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Essay

How I would like to believe in tenderness—

—Sylvia Plath, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”

 

HOLY SEPULCHRE Mausoleum and Cemetery sits in a fenced green block on Ridgeland and 111th Street, five minutes south of my apartment. I pass that corner at least once a week, and when I pass it, I pass my grandmother, Helene Serner James. The cemetery, a historical landmark of Chicago’s south suburbs, fills the grid between Ridgeland, Pulaski, and 111th and 115th Streets. Numerous war heroes are buried here, along with Richard J. Daley and Mary Alice Quinn, a girl who performed faith healings and developed a religious following in the 1930s. Her grave is a pilgrimage site, and is adorned with proofs of visitation: pansies, a blue plaster cast of the Virgin, a single green pinwheel. Visitors claim that the grave emits a soft pink light, and that the smell of roses rises from the marble in winter. It is a Catholic cemetery, haunted, holy.

My grandmother was not Catholic, or at least we do not know whether she became Catholic in the last years of her life. Helene and its shortened form, Helen, come from the Greek words for “torch” and “corposant,” and sailors used to look for Saint Helen’s fire, later Saint Elmo’s fire, as a sign of favor resting on the masts and prows of their ships. At Holy Sepulchre, after it rains, sharp glints of sunlight hover on the silver arms of the three-story cross at the corner of Ridgeland and 115th. The cross terrifies before it awes. I do not think that Helene casts us roses, nor a tender light.

§

How Helene ended up in Holy Sepulchre, and how I ended up living by her grave, is a story that becomes looser with the telling, the attempt to come full circle. My realization that I lived a mile away from my famously estranged grandmother did not bookend a family saga. Neither did my attempts to find her, my wandering among broken headstones and statues of Saint Francis in the July heat. Our family history, like the history of the south suburbs, has an inertia to it, a sickening motion that rocks us back and forth between moments of promise and the inevitable sense that the promise was a lie: my grandmother and mother, both alcoholics, and my mother and I, both daughters of alcoholics, ride a wave of burden that, in my mother’s view, is singularly insurmountable. “You don’t understand how hard it is for me,” she says, her voice lilting upward as if I am someone she has met on the street, someone she has to convince to give her money for the train, the bus, a bottle of Boone’s Farm. “Because I didn’t have a mom, I didn’t learn how to do things which you already know how to do, bless your heart.”

This is the real reason that I search for Helene. If I can set foot on her grave, I can convince my mother that closure is possible, that the daughter does not simply and helplessly inherit the sins of the mother. I search for Helene to convince myself of this. So far, the grave remains unfound.

§

The history of Chicago’s south suburbs, or at least the south suburbs we lived in, is Greek in its fatalism, its record of ruined opportunity. Once a thriving hub of travel and manufacturing, the suburbs were hit by a recession in the 1970s. I grew up with a constant sense that more blows were coming our way. We lived in Sauk Village, pocketed in the gridlock between Ford Heights (which had no police station and was once the second poorest town in America) and Flossmoor, whose golf courses were untouched by the bouts of layoffs at the Ford plant and the white flight to Indiana and the northern suburbs. Nobody said it aloud, but there was resentment lurking in our neighbors’ overgrown yards, the broken siding on the community center: somehow or other, we had all been screwed. You could drive the circuit of roads between Sauk Village and Matteson and never escape the liquor stores, the used car lots, the storefront churches with boarded windows. There was no promise here. No way of leaving.

The Catholics would never leave either, but this was by choice. South Chicago is dotted with marble angels and granite bell towers that hang above strip malls and fast-food chains. While commercial industry dotted the landscape with ever-changing franchises, the Catholics stood firm, unmoving, historical. And being historical implied that you lived within the cycles of history, the repetitions common to time, rising and falling and rising again. Or so you hoped. You went to mass on Sunday and came back to Beverly for stew and soda bread, and you saved your money for a plot in Holy Sepulchre, where the cost of the headstone included all future care of the grave. This is why my mother has never been contacted by Holy Sepulchre about her mother’s grave. At the beginnings of May and October, all plots are cleared by the groundskeepers, and if you do not remember to clear the grave yourself, your proofs of visitation will be swept up and dumped into the trash. Helene’s grave must afford the groundskeepers a break as they hoist dead flowers into truck beds and move on to the next grave, and the next, and the next.

§

The last time my mother saw Helene, she was in her early twenties. My uncle Richard, my mother’s older brother, followed her into her bedroom one Sunday at their father’s house and said, “I found her. I found Mom.” They arranged to have lunch together on Mother’s Day. My mother dug through the card aisle in the grocery store, looking for something appropriate. But she was angry. “How do you find a Mother’s Day card when your mother has been gone for ten years?” she asked me.

The lunch was awkward. Helene did not have much to say, other than to criticize her daughter’s hair and skin. “She told me to rinse my face with water at least ten times when I washed it, to give it proper hydration,” Mom said. “She had beautiful skin.”

After that, Helene disappeared. Mom never heard from her again. “I don’t know where she is, or where I can find her, and I’ll never know,” she told me. But she followed Helene’s advice, instructing me to rinse my own face ten times after I washed it. “It’s one of the few things I can remember,” she said, sliding open the mint-green case of Clinique soap to reveal its milky yellow bar. She taught me this when I was ten years old, the age she was when her parents divorced. The divorce was the fulcrum of my mother’s history, the point on which every other event hovered and spun: her parents divorced and she lived with her father, and she spent the rest of her childhood motherless.

This was what her father told her: that her mother was a drunk who did not care about her children. My grandfather, Walter James, did not explain his own culpability in the matter, did not explain why he also drank, why he spent Friday nights beating Helene while his children, my mother and my uncle, hid in their beds and cried. That was the worst part of it, the lack of explanation. The rhythms of my grandparents’ drinking and abuse gave the violence between them a form, but no resolution. Their relationship inverted and mocked the rhythms of liturgy: Friday night signaled the descent into hell, with broken bottles and black eyes; Saturday was stilled by Helene’s whimpering silence; and suddenly, on Sunday morning, a fresh dress for my mother and a car ride to church, where Helene sat powdered and primped, no signs of Friday’s struggle, no talk of what had happened. No proof that my mother had reason to hide in her bed, no wound to test with her fingers. Just the knowledge that Walter was waiting for them in the car and that the week would again climb dreadfully upward, back to Friday night and its crescendo of despair.

“We called it ‘Friday night at the fights,’” my mother told me, sliding the soap back into its green case. “Your grandfather would order this horrible greasy pizza, which I could never eat, and they would just keep drinking and yelling until he would hit her.”

The courts ruled in favor of Walter, a kind of scarlet letter for Helene, legal proof that she was an unfit mother. There are other proofs: my mother cannot remember meals that Helene cooked, or kind words that she said, or much of anything else. Mom attributed this to post-traumatic stress disorder, which she read about in one of her self-help books from the library. The books told her that she must have suppressed her memories in order to survive, to escape that litany of violence. And because the memories were buried so deeply, Mom had to use her imagination to bring her mother back to life; Mom imagined that Helene meant well, that she must have done other things. That she must have loved her. Why else would Helene have brought her to church, or agreed to meet her for lunch, or tried to help improve her complexion? “It was all she knew how to do,” Mom said. “And it’s what I have to accept in order to forgive her, in order to be codependent no more.”

Codependent. The paternoster of the adult child of the alcoholic, the word that brought everything full circle, the word that relieved your life of burden and sorrow and brought you into new life. My mother had not discovered that word when I was ten, but she would discover it soon after, sitting on the floor of the library and weeping, the rush of memory unspeakable, the freedom from memory a sweet, exhilarating force. Those Sunday mornings at church did little to boost my mother’s faith, but when she discovered the self-help movement, its communal sense of individual recompense for a variety of messed-up childhoods, she believed: in providence, in a higher power, in the redemption of her life. It was promising, really. It was as if she had finally arrived in the world, as if she could move and live outside the unnamable darkness that had haunted her since she was a little girl, squirming in a frilly dress next to her silent mother.

“Now I can move forward,” she would say to me and my siblings, piling her books into the trunk of the car while we stood in the library parking lot, the librarians locking the doors. “Now I can really take care of myself.”

That was ten years ago, the summer I turned fourteen. It was the last time I would see my mother as I had known her, as someone who made dinner, who made a liturgy for us to say before we went to bed: Good night, sweet dreams, I’ll see you in the morning, I love you. Mom, who had never been taken care of as Helene’s daughter, would become a daughter to the world, and Helene, who had been almost imagined into new flesh, would remain a ghost, silent and radiant in the beauty she reminded us of, without words, without blame.

§

When a story is brought full circle, it does not end but repeats, the characters new but the events old. This is why addiction is cyclical, why it passes itself down from parent to child, generation to generation. After the divorce, Mom filed for bankruptcy and moved us to Candlelight Village, a trailer park on the northeast side of town. She got enough money to make a down payment on a trailer from Dayne, the man she had left my father for, the man she had been sleeping with while my father busied himself with the dishes, believing Mom to be at an Al-Anon meeting. Dayne was also an adult child of an alcoholic, one whose own drinking was a proof of grief similar to my mother’s. He bought her silver rings and planted flowers around the faux-granite birdbath that stood by my bedroom window, the trailer facing Lincoln Highway and its constant caravan of semi-trucks. My brothers and sister and I lived in a kind of shellshock, watching the proofs of Dayne’s love for our mother fall all around us. “He is a good man,” she would coo in the morning, his T-shirts barely covering her ass as she brewed coffee and looked at the morning glories crowning her kitchen window. “He takes good care of me.”

The honeymoon was brief. One weekend Dayne took a trip to Iowa for a construction gig, and when he came back, his mouth brimmed with accusations: “Did you get yourself a new boy while I was gone? Did you find yourself a nigger lover?” Mom kicked Dayne out, but one night in June I awoke to a pounding noise and the high, distant sound of my mother’s voice calling my name: “Allison, he’s here, he’s here!” I pushed my body against the door, which was the only thing I could do, asleep and scared as I was. Mom pulled me away just before the lock snapped, her voice resigned and quiet, as if she knew what was coming to her, as if there was nothing I could do. “He’ll hurt you, Allison. Just step away.”

The rest of it hammered out in precise movements: the thud of Dayne’s feet across the living room, the stark white leather of his sneakers in the porch light through the open window, the way his eyes rolled like a maddened animal’s, his hands pressed against Mom’s throat and my younger brother’s thick arms wrestling him away, my sister’s body crumpled in the hallway where Dayne had thrown her after the lock snapped and his rage met the first thing he saw. But he did not strike me, even when I raised my hand to his face, slapping him and steadying myself for a fist; he stood still, unmoving, his eyes rolling while a clear dry panic rose in my throat and I thought: We need something to happen. Something has to happen. There was the sudden flash of red and blue light across the floor. Dayne’s eyes stilled. He flung the back door open and fled.

My older brother, Chris, who had been on the phone with my mother when Dayne broke in, had called the cops for us, and although they could not find Dayne, they issued a warrant. I kept watch on the couch while my mother slept, the broken door dangling in its frame. The next morning, Mom took a green marker and wrote Dayne did this in the cracked hollows of drywall where he had thrown my sister’s body. She took me to the Markham courthouse, where we met with a domestic violence lawyer, a woman who smiled wearily at us in her dark brown, book-lined office. She was familiar with this story, its ebbs and flows, the way a victim would sign a restraining order and then reunite with her lover. The way the story made itself new. I shook my head.

“We are done with him,” I said, and my mother nodded, taking the pen and signing her name, Barbara Backous. Like her mother, she had kept her married name after the divorce, avoiding the navigation and cost that reinstalling your maiden name requires. It was one similarity. Now there were others.

“This happened to my mother, and now it’s happened to me,” she said, her face drooping with what I assumed to be weariness and shock. It was both, but it was also something else, an acceptance of history and of her own place in that history, the cycle of it all. We stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken and got a large bucket with mashed potatoes, and it all felt so simple to me, the bright humid air flowing through the car’s open windows as we took Kedzie to Vollmer Road to Dixie Highway, the sides of the roads green with weeds and rising grasses, my mother’s hand in mine as a promise, as an end. But the chicken was greasy and it was only Monday, and when Dayne promised Mom he would fix the door she wiped the marker off the walls, drove back to Markham, erased her name from the restraining order. “You’ll understand someday,” she told me, as if I would also have violent lovers, as if this was what I could expect to inherit. As if she thought there was nothing better.

§

I do not know how Helene got to Holy Sepulchre. Neither does my mother. My father was the one who told me about it during his spell of bitterness, the summer after the divorce. He was living in Logan Square, one of the neighborhoods that Chicago’s orthodox Jews had briefly inhabited before renewing their exodus to the farther northwest suburbs of Skokie and Buffalo Grove. The neighborhood became a blend of Puerto Rican and Mexican, and the parishes offered mass in Spanish and English, Latin long out of use.

“Your grandmother is buried in Holy Sepulchre,” Dad said, his words threaded with the cigarette smoke that climbed through the air around him. Dad’s apartment was a ten-by-fifteen studio, with a small closet and a mirror that had mysteriously cracked twice while he was shaving. “Poltergeist,” he claimed, swabbing his face with his ivory shaving brush, a small luxury he had swept into a duffle bag the night he stormed out of our house. He retreated into the city, sat in his room and let his anger over my mother’s adultery harden into something black, heavy with an igneous weight. And he threw it at what he thought was the right moment, while I was sitting on his bed and telling him how angry I was, how Mom stole my earrings and my tank tops to go to the bar, which was every night, Dayne’s lean arms around her hips while she scrunched her curls and swabbed her lips with my lip gloss. My father reclined into the curtain of smoke.

“I tried looking for your grandmother when you were little, when your mother and I were still together. She died a terrible death, Red, extremely painful. Stomach cancer is an awful way to go. And I didn’t tell your mother because I knew that it would be too much for her. But I’ve known all along, and now you know, too. This is a secret between you and me.”

The smoke hovered at the room’s corners, and my father smiled warmly at me, as if we had just finished a good meal. I felt the stone of his anger settle inside me. He had meant to give me a fighting chance. He had meant to give me bread.

I used to beg God to make Dayne leave. I would pray until I fell asleep, and then I would pray again the next night. I kept praying. I thought that God would just take him away, and in moments of desperation, I tried to make him go away myself: I once grabbed some of the loose hair from his comb and burned it, tossed the stinking black strands into the breeze as I stood on the back porch, weeping. I thought that I could curse him. He stayed for three years. What made him finally leave was another woman, who moved Dayne to Tennessee. We heard that she beat him with a golf club one night when he got in her face. It was enough to make my mother hoot with laughter, in between her sobs.

“I lost my best friend,” she cried, her face swollen and red from her hours of tears. “I’ve lost my best friend forever.” It made me sick, her desire for a man who beat her and terrorized her household, who stared at my breasts as I walked across the living room. Such was the curse of being an adult child of an alcoholic: the desire for the wrong things, the desire for wrong itself. Mom started spending more time at the bar and would ask me to pick her up, which I did, sitting outside Tui’s at midnight, the jukebox blaring Kid Rock while my mother swung pool sticks and untucked her shirt. “I’ll only be another few minutes,” she would say to me, her voice gone soft from the Heineken, the smell of hairspray and beer hanging around her mouth.

Mom stayed at the bar instead of going to my senior awards show, and showed up drunk to my high school graduation. I spent much of the summer avoiding her, filling my room with the things I would need for my college dorm: toothpaste, crates, dry-erase markers. I knew that college was the way to avoid being like my mother, and the difference between Palos Heights and Candlelight Village, between where I went to school and where I was from, encompassed a whole world. I took courses on Plato and Augustine, read George Herbert and Simone Weil, let Dylan blast from my stereo through the window of my dorm while the trees blazed pink and orange in the descending autumn, the air chilled and excited and new. I went to a church where the pastor wore a robe and the congregants shared gray hymnals, where I did not have to prove that I believed, but was instead given seats at potlucks, children to hold on my lap. One morning I saw the communion glasses make circles of scarlet on the ceiling, and I watched everyone bow their heads, and I took the cup and drank myself, believing.

That was my true conversion. I graduated and moved to Chicago Ridge, to that apartment five minutes away from Holy Sepulchre, and when I drove up Ridgeland Avenue with my boxes and my books and saw the cross on the corner, I felt the panic rise in my throat, the stone that had settled years ago rising up to choke me.

The day that Mom lifted the restraining order against Dayne, I waited until nighttime, threw some books and clothes into a backpack, and ripped the screen out of my bedroom window. I jumped onto the flowerbed that surrounded the birdbath, the one that Dayne had planted for my mother, and walked in the dark along Sauk Trail, down Jeffrey Avenue to a school friend’s house. My mother called the next morning. “I got your note,” she said. Before I jumped, I had taped a note to my bedroom door for my mother to read, something that said what I had been thinking, a stone’s throw, a final cursed benediction: You’ve been looking for your mother your whole life. Now all you have to do is look in the mirror.

And now I want to lift the curse. I call Holy Sepulchre and tell them that I’m looking for my maternal grandmother. “We have only one Helene, a Helene Serner James, buried in September of 1990,” the receptionist tells me. She was buried a few weeks after my sixth birthday. How did she get there? Who attended her funeral? “If you come to the office, you can print out a record and visit her grave,” the woman says.

I go on a Wednesday, walking under the iron entry gate and into the open cemetery office. The walls are beige and bare, and people bustle behind a counter like tellers at a bank, answering phones and stacking papers. A machine that looks like an ATM sits in the corner. On its screen, words ask for the last three letters of the deceased’s name, and after a series of commands, the machine punches out the grave’s block, row, and number: burial record of helene serner james, grave 10, lot 16, block 1, section 7.

On the back of the paper, there is a picture of Saint Francis holding a lamb, his long face bowed to his chest. There is also a map of the cemetery, including a close-up of my grandmother’s section, an elongated square of land which I drive around several times, unsure of where to park. I finally step out of the car and walk along the rows, the grass pricking my ankles, my tank top wet with sweat, my bandana soaked. I see Mary Alice Quinn’s grave, the pinwheels spinning in the hot wind, the soft pink light overcome by the noonday sun. I cannot find Helene. But I do find things that remind me of my mother, the words Daughter and Beloved carved into gravestones. Even her name, Barbara, appears on a grave in section 7. I do not doubt that Helene is there, but she eludes me in the way that she eludes my mother still, haunts by absence. She holds to her namesakes: Helen of Troy, choosing to disappear and to remain disappeared; Saint Helene the torchbearer, bearing a light that guides and hovers, but without protection, without blessing. I wipe sweat from my brow, slam the car door, and drive away.

§

How can my mother present her life to me as something that we need to solve, figure out, redeem? I keep trying to give Helene a body, turning my time over to more research: I Google her surname, Serner, and discover that it is Lithuanian, that a George Serner ran an optometry office in the South Shore neighborhood, where, Mom remembers, Helene’s parents bought a house at the corner of Sixty-fifth and Dorchester. I Google that street corner and see some crumbling houses, a viaduct, broken patches of cement on the sidewalk. I call the Richard J. Daley Courthouse and get a price on my grandparents’ divorce papers, now available to the public for fifteen dollars. I look for proofs. But can these things make any difference? Would they just shed light on the body of what we do not know? Do I want to raise the bodies of my grandmother’s secrets, her life, the reasons she drank, and left, and did not return? Why is she buried in Holy Sepulchre, with the cross’s light bridging the street corners, the plaster Virgin sitting humbly at Mary Alice Quinn’s grave? Does my grandmother have the power to haunt, or do we give it to her, make her take up the body of our grief when really there is no one to take it?

I call my mother and tell her that I went walking by the cemetery down the street from my apartment. I tell her the name of the cemetery. She sighs. “That’s where my mother is buried, and I’ve never gone to see her. Maybe I’ll come up to visit you and we can go visit her together. Someday.”

§

Other things have slipped out. I remember sitting on the couch while Mom talked to Dayne on the phone. She tried whispering below the hum of the television, but I caught her words anyway: “I think she died of stomach cancer, honey. That’s all I know.” She hung up and grabbed her keys.

I wondered, hopefully, if Dad had let something slip to Mom, if she overheard something. If this got me off the hook. But Mom had always presented Helene as someone who was gone without a trace, someone she would never know anything about, and this somehow seemed stronger than anything else she could know about Helene. It seemed like a permanent kind of knowledge, something that I could depend on: the only proof of Helene’s real life was what my mother’s memory gave her. Mom’s words about Helene’s cancer were like the words of a sybil. They condemned me before my mother knew they condemned me. They prophesied repetition.

For that was the fear, that the cycle would repeat itself, that I would be just like my mother, just like Helene. That the tracks of our lives were irreversible, that we did not spiral away but instead circled in toward the doom that awaited us, daughters and mothers and daughters again. What would she do if she knew that I knew? What silence would separate us? What damnation would repeat itself? I had started working in downtown Chicago, teaching at a high school in the south Loop. My mother was proud of me for this. “It’s exactly what I did when I was your age,” she exclaimed on the phone. “Only I worked at the Sears Tower, and I had to run to the Ogilvie Station in my heels.”

Helene had also worked in the city as a young woman, at Marshall Field’s, selling soap and perfume. Telling customers to rinse their faces ten times with water. It impressed me to think that all three of us had similar paths through the city, crossing its streets, hailing cabs and knotting scarves around our throats. It was a more promising thing to imagine than the other paths we seemed meant to follow.

§

“It is just so cute here!” she exclaims, standing in my small kitchen and examining my fridge. Mom has come to visit and has brought me soup, a beef barley that she slurps while I tell her stories about my students, both of us watching the squirrels lob themselves over the shrubs in my front yard. Mom leans against the couch.

“I feel sorry for my mom. She must have been so lost. I wish that I could have let her know, somehow, that I was okay.” She folds her hands in her lap, her feet dangling just above the carpet. “But I knew that she was sleeping around, that there was something funny going on with her in the days when they were fighting for custody of me.”

She keeps going. “Mom was always at the hotel bar, and I used to have to stay at the hotel pool, or in the room, and just be by myself. Once, I saw her with this man, just laughing and being all close with him. I went out to the pool, and when I came back to the room, the door was locked. I kept coming back, and when it was finally open, I peeked in and saw Mom in bed with this same guy.”

Mom licks her lips and stares at me, her mouth a satisfied smirk. “And I knew, and I went and told on her, and that’s how I got to be with my dad.”

The stone rises in my throat as I listen, the passing clouds’ shadow hushing the room. I walk Mom around the neighborhood, show her the park, the train station I walk to every morning. She sits on a park bench. “I don’t think I’ll go see her today,” she says, and I nod and sit on the bench with her, the breeze of autumn descending, chilly and fresh on our arms, our faces. The trees are fading from pink to brown. I do not know what to say.

§

I am leaving the south suburbs for good. I am moving with my friends to Michigan, a place where I can work and write, a place to have a life separate from the dreadful circuit. I am visiting my father before I go. He has moved farther west, into a house on Kimball and Belmont, which he shares with my younger brother. There are many rooms, burnt orange linoleum and flowered tiles, a long kitchen counter. He is slicing white cheddar and a loaf of Italian bread, sipping a 2005 Bordeaux. “You can’t go wrong with a 2005,” he tells me, “if it’s French. That’s the good stuff.”

I tell him that I’m writing about Helene and Mom, and about visiting Holy Sepulchre. “That’s where your grandmother is buried,” he says, and I tell him that I remembered him telling me. “Yeah, I did it for your mother,” he says, handing me a slice of cheese. “She asked me to, when you guys were little, just as a last chance to see where your grandmother had gone.”

The cheese crumbles in my mouth. “She knew?”

“Oh, of course, Red,” Dad says, cutting a slice of cheese for himself. He swirls the wine in his glass, looking for signs of browning around the wine’s liquid edge. “She’s always known. She asked me to look up her mother, and I called your uncle, who told me that it was not in your mother’s best interest to know too much about your grandmother. Something about letting the dead be dead. He was always a schmuck. But I got the name of the cemetery, and I got a couple other names, and I tracked down your grandmother’s final address. It was somewhere in the south, a trailer in Virginia or someplace, and I got a hold of one of your grandmother’s neighbors and pretended to be an insurance guy, looking for her to settle a claim. The woman told me everything she knew. Your grandmother died in that trailer, painfully and alone. I could not tell your mother that.”

Dad pours me a glass of wine and sets it on the table. “She just didn’t know how she died. I told your mom that her mom was dead, and where she was buried, but I made up something about her dying from old age. I just didn’t want to hurt your mother any more than she was already hurt. She couldn’t get over it, any of it, since I had met her. Sat at that kitchen table every night and said the same damn things, over and over, and I could not help her. I said, ‘Barb, you need more help than I can give you,’ but she just kept repeating herself, unwilling to get unstuck.”

I swirled my wine. The kitchen had one florescent light, which blared around the edges of the glass, casting circles of red and white onto the table. After dinner, I took the Blue Line to Clark and Lake and transferred to the Orange Line, which took me past Cicero and Pulaski, past Archer and around the neighborhood of Bridgeport, where gray cathedral spires spun up and over thrift stores and currency exchanges, staking their claim on a space made sacred. I stared out the window and thought about Helene in her trailer, her death, about our trailer, our suffering. I thought about repetition and doom, the difference between spirals and circles, liturgies and mantras, pilgrims and slaves. We had been slaves. This was our exodus. And I wept in the train car alone, for Helene, for my mother, for myself. It was all I was supposed to do, all along.


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