I was born in 1982 to a vengeful epileptic and a homeless drunk. Of course, she wasn’t always epileptic, and he wasn’t always dead.

I grew up under the care of my great-aunt and –uncle.

Memory is failing. The way I remember things is in pieces.

Pieces; squares and rectangles in a mosaic.

Each fragment a single memory birthing a new thought, one still picture at a time.

A comic book.


The first panel introduces a bald, thick-bodied man with a moustache and bifocals, sitting at the kitchen table. A gruff sweetness: he is lumbering but spry. The white gloss in one eye suggests he is older than he appears. In truth, he’s in his 80s, and only recently retired—he is not yet used to leisure time.

Something in the newspaper, in fine print, has captured his interest—almost certainly, it is the stock listings.

In later frames depicting the same, he will also need a magnifying glass.

Beneath this frame, the words:

This is my great-uncle, Alfred.


The bald, thick-bodied man glares up from the stocks. He looks less kind, now, and he says this to someone outside the frame. His speech bubble:

“We should invest in blue diode lasers.”


Uncle Al’s family photo.

It is old, one of those formal, black-and-white portraits, with mother, father, sister, Al, no one smiling. His parents are not yet in middle-age, his sister, Marianne, is probably in her teens, and Al himself is six.

Uncle Al’s father was from Austria; his mother, from Czechoslovakia. They moved to Philadelphia, where Alfred was born in 1921.


It’s the frame from before, the one of the photograph, but the frame’s scope has widened to show a “modern” Jenny—we’ll say she’s 21 or so—who holds the photo and looks at it.

Modern Jenny, our immediate narrator, is a frazzled young woman with short, rumpled hair that makes her look like she’s been living inside a gust of wind. She is nearsighted, and she wears thick glasses.

There are parts of my own family I don’t know anything about.


This frame’s dimensions are short and wide; it should be roughly the width of the entire page.

The frame’s POV is from the front of a car, through its windshield. Two silhouettes are visible, if only slightly. It’s raining.

The car has just pulled up into a driveway, and we can see the street sloping behind it.

A small woman is in the driver’s seat. This is my Aunt Lou. She is older, not yet elderly. The year is 1988, and she is still in her sixties. Every part of her is small and round, even her eyes and cheeks and lips.

And in the passenger’s seat, just the crown of a head, barely visible, hovers above the dashboard.

It is the head of a scraggly-haired six-year old, in a fake fur coat. Perhaps her eyes are visible through the windshield. They are too large for her face.

I was six when I came to live with him and Aunt Lou.


This frame, too, is short and wide. It should fit on the same page, exactly the same width as the frame before it, situated immediately below.

POV from the backseat of the car, so that the woman and the girl’s positions are exactly reversed, the small, round, not-yet-elderly woman on the left, the scraggly six-year old on the right. They are both facing forward. We can just make out the girl’s furry sleeve.

Visible out the windshield, a large painted sign is visible, hung above the garage: “Welcome home, Jenny!” The letters are painted by hand. It might be a little ugly.

Visible out the windshield, the garage door is open, and a younger, burlier Alfred stands, waiting for the woman and the girl to come inside. His hands are sort of clasped, one on top of the other, resting on his belly.


This frame, too, is broad and short. It should fit on the same page, exactly the same dimensions as the frame above it. Stacked just below, this frame alludes to a long, lingering moment.

POV from the backseat of the car, so that the woman and the girl’s positions are exactly as they were in the frame above: the round, not-yet-elderly, small woman on the left, the fake-fur girl on the right. Now the girl is turning to Aunt Lou. Her profile juts from just beyond the seatback, slightly below the headrest.

A speech bubble from the small girl:

“This isn’t my home.”


This frame, too, is short but squat. It should fit on the same page, exactly the same dimensions as the frame above it. The way it is stacked, this frame should allude to a prolonged, awkward moment.

POV from the backseat of the car, so that the woman and the girl’s positions are exactly as they were in the frame above: the woman on the left staring ahead, the fake-fur girl on the right, looking toward her, having said too much.


The conclusion of the frames, which have all been stacked atop each other.

This frame, too, is long and fat. It is exactly the same dimensions as every frame in this sequence.

The girl is still turned toward the woman, waiting for the woman to tell her something.

The woman is still facing forward,
but her speech bubble hangs between the two seats:

“It’s home to us.”


The shape of this frame is small and square, a close-up of Alfred’s face:

He’s still standing at the door of the garage, smiling, but something very sad is in his face. Something in the shadows around the corners of his lips.

You can see the corners of his lips, because he doesn’t have a moustache yet.


Small and square, very close on much the same face,
but older, now, perhaps now in his 80s,
and the face has a moustache, a thick, triangular fringe:

Uncle Al eventually grew a moustache, shortly after they bought new furniture.


Square, and small, situated right beside the prior frame with only a thin margin to divide the two, so that although they’re divided, it is easy to see they’re part of the same picture, the same scene, a continuation.

Aunt Lou deep in admiration,
and her speech bubble confirms it:

“Al, you look so handsome!”

Which was true, except when his moustache had food in it.


Jenny, as an adolescent. I am looking at a book, carefully.

If I’m sitting in my bedroom, it’s one with shelves for books, and mobiles twisting down from the ceiling. There’s a poster on the wall behind me—a favorite band, now forgotten.

I’m older than in earlier frames—fifteen maybe—so my hair is short, all stalks standing on end with nowhere to go.

I don’t know much about Uncle Al’s family.


This panel is close on the black-and-white portrait, on the girl in a baggy white dress, lace eyelet along her collarbone, her hair falling in short gentle rings around the curve of her cheekbones.

Though I know he had a sister. Marianne.

She died.


Uncle Al tells a story to the fifteen-year old Jenny.

In fact, I’m not sure if the adolescent version of me should be drawn with short hair—in truth, I refused to cut my hair until I was as old as seventeen. Short hair would be a lie, but it would make adolescent Jenny more clearly me.

He told me once how she died.


Same as before, but the adolescent version of me, no longer rapt, is laughing.

Uncle Al looks, if anything, patient. But there is a darkness in his brow.

I laughed at his story.


Close on Adolescent Jenny’s face.
She is—I am—laughing hysterically.
Her eyes—my eyes—are wide open, rolling back a little.

And I kept laughing. I’d tell the story to friends, repeatedly, laughing.


I’m looking at a book, carefully. It’s open, only to the first page.

Maybe I’ve built his story up too much.


A small, thin woman—perhaps in her thirties—is sitting on the edge of a hospital bed in a doctor’s office, probably in Indiana. Sounds coming from her mouth—“smack smack smack.”

A doctor. Family standing around.
Uncle Al is there.

Marianne had gone to the doctor.


The woman now reclines on the hospital bed, arms folded across her stomach, so that one hand is on top of the other, clasped just beneath her breasts.

Her mouth—“smack smack smack.”

She’s in the background now, and the family—her father, mother, husband, and daughter, and so on, though I hesitate to say it matters what anyone but the doctor looks like—they all follow the doctor to the foreground, where we must imagine the door would be.

The doctor asked the family to step into the hall with him.


In the background, now, a wall and a closed door in place of the reclining woman.

The door might have a window in it, but we should not see Marianne.

And the family—her mother, father, daughter, husband, and so forth—all stand around, listening to the doctor. The doctor is a man who seems to know what he’s doing,

He’s charming in the way older men often are, but unexpectedly so; he is a small, narrow man, in his late forties perhaps, disheveled. He has a gaunt face and wet, wounded eyes, and is dressed in crisp, sterile white, like some Angel of Death. His stethoscope dangles around his neck, with authority.

While the doctor talked to the family, Marianne waited in the hospital bed.


In the background, we see the room, now.

We see the room, now that the doctor has pushed the door open, and his right hand remains frozen on the knob, perhaps.

The family—mother, daughter, father, husband, Alfred—and the doctor are in the foreground, the open door between them. They face one another.

They are stunned.

The whole frame looks rather like the image two frames prior: the family in the foreground, the woman lying in bed, as before, with one arm hanging off the bed.

No sounds from her mouth.

Marianne had been chewing a stick of gum.


Small, square, a tight rigid frame, which is close on her limp arm.

While everyone was in the hall, she choked to death on her gum.


Adolescent Jenny laughing.
Uncle Al looks, if anything, patient but unnerved.

And I am laughing, laughing, laughing, a facial expression caught between hysteria and rage.
Or alarm.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
But it’s ridiculous. The whole thing is ridiculous.
You see why I laughed.
You would have laughed.


POV behind me, reading over my shoulder:

It’s that book again, still open to the first page. I’m studying that first page carefully.

Marianne had a daughter. Sheila.


Closer up; the frame is filled with just my hands, and the book.

Uncle Al hasn’t seen Marianne’s daughter in (twenty? thirty? forty?) years now.

I’ve never seen her.


Still closer: we can now see, quite clearly, a thin, curling script in the top right corner of the first page. A girl’s script.

The book is a textbook, Math I remember, very old-fashioned. The pages are yellow, curdled with time and water leaks.

Uncle Al gave it to her. It had been his.

Someone has written her name there. “Sheila.” No. It’s her handwriting. She wrote it there herself.

I can recognize her handwriting instantly.


The bald, thick-bodied man with a moustache and bifocals, is sitting at the kitchen table. His blind eye waters, which we cannot see, but we can see the magnifying glass in one hand. He lumbers over something in the newspaper, something in fine print—almost certainly, the stock listings.


A speech bubble directed, if anywhere, to the fine print:

“We should invest in blue diode lasers.”


The magnifying glass hovers just above some important figure, certainly, but Al is looking up, distracted. He is no longer captivated by something in the fine print. He looks up, over the top of his bifocals, at the telephone located across the kitchen.


A speech bubble.
Uncle Al says, over the tops of his bifocals, not to the fine print in the newspaper, which is almost certainly the stock listings, but instead to the telephone located across the kitchen,

“I wonder why she never calls.”


The bald, thick-bodied man with a moustache and bifocals, is sitting at the kitchen table, with the magnifying glass in one hand. He stoops, again, over something in the newspaper, something in fine print—almost certainly, the stock listings.

A speech bubble.
Uncle Al says, to the stocks in the newspaper,

“I hope she’s doing all right.”


A long, squat panel, roughly the width of the sheet of paper it is printed on.

Aunt Lou and I are standing at the counter where the sink is, our backs to you.

She is preparing food. She chops at it, stirs at it, picks at it, smells it, tastes it, returns to the cutting board and to the bowls, like a scientist.

I am running water at the sink, rinsing dishes. I am probably in my 20s.

We do not look at each other.


A frame, long and wide, roughly the dimensions of the frame above, and positioned immediately below.

Our backs to you, Aunt Lou and I are engaged at the counter along the sink. The telephone is visible in the frame. She is interested in preparing food—she is stirring at it, chopping at it, picking at it, smelling it, tasting it, a loop. I am running water over my hands.

We do not look at each other.

Aunt Lou says, suddenly, her speech bubble somewhere between the food and the sink,

“Al never knew his real father.”


This panel is positioned immediately below the above panel, and shares its approximate dimensions. It is broad and long.

My aunt and I are turned away from you, facing the counter that runs the width of one side of the kitchen, until it finally stops at the phone. Aunt Lou is interested in cooking, chopping, stirring. I am letting the sink fill.

We do not look at each other.

My speech bubble replaces hers:

“How do you know that?”


This frame, nearly the dimensions of the frame above—but maybe smaller, moving in on the scene, but who can say?—is wide, and long. My aunt is facing a cutting board, a raft overwhelmed with vegetables, and I am looking at a deep basin full of suds, trying to displace the water with my hands. Our speech bubbles are staggered, fighting each other for space.

Her bubble first:

“He told me.”

My bubble below hers:


Her bubble, hooked to the first one:

“Last month maybe.”


Like the frame above, our backs to you, approximately the same height and width as the frames preceding,

but much closer,
with no bubble between us,
so the distance between us is greater.

We do not look at each other.


This frame, positioned immediately below the frame prior—and it should share the former frame’s dimensions, but who can say?—in which my aunt slices tenderly at a coil of a bright white onion, every movement of the blade a long, crisp sound. I am trying to think of something to say. I am turning to face her.

My profile.

I turn from the dishes to look at her. I say, hesitantly,
a thin, scratchy speech bubble,

“I already knew.
“I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”


As before.
I look back down into the sink.
Her profile: she’s turning to look at me.
We don’t say anything.


Close on a bottle of Welch’s sparkling grape juice.

In our family of three, we don’t drink alcohol,
for a variety of reasons.


Close on a tinted photograph of my uncle’s father.

He is a moustached man, photographed here standing in front of an old-fashioned bicycle. Smiling slightly, secretively. A misty landscape behind him.

But here’s the thing: in this photo, I’ve never been able to quite discern whether that landscape in the background is real or not.

Didn’t they once say that about the Mona Lisa? That you can’t tell whether or not the background is supposed to be real, or if it’s supposed to be a tapestry? You know, with all the rocks, the wilderness and the gravel, and then that bridge? And all the mist—something called “sfumato” technique.

They say she’s supposed to look dimensional and immediate, but the background is flat and dull, so that the foreground and background do not quite match up.

A dissonance.

Except for this one thing: sfumato is used on the subject, once, at the corners of her eyes and lips, too, so that the precise timbre of her expression is indistinct, disappearing into shadow.

So what’s she smiling about anyway?


Maybe it doesn’t matter either way, whether or not the background in Al’s father’s photograph is fake or a lie, since any tinted photograph is its own kind of fiction altogether.

The colors weren’t there to begin with.

They are added later.

Which is weird, because back in Austria,
before he emigrated to the U.S.,
my uncle’s father was a master brewer.


Here I’d really like to draw mobsters. This is likely the one and only chance I have to draw mobsters in anything I’ll ever write, and I hope they have suits and maybe some gold teeth or martinis and derbies and guns pointed at Uncle Al’s father.

Al’s father is probably blindfolded in the back of a car, and noted mobster Pretty Boy Floyd points a gun at him. I don’t care if it really happened this way or not. Maybe I’d also like to have Pretty Boy Floyd saying something like, “If you don’t brew, you’re dead.”

During America’s Prohibition,
the Mafia persuaded Uncle Al’s father to brew beer for them.


The tinted photograph.
I’m examining it.

One day my uncle caught me in his room looking at the photograph of his father.

“That’s my father,” he said. Then he sort of wavered.

“He was a master brewer,” he said.

“He was an angry man,” he said.

“Look at that old bike,” he said.

“One day I was walking down the street with my mother,” he said, “and she turned my shoulders to face another man who was working in the yard, and she said to me, ‘Look, Alfred. That’s your real father.’”

Then Uncle Al stared at the tinted photograph for a long time.

Finally he said, “Don’t tell your Aunt Lou.”

I didn’t, of course.

Not until at the sink, when she told me.


A very, very small boy asleep in bed.


He opens his eyes.

Alfred woke to the flickerings on the walls.


The boy crawls out of bed.

Something was going on outside.


The way Uncle Al always told it, he went to the windows, which were far too tall for him to see out.

He stood on his tiptoes and put his hands on the windowsill, pulling himself up to see outside.

He saw men in white hoods in his front yard, burning a cross.

For a man who knew what it meant to be hated—at the time, Catholic immigrants were a little unpopular in Philadelphia, I'm told—I could never get my head around where Uncle Al’s intense suspicion of other people came from. Like the way he chose to remember things made him a victim, and the way he let us have only pieces of his memories from time to time was what kept him so angry.


I am thirteen years old, with a body entirely of sharp angles and awkward-looking soft spots. I am sitting in a wide chair in our living room, my legs swinging. The phone is to my ear, its springing cord coiled around my arm. I am giddy. My uncle sits in the armchair next to mine, feigning interest in something in small print in the newspaper. The phone cradle sits on a small table between us. A tiny, thin speech bubble from me:



My uncle looks up from the newspaper, his thick black reading glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose. I am hanging up the telephone—it clacks into the cradle. My uncle’s speech bubble hovers near the telephone:

“Who was that?”


Another small, thin speech bubble from me, as I coyly reply,

“A friend.”


My uncle is removing his thick black reading glasses. I am looking not quite at him, more likely still staring at the telephone. My legs are still swinging. My uncle’s speech bubble again hangs between us.

“A boyfriend?”

My speech bubble comes quickly after my uncle’s.

“Today at school he said I was pretty.”


My uncle hangs his thick black reading glasses on the collar of his cotton shirt.

“What’s his name?”


I am nervously toeing at the leg of the chair, my legs not swinging but still anxious. My uncle is leaning a little toward me now.



My uncle’s width now leans sharply over the telephone cradle.

His speech bubble droops with the weight of these words, in boldface like a fat raincloud.

“Ed What?”


I pull one bare foot up into the chair with me, holding my knee close to my chin.

“Eduardo Gonzales.”


I pull my other foot into the chair, sitting with my chin on my knees. I look down; my uncle leans back into his chair. His eyes narrow. He sniffs.


Now Uncle Al plucks his glasses easily from the collar of his shirt, and slides them back onto his face.

“What is he, a Mexican?”


Now my forehead is against my knee.

“I don’t know.”


And I’m clearly fumbling, curling into the chair, and the words above my head are tiny and flat:

“I think he’s Spanish.”


The frame is filled with that photograph, the old family portrait. My uncle, six or seven years old, stands on the far left. Then his mother, only a head taller. His sister Marianne, and last, his father. Al wears a white button-down shirt, with a loose kerchief knotted just below his shirt’s open collar. He is supposed to look like a small sailor. His wispy blonde hair is cropped close to his head.


I am sixteen or seventeen, and standing on tiptoes, trying to put the photo back on the top of the bureau in my aunt and uncle’s bedroom. Or maybe I am trying to take the photo down from its roost. My uncle has entered the room and now stands behind me, his hands sweetly resting on his chest.


The bureau is built of dark wood, spangled with funny brass handles and hooks and buckles and other hardware not meant for furniture. It is a looming tower, and on its distant flat roof, five or six ancient photographs in withering frames are propped against each other.

When he begins to speak, I am startled, and turn to face my uncle under the booming speech bubble blossoming from his lips.

“Well? Who do I look like?
“My mother or my father?”


I am twenty-one in this frame, and stumbling out through the garage doors at my aunt and uncle’s house, wrestling building blocks of luggage and corrugated cardboard in my arms. It is dark outside, and a few last stars glimmer and smirk. The back of the parked car already dips low to the asphalt with the weight of luggage.

One night last Christmas vacation, my aunt said some things.

I hid in the closet.
Said I wished I were dead, and she invited me to it.

I stormed out of the house at two in the morning, and began my drive to Illinois.


My profile, in the driver’s seat and holding a phone. I am tired, with dark rings around my eyes and sloppy hair. I am balancing the steering wheel into a straight line with my left hand. My chin quivers.

I called home the next afternoon to say I was okay.
My aunt was heartbroken,
because she couldn’t begin to think of what caused me to leave.

My aunt is in her seventies. We just learned her memory is deteriorating.

I went back to Texas in February, with a carry-on bag and a cheap tape recorder.


I put the tape recorder on the table between my uncle and me. Today, tangibly and metaphorically, it is our substitute for speech bubbles.

My uncle tells me about a memory in which his elderly mother was at Union Station in Chicago, and she was lost and confused, and the train doors were closing. He jumped the turnstile, and…

My uncle begins to weep at the memory. Out of journalistic duty, I should leave the tape player running.

But I’m not a journalist. I am his daughter. I lean forward to turn the tape off.

Later, my aunt sees me sitting at the computer, my back to her. She stands in the doorway and asks what I am doing. I tell her, I’m typing about you and Uncle Al.

She whispers, her speech bubble soft but curt,
“Don’t hurt our feelings.”


My uncle and I are looking at the photo of his family.

It is all greys, shadows, and fading: a sfumato literally rendered from light, darkness, and time. I look into the hollows of his boyhood’s eyes, the way the shadows settle into their corners. For a moment, I am haunted.

He asks me, his bubble far above him, and faint, arcing:

“Who do I look like? My mother or my father?”


My uncle turns to examine my face—my no-one face, these features of mine that only resemble the dead—because, I suppose, he wants to see my answer before I can tell it. I squint and frown and furrow, because the truth is...

I mumble,
And I mean it.
“You look like both,” I tell him again, louder. “Do you ever think,” I ask him, “that your mother was wrong?”

He blinks.

“Wrong?” he asks me.

I point. “You have the same placement of features as she has, and the same sadness of her eyes”—his mother and he share the same steel eyes, made icier by monochromes—“but, the features themselves, you and your father have the same features.”

“Wrong?” he asks me.

“About,” I said. “About your dad.”

He stares at me. He shakes his head.

I wasn’t illegitimate. My father was.”

“What?” I ask him.

“My father. He didn’t know his own father, he was a bastard. He didn’t know my grandfather.”

Then he leans close to me. “Didn’t I tell you this once?”

I stutter, “Well, yes, I mean, sure.”

There’s a twitch in the corner of his lips. “I thought there, for a second, you thought I didn’t know my own father.”

“Um,” I tell him.

He roars now. His body convulses, shaking out a deep, growling laugh.

“Ha ha,” I laugh along.

Shaking his head and chuckling, he wanders out of the bedroom.

I return the photograph to the top of the bureau, and rub an index finger along the inside lid of my eye.

How did I get this wrong?


I cannot remember my father’s face.

There was a time when I was able, perhaps, but it was well before he’d died.

I can remember some things though, like the way he’d smirk at me when he told me something he didn’t expect me to understand, the smirk of surprise when I did. I remember the corners of his mouth and of his eyes. And I remember the way his cheeks swept up, rounding to form a smile.

Maybe I remember those features because he gave them to me.

Except for all that and a dim recollection of his jagged, twice-broken nose, it’s gone.

Still, where the margins and gaps fall, I can fill them in.

I can tell you about his ashy-brown hair and his green eyes, about the corduroy jacket with the worn leather pads on the elbows, about his long stride and jarring ragdoll gait, and how he needed to shave, and the scent of cigarette smoke, and the way he could strum and sing “Mr. Bojangles,” and his long eyelashes, and shoulders wide enough for a small girl to sit on.

But they aren’t pictures in my mind’s eye. Ideas of pictures are all that’s left.

I don’t know why it is so important to me to know that the memory has been remembered properly, like a photograph developing—the same photograph, over and over again—but it is.

A memory like beams of light burned into photo paper. A burning sheet of light glimmering just under the water’s surface, each time more resistant to developing. A memory I knew I had, but with each act of remembering, I have dissolved into nothing.


I don’t know what picture should go here.

One day my uncle caught me in his room looking at the photograph of his father.

“That’s my father,” he said. Then he sort of wavered.

“Look at that old bike,” he said.

“He was an angry man,” he said.

“He was a master brewer,” he said.

“One day he was walking down the street with his mother,” he said, “and she turned his shoulders to face another man who was working in the yard, and she said to him, ‘Look, Hendrick. That’s your real father.’”

Then Uncle Al stared at the tinted photograph for a long time.

Finally he said, “I don’t know if my mother knew about that.”



Like a camera, this panel’s point-of-view cannot possibly pull far enough away.

There are so many pieces I’ve left out, and so much I couldn’t fit in. There may be panels I got completely right, parts only half-right, parts I’ll never know I got wrong, and parts I deliberately lied to you about.

I wish I could show you everything at once, everything I meant to say but couldn’t work into the staccato of these panels. I wish there were a picture to go here.

I wish there were a picture to go here.