The Blue Pitcher

that which may be filled and emptied

Category: Family

Green Beans

Joe took this picture: a jar of green beans sitting on the windowsill of the house our grandmother was raised in, a house that has been abandoned forty years now and is grown over with poison ivy and kudzu.

I remember being little at our other grandmother’s house and spending all afternoon sitting on the porch snapping and stringing beans. Mama Heaton would spread her knees and make a bowl out of the skirt of her dress, throw the heads and the strings of the beans into that bowl. Heather and Joe and I’d snap until our fingers hurt, and Mama Heaton’d tell us to keep snapping, and we’d snap some more.

I’m up in the mountains now–in Blowing Rock, North Carolina–not even an hour from that front porch. I’ve got this feeling of emptiness that I keep trying to find words for but it only comes to me in flashes: a salted tomato, the cracks in the sidewalk that ran up the street, a hickory bush, the smell of bologna frying, Bob Barker’s voice coming from the bedroom.

My mother told me once that her father (before he died–almost everybody is dead now) was building a boat in the basement of that old house. Every evening when he’d come home from the gas station and before he’d go to the mill, he sanded the wood and sawed the notches. He spent hundreds and hundreds of hours building a boat that–if it would have been possible to take out of the basement (it wasn’t)–could have sailed around the world. It was a giant ship in a bottle. The walls, though, weren’t made of glass; they were more like mud, and there was nothing much else down in that basement: old boxes of torn paper dolls, a washing machine that was nearly always off balance and metal shelves stacked with canned green beans.

When I dream about the basement, and I often do, there are secret tunnels and holes, places to hide, places to be found. I am usually reaching for Cody when I dream of it, terrified, and I go downstairs, take an Advil, drink cold water, make small deals with God to get me back to sleep. Sometimes, though, I dream that there is a door that opens into the back and that the back is a beautiful orchard: magnolia blossoms and Queen Anne’s Lace, ripe apples and just fallen pecans. When I dream of the orchard, I don’t even bother to look back to see if the house is still standing. I almost hope it wouldn’t be.

Dr. Joseph Hefner: My Genius of a Brother

As a teenager, my brother had the habit of picking up roadkill and throwing it into the back of his Geo Tracker. He’d boil the skin off, bleach the bones in the sun and then paint colorful symbols on the skulls. Wa-La! Merry Christmas, mom–here’s a raccoon skull with an arrow!

While this habit may have led my Irish twin of a brother to be a serial killer, he did what few Hefners have done before, he took the high road! Yes, folks, my brother has finished his dissertation and is getting his doctorate. I like to refer to him as a craniologist. The man loves skulls; he’d be the first to reach out and rub your head at a party.

This is the brother who painted the walls of the room I’m in now; the brother who, at four, pretended he was Hulk Hogan, who, at eleven, break danced on cardboard, who, even now, can pull quarters from behind your ear and rabbits out of baseball caps, who can pluck a tune on the ukulele and catch a fly with his bare hands; the brother who loves quickly and fiercely, whose laugh is maybe my favorite sound in the world; the brother who I could ride around in a car with for years, not caring where we were going or if we ever got there.

This morning I am thinking about the red bag he used to carry on his weekend visits. He was living with our dad and Linda, and I was living with our mom, and weekends were magic because we got to be together. When he came to stay with us, Linda would safety pin an index card to the bag which stated its contents: 2 pairs underwear, 2 pairs socks, blue corduroys, yellow Mr. T t-shirt, green sweater.

Just thinking about the red bag twists my heart a little bit, makes me think of the long drive back, after we had dropped him off, how quiet the car seemed.

But, my brother, we’ve made it! We are neither killers nor druggies, lunatics nor thieves! Heck, we’re not even boring. You, for goodness sake, have a woman you love, a dog with a French name, and, come August, a piece of paper, you can proudly frame and display among your famous collection of skulls.

Memorial Day: A Story about a Ukulele

Inspired by my father’s relationship with his brother, I wanted to share this short-short that I wrote some time last year.

A Story about a Ukulele

My father asks me to write a story about a ukulele. A uke, he calls it, and it’s coming back, he says, big, everybody in town’s gonna own a uke, everybody in this whole blasted God-forsaken town. Mark my words.

And I do. I mark his words. I am thirty-two. I am a thirty-two year old woman pushing a shopping cart with one bad wheel marking the words of a man whose mouth I have. By the time I am thirty-four, he says, fifty-three percent of American households will own a ukulele; of that fifty-three percent, eight percent will be multiple uke households. You should get hitched, he says. You and your husband can have a uke or two.
I imagine what it would look like: me in an apron, crock-pot a’bubbling, rutabaga a’stewing; my husband in a tie. We would have a grey-eyed child and present her with a tiny guitar. Her small pale fingers would pluck out a song that starts real slow like warm honey inching its way down the body of a clear plastic bear but speeds up, faster, faster, stops. Maybe I don’t want to get married, I say.

You’re not listening, my father says. It’s not a tiny guitar. It’s a ukulele.
Outside there is a war, but it’s far away, so we can’t hear any bombs or smell any bodies. In the light of the supermarket, we are nearly angelic. My uncle Gabe is four feet ahead of us. This is what we do every Tuesday. My father and I pick up an empty-handed Gabe, take him to Aldi, then drop him off with plastic sacks filled with everything he needs: hot dogs, oranges, puffed cereal.
I didn’t know Gabe before he went to ‘Nam, but they say he was a real lady killer. Oh, those eyes, but he went and saw and ate a boat-load of legumes and went a little nut-so and when he got back he all but stopped talking. This is the only Gabe I know: the one who uses the end of his government-issued cane to knock a twenty-five pound box of dry milk from a too-high shelf.
So, I say to my father, what do you want it to be about?
What do you mean?
I mean, it can’t just be about a ukulele. It’s gotta be about something.
There’s that dull ding of items being scanned, and I run my finger the length of a Hershey’s bar while the dank eyes of the cashier stare past us. Gabe does little calf raises, half-hopped up on something like he might fly away.
I guess it’ll be about the same thing everything’s about, my father says.
And we stand there staring at the conveyor belt. I wonder for a second what he means, but he’s gotta mean love. For Chrissakes, he’s gotta mean love ‘cause even my weak-ass heart beating its crooked little tune so deep in my gut I can barely even hear it, even it wants it to be about love.
But I’m afraid to ask.
We get the bags—Dad and me and Gabe, with his one hand—and we walk across the blacktop. The wind’s starting to pick up a little, out of the west but cold, cutting me to my bones.
Spring, Gabe says.
Spring’s coming. Wind’s stirring shit up, he says, and all of the sudden I can feel it, that warm yellow sun pressing on me, a thousand friggin’ flowers blooming their stinking heads off, and that sun soaking in, soaking so deep in that I’m speechless, that I got nothing for the ride home.
We’re quiet as snow the three of us, maybe even quieter than snow save the half-remembered song my father beats on the steering wheel with the heel of his long un-held hand. The town passes us by, one stone after another, and we are dumb with hope. There under that bleached-out sky, we’ve got groceries and each other and six dozen boxed-up ukuleles waiting to be sopped up on E-bay and sent out to play the music of the world.
It’s like sitting on a winning ticket, dad says, and heck, it hurts to admit it, but this time I can feel it, this time he just might be right.

A Poem without a Single Bird in It

Jack Gilbert has this great poem, and in it there is not a single bird–no red-winged blackbird or cockatiel, no gray-cheek parakeet or dodo, not even the flap of a sparrow’s wing.

I tell you this because it seems remarkable that this is my ninth entry and I have yet to mention my mother. And so, by way of introduction, I’ll tell you a story. As a child, I rode shotgun with my mother all over the south. We’d drive and drive for days and days looking for the next place to hang our hats. If Joe was with us, maybe he got shotgun, and the three of us armed with nothing but cans of warm diet soda were ready to take the world on.

After we’d been on the road a while, mom would decide it was time to take a nap. It was our job, she told us, to tell her if there were any curves ahead or if she got to close to another car. Joe and I would yelp and plea. Mom, wake up. Please wake up. This went on for years. Even after we realized that she was closing only one eye we were still delighted and terrified every time she did it. What if we killed someone? What if we killed ourselves?

So this morning–which also happens to be the first time this year that I’ve seen a red robin–I told Cody I want a baby. Badly. I badly want a baby. Yes, after the wedding (!), but I want, years from now, someone to ride shotgun and tell me when the curves are coming, someone to delight and terrify, someone–when we feel like we can’t make it another mile–to run into the 7-11 and grab us a couple of fresh Diet Cokes.

Cravings vs. Urges

Do you crave the flesh of the dead? If so, check out my brother’s website: Not only does he dabble in Vamperotica, he actually submerges himself in it. This is the brother I didn’t know about until I was fifteen: the sun shined after many weeks without sun, and we went to King’s Mountain to pedal boat and eat pimento cheese sandwiches; dad says, “Say hello to your brother;” “Hey,” we say our breath thick with french onion dip; eventually night came (and again and again), until I woke up today to find an email from him.

But this isn’t really about my brother Everette, nor am I peddling his online goods (buy away:, it’s about cravings vs. urges. Picture this: yesterday at noon I sat in the community room at the local Jewish Center. My Weight Watchers leader was Mary-Lou-Rentoning her way up and down the aisles. We must identify the difference between a craving and an urge, she said.

I think there was an Amen, maybe even a Hallelujah. We experimented: Smelling popcorn at the movie theater and wanting it? Urge.

Hearing the girl next to you pack her Marlboro Lights loudly against the palm of her hand? Urge. Wanting to jump on the Greyhound and go wait tables in Wyoming? Pure urge.

To crave, you’ve gotta go deep. It’s got to be insatiable–satisfied only by the very thing you are craving. For my Weight Watchers leader (she sheepishly confessed) that thing is cheesecake; for Everette, at least according to his website, it’s barely-dressed women wandering bloody streets in search of flesh. And me? Hmm…I’ll get back to you on that one.