Thursday Sampler: Out from the Underworld by Heather Siegel
July 16, 2015
In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle has launched a new series featuring writing samples from some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Thursday’s Sampler is an excerpt from Out from the Underworld by Heather Siegel. If you’re looking for a great and emotional memoir, this is the novel you don’t want to miss. As one reviewer said: Heather Siegel is a master storyteller like none I have encountered. She cleverly blended the wisdom of hindsight with the magic and innocence of the voice of childhood in order to tell her story with clarity, astuteness, humor, and suspense.
Out from the Underworld was the third place winner in the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.
A basement apartment .
Three resilient kids.
The mysterious disappearance of their mother.
Forty years later one daughter tells the dark—and absurd—truth of what happened.
Heather Siegel was six years old when her mother disappeared, sending her father
into a tailspin that took Heather and her siblings down with him—from a comfortable suburban home to a barely habitable basement apartment, a dark world they soon found themselves fighting to return to from the exile of foster care, then fighting even harder to escape.
Forty years later, Heather Siegel tells the remarkable story of how she and her siblings, Jaz and Greg, banded together to find out what happened to their mother and fight their way Out from the Underworld with nothing but their wits, determination, unbreakable bonds and gifts for humor and compassion to sustain them.
A wrenching, inspiring story filled with heartbreak, hope and love, Out from the Underworld will move you to laughter and tears.
“How did I get so lucky?” I ask my daughter, strapping her into the car seat and tickling her toddler belly. “Huh? How did I get the best little girl in the world?” I kiss her doughy hands, the soft blond hairs on her arms, and she squeals with glee. I could stand here all day and lavish her with affection if not for the window of opportunity that will surely close on the other end of this drive if I don’t keep moving.
Three more delicious kiss-tickles. I can’t help myself. I want her to know how loved she is. I want her to know that I will always be that single person in her life who will put her needs before my own—if only because, or especially because, I know too well how it feels to be without that person, floating without a center when the gravitational force of the family disappears.
I could go there in my imagination, as I often do, to see my mother flying through the air like a starfish—long limbs akimbo, fresh-milk skin, hair dyed red, all the promise of her unrealized life held in that brief second before she thudded onto the pavement. But I won’t. Not today. Not in front of Julia. Not on this gorgeous spring morning.
I dial my father as I pull from the driveway. It will take forty minutes to drive from the North Shore to the South Shore of Long Island, and I hope that he has remembered our visit.
“Just wanted to let you know that we’re on our way, so don’t go anywhere, okay?”
“Is that my Daddy?” Julia looks up from her game of Spider. One hand is the insect, the other is the caretaker. “I’ll take care of you, Spider. Spider, don’t worry, I got you.” She pats her hand.
“No, it’s Grandpa. Remember, we’re going to see your Grandpa today?”
She smiles four teeth. She loves her Grandpa as much as I do, even if she can count on one spider hand the number of times she’s seen him.
The house looks unchanged after all these years. White asbestos shingles, black shutters, a ranch home not unlike the others on this tree-lined block in Bellmore. Unexpectedly, my heart ramps up as I knock on the door.
Too many musty memories.
Inside the foyer, Julia in my arms, the darkness swallows me up, and I stand there amazed, even after all these years, to see how he’s managed to transform this three-bedroom ranch home into a virtual basement.
“Hey there, Pookie.” He steps from the bedroom wearing, no doubt, last night’s romantic get up for the newest lady in his life: maroon satin pajama pants and no shirt. At least his outfit has evolved. Or has it? I would wager that his lucky zebra bikini underwear is lurking beneath those satin pajamas.
He kisses Julia’s cheek, then mine. The smell of hair dye, Very Black, wafts out from his goatee, which, like his hair, combed into a slick ponytail, reveals a purplish hue along the hairline.
“She got big,” he says as I set her down. She has spotted a cat in the living room.
“A lot happens at this age,” I say, following her.
He ignores my dig.
Dust and cat hair coat the oak floor. Three litter boxes are arranged as if they are fixed furniture: one beneath the glass-and-wrought-iron coffee table, one next to the black leather sofa, the last tucked next to the upright piano that hasn’t been played in half a century.
“Did you get another cat?” I ask, sitting down gingerly at the edge of the couch.
“Nah, Haley’s been shitting on my bed, the little pain in the ass. The vet told me I should get some extra litter boxes.”
“Did he also tell you to put them in your living room?” I say, aware of how obnoxious I sound. How can I help it?
I feel for the lamp beside me and find the ridged knob.
“I don’t want that on.”
“Dad, come on, it’s ridiculously dark in here.”
He shakes his head, as if I’m the one who’s crazy for not having nocturnal vision, as if it’s perfectly normal to hermetically seal all the windows with shades.
As my eyes adjust, I can see in the dim light that things are worse than I thought. Is that a pile of dried cat vomit on the floor?
“Hey, did I tell you about this great cleaning lady I found?” I say. “She’s really meticulous, and I’d be happy to pay for her….”
“I thought you were coming for a visit,” he says flatly. “Besides, I do my own cleaning.”
And to my delight, he chuckles. We both know very well what his so-called cleaning routine is, and let’s just say it involves one wet paper towel and no soap.
“She’s adorable.” he says, almost pained, watching Julia lovingly pet his cat. Is there a hint of guilt? Regret? I suddenly feel sorry for the dig earlier.
“So how’s work?” I ask, aware of the irony that he will perk up at this.
“Dead as usual. I just made arrangements for a thirty-five-year-old schoolteacher. Breast cancer. Believe that shit? Thirty-five years old. What a way to go.”
“Horrible,” I agree.
“I tell you, Heather, Somebody Up There has got a real sick sense of humor. Really, and I’m serious here. You tell me what the point to all this shit is….”
I let him prattle on without interruption. He has his gripes, just as he has his theories—or maybe I should call it empirical evidence at this point. With forty years in the funeral business, he has come to believe, for example—based on the fact that Monday is the busiest day of the week at the funeral home—that people would rather drop dead than start a work week. Or—since early winter is generally the busiest time of year—that people would rather drop dead than go through another holiday season. But his main theory—and the one he is arguing now—is that we’re all going to drop dead, so you might as well pack it in from the start.
“Well,” I say obligatorily, “I think the point is trying to enjoy life while you can, Dad.”
“If you see what I see, Heather, day in and day out, miserable people dropping like flies, leaving behind more miserable people, you wouldn’t think so.”
“I hear you, but life is what you make of it….” Now it’s my turn to ramble on for a while. I dredge up stock inspirationals: “Anyone can have a full life, even if it’s short….”
After five minutes, his eyes glaze over, and I grow weary of my own preaching. Damned if I know what the point is, but I know it’s not to sit idly and listen to his Debbie Downer routine without objection.
In just twenty minutes, we’ve reached our saturation point with each other. And then the unexpected golden nugget:
“I’m glad you stopped by,” he says, standing.
“Thanks. Me, too.”
We hug, tightly, meaning it.
“Love you,” he whispers into my hair.
“Love you, too.” His musk and tobacco surround me; and, as usual, my heart warms and breaks. I really wish he’d leave this tomb of a house and move on.
Then again, maybe it’s amazing any of us broke free.