Notes on Taking Up SpaceOn Sunday night Mom cleared her throat, walked down the hallway stairs, and stepped into my bedroom. She said that Uncle Russ was dead and asked me if I was okay. Mom's hair was long and frizzy and her lips were chapped. For the first time, I wondered if she had always looked that way. As a teenager, Mom probably tried harder. I looked down at "The Mammary Plays" opened in my lap. Page thirty-seven. I tried to remember what I had just read before Mom came in and told me Uncle Russ was dead. Uncle Russ and I were close. He was the first person to tell me that adults weren't always right. He was the first person to teach me how to flip the bird and the only person who taught me how to properly hock a loogie. Last week, while we sat at his dining room table, he asked me if I noticed all of the changes around me. He said things were finally happening and we should pay close attention. Then he gave me his copy of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road". The next day I started it at the breakfast table and finished it in the bathtub before bed. I had meant to call him and tell him that I didn't like the way the father talked to the son. I didn't like the dialogue. The distance caused by McCarthy’s continued use of “the boy” drove me nuts. She stared at me without relent, my mother did. She didn't repeat the words are you okay but a few tears slipped down her cheek while she waited for my response. I closed The Mammary Plays and placed it to my right on the bed. Mom took a few steps back and I saw that she was only wearing one slipper. It was a pink slipper that Dad had gotten her for Christmas. I imagined she was in the process of putting them on when she received the call. With the news, the devastating news, Mom's innate response was to come tell me, not to put on her other slipper. Uncle Russ was supposed to come to Grandma's last night for her sixtieth birthday party, but he wasn't there. The presents, all wrapped in black paper, lined the kitchen counter. My sister and I were going to put a whoopie cushion on Uncle Russ’ seat. My sister, Lisa, had just gotten her driver's license and she asked me where I wanted to go. I told her I wanted to play a trick on Uncle Russ, I wanted to cheer him up I said because he was spending his time reading books like "The Road”. She told me that she knew just the place and twenty minutes later we were at The Party Center over on Center Street. They had several different types of whoopie cushions, ranging from one dollar to five dollars. I spent my last five dollars and got the better of the cushions. I hadn't anticipated tax but Lisa helped me out when the time came. No one verbally acknowledged Russ’ absence. It was pretty much expected. He rarely came to the family gatherings and when he did he never stayed long. I should have been mad at him for not coming to his own mother’s sixtieth birthday party, but I wasn’t. After I finally nodded my head in Mom's direction, giving her the affirmation that life was going to move on with or without Uncle Russ around, we both made our way to the hallway stairs. She stopped when she reached the window, as if this was something she always did when her brother died, and I ducked past her. I was sure she was looking for him—for his presence. She did stuff like that and I thought it was all bullshit. Besides, I still wasn’t sure Russ was dead. I didn’t feel his death—in fact I felt the same way that moment as I did any other moment. If Uncle Russ was dead, the world had not changed. That just didn’t make sense. To my surprise, the entire family was upstairs. They had snuck in while Mom and I were having our awkward silence of survival down in my bedroom. There was Dad, Lisa, Aunt Tammy, Aunt Olivia, Aunt Meryl, Uncle Carter, Uncle Steven, and Grandma and Grandpa Crites. The Aunts were in the kitchen, elbows on the tile countertop, whispering words like “had it coming” and “its too bad” and “there was nothing to be done”. The two uncles were sitting at the dining room table with Dad, and Grandma and Grandpa sat on the couch, Grandma crying into her sixty-year-old hands. She felt guilty, I knew, guilty for failing as a mother. I watched from the other room as Grandma dealt with a type of sad that I knew nothing about.Lisa found me right away and took me by my arm. We put on our winter jackets and I followed her out to the porch. We sat on the old swing that Dad's Amish friend had made for him years ago. Lisa told me that she overheard Aunt Meryl tell Aunt Olivia that Uncle Russ did it on purpose. Meryl said that there was just too much heroin to be anything other than suicide. Then Lisa told me that Olivia said that she always thought he would take himself out with a pistol, not heroin. Then Lisa took me back inside and suddenly everyone noticed my existence and hurdled around the two of us. The Aunts hugged me tight and the Uncles rubbed their sisters' backs and everyone was saying what a shame and how life is just too short but all I could hear was the word “purpose”. If I had said anything, I probably would have told them that none of it really mattered—that everything Uncle Russ had said or had been trying to say but couldn't find the words, finally it all made sense. I looked at Aunt Meryl but I saw Uncle Russ. I saw his long brown hair tied back into a ponytail. I saw him bring his hand up to his mouth, his pointer and middle fingernails stained yellow with nicotine. I saw him smile his smile that I always knew wasn't really his. It wasn't his.When I walked out of the house, down the sidewalk, and to the car, Lisa followed me. She unlocked the door before I had the chance to fight the handle. She told me that Uncle Russ was young and I thought that it was weird she used the word young. If I was the youngest, and I didn't feel young, then none of us were young. I told her that Russ had told me some things, things that I would never be able to get rid of. Things that I was sure to think about in my dreams fifty years from now, assuming I was still here in fifty years. I told Lisa that I wanted to go to the market. I was out of cigarettes and the boy at the register would sell them to me. When we got there, Bobby wasn't at the register like he normally was on Sunday nights. Instead, his dad was. Lisa looked at me and grabbed a bottle of Pepsi out of the cooler. I knew she knew that we couldn't just walk in the market and walk out. It would look too suspicious. But to be honest, I wanted to tell her I really didn't give a shit. Let us be suspicious. Let us be anything than what we were. If Russ was right, and things were changing, we needed to get a grip. "Is that it for you?" Bobby's dad asked Lisa. I stood behind her and eyed the Snickers, Heath Bars, Hershey Bars, and Butterfingers. Below them were Skittles and M&Ms. Uncle Russ told me once that the authorities did everything on purpose. He told me that even the seemingly haphazard placement of candy bars was planned out. Some big shot guy went to school for a long time and read a lot of studies and came up with the conclusion that a certain placement of colors and shapes was more likely to get my attention than another placement. So Bobby's dad must have placed these candies in just the right order to get my attention, meanwhile he told Lisa how sorry he was to hear the news. He told her that no parent should have to bury their child and I knew he was talking from personal experience. Bobby's little sister was hit by a pickup truck two summers before and the whole town thought the family would disintegrate into nothingness. There were whispers throughout our small country town including the words “where was the father?” and “a six-year-old’s body crumbles under a pickup” and “preventable.” Bobby told me once in the basement of the market, while we smoked the pot uncle Russ had given me, that it wasn't all that hard. He told me that everyone was supposed to feel sad and was supposed to feel helpless and it was all really just programmed and rehashed from things they had heard—things we had been told to feel. He told me that the most innate feeling he had on the subject of his sister's death, the only feeling that he was absolutely sure was his and his alone, was the trouble he was having dealing with the empty space she used to take up. It wasn't her he missed, he said. In fact, he didn't miss anything, but instead was finding it uncomfortable sitting at the breakfast table with all of this open space to his right where his sister would have normally sat. I told Lisa when we got back into the car, as I opened up the Butterfinger I had stolen, that uncle Russ was young, but not as young as Bobby's sister. Lisa didn't turn the car on, but looked out the windshield. "You've got to watch yourself..." she began but I wasn't listening. I thought about Uncle Russ and what space he took up, and then wondered whether or not he was really dead. If he weren’t dead, I would tell him that I didn’t know a lot about life, but I knew that we only had one and we would find a way that he could make the most of his. He needed to stop reading shit like “The Road”. There is always a way to make the most of it. Then, so he wouldn’t think that I went soft on him, I’d say that I had recently been getting the feeling that this is it; when it’s over, it’s over. Last Friday had been the first snow of the winter. I walked across three yards and over four fences before I was at Uncle Russ’ door. I brought two sleds with me. We weren't all that young, I knew, but everyone likes a good thrill ride now and then and there was a monstrous hill out back. I had purposely waited until after lunchtime because everyone knew that Uncle Russ didn’t wake up before noon. I knocked on the door but he did not answer. I knocked harder and still no answer. I looked at my hands covered in thick white mittens I had used since junior high. There were pink kittens printed on the palms. I took them off. After five minutes had passed and I was sure I’d end up with amputated fingers if he took much longer, I left the sleds on the porch and grabbed a handful of rocks from the driveway. I walked around the house, past the overflowing garbage bins (where I threw the mittens), piles of empty Busch cans, and old car parts, to his bedroom window. The first two rocks missed, but the third one hit. And then the fourth. Finally I heard him, "What the fuck do you want?" "It's me!" I said. "I don't give a fuck who it is—" He was saying as I ran back around the house and to the door. I waited and he finally came in view, wearing nothing but his underwear. This was the first time I had seen him without clothes on. His torso looked thin and wrinkly, like that of an old man. He had a large marijuana leaf tattooed on his shoulder and a cross displaying a bloody Jesus on his chest. When he saw that it was me his expression changed to a smile and he opened the door. "Girl, what are you thinking waking me up like that?" He scratched my head with the back of his hand. The house reeked of smoke and feces. He'd rescued a cat a couple of weeks back, but he didn't know how to take care of it. I saw three spots on the dining room wall where it had sprayed. "It is almost two in the afternoon. Your ass should be up by now,” I said, smiling. He waved his hand behind him and went into his bedroom to get dressed. I waited in the dining room with the grey and white cat, Kurt. Kurt purred as I scratched the top of his head and below his chin. I picked six fleas from his neck and squished them between my fingernails. Uncle Russ came back dressed in sweatpants and a sleeveless shirt. He pulled out a pack of Camels and threw one my way. "Thanks," I said. "No prob," he said and lit both of our cigarettes. "How's your mom doing?" he asked, letting smoke slip through his lips. "She still mad at me?" "She’s fine." I couldn't remember why she was mad at him to begin with and I don't think he could either. Everyone was always mad at him, he said. He was just such a fuck up that everyone forgot how to like him. "Good," he said and grabbed Kurt off the table. "I think we should go sledding," I said and pointed to the sleds I had left on the porch. "What are we, five?" he said and I knew he wasn't going to bite. "You should get out of this house." "I will when I run out of smokes," he laughed. In the car Lisa told me that we should go to Russ’ house. We should go see what there was to see and maybe it would help me know that he was dead, because she didn't think I really understood. I told her I wasn't retarded and I knew what death was but that I was interested in going to his house. There was something missing, I told her, but it wasn’t that I thought he wasn’t dead. I wasn’t sure what it was but maybe I would find it at his place—maybe it was in the open space. When we got to his house we saw police sirens and yellow tape. We drove past and ended up at the Denny's about ten minutes north. Denny's was the only twenty-four hour joint in the area and we decided we would kill some time until everyone called it a night. It was about 9:30 when we sat down and ordered our Pepsis and mozzarella sticks. "Do you remember when Uncle Russ slugged Dad?" Lisa asked as I lit my cigarette. "What? No he didn't." "Yeah, when Dad had found out that Russ was dealing to a couple of my friends." "I don't remember that." "Dad confronted him and told him that he had better shape up. He told Russ he had turned into the biggest loser he ever knew, and that was fine, just as long as he stayed far away from his girls and their friends. You should have seen Russ’ face." "And then what?" "And then Russ slugged him. Russ said he wasn't a loser and that Dad had sold out. He told Dad that he remembered a time when they were close and Dad wasn't like the rest of them but that time was gone now. But we all saw in Russ’ face that he knew different." Dad and Uncle Russ had been friends growing up. That was how Dad met Mom. "And then what?" "And then Dad told him that he was sorry for what he said. He told Russ that he needed help and then just asked him not to sell to my friends anymore." "Did he?" "Sell to my friends?" "Yeah." "Yeah." I closed my eyes, "I don't remember any of that," I said. "You wouldn't. You always loved Uncle Russ." "Didn't you?" I asked. "Are you kidding me? The guy was a piece of shit." I felt my hands begin to sweat, "Don't say that." "Mags, the guy smokes pot with his teenage niece. He sleeps half the day because he does so much crack that his body can't handle it. He hooked up with one of my friends once, even." "He did not." "Susan. He fucked her in his own bed." I opened my eyes and was suddenly in a world where Uncle Russ was dead and Lisa was telling me nothing but truths. Uncle Russ was dead. Uncle Russ stuck three needles into his arm at once. And then there was the feeling again, that feeling that nothing really mattered. Bobby came through the door, nodded at the cute blonde waitress and then saw Lisa and I. He came right over and placed his arm around me and told me that he was sorry to hear the news about Russ. Bobby had short dark hair and a muscular build. He had spent a lot of his time at the gym over on Liberty ever since his sister died. "We're going to go to his place in a bit, want to come?" Lisa asked him. "Yeah, absolutely," Bobby looked over at Lisa but kept his arm around me. I thought about what he had said about space and I thought about the space he was taking. The space I was taking. And then I wondered if we were really doing anything else. I asked him back when his little sister had died how he had finally come to terms with the open space. He told me that he had made more space. I didn't understand so he explained that he had taken her chair—the chair she sat at during breakfast every morning—to the woodshed and slammed it against the walls. He slammed it until the legs broke in half and then he took an axe and chopped the remains into pieces. When I asked him what he did with the pieces, he told me he burned them. Not all at once, but gradually throughout the winter. He told me they were all gone now, but I had seen one in his dresser drawer only weeks before. I excused myself and went to the ladies' room where I sat on a toilet. I leaned my head against the wall. That is when the thought occurred to me. I picked my purse up from the floor and pulled out a bag of cocaine that Uncle Russ had given me only days before. He told me not to do it myself. He said pot was one thing and cocaine was another. He told me not to turn out like him. But then he said I could make a lot of money if I sold it. He said it was the real thing—the good stuff—and not to accept anything under a couple grand for it. He told me I could start a college fund and maybe get out of this town. I stood up and poured the entirety of the bag on the head of the toilet. Then I pulled out a dollar bill and rolled it. I thought about how easy it would be. Then I remembered something Russ has said years ago: There is a particular type of sadness that feels good. I never really understood what he meant. I didn't understood how being sad could feel anything but sad. And I wanted to feel sad—kneeling on the toilet with fate in my hands, I wanted to feel sad. I wanted to miss my uncle. But something was wrong; something about the whole situation didn't sit right with me. I tried to picture Russ with his needles of heroin. Hadn’t I heard that it was three needles at the same time that had finally killed him? I pictured the black rubber band wrapped around his arm, his veins bulging, begging, and I wondered whether he cried. Were his eyes open or closed? I wondered whether what he felt, those very last minutes, was the type of sad that he enjoyed or if it was something different. I scooped as much of the white powder as I could into my left hand and dropped it into the toilet. I came back to Lisa and Bobby. Bobby again placed his arm around me and this time I was comforted. I listened to Lisa tell Bobby stories about our family. She told him that Uncle Russ was the only one out of his five other siblings who didn't have any children. He never graduated high school. He was the family fuck up and yeah, you can blame it on parenting, but the others all turned out all right. Something was wrong with Russ' genes, Lisa told Bobby. There was nothing anyone could do. Bobby didn't agree or disagree with anything Lisa said. Instead he rubbed his hand on my shoulder and said "Oh yeah?" whenever appropriate. We stayed there in that booth until one am. When we were finally in the car, Bobby asked if I wanted to sit in the backseat with him. I did and he held his arms around me the entire way over to Russ' house. Lisa turned her lights off about a half-mile before the driveway, just to be careful. When we got there everyone else was gone. Russ’ trash was backed up more than I had remembered. I wondered how much was added to the containers since my last visit. The glowing eyes of raccoons looked at us through the bushes behind the bins. I wondered if they knew he was gone. The door was wrapped in a line of yellow police tape and there was a sign reading: Do Not Cross On Order Of Police, but we just tore through it. I pulled out the spare key Russ had given me less than a week before. Right as I was about to turn the key, I froze. "Are you sure you want to do this?" I asked Lisa and Bobby. Once inside, the house was pitch black. I searched the wall for a light switch. "What are we doing here?" Bobby asked in the dark. "We're looking through his house," Lisa said. "Why?" Bobby asked. "To see what he was hiding," Lisa said. "There has to be something here that will get Mags to see him for what he was." I found the light switch. The dining room table was covered in newspapers and an old Cheerios box. "Let's go into his room," Lisa said. I had never been in his room. His room was off limits. He told me I wouldn't want to see it and I never questioned him. Lisa led the way. The police had taped off the bathroom, which was where his body must have been found. His door was locked so Bobby kicked it open. I was suddenly back in the world where Russ was alive, and I was afraid he might catch us snooping through his things. He would be so ashamed of me. In his room was a dirty mattress on the floor. There was a yellow sheet balled up and placed at the head of the mattress as a pillow. The small tube television was surrounded by porno videos and three bowls. That was about all of the incriminating evidence to be found: Porn and weed. Not satisfied, Lisa began to pull his dresser drawers clear to the floor. In them were his underwear, his socks, and about a dozen nicely folded gray tee shirts. She continued searching. In the last drawer she opened were books: Chomsky, Dickens, a collection of poems by Wordsworth, and a few random novels by Steven King. And then Lisa began to laugh. Bobby squeezed my hand as Lisa turned and faced the wall. “Who does he think he is?” she said into the sober air. Bobby let go of my hand and sat next to her on the shaggy orange carpet. We all stayed in the silence until it became unbearable. “We’ve got to go,” Lisa finally said. “This isn’t right.” On our way out, I tried to find the open space that he had once filled, but I couldn’t. It was as though he was never there at all. Lisa pulled into Bobby's driveway. The car was parked and I waited for him to get out. Instead he pulled me toward him and kissed me. We had kissed before, several times, but it was never like that. The stoned and drunken kisses were nothing more than our bodies connecting. Bobby looked at me and told me that he was there if I needed him and I knew he meant it. We were growing older and we were finally doing it the right way, I thought. And then he left the car, closed the door, and snuck into his bedroom window. "He has had a thing for you for years, Mags," Lisa said as she pulled the car onto the street. I stayed in the backseat. We slipped into the house undetected. No one had even noticed we were gone. Our presence wasn't important when compared to Uncle Russ' departure. I was sure that while we were away, the aunts and uncles and grandparents all cried on one another’s shoulders. When they were done crying, they probably tried to recall some good stories about Russ. Maybe they told the story about how when he was only nine years old he won a countywide essay contest on how to make the world a better place. Grandma would describe the picture in the paper: Uncle Russ holding his award in one hand and his other hand held high in the air. He wore a real smile in that picture. And then they probably cried some more when she was unable to recall what the essay actually said. From there they all probably tried to pinpoint when things went wrong. Everyone was sleeping in the living room. The aunts were sprawled out across the two leather couches and the uncles slept on the floor. The cousins, who must have shown up while we were gone, had brought five cots and set up camp right there in the living room with the rest of them. Mom and Dad slept entangled like a pretzel and to their right was Grandpa holding Grandma tighter than I had ever seen him do before. Everyone was sleeping in the mix and something about the whole ordeal felt real. Despite that feeing, I had this terrible feeling that maybe it was all just too late. Maybe this random fight for survival was already lost. I didn’t say this aloud, but instead followed Lisa and together we took up whatever space was left in the room.