My oldest brother was the only one of us who took AP Biology in high school. Now, he breaks down leftover Agent Orange. All of which is warehoused by the United States Government in Northern Eastern Kentucky, 15 minutes away from an elementary school.
He said that in this big lab, there are 15-20 people working there at any given time, doing the required chemistry to turn something into nothing else. There are only 4 to 5 hazmat suits in each lab. He said that if there is a spill or a container breaks, everyone wouldn’t make it to a suit in time. In fact, no one would. The suits standing in the vending machine glass case just make everyone feel better. If there was a spill, the lab had a way of alerting the whole county. In the elementary school 15 minutes away, the teachers keep gas masks under their desks.
I think he made that part up, about the gas masks, but I like to think of the gas masks being kept in the same under-the-desk drawer that teachers keep confiscated chewing gum and whoopie cushions. My brother told me that you can always tell a storm is coming when you see the white underbellies of deciduous leaves. The pressure fronts make them turn out just slightly. My favorite trick is to let people know when a storm is coming. What about in the winter, I had asked. My brother told me that there’s no way of knowing then, you just gotta be ready.
Having that older brother, and all my brothers– my sisters too– are among the best things that could have happened for my personality. They help to supply my “interesting things to mention about myself to strangers” box. When I think about people having so many kids now I think of them as psychopaths. Why would you go to so much trouble? The world is ending and every person brought into this world makes it go that much faster. That’s another attitude from being one of the youngest of many, I am always aware of how much space is left.
When I am thinking about paying back my student loans, I know that in 10-15 years it won’t matter anyway. Then, when there is something really important that I hope will happen in 10-15 years, like my oldest nephew going to college, or that I’ll have enough money to buy a little garden somewhere, I think god what pessimists, of course, we’ll be here in 10-15 years. We always have.
Some things can rise dramatically during the course of a season. The cost of living and my MFA’s tuition rose from January till now in June. Back in February, I started the application process to be an egg donor. I need the eggs to be extracted and the check to clear by July 17th, when tuition is due.
I like to think that I’m doing my part to make it go from 10-15 years to 11-16 years by not having children and never ordering a hamburger. But, I go out to dinner with someone who gets a medium rare steak and I am releasing 15-20 eggs unto Manhattan.
It’s not me wanting to bring those kids in, I reason. Besides, they are most likely all being born into the kinds of families that can afford a big house on stilts somewhere in northern Canada.
They’ll be fine. Anyway, I need the money for school loans and living.
I have been robbed of feeling some pleasures considered worldly because I was raised to think of the righteous consequences of my actions and thoughts. Now that I finally have some nihilism, I feel rich.
When I used to think about my future, I saw everything I wanted slowly sinking into a tar pit. A city apartment, Kate Spade handbags, and degrees in literature from fancy women’s colleges: all bubbling down to the oldest and most wicked part of the earth. If I reached too far for them, those earthly delights, I’d get sucked into the muck too. I thought it was by god’s grace that I didn’t have what I wanted.
Black stuff gets found all the time beneath the dirt in Southeastern Kentucky. The mining company bought the land rights to the farm my Mamaw lives on. One summer there was some sort of trouble with the payments so she took my oldest brother to go talk to the company. My other brothers are intimidating each in their own way: tall, strong, or box with bare knuckles. This older brother is bean-polish, quiet. Mamaw brought him because he knows how to talk about the earth in a distinct and finite way that makes people nervous.
Most of my family voted for Trump and have those COAL KEEPS THE LIGHT ON stickers on their F-150s. They have also seen the mountains become stripped down past the black stuff, deeper than the layer of sediment that holds the emotional memory of a place. In the summers, we used to go to visit family that lived on those mountains, in hollers like spider nests. I loved it. We’d call on cousins so and so and set out bright plastic flowers on the graves at the cemetery hill. After, we’d set out long wooden tables beneath a barn in the family sawmill and stood in line to dish out food everyone had brought in dishes covered by rags. Someone would preach and we’d all sing and sing.
All my cousins used to live on Big Gay Hill before the mining rights were sold. The roads still bear our name. We are like the Kennedys of Leslie County, Kentucky.
Like the Kennedys, my dad has always insisted that we are Irish. Cherokee, even. We’re not sure where our family came from originally, but he wants to believe that we’ve always been here. There’s speculation, of course. The first of us was named John Gay. The cemetery, creeks, and uncles are all named after John. Folks were born in houses in beds and bathtubs; then taken into town to get birth certificates a few years later when they got around to it. Real dates of birth or ages are all a guess. I bought my dad one of those DNA tests. He called me when he got back the results to say that it was the worst gift he had ever received.
Finnish. He hissed.
Pa goes on pretending we are not Finnish. He insists someone else must have opened up the test in the mail and spit on it.
Seems like something a Finn would do.
When I take a trip to Montenegro, I am asked by three separate people if I am Finnish. The first time I said no. The second time I asked, “How could you tell? “
The third time I shrugged, “There’s really no way of knowing.”
I know it’s a real luxury, but I don’t feel an urgency to know where my family comes from. I know where I come from. My home is a place covered by beans, singing, and dirt. All dirt feels like my hometown.
I go home for my oldest brother’s wedding.
These are happy times.
We go up to stand in the woods. It’s just us there. Our family with the added appendages of spouses and kids; the bride’s parents and brother, too. Instead of saying “I do”, my brother said, “I’m ready”.
At the reception, we played volleyball. My siblings are the perfect number for a JV team. This must have been the intention of having all of us all along.
The egg donation cycle would begin once I got my period. Then I would have to start on the daily hormone injections to make the eggs easier to pluck, like ripe apples on the lowest branch. I would have to go in daily for a vaginal ultrasound so the doctor could count those big juicy eggs. Once the doctor counted 15, I would go in for surgery to have the eggs removed for someone else to raise.
I got my period while serving. The ball didn’t go over the net. I stepped away from my brother’s wedding reception to get a tampon and to call the fertility clinic to tell them the cycle was starting. My family didn’t know I was doing this. I watched a niece eat a pocket full of sand from the court and hoped my family wouldn’t feel betrayed by me giving away something that was a little of theirs too.
Everything that made us, the dirt, the hills, the volleyball serves, were to be given away to a stranger who was just hoping for the blue eyes, full branches, and good health of an anonymous donor.
Before I go back to New York, my dad takes me and my younger sister up to the cemetery hill. Now, Big Gay Hill is all barren and very ugly. It goes quiet without the singings. The low wooden tables are empty of food growing cold into clots beneath dishrags. The house is still there but on blocks, moved. It all looks like the scene after surgery. The mining is over. The graves weren’t disturbed but I wondered if all those cousins under the ground could smell the gas as it was hoovered up from the earth.
My nieces and nephews won’t know about hill meetings. Even before the mining happened, fewer people showed up each year. Too many kids were growing up, moving elsewhere. Too many folks getting older, dying. In high school, I’d stomp my foot those mornings we had to wake early to set down the winding mountain roads. I counted up all the hill meetings I missed when I still lived at home. I don’t want to begin counting up all the meetings I’ve missed since moving away.
When I came home for Christmas last year, I took my oldest nephew to the farm where my Mamaw still lived.
My nephew and I walked on the hills that ripple over the farm. Mamaw waved from under the carport below. The limousine cows moved slowly, without much fear, just apprehension as we encroached the high pasture. They always felt like set pieces, not animals. We never milked or slaughtered them. They were just around the way that pigeons are at parks. We walked along the hill and he picked up a stick to plunge it into each cow pie. We get our boots muddy by the edges of the cow pond. He throws the stick in. He’s six, but it somersaults out pretty far and lands with a pwlop in the middle of the pond. It doesn’t sink.
It wasn’t that cold that winter. We only needed light jackets.
The eggs won’t grow up in a place where life revolves around hills, and ham slices congealed cold in the sun. As a rule, they won’t know where they came from, not exactly. Not until they are 18. I could very well be gone by then. There might be no one who can tell them how Finnish they are. How Cherokee they are not. Those eggs may be too busy paddling through melted glaciers to care. The blistering sun will probably be too bright for their blue eyes.
Maybe we will all be fine by then. If not, I hope those eggs will have the good sort of parents who lie to make them feel better. I hope the parents will keep hazmat suits in every corner of the stilted cabin, like night lights, so the egg can sleep easy because none of it is their fault.
It’s mine for getting an MFA: for paying for it by spawning across Manhattan like I was skipping stones, all for the sake of making my narrators ‘believable’ and learning what a volta is.
The lucky eggs; however, will stay crisp in the cryogenic freezer like tiny Walt Disney heads long, long, long after we are all gone from this earth.