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When I Say I Understand Why Gilbert Grape Burned His House Down photo

It is because I know that some things are only meant for you, your sister, your brother. And even if you let other people in, one day you won’t want to show them your forks and your knives, your birthday balloons, the basement where your dad died, the couch where your mother sits, your mother’s shoes, your mother. They were never going to get her out—she was wedged in there so tightly—but maybe that was what she wanted.

Like Gilbert’s house, our crumbling barn is full. My grandparents are trapped in there, folded in a picture in a tackle box, beyond the butter-yellow doors that refuse to open. But I know how to climb into the mucked-out bottom, through the missing floorboards, inside the empty corrals. I know how to move through the decay of inheritance. There is a set of keys to take, a peck basket to fill, a light to turn on. There are feral cats that walk in the rafters, a mouse that rides the motorcycle, a possum that sleeps in the granny-square blanket. I set up the nativity in the attic for them last year and left Baby Jesus out. I hid our Lord in my pocket, away in a Kleenex, because I hate it when people put him to bed early and at least I could get this one thing right.

Give me a quarter and I’ll let you inside. I’ll show you some Coors cans and barbed fishing hooks. I’ll show you a cut noose, a Burger Barn hat. A photo of Arnie forgotten in the tub. A photo of Kierie having a seizure on Christmas. A photo of Mama when she went to the police station. A photo of me when they carried my grandfather away. I knew making him leave would be like pulling a turtle from its shell; we grew up thinking they were two different things, when really they were one.

But one summer on my sister’s birthday, when the second cake is gone and my mother is asleep, I will go to the barn and break down the doors, trap the cats and shoo the possum. I will draw knotweed from the chicken coop, pull whale bones from the garden. I will take the shearing comb, the lumper’s hooks, the letters, the photos, the old quahog gauge. I will take what was theirs, what has since become mine. I will place it all a great funeral pyre so that when I sit alone on the GMAC truck bench, when the gasoline sparks and the roof caves in, when I watch the smoke clear and the sky break at dawn, no one will point and say: look.

image: John Margolies


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