I fell in love with my great-uncle Harper because he taught me how to dance. He said that rhythm was allowing yourself to feel your blood coursing through you. He told me to close my eyes and forget the rest of my body. I did, and we bopped our nonexistent selves up and down and side to side. He liked me because I was a quiet child. He showed me photographs of himself as a boy. He referred to himself in the third person. This here is Harper Evan Burch, he would say. The boy in those photographs was also a quiet child. I could tell from the way that his arms were always flat by his side, never akimbo or raised high to the North Carolina sky. We were both compact, always folding ourselves into smaller pieces. We both liked music because it was a river where we stripped down, jumped in, and flailed our arms around. It was 1975 then, and the water everywhere around us was glittery with disco lights. My great-uncle Harper and I, though, danced to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino. We twisted, mashed- potatoed, and winked at each other whenever we opened our eyes. My great-uncle Harper was my first love. I was seven years old. In his company, I laughed out loud.
I'm not ashamed to admit that I have tried to find him in the male bodies that I lie next to and that I see him now only when I turn off the lights. His bow tie undone, hanging around his shirt collar-modest isosceles triangles, considering the fashion at the time, his pants cuffed and creased, his graying hair cut the same as when he was a boy, a wedge of it hanging over one eye, the other one a blue lake dappled by the sun.
My great-uncle Harper wasn't where I thought I would begin, but a family narrative should begin with love. Because he was my first love I was spared the saddest experience in most people's lives. My first love and my first heartbreak were dealt by different pairs of hands. I was lucky. My memories of the two sensations, one of my heart filling and one of it emptying, were divided and lodged in separate bodies. I can still recall the feeling that came over me when my great-uncle Harper first placed the record needle onto a spinning 45. It happened right away. I felt that everything deep within my body was rising to the surface, that my skin was growing thin, that I would come apart. If this sounds painful, it wasn't. It was what love did to my body, which was to transform it. I would come apart like a fireworks display, a burst of light that would grow larger and glow, and make the person below me say, "Ah!" I remembered saying my great-uncle's name aloud. This memory of my first love was then safe from all that was to come.
I'll tell you the easy things first. I'll use simple sentences. So factual and flat, these statements will land in between us like playing cards on a table: My name is Linda Hammerick. I grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. My parents were Thomas and DeAnne. My best friend was named Kelly. I was my father's tomboy. I was my mother's baton twirler. I was my high school's valedictorian. I went far away for college and law school. I live now in New York City. I miss my great-uncle Harper.
But once these cards have been thrown down, there are bound to be distorting overlaps, the head of the Queen of Spades on the body of the King of Clubs, the Joker's bowed legs beneath a field of hearts: I grew up in (Thomas and Kelly). My parents were (valedictorian and baton twirler). My best friend was named (Harper). I was my father's (New York City). I was my mother's (college and law school). I was my high school's (tomboy). I went far away for (Thomas and DeAnne). I live now in (Boiling Springs). I miss (Linda Hammerick). The only way to sort out the truth is to pick up the cards again, slowly, examining each one.
My grandmother Iris Burch Whatley died on February 14, 1987. She had never told a lie, and the fear of that had kept our family, a shrinking brood, together. As her health began to fail, we began to show our true colors. When she passed away, we bloomed like the petals of an heirloom rose, which then faded and fell to pieces. Iris was my mother's mother and my great-uncle Harper's older sister.
For a woman on her deathbed, my grandmother Iris looked remarkably pulled together. Her eyebrows had been freshly drawn in. Her lips were a frosted coral. Her gray hair had just been done in a modified, somewhat modernized bouffant. She had a visiting nurse and a visiting beautician. They were some of the perks of dying at home.
What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two. Those were the last words that my grandmother ever said to me.
Bitch, I said back to her in a voice as calm as if she had asked me for the time and I, standing by her bedside, had replied, Noon.
My great-uncle Harper let out a single hiccup, which was his way of suppressing a laugh. My grandmother's milky blue eyes closed and didn't open up again, according to my great-uncle, until a full minute later. DeAnne (that was what I called my mother by then) took that time to whisper, Hush your mouth, Linda. Then she pointed an outraged finger at the door, which I slammed shut on my way out.
For DeAnne, that exchange was a final excruciating example of what her seventy-four-year-old mother and her nineteen-year-old daughter had in common. My grandmother Iris and I were both speaking the truth, and DeAnne couldn't stand to hear it.
DeAnne had called me home from college to say my goodbyes:
Take a plane, Linda. For God's sake, don't take the bus again.
Are you sure this time? I've three exams next week-
I'll pay for the ticket.
That was the longest conversation DeAnne and I had had in months. I loved my mother from the age of seven to eleven. That was four good years we had together, which was longer than most marriages. I would learn that bit of statistics in my sophomore psychology class, The American Family at the End of the 20th Century: Dysfunction, Dysfunction, What's Your Function? During my four years at Yale, I would gravitate toward classes with the word dysfunction featured prominently in the title or repeated at least several times in the course descriptions. I also would wish with every bone in my body that my father was still alive so that I could share with him what I had learned.
When my father died (he preceded Iris, to my great regret), he and DeAnne had been married for almost twenty-five years, many of them happy. The "happy" part was also according to my great-uncle Harper. I saw only the other parts. There was no physical violence or sobs or expletives. There was only unhappiness. I had no older brothers and sisters to report to me of better times: Mom and Dad used to give each other a kiss between saying "good" and "morning"; Dad tied on an apron every Sunday night and made grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup from a can; Mom stayed in the kitchen with him and flipped through a magazine. All of that, if it took place, was lost to me.
I don't know why but I knew that my father was going to leave me too soon. So I missed him even when he was alive. Every time he left town on business, usually just an overnight trip to Raleigh, I would catch a cold. When he came back home, I would get well. For his part, my father never thought about missing me. Of course, he would be there to see me graduate from high school, attend his alma maters, enter the profession that nourished him, live in the city that he shared with me at bedtime in lieu of a fairy tale.
My grandmother Iris's funeral was delayed by a week because of the flowers. After her second heart attack, Iris had told us that she wanted magnolias on her coffin. Boughs and boughs of them, a cascading river of glossy green leaves with brown suede undersides, creamy blossoms the size of soup bowls floating among them. Iris didn't go into such details, but that was how my great-uncle Harper had envisioned the flowers when his sister told him what she expected. But in the middle of February, there weren't any magnolias to be had in Boiling Springs or anywhere else in the state of North Carolina. The florist in nearby Shelby had to special-order them from a wholesaler in New York City, who had to wait for a midweek shipment from somewhere in South America before the branches could be overnighted to Boiling Springs in a box almost as large as my grandmother's coffin. Baby Harper (that was what my grandmother had called her little brother since the day he was born, and that was sixty-three years ago by then) made all the funeral arrangements, and he would be the first to say that the flowers were the most complex and challenging part of it all. He took copious notes. Do's and don'ts for when his day came:
F Do have the wake at the Cecil T. Brandon Home of Eternal Rest; ask for the "Dignified Departure" package.
F Don't waste money on real flowers; one dead thing is enough.
F Do use a caterer from Asheville; see folder labeled "Victuals" for phone numbers and addresses.
F Don't place an order for the deviled eggs; they are delicious, but the old people will pass gas.
My great-uncle made a folder for his notes, showed it to me, and then alphabetized it in his personal files under T for "The End."
Before his retirement my great-uncle Harper was a librarian at Gardner- Webb Baptist College, the intellectual hub of Boiling Springs. At work his methodology was conventional and efficient, but that wasn't the case in his own home. His books were shelved in alphabetical order but not by titles. A for "Acerbic," B for "Buy Another Copy as Gift," C for "Cow Dung, as in This Stinks," D for "Devastating," E for "Explore Further," F for "Foreign" (foreign meant that my great-uncle couldn't relate to the characters in the book, not that the author was from another country), and so on. He would explain the system to me and give me typewritten pages identifying all twenty-six categories. This and his "The End" folder would be the closest documents to a will that Baby Harper (he had admitted to me long ago that he liked being called that, even when his sister, Iris, wasn't around) would ever prepare. When Iris passed away, my great-uncle had never left the continental United States, and the acquisition of the magnolias for her coffin made him think about places in the world even more southern than where he was born and raised. That thought sent him to the bookstore, where he bought a couple of travel guides and a novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Baby Harper filed these books under E.
My grandmother Iris was what her doctor called a "brittle" diabetic. During the course of a given day, her blood sugar levels would spike and then plunge precipitously. This roller-coastering exerted a tremendous amount of stress on her internal organs, especially her heart. She was lucky to have lived so long after the onset of the disease. The diagnosis of her diabetes had coincided with the fifth anniversary of the death of her husband, Walter Wendell Whatley. I have no memories of my grandfather, or Judge Whatley, as the rest of the county called him. Fifteen years my grandmother Iris lived on in Boiling Springs without him. After the first ten on her own, she told me that she wasn't lucky to have lived so long. She knew that I was the only one in her family who wasn't unnerved by her honesty.
Sadness attacked my grandmother at the weakest point of her body-her mouth. She loved her husband, but she had always lusted for sugar. While Walter Wendell was still alive, she stayed away from sweets, particularly the doughy and fried variety, in order to keep his eyes on her figure. Her dress size, a respectable eight, and her hairdo, a shoulder-length froth that required twice-weekly visits to Miss Cora's Beauty Emporium, had remained unchanged from the day that she had met Walter Wendell. Once he passed on, there was no good reason for her to stay the same. She cut several inches off her hair, setting her short locks in hot rollers by herself unless it was a special occasion. She also crammed herself with jelly doughnuts, apple fritters, cinnamon twists, and chocolate-covered crullers. The closest Krispy Kreme-she liked the one-stop shopping-was across the state line in Spartanburg, South Carolina. My great-uncle Harper told me that during the first year of Iris's solitary life in the green-shuttered colonial on Piedmont Street, she drove the thirty-eight miles between Boiling Springs and Spartanburg so often that she could do it in the darkness of the predawn with her eyes closed, dreaming of Walter Wendell.
As with most addicts, my grandmother Iris liked to share the experience. She was the one who gave me my first full bottle of Dr Pepper, straight from the fridge, not even bothering with a glass. I was seven at the time (already dancing with my great-uncle Harper), and I thought it was the beginning of something great between my grandmother and me. Iris took out a bottle for herself, and with three swigs she emptied every drop of its molasses-colored liquid.
Don't tell anyone, she said as she dabbed the corners of her mouth with a paper napkin.
About the Dr Pepper? I asked.
No, you little canary, she replied. About how I let you drink it straight from the bottle.
I remembered looking down at what was cold in my hands. There were sweat beads rolling down the glass bottle, just like in a television commercial. The bottle was still almost full. The initial rush of carbonation had burned my tongue, so I was trying to sip it slowly. Thanks to my grandmother Iris I had learned an important lesson: The difference between a fact and a secret was the slithery phrase "Don't tell anyone." I felt like pouring my Dr Pepper into the sink. I went out to the backyard of my grandmother's house and soaked the roots of her dogwood tree with it instead.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong. Copyright © 2010 by Monique Truong. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.