twenty-seven love stories
i | put your boots on, 1918
ap Joyce was a cowboy who ran an Arizona dude ranch called the Spur Cross because acting like a cowboy, for tourists, was more lucrative than the actual herding of cattle. He had a trick horse named Patches that could bow, roll over, and nod the answers to math questions. Sometimes Cap stood on Patches's back and played guitar. Then the Great War came. He sold Patches and left his wife in charge of the ranch and went off to fight in France, where he was mustard-gassed, but survived, and was heavily be-medaled for the trouble. He was my great- grandfather.
Cap had been home a week when the ranch hands took him aside and said that his wife had been carrying on with the foreman. They wouldn't have mentioned it, the ranch hands said, except they didn't seem to be stopping.
Cap said, "Where is he?"
Cap went to the bunks. The foreman was dressing.
"You fuck my wife?" Cap said.
The man froze. "Yes," he said.
Cap said, "Put your boots on."
The foreman put on his boots.
Cap shot him dead. He did not bleed much, they say.
ii | nion maid, 1984
My first kiss was a communist. His name was Jack. He was part of a kids' playgroup in New York City. All the mothers were part of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union except for mine. Her involvement remains a mystery.
In the playgroup, the babies crawled over the carpet and the mothers shared pots of coffee and by and large the babies were naked and if they were not naked they were wearing overalls. Good communist babies wear overalls.
Here are some of the things that I wore: a tiny pair of lederhosen (Germany), a real silk kimono with a red bird stitched on the breast (Japan), a rabbit-fur coat with wood fasteners (Russia). My grandparents had been traveling and always sent me, the first grandchild, souvenirs.
There is a picture of this first kiss. Jack, in overalls, is on hands and knees, long black hair in ringlets. I am practically bald, bending toward him, hands planted on the rug. I am wearing a pink velveteen jacket (Paris).
A week later the union ladies said: "You can't keep coming if you dress her like that." The week after, my mother brought me to the group in the rabbit-fur coat, not thinking the union ladies were serious. They were.
iii | he land office, 1921
When Cap got out of prison he went to the land office with a mind to start a new ranch in Wyoming. There was a woman at the front desk, a secretary. Her name was Robbie Baker.
"Can I help you?" she said.
"I'm going to marry you," Cap said. "And I need some land."
That was my great-grandmother.
iv | eesting, 1989
Brian Katrumbus could run faster than any boy in kindergarten and had hair like corn silk. It was Valentine's Day. A week earlier, when I'd been stung by a bee while daydreaming out the window and then cried quietly, not knowing what to do, it was Brian Katrumbus who told the teacher that something was wrong with me. He poked the teacher and said, "Something is wrong with her."
I'd picked out a very special valentine for Brian Katrumbus. I wore a Band-Aid over my small wound the day I watched him open his envelopes, waiting to see how he would receive my card. But Brian Katrumbus had a system. He ripped open each envelope, and then shook it, so whatever candy was inside tumbled out onto his carpet square.
Then he tossed the valentine away. Like shucking peas.
v | rades, 1932
Cap and Robbie married. They spent the Depression living out of a car with their two sons. One of these sons was my grandfather Eddie. Cap drove across the country, trading with native people. He offered ad space for their "trading posts" in his "wild west" magazine in exchange for the tourist-intended crafts-headdresses, bows, and beads. Cap later sold these crafts, or traded them for food. Fake "Indian" crafts. Fake "cowboy" magazines.
"What did Robbie think about all this?" I ask. "Where is the woman in this story?"
"Robbie stuck with him the whole time," my family says.
A job came through for Cap, in New York.
Cap hated the city, the job. He drank.
(This is a family tradition that filters through the generations. We hate things, so we drink. We love things, so we drink. We have bad luck, so we drink. We fear good luck, so we drink. It has to do with a kind of sadness that is blood-born. My mother keeps a scrap of paper taped to her diary, a quote from Yeats that reads: "Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy," and the first time I read that line it hummed over my mind like a diviner's stick.)
Cap almost landed a role in a cowboy movie, but was beat out for the part by Tom Mix.
Cap was disappointed. He drank.
"But about Robbie," I say. "Did she want Cap to be an actor?"
"Still, Robbie stuck," my family says.
I want to learn from what went wrong in the past but sometimes it seems everything worth knowing has been redacted. As if ignorance is the only thing that allows each successive generation to tumble into love, however briefly, and spawn the next.
vi | ll cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti, 1994
My parents go on vacation to Arizona. They bring back souvenir cacti for my sister, Leslie, and me. Little furry stumps, potted in gravel.
Within a month, both our cacti are dead.
My sister's cactus is desiccated and shrunken. Dead of thirst.
Mine is slumped over, rotten through. I have overwatered and flooded the roots.
Our parents exchange a look. As if they know already that love will not be easy for us. That we are differently but equally screwed.
vii | s sure as these stones, 1948
My grandparents met in the theater.
Cap failed to become an actor, but years later his teenage son, my grandfather Eddie, would play the role of "crippled boy healed by a miracle" in a play at the Blackfriars Guild. Maureen Jarry was the props mistress. She was older than he was. We still don't know by how much. She refuses to say. Eddie lied about his age, of course. He told her he was twenty. Maureen told him to buzz off. At the time she was dating the lead actor-older, and quite successful.
My grandfather has always been a persistent son of a bitch.
He worked on my grandmother for weeks.
Then this happened:
One of the props for the play was a handful of gravel Maureen gathered from the empty lot behind the theater each night. In the final scene of the play the lead actor's character held out the gravel and said, "As sure as these stones do fall to the ground, I heal thee," and he would turn over his hand and the stones would fall and by this miracle my grandfather's character could walk again. But one winter night, my grandmother gathered what she thought was gravel from the back lot but was actually, as my grandfather enthusiastically describes it, "frozen dog turds."
And so, hours later, when the older actor spoke his line and turned his hand over, no stones fell, and he found himself instead with a handful of recently thawed dog shit.
"I am healed!" my grandfather called out, all the same. He danced around the stage without his crutches. "Oh, I am healed!"
viii | orn syrup, 1997
My middle school put on Macbeth. Danny played the second murderer.
The second murderer was my first proper kiss.
I was the director's assistant and liked skulking backstage in all black and carrying a clipboard. It was opening night. Danny ran offstage after killing Banquo. He found me in the dark, and we whispered. It had gone well. He was triumphant. He was covered in red corn-syrup blood.
"I want to hug you, but-" he said.
"Hug me," I said.
Then I was covered in fake blood. This is what love is like.
My best friend started dating his best friend and we would all talk on the phone at night. It was an elaborate process, getting all four of us on the line, and once we did, we were often confused about who was who.