June 14, 2013 by jamesessj
to, and for, Liz
Her name, she told me, was a conflation of Kelsey, her father’s name, and Hello, her mother’s name.
“Who would name their daughter Hello?” I asked.
“My grandparents,” she said. “They were hippies.”
I tried to imagine a world in which hippies could be grandparents. I failed.
“How old are they?” I asked.
“Papa Joe is sixty-two and Grandma Mary is sixty-one,” she said.
I shook my head. I’m forty-three. Kello is twenty-one. I was closer in age to Kello’s grandparents than to Kello.
“I was almost named Taurus Ford,” she said. “Because I was born in a Ford Taurus.”
Somehow this didn’t surprise me. “Oh?” I said.
“Yeah. Didn’t make it to the hospital. Just like in the movies. My dad delivered me, in the back seat.”
“I didn’t know that ever happened, outside of movies,” I said.
“Happens all the time,” she said. “My cousin was born in a Winnebago. My other cousin was born on Amtrak.”
“I don’t know anyone who wasn’t born in a maternity ward,” I said.
“You do now,” she said.
“Why didn’t your parents go with Taurus Ford?” I asked. “That’s actually a pretty cool name.”
“My dad said over his dead body would his daughter be named after a Ford. A Chevy, yes, even a Chrysler, but never a Ford.”
“But he drove a Ford Taurus.”
“That was my mom’s car. She bought it with her own money. Dad couldn’t say anything. But he hates the Ford Motor Company.”
“Mostly because my mom loves the Ford Motor Company.”
“Why does your mom love the Ford Motor Company?”
“Who knows? She’s weird.”
The more I talked with Kello, the more I learned and the less I understood.
“It’s because of Papa Joe that I came to Korea,” she said.
“Oh?” I said.
“His dad fought here in the war. He always said Great-Grandpa said it was the worst place on earth. I wanted to see for myself if it was true.”
“And is Korea the worst place on earth?”
“No,” she said. “The war probably had a lot to do with his believing it was the worst place on earth.”
“He’d obviously never been to Toledo,” I said.
She laughed. “Toledo’s not so bad. Have you been there?”
“Yes,” I said. “Twenty years ago. You were one.”
“I have an ex-aunt in Toledo.” Kello had relatives everywhere. She was the Eve of the Midwest. “My uncle’s first wife.”
“What’s her name?” I asked. “Goodbye?”
“No, I can’t remember her name…they divorced when I was six. Harriet? Gertrude? Myrtle? One of those old-fashioned names.”
“Is that why your uncle divorced her? I’d divorce a woman, just for being named Myrtle.”
“No, he was cheating on her and she found out about it. She punched him in the face and took him for everything he was worth. He lived with us for three years after that. Why can’t I remember her name? She was a great person, I remember her face so clearly. She used to play Nintendo with me.”
“Hazel? Clara? Nellie?”
“No, maybe it was Agatha.”
“That’s not so bad. Agatha Christie.”
“Agatha Liddy. That still doesn’t sound right.”
“Is this the same uncle who electrocuted himself?”
“No, that was Uncle Gene. Did I tell you that story? He stuck a pair of scissors into a socket. He thought the handles were rubber. But they were plastic. They found him on the other side of the room, a massive contusion on his brain. It wasn’t the electricity that killed him, it was being catapulted across the room like that.”
“How has your family survived?” I asked. “It goes against everything Darwin preached.”
“Oh, I’ve had more relations die in car crashes and accidents around the house and I’ve had two cousins, one uncle, and one second cousin who’ve committed suicide.”
“And yet the Liddy line thrives.”
“We’re like Wal-Mart. We produce in bulk, that way if we lose a few along the way we still do okay. My dad had seven brothers and three sisters.”
“And how many of them are still with us?”
“Let’s see…Uncle Gene died with the scissors…Uncle Roger was the one married to Aunt Agatha, or whatever her name is…why can’t I remember?…he died three years ago of heat stroke in Orlando…Uncle Fred died in 1974 in a car crash…Uncle Aaron died in 1994 from watching a car crash, he had a nervous disorder and the squealing of the brakes and the smashing of the metal was too much for him, he keeled over on the spot…Aunt Rena died of lung cancer, her husband smoked three packs a day for thirty years and then she died, from the secondhand smoke…he’s still healthy as a horse, or at least as healthy as a seventy-two-year-old horse…how many is that so far?”
“Uncle Pete is still alive…Uncle Bob is still alive…so’s Aunt Zoe…Aunt Cora…oh, and Uncle Dex died just last year, he was the oldest.”
“What did he die from, exhaustion after attending so many funerals?”
She said, “No, he hung himself. He had terminal brain cancer.”
“Oh,” I said. Just when you’d feel comfortable making light of something Kello had said, she’d come out with something else that’d make you feel uncomfortable for having felt comfortable making light of what she’d previously said.
“So that’s six out of eleven who’ve died. But what you have to remember is, that’s five of eleven who made it. Most families don’t even have five kids, and they survive.”
“Most families don’t have your family’s track record.”
She said, “I know. It’s like the home version of Final Destination. Somewhere back in the past somebody in my family cheated Death, and he’s never forgiven us for it.”
“I think I’ll just stand over here,” I said, moving away from her.
She laughed. “But you also have to remember, my town is cursed. My family’s not the only one that dies like flies. In my graduating class of sixty-three, fourteen died before they reached the age of twenty.”
“Those aren’t good odds. I wouldn’t go to Vegas, if Vegas had those odds.”
“Three of my classmates committed suicide my senior year. And two more died in a plane crash. They were making out in their car when a light plane fell out of the sky and crushed them. The plane’s pilot didn’t even die — he bailed out safely, parachuted into the middle of town.”
“Jeez, what the hell is wrong with your town? Did they build it on an ancient Indian burial ground?”
“No, but it was a cancer cluster, back in the sixties.”
“Kel, you should not go back there. Go to Afghanistan, go to Somalia, go to the surface of the sun, but do not go back to that town. That town should just throw in the towel and disband.”
“I made it to twenty-one,” she said. “I’m past the danger zone. It’s like the Dark Ages, you either die in childhood or you live to a ripe old age. Hank Harold is a hundred and six.”
“This is another relative?”
“No, he was the town’s sheriff, back in the forties. He was shot three times in the stomach and lived to tell about it. He can’t eat jalapenos anymore, but other than that, he’s as spry as ever. He’s married to a woman half his age. He has a son who’s barely fifteen.”
“Oh, come on,” I said.
“Swear to God,” she said. “Chris Harold. Goes to school with my little sister.”
“If this town was a cul-de-sac,” I said, “it’d be Knots Landing.”
“What’s Knots Landing?” she asked.
“Never mind,” I said. “Before your time.”
“Chris was the one who gave my sister the blunt that almost killed her.”
I stared at her. Mostly because I didn’t know what she’d just said. “The what that what?”
“The blunt. The joint. The doobie. It almost killed her. It had been mixed with PCP. She hallucinated for three days. She thought she was a parrot in the rain forest. I found out more about ecosystems in those three days than in my entire Life Sciences class.”
“Kel, you’re making this up.”
“I’m not! She even moulted.”
“Fine, don’t believe me. But I still have the scar on my finger from where she bit me when I was trying to feed her.”
She held out her finger. I looked. There was a scar. But it could have been from cutting herself while scaling a fish.
“That could be from cutting yourself while scaling a fish,” I said.
“I’m not lying, James,” she said. “My sister hallucinated she was a parrot for three days.”
“After smoking marijuana laced with PCP given to her by the fifteen-year-old son of a hundred-and-three-year-old used-to-be-sheriff who can’t eat jalapenos anymore,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
That was Kello Liddy for you, in a nutshell. Stories that couldn’t possibly be true, but deep down, you knew were. Because life is stranger than fiction. And apparently life in Michigan is stranger than science fiction.
“Shouldn’t have mentioned scaling a fish,” she said. “Now I’m thinking about the boat, on the lake, and drinking a beer, and shooting the breeze, and doing nothing all day but fishing.”
For Kel the height of human experience was sitting on a boat, slowly getting drunk, holding a fishing pole in her hands. The way she described it, I had gradually come around to the view that sitting on a boat, slowly getting drunk, holding a fishing pole in your hands was the height of human experience.
“I tell you about the time I didn’t know my brother was behind me, so I cast my line, and the hook got stuck in his mouth?” She laughed. “Went fishing and caught my brother! Tore out half his cheek, but he couldn’t stop laughing.”
She had told me about this. I still stayed up nights wishing she hadn’t.
“He got an infection, almost died,” she said. “The mark on his neck is still there where the line wrapped around and nearly choked him to death.”
“Kel…I’m serious. Don’t go back to that place. It will kill you. It wants souls.”
She said, “We did use to joke that there must be a famous detective in our town who kept needing more murders and kidnappings and disappearances so he’d have cases to solve.”
“Kidnappings? Disappearances? You didn’t mention kidnappings and disappearances. Though at this point you could mention that your town killed JFK and I’d take it right in stride.”
“Leonora? Was that her name? Leonora Liddy? Aunt Leonora?”
“Millicent? Prudence? Clementine? Bertha?”
“No, it wasn’t Leonora. But what was it? Why can’t I remember?”
“Delia? Ethel? Mabel?”
“You know she was the one who saved me from my dad, when I put the gum in his stein.”
I stared at her again. “You put the what in the what?”
“My dad collects beer steins. He has over four hundred of them. This one, he got in Pisa when he was stationed at Camp Darby in 1989. It was on the fireplace mantel, and I was chewing a piece of gum and didn’t have a place to throw it away, so I put it inside the beer stein. I didn’t expect he’d ever look inside. That stein had just sat up there on the mantel for my entire life. But he did look inside, and found the gum, and he got so mad at me — he showed me the price tag on the bottom and said, ‘Look how much this costs! Fifty thousand dollars! Do you know how much money fifty thousand dollars is? How are you ever going to pay me back for this? It’s ruined!’ Of course the fifty thousand was in lira, but I didn’t know that. Aunt…What’s-Her-Name…was visiting and she took pity on me and told my dad that she’d put the gum in the stein. She volunteered to clean it out and make it good as new. He didn’t believe her, but he couldn’t accuse his own sister-in-law of lying, not in front of the whole family. I’d almost forgotten that story, until I started talking about her. How come I can’t remember her name?”
I was also not surprised to learn that Kel’s father collected beer steins. Beer was her one extravagance — she’d spend next to nothing on food, on clothes, on accessories, but she’d drop thirty to forty dollars in one night on beer. And in Korea thirty to forty dollars goes a long way toward getting anybody drunk.
“It’s my mom’s fault,” she’d told me. “My mom clings to money like they announced they’ve stopped minting it. She’ll drive halfway across town just to save three cents a gallon on gas, and never stop to think about the extra gas she’s wasting to go halfway across town.”
“Not to mention the awful chance she’s taking, being a member of your family and coming anywhere near an automobile.”
Kello laughed. “She did have a bad wreck, four years ago. Totaled her Taurus. But she came through without a scratch. The guy in the other car had two broken legs and whiplash.”
“Your town — your family — this can’t be normal, Kel. Do not go back there.”
“Where else would I go? It’s home.”
“You could stay here in Korea.”
“Korea may not be the worst place on earth, but it ain’t the best, either,” she said.
“If you’re looking for the best, you’re not going to find it in Michigan,” I said.
“This is true. But bests are relative. We all decide our own bests.”
“This is true,” I agreed. “For you it’s a boat and a lake and a beer. For me it’s…”
“Writing,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “For me it’s writing.”
She smiled at me. “What’ll you do, when I leave? You’ll have no one to talk to.”
I smiled back. “When you’re as old as I am, Kel, you’ll have gotten used to saying goodbye. Nothing lasts forever.”
“Except our conversations.”
I laughed. “You’ll be at home on the lake and I’ll be stuck in the worst place on earth.”
“It’s not the worst place. There’s still Toledo.”
I said, “Where your aunt lives. Who got divorced when you were six from Uncle Roger. Who died three years ago of heat stroke in Orlando.”
“That’s the one,” Kello said. “What the hell was her name?”