Girl on Fire

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December 15, 2012 by The Citron Review

by Michelle Brooks



The year I became a Catholic, a student of mine named Kelly gave me two cardboard boxes filled with her medical history. “It’s all in there,” she said. Every Friday, she sat dead center in the front row and produced a set of black rosary beads and wove them around her fingers for the duration of the three-hour class. The young man next to her had a large port-wine stain birthmark that covered half his face and to her right an ex-skinhead fresh out of rehab for heroin addiction.

“Kelly whispered Hail Marys over and over, a melodic chant that became as commonplace as asbestos-lined tunnels that ran underneath the community college on the outskirts of Detroit where I was a full-time faculty member.

I put the boxes into the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, even though I too had begun to shed myself from my past life and was looking to get rid of possessions, not add to them. Like St. Francis, I wanted to believe, but his writings didn’t inspire me to such noble action. Clear Your Clutter with Feng-Shui by Karen Kingston motivated me. Kingston preached the dangers the clutter—everything from weight gain to depression. I purged almost two thirds of my stuff in a month, abandoning everything from my Snoopy Snow-Cone machine, old dresses, books, and my boyfriend of seven years, an emotionally remote man twenty years my senior and moved into a dismal one-bedroom apartment in a complex across from the school where I taught.

In a particularly grisly touch, all the surrounding trees had been hacked halfway down because of blight, which forced the owners to offer “Free Heat!” as an enticement for potential renters on the sign advertising vacancies. No one ever removed the sign — an apartment was always available at “The Misery.”

I peeked into the boxes from time to time where medical terms and treatments popped up at me like jack-in-the-boxes: manic depressive, schizophrenic, four point restraint, ECT, bipolar disorder. Words have power, I often intoned to my students. These felt like bombs, the boxes landmines of Kelly’s suffering.

I wanted to kill myself, but I couldn’t decide what to wear read another student near the end of the semester. I thought about Kelly saying the rosary with her own scarred arms from various suicide attempts and felt relieved that someone was praying during class. Seven of my students had been institutionalized at some point in their lives and much of workshop included lively debate about what and what was not standard procedure for mental hospitals in the eighties, the decade most of the students had done time. The class contrasted sharply with the RCIA classes I took from Deacon John every Wednesday night in the rectory basement where my fellow initiates debated the finer points of annulments as a prerequisite for taking Holy Communion. Everyone was there because they wanted their marriages recognized by the Church. The anomaly, I had chosen to convert at the behest of a small sign that said Interested In Becoming Catholic? It seemed I was.

“I saw Kelly twice after the class ended. She invited me to Olive Garden for lunch during Christmas break where she stared into the bottomless basket of breadsticks and told me how she looked forward to death because she could meet her most intimate lover, Jesus. I had never heard the Good Lord referred to as a lover. I looked at Kelly who during class had appeared both as a very young girl and an old woman as if she were one of those paintings where you could see either a skull or a rose depending on your point of view. Our minestrone soup arrived and Kelly said she loved Olive Garden because you could eat as much as you wanted.

“She had been very kind about my sparse props at the Misery, noting that she liked that my mattress had no bed frame because it would enable her elderly dog to hop on it with ease. This I thought was what it meant to be Christ-like — to see what other people lacked through the scrim of love.

“I became a Catholic that April, six months after my mother died of cancer and one month after my best friend Hank had died from a blood clot following surgery to repair his broken leg.  He’d slipped on black ice going to see a friend of ours perform in “The Vagina Monologues.” I felt glad to have chosen a religion that recognized the value of suffering. Say the word and I shall be healed, I said before my first communion. I had invited Kelly to my baptism, but her mother refused to allow her to stay out after nine at night. Two years after the workshop, I moved offices and the boxes had been dumped into a recycled bin. Kelly paid me a surprise visit, informing me that she had obtained her degree and would start teaching in the fall.

“Do you still have the boxes?” she asked.

“I froze, not knowing what excuse I could give.

“It’s okay if you don’t. I just wanted to take them to a field and set them on fire.”

“I told her that the boxes had been damaged in my storage unit by a storm. I couldn’t bear the thought that she might think I didn’t appreciate her gift, an offering to the gods of writing. She had entrusted me with the most damaged parts of herself. Now they were being recycled. It didn’t have the poetry of an act of God.

“She smiled. “Then Jesus took care of it for me.”

“Her lover, I thought. She smiled like a bride who just found out her groom had built a house for her. She walked out of my office, and a month later, my dad died in a plane crash when his friend flew a two engine Cessna into a power line. My dad’s body had burned, and he had to be identified by his dental records. I went to the crash site and collected some charred dirt into a Ziploc.

“That week, I was scheduled to move out of the Misery into a beautiful little duplex near Lake St. Clair. I had few possessions but I bought a fireproof safe for the dirt and pictures and little gifts from my mother, Hank, and my dad. It didn’t dawn on me that I had my own version of Kelly’s box until I moved a couple of weeks behind schedule. Nobody wanted to touch my safe after they found out what it contained so I strapped it in the passenger seat of my car and drove it to my new home.


Michelle Brooks was raised in Mineral Wells, Texas. She’s published a novella, Dead Girl, Live Boy (Storylandia Press) and a poetry collection, Make Yourself Small (Backwaters Press). A native Texan, she’s lived in Detroit since 1997. From the moment she first saw the city out of a U-Haul, she knew that Janis Joplin was correct — the road did end in Detroit, her version of the promised land.

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