Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Blue Wigs & Weasley Twins: Thoughts from the DCC

 

I spent Sunday at the Denver Comic Con (before my panel on writing stories with a message) and kept a notebook of thoughts throughout the day…

Initially:

I’m resisting my urge to hug everyone whose costume makes me break out in a big giddy grin.

So far I haven’t been impaled by a single wand, sword, horn, or light saber. Seems like an accomplishment.

12.5mg later:

Can I go home yet?

Why is my panel still so far away?

There’s a T Rex walking through the food court whose legs are too short to run.

A giant yellow exclamation point hovers over a girl’s head in the donut line.

A nerd couple starts making a board game at my lunch table. I get up and leave.

Sherlock Holmes asks to take a picture with me. I say, “Sure, Sherlock.” I’m not even dressed as a character, just all blue—hair, eyelashes, earrings, shirt, shoes—a depiction of my disposition.

My head feels about to explode from the pressure of this wig, which I redo in the ladies’ bathroom, no shame, I’m not the only one.

So many redheads in one place, and on a day when I don’t identify as a redhead. I am only playing an identity. This is a crowd I don’t stand out in, natural red or synthetic blue.

Who I think is the same girl for a while turns out is just a popular costume.

I ride the escalator in high heels; make eyes with the Queen of Hearts; do not slip and create a toppling human row of dominos.

God love these people who trek for miles in giant robot shoes.

There’s a kid actually dressed as a fidget spinner.

I pass Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts in the crowd and I genuinely debate whether to follow him around (major Cary Elwes crush back in the day).

I still plan to find him.

Didn’t cross my mind that Harry Potter would be a part of the Con. I may not be into super heroes but I love me some Houses and Charms.

The line to see the Weasley twins stretches for blocks (if we were outdoors). Damn those identical redheads, I’d get in that line too if my panel weren’t in half an hour. That’s at least a thousand guaranteed people not coming to see me.

 


For All the Shitty Neighbors — Past or Present — You and I Have Ever Had

neigh

Guy from New York:

I could hear him through the thin walls of our Brittania Heights/Mint Urban apartment, hacking up what sounded like blood, or possibly a whole damn organ—the vilest mother fucker who’d ever graced the opposite side of my walls. He was always home and he was always awake. I heard his television, I heard his disrupted breathing, I heard his shouts and moans. This man was never quiet. In the mornings while I got ready for work, I heard him yelling in agony (and in the afternoons, and in evenings too), in what sounded like legitimate pain. My imagination ran amok wondering what the hell would cause this. Was he a junky shooting up? Was he chronically clumsy? Was he enraged by his sports team? Did he piss needles? (All thoughts I preferred not to have, but they became my daily regimen of curiosity.)

What the fuck was going on over there?

In the mornings, 5 AM, he’d wake me up blowing cigarette smoke through my bedroom window from where he stood, inches away on his balcony. He’d belch and fart, shirtless with his pregnant-man belly hanging over dirty shorts. He’d hold public phone conversations out there midday, his thick New York accent characterizing him even more as Obnoxious Neighbor Numero Uno.

Hearing him so clearly through the walls highlighted my privacy complex. I hate to be heard and seen when it’s not my choice. What could he hear from his end? Did he hear me cry? Did he hear my moans? Did he hear our fights or laughter? I’m sure he heard it all, and thus I could never look him in the eye when passing him in the hall (though the only times he left were for cigarettes; I never did see him carry any groceries).

I quit reading on my balcony because of him (except on the occasions I was emboldened by a glass of wine, but even then I couldn’t read for thinking of all the dialogue scenarios that might occur if he tried starting up a conversation. He never did, but I could still feel his eyes boring into me, further distracting me from my book).

Only a couple of weeks before we moved out, an eviction notice was tacked on his door for all to see (based off of what, I can only imagine), and part of me was disappointed that I wouldn’t be around to see him leave.

He might be gone, but he will never leave my memory.

 

finger

College Girls Upstairs:

I dubbed these ladies “Hashtag” and “Hangover” based off their main topics of conversation that they’d loudly have on their balcony every weekend all weekend long, ceaselessly comparing unrelated things (like…like…like…). I can only presume they fell asleep out there, because I would go to bed and wake up the next morning to the sound of their millennial-esque voices.

The following are snippets of their conversations I transcribed one night. It was either that or go absolutely mad.

*bottles clinking*

“Is that like, code for something? Are we too old to understand?”

“You called me one time and you were like, Order me a cab now! And I was like, I don’t know where you’re at, and you were like, Just order me a cab!”

“Remember when we hit on that cop?”

“Yeah, we also harassed the mailman, so…”

“And I was like, so are you like, related to the Kardashians?”

“Like, it might be like, everyone, I mean, like, who knows?”

“Like, the kind of place where someone’s pooped on the floor—it’s not a good place.”

“And I’m like, No, I don’t wanna know, please don’t tell me.”

“I thought I was gonna die!”

“Don’t even look at me.”

“Like I’m really hoping someone took my phone and took some pictures with it.”

“You know how you like walk into the rec room and every one like says hey? I went in there after I graduated and like no one even paid attention to me.”

 

One of the benefits of no longer having a balcony (though I miss it more than not) is to be able to misanthropically avoid such neighbors as these, though there will always be others. C’est la vie.


Hopelessly Devoted to You

02beachhouse_aug22_2016_tommurphy

 

I first heard Beach House when I lived in a converted funeral home—in our bedroom where the recently deceased were once viewed and grieved—choosing a random band from Derek’s endless collection. My environment may’ve influenced my initial attraction, but their sound continues to haunt me, and so it felt a bit surreal to finally see my favorite band last Monday night at the Ogden.

Frontwoman Victoria Legrand stood hooded in a glittery green parka, silhouetted the entire first song, drawing attention solely to the sound—rarely lit, the four musicians black against the glowing and pulsing backgrounds. Legrand didn’t flaunt her body (like say, another of the powerful vocalists from my list, Sarah Barthel of Phantogram—who rocks it but it’s not what I identify with). Legrand got cheers just for exposing her hair, and she never went farther than that—though granted, it’s a magnificent trademark. She rarely spoke between songs, but when she did she encouraged kindness and convinced us we were beautiful.

Beach House’s sound is reminiscent of music from decades past. They’re complex but slow and intentional. They’re experimental, yet consistent. Most of all they are Victoria Legrand’s Voice. A voice husky, pure and powerful. A voice I’ve spent hours attempting to emulate.

I was around eight years old when I started dreaming of stardom. I loved big voices. Whitney. Mariah. Celine. LeAnn Rimes, Jewel, Christina Aguilera, Cleopatra, Jessica Simpson. My taste may’ve been questionable, but through these women I learned emotions I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. I imagined my life playing out like scenes from their albums, riding rollercoasters with my boyfriend and meeting eyes with Leonardo DiCaprio while he sketched me, not knowing he was about to die.

My adult relationship with music is hardly different, although I like to think my taste is at least more interesting. Some bands—but especially Beach House—have become muses for my writing. The opening to their song “Real Love” is my go-to for getting in the zone for my typically murky fiction (“I met you somewhere, in a hell beneath the stairs. There’s someone in that room, who frightens you when they go boom…”). I listened to their album Devotion so much while writing one story that I titled the story in homage to the album’s influence. (Other influential songs for my creative process: “Myth” and “Troublemaker.”)

Beach House also holds significance for providing the perfect words for emotions I haven’t always known how to address. It’s like reading Anaïs Nin and believing that she is me and I was her and therefore reincarnation must be real. The songs “Better Times” and “The Traveller” especially have had this effect. My identification with Beach House is so entwined with my internal life, that at their concert I felt I was in a room full of voyeurs. I couldn’t be me. I couldn’t transform into the version of me who shuts out the world and absorbs their music like a necessary nutrient. I wished I were alone with the band. Entirely surrounded by sound.

Apart from the voyeuristic crowd, I was disappointed that the band played only one of my dozen favorite songs. Maybe a few more favorites would’ve been all it took for me to cross over and get lost in the music.

I did however enjoy seeing Legrand feel the music in similar ways as me when I’m alone with her voice at home, half-bent, hands on head, hair swaying. Mellow, mellow. My scene is a scene of comfort, a place where no one cares or judges, and somewhere along the line I’ve started to feel like I’m getting too old for concerts (which feels like a betrayal to my younger, concert-obsessed self). I get more excited now simply knowing a band I love is coming to my town and I have the option to see them. After four years in Denver, this still feels like a luxury.

Beach House put on a memorable and atmospheric show, and I’m glad I went, but in the future I’ll be content experiencing their music in my car and through my headphones, belting their lyrics while clutching at my chest in resonate emotion that I’m sure to find solace in for many years to come.


Socorro’s Doomsday Prophet

jh_end-of-world

 

The only other person in Socorro’s than the occupied proprietor was a woman who looked like she’d be comfortable on a skateboard. Her hair was long, black. Falling down the front of her forest green tank top. She wore rose-tinted glasses and a hat with large owl eyes that eyed me like a messenger. Who…Are…You? Like the Cheshire Cat, choosing to be mostly invisible. I got the sense that this woman sought the greater thrills and ambiguities of life. Someone who didn’t accept simple answers.

She started talking to us before we realized it was us she was addressing.

“Strange times these days in Denver,” she said. “Unpredictable weather.”

You nodded and I gave her a smile, making small talk, but it wasn’t just small talk she was after.

Behind her, through the windows, I watched the sky darken, dimming the effect of her rosy eyes. Wind whipped through the sidewalk trees, altering the hot summer day. Did this woman sense oncoming disaster like an old injury anticipating rain? She claimed to be a native, but she gave the impression of just passing through. I clung to her transient aura. I like knowing people who know things I don’t.

“It’s like doomsday is lurking,” she laughed. “Repent of your sins or face eternal damnation!”

You gave me a look that said you were ready to leave. Our food should’ve been done by now.

The woman asked if we were astronomers who might be able to enlighten her about the cosmos. “I hope to meet stargazers wherever I go,” she said. “Someone to explain what’s going on.”

“Sorry,” you said, “but I hope you find one someday.”

She gave us a genuine smile, wished us well and left.

We got our food and outside I looked for the woman along the street, but she’d vanished. Was it possible she’d already made it to the corner? An air of mystery floated amidst the strengthening wind.

Cold, hard raindrops fell intermittently, like a warning to take cover. I opened our umbrella for the walk to our car.

“That was weird,” you said about the woman.

You’ve never quite trusted people who don’t have both feet rooted in reality, whereas I, for most of my life, have idolized them. I was raised with a reverence for the unknown—speculation a common pastime in my quiet house; me, an only child.

“I thought she was awesome,” I said.

A gust of wind caught hold of our umbrella, warping the spindly metal frame. I shoved it, useless, into a sidewalk trashcan, relieved to be rid of our lightning rod. The sky lit up like residual fireworks and thunder shook the ground, setting off a nearby car alarm. This was no regular afternoon storm.

“Run,” you yelled, and we made it to shelter as the floods came down, baptizing our car.

The disappearance of the rosy-eyed owl woman, followed by the flash flood, gave me goose bumps and I wondered out loud if she’d been some sort of prophet.

Your eyes said, Coincidence, but you humored my interpretation.

For the next half hour the city was transformed, slowing traffic to a blind crawl and prompting many drivers to pull over. I’ve driven in blizzards that were easier to navigate, and though we made it safely home, I started to wonder if this was indeed the start of the apocalypse.

But then again, humans have been looking for the end since as early as the beginning. But this time—this time might be it.


Hometown Sketch: Night at Malarky’s

 

night-club

There’d been a wedding that night—a couple from a nearby town smaller than Storm Lake—and afterwards the groomsmen made their way to Malarky’s, the local nightclub just north of the lake across from the Tyson packing plant. Malarky’s was a family restaurant by day, club by night, and housed in an otherwise inconspicuous building save for the sign with the four-leaf clover and the fact that it meant an escape for hundreds of youth in the northwest pocket of Iowa. It was the only nightclub for several zip codes and every weekend kids from surrounding towns drove miles through the cornfields to drink toxic-colored cocktails, dance, and hopefully hook up.

It was one of two places in town that stayed open until 2 A.M. and every weekend the cops shook with unreleased tension, hoping for some out-of-the-ordinary action—a reprieve from leading funeral parades and handing out barely-above-speed-limit speeding tickets. They camped out in the parking lot, arms crossed, memorizing shady faces and predicting whose fights they’d soon be breaking up.

And there was always, without exception, a fight.

Clubbing at Malarky’s was a rite of passage in Storm Lake, and if you were a local college student this included a ride on the ‘drunk bus.’ This converted purple school bus may’ve been the butt of its own joke, but it was no joke to be stopped for public intox if you chose to walk instead. (Read: Bored police force.)

Now, I was a late bloomer in terms of rebellion and it took me until the age of 24 to grace the dance floor of this establishment. I didn’t drink until I was 21, and still had never really been drunk, so on that humid late-June night my hometown best friend took it upon herself to introduce me to this surpassed youth experience.

We started at my apartment with a couple of Smirnoff wine coolers, donning borrowed heels and puckering our lips at our reflections as we dabbed on another coat of red lipstick—one layer per drink consumed. This was a new facet of womanhood, I thought, another rite of passage in itself, dressing up in costume to appear bolder, looser, and more seductive. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was ready to take on the night.

Enter: two teetering girls on the brink of a renewed energy for life. My friend had been a mom for some time and this was one of her rare nights to blow off steam. I’d been struggling to find work and a way out of town, and in the meantime I was in desperate need for some fun and was ready to say yes to about anything, starting with the first pool-blue cocktail that my friend set in front of me. It was strong, sweet, and made me cringe, but it got me on the dance floor amidst the crowd of former classmates, teens, and coatless groomsmen.

Preferred music be damned, this was not the place to be picky. We danced to Top 40 hits and terrible hip-hop. We danced near and chatted up the groomsmen—a dull, paunchy lot, but our pickings were slim and when else would we get the okay from our husbands to flirt? I cheered the absentee newlyweds, envisioning the ceremony, the bride’s dress and the flowers with such clarity that I began to feel as though I’d been a part of the celebration. Wasn’t life beautiful! There was so much to be grateful for, so much beauty and kindness and love! Hope existed and people were inherently good! Everybody was exquisite, but especially (to my friend’s embarrassment) the boys whose ages I’d hate to guess and whose faces I stroked as I wobbled to the bathroom, their expressions sending signals I was too soused to accurately read.

Long_Island_Iced_TeasWhatever else I drank that night, I know there was a Long Island Iced Tea and a Jell-O shot that may or may not have made it to my mouth, its whipped cream cap dabbed on my nose like a miniature snow peak. In the bathroom we took selfies and pouted our blurry lips, knocking into other girls on our way out—a mild rough-and-tumble only permitted in the throes of inebriation.

My friend led me by the hand to get some air out front where a fight was just breaking out. The cops moved in, frowning with delight, tensions high, and in that moment—a moment recounted to me the next day when I returned my friend’s shoes and asked if she’d found my ID and earring—she took me by the waist and kissed me as though it were a stage performance. It was soft, it was intentional, but clouded and mostly forgotten. If I’d been fully cognizant at the time I’m sure that one Katy Perry song would’ve come to mind (“the taste of her cherry chap stick”). This was a woman I’d loved for nearly 15 years, so in retrospect, it was probably about time we’d kissed. And hopefully, at the very least, we added to the fight-scene entertainment.

Just before closing we made our exit, followed by one of the groomsmen who tried to join us for a ride but was snubbed by the locking of doors and a sardonic wave as we weaved carefully out into the pre-dawn silence of our town that I was aching with a need to leave now more than ever.

That night was a sample, a taste of an endless series of new experiences I wanted to explore. It was a balancing point between youth and adulthood, the old me and the new, and it is solidified in my memory as a time that I finally let go of my insecurities and danced loose the shyness and awkwardness I’d been holding on to for far too long.


For the Love of Denver: Microbreweries

Denver mural

Breweries keep popping up in Denver—land of the microbrews—like perennials in springtime, so much so that it’s become an established part of the city’s culture. The brews might be unique and varied (with no mainstream beers sold on site), but there seems to be a ubiquitous, overarching vibe wending through each garage door-fronted pub that looks a little something like this:

Walk up to the entrance and you’ll likely see a food truck parked out front. Denver breweries are all about the beer and very few offer a food menu outside of local beef jerky or trail mixes hanging behind the bar. This is a win-win for patrons and food truck owners alike as the cuisine alternates depending on the day of the week, offering options from street tacos to sushi to banh mi to suit your tastes. (Warning: if the Burger Chief food truck is your only available option, Go Hungry, unless you’ve been hankering for a touch of food poisoning.)

Don’t worry about trying to show up between 3-6, because prices are the same all day long. Instead, to cut costs, try a flight sampler or a half-glass if available.

As you make your way through the slew of dogs and kids bustling about at knee-level, feel free to pat their heads and tell them they’re being good boys and girls. Owners/parents are used to this and will ignore you like a drunk Uncle on Easter.

Inside, you might do a double take to make sure you’re in the correct pre-agreed upon place, because even if you’re in a new brewery, you’ll experience a flash of deja vu when you peruse the industrial-style design with repurposed wood and metal tables, the bare light bulbs and exposed pipes, and the visible barrels behind the glass wall where all the magic happens.

On the walls you’ll notice a theme amongst breweries—that all permanent art looks like it was commissioned by the same artist, an artist in love with the locale and the landscape who paints abstract and geometric mountains and plenty of Colorado flags in blue, yellow, and red.

The menu boards are colorful and hand-written, and possibly displayed on skateboards. For those of you who don’t imbibe, check the board for a kombucha brew, which is steadily becoming more common, then grab your trivia card to test your pop culture and historical knowledge, or sit down with your crew at a community table for a round of Apples to Apples or Uno. Before you leave, fill up a growler of your favorite brew to take home and maybe buy a T-shirt or sticker to show off your local pub love.

If you have trouble deciding which brewery to check out first, don’t fret. For the most part, it comes down to the neighborhood you’re in, the friends you meet there, and that little special something that stands out, like the repurposed airplane wing bar top and movie projections at Former Future, or the giant encased gears at Declaration. Whether you’re a native or just in town for the weekend, if you want a taste of a classic Denver experience, the microbreweries are where it’s at.

former future

*This post is based off of Comrade Brewing, Declaration Brewing Co, Denver Beer Co, Fermaentra, Former Future Brewing Co, LowDown Brewery, and Platt Park Brewing Co.

Have a favorite not on the list? Feel free to comment with a recommendation.


For the Love of Denver: DINK!

dink pink

There’s a quirky juxtaposition between the elegant, intricate Sherman Street Event Center and the brilliant and shocking display of colors inside, like a candy store set in a forgotten cathedral. Colors shouting for attention—the underground sweat, tears, blood of exhibitors bleeding forth the passions that inspire them. These non-monetarily driven creators, creating for the love of creation, love of destruction of preconceived constructs of What Is Art. Queer, trans, nonbinary, nerdy, geeky, deranged—everyone is free to be who they otherwise stifle for interviews, meetings, parents, or school. Here, where appearance isn’t judged but enjoyed for its anti-conformity. Where it’s welcomed, reveled in, celebrated and embraced. This is the Denver underground comic, art, and zine scene—the beautiful and the disillusioned by what we’ve been told our entire lives is the proper way to cultivate proper interests. Denver is getting weirder—a host to those who’ve been looking to find their place, exclaiming, “Join us, you are home!”

birdy

I volunteered at the inaugural DINK Expo to learn about starting a zine, and over the course of the weekend I experienced much more than I’d anticipated. Everywhere I looked were wild and discordant textures supporting, fortifying each other like the collection of exhibitors, volunteers, and staff. Everyone open to sharing stories and encouraging fellow artists to Never Give Up On Your Dreams. I exchanged cards with other writers and zinesters. I met bearded Princess Leia and Fake Stan Lee fresh off the CannaBus Tour while perusing the main show floor. I sat in on a panel with the creators of Birdy Magazine, who published one of my stories in last summer’s Issue 20 (Thanks, Birdy!). At the event’s culmination, I strolled the red “carpet” into the basement bar for the DINKy award show where Drunk Vanna White caressed every on-stage guest. This was a happy place, laden with cheerful camaraderie and facilitating the start of something that will hopefully continue for years to come.

 

Thank you to everyone who supported the event, and to those bold enough to share their dripping open wounds of hard work and dedication. See you again next year!

 

http://dinkdenver.com

https://www.facebook.com/denverdink/

http://www.westword.com/arts/dinks-charlie-la-greca-on-underground-comics-cannabis-and-green-cons-7731510

http://photos.denverpost.com/2016/03/26/denver-independent-comic-and-art-expo-photos/#1

 

 


Hometown Sketch: Hells Angels Rumor

hells23

 

In the summer of 1971, a rumor went around Storm Lake, Iowa that the Hells Angels were coming to town. The rumor was linked to a vague mention of the Midwest in a biker magazine, but through the nuanced and intricate ways that news spreads in small towns, the rumor grew into the greatest panic Storm Lake has ever known.

At this point the Angels were long notorious for their exploits all over the country. People were either enthralled with or repulsed by them. The Angels had links to The Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and were immortalized in print (outside of news headlines) by New Journalist writers such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. The Angels symbolized ultimate freedom and debauchery, anti-hippiedom with a Beat-like mindset for exploring what our expansive country had to offer. But unlike the peace-loving, Zen-seeking Beats, the Angels liked to stir shit up, starting fights and assaulting women. Or so it was said.

I first heard of the rumor while sitting at my grandma Shirley’s kitchen table (where we had all of our best conversations), enthusiastically scribbling down notes as she recounted how she’d considered hiding in the bushes behind her house and how she’d worried that the bikers would raid her and my grandpa’s Wholesale Market of all their beer. “People actually left town because they were afraid it would be too dangerous,” she said. My grandpa Jack wanted her to leave but she wouldn’t. Instead, she said, they went and bought some .22 bullets for their rifle. Other families shipped their wives and daughters off to relatives in other towns, or banned them from leaving the house. Men were entreated to stand guard and protect those who dared to stay.

Forty thousand bikers were guesstimated to arrive for the town’s 4th of July Star Spangled Spectacular, inciting a request for the National Guard’s services. Baseball bats were stashed at the ready, a bank boarded up its windows, and trucks were assigned to blockade the girls’ dorms at the local college.

The idea of this event in my hometown’s past thrilled me and I went to my grandma Rose—a lifelong resident of the county—with questions about her experience. She said she hadn’t believed anything would happen even if the Angels did come through, despite my grandpa’s boss warning him that the filthy fiends might rape his four young daughters. But even my grandpa said, “We’re staying right here.”

My mom, along with her siblings, must have read something in their parents’ nonchalance and ditched the house to go swimming at the lake where they saw some visiting bikers, enjoyed their time, and left unscathed.

My dad and uncle were also told to stay home, but in true form they took off on their bikes for another park where dozens of visitors on motorcycles were camped out hoping to see or possibly join up with the Angels. The boys talked to one couple from Pennsylvania who had a baby with them and thought they were the nicest people, so what was everyone so worried about?

The crowds grew so large that the lake road was jammed bumper to bumper with traffic. The state moved in 40 cops with a communications truck for crowd control. Two helicopters were borrowed from the National Guard, and when 35 bikers headed out from Mason City towards Storm Lake, a highway patrol plane followed them in and had them diverted to a park about 10 miles outside of town. Local residents flocked to see the assembly like eyes to fresh road kill on an unmarked highway. But in the end the most unnerving run-in happened at Grace Lutheran Church where a wedding was in session. Two curious bikers saw the full parking lot and assumed it was the rumored biker rally. They were spotted— before any of the immediate family saw them—and were told to leave before the mother of the bride had a conniption fit.

When the fear of the Angels’ visit began to dissipate, rationality filled in the gaps and left the town wondering, How could we have reacted differently?

Is there something to be learned from unfulfilled mass hysteria? I wonder how I might’ve reacted in said time and place. I can speculate that I’d keep my cool and wait for it to all blow over. That I’d be more practical in my efforts to defend my home and self. But there are things that we only know we’re capable of once put in those situations, and we must do the best we can to simply make it out alive.

 


Subspecies: Sports Fan

17 Nov 2013: The Thunderstorm Skydiving Team approaches the field from the air before kickoff as the Dever Broncos face the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field in Denver, CO.

Oh, football. As many of you know (or could likely infer), I am one of the athletic indifferent. But when you live in a city with seven professional sports teams, you learn to accept sports as part of the culture while still maintaining a healthy distance. Unless of course family is in town.

Family has a way of getting you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. For instance, attending a Broncos preseason game. Granted, I fully recognize this as a privilege, but as the game itself didn’t hold my attention, I spent the hours observing my more immediate surroundings.

My first impression: Are we at the airport? Why does everyone just accept this invasive level of security?

There were wands, metal detectors, bag checks and locker assignments for those first-timers (or rebels) who like me had no idea you couldn’t so much as leaf through a program unless your possessions were clearly visible through transparent plastic.

Inside, I had an altered perspective of my beloved city. Looking up at the naked blue sky, I felt a distinct sensation that I’d fallen to the bottom of a giant well, or possibly a soup pot simmering on a stove while its inhabitants sat patiently in their designated seats unknowingly waiting to be boiled alive.

This undercurrent of nameless tension made for great people-watching—an activity so engrossing it occupied me all four quarters. I watched as my fellow humans morphed into a subspecies known as Sports Fan who stomped, wooted, and seat-danced to the arena music (which somehow included Rage Against the Machine; I won’t even get started on the ironies there).

Variations of Sports Fan include: the high fiver, the costume wearer, the body painted, the screamer, the slobbering drunk, the group of slobbering drunks, the good natured josher, and the other team’s fan who can take it as well as dish it just for the love of the debate. And often, many of these types overlap. Look out.

All around me ads flashed on Jumbotrons like a futuristic scene from literary dystopia, keeping the pleasure center engaged because without that, I presumed, under-stimulated fans might opt to finally punch out the Bronco mascot dancing amidst the cheerleaders who acted like it was the funniest shit they’d ever seen. (Place this same scenario in a bar. How would the outcome be different?)

Impression #5, or whatever: Also like air travel, sporting events are ridden with antsy ADHD folks who excuse themselves as they kick over your draught beer and smash the paper boats at your feet for the tenth time in under thirty minutes until you finally can’t take it anymore and become one of them, following the trail of discarded peanut shells to join the ranks for booze, food, and bathrooms.

The food: traditional American concession goodness or a conspiracy against the arteries? I’ll let you decide.

Final Impression: As night rose over the stadium, it created an odd contrast with the pixelated band of light below the skyline. I felt as though transposed to an open-air spaceship floating in the orbit of American consumerism entertainment—through the never ending swirl of one sporting season to the next—encapsulated for countless light years in football fandom psychosis.

Such an experience is great the first time, but after that there’s not much new to add to the story.

 


Cabin Ghost of Okoboji

blog ghost

We were nine, maybe ten or eleven. Old enough to know better but young enough to reject any sort of objective explanation. We were the Goosebumps generation—thrilled by the supernatural and open to the possibility of the beyond. Cheap thrills and thunderstorms were the height of entertainment, and Hide-and-Seek was the best way to waste an afternoon.

We were Okoboji babies—annual visitors to the lake resort town hidden inside the forests and corn-laced highways of Northwest Iowa. My extended family had met there for years, sharing conjoined cabins and living up a short-term life of leisure. It was a town rife with history and allusions to spectral sightings, made all the more believable by the aged and creaking rides at Arnold’s Park with its abandoned-chic vendor shops.

Midday at the lakefront cabin, the men and boys dangled their feet over docks in hopes that a fish might bite, while the women went off to peruse the Emporium, leaving the girls behind, swapping stories in the back bedroom.

As we sat on the bed, laughing and painting our nails, a sound from inside the bathroom caught my attention. I asked my cousins if they heard it, and the three of us paused to listen.

A low, rhythmic flapping beat like the blood pulsing in my ears.

We exaggerated our fright, clinging to each other by wrists and elbows so as not to mar the half-dried paint. Sydney—the oldest—stood up and we followed, inching to the bathroom to flip on the switch. As light filled the shadows, the bedroom door shut by itself as though it had just admitted an invisible guest. We huddled, frozen in the bathroom doorway, where above us a rogue ceiling tile lifted and fell in attempts to communicate. We screamed again and ran through the room, spilling a bottle of red nail polish in our haste, leaving it to spread on the carpet like a fresh pool of blood.

We flung open the door and ran toward the lake, calling out for the men at the docks. But there was no one in sight. Where could they be? Our fear rose and we felt deserted by the ones who could save us.

We didn’t dare turn back. We wandered the shore until my grandfather approached, shirtless and baring a rod with a barbed and swinging hook. Could he be trusted? Was it him, or had he already been possessed?

We took our chances and related our encounter. He raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “Sounds like a draft to me,” he said. We denied it up and down. The day was stagnant and steamy; there was no breeze to support his theory. No, it was a ghost, we cried, unwilling to consent to his nonchalance. Come look, we said and led him through to the back.

The bathroom tile gave a single immoderate flap and settled into place for good. My grandfather, tall as a tree, reached up and prodded the tile. “Just a draft,” he repeated. “You girls should get out and enjoy the lake. Go for a swim. And clean up that spill before your mothers give you a real reason to be scared.”

He left, leaving the door open in his wake. We looked at each other and shrugged. No matter what might haunt the back of the cabin, there was no way we were going to test what lay beneath the waters of the lake.


How Do You Take Your Coffee Shop?

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I get my coffee and settle in at one of the four coveted individual tables at Kaladi Brothers Coffee. Some days I wait for up to an hour to score one of these seats, eyeing their habitants and practicing telepathy: You have a class to get to, better leave now; Your dog is hungry and needs a walk. Sometimes the regulars share their space, but today I’ve lucked out. I slide onto the bench and empty my writing bag onto the table. It’s time for some serious work.

The din at Kaladi’s is a perfect blend of jazz music, grinder whirring, espresso pulling, and the dissonance of multi-tonal conversations. I look around while thinking through story details. I spell out words in my mind with the magnet letters stuck on the copper counter face. I critique this month’s art exhibit and implore the collection of religious figurines above the drip coffee for ideas.

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There’s an element of grunge to the shop that’s particularly inviting—the exposed pipes and vents, the gold-painted ceiling, the well-worn wood floors, and the stuffed Pee-wee’s Playhouse and ALF characters perched atop the menu board. It’s homey, spacious, and uncontrived.

From behind the counter a barista calls out, “Iced Kaladi! Decaf Dante!” Their specialty drinks are top notch, but it’s their coffee that draws the most attention. They source Fair trade beans, air-roast them locally, and it’s likely that co-owner Mark Overly has visited the coffee’s country of origin. These guys know their shit, including the baristas, and are happy to talk shop with anyone who inquires. Just don’t ask what’s in the Venetian Crème (Always iced, Always non-dairy, Always a secret recipe).

Kaladi Brothers is in the heart of DU, but the regulars range from students to writers, artists, tutors, mentors, rabbis, engineers, and retirees studying Arabic or wearing kilts. Many of us know each other by name, giving the shop a home-away-from-home atmosphere and making it an ideal place to spend an afternoon.

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There are games and crayons for kids and a display of drawings dedicated to the shop. There are local doughnuts and pastries, a skateboard painted with an interpretation of St. Drogo—the patron saint of coffee houses and ugly people (go figure)—and the ever-mysterious trap door leading down to basement storage (I want to go to there).

This is the place where I write most of my blog posts and short stories, and if I ever make it big, Kaladi’s will get much of my credit.

Everyone needs a place to belong, a community of likeminded individuals and those from whom we can learn. Kaladi is a place where you can join in on conversations about philosophy, spirituality, Game of Thrones, art, music, fashion, or the many opportunities that Denver has to offer. It’s a collective of natives and transplants open to learning and willing to share, and there’s an overarching understanding that we all have something we can teach somebody else.

And for these reasons (as well as the TWO bathrooms), Kaladi Brothers will be my regular coffee shop for years and years to come.

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https://www.kaladicoffee.com/about-our-coffee/

https://www.facebook.com/kaladicoffee?fref=ts

http://kaladicoffee.blogspot.com


Hometown Sketch: Cheesy Rider

 

 

Cheesy Rider wore a severed squirrel tail tied like a talisman to his extra large belt. But that wasn’t how he got his name.

As a kid Cheesy rode around town on an undersized Stingray, his dirty socks up to his knees and his hair a disheveled brown nest. He had a sister named Beep Beep who announced herself with the onomatopoeia, her hands clapped together like a swimming fish when making her way through crowds. He had a son, too, whom he was no longer allowed to see; but no matter the attention his family drew, Cheesy remained oblivious, or apathetic, and judged no one in return.

He grew to be a stocky man with a scrappy beard and thick glasses that he cleaned with his fingers like windshield wipers when it rained. Whatever the weather, he rode, never drove, and never left the small Iowa town in which he grew up.

In the summers of his youth he hung out underwater at the deep end of the pool wearing goggles, ready for the girls whose swimsuits went up after jumping off the high dive. When that was banned he tailed the local garbage trucks so often that they hired him on for knowing the route. He was fired after less than a week.

If Cheesy talked to anyone, he talked about bikes, and he wasn’t unfriendly to encounter. But if he took to you, he’d approach you and never shut up.

One Halloween, a young couple hosted a costume party at an acreage in the country and looked out the window to see Cheesy riding up the dirt road, a trail of dust announcing his arrival. They debated turning out the lights, denying an open invitation. But as the biker drew close they saw that it was a friend in costume—his getup spot-on, right down to the 16oz. bottle of soda in the back pocket of his cargo shorts—and they greeted him with a hearty laugh and a beer.

Cheesy Rider was a town legend but his claim to fame was not the enviable sort. For months, more than a decade ago, farmers found him in their barns in the mornings. He played the warm shelter card, but the farmers couldn’t shake the funny feeling that there was a motivation deeper than sleep. Later on, after a 3 a.m. patrol in a barn on the outskirts of town, Cheesy was found pulling up his pants amidst a herd of sheep. He was arrested on the spot for bestiality, and the sheep were heard bleating their relief.

Then a few years ago, a new mystery befuddled the farmers. They discovered that their horses’ tails were missing, cut off at jaunty, haphazard angles. For months no one could figure out who was dismembering the horses or by what service the tails were put to use. But sure enough, when the cops found Cheesy, it was hardly a surprise. He was arrested again and this time put in jail. Eventually he was released for good behavior and moved to a group home where he’s to live out the remainder of his life.

Though the town’s citizens may no longer see Cheesy riding the streets or assaulting the beasts, there are few who will forget him—telling his stories and whispering his name for generations to come.

 


First World Problem

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Last Wednesday, downtown, the Platte wasn’t the only river rushing through the city. What started as a lazy day in Denver became one of those unforgettable days to look back on and, only after the fact, laugh because it was so precisely unpleasant and out of the ordinary.

Walking 13th from Wax Trax, the sky dark as dusk, a drizzle soon turned into a torrential monster as soon as we reached our car. We pulled over on Race, hoping to wait out the storm before getting ice cream at Lik’s.

Blinding rain marred all visibility. Unceasing quarter-size hail trapped us in our car, inspiring a fear of feeble overhead branches—the impact of the hail so intense we put our hands to the roof to feel the battery of ice. Thunder, lighting, tornado sirens. Flash floods forming streams of water as high as car doors, waves creating backsplash against tires. There seemed to be no end in sight.

Wielding an umbrella, we forded parking lane rivers to find Lik’s closed due to storefront flooding. Back at the car: an engine that won’t turn over. Our feet soaked, our faces sunburnt from the humid heat of the day, sticky with dried sweat, rain clinging to clothes that cling to more sweat. And no way to get home to shower and dry off. The gas gauge raced, the dash flickered, and the starter might as well have belonged to Barbie’s Dream Car.

It started to pour again. Maybe the starter got wet; we just had to give it time to dry out. We were both hungry and in need of a bathroom. No public restrooms for blocks. Who did we know who might know about cars? Dads. We called our dads, we implored Google on our phones. Nothing concrete. Nothing hopeful.

It seemed there had to be a greater force, the hand of a sadistic author writing this shit up for us to feel so conspired against.

Just let it dry, won’t dry, walked to Gypsy House and ate over-priced hipster food. God it felt good just to wash my hands. At least the coffee was good. 8 PM still nothing. Do we walk to Colorado and find a bus? It kept erratically raining. We called six people until Mike came and picked us up. Damn our craving for ice cream, but thank God for friends. We abandoned the car and hoped that the engine gurgle meant it would start tomorrow. In an effort to find something positive, we could at least be thankful we got stuck on a street with limitless parking.

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Next day: no go. My poor car—do you just need to hear that you’re needed? In the shop for a week, and at first I think I’ll be fine at home. But my car is a sign of my independence and nothing walkable is where I want to go. I run through the list in my head: no Zine Fest, no camping out at Kaladi Brothers, and no desire to navigate public transit. My planned-out days lost to an expensive possession. How could I ever own a house, with its endless ungrateful neediness? It seems that once we own things we get overly attached.

This was a test of my need to control my time. Yes, I’m selfish. I’m an only child and I don’t have kids. I have no one to pull me out of myself and into undesirable directions. But I do need to learn to be okay with the unexpected change of plans. And sometimes that change of plans can make for an interesting story.

June 24th, 2015


The Death of Dilly Cole

 

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“Hello!” I half-shouted into the studio phone. My name is Amanda and I’m calling from PictureMe Portraits.”

We’d held a drawing for a free photo display and the winning slip of paper read simply: Dilly. I knew who she was. All the photographers did. We had our own drawing for the difficult customers—the families with screamers, the helicopter moms, and Dilly. Somehow I’d successfully avoided a turn with her. Until now.
“Sure, sure,” she said. “What’d you say your name was?”

“Amanda. I’m calling—“

“Hello? I’m old and can’t hear well. You’ll have to speak up.”

I rolled my eyes and cleared my throat. “My name’s Amanda. I’m calling because you won a free Character Close-up. Would you—“

“Winner? Who, me?”

Dilly was an 87-year-old widow who still farmed her own land. I knew this because she mentioned it every time she called.

“Yes—you put your name in a drawing and won.” I needed a drink of water.

“Oh!” she said. “That’s wonderful! I’m heading into town in an hour. Will you be open?”

“Yes. We’re open ’til six. See you then.”

“See you later, alligator,” she said and hung up.

I knew it was Dilly before she even spoke. She was a stooped woman with wildly unkempt, short-cropped hair, and she wore a red flannel shirt with suspenders.

“You’re new,” she said. “I’m Dilly. Who’re you?”

I told her and she offered an arthritic hand that I shook with care.

“So, what’ve I won?” she asked.

I pointed to a framed 10×10 print of a curly-haired girl in three side-by-side poses, her name in fancy script. I was embarrassed to present this childish display to an elderly woman. But instead of impertinence, she responded with tears.

“How lovely,” she whispered. “You’ve just made my day. I have no family except my brother, and it’s not every day I get a gift. Thank you, dear.” She placed a hand on my arm. It didn’t seem to matter that the gift wasn’t directly from me.

At the sales computer I opened Dilly’s last session folder. There was something different about her portfolio than others. By job description, retail photographers are required to capture at least six different sellable poses, but all of Dilly’s were the same. In them she sat on a wooden stool, legs crossed at the ankles, her hands resting together on the skirt of a Dutch blue suit. Her sun-dried skin clashed with the crisp white backdrop, and she eyed the camera with suspicion.

Her expressions, she said, sent a message. She wanted to look out onto future generations and impress wisdom on her viewers. The kind of picture you can display on a mantel, she said.

I clicked through her photos as she commented on details.

“My hands in the first are crossed funny. Go back to that third one. See—better. But my skirt’s rumpled. Is it noticeable?”

“No. I think it looks natural,” I said.

“Let me see the others again.”

After forty-five minutes Dilly stood and took my hand in hers. “Thank you, dear,” she said. “I’m sorry if I kept you too long. I’ll see you later, alligator.”

I smiled. She’d been sweet, but draining, and I guiltily hoped that her next visit would land on my day off.

But it didn’t.

“Amanda! It’s good to hear your voice, dear. How are you?” she said through the studio phone.

We chatted and she made a one o’clock appointment for the following Tuesday.

By 1:15 she still hadn’t showed. I was tense, fidgety, and had dusted the wall art at least three times. I dialed Dilly’s number. No answer. Nor was there an answer ten minutes, thirty minutes, an hour later.

At first I was relieved. But when Dilly’s neighbor called to ask if she’d been in, my heart sped up. The neighbor had called Dilly’s house several times and gone over to knock on the doors and windows.

“Nobody answered,” she said. “I’m worried. I think I’ll call Dilly’s brother. I’ll call back if I hear anything.”

I thanked her and swallowed the misgiving that something had happened to Dilly.

I knew soon enough that it had. In Dilly’s obituary photo sat a much younger version of herself, mid-sixties, with a smile as straight as her hemline. She looked stern, and hardy.

At work I taped her clipped obituary to the door of the studio closet. It seemed fitting to honor Dilly’s memory in the last place she was expected to be. But also, her picture served to remind me that every person is worth the time, and that everyone has a story. Except for the screamers. They can go right back to their parents.

2010

 


The Blind Man’s House

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I don’t remember directly resisting the visits—they were a change of pace, after all—but I do remember the unease that filled me every time we stood at George’s door, he with his walking stick in a cardigan and large dark glasses that hid even a side view of his eyes. I was a quiet kid and communicated mostly in smiles and facial expressions. Neither of which applied at George’s house. George’s front room was a library for audiophiles, decorated in vinyl, cassettes, and compact discs. George knew my dad from the stereo store, Sound & Service, owned by my grandpa and staffed by my parents when I was young. For a few years, until he remarried, we’d visit George in the evenings, my dad working on his sound system while my mom good-naturedly collected scattered popcorn kernels—George’s favorite snack. On the kitchen wall hung a cuckoo clock—a black and white cat with a tail that ticked the seconds, its eyes scanning the room like a possessed toy. Every fifteen minutes the cat would announce the time, echoed by George’s Casio watch. Time seemed important at George’s house. George was a retired band conductor, and spent hours sitting in his dim living room listening to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky on cassette. The tapes were easier than vinyl, their braille labels convenient. I saw the braille as a secret code, mysterious and alluring. The labels could be stamped with curse words, and I wouldn’t know. His kitchen walls were pink and the hall carpet green shag. The buttons on George’s phone were extra large and fun to press. At Christmastime, my mom would put up his tree because, she said, he still liked knowing it was there. While she strung lights I’d sit at her feet playing with a box of troll dolls—green, blue, orange. I made up stories and tried to ignore the clock. We’d leave, and I’d look to the lake and wonder what it felt like to know it was right there—to smell it and hear it—but to never see the sailboats or water skiers, the sunsets or the fireworks. I kept my eyes closed the whole ride home, immersed in my other senses, wondering how common it was to go blind.