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About the Author
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:Lockport, New York
Education:B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
Read an Excerpt
DIS MEM BER
Tell us what you know. What you remember.
I have climbed up onto the roof of my grandfather's old barn. The tin is hot against my bare legs, thighs. This is a forbidden place. The slanted roof, the ill-fitted rusted sheets of tin scalding-hot in the sun.
I am not so young any longer, to be climbing up on the barn roof. We stopped climbing on the roof by eighth grade.
You forget. You lose interest. Other things to do.
Things you did as a child, even forbidden things you disdain when you are a few years older.
He's driving his Chevy along Iron Road. Bright sky-blue with chrome fixtures that gleam like winking eyes. Inside, cream-colored upholstery. Stains on the back seat he'd tried to wipe off with something strong-smelling like kerosene so all four windows have to be kept open to air out the bad smell.
He's smoking a cigarette. Smoke wreathes his narrow handsome face like a doll's face. Left forearm dangling out the rolled-down window. Ahead is the two-lane blacktop road shimmering in the heat like a desert mirage.
Along Iron Road to Mill Pond Road that is mostly gravel and dirt. Pastures, cornfields, woods. Farmhouses, farm buildings. Silos. The sky-blue Chevy slows, the driver is frowning through dark-tinted aviator glasses like a hunter in no hurry, taking his time.
It is said that Rowan Billiet is my mother's (step)-cousin.
It is said (by my father) that as far as he's concerned Rowan Billiet is no relation to any of us, at all.
It is certainly not true that Rowan Billiet is my uncle. He is not the younger brother of either my father or my mother and so he can't be my uncle. But like other inaccuracies published in local newspapers this would be repeated and pass into general (mis)understanding and decades later recalled in the vague way we recall terrible dreams that have faded into memories like faded waterstains in wallpaper.
That young uncle of yours, what was his name ...
The good-looking one always drove fancy cars ...
Turns onto the Cattaraugus Creek Road which is our road. Is Rowan Billiet idly cruising in the hilly countryside north of Strykersville, has he no particular destination? Seeing where the sky-blue Chevy takes him?
Like dowsing for water. That kind of chance.
Rowan has relatives scattered through Beechum County. Not one of them a close relative, not one what you'd call family.
Rowan turns up at their homes, just to say hello. Sometimes Rowan stays only a few minutes, sensing that this isn't a good time, or maybe the person he has come to see isn't home. Sometimes Rowan stays longer for instance for supper if he's invited.
Rowan is never invited to stay for supper at our house. The reason seems to be (I have gathered) that my father hates him.
Why'd anybody hate Rowan Billiet! — in the Chevy smelling of kerosene and cigarette smoke he's smiling to himself at such a notion. Humming with music on the car radio turned up high to hear above the wind rushing through opened windows. Tap-tap-tapping his slender fingers on the steering wheel.
Fingers like a girl's fingers, it is said of Rowan Billiet.
Face like a doll's face, it is said of Rowan Billiet.
Why you could not take him seriously even his name: Rowan Billiet.
The year between seventh and eighth grades was like many years and not just a single year.
Growing up we'd played in the junked cars, trucks, tractors in the lot beside my uncle's house. My father's older (half) brother Mason who owned a gas station and auto repair on the Cattaraugus Creek Road a mile from our house.
Our farmhouse where we lived with my mother's (step)-parents who were (a fact I would not learn for decades) not strangers to my mother's biological parents but the brother and sister-in-law of her parents.
All that had happened long ago, before I was born. I had not the slightest awareness nor would I have the slightest interest for many years until I was at least the age of my mother at the time Rowan Billiet came into my life in a special way in 1961.
My uncle's sprawling junkyard was a forbidden place too. We were not wanted there. Easy to injure yourself. If you were a girl it was especially easy, we were warned.
Our bare knees scratched, bleeding. Rivulets of blood on my legs from where glass slivers had cut me as I'd squeezed through the broken window of a car "totaled" in a wreck about which people still spoke in hushed whispers along the Cattaraugus Creek Road. Thrilled because I was the smallest of the five of us who hung out together (three girls, two boys who were our younger brothers) and the only one able to squeeze through so narrow and twisted a space and later when my mother saw me she'd stared for a moment before realizing these were just shallow scratches on my legs and the bright blood could be wiped easily away.
Oh God! You scared me, Jill. ...
In my uncle's junkyard there was an old hulk of a tow truck with a giant hook covered in rust like blood. It was frightening to see this hook and to imagine such a large hook somehow — hooked — into living flesh. ...
Tell us what you recall, Jill.
Anything you recall.
Take your time. Try not to be upset. It is all over now, you are not in any danger.
He's saying there's something he wants to show me.
He's calling me Jill-y. His special way of saying my name which is not the way other people say it.
Look, Jill-y. Just a little drive to the bridge and back.
Rowan Billiet would always stand a little too close. Smiling with his lower lip caught in his teeth.
I can't, I guess. Not right now.
Why not, not right now? Right now is the best fuckin time.
This makes me giggle. Nobody talks to girls my age the way Rowan Billiet does when there are no adults to hear.
Giggling like I am being tickled with hard fast fingers. It is unsettling and exciting and makes my heart quicken but not in a happy way.
Rowan Billiet is not a high school boy but he is not old like my father and uncles. You'd have a hard time describing him. He makes you laugh. He makes you laugh funny — like you don't know why you are laughing, and would not want an adult to overhear and to ask why you are laughing, what's so funny.
My friends who've seen Rowan Billiet say he looks like a lighter-haired and shorter Elvis Presley. He is very good-looking with sand-colored hair fine like the silk of milkweed that falls in a wave over his forehead, sand-colored eyebrows and a little mustache like a sand-colored caterpillar on his upper lip.
This little caterpillar-mustache moves on his lip when he talks and when he smiles. Seeing it makes me shiver.
I don't know how to reply to Rowan Billiet when he says these words and so he says again, slow and patient: It's something in the creek, beneath the bridge. It's something that got stuck in the rocks there, from upstream. You'll get a kick out of it, Jill-y.
Get a kick out of it. This is a strange thing I have heard people say, that is baffling to me but makes me smile.
And Rowan smiles harder, pulling at my wrist.
Rowan can circle my wrist with just his first finger and his thumb.
What you're gonna see, Jill-y, it's just between you and me. You tell anybody else and they ain't gonna understand.
I'm shaking my head saying I guess not.
Yeh c'mon. Nobody will know.
My mother will know. ...
How the fuck's Irene gonna know if you don't tell her? Looks like nobody's home here anyway.
The way Rowan says Irene makes me know that Rowan Billiet knows my mother as I can't know her and there is something familiar and sneering about Rowan's knowledge of her.
I don't want to tell Rowan Mommy is just out shopping in Ransomville, she will be back any minute. I don't want Rowan to know that no adult is in our house right now except my grandmother who spends all her time between the kitchen and her (downstairs, blind-drawn) bedroom and would not notice the sky-blue Chevy pulled just halfway into the cinder drive. If she saw Rowan Billiet she would think he's one of my brother's friends from high school anyway.
Afterward I would think — He knew to come when Mommy was gone. When Daddy wasn't here.
It is rare for my mother to be gone from the house at any hour of a weekday but it is usual for my father to be gone working at the GM radiator factory in Strykersville.
Rowan is frowning like he is trying very hard to remain patient. Giving me another chance.
It's a secret, see? Jill-y?
You tell anybody else and they ain't gonna understand.
You tell anybody else and you'll never get taken for a ride in my Chevy again.
It has not happened that I have ever had a ride in Rowan Billiet's Chevy so (possibly) Rowan is mistaking me for another young-girl cousin.
You coming? O.K.?
I don't say yes. But I don't say no.
A fever rushes into my face when Rowan pokes my wrist with his forefinger.
All that will happen has not begun yet. Rowan Billiet lifts his aviator sunglasses so that his small shiny-glass eyes move on me winking in the sun.
C'mon, Jill-y. Climb in.
Lemme shut that fuckin door so's it catches.
Tell us what you remember. When did it start.
... was there a time when you began to think, this is not right. There is something wrong.
Or did you not ever think that? Were you too young, too intimidated by him? Which?
Riding in the sky-blue Chevy is exciting to me.
From the start Rowan favors me.
Later it will be revealed that the sky-blue Chevy was given to Rowan by a friend (from Port Oriskany) or possibly it had been sold to Rowan for so low a price it was practically a gift. Also the expensive-looking wristwatch Rowan wore on his left wrist that fitted him loosely even with the strap adjusted so you could figure it had belonged to a much larger man.
My father would say why in hell would anybody give Rowan Billiet anything, for Christ's sake. The thought seemed to infuriate him as it did other men like my father who worked for everything they owned and were rarely given presents of much more consequence than neckties, socks, belts and subtly misshapen hand-knitted sweaters from female relatives.
Once when my father spoke disgustedly of Rowan Billiet my mother told him not to be mean-spirited, that poor Rowan had a hard time without any family to speak of.
You should feel sorry for Rowan, not hateful.
My mother felt some kind of guilt for Rowan Billiet. That her family hadn't done much for him when he'd been a small boy and (this was vague to me like all things that had happened before I was born) his parents had broken up and lived in separate places and when Rowan was just a baby he was shuttled between them or maybe not-much-wanted by either and then his mother died, maybe hadn't died but been killed, strangled by some man she'd gotten involved with and so Rowan had been brought to live for a while with my mother's elderly grandparents but after a few years that ended too.
He'd dropped out of school at sixteen. He'd gotten in trouble, or had flunked all his grades, or had just quit because he hated school and hated being told what to do. This was not so unusual, many farm boys did not finish school but Rowan Billiet wasn't a farm boy, he had no farm family and he would inherit no property in Beechum County.
It was said of Rowan Billiet that he'd learned to make his own way and this was said with a kind of grudging approval but always as if there was something more to say that wasn't going to be said if there were children within earshot.
My father did not always lower his voice even when children were present. When he was annoyed, or contemptuous. Saying now to my mother, Christ! That little faggot. Don't let me catch him coming around here.
And my mother protested: That's ridiculous! That's really nasty. Why are you saying such a thing, it isn't even true. ...
On his way out of the house my father laughed harshly as if my mother had said something very stupid that did not deserve a reply.
Faggot. We did not (yet) know what faggot meant but we understood that it was an ugly word that girls would not ever use. Nor did it seem like a word our mothers might use.
Instead it was a word used exclusively by men and older boys intent upon expressing contempt, disgust, reproach and a kind of incredulous bemusement and what was special about faggot was that it was directed (we observed wonderingly) only toward another male.
Yeh. You're gonna get a kick out of this.
At the bridge Rowan Billiet takes hold of my wrist to lead me down the steep path to the creek. His forefinger and thumb gripping my wrist hard enough to leave a red mark.
It is just a playful gesture, I am thinking. The way my grandfather runs his callused fingers through my hair and I am not supposed to flinch or whimper or cry for that will hurt Grandpa's feelings.
Beneath the bridge there is a large dark rectangular shadow in the water that is the shadow of the bridge rippling like something alive and breathing. The shallow water near shore is heaped with rocks but also concrete rubble and rusted iron rods and it is here that Rowan pulls me toward to see something that looks at first like slow-bobbing clothes or rags or something woolly. Unless I shut my eyes (as Rowan would not allow me to do) there is nowhere else to look.
See? That's something ain't it, lookit the size of that.
Rowan makes a thin whistling sound. I don't understand what I am seeing. My eyes blink and swell with moisture. And the strong smell of it, that comes up in hot wafts like heat from a vent in the floor, that makes me feel faint.
Rowan is saying he figures it got dumped upstream. There is an excitement in Rowan's voice I have not heard before.
And floated down here and got caught in the rocks. Really something ain't it?
D'you know what "eks-sang-u-ated" is? Blood all gone.
That's what happened here. Like a pig upside down, or a chicken. Bled out.
See how it's in parts? See, I can push them. The head is loose from the body. ... I did that.
Just for the hell of it, fuckin around with my stained-steel Jap knife.
Christ sake! Nobody's gonna hurt you.
It's a fancy knife. Cost twelve dollars. Stained-steel made in Japan.
Want to hold it? No?
Like this, sawed through the "vert-e-bray."
Know what "vert-e-bray" is, Jill-y? Like, your spine.
Here's your spine, see? Up here too. Your neck is like your spine too.
Rowan's fingers at the nape of my neck. At first a tickling sensation. Then he squeezes my neck allowing me to know that he can squeeze a lot harder if he wishes.
He is excited explaining: Like them "out-top-sies" they do in a morgue. Y'know — "out-top-sie" with a human corpse you see in movies.
"Dis-mem-ber"— like cutting up a chicken, but with a special knife.
See, I brought my camera. I been taking some cool pictures. But I couldn't take any picture of myself.
Here's my camera, Jill-y, now you take some of me right here on this rock.
Know how it works? This button you press.
Look through the little lens. Then you press the button.
Don't pretend to be dumb, you're a fuckin smart little girl. Everybody says.
Hey Jesus! — watch out.
(The camera almost slips from my fingers into the creek, I am shaking so.)
Rowan snatches the camera from me, cursing.
Then seeing the sick scared look in my face, and laughing.
Seeing how I am gagging, and choking. Coughing up a thin frothy-white liquid onto the front of my shirt as Rowan Billiet shakes his head and laughs.
What had it been, in the creek? — they are asking me.
What had Rowan Billiet brought me to see, and to take pictures of.
Something that had drowned? Or been killed? — shot?
Carcass of a dog? A deer? A sheep?
In my life there are things not-named. If I shut my eyes I can see them clearly and yet they are not-named.
Waiting patiently for me to speak. Not police officers (I have been told) but social workers from Beechum County Family and Children's Services who are questioning me with my parents' approval (I have been told). I can feel how they pity me for it is easy to believe that I am slow-witted or so handicapped by shyness or by what has happened that it comes to the same thing as being slow-witted.
Overhearing one of them say to the others in a lowered voice Maybe she just doesn't know. Maybe she never saw a thing but just imagined it. Maybe we are giving her ideas by asking these questions. ...
Get a kick out of it.
More than once he'd said. Many times he'd said.
You'll get a kick out of it, Jill-y.
Winking at me like there's a joke between us. (What is the joke between us?)
But a kick is not a nice thing. You do not want to Be kicked.
Or does kick mean that you will be doing The kicking?
But it is only a single kick. That is strange, I am thinking.
And years later, I still don't know. Why would you think that a kick is a good thing?
Thought you'd get a kick out of it, Jill-y.
Don't pretend you didn't. You did.
Bet you'd like to use my stained-steel Jap knife wouldn't you.
Sure you would.
Next time, maybe you will.
Maybe a live thing. Hear him squeal.
Up at the road, at the sky-blue car I am still feeling shaky. My knees are weak. There's a buzzing in my head. The bad smell in my nostrils. Rowan scolds me if I'm gonna be puking in his car he don't want me in his car, I can walk back home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dis Mem Ber"
Copyright © 2017 The Ontario Review, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Also by Joyce Carol Oates,
DIS MEM BER,
The Crawl Space,
The Drowned Girl,
Great Blue Heron,
Welcome to Friendly Skies!,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Dis Mem Ber by Joyce Carol Oates is a highly recommended collection of seven dark, carefully crafted short stories. Contents: Dis mem ber: Eleven year-old Jill is captivated but a little frightened of Rowan Billiet, an older relative. The Crawl Space: A widow keeps driving by the house she lived in for over two decades. Heartbreak: The rivalry between two sisters intensifies when an attractive male step-cousin visits. The Drowned Girl: A university student becomes increasingly obsessed with the drowning of another girl. The Situations: A father cruelly shows his children that he is the one in charge. Great Blue Heron: A recent widow recalls watching a Great Blue Heron with her husband and begins to identify with the bird. Welcome to Friendly Skies!: "Welcome aboard our North American Airways Boeing 878 Classic Aircraft! This is North American Airways Flight 443 to Amchitka, Alaska - Birdwatchers and Environmental Activists Special!" All of the writing is superb in this collection of stories published in 2016. While I tentatively agree that there could have been more stories added to this collection, I liked the theme these stories presented, with the last story being an exception. Each of the other six stories had a psychologically vulnerable female protagonist. Each of the women (or girls) had an obsession that would result in some unexpected action, or is the result of a precarious situation. They are all in some kind of danger. The last story adds a comedic touch that also takes a dark turn. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of The Mysterious Press.
This is a selection short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. Some are disturbing, some are just plain scary. All have to do with the unknown ... These are the ones I found most memorable ..... DIS MEM BER --- What happens when a young girl brushes elbows with a serial killer THE CRAWL SPACE --- When her husband dies, she begins visiting the home they once shared. The new tenants invite her in ... they had found some boxes in the crawl space that belong to her or to her late husband. What she finds in the crawl space is not what she expected. THE DROWNED GIRL --- A new university student obsesses over the horrible death of another student Other Stories: Heartbreak - The Situations - Great Blue Heron - Welcome To The Friendly Skies These are very short stories , well-written, guaranteed to make you shudder in the middle of the night. Many thanks to the author / Grove Atlantic / Mysterious Press / Netgalley for the uncorrected advance proof of DIS MEM BER. Opinions expressed here are unbiased and entirely my own.