By Elizabeth Collis
This Story Was an Honorable Mention in Our Contest
My great-great-grandfather was a trader who set off to America from Lebanon in the 1900s. My grandfather was a crewman on container ships. He was in port long enough to have a wife and two kids, but my mother only knew him from family epics about his exploits. Mama said it was hard to have an absent dad who sounded like she’d made him up.
Mama married and stayed put, but her brother, Tony, traveled. My grandmother wouldn’t have her son in the house when he was in town, insisting the memory of a man who arrived out of nowhere—told stories, then left—was too painful.
Mama always welcomed him, though. Uncle Tony arrived without warning throughout my childhood. We’d open the door and there he’d be, one gold tooth glinting through his grin. He’d be holding up a penny and saying, “Look who turned up.” The penny was a joke. Mama put one under the front door mat, especially for Uncle Tony. She’d grin back and say, “like a bad penny” and let him in.
His visits felt like a film score crashing into an adventure movie. He turned our little house upside down for a few days with his noise and scattered energy, then disappeared, leaving a strange disturbance behind him. His arrival filled the narrow hallway with the acrid smell of something risky. It was upstairs for a shower and then he sat in the kitchen dressed in Dad’s too-big clothes, black hair slicked down, feasting on Lebanese food and flinging out stories about joining the circus in Istanbul. Mama stood behind his chair, rolling her eyes and miming uselessly to my sister, Cat, and me. It was all bullshit, not to believe a word. I was sad and relieved when Uncle Tony left, like when Christmas is over. But I sensed Cat’s pull to go with him.
Now Cat is the sibling who wanders and randomly returns. She’s always wearing my ball cap when she comes back. I’ll recognize her through the front door glass, a peaked silhouette. Jenny and I bought my parents’ old house, so Cat crowds the same small entrance that Uncle Tony did. The first thing she does is take off the ball cap and swap it with one of mine hanging on a peg near the door. That’s how I keep track of how long it’s been since she last came; I’ll remember it’s a couple of seasons since I’ve worn that Blue Jays cap.
“The cat came back,” she’ll say, smirking, because she knows Jenny disapproves of her, hates how she surges in without warning and tumbles our lives. I have to work hard on Jenny to let her stay. I play the heritage card.
“She’s family,” I say, “shared blood.”
“That’s what I’m scared of,” Jenny says.
We don’t do the penny under the mat. Old blood, new traditions. Cat smells of grubby vehicle interiors, and spearmint gum, and the peppery dust of unwashed thrift store clothes. After her shower, she sits in the kitchen and pushes up the sleeves of Jenny’s baggy shirt to show our gape-mouthed kids, Millie and Jason, her new tattoos. This time she has a menacing onyx scorpion curling around one tanned bicep, and Jason asks if he can touch it, like it’s the holy grail.
Cat’s imprecise on where she’s been. We think she was in Ecuador. We think she’s dangerous. She doesn’t eat as much as Uncle Tony did, but her descriptions are as rich as his. Her tattoos jump and ripple in the yellow kitchen light: lizards, panthers, snakes. When we’re putting the kids to bed, Jenny carefully undoes Cat’s crazy tales; she wants the kids to realize Auntie Cat’s lifestyle is not as exciting as described. But when I watch Cat kissing them goodnight, I know Jenny’s efforts are useless. Our children believe.
You’d think the gene would be watered down by now, but Jason, our nine-year-old, has begun exploring the woods behind our house. Already, Jenny and I are having trouble keeping tabs. He comes home smelling of fresh moss and mineral earth and musty leaves, which he scatters in the entryway when he charges in, shouting for us to come see what he’s found. He always has something in a jar: frog spawn, a beetle, rocks, the bones of a mouse in an owl’s pellet. We make sure he’s got a whistle with him and knows to hug a tree if he gets lost. He never gets lost, but Jenny obsesses about coyotes and perverts. To appease her, we adopted a cheerful mutt from the rescue center. We got him a collar with a GPS tracking chip, and Jenny (feeling uncharacteristically ironic) named him Chipper. Jason must have the dog with him in the woods now.
Today, Jason came home in tears with Chipper bouncing around him. I guess collecting things in the woods sucks when the dog barks and scratches at the insects. His jar contained only a jagged piece of tree bark. “He ruins it, Dad.” Jason clattered the jar onto the kitchen counter and clasped his hands to beg me, his body arched forward on tiptoe, “please let me go without Chipper. Please.” And there it was in Jason—undeniable—Uncle Tony’s volcanic restlessness, Cat’s tattooed panther poised to sprint. I’ll fight Jenny on this, but dammit, that was a lineal lust I saw in my son’s eyes. He has no choice. Blood will wander where it wants. I nodded yes, and he shot off back to the woods while I held Chipper’s collar.
Jason left his jar behind on the counter. I pictured Millie opening the door twenty years from now to discover her brother holding out some exotic curiosity to show her. Then I labeled the jar with a couple of Jenny’s jam labels and put it on the hallway shelf near the door:
Jason’s Jar Never throw out