I write this as black night still presses against the window panes of the office. This morning I'm off bright and early (or dark and early) to Iowa City, Iowa where my beautiful, wonderful, kind sister has invited me so I can do a reading at Prairie Lights Books. Chris and I, Mur used to remind us, share more genetic material with each other than with any other person on the planet. Mur was a strange mother indeed. But there was something to what she said. Chris (She prefers to go by Nettie now, but in my mind she'll always be Chris, just as once in a while she slips and calls me "Mannie.) and I have two older half-siblings, but in some ways, I remember them more almost as aunt and uncle rather than brother and sister: they were so much older, they seemed to be already grown and inaccessible when I was a kid. It was Chris with whom I wrestled, Chris with whom I played, Chris who shaped my childhood. Chris likes to tell the story of how she used to pin me down and drool on me - she'd let a long string of viscous drool extend from her lips until it almost touched my nose, then suck it back up just in time. Sometimes she didn't suck it back up in time. In truth, though, this was a very small episode in our childhood lives. What I remember, and remember most fondly, was playing the final chase scene from "North by Northwest" on the red clay bank near our house that we called "the cliff." There was also a huge thorn bush that grew up from the center like a fountain, and spread its branches over in an umbrella-shape to form a hollow inside big enough to sit. Chris discovered that, and shared it with me: we called it "the thorn bush fort." Childhood is largely a matter of finding places away from adults. We had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and would make eerie stories of vampires and monsters, first playing the opening to some ponderous Bach fugue, then make up lines and scenes with plenty of screeking doors and throaty voices. Chris used to say to me, "I have a theory..." and then she'd spin off some speculative something or other about a book she'd read or why dirt-dobber nests looked the way they did or something. I don't remember any of her theories, just her habit of coming up with them - a habit that has infected me to this day. I don't think Chris was original in this proclivity for coming up with theories; we are a weirdly intellectual family; nevertheless, she was the conduit through which it was transmitted to me, the delight in scampering among ideas as on a playground.
My current novel Paradise Dogs ("Simply brilliant," Booklist, and a dandy gift for all occasions) is set in Central Florida where Chris and I partly grew up and one of the protagonists is partly based on our alcoholic father. The other protagonist is based on a combination of me and Chris. Once, sitting in Doc Greens, Chris told me about her experiences working as an obituary writer. There are times I have laughed so hard, I quite seriously feared for my life. This was one of those times. I was pleading with my sister through gasps not to say any more, because I was laughing so much, I couldn't breathe. When I recovered, I incorporated what she told me into my story, but of course, I can't do it justice. It's funny, I hope, but it can't be as side-splitting (this is no hyperbole, I actually though my sides would tear in two) as hearing Chris tell it.
Thank you for the thorn bush fort, Chris. Thank you for your theories. Thank you.