A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill Read Online (FREE)
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The Picture in the House
I started collecting my older sister Eunice’s suicide notes when I was seven years old. I still keep them all in my bottom desk drawer, held together with a black binder clip. They were among the only things I was allowed to bring with me, and I’ve read through them often the last few months, searching for comfort, wisdom, or even just a hint that I’ve made the right choices for all of us.
Eunice eventually discovered that I was saving her missives and began addressing them to me. In one of my favorites, she writes, “Noah, there is no such thing as a happy ending. There are only good stopping places.”
My family is spectacularly bad at endings. We never handle them with grace. But we’re not great with beginnings, either. For example, I didn’t know the first quarter of this story until recently, and spent the better part of my youth and young adulthood lingering like Jervas Dudley around the sealed tombs of our family’s history. It’s exactly that sort of heartache I want to prevent for you, whoever you are. For that to happen, I have to start at the outermost edges of the shadow over my family, with my mother, tall, fair-skinned, and redheaded Margaret Byrne, in the fall of 1968.
Like me, my mother was born somewhat late into her parents’ marriage. Unlike me, however, she reaped the benefits of being born to financially successful parents. Her father, Christopher Byrne, was a women’s clothing buyer for Dillard’s department stores, and had a close personal relationship with William T. Dillard himself.
Margaret didn’t know her father well; she thought of him as a handsome stranger who smelled of cigarettes and who always brought home gifts from trips to New York—mostly original cast recordings of the Broadway musicals he saw while away—but she never wanted for anything. She grew up in a big house in the suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee, and always had a generous allowance, nice clothes, cars, and, when the time came, tuition at her parents’ alma mater: Tilden University, a small conservative Christian school in Searcy, Arkansas.
You’ll never have to worry about money, Margaret’s mother told her, and in 1965 that seemed true. My grandfather had been so successful at Dillard’s that in 1966, as my mother matriculated for her freshman year of college, he left the company to open his own store. However, by the winter of 1967, the store was off to a slow start, and in the summer of 1968, while Margaret was home for summer break, her mother broke the news: the store was failing. The Byrnes would pay Margaret’s tuition for another year, but would have to take away her car, her monthly allowance, and the dorms.