The Best Personal Essay

Brendan Wright, “In the Long Grass”

I watched from the family room window as he drove off for the last time. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t cry. I whispered the words over and over again to myself.

This is not the end, this is not the end.

I had promised myself that I wouldn’t let myself cry. Somehow that did not seem to matter as I felt the emptiness boil up inside and the faint sounds of Mom’s weeping slipped into the stillness of the room.

This is not the end.

And as the taillights of his truck fell away into the darkness I finally gave in and broke my promise.


We sat at opposite sides of the flower-patterned couch, the two of us silent, envel-oped in the eternally blue glow of the family room television. In a matter of hours he would be leaving the house for the last time, and yet all we could do was sit, and watch. There were no words for moments like these in our family. Even when we first moved into this house years ago, and were all forced to sleep on the floor of the living room wrapped all in blankets, we quietly huddled all together in front of the fireplace. We gath-ered around the old black and white television with dials as big as my palm, all of us sitting in silence.

Now, though, it was a different silence. I rested my head down on the arm of the couch, my hair falling over my eyes, my freckles even darker in the shadows. My atten-tion slowly trailed from the screen—moving over the area rug that I stained once with chocolate milk—over to him, my mind slowly logging in the details of his face as if it was the last time it would ever get the chance. His beard was fuller than it had ever been before with only the faintest hints of gray forming at the chin, though the white of his scalp was already beginning to show through his thinning hair. Above all that, I remember him as large—not fat, but strong and well built, complete with broad shoulders and a thick chest.

Even as a nine year-old I could sense his strength. This man was all that I wanted to become.


The grass was waist high by the end of the summer after he left. Far off in the dis-tance, alone save for the decaying shed, stood the wooden swing set. As close as it had seemed once, it was worlds away, slowly being swallowed up by the forest and the long grass. All the grandeur of it had faded away—the wood now sun-faded, the monkey bars crimson with rust. One of the swings, perhaps having been wrenched in the wind, hung from a single chain, dangling pathetic and alone.

Looking out from the porch I surveyed the entire lawn. I could make out the circu-lar patch of lower grass where the pool once had stood. Farther back I spotted the rusted metal drum my dad had used to burn autumn leaves. Bundled tight in my winter jacket I would watch as the smoke billowed out over the naked trees, the smell teasing my nose all the while. From the top of the slide we would jump into the pile of freshly raked leaves, laughing and shouting as it exploded up around us, hiding us in that sweet, earthen scent. Off by the shed Dad would be throwing armful after armful of leaves into the drum, the fire sputtering after each load and then it would road back to life, spitting embers into the sky.

It had always been a matter of pride for him to properly maintain the lawn, never letting it yellow or die or grow an inch too long. When I was younger he would attach a wagon to the back of the riding lawnmower, and trail me around in it as he drove around the lawn. Every Sunday we would go through the same routine, with me squealing and laughing as we drove faster and slower, taking curves, turning up slopes. All else fell away as I lay on my back watching the sky move as we moved, feeling as if the whole world was moving around me and I couldn’t help but smile.


My mother always told me that when I was one year old I managed to crawl out of the house while a babysitter was supposed to be watching me. It was winter and we still lived in the outskirts of Philadelphia, she would explain. The babysitter called my parents, who naturally rushed home in the snow and called the police. Almost on the edge of hys-teria after hours of waiting they finally heard a knock on the door. Outside they found a policeman in a blue-slicker and in his arms there I was, alive and well—save for the case of pneumonia that I came down with over the next few days.

As ridiculous as that story sounds now, I never questioned it when I was a child. It was just one of those little untruths you accept as fact even though you should know bet-ter—like Santa Claus or that endings could be happily ever after. It was just one of those little untruths that get you through the day.

I never asked my mother why she and Dad got divorced. I would like to say that I never did because I thought my Mom was too fragile, too emotionally scarred to go over the whole episode again, but ultimately it was my own fear that kept me from asking. The fear that whatever caused the divorce would unravel all that I knew and assumed about the world. In the final weeks of their marriage I would eavesdrop from the upstairs’ landing, and I would listen to them argue in their bedroom, the slate-cold tiles of the landing slowly stealing the warmth from my stomach, picking up bits and pieces of their conversation. It was only a matter of putting the pieces together. What I came away with was the knowl-edge that my father had cheated on my mother with a woman at his work. I never inquired into how true it was. It was the truth to me.


A year after he left the grass was still waist-high. Mom had long since traded the riding mower away to my Uncle Eddie in exchange for various maintenance jobs around the house, and we had all but given up on taming the lawn. The house became infested with boxes of all sorts and sizes as we readied to move. Mom was short on details as to why we were leaving, but now I know she couldn’t afford it anymore. We stopped letting the cat out, and we were yelled out when we expressed any interest in using the swing set.

“Don’t go out there,” my mother shouted once when I started off into the grass, “Brendan Joseph, don’t you dare go out there. There are ticks out there, and snakes. I don’t want you to go out there again, all right? Do you understand me?” The porch door slammed hollow behind her, its wire netting tearing away from the frame. I looked up at her and nodded, more out of a sense of guilt than anything else. From the porch she looked back down on me for a minute to make sure that I truly would follow her directions and then, being satisfied that I would, turned and walked off. I turned for a moment to look out upon the lawn and then followed her inside.

By the end of that summer we left the house for good.


He had taken up listening to sports talk radio the next time I saw him.

Two months had passed since he left and he had an apartment in the city now, which by even the most liberal standards was clearly just a basement room with a pullout bed. A friend from work had let him move in until he was able to find a place of his own. The sum total of his possessions—tucked into rickety-looking cardboard boxes and a set of black leather suitcases—littered the floor of the small walk-in closet that served as an ante-room to the basement bathroom. The one night my sister and I slept over I stubbed my toe on his bowling bag when I tried to find the bathroom in the dark. We had ordered pizza and the empty box still rested on the coffee table the next morning.

At the end of the weekend we drove back out to Horsham, the autumn air biting at our cheeks as the car’s heater slowly kicked to life. From the front seat I glanced back at my sister through the rear-view mirror, and saw the empty look upon her face. I recog-nized that stare, her pained eyes revealing that she felt her heart being casually torn from her chest. Each mile felt like an hour, the sounds of the city gelling into a steady heartbeat rhythm. The soundtrack to it all was sports radio. We didn’t talk the whole drive.

When we finally arrived home Mom was waiting by the door, trying to remain calm in his presence. He kissed my cheek, his beard prickly against my flesh. He hugged us close, our heads resting against his stomach. I felt that familiar wholeness again, as I breathed in his beaten aviator jacket. And then it was gone, ripped away fresh as he waved goodbye and drove away. My sister and I waved until the lights of his car vanished into the night, and then she walked inside. I stood there in the cold dark for minutes, hoping he would come back, hoping he would hold me close once more.


My mother met my father at a gas station. She was driving her car around the neighborhood looking for the cheapest gas until finally she gave up and pulled into a ran-dom full-service station. The attendant on duty was my father. I didn’t ask, but I like to imagine it was love at first sight, that they both felt that pull—that tug upon the soul—that let them think that they would spend the rest of their days blissfully together.

Eight summers after he left, I discovered what remained of their photo collection as we unpacked after our second move. Inside I found their dusty smiles and forgotten laughs. My finger trailed over the plastic wrapping of each page, leaving smudge trails as I tested to make sure each was real. There they were—camping, drinking, and somehow younger than I had ever imagined them to be. Though faded and with jaundiced edges, the pictures seemed more real than any memory I could conjure. I knew these people more than I knew myself—and yet, they seemed as distant as the stars. My chest tightened as I stood there with those stolen moments, sweating and breathing in mothball-scented air.

It was an hour before I put the photos back, hiding them again in the depths of their box. Perhaps I might visit them again someday, if only so I can remind myself that yes, once they were happy, once they were in love, and that once upon a time—if only for a moment—there was a happily ever after.

 

Prizes:

George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes