was where Amy Sue Dander was, the one Ione thought she might see. Cooley grabbed it and then was struck by her paintings again.
She would have taken them that day, if she’d had more time. She remembered standing in front of them, reaching for the thumbtacks, and the first one bent her fingernails backwards. She worried about the time, worried that James would change his mind, would leave her there with her mother who was furious, who was backed into a corner in her own kitchen. So Cooley left the three paintings there, on the wall. She figured they’d be torn apart, minutes after she left the house.
But they were still here. The only thing her mother touched was the shade. She lowered it. And she shut the door.
Cooley climbed onto her bed and carefully worked the thumbtacks out of the wall. Yes, her fingernails were bent. She didn’t care. The paintings were stiff, but she rolled them together and then tucked them under her arm. She went down the stairs.
Andrew stepped forward. His hands lost their clasp when he saw her. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Cooley?”
Cooley tried to breathe without breathing. To breathe was to smell the alcohol and remember the smoke. Remember placing her lips to each burn mark even though she knew it would hurt, but she did it because she wanted it to feel better and there was no one else to kiss it. “I just need some air,” she said. “Is it okay if I go in the back yard?”
“Sure.” Andrew looked up and then down. He frowned. “How do you get there?”
Cooley led him down the stairs and through the living room to the kitchen, to the door which went into the garage. He moved in front of her and opened the door for her. Then he stepped in front of her again and opened the next door, the one that led to the back yard. Cooley noticed, vaguely, the shape of a car. She wondered if it was the same beat-up Toyota she remembered. The cool of the garage calmed her, and then she stepped into the sunshine of the back yard.
She walked down the steps where her mother used to sit, a beer bottle by her side, a cigarette balanced on the concrete edge, and then she walked to the swingset.
The grass was higher here, as if it was abandoned long before the rest of the place was left behind. When her mother died. When her mother drank herself to death in the middle of the living room, on a mattress pulled out from a couch where Cooley never sat. Where Amy Sue Dander never sat. Internal bleeding, the woman at the hospital said. Complications of alcoholism. How many of those bottles in there, Cooley wondered, were from her mother’s last night?
Cooley knew that Andrew was probably still watching her, and she knew it was silly for a thirty-two year old woman to sit on a swingset, but she needed to sit down. She wanted to sit on the passenger swing. She remembered James being there.
Cooley only came back to this house once after James brought her home. Just once. They’d had an argument, she’d done something she shouldn’t, James yelled at her, and so she bolted. She remembered running and not knowing where to run. There was nowhere to go. She didn’t know any other place in the world. So she came here. Home. She nearly said home to Ione, and this was where she ran. To the swingset. She went through the open garage door, through the open back door, and straight to here. And she sat on the passenger swing. She was home, but she wasn’t. She didn’t want to be here, but there was nowhere else to go. There was just nothing.
Until James showed up in the middle of the night and sat in the seat across from her. They didn’t swing. He sat there and he talked to her and he took her to the museum. Again.
She wished he could take her home now.
Cooley stepped onto the passenger swing and sat, looking across, remembering James’ face that night in the moonshine. She settled the photo album and paintings on her lap. A sprinkling of rust came down and settled on her nose and hair and cheeks like glitter and she looked across to where James used to be and where he wasn’t now. She looked down at the photo album.
The swingset creaked for a second, and then it broke.
The bar going across the top, the bar that held the two stirrup swings and the passenger swing, snapped. Cooley fell sideways, toward the middle, and as she did, the bar fell in and smacked her across the side of the head. She felt the slice before her face hit the grass, before the swingset toppled on top of her.
“Jesus!” Andrew yelled. “Cooley!”
She stayed on the ground. She wondered why Andrew never had a nickname. Not even Andy. She waited while he lifted off the swingset parts and then he offered her a hand. When she grasped his fingers, when she felt the strength of his arms as he pulled her up, she began to cry.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, and he turned her face. “You’re bleeding,” he said. “And the swingset was really rusty. We’d better get that looked at. When did you have your last tetanus shot?”
Cooley laughed. As if she could remember. Andrew pulled out a handkerchief, of course he carried a handkerchief, he was a man without a nickname and he looked like someone who would whistle, and he pressed it against her head. He lifted her hand and pressed it there too. “Hold that,” he said. And she did, while the world took a spin.
For the last time, Cooley allowed herself to be led away from that house. From home. She allowed herself to be led away and put into a car and driven down the street. Andrew held her elbow, and he carried her photo album and her paintings. She wasn’t supposed to take anything. But Andrew didn’t say a word.