The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina

This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is from The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina, released by Shanti Arts Publishing in 2020. 

On Finding Myself in the Old Neighborhood

      I come from this lake—not just water, but the water of this lake, which has whipped Sunday sailors into submission, held the weight of barges heading to Canada loaded with carbon steel, and once belched dead perch onto the sand. I swam in this lake. I cramped in this lake. I walked out of this lake, fled from it, promising never to return, yet here I am, walking along a boulevard on its shore, watching maple trees drop golden leaves onto empty picnic tables in a park where there used to be a carousel. Here I am, with my clipboard and list of names, canvassing voters who live in red brick garden-level apartments and high rises and split-level houses, knocking until the skin on my knuckles is rubbed pink.

        “Who are you?” someone yells from behind a locked door.

      I am you. I am these streets, this neighborhood, this America.

      I am brick. Molded from clay, transformed by fire. The strength of my form hides my porosity; I soak up water—see the salt stains on my face? I can house you, wrap my arms around you to keep you safe. Walk on me! I won’t crumble. Burn me! I will still stand. Hurl me through a windshield or a plate glass window in your rage—that’s how I fly.

          I am maple leaf in Autumn, late to my beauty. My veins are visible now, and it won’t be long before I advance to fragile brittleness and am crushed into powder beneath your feet. But for now, look at my colors—jade green deepening to black, persimmon, yellow becoming orange becoming scarlet like the yarn in an old lady’s afghan. Beet red, brick red, blood red. Orange-red, like flames. See me glow as the sun gets low in the afternoon sky. Look how the rain forms beads on my skin. Stare at me, at my burgundy-tipped lobes against this brick wall that someone painted white in an effort to make it look clean and modern.

          I am whitetail deer running down a wide avenue lined with brick houses dotted with cut-outs of a grinning, red-faced chief. I am wild, out of place on this street where people are awed by me and reach to touch my brown sugar hide but want me off their neatly clipped lawns where they have piled cinnamon colored leaves. You don’t scare me, you waving your fan-shaped rake. There are still woods nearby where I can disappear into the maples and oaks and buckeyes, even when the leaves have all fallen and the trees are bare.

          I am clouds, towering cumulus and anvil—blue-black like the barrel of a gun—clouds rolling in across the lake, wind blowing the silver underside of maple leaves into view, pressure changing, deer bedding down to be safe. I am thunderstorm. The noise of me will shake you, and you will look for the crack of my fire in the sky, wait for the rain to fall against your house. You will feel protected from me, but I will seep into your walls, I am water, rainwater and holy water from marble fonts in the vestibule of a church with windows stained with saints. I am bathwater and dishwater and sudsy water from cars washed in driveways on Saturday before the Buckeyes play. I am water in corroded lead pipes of drinking fountains in elementary schools and in aluminum bottles in cages beside treadmills. I am water flooding the storm sewers clogged with fallen leaves, flowing into a creek in a deep cut where deer drink and maples and oaks have been growing on steep embankments for generations.

  “How are you?” asks the woman with a clipboard, skin the color of buckeyes and a safety vest bright as a maple leaf, when I return my rental car the day after the election. When I do not answer, she looks at the salt stains on my face, opens her arms wide as a house, and pulls me to her.

         I am going home, but I want to find my way back to the lake, where it began, before I became streets stained brick red with blood; withered leaves, bundled for disposal; brown deer, running for its life; before I became the creek that divides this neighborhood from another. Before I became this America.

Lois Ruskai Melina was raised as a city girl before Title IX provided many athletic opportunities for girls. She was an adult before she discovered her love of sports and the outdoors. Melina is the author of three books on adoption published by HarperCollins as well as a book about elite women swimmers training for the 2000 Olympics: By a Fraction of a Second (Sports Publications, Inc., 2000). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the 2016 Best of the Net anthology, Colorado Review, Blood Orange Review, Chattahoochee Review, and Sport Literate, among others. Melina lives with her husband and their two dogs on a floating house near Portland, Oregon. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.


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