Aja Couchois Duncan

Notes on Narrativity - Writing in Prose

Prior to my life as a writer, I was a student of anthropology. I still do not know exactly what this means, other than it is printed on my college diploma. I do know that I am obsessed with what makes us human and how this human configuration struggles to differentiate itself from animal. This study of human is of course a study of self and other, a study of self in family, a study of family as self. However is about family, about the process of aging and the injustices this culture (as if a singular referent could actually take on so much meaning) inflicts on the old. However is an ethnography of the last few weeks of my grandmother's life and her shouting right back at me - you got it wrong and right, a little right. However is in prose because this process of description is too messy for a pretty mobile of string and glass. However is in prose because prose is the viscous tissue of body and there is a lot of body, its excrement, in this piece. However is in prose because, as James Clifford wrote in the Predicament of Culture, "participant observation obliges its practitioners to experience, at a bodily as well as intellectual level, the vicissitudes of translation." However is in prose because there is too much, rather than too little, to say.

Not accounting for everything—who could—not just the alcohol and the iron deficiency, but other failures as well. What happened exactly. The itchy warmth of the car seat. The light from the house across the way. My own need to itch and scratch and be done with it. Of course this body no longer responds, I am earlier and inside taut skin, two breasts. Even the car is not liquid of the body which fed them, taught them how to walk into a nursing home and sign me up for a cruise around the parking lot, my feet above the wheels of the chair. As if a wheelchair could contain all that is inside of me. Such structures remember nothing and I remember everything that transpired. It is not the recollecting but how to frame it in what they know.
I know they know nothing.

    Yesterday, the day she went from nursing home to hospital then back home again. Not the same home, the one she remembered, its white walls, the circular tweed couch, the layers of paper wings, Angels the artists had called the collage and she sat beneath the open breath of its uneven surface every morning until now. A new home. New in its arrangement without her. Now home to her children and grandchildren who would steal everything if they could. Capturing heirs.

Real-estate is not a sure thing, I told them after the fires, but they forgot. So now almost paralyzed and past speech I can only watch them arrange things, moving the couch, replacing the tattered cloth. Home is after all only a settling of dust. I cannot move, so dust settles. Settling. They put me near the picture, underneath it, an awkward likeness. Pointy nose, unfriendly hair. My hair, like many things, is no longer mine. A purple haze about my head. How they frame me.

    She pretends not to know her daughter's name. This is Mrs. Thompson, she introduces her to the nurse. Her daughter stares afraid that she is in fact a Thompson and not her daughter at all, or if her mother has gone somewhere else that she will not be able to follow or worse already following. She recognizes the look, the fear pooling beneath the shallow of her skin, the blood thick with it. It is after all her face, the face of her child, sprung from her and still her split seams leaking. You are nothing, she thinks and perhaps her daughter hears for she is walking so oddly as if the hospital was unfamiliar after five days of waiting. You were an accident, she shouts, no sound but her body reverberates with the attempt. Accident, that would be one way of claiming. But she knows that accidents lie outside and she is here. No accident, not at her age. There were other possibilities, but when she was young she had not understood any other arrangement than mother, father, daughters or she had misread the directions, lost the last page; she was mistaken. Still. Not without movement but still, as in anyway or whatever.

The towel is rough and the shower too hot. Each time it is a different nurse. Mrs. Gagnon, they scold when my legs buckle or a rebellious ankle twists. They set me on the toilet to rest, each of us exhausted by the eighty-three pounds of yield. The bathroom so unlike my own and still I get lost between them. The girls think the water angry and the grass along the yard just weeds. Everything was planted with his own hands, large scaly trout even though he was chicken legs and a crows fat beak. Mom, they say and try to bend my elbow outside its range. They are making up, or evening out. Those years I yelled and complained and wished them unhappy marriages and thankless children. No need to wish such things, every one of them cries themselves to sleep. Perhaps only now. Or after.

    In the bedroom, they gather the clothes they think she likes because she wore them years without complaint. Pink terri-cloth sweats and zip-up jackets. Leisure wear. The sport of meandering and rest. She hates that suit and the others, the light green blazer and the poplin elastic waist pants. Even the shoes, the nursing shoes with orthopedic lift, one pair tan and the other white. In the home she will be left in a house dress and slippers, television proving the sun an inferior source of light. They will check on her periodically, the tilt of her body in the day chair. The pill regimen. The pork chop and string beans turned molasses in the blender. Or breakfast already soft, the cream of wheat, mashed fruit.

Clutching the pillow, my name across the breast. They know me as my order in their birth, first generation, narrow fingers scaring an uneven yellow embroidery, grandma it would say if it were legible, granbra or jomda. The girls hold my arms, leather handles on the suitcases they carry, satisfied with my containment. A body folded into an origami crane and stuffed into the front seat of a car, my car, now theirs. See mom, just a few blocks, not that different. They think my silence not thought or post-thought as if counting was beyond a brain once stroked. Each distance the length of my tongue and I know they are lying, driving me outside my own frequency so even the hairdresser will be lost and cannot mix the exact shade of dusk that is my hair.
What injury can touch these few blocks, my home since before he died and I roamed them like a doll house, my hooked body fitting perfectly through each door.

    The girls walk up the drive and she waits slumped in the front seat of the car. Wait here mom, they say, but she doesn't say anything, no longer able which she knows they like, as if speaking in long awaited turns. Their turn. The street is empty save the cars which always live outside and the cats which seem to live below. People inside and the shrubs outside and she in the car in the driveway of her new home, suburban face, ivy lined walkway, all leather interior and a perfect view of the freeway overpass. To hear movement is almost traveling or to be told of it by someone you love. These are the places she has been. There are too many sentences for her to capture just one, or the arrangement has shifted, the nouns loosened from the clutch of verbs

    drunk or almost drunk so filled her body liquid and her youth floating down the river or the canoe floating to town where she met him or put on her white dress and modest heels and worked as his nurse without training or he trained her to meet his needs not at his wife who could not or would not do her duty but a nurse's duty to look beautiful and young and her breasts were enough to send him outside of his wife's sickness the victorian sickness so many women suffered from abandonment but he never abandoned her only strayed and the other woman with brown eyes and beautiful curls had to leave or be driven from the small church and everyone she knew her mother led her west another migration following her husband or the man who would be her husband not a doctor not tall or respected a man of mixed blood living with his mother so her mother felt safe and they married a few miles from the sea the dry hills burning year after year she could see the smoke in her dreams thick bands of charcoal twisting the layers of clouds woven fire

Whose life so easily told as words. They think I am past me or they hold me in their earliest versions so I am no longer part of description, an obstacle even to the sight of family. Perhaps I am these trees along the freeway dusty with carbon monoxide or the eucalyptus behind the nursing home shedding. The body takes much longer to break free of limbs, forgetting my other daughter's name


Issue Two
Table of Contents