Lauri Anderson (Nigeria 1965–67) writes about his story:
For many years I have lived in and written stories about a very impoverished part of America, Michigan’s Copper Country. I’ve written three collections of stories set in the very isolated backwoods community of Misery Bay. “Claim” is set there. The characters are fictional versions of real people from the Copper Country. Their desperate circumstances are, in many ways, not that different from the despairing situations that I found during my Peace Corps service in Nigeria just before and at the birth of Biafra.
by Lauri Anderson
Am I angry? You’re damned right I am. I’ve watched my life slip toward oblivion on this useless farm at the dead end of a gravel road in the isolation of Misery Bay. Sometimes in summer, weeks go by without a single car or pickup daring our road’s potholes, creating a roiling cloud of fine beige dust. In winter only the county plow comes out here, pushing back the six-foot banks so my truck can squeeze through, throwing a fine mist of snow dust over the tops.
I’ve lived here nearly all of my life, with my mother. Now she’s dying on the same bed in the same room where long ago she conceived and gave birth to each of us. Life is strange — full of ironies and dead ends. I never intended to remain here. Neither did she. But her husband (my dad) did.
She’s lying in the master bedroom, drowning in her own fluids. She’s diabetic. The diabetes years ago ate her right leg below the knee and the left foot beyond the instep. She is nearly blind. Still, she bears it all without complaint. I can hear her wheezing away in there. She’s dying better than I face life. She’s terrified of actual death, however; she’s a Christian of sorts and believes in that Heaven/Hell stuff. What she’s really afraid of, though, is facing her husband wherever she goes. Probably Hell. As Sartre says, Hell is other people. I already feel old and hate it. I can taste death’s feverish breath. When I was young I read in Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-lighted Place” about the nothingness that overwhelms everything if we live too long. From Tolstoy I understood the horror of death through “The Death of Ivan Illych.”
I’m alone and I hate it. But soon the clan will gather. We haven’t been together as a family since each of us came of age and bolted — all but me, that is. I didn’t go anywhere. That’s not completely true. For awhile I did a variety of shit jobs in Houghton. I was a janitor for Mental Health for a few years. That didn’t pay, so I did odd jobs on the side, mostly carpentry-drywalling, roofing, flooring, siding. Then I accidentally shot myself in the head with a nailgun. It hurt so damned much that I flinched with my finger still on the trigger and with the guard pressed into my head. I shot six more nails into my skull. Since then I’ve taken neurontin six times a day to control the seizures.
One year I made a good living dynamiting nearby streams and smoking the resultant fish in the sauna. Some customers described my smoked native brook trout as the finest fish they’d ever eaten. Of course it didn’t take long to deplete the streams. Since then I’ve lived off disability — my own and my mother’s.
The only person I see on a regular basis is our neighbor, John Kernen. When I’m outside in the winter plowing and shoveling snow, he’s sometimes outside too. When I’m cleaning up the yard in the spring, he’s often out in his yard. We wave at each other a lot but rarely speak. He serves on the Township Council and is crazy as hell. He’s so far out in space politically that he’s disowned his own Finnish heritage. He says Finland is so socialist that it might as well be run by a Stalin. He describes all Californians as fruits and nuts. He hates people like me because I get a welfare check. He says my mother doesn’t need disability either. “Her son should support her,” he says. Obviously we don’t get along. Thank God, he’s too dumb to figure out that I stole his pig while burning down his barn. I slaughtered the pig out in the woods and fed the entrails to the dogs. I smoked the hams in the sauna and salted the rest of the meat in barrels. I fed the son of a bitch some of the head cheese. He seemed to like it. I told him that I’d gotten it from a Chandonais in Lake Linden in payment for a favor. “When are you going to slaughter your pig?” I asked. He said it had run off into the woods when the fire broke out — that panic had caused it to break down the sty wall.
There were five of us kids, and ever since our mother did what she did, we’ve been poster children for dysfunction.
One of my sisters is a sixty-eight-year-old bag lady in Hancock. She was a beautiful child and an even more beautiful young woman but now she’s a bent-backed, broken-toothed old hag who remembers next to nothing. Everyone in Hancock knows who she is. She walks for miles every day inside the twin cities of Hancock and Houghton, carrying her plastic bags filled with whatever. She never leaves the city limits. She hasn’t left the cities for twenty years, ever since she turned herself into a drug-crazed demon and attacked her boyfriend with a baseball bat. She broke his arm and cracked a rib before he got ahold of the bat, wrestled it away from her with his one good arm, and struck her on the spine, cracking her vertebrae. Naturally he got sentenced for assault because he was a guy but I knew what had really happened. I knew his story was true because I knew my sister when she was drinking and taking drugs. Get her drunk and she’ll turn into a tiger. And she used to be strong! She looked tiny but so does a wolverine.
Now she sits in a dumpy apartment in a decaying old brick building by the only streetlight in the capital of Finnish America. The building used to be owned by a local bigwig but he didn’t make the mortgage payments and the bank took over. Now my sister has to call bank headquarters in Houston, Texas, if she wants something fixed. She gets an electronic voice, punches in a number, and gets another electronic voice. If she does that six or eight times over a span of forty-five minutes, she eventually gets a totally useless secretary who may not even know where Michigan is, let alone the city of Hancock.
So nothing gets done. Last January the building’s furnace went out and my sister heated her apartment by turning on the electric oven and leaving the door open. She could have burned down the damned building. She’d’ve burned too because every time it snowed, which was every day all day in January, the plow came by and buried the only exit. Normally the landlord hired some loser to shovel it out after the plow passed but now the landlord is a big office building somewhere in Texas.
A few times after a really big storm, I drove more than fifteen miles to Hancock to shovel out that damned door. Once while I was shoveling, a young cop stopped. My sister had dialed nine eleven because she was going stir crazy. She needed to get outside and do her bag thing. Most of the local cops are okay. The chief of Hancock is a nice guy. But this particular cop cursed me out. He said my sister and the other tenants should have had shovels parked by the door in the hallway. “But they couldn’t get the door open from inside,” I told him. He argued they should use the fire escape, which was pretty rickety.
The cops know my sister. They see her walking. She also stole a UPS package from in front of the door of another tenant. The tenant called the cops and they confronted my sister. She had already torn open the package. It contained some expensive pants, but they were missing. The cops wanted to know where they were. They searched her apartment. “I gave them to the President,” my sister said. The cops wanted to know which one. “Bush,” she said.
Years ago my sister was identified as the woman who stole some oxycodone from the Medicine Shop. She was high and admitted that she’d done it but the cops couldn’t find the pills. “”I gave them to Reagan,” she said that time. I guess when she thinks of things stolen, she thinks of politicians.
Anyway, I’ll be driving in to get her pretty soon.
Sister #2 can drive herself. She’s been married twice — to a philanderer and to an epileptic. She didn’t know the guy was spastic until she was wearing his ring. She should have suspected. He wrecked his car when he drove full tilt into a light pole at WalMart — a huge parking lot, a tiny pole. He’d had a seizure and didn’t even know he’d done it until he came to.
Since then she’s spent her life working three jobs. That’s admirable, I guess, but she has no life. She gets up between six and seven every day, seven days a week, and goes off to her first minimum-wage job after walking her dog and taking care of her cats — litter boxes, food, lap time. Two of her jobs are doing the daily accounts at two different fast food joints. Then she takes the proceeds to the bank. The two jobs together take about five hours. Then she rushes home to walk her damned dog and let it pee and crap. The dog is a nervous Nellie, probably because it sits all day in an apartment when she doesn’t have it on a leash. The dog pants a lot, barks in her face, paws at her. She calls the dog her child. “Come to Momma,” she says when she comes home, and the dog rips paint and wood off the inside of the door in its anxiety to get outside.
Her third job is cashiering at WalMart. The combined pay for all three jobs lets Sister #2 almost survive. She drives a tinny little econo car, never does anything, never goes anywhere, and never sees a doctor or a dentist unless she’s practically dying. She needs good health coverage but those bastards in Washington will never do anything about national coverage. They only care about how much money they can suck out of the pharmaceutical companies.
Sister #2 works with a great bunch of folks. Three years ago she corrected the spelling of a fat, ugly woman with a butch haircut, who acts as a people greeter. The woman hasn’t spoken to her since. One of the workers has fourteen cats and smells powerfully of their urine. Another has studs and piercings all over his body — in his nose, his lip, his cheeks, his ears, his nipples, his privates. I could go on but I won’t.
When I drive in to get sister #1, I’ll have to pick up sister #3 too. She lives in a leaky old trailer up in the Keweenaw. She was relatively happy for awhile but then she had both breasts removed because of cancer. Her husband left her and she shot herself in the bowels with birdshot from a four ten. At least that’s what I’m guessing because she’s mean as hell— complains about everything. She insists it was a hunting accident and the sheriff’s department never proved otherwise (and probably didn’t want to) but she’s never been hunting in her life.
Doctors had to cut out a lot of her bowels and now she has one of those bags. She’s bitter — bitches constantly. Every month she gets a fat disability check but no one seems to know what she does with the money. Recently various State agencies had to pay all sorts of bills because she’d fallen way behind — an $858 electric bill, a $556 phone bill, a $700 cable bill, a $400 bill for groceries at the corner store. The Lutheran church recently gave her $100 to help her out with groceries and she complained. I suspect that she wanted to spend it on drugs. She says that she’s constantly in pain. She pops oxycodone four times a day at $80-plus a pop, but the State pays for it. She takes about fifteen other pills a day too. She’s probably addicted.
It must be tough to have an addiction but no wheels. She got drunk one time too many and lost her license years ago. Of course she has no license tabs and no insurance. She brags about still driving to town. She also brags about all the magazines that she subscribes to without paying. They just keep sending copies for months, she says, and sometimes for years.
The last family member I need to contact is my kid brother. He lives in an old rundown home not far from Agate Beach. I don’t visit him because he has a pack of vicious dogs, a depressed wife, and sick kids. The kids ate lead from old paints and they’re not developing normally. The house is full of lead. Now I hear the State is going to rip apart the place, right down to the frames. Then they’ll rebuild it. They’re going to get a brand new home for nothing. In the meantime they’ll live in a trailer that the State has parked in their yard.
I don’t hear Mother’s gasping any more. Maybe she’s finally gone.
After we’ve gathered here, we’ll talk for awhile about the old days, about our childhoods here on this place. The fields were open then — the scrub trees hadn’t yet filled in the pasture. The house was new, clean, orderly.
We’ll wonder what life would have been like for all of us if our mother had not had an affair with a married man who held the mortgage on our farm. Why would a woman with five small children have an affair anyway? And so, nearly sixty years ago, our father shot that man, that son of a bitch, dead in our yard when he claimed he was taking away our mother and the farm. Dad died in prison at forty-five. None of us were there. None of us claimed the body. We were too messed up at the time.
We’ll sing a couple of our mother’s favorite hymns — maybe “The Old Rugged Cross” and “The Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Then I’ll torch the place, and as the cleansing flames take over, we’ll form a circle and sing “May the Circle Be Unbroken.”
From here, at night, I can hear the loons calling on the lake.
We’ll put her ashes with Dad’s, in Marquette in the little prison cemetery for the unclaimed. He has a claim on her. We have one on him.
Lauri’s own story —
I am the Chair of Language and Literature at Finlandia University and have published seven books of short fiction, a novel, and a book of poetry, all with Finnish themes and characters. My books have been positively reviewed nationally and have been studied and taught at a number of universities. They have also been topics at conferences and of dissertations by doctoral candidates here and in Europe. My work has also been anthologized multiple times. Because of the subject matter, I have appeared on Finnish National Television and received nine study grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. These grants have allowed me to study Slavic literature at Cornell, Twelfth-Century French literature at Mt. Holyoke, Commonwealth literature at Indiana University, the Mexican novel in Guadalajara, American humor at the University of New Mexico, Polynesian literature at the University of Hawaii, Islamic issues at Colorado College, and Appalachian literature at Ferrum College. I have taught in Nigeria, Truk Lagoon, and Turkey and lived in France, Mexico, and England. I survived the Biafran genocide and has been threatened at gun point twice, but my greatest achievement is raising daughters on my own.