I realized I was in the wrong profession a while ago. Teaching was something I had learned how to do well, but it just wasn’t where I needed to be. I came into some money when my aunt died, and it hit me how elemental things like fire and earth resonate with me. I’m a Capricorn, an Earth sign. Not that that says anything about anything, but, you know.
The inheritance was enough to make a change. I enrolled in some courses at the Maine College of Art, lived on the cheap and eventually travelled to South Korea on a grant to live and learn for a year at the side of a master onggi potter. While I was there, I went north to view a landscape that has weighted my life at every turn. It turned out that I didn’t have the right papers to cross the border, so I just looked across. I hadn’t even thought to bring binoculars.
Robert was over there somewhere, at least I suspected he was. And Hill # 255. But from where I stood, all I could see was barbed wire and concrete. The dun brown of winter hills.
When I returned to Maine, the air felt freer, though, as if links in some invisible chain locking me to my past had simply dropped away. I went to work with a potter over in Swanville. She had studied in Japan and built her own kiln. Alice had a good business and I learned a lot from her. Her house, though, was small and sometimes caught at me with its familiar angles. The kiln was walk in, like a Hobbit house, and one day, loading the shelves for a firing, I just started thinking of that small off campus room in Urbana and how I was chain smoking the day Robert called from the East Coast to tell me Dad was in jail.
I drove home slowly from Swanville that day, and the air didn’t feel so free anymore. Our ghosts are always there, it seems, waiting for the right shaft of light.
As stories go, it’s probably a familiar one to anyone acquainted with an individual who’s stepped into some heavy shit and come out breathing on the other side. This story, Robert’s story, was one more in a long line of kitchen incidents that were, inevitably, eternally looped scenes from Dad’s time in Korea. This incident, the final incident, occurred on the heels of my brother’s return from the Middle East.
Robert returned from the desert, like a biblical son. Emerging out of a distant shimmering horizon line – from turkey farms and fields of desert tomatoes, date palms and irrigation wells. He had had a comprehensive training by the Kibbutznik on how to hit the turf during the occasional skirmish, which, more often than not, involved the wells. Water is scarce and wells gather friction, and friction leads to big sparks. That’s Gaza. But living with arid wood heat through the dry cold of New England winters sets lessons in spark phenomena, too. More so if the living space is four rooms and includes the company of an explosive self-medicating drunk with PTSD.
For Robert, there was an immersion in the desert, on the strip of dry shifting sands, a clarity under blue sky on contested land. The field crews were on constant alert for booby-traps hidden in the weeds and one day one such device blew the foot off a guy walking ahead of him. Blew his foot right off the ankle to kingdom come in a hailstorm of its own detonation. It happened right outside the storage shed. The whole crew had been walking in and out of that shed all day. Just goes to show, there’s a fate in store for each of us.
Robert’s fate was to make his way back to that four-room back-to-the-lander house in the dim weeds of Montville. And there he found himself in another contested arena, washing dishes in the confines of the kitchen where he had once knocked our father out cold with a cast iron frying pan. In that charged space where the battle lines shift and heave over scarred linoleum there was no way of knowing where, or even what, the booby-traps were. I can attest to that. But each of us knew, of course, that wherever or whatever, they were all wired to Dad. My brother had sprung one just by walking through the front door.
Gaza had left its marks on Robert, and a respectable trove of insights. He understood the power of leaving a skirmish line with discretion, the wisdom of giving incendiary devices a wide berth. Which is exactly what he was doing when he left the napalm blast of one of Dad’s explosions to cool his jets two rooms away at the end of the house. Dad predictably followed right on his tail. Of course he did. Morton Albee was never able to let the thing rest, to let it go.
“And then,” Rob told me “Dad tackled me.”
Having left his boy’s body behind years ago and his boy’s fear along with it, Robert tossed the old man to the ground like so much straw, winding up in the superior position. And although Robert had outgrown his child’s frame and fear, his years of humiliations and belt beatings had calcified within him, accreting into a rage that could be wild and terrible and was at this moment loose and running hard. “I just began to grind Dad’s face into the rug.” He told me later. “And it felt so, I don’t know, so good.”
“Take THAT, FUCKER” he said over and over between his teeth with each consecutive grind. “Take THAT YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!”
Taking the boss-man to the mat, so to speak.
The mat, in this instance, was the long shag that had once housed a prodigious colony of fleas and stunk of wood smoke in the era of our conscription, when we were too young to fight back. The goldenrod yellow and white shag had, over the years, gone a uniform mustardy grey.
And there was Rob, in that four-room house in Montville, relatively early on a Wednesday evening, grinding Dad’s face into the aged yellowy-grey pile over and over as Dan Rather droned in the background until, in one of those eerie moments of self-awareness hovering above his own head, the ridiculousness of the situation came to him as if he was watching a scene from some cornball horror flick become his actual life.
And so he let go and stood up. Stood up and turned away. Which is when the shit got heavy. Which is when the shit got a notch more real.
He told me later that when Mom’s screaming parted the red fog of pheromonic adrenaline, he became preternaturally aware of the click of the Colt’s breech. That click set in instantaneous motion the muscle memory of those Gaza drills. Time seemed to stretch like silly putty between the seconds as Rob dropped and rolled, the round whizzing by in slow motion, missing his skull to bury itself in the living room drywall, where Wendell Warren, the greenest hire at Waldo County Sherriff’s Department, later removed it with his pen knife. The hole stayed there, though, for quite some time.
Drop and roll, dumbass. Drop and roll your fucking ass out of here.
Drop and roll.
Fortune had prodded Mom to install sliding doors the summer before Robert’s return. Without those doors, the Albees would have enacted our first grave installation- of this, I’m fairly certain – but the bullet bit the wall and Rob survived, thanks to whatever surreal prophylactic substance it is in the universe that keeps some of us alive. (Our other brother, unprotected from his own hand, is sifting around in his little pine box, still to be dealt with. That’s a whole other can of beans. Mom took him with her when she sold the house and he resides on her shelf at Harbor Hill. There is, as they say, a place for everything under heaven.)
Robert escaped through the fortunate hatch, running the snow in socks to ferry Mom out the kitchen door. It was just starting to spit fresh flakes as they pulled out of the driveway in Mom’s rust bucket Cortina. The world seemed vastly hushed. They went up the road to Hazel Littlefield’s. Hazel, the oldest member of the Methodist church where Mom played piano, put the kettle on for Lipton’s while Robert spoke to Waldo County dispatch.
The police report revealed how officers had entered the house to John Cage-like strains emanating from the living room piano. Dad was at the old oak upright, in the midst of setting the eternal blowback of his stint on distant Hill 255 into pentatonic riffs, scaling sixteenth notes of shrapnel that landed him at Tripler Army Navy Hospital on Oahu in 1953.
Sometimes I imagine Dad at Tripler – the slant of the Pacific sun through his window across white sheets, the waving palms and cropped green turf of the campus. I imagine that his room in the big pink hospital looked out on the same winding garden path where, a half century later, I’d walk my husband after he went bat-shit, post-Kandahar Naval Operations, if you can put your mind around that one – Navy in the desert. Talk about crazy.
D.A. Pennebaker titled his iconic Dylan film Don’t look back. But when it’s an ever-present state of mind, that doesn’t much apply. Which in many ways accounts for a person going off the rails, if you ask me. Which is, of course, a train of reasoning that leads right back to Dad and the kitchen and everything that came before it and clearly, everything that followed.
They cuffed him at the piano. It was a gentle arrest.
That’s my version, how I’ve made myself think of it. I can’t bear to imagine a scenario involving a second take down, although, knowing Mort Albee, anything’s possible. The officers were all well acquainted with him. He was what the local PD called a known entity in our neck of the woods.
Things were running downhill pretty fast for Dad at this point. It was his second arrest in less than two months & on the heels of countless priors – among which was a summer blotto-fest where, out of his gourd after copious amounts of Colt 45 and god knows what else, he wove his Raleigh racing bike up Hayford Hill, disrupting Route 3 tourist traffic, and spent a night in the drunk tank in Belfast. And now, the county, and his family, had had enough. His chickens had really come home to roost.
At the court date, Robert and Mom sat on a varnished bench at the back. Dad asked the judge if he could live in the shed. “No, Mr. Albee.” The judge said in those slow patient tones reserved for those among us with brains and sense blown out by years of addiction and neglect, salted with PTSD on a bed of blooming dementia. “This restraining order means you must reside ELSEWHERE, sir, and not within 50 miles of your wife.”
Rob told me the whole story over bourbon twenty-five some-odd years ago, showing up in Chicago out of the blue one night just after I’d gotten my first teaching gig at a west side Catholic school in a neighborhood bearing the thirty-year-old scars of the Martin Luther King riots. Rocking in that chair that now sits on my porch, he told me the whole thing in that deep baritone that feels to me like the voice of old oak. It’s been a while since I’ve heard that voice.
The last time I saw my brother was a month or so before Dad died. He’s a travel addict if there ever was one, and his letters come from every part of the world, some taking months to limp in from some far corner to my mailbox. Three weeks before I got my grant, a post card came from North Korea. The photograph was captioned “Peace Village / Kijŏngdong”.
“Hey, kid- I found Peace” he wrote. That made me smile.
I’m holding that card right now.
Dad, of course, passed ten years back, in 2006, just after my divorce. No one but Mom and me went to the viewing or burial. We stared at his wasted frame and two weeks later got lost trying to find his plot in Augusta. It took us a month of steady work to clear out the trailer in Southwest Harbor that his Connecticut sister had bought for him. Dad had never, to my knowledge, cooked a meal in his life worth eating and there he had shelves of expensive cook books- one entirely in French and devoted to sauces. Haute cookbooks and garbage. An Italian cashmere scarf shrouding dead mice. A brand-new weight machine stood in the entryway still in its box, cushioned between stacks of adult diapers and piles of moldy take-out food containers. A gin bottle by his desk precipitously filled with piss. Sad, how a life can be summed up.
He’s buried in the Veteran’s Cemetery and the stone makes note of his purple heart, but I’ve never been back to check on him. That speaks volumes, I guess.
Our house was demolished by the New York couple who bought the property in 2008 – Gen X back-to-the-landers who have cash we could never imagine. They lived in it while they built their Nordic design solar-powered wunderhouse and gardens where they run an extensive organic herb operation. Go figure. Wind generators, Quonset greenhouses, the whole nine yards. Those 40 beautiful acres gave Mom her golden years at Harbor Hill, though, and for that I’m grateful.
Sometimes I think there’s a parallel in the head of every soldier who crawls out on the other side of his tour of duty. A mental DMZ between the battles fought, and the daily skirmishes to escape the creeping shadows cast by those zones of experience. The mind has its secret trip wires and traps, though, and over time it takes exponential intakes of numbing substances to hold onto the dwindling no man’s land. The body wastes itself maintaining the razor wire and electric fencing, flying ever more toxic fumigant over eternally hazardous landscapes, eroding itself until one day all that remains are soft uniform hills of desert, whose itinerant winds whistle through a cloudy silicone oxygen mask and bubble in electromagnetic impulses blipping neon green vitals on slick black Honeywell screens.
Dad died on March 15th, the Ides of March. A fitting departure date for an emperor who once went ballistic after spooning up a heap of hot Chinese mustard from a bowl near the sink, post-Easter ham, mistaking it for melted ice cream. (I missed his departure on Charon’s ferry by fifteen minutes, consuming a solitary charred hotdog in the hospital cantina. Such are the vagaries of life.)
Several years after the incident, the night that Robert showed up in Chicago, a violent Midwestern storm hit. High winds and the power went down, so I lit candles in my boxlike apartment on the north shore. Just before the power outage we had ordered Indian take-out and burned our taste buds to a crisp on the vindaloo. Robert got up and pulled a bottle of high grade bourbon from his backpack. We sipped our drinks, mesmerized by the flickering flames. He told me his story and I asked him to act out the part with the carpet, which he did with theatrical presence that captivated both of us. We laughed until we cried. That’s what throwing off the chains of oppression can feel like, I guess. We drank far into the night and the Lake Michigan wind howled against the windows.
The wind’s picking up here. Autumn always makes me a little melancholy.
This past summer I was invited to show at the Maine Contemporary. What a trip. I still can’t believe it’s true sometimes. Little Jane Albee at the Contemporary. The kid who never could quite get herself together. The daughter of the crazy drunk from Montville. The last Albee standing in Vacationland.
I made a series of onggi in various shapes and sizes. Onggi which hold the fermented foods of an ancient country divided by modern war. These onggi, my onggi, are empty of course. They hold only air, and silence, still memory. All are glazed in shades of dun and celadon. Colors of Korea.
Some of these hills are only just now recovering Robert wrote on the postcard from Peace, the one I’m holding.
Robert. Dear Robert.
Kind of like us, kid. Kind of like us.