Brently Johnson

The Raisin Invasion

When my sister got kicked out of the house for good, my mother filled her bedroom with raisins. Once she had replaced her furniture—the ratty blue chair, the mattress pocked with cigarette burns and the yellow bean bag slumped in the corner—with a white wicker ensemble suggesting we had suddenly moved to the beach, she covered every surface of that room with purple, hard plastic raisins. They had been all the rage only a few years before as part of an advertising blitz for the California Raisin Board and quickly became pop icons of the ’80s as groovy claymations dancing and singing to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” on TV. Before long, you could find them on t-shirts, coffee mugs, billboards along Interstate 75, Saturday mornings on CBS, and eventually, cast in hard rubber, on the shelves that lined the bedroom next to mine. There were raisins blowing on saxophones. There were Elvis-impersonator raisins, too. Raisins shiny with suntan oil. Diva raisins in yellow high heels. Congratulations Graduate raisins. World’s Greatest Dad raisins. Wind up and walk raisins. Raisin with his eyes squinched wearing white gloves and singing Motown raisin. You name it, my mother eventually owned it, and they all live, to this day, in the room I knew for a brief time as my sister’s.

While I’d heard the term from my father each spring when he disappeared into the attic for a weekend of purging, packrat didn’t come immediately to mind when I thought of my mother. Sure, the shoeboxes in her closet were always on the verge of collapse and every drawer, eventually, did become the junk drawer, but the raisins were a different way of collecting both in psychology and demeanor. Whereas before, stuff seemed to grow on its own accord, slowly, organically, like a beard on a rotting orange, this accumulation had a planned pathology to it few of us recognized in mother. Whether some steamy repression had finally found its valve through collectibles is hard to say, but there was something serial about a themed room in a home when that home wasn’t a bed and breakfast, and when that theme happened to be wrinkled, happy raisins.

* * *

I was in the fourth grade when my sister moved out and the raisins moved in. My mother’s newest brand of hoarding might have been harmless enough if it had not also coincided with my taking up of Steven King novels, experimenting with fear and finding it to be a powerful adolescent drug. At a friend’s house whose mother had died young, and whose father could be counted on to be at the bar until 1 a.m., we were without curfews and watched horror films in the darkness of his basement as dolls, the dead, and what-not all came back to life to strike fear into virginal, white victims—characters we could all too easily identify with.

With the virtual slayings of the night before still vivid in my head, in my own home, there was no choice but to climb a rattling, circular staircase to reach my bedroom, the only room occupied on the floor since my sister left. With the flip of a switch, I could dimly light the long hallway at the top of the stairs, but there was no way to illuminate the far corner, where my bedroom waited, just as the raisins did, I assumed, alive and plotting in the darkness. I recall steeling myself on the stair’s landing, knowing my parent’s had long been asleep, as the swallows screeched and batted their wings in the chimney. I felt paralyzed, not knowing how proud a boy should walk towards his inevitable murder. My breaking point came one night after we had watched HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, and I was so tired of being frightened that death was better than living in fear. I remember daring my would-be killer, talking out loud to an empty hallway with a bat in my hands, cocked as if ready to knock a possessed raisin out of the park if need be. It worked, and as time passed, I could put on a brave front fairly well, but it was still a front, even into my early teens.

My mother kicked my sister out of the house when she drove up at six in the morning with beer on her breath, again. She was home from art college in Memphis, to clear her head, to save up a little rent, but even while she was around, her presence was shadowy at best, as if her spirit occupied the room, but not her whole self. To a nine-year-old, she was here, then gone, before I really knew she had come. With my sister’s expulsion, the upstairs became mine, which included a private bath, an empty room where I could now store my comic books, and the haunting realization that I’d have it all to my pubescent, trembling, completely alone, self.

* * *

I can’t say for sure my mother had consciously replaced the memory of my sister’s room with raisins. Years later, living on the West Coast, far from home, I called and asked her why raisins? She was in the kitchen and I suspect just pulling out a baked pasta dish of some kind while holding the phone in the crook of her neck because her shrug was nearly audible as if I’d asked why she stuck it out with dad all those years—as if choice actually had something to do with it.

I remember hearing the metallic clanking of ladles against whisks in a drawer as she rummaged for the right tool. “I don’t know, they just caught my eye one day while I was antiquing,” a word she’s completely comfortable with using as a verb.

I heard the drawer shut, “Now, where did that spatula run off to?” and knew my line of questioning to be moot.

But the parallel between my sister’s addictions concurring with my mother’s obsessions with bric-a-brac seems crystal clear. I was always the good son, working hard in school, wearing polo shirts, athletic with boyish skin, and my childhood room, even after twenty years, has never undergone a similar facelift. She’s painted a wall or two, taken down the glossy bodies torn from various Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, moved a piece of furniture around, that’s true. But, the soccer trophies still sit on a shelf next to books from my youth; my Yankee’s cap hangs on a hook to the right of my bed; the North Carolina Tarheels wastebasket is still full of well-batted tennis balls. It’s a museum to myself, in many ways, displayed and made easy for me, for her, to revisit my childhood, thumbing the pages of yearbooks, pulling down albums of baseball cards, sifting through match cases kept as reminders of family trips. It’s as if I could move right back in and pick up where I left off. If my sister had ever begged to return, she would have vied for space with raisins sporting sunglasses in the sock drawer, raisin dolls in repose on the bed, and at least fifteen raisins wearing bowties boring down on her as she attempted sleep.

* * *

As the raisins ran their course, my mother replaced them with wall pockets. At the time, I didn’t even know such things existed, those little “vases” so popular in the ’40s and ’50s that decorated the walls of suburban homes. I marveled at my mother’s ability to find a collectible that was able to hold yet more, tiny collectables (hence the pocket of the wall pocket). She began stockpiling them from antique stores, garage sales and Second Tuesday, a thrift store of sorts an hour’s drive away. Soon, tiny nails into sheetrock tapped throughout the house as she strung them in a flurry of days, adorning the walls the way one might with religious idols. I imagine her dressed in jeans and a grey, Mickey Mouse sweatshirt with fifteen wall pockets at her feet, tacking them wherever the mood struck her, without tape measure or particular concern whether they hung level or slightly askew. One morning I left for school and when I returned a ceramic boy in overalls was hanging out beneath the light switch of my bedroom. He epitomized a rural sentimentality, when boys apparently walked down dirt roads, whistling and shooting at animals with bb guns and saying aw shucks when they missed. It didn’t take a Jungian scholar to see what was taking place despite my mother’s ambivalence—she was memorializing what was passing her by, with one child already gone and the other soon-to-be in a few years. If she couldn’t have her son, she could have the idea of him showcased and preserved on the wall.

* * *

Perhaps I am looking into things too much; perhaps my mother was simply acting on a biological need to squirrel away for winter, to store up for a rainy day; perhaps a wall pocket is just a wall pocket and not a latent symbol of longing for what’s gone to seed. Maybe it is this innocent. But when my mother began reading true crime books—one per week at least—even my father nervously joked about the impact her collecting might have on our lives, and our deaths, and was visibly nicer to her before turning in for a long, dark night. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or James Ellroy’s memoirs might interest her, but I suspect their literariness would interfere with the quick read that comes with bad writing, and the efficient compiling and stacking of books, which spilled like files marked Confidential on the floor next to her bed.

As was routine when I was in high school, I came into her room to kiss her goodnight and found her reading about the Green River rapist or following a string of unsolved murders on the Appalachian Trail. She was half-tucked beneath her pansy print bedspread, the ceiling fan windmilling on high, deep in Ted Bundy’s brain. Seeing me, she took out the plastic mouth guard she wore so as not to grind her teeth while sleeping, and placed it on the nightstand where it didn’t say a word.

“Hey there, sweetheart.” She laid the book facedown on her chest, and as I leaned in to kiss her forehead, Bundy’s mug shot, stoic, unnerved, stared up at me.

“How do you read those books right before bed, mom? Don’t they give you bad dreams?”

She looked down at the book as if she’d forgotten it was there, flowered open against her breasts. “No, not really. Your father gives me a hard time. But, I like them.”

I knew better by now than to ask why.

She smiled, “I sure do love you. You know that?”

I stood in the doorway and recognized a subtle role reversal had taken place as I said I loved her too, and kept quiet my concerns: “Do you want me to turn off the light?”

She reached for her mouth guard and settled back in, “No, I’m going to read a little longer.”

With that, I left my mother in bed with a serial killer, and like a loved one who has to let the other one go, I bid her goodnight.

* * *

The Winnie-the-Pooh wall pockets in my mother’s bedroom, and the myriad of grandchildren smiling and framed on the polished oak chest-of-drawers contrasted greatly with books titled The Killers Among Us, House of Secrets, Two of a Kind: The Hillside Strangler, Fatal Vision, Fatal Justice, Fatal Insert-Noun-Here, Death Trap, and this one that sent me running straight for my room—Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms from Susan Smith to the “Prom Mom.” Nearly all of them shared a common theme: ordinary folks, from soccer moms to bank clerks, people who owned barbeque grills or reliably planted marigolds in sharp, ordered rows, wore a second mask in the empty garden of night, fertilizing with bone meal, gristle, and fingernails.

The appeal of these stories is obvious—most of us at some point wonder to what degree the killer lurks within us all. For my mother, after years of al-anon and co-dependency mantras of victimization following my father’s recovery from alcoholism, she identified with acts of vengeance underscored with heroism, of empowerment against an oppressive world. She told me she likes tracing the path of the deranged, following it back to some childhood abuse or middle-school alienation up to the where and the when of that cumulative snap. Whereas my mother hoarded wall pockets, these men and women collected lives, some cataloguing the various parts and bits of hair, a way of bringing order to a world obviously gone insane. We cope in our own inimitable ways. If my mother’s mouth guard has anything to say, it might speak for the subconscious, powerful enough to file teeth down to nerves.

* * *

It’s been years since I’ve lived in my childhood home, with the raisins, the wall pockets, and my mother’s personal library of true crime. I have a family of my own now with two little boys, both indiscriminate collectors themselves. I’m continually finding bundled feathers, jars of stones, bottle caps, and growing balls of rubber bands. My seven-year-old began a seed collection, taping them to a sheet of printer paper with wonderfully large, scripted labels: apple, kiwi, banana, tangerine. I’d never really thought of bananas as having seeds, but they do. He abandoned the list when he discovered rusty nails littered along the construction site across the street, which he gathered into a paint bucket. He takes the enterprise of collecting seriously, labeling, classifying and exhibiting the mundane extravagance of his world, a place he walks upon as one might a beach after a recent storm, constantly bending down to examine the wrack of shells underfoot, parceling and pocketing by color and shape. For him, collecting is a way of ordering, of making a mathematical sense of his world, but it is also a way of finding beauty in the unwanted, discarded things.

* * *

We live far away from my parents’ house but visit once a year. When we do, my wife and I stay in my old bedroom, and our boys sleep with the raisins, which were tucked away in the white wicker drawers the year my mother took to stenciling and draping faux ivy for effect. I remember my boys finding them for the first time, and holding one up, bewildered and excited, asking, “Daddy, what are these?” To which I replied, “Those, those are your grandmother’s doing.” They plunged their arms into the drawers as if they were candy bins or a fountain of coins, and before long, the room was as it had once been, a stage for raisins. They, like me, curious as to why so many, asked my mother, and received the same shrug and smile I did so many years before. But her smile is different now, dreamier, less sure, since her stroke a few years back.

I see her mulling over the question at the kitchen table, holding a white-gloved Michael Jackson raisin in her hand, looking upon it with nostalgia, or perhaps trying to recall why she would have bought so many of such a thing. Perhaps she is simply aware of her inability to provide an answer, to reach back into her collected memories fading on her each day: the random phone number on a sticky note; the missing word strung to a sentence; the standing in the center of a room trying to recall what had brought her there. I’d like to tell her not to worry—that the talents of memory are limited and that whether we cling to them to make order of our time or whether they provide a story we can judge our lives by, they cannot be overcome. I’d like to tell her to forget about it, but she already has, as she sets the raisin down on the table and returns to an empty grocery list, saying to no one in particular, “Now, where was I?”


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