Monday, August 3, 2020

My First Time: Kim Powers

The First Time I Told the Truth
(Then Lied About It) 

It was third grade. I don’t remember exactly what the assignment was, but I’ll never forget what I wrote for it. All these decades later it remains one of my first truths, first secrets, first confessions, and now it’s found its way into my new novel, Rules For Being Dead, which is filled with family secrets. (Whenever my friends think I share way too much on Facebook and other social media, little do they know it all started way back when.)

It was my first big writing assignment, maybe to illustrate what a “paragraph” was or to show off my newly-learned cursive writing skills. I know it can’t have been one of those “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” things, because it was late winter/early spring, but it has a sense of that. Did the teacher tell us to write something real? Write something we did last week? Write something painful? It is doubtful she would have asked that of third graders, but what I wrote was painful, without really knowing why.

With a freshly sharpened pencil, I wrote about how my mother, a fourth-grade teacher herself, had just taken me and my twin brother to look at a new apartment in a different town, as she got ready to leave my father. My mother’s sister lived in that nearby Texas town, Plano, so we wouldn’t be alone. In fact, the apartment building wasn’t far from where my Aunt Altha lived, a large brick building with its own parking lot, nestled down near a brook and trees. It was the late ’60s, and apartment buildings (as far as I knew) were these cool new things where fun people lived. Swinging singles! My mother might become single, but never swinging (except for that frying pan she swung at my father during a manic episode.) And with nine-year-old twins in tow, she certainly wouldn’t be hanging around the pool at the weekend cookout; she’d be in hiding, on the lam from an alcoholic husband.

We were shown around the apartment by a woman manager nursing a beer; shades of my father; I’m surprised my mother even stayed for the tour. I immediately hopped on the bed in the bigger of the two bedrooms, yelling, “This one is ours!” Even now, I can conjure up the cool-to-the-touch feeling of the bed’s floral, polyester coverlet. It was pretty, but what I loved most in the room was a beautiful objet d’art on the dresser: a ceramic sculpture of a gnarly tree branch, painted brown, encircled with green ceramic leaves and purple glass grapes. The grapes were clear and see-thru, except for a few air bubbles trapped inside. A touch of class in our new home, at least to lower-middle-class Texan eyes. My mother told us not to tell our father where we had gone, but she didn’t say anything about not writing about it.

So I did. I was already reading little articles about how to be a writer (I particularly remember one from old-school mystery queen Phyllis A. Whitney), and they all said, “make details count.” I wrote my little third-grade heart out describing those damn grapes. The flannel shirt the manager wore. The Schlitz beer bottle she drank from. Writing my little assignment trumped the secret or the shame that my mother was leaving my father, but it wouldn’t remain a secret for much longer. My teacher would read this paragraph about her friend and fellow teacher, who just happened to be my mother, and pretty soon, all the teachers at J. L. Greer Elementary School would know. 

But first, I showed it to my best friend Kathy Green. Instead of praising my detail work, the first thing she said was, “Is this real? Did this really happen?” A question I would get a lot in my literary career. In that split second before I answered—and I remember this as clear as day, too, looking through Kathy’s Coke bottle lenses—I knew I couldn’t tell the truth. I answered back, “Of course not. I just made it up.”

I had revealed my family’s truth for the first time, then immediately lied about it.

Didn’t Judas do something like that?

That “Of course not” is crucial. Not a simple yes or not, but a definitive “Of course not.” Just nine years old, but in those few seconds between Kathy’s question and my answer, I realized the enormity of what I’d done, the consequences that could result. I hadn’t thought things through. (Do third graders ever think things through? Is that even possible?) I hadn’t honored the promise I’d made to my mother, exact words be damned. Bizarrely, I don’t remember my teacher’s comment on the assignment, I don’t even remember her name. But what Kathy Green said is burned into my memory.

Call it my first stab at memoir.

A decade later, for a first-year college class, I’d write a sort of P.S. to that story, this time about finding my mother trying to kill herself. I didn’t know exactly what I was seeing at the time, but I knew it wasn’t normal to be looking at my mother’s face through a layer of dry cleaner’s plastic, which she had wrapped around her head and tied tight with the belt from my new Easter Sunday outfit. Our eyes locked for seconds—just the way mine had with Kathy Green—before my mother reached up and ripped the plastic off, then said she was trying to get rid of a cold.

She had lied to me, too—just like I had lied to Kathy Green.

But this time in my writing class, when my fellow freshmen asked if it was true, I finally said yes.

We never moved to that swinging singles apartment. A few months later, after seeing it, after me writing my first little paragraph, my mother was dead. Natural causes? An accident? Suicide? Murder? It was never really clear. Until now.

I’ve finally gathered up all those little pieces I’ve written through the years, all those loose family ramblings and revelations, and put them into Rules For Being Dead. In it, a little boy loses his mother, and no one will tell him what happened. No one will tell her either, the dead mother herself, who’s forced to float around in limbo, looking for the answers that will set her free. It’s the book I’ve been trying to write, needing to write, for most of my life.

This time, I’m ready to tell the truth.

Kim Powers is a two-time Emmy winner and author of the novels
Capote in Kansas and Dig Two Graves, as well as the memoir The History of Swimming, a Barnes & Noble Discover Award winner and Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best Memoir of the Year. He also wrote the screenplay for the festival-favorite indie film Finding North. Powers is the Senior Writer for ABC's 20/20, part of the team that has received three consecutive Edward R. Murrow Awards. A native Texan, he received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. He lives in Manhattan and Asbury Park, NJ. His new novel, Rules For Being Dead, will be published on August 4.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.


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