By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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You knew a boy who died of suicide. It was a mountain and he was playing chicken with friends, but he wanted to fall, he wanted to be the dead one. His parents said. You weren’t there.
He wanted to be alive to see his mother wail and tear her hair because he was dead.
Your father cut the twine and threw a mountain of hay and straw out the window into the barnyard and you jumped. There was nothing inside you while you went through the air. There was straw up your nose and in your ears when you landed.
You stepped in a cow patty in the field in bare feet. Your father bought calves though he raised horses, show horses, all your lives a hunting horn, a fox. All your dreams in jodhpurs and blue ribbons. All your days of running to the hounds. Three calves to teach financial acumen and you held baby bottles to the brown-and-white one’s lips and you fed him milk and named him Skipper. You wanted to grow old with Skipper, both of you on canes, creaking in the meadow with puffballs. Your father would sell the cows in three years and you would repay him his costs and pocket the profit.
Your father had suitcases. Your mother put them on the porch.
You found a milk snake and put it in a tub. It had rattles. It was fat like a man’s arm and longer. The frog eggs you pulled up at the stream were like ropes of clear snot. Somebody died there.
It was once a lake and his ankle caught in the reeds. He would be old now, an old man. The lake was drained and there was a valley and a stream and a marsh.
It wasn’t suicide. He just drowned, which can happen.
The boy on the mountain tumbled way down.
You landed in straw on your bottom with your legs and arms in the air. Your lungs were filled with straw dust and motes of hay.
On Sunday mornings you put on white ribbed knee socks rolled down an inch from the top. You put on patent-leather shoes and scratchy crinolines and a straw hat trailing lavender ribbons. Your brother wore a bow tie and went to church. You went to church. The father and the mother went to church.
You had eight baby mice you kept in a shoe box filled with toilet paper. Their blue closed eyes were fetal and you named them eight brave names like Rin Tin Tin and the Lone Ranger. One morning they were gone, and you rushed downstairs in your pee-wet pajamas and the mother said, One died. He buried them all. Her heart was open. Her lips were thin like string. He buried them under the woodpile out by the barn, she said, he buried them alive. Do you want eggs, she said.
Polliwogs were a good catch, you could watch their legs pop out like thalidomide flippers. On a certain road you could find salamanders. In a mayonnaise jar two praying mantises did it on a stick and his thing was green and curled like a U and went up inside her. Then she ate him. She started at his head and ate all the way down him. There was a deathly silence.
When your mother was thirty-one, she masturbated and had her first orgasm on the living-room couch with the drapes open. She said. You weren’t there.
That’s how she tells it. She is still telling it with hardware going up under her breast and a tube in her nose. The tube in her nose is blue and opaque. The boy on the mountain was seventeen.
The father’s suitcases, brown, stood on the porch.
You got pneumonia and the doctor came. The night scared you with car lights moving, tree shadows on the ceiling. The doctor pulled up your nightie and held your cheek in one hand and put a needle in. All your hair fell out.
You were bald and you wore medicine on your hairless head and corduroy, powder-blue baby bonnets.
In the field the stallion jumped the fence and broke a foreleg. In the field were mares and Shetland ponies and an electrical fence and salt licks. Riding bareback felt like sitting on a hot muscle.
This was in southern Ontario.
Your mother went out at night and never came home. Your brother said, She’s gone, she’s gone. She won’t ever be back. Later, you watched her from your bedroom window as she led your best friend’s father by the hand to the tack house. They kissed outside the door that said Please Remove Your Spurs and his hand rubbed her print dress, crumpling it. You called him Mr. Brayer. Hello, Mr. Brayer, you said at Marsha’s house. How are you, Mrs. Brayer?
Along your road lived a family with an encephalitic son we called Bubble Head. You were bald and Bubble Head crawled into a pothole and a truck ran over him. So it was said. You weren’t there. Your mother said, It’s just as well. He lay right down in a pothole the highway department hadn’t filled and sucked his thumb until the truck rolled by on the way to the dump.
You hated to hear your mother’s laugh. She laughed when men were over and laughed and laughed. You fell asleep and her laughter swarmed in your head like wasps.
Your mother made a hula skirt out of plastic dry-cleaning bags and wore a polka-dot bikini top.
Your mother did not know you could see her. You came home from school and she was sitting on the kitchen sink with her pants around her ankles, peeing. She jumped down, laughing, embarrassed.
A turtle on Swaney Street was run over, spaghetti guts spilling.
Your father went away. Your father left and left.
Your father was forty-six when he did it. They were pills, they were two-toned gelatin, red and white like patriotism. They were a bottle full.
He swallowed sleeping pills and his body wasn’t found for days and was bloated to twice its weight and decomposing, leaking fluids. They said. You weren’t there.
The story is whispered behind the hands of uncles and aunts and cousins.
It was a heart attack.
There are heart attacks and there are heart attacks. That is how things are. His heart attack was a lie and your mother’s was real.
Hearts stop from jumping off mountains or from barbiturates or truck tires. Hearts clog up from bacon.
On a mountain a boy you knew fell and fell. It was June and there were wildflowers blooming. There was foxglove blooming pink like drips of blood and milk.
Your father chopped the heads off geese and plucked their feathers and put their bodies in the freezer. There was a dinner party. One bite, he said. Go on, one bite. You went upstairs and watched a Dracula movie with a goose belly coagulating between your teeth.
One suitcase dropped over on its side.
You knew a boy who fell off a mountain.
Your thumb was bitten by a snapping turtle. You needed a tetanus shot.
On Sunday mornings you all went to church. Sunday evenings the father said grace and cut into a goose, a calf. Lucky. You were all so lucky. Fortune is smiling, your mother said, and you held hands.
Later he held a gun to her head. Later she carried suitcases to the porch, grunting.
But she never said, Watch out for splattering blood. You stand now and her fat open heart contracts and pumps, white like a sigh, all that plenty swollen and sutured and taped. Her lips are crusted shut. There is nothing you can do. An old woman wearing a hula skirt gyrates her hips.
This is how things are. Hearts and hearts and flowers everywhere.
You were a sweet little girl, Mommy’s angel.