My grandparents’ mailbox is shaped like a tiny replica of their house.
The bay window in the front, the glass-walled solarium on the side, the second-floor balcony off the master bedroom—everything is miniature and perfect and done in 1:12 scale.
My grandmother is strangely proud of this mailbox, probably because she paid a fortune to have it custom made fifteen years ago. I’ve seen her with a tiny can of paint and the most delicate paintbrush, repainting the shutters so they stay shiny and perfect. I’ve seen her pulling miniature leaves out of gutters the size of straws.
It was big and faintly ostentatious and kind of a work of art, in a weird way, and I’d been standing in front of it for five or six minutes, trying to get up the courage to open the tiny garage door, which is where the mail went.
I hadn’t checked the mail in years.
The mailbox, while impressive, has always been a source of unlikely danger.
Just a few days after I moved into my grandparents’ house on the Miles River in Maryland, my grandfather caught a black widow spider spinning a web in between a bill for my grandmother’s subscription to Good Housekeeping and the morning paper.
He trapped the spider in a coffee canister and paraded it around the house loudly, making a big show of it. I asked to see it but was denied.
“Well then, why did you bring it in the house?” I asked.
“Just giving it a little taste of the good life before I set it free.”
“Where are you going to set it free?” I pressed him. I extended one hand to touch the side of the coffee canister, and he swatted me away.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Far away from here.”
He set the canister down on the kitchen table while he got his coat on. I watched from the doorway.
“Are you sure I can’t see it?” I asked.
“I’m sure,” he said. “And you know what? You better not get the mail anymore, Frannie. These things are like pigeons. They can always find their way home.”
I had no great desire to prove my bravery by risking a bite from a black widow spider, so I avoided the mailbox after that.
For five years I walked a wide, careful circle around it. For five years I checked underneath my pillow and in between my sheets for relatives of the black widow that had once famously moved into the nicest mailbox-house in Easton.
But as warnings often do, that one grew stale.
And after five years (and six minutes) spent gathering my courage, I opened the miniature garage door and withdrew the mail from inside.
The letter I was expecting hadn’t come yet.
Bills, a flyer from our local grocery store, a few credit card companies begging for my grandparents’ business. Nothing interesting.
I put everything back in the mailbox, but one letter slipped out and fell to the ground. It was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Jameson, and when I picked it up I read the return address, stamped slightly crooked at the corner: the Easton Valley Rest and Recuperation Center for the Permanently Unwell.
Was one of my grandparents sick? Could they be keeping something like that from me?
I tore it open, terrified, and scanned it quickly.
It was a bill for a coffin.
I read it again, confused, slowly, trying to understand the words typed out in some small, precise font.
It was addressed to my grandparents.
My brain picked out bits and pieces, unable to process the whole thing at once.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jameson,
We have received your initial down payment.
Our deepest sympathies.
Please call if you would like to discuss payment plan options.
My grandparents had bought the coffin at a discounted rate. They had paid two hundred dollars of the fourteen hundred owed. It was originally two thousand.
It was a fourteen-hundred-dollar coffin.
For my mother.
But my mother had moved to Florida five years ago. My mother had taken the remainder of our money and left me to live with Grandpa Dick and Grandma Doris.
My mother wasn’t dead. My mother hadn’t died. And my mother had certainly never been at the Easton Valley Rest and Recuperation Center for the Permanently Unwell.
Unless . . .
Suddenly I wasn’t so sure there had ever actually been a spider in our mailbox.
I don’t have a lot of memories of my childhood.
My therapist said this was normal, probably some form of repression coupled with post-traumatic stress.
The first thing I can remember is an ice-cream cone.
My father bought me an ice-cream cone from an ice cream truck. He handed me the cone, and I dropped it on the ground. I was maybe three or four. My canvas shoes had tiny giraffes printed on them, and the ice cream splattered on the toes.
He wouldn’t buy me another cone.
I won’t lie: I wish my first memory was a nicer one. I wish I remembered eating cake at my third birthday party or petting a dog for the first time or going to a park with my mom and being pushed a little too high on the swings.
But I guess we don’t get to choose those kinds of things.
After the ice-cream cone incident, I remember some birthday parties, a first bike ride, some memorable Christmases, some blizzards, and some heat waves. But nothing really substantial sticks out until I was nine years old.
That is when my father either tried to kill me (if you listen to my mother) or just lost his temper but did NOT try to kill me (if you listen to my father).
. . .
What happened was my father and my mother had an argument.
The reason for the argument is not important. Who was right and who was wrong is not important. The beginning of the argument is not important.
The end of the argument is the important part, because that is when my parents wouldn’t stop yelling and so I started yelling, at the top, top, top of my lungs until my voice cracked and my parents had to stop yelling at each other and start yelling at me, trying everything they could to shut me up until finally my father uncapped his fountain pen, strode across the living room, and stabbed me with his right hand. Just above and to the left of my belly button.
When my father let go of the pen, it stuck out of my stomach at a right angle. I was wearing a pink-and-white bikini. In another scenario, it would have been funny.
My mother screamed.
My father put his hands up like, Oh shit, I fucked up, and he backed away from me slowly.
I watched the blood leak out from around the pen, and the blood was almost black. Was it blood or ink? I couldn’t tell which was which. It was all the same rich, thick darkness.
It leaked out of me in a thin river that filled my belly button and stained my bathing suit bottoms.
My mother screamed again and yanked the pen out of my stomach (which you are not supposed to do, we later found out).
In the hospital after it happened, my mother held my hand before they wheeled me into surgery. I was crying and my stomach hurt and my clothes were ruined but my mother’s face was incredibly calm, almost smug.
“You’re gonna be okay, Heph,” she said. She pronounced it like Hef. I generally discouraged the nickname, but I tolerated it then because I thought I might die in surgery and this would be the last time I ever saw her. And I didn’t want the last time I ever saw her to be marred with an argument about my name.
Regarding my name, this is how I got it:
My mother requested the maximum dosage of painkillers and a birthing doctor who was notoriously lax with the meds.
She fell asleep halfway through a push. They had to wake her up and remind her where she was.
“I was having a really nice dream,” she said.
“You’re about to have a really nice baby,” the doctor said.
“I want to call her Hephaestus,” she announced.
“That’s a terrible name,” my father said. “I thought we were calling her Margaret.”
“It was in my dream. Just now. It’s Hephaestus or nothing.”
“What kind of a name is that? It’s a terrible name.”
“I heard it somewhere,” she said.
Hephaestus was the Greek god of metalworking. I’m not sure why it just suddenly occurred to her.
“We are not calling our baby Hephaestus,” my father said.
“You have to push now,” the doctor said. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but you have to push.”
“I hate the name Margaret, and I hate you!” my mother said.
“Pushing now, naming later,” the doctor said.
My mother pushed.
I slid out of my mother’s body and into the doctor’s waiting, bloody hands. He handed the scissors to my father and then looked at him expectantly.
“Hmm?” my father said.
The doctor looked from me to my umbilical cord and then back to my father again.
“Oh,” my father said. “Okay. How important is it that I do it?”
The scissors were removed from my father’s hands. A nurse cut my umbilical cord, the sacred rope that served as an in-between from the world inside to the world outside.
The tether that linked me to my mother. My mother who promptly fell asleep again as soon as I was free of her.
I know all of this is exactly how it happened because my father brought a video camera into the birthing room. He pressed Record and then left the camera on a table. The lens was pointed at my mother’s vagina.
My father named me while my mother was sleeping. He had been prepared to call me Margaret but he settled for naming me after himself. Frances.
When my mother woke up, she threatened to put me back inside her if Hephaestus wasn’t at least my middle name. She pointed out that was a perfectly fair compromise.
My father pointed out you couldn’t actually put a baby back inside a womb, but he obliged her request.
It’s nice to meet you.
Frances Hephaestus Jameson.
My mother got full custody in the divorce proceedings—I mean, duh, obviously—because my father was in jail serving a twelve-month sentence for stabbing me with a pen.
For a while it was great.
My mother and I were thick as thieves, united against this common enemy (my attacker!), spending the settlement money like it was a lot more than it actually was, buying new clothes and new shoes and growing our hair long enough to wear braids down to our butts (in her post-divorce state, my mother had reverted to her earlier hippie inclinations), and doing interviews for local news programs.
People were really interested in my story for a number of reasons, but probably mostly because my mother cried buckets of tears on camera while still managing to look completely flawless. Her mascara never ran. Her hair was always shiny. Her eyes were always bright. I think people were just truly interested in how she managed it.
My mother was present and invested in my life. She was a best friend, a comrade, a partner-in-crime. We traveled around the country together in one of those very old VW vans that always smelled faintly of dirt. I felt like I was really a part of something. We were a team, my mother and I.
Only she turned out to be just as crazy as my father.
And then it wasn’t so great.
Then one day I got off the school bus and it wasn’t my mother waiting for me. Instead, my grandparents stood huddled underneath an umbrella (it wasn’t raining, but Grandpa Dick opened an umbrella the moment the sky turned even the slightest bit gray).
“Oh, hi,” I said.
“You tell her,” Grandpa Dick said.
“Honey, we have something to tell you,” Grandma Doris said.
“It’s about your mother,” Grandpa added.
“I thought you wanted me to tell her?”
“So tell her.”
I waited. Grandpa Dick turned around. Grandma Doris put her hand on my cheek.
“Oh, Frances,” she said. “We love you so much.”
. . .
After my father stabbed me, after my mother pulled the fountain pen out of my stomach even though you are not supposed to do that, after I pressed my fingers into my stomach to try and stop the bleeding, after I asked everybody to please stop staring at me and call an ambulance, after the ambulance ride and the hospital and a couple surgeries and a ton of X-rays later, a doctor came into the room with a funny sort of smile on his face and said, “Okay. Here’s the thing.”
And that is how I found out that the nib of the fountain pen had broken off and stayed inside me, and this is the most interesting part of the whole thing, in my opinion: they never found it.
Now I set off metal detectors. They pat me down. They get the metal detecting wand and wave it over me.
Every time, it beeps in a different place.
Since then, I have always lost things. My grandparents called me forgetful, my aunt Florence called me absentminded, my uncle Irvine said I was preoccupied.
But that wasn’t it. I wasn’t forgetful or absentminded or preoccupied.
I didn’t lose things.
Things left me.