March 19, 2020 by The Citron Review
by Cal Freeman
My father made French toast by dipping Wonder Bread in milk and egg yolk then browning both sides in a skillet. “The world’s an oyster, but you can’t crack it lying on a mattress,” he’d joke, placing syrupy plates beneath our noses to wake us up for school.
Though he prepared breakfast, my father didn’t subscribe to the second-order myth of breakfast, which goes something like: Breakfast is good if the day itself becomes good, a good day is traceable to its most important meal. For my father breakfast was a tautologous, fatalistic exercise, and a delectable breakfast did not ensure that the day would elapse in any predictable way. To this I’ll add that a delectable breakfast isn’t necessarily a good one.
Taste, built in to warn us of poison or near-poison, to trigger cephalic phase responses such as peristalsis and mesenteric flow, gets refined until all mastication is an atomization of a slow, eventual doom, a reduction of graduated pathology into sublime epicurean moments willfully ignorant of their common course.
I’m talking peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread for lunch, the way such a sandwich crushed beneath a Red Delicious apple in a plastic grocery bag takes on the look of the hematoma on an old man’s shin. The way a crushed peanut butter and jelly sandwich looks like the hematoma on my father’s shin.
I’m talking syrup, salt, and butter; treacle, grain, and bitter; wheat waving in a field; exhaust smoke in the parking lot of a little Catholic school in West Detroit during afternoon dismissal (The head nun/principal scolded our mother when she learned that my sister and I didn’t have a bedtime).
In the evening, my mother’s stovetop popcorn would crack and blossom like thoughts that time had gleaned from the rest of thought. Nobody called such buttery fluff sustenance, yet there we were, long past the dinner hour, watching Meet Me in St. Louis or Field of Dreams on VHS and crunching. The windowpanes of that old house rattled with mysterious gusts of air. The dog Spot, named for the dog in the Dick and Jane primer, and the cat Bashful, named for a preponderant trait among most house cats, developed a taste for the butter-less kernels my sister and I tossed them.
We begin with everything and only learn what delimits that through the fastidious discipline of induction—a southwesterly breeze foretelling the extrapolation of matter by the coming storm.
When she was five, my sister fell in a stairwell at the university where my father teaches and fractured her skull. Part of me longs for an imprecise, fictive past, not a drive to the hospital in a ’74 Cougar while my sister projectile vomited against the windshield, not a toddler whinging (my mother’s word for crying) in the night, not Tegretol degrading tooth enamel, a visit from imaginary birds before an epileptic seizure.
I went to my sister’s therapy appointment with her this morning because she lives alone and her basement flooded and once she decides that the asbestos tile has become frangible and is wafting through her vents she’ll likely show up or call and I’ll need to know how to help defuse her polysyndetonic thoughts.
The woman she sees is a strict behaviorist who says that logical reassurances only make the fearful brain recoil and entrench into a circuit of abjection. While I waited to be called in for the last fifteen minutes of the session those insights read like descriptions of my or my sister’s brain.
I read in Wittgenstein that all systems persist until tautology or contradiction and a proposition’s truth is in its tautologous recursion, to which I am adding that wellness is a self-same set of habits whose end is equally certain, that in this sense it is impossible to logically divorce it from the illness.
I’ve mastered the stovetop popcorn my mother used to make. I often fall asleep with a bowl of it near the bed and a maudlin eighties movie illuminating the room, keeping me from my thoughts.
To this day, neither my sister nor I can fall asleep or wake according to a schedule, but we were children once. There were smiles with dimples to boot and the vague expectancy that comes with petrichor and waiting. The cruel genius of those times is that they are irrefutably present and yet gone, summoning and erasing themselves with salt and sweet in the blue hours between the night and morning.
Cal Freeman is the author of the book Fight Songs. His writing has appeared in many journals including Southword, The Moth, Passages North, The Journal, Hippocampus, Drunken Boat, and The Poetry Review. He currently serves as music editor of The Museum of Americana and teaches at Oakland University.