There. All done. Everything is titled, tidied away like so many boxes of warped and quasi-rotten photographs. She feels like the first caveman to scrape away the chips from the wheel, gargling at the bruising sky, triumph in his fists as everything around him titles itself. She feels the heat, the racing potential of all those things as they gain titles, flames rising in haloes. Her own titled face, titled hands tremble with it—rise, fall, and rise again in a last symphony.
The photographs are what they are: tepid testaments to a world where her grandmother smiled with no wrinkles and a summer dress with flowers on. It might be yellow, might be a title, might be the color of that first fresh layer of pond scum—what does she know? Sepia has never been a translatable thing. She is reminded of the joke about the world as it first gained color from its old black-and-white set; the first grainy color, then the overbright patented color, then a more settled but no less disturbing fabrication of life. What color might the sky have been, in the days of sepia photographs?
She places the photographs in a pile, along with the other things she’s found while going through the attic: old baptism dress, old wedding dress (most likely a great-aunt’s; Mother Never Gets Rid Of Anything), old books, old hatbox, old Christmas present with the words “To Holly Love Daddy” written in faded black marker on the top. Daddy Is So Good At Hiding Things. So good he can never find them when he wants them. She hasn’t opened it yet, and is not sure if she will. The only thing that pleases is the title of the paper it’s wrapped in, and that is faded, and fated to be ripped away.
Time for a break; too many memories to sit on. She reaches up to place a flat palm on the low beam next to her, pushes herself up with it. Swats across her thighs and buttocks, winces and coughs at the layers of dust, and more memories, that fall like toast butter-side down. The blue-and-white aches and twists through the window at the east end of the attic. She has to maneuver around what is left in the attic, what she has left, will be leaving, to whatever insects and biting things live here now, to get to that window. There, she splays her fingers across the grime-brown panes and tries to squint for the title’s color.
Across the street is a park that hasn’t been used, at least by her, since she first learned how to give cootie-shots. The metal frameworks there could have been a jungle gym if the neighbors wanted to pay for upkeep, but they’ve given their answer, and it flakes away like so much confetti. What she really looks for is nature: there is some green here and there, but this season, these days it’s mostly given over to brown titles.
The world changes. Didn’t you know? Can’t you smell it?
There would be holes where the Brer might sit, but there is nothing. Nothing but the attic and the grime-brown window panes. Nothing but a hole that titles itself. She turns away. Nothing to be said. Nothing but more memories, through which she might title, title herself, title the world. Down and down.
Bernie, her (and Daddy’s) big baby, used to snuffle and paw all around the dirt, occasionally ate the heads of titles. Mother would yell, make angry shaking fists, be ignored. After all, who else could he have been, how could he be denied, this lumpy black creature who routinely ate the titles of the backyard, claimed them as his own? She always hugged him after Mother shook her head and went back into the house, after Mother’s shrill vulture-squawks floated through the open windows (Mother Must Be Left Alone While She Talks To Her Friends On The Phone). After stealing a part of the world, her big baby deserved a million hugs.
Big baby Bernie would jump for the largest titles only, the ones that drooped over the edges of his droopy mouth. The littlest ones, the ones that she liked to press (the undersides were the green of estuary-foam and stormy noons) were left alone. He knew they belonged to her first. But he wanted to play, so sometimes she would climb the maple in the backyard and crawl out over a lower branch, shake it as much as she could without jarring herself overboard and onto the grass, which—of course!—was lava. He would bark and leap and catch them in his mouth. Only the largest titles can be eaten.
Then—there was the phone jangling again, during a colder part of the year without green leaves. Mother was not in, so it had to be her to touch the precious phone. And it happened like the movies. The calm pickup, the “Filipson residence” so smooth and easy and sickening like angel-food cake. The distant voice made more distant by obligation and duty, asking if Mother is there. The negative answer—Mother Is Out, Who May I Ask…? The sudden (and, she still suspects now, deliberate) announcement. Daddy’s plane. The plane’s title. The ripping of titles, of all titles, and the rips it causes later. Mother’s sobs that everyone knew were actress auditions, Mother’s new Man Of The Month. Eventually, Mother’s butterfly display, glass glittering across the living room’s Turkish rug that Mother never allowed her daughter to walk on; the titles peeling away from the recently de-pierced bodies like tissue paper.
She sits back down, crosses her legs Indian-style, starts on a new box labeled “Home Videos.” Funny, she doesn’t remember Daddy ever taking any, and Mother doesn’t understand technology very well. Did they have a video camera at one point? Maybe not, she thinks after glancing at the first tape’s label: “Grandma Kerri’s sixtieth birthday.” She doesn’t have a grandma named Kerri, as far as she knows. It’s probably Mother’s grandma Kerri, and Mother’s home video, probably taken by Mother’s brother Andrew, that she’s never watched, just stored. (Remember, little girl, Mother Saves Everything. If only she’d save her daughter. But why struggle, why title at all, when you’re already defeated?)
The attic is the first to go, once she’s done looking through it for things she might want to take with her, once she’s loaded everything she wants (not much) into the car. She clicks open the lighter, dips the flame into the bowl of Daddy’s cherrywood pipe—Mother didn’t want her to keep That Smelly Old Thing, but good little Holly pulled a Bernie and locked it away in one of the dusted jewelry boxes in the attic until the time was right. Until now. She drags on it, lets the tobacco title itself, curl on itself the way she used to but not anymore. She gives the wheel a thumbed flick, tosses it through the kitchen window, eyes the lazy finger of smoke that appears a minute later. Eventually it catches for real, and there is a muffled whoomp as the gas she splashed everywhere drags the flames through the house, and up to the attic. After a few minutes she can see the smoke there, too, making that grimy window clean again. She smiles. Walks to her car.
“Okay, first one, Holly,” you say. “Burn.”
“Good, good. Next one is blue.”
“Very good. Okay, how about…tree?”
“All right. Next is, um, dig.”
“That’s good,” you say. You say it because it’s true, because she might be recovering, might even be normal, more normal than you thought an arsonist could be.
“Next one is leaf.”
She laughs, and at first you draw back because there is something there that she’s not telling you, and you’re more than afraid to ask what it is. She laughs, holding her sides with one arm and snorting into her other fist, and you wait, because that’s all you can do. Eventually she calms down and starts breathing without those hiccupy little jerks you remember you used to have as a child.
She looks you in the eye as her mouth shapes itself around the word. “Burn.”
And you draw back, for real this time, because there’s only so much a professional can deal with, especially a young one like you. And she’s still staring into your eyes, and instantly you know one thing about her.
She may or may not tell you. You may or may not know.