Count

By TIA JENSEN

NONFICTION SEMIFINALIST

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”   —William Bruce Cameron

One, Two, Buckle your shoe

On leaving the church, Daddy’s car bites gravel. I two-hand the window crank, then let go, lunge forward and unbuckle the triangle-shaped vent glass. Too late to keep the first cigarette smoke out of my lungs. The fine white ash circles, shifts, flows over me. The smoke trails swirl in eddies and establish a new pattern. Ash settles on the dash. Sitting balanced on bare knees in a Sunday School skirt, I take small sips of humid air from under my chin as I shift, peeling skin, sticky, off the fake leather seat plastic.

Dad speaks through lips, mid-muscled and clenched, gripping a yellow filter. “How many dead people in that graveyard?”

I grab the dash, pull up for a better view out the window, and start counting: One, two, three… he slows down…not slow enough. It’s a small graveyard. Stones flash past as the car rolls downhill. I pick up my pace, attempt to count faster. I want to beat him. The last stone flashes, then thicket, then fence turns into brambles. I sit back on my ankles, feel the Mary Jane buckles pinch, readjust, and close my eyes. Remember the stones. Memorial day. Alberta up front, Birdie Lou, Alma and all the beaches behind. Stacks of styrofoam wreaths, a sprig of plastic foliage and fake flower, gold foil labels announcing, “Brother,” “Sister,” “Grandmother,” “Friend.” Wreathes that scratched, balanced on a child’s naked summer shorted legs—a child with an available lap. “She’s got plenty of room, stack them up high. Don’t you break ’em.” Don’t worry, I remember. I’ve cleaned stones, delivered flowers, held the watering can full of snowballs, cut from the bush next to the tracks. And the neighbors… How many rows? Which graves empty? Which occupied? Babies tucked, doubled up; Daddy would call them freeloading. I come up with a quick tally. Make my announcement. He puffs on the cigarette and smirks. Won’t answer.

Heck, I’m not even close. I hate failing. I hesitate before asking, “How many then?”

He keeps driving, one arm on the wheel, the other out the window, palming the door panel. The cigarette ashes dangling, snaking overfull, daring abruption. I know he’s waiting, likes a good joke, a riddle, likes to tease. Suddenly, I know this exercise is not arithmetic. He wasn’t seeking a number. I see I’ve been had. I wasn’t listening.

I didn’t say it right. I think on it. Reluctantly, I repeat his exact words back to him.

“So… How many DEAD people in that graveyard?”

What? You giving up, Smartybritches?

Now he smiles, winks as he says it. “I reckon it’s all of ’em.”

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four…

Start off slow… then quickly, 18-19-20… Ready or not, Here I come!

Ever noticed how life imitates a game of Hide and Seek? Life starts slow. Birthdays take ages to accumulate. Holidays take forever to arrive. But then, you graduate, leave home, and it’s off to the races. The pace quickens into middle age and time starts to spin out of control. What, it’s Christmas already? When did I become Ma’am and him, Sir? My friends are grandparents now. How can that be so? Arriving at your goal, you could announce, “Here I come!” But more often than not, you simply lose track, lose sight. The older I get, the harder it becomes to remember my age. Birthdays come round so often, I forget to notice. Ask me, “How old am I?” I have to do the math. Calculate.

Recently on the Woman-I-Call-Grandmother’s birthday, she turned 92. Three days prior, I had turned 46. On my daughter’s birthday, two weeks earlier, she had turned 23. Our birthdays, clumped near each other, tended to get mashed up together. We’d pick one and celebrate all. But this year, I’ll never forget when looking at the calendar for a date to celebrate, my daughter remarked,

“Hey look, I’m half of you.”

“What? Wow! Indeed you are, why literally and even mathematically, too.” And then I saw it. “Look at this—I’m half of Grandmother, too.”

“What should we call this day?”

We mulled it over, but never could coin a proper word, anything to mark this numeric coincidence.

Halves of Wholes, the Year of the Splitting, an Even-ing.

The day the generations folded like a pocket square. Daddy always kept a fancy pocket square in his Sunday suit jacket and another more practical folded hanky in his trouser pocket. “One for show, one for blow,” he’d say.

A special moment, it was the last year we were all in this equation together.

Back to Counting: Three, Four, Shut the door

After Daddy left us each night, with a rusty squeak and slam of the car door, my sister and I stopped pretending sleep, sat up and began our evening. Wearing nubby footie pajamas and winter coats, under streetlights, or lit by moon, or no light at all, we pushed in the round metal tube in the dash and played with the cigarette lighter; red spiraling rings that faded from glow. We looked through his glove box, emptied Tic Tac containers. Found oil-encrusted work clothes on the floor. Opened L&N Railroad first aid kits, administered Band-Aids to one another. Crawled over the seats, lay in the back rear window, counted stars. Our breath frosty ghost trails in the cold moonlight, we smoked his unlit cigarettes, one after another.

To pass the time we would race raindrops. Smudge our small fingers down the window glass, rain washing the car; pick a raindrop and chase the fattest glob of water, the one we thought the heaviest, the fastest. Splits count. Use two fingers to trace if you get a second raindrop. Daddy gone for who knows how long—seconds, hours, whole evenings; jobs, stores, friends unseen. We were supposed to stay down, keep out of sight, be sleeping.

First to the bottom wins.

Five, Six, Pick up sticks

The Woman-I-Call-Grandmother built a house at the coast. A retreat. One year, after winter storms on the beach, I had been walking alone for about an hour before I noticed all the dead birds. So many, I was alarmed that it hadn’t been my first thought. I went out the next low tide and wondered over the piles of bird bodies. A local university was also monitoring the dead beach seabirds. Colorful zip ties strung through their ribcages indicated tally. So many birds to count, so many broken wings and crumpled bodies, but here and there, the uncounted showed up bone clean with feathers unmarked. Mounded humps of the forgotten, buried and missed in sand; a prior night’s casualties, tossed in surf and discarded. What of them? I excavated and moved the bodies above the tide line. Took photographs of the feathered souls in repose. Noted. They count, too.

Seven, Eight, Lay them straight

Maybe this summer I’ll make an inventory, count graves? Tell Daddy the answer to the question he never really asked. It haunts me still. How many dead people are in that small graveyard? Daddy is there now, his cancer sticks expediting his way. The graveyard is nearly full, can’t be room for many more. I reckon I can arrive at a final number. They have reached capacity. But I never expected to count him there, too. He’s got company—some he didn’t much care for. Would he want me to count them, as well? And then there is the question of the babies, the siblings I never knew, those without markers. Do I count them, too?

A friend pointed out to me that you can see my father’s graveyard from Google Earth. I opened the webpage and found out it was true, I could count shadowy dashes. I am pretty sure I can see him, mark him from the sky, from 2421.96 miles away. It feels like cheating, visiting in this manner. Daddy would find fault in my method. Best to wait, do my final count when I get there. Announce it, just in case he is listening.

Nine, Ten, A big fat hen

Last year I learned I was not listed on my family’s ancestry.com genealogy page. I received a free trial by email. Decided to see who I would find. I found my entire family, the dead siblings. Everyone was there—everyone, but me. But who is counting? Dropped from the record. I remain uncounted. Wiped for eternity. Archival life unseen.

I should register, figure out a way to correct this. So far all attempts have been without prevail. Our family tree was submitted by an I’ll-call-her-cousin who doesn’t respond to my requests for correction. She owns the listing. Perhaps she is buried near Daddy now. He’d straighten her out. Maybe her email is outdated (I only vaguely recognize her name). The sister of a wife of an uncle, distant family. Who should I contact? Why would she make any effort on my behalf? Makes sense she never knew me. As soon as I could put my shoes on, away I flew. But being removed from your own family tree, pruned and discarded—it feels lonely. Granted, it’s easy to make a mistake. My name is short. My youngest sister’s name is long. In fact, her name ends in mine. On the days I feel charitable, I believe this cousin mistakenly combined my sister and me. On other days, her exclusion feels purposeful. But know this, Dear-Distantly-related, I am not an abbreviation, nor am I the shortened form. I’m the oldest. First. Historically important. First born. Well, now that I think of it, that is not entirely true. Make that second daughter, third child, with two dead siblings. I was the first baby to survive, though. Survival. That has got to count for something.

Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch

The last advice the Woman-I-called-Grandmother gave me: She called from her lift chair as I exited her room, “Make all your small struggles count.”

The door clicked shut and I stood in the hall and wondered at who or what she was calling small. Why are my struggles small? They don’t feel small. I wanted to drop the adjective. It was unusual for her to parse out advice the moment I was leaving. I bristled, but wrote down her words verbatim in my phone to think on later.

Later came quickly because Grandmother died the very next month.

One For the Money, Two For the Show

Her body started shutting down, the tissues running off and leaving without her. Her steps slowed to where I had to balance foot to foot to keep the same pace. I’d walk on the left in the shadow of her dead eye, so she couldn’t see how I sometimes stopped for awhile before I’d take a few strides and catch up.

“I don’t know why I’m so weak” she’d say, and “Oh, dear.” But she would not accept my offer of a ride in the wheelchair. “That is jail,” she told her 97-year-old friend at their last meal together. She walked to dinner even though it took her an hour head start. She counted the panels in the hallway wallpaper, “One, two, three … Elevator.” She stopped at each seam to rest and lean on the wall. “Just a moment, now,” she’d say, then softly whistle. When stressed, she’d whistle with each breath, like a tea kettle blowing off steam. “Next time I visit,” I told her, “I’ll try to remember to bring you some wings.”

The cardiologist said her heart valve was failing. Critical. Not a candidate for surgery—“too frail.”

She bristled at being called frail. The only girl, in a family of five brothers. She had always kept up. Her favorite family doctor told her she was obnoxiously healthy. I don’t think she cared for the heart doctor much.

“Do you know the number of heartbeats in the average human life? It’s around 2.5 billion,” the cardiologist said as he pulled out his pen and made notes on a pad. “At 92, that puts you at well over 3 billion beats. You’ve been pounding at the door for a very long time.” Another cardiologist, 10 years back, had told her that valve would last her lifetime. This new one had no idea who he was talking to. She walked out of that appointment, looked at us, and said, “Now what?”

Three to Get Ready, Now Go, Cat, Go

In the end, her heart couldn’t keep up.

In the hours before her passing, I sat next to her counting out doses of morphine, I also counted the napkins I found in her room for distraction. How many napkins does one old woman need? The answer is 88. Tucked in coat pockets, drawers, cubby holes, chair cushions. After the napkins, I noticed she had collected bookmarks and letter openers, 27 and seven respectively. Bookmarks tucked in books, marking passages that, being functionally blind, she hadn’t been able to read for the last few years. It all was for appearances.

“I like to feel a book in my lap, turn the pages. Remember,” she’d say when I asked. We canceled all doctor appointments whenever the mobile library came to visit. I’d stand next to her as she’d shuffle through the carts of books and pile them on top of the walker. I knew she couldn’t read by the titles she was selecting. We’d roll the books up to her room and stack them next to her chair. Often I’d find her asleep with a book open in her lap.

I regret that I never remembered to bring her wings. I have a few sets—feathered wings, hinged on a backbone, collected once, after a violent beach storm. Complete sets torn from seabirds, ripped off and left stuck in the sand. Her beach. I keep the wings in an old bird cage in my greenhouse. I should have shared those with her. She weathered many storms. She would have understood why I collected them and why they spoke to me.

As death came closer, I’d rest in her lift chair and listen. I never got to say goodbye to Daddy. I counted the moments between her breaths, the Cheyne-Stokes pauses, as the grandfather clock announced each passing hour with the appropriate number of bongs. How much longer? And … there was never enough time. I counted the bongs of the clock out loud, confirmed the hour, in case she was listening. I read her poetry. Bookmarked passages from random books. Caged in her body in a bed, she never remarked, never responded. I cleaned her hearing aides and put in new batteries, and still no response. “Listening is the last thing to go,” the hospice nurse had said. I wanted every sound to count. I needed something important to say but could think of nothing. I lay next to her and pulled files off my computer. We listened to the sounds of her beach and gulls calling, on a looped YouTube recording. I held her hand, until I had to let go—felt the stickiness of damp skin releasing. We were at it for days, or hours—or was it weeks? I can’t rightly recall, because at some point, I simply stopped counting and joined her in listening.

 

Tia Jensen grew up in Florence, Kentucky. The eldest daughter of a railroad worker and a truck stop waitress, she was introduced to creative writing at Kentucky State University. For the last four years, she has participated in the Appalachian Writers Workshop. Her nonfiction essays have appeared in New Southerner and Still: The Journal, as well as the anthology Chrysalis: Outer Castings and Emergence. Jensen is working on a memoir about midlife travels in a Westfalia camper van. She writes from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State.


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