Category Archives: Narrative Nonfiction

Stop Licking Your Cheese: An Ode to ECE

 

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Despite the dark nature of most of my fiction, my workdays are set in a bright, cheerful classroom where silliness, play, and education rule the atmosphere. When I graduated from college in 2009 with an English degree I had no clue what I intended to do, but through trial and error and good connections I ended up as a librarian, and then as an assistant teacher—each new school year revealing more about my personal development, as well as human nature in general.

The classroom is like a microcosm of society, where students are thrown together and forced to get along. These kids come from a variety of backgrounds and stages of development; some start out with unruly behaviors, some end the year that way, but there are none I wouldn’t step in front of a bus for. I love working with ECE (Early Childhood Education) because it’s the starting point where kids learn how to function as social emotional beings, to advocate for themselves and others, and to learn how to problem solve and work through issues with their peers (Or, as I’ll jokingly say, where we teach them to not be assholes). I take my work seriously, but as all teachers know, if you don’t stop and laugh at the absurdity of certain moments, you Will Go Insane.

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So this is my ode to a day in the life of a preschool classroom and the situations that make me laugh out loud and wonder at the beauty of childhood.

<Students will be represented by the first letter of their name>

Our day starts off with group yoga and breathing, and on every Friday we have a yoga dance party, when my co-teacher will play music, then pause and call out a yoga pose. So far this year my students’ favorite song is “Watch Me Whip/Nae Nae,” and yes, I know all the actions. I love starting my day this way, letting go of all cares, working up a good sweat, and learning new dance moves from some super-talented 4-year-olds, like B, who raps on the spot while hip hop dancing.

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We have snack time and lunch in the classroom, and what we call Choice Time. One of the most popular Choice Time centers is Dramatic Play, where we had a pizza parlor set up complete with Garlic Knot boxes, felt pizzas and toppings, old credit cards and a cash register. The kids acted out who bought, made, and sold the pizzas, how to order, and they even constructed a delivery car out of kid-sized chairs and couches and a pie tin as the steering wheel. They had so much fun with this that we took them to The Garlic Knot on an excursion where they got to make real pizzas and test the staff’s patience with unceasing questions.

Other Choice Time options include Play-Doh, Legos, light table with Magna-Tiles (look them up, they’re awesome!), blocks and ramps, art studio, and science. No matter the materials and no matter the center, kids will always pretend that what they’re playing with is food (and that all food is anthropomorphic) and they’ll expect you to “eat” it while they stare you down to see that their ice cream sundae or donut or smoothie is the best thing you’ve ever fucking tasted.

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One of my favorite times of day is when I read to the kids before naptime. This has led to making up our own “popcorn” stories (which are drastically lacking in plot), and to acting out a few of their favorite books. I love to see them play out the characters and exhibit their understanding of what they’ve internalized from the story. Two of this year’s favorites have been Big Pumpkin by Erica Silverman, and Mortimer by Robert Munsch.

There are things I especially appreciate about the teacher I work with this year. At the beginning of each school year she models for the kids how to give “Check-Ins.” If a student is upset or hurt, Ms. Sydney validates their feelings and teaches them the power of their own voice by encouraging them to ask for a check-in. Whomever is asked for a check-in then asks in return, “How can I help you feel better?” The upset child might say they need a hug or a high-five or an apology or that a certain offense never be made against them again. Witnessing this between students never fails to awe and amaze me, and I sincerely hope that they carry this skill into adulthood. We should all, no matter our age, be able to address our hurts with those who hurt us and to offer help to those in need.
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Teaching is a job of equal parts joy and pain—pain of living day to day with these kids like a family only to say goodbye every June, often to never see them again. To every student I’ve ever had: I love you and am grateful for the impact you’ve had on my life.

IMG_0447 copy2 *A sketch of the student who stole a piece of my heart that I will never get back: Eccentric Madi with that instant light-up-your heart smile and crazy dinosaur hands and creeping feet, knees bent eyes wild, always building something new out of anything and telling stories about her pictures with horrified eyes, then off in her own world telling stories to herself full of life and expression; arms open elbows bent, “But, well, I…!” Always an excuse with wails and easy tears. God love that brilliant maniac child. If you ever come across this post someday, Moo Lou, know that I love you and will always be here for you.

 

FAVORITE STORIES AND QUESTIONS:

B: Ms. Amanda, did you know that your heart can turn into a person?

Me: How does it live?

B: If you cry tears. You know how it dies?

Me: How does it die?

B: If you don’t cry, it dies.

***

A: One time, a monster pooped me out. (This was followed by an elaborate story of what it’s like to be swallowed by a monster)

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A: …I was going so fast that I flew.

Me: How did you fly?

A: I have engines inside my body, that’s how I fly. I have to cut myself open and restart my engines.

Me: Doesn’t that hurt?

A: No, because I have a teddy bear, and my body’s made of metal, so it doesn’t hurt me. I have to drink gasoline, though.

Me: Isn’t that gross?

A: Not when you mix chocolate milk with it. (*Laughs)

***

Y looked up at me during lunch and asked, “Can you peel my grapes?” This same student would stick his foot out and point at his shoe, wordlessly demanding to have his shoe tied. We called him our Little Prince.

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J: When things are dead can you still play with them? I mean, can you pay for a dog to come back to life as a pig or another animal?

J: Owls heads can turn all the way around just like my Barbie dolls.

***

S in Play-Doh: I’m going to make some love.

Me: How do you do that?

S: With a hot mold cutter.

Me: Sounds about right.

***

F in Legos: I don’t want to take my head off!

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N: I listen to “I Believe I Can Fly” every day. It’s a sad song, it makes me cry!

***

A: My mom’s friend’s name is Easy.

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FAVORITE OVERHEARD CONVERSATIONS:

E: Do you know what ‘pass gas’ is?

M: Ew, I don’t wanna go out with anybody that farts.

***

E: …And then he will scratch your face if you celebrate Halloween. You have to go up, up, up into the sky for the Devil to scratch your face. My whole family says that. He will hide behind my back when I sleep and scare me. Don’t tell your parents about the trick-or-treat song from music class or the Devil will come and scare you!

***

A: If you lie to God you go to the Devil.

B: I’m scared of God because every day he puts us down to the Devil. I’m scared to have a baby—I’d cut my baby up!

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F (crying): She won’t let me be a mermaid and that makes me sad!

***

M: Are you scared of Chuck E. Cheese?

L: When I was a baby I was scared of him, but not when I was a kid.

***

E: What if the trees walked on two legs?

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A to M: Will you be my best friend? Because Batman is Spiderman’s best friend.

***

F: Ms. Sydney, can I get out of bridge pose? My hair is turning into a monster.

 

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THINGS MY CO-TEACHER AND I SAY:

“There’s no such thing as girl colors. Colors are for everybody.”

“Wait until you’re in the bathroom to pull down your pants.”

“Stop licking your cheese and eat it.”

“Do you need to poop? Go try sitting on the toilet for a little while.”

“Remember what we talked about, girls. Save your Pegasus play for outside.”

“Please don’t play with your muffin if you’re not going to eat it.”

 

NOT-SO-FAVORITE MOMENTS:

The time L threw up on her lunch tray my first week as an assistant teacher

The multiple times S wakes up wailing and frantically scratching after naptime

Shoe tying and retying, and retying again, and again and again…

Being coughed or sneezed on nearly everyday

The time T kicked and screamed and clung like a rabid monkey to the doorframe as I removed him from the classroom for hitting other kids

The time I cleaned up M’s poop all over the bathroom floor

The time I cleaned up J’s blood all over the bathroom sink and floor from a bloody nose that she wouldn’t stop picking at. I swear it looked like a crime scene.

The time A threw up on the Legos. My god, I was nauseous the rest of the morning.

 

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FAVORITE MOMENTS:

Asking kids their dreams

Cloud-watching on the playground

Kids telling stories about their art

Girls singing songs from Disney’s Frozen at the top of their lungs while coloring or playing outside

When JC picked up a dead bird in the grass

The strange beauty of naptime, soothing kids to sleep with backrubs and noticing that first steady breath or jerk into dreams, their eyes moving rapidly beneath their lids (except for the two students I have this year who sleep with their eyes open!)

Daily high-fives, hugs, and compliments

Daily wholehearted laughter

 

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Hometown Sketch: Hells Angels Rumor

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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.

 


Cabin Ghost of Okoboji

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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.


One Page at a Time

Growing up in Iowa, I developed an insatiable desire to see the broader world around me. I would look through binoculars over the cornfield that stretched out behind my backyard, blinking and squinting and imagining the lives of the families living on the other side. At dusk I could see lights go on and off in little window specks. Were there kids inside those windows, making faces as their parents sent them to bed? Did they read the same stories before falling asleep? Those houses felt a world away, but, similar to the worlds inside of books, gave me a hope to one day see what else was outside my little town tucked inside the fields in the heart of America.

I was a quiet kid obsessed with stories. TV shows such as Full House introduced me to big city life as well as big family life, sending me into daydreams of a lifestyle very different from my own. I wondered what it was like to attend a three-story, fenced-in school on a busy city street, to travel by subway, and to grow up living in a high-rise apartment with no yard for dogs or flowers or tomato plants. Anne of Green Gables sent me dreaming of the opposite, of a place where I could be free to wander and roam in the country surrounded by acres of animals, wildflowers, hidden paths, and nothing but time.

I remember when my great aunt Lorraine told me she’d been to all fifty states. I wanted to know if she’d seen the Grand Canyon, the coast of California, the White House. She helped my travel dreams seem attainable, especially since she was someone from my own family.

The Midwest is the perfect place to foster a dream for travel. Especially small town Midwest, where kids grow up curious about the other side of the cornfields. When you have to travel 70 miles for the nearest (substantial) mall, or for the restaurants advertised on TV (Oh the days when The Olive Garden and Chile’s sounded like luxury cuisine), even Starbucks carries with it an extra special appeal. Sipping a mocha Frappuccino during a Saturday shopping trip to Sioux City felt like turning a page in the proverbial book of life experiences—a book with chapters not limited by distance. Every city, every neighborhood has its own character, each street and structure, down to each person.

When I travel I look for the ubiquitous, that little something that helps me connect to the world around me.  While acclimating to New Zealand’s summertime in January, I was thankful for the familiarity of the English language. When handling money in Japan I took comfort in the 10 decimal place to know how much I was spending. These connections aren’t to say I didn’t look further, but they did serve as a basis for seeing where I’m from in a new way—whether politically, educationally, by cuisine, or otherwise. When I see how other places function, I question if things here are the best they can be.

A similar outlook is sparked when I read. For example, dystopian literature such as Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Hunger Games series feature fictional worlds with (quasi) believable futures. If this is where we’re headed, then how can it be prevented?

I believe that when reading and travel are combined, there’s no end to inspiration and understanding. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road inspired me to keep pen and paper with me whenever I leave home. I don’t snap a lot of pictures when I travel but instead rely on words to bring me back to a specific time and place, and to the people I interact with. This is what gives me hope in the modern day world—recording what I see and know and learn—and it’s why I plan to never stop chasing new scenes, in life or in the imagination.


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.


El Forte

When I was nineteen I spent a week in Santa Barbara with a friend who lived in a two-bedroom with five housemates. People came and went all day and it took me half the week to recognize who actually lived there. The apartment—El Forte, they called it—was never empty.

No one left for the day without waving the peace sign. They welcomed my presence and I imagined staying with them longer. I imagined walking State Street, handing out sandwiches and cigarettes to the homeless. I didn’t even smoke; I’d just buy a pack and give them out two at a time, offering a light to those in need.

El Forte needed a new fridge and the landlord promised to deliver one in the morning. Ashley, Andy’s girlfriend, held an impromptu cleaning-out-the-fridge party. I ditched early after seeing the slimy black mass fly into the trashcan. That explained the sour smell that’d been lingering in the kitchen, and likely why I found a cockroach in my cereal the morning before.

Other than a rudimentary science experiment, the kitchen was also a makeshift recording studio where you had to move guitars to get to the orange juice. Posters of Radiohead, Foo Fighters, and The Mars Volta decorated the walls, thumbtacked at crooked angles. If a housemate was cooking, they were more than likely making grilled cheese. En masse. I never ate so many consecutive cheese sandwiches in my life.

There was tea most nights, and weed, and walks to the corner store they called “MJ’s” because the head clerk looked like Michael Jackson. I started a Vitamin Water habit and added to the collection of bottles—soda bottles, liquor bottles, flavored water bottles half-filled with seed shells—on every surface of the apartment.

The loveseat I slept on had a large red stain that I hoped wasn’t blood. Maybe Gatorade? Or calzone sauce? Nick, Brandon and them loved calzones. At least the stain was dry and I could cover half of it with my pillow.

Every night, the guy crashing in the living room across from me snored through ragged sinuses—a side effect of a former coke addiction. He had dark curly hair, the tight spiral kind that I wanted to reach out and touch. But not more than I wanted to run a drumstick up his nose to end his incessant snoring.

So I slept a few nights upstairs on Jackie’s couch. Jackie was from Colorado and missed seeing deer in the mountains. She was twenty, petite, and blonde. She had a fake ID and a medical marijuana card. Jackie made a killing off the guys in El Forte.

Ninja Turtles and expandable-shape pill capsules lined El Forte’s entertainment center. The pills shook all night—sponge dinosaurs anxious to emerge—above the TV that no one ever turned off.

A longboard stood by the front door next to a crate of shoes—tossed together like so many personalities living in one space. Taped to the door, a poster of two women in their underwear lay kissing. It was artistic, said Andy.

On Tuesday, Stefano—one of the Italian brothers—rode over on his bike. He’d had eighteen beers and still wasn’t drunk. As he talked, he scraped Special K on a cd case.

Andy said that I put myself in those situations for the writing material. I denied it then, but it’s true. I’m no Tom Wolfe, but I like to pretend.

El Forte was alive—everybody acting out their own movies like mad, listening to Coheed all day, Jonestown all night.

It felt artistic. And it felt real.


Nights in a Funeral Home

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One weekend in college when my fiancé’s parents were away, we spent the time believing we were the only two in the house.

Picture this: a three-story funeral home south of downtown—small town middle America. Next door a church, one of three in what locals call the “Church Corners.”

We were in the funeral home, Derek and I, where he lived with his family in the top two stories. The house hadn’t seen a dead body in ages since the adjacent church took it over as their manse.

In the basement a rotting staircase led to nowhere and rust-colored stains made wide trails across the cement, concluding at a recessed drain.

Upstairs, above the garage, a floral area rug concealed the seams of the coffin elevator—still in working order. Counting the elevator, that made four ways of getting up into the first occupied level of the house. Ways that we’d until that weekend taken for granted were secure.

Derek’s parents came home Sunday night and noticed lights on in the basement. They asked about them. We hadn’t been down. Downstairs Derek’s dad found signs of an intruder—a backpack and some snubbed-out cigarettes.

Missing: two beers and a cup holder’s worth of quarters from their unlocked van in the garage.

Vandalized: a carved wood pillar on the main level reading, “Who’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing? Check the pastor’s fridge” in Sharpie—this inciting a laugh from Derek’s dad, sober for two decades.

Through the night and into the next day, no sign of the intruder until Derek and I, with a friend, pulled into the driveway after dark. While we sat in the car talking, a dirty, disheveled twenty-something walked across the yard and in through the front door. In the car the three of us exchanged glances, positive we’d just seen our unwelcome guest. Leaving me behind, Derek and our friend went inside to confront the guy. A phone call to the police identified him as a vagrant making a tour of the Midwest in avoidance of an arrest warrant. He was wigged out of his mind, they told me later, after nervously driving him to the police station. The vagrant had told them a story about hearing that the house next to the church was a shelter. Which of course explained why he was hiding out in a cold unfinished basement where an undertaker’s tools had formerly been at work.

I shivered. What would’ve happened if he’d taken one of the staircases to the top of the house? Maybe he had? Just missing us walking from bedroom to bathroom. Just missing us coming or going.

That night I helped lock the doors. And every night since, the twist of a lock and the slide of a chain have become as habitual as turning off lights before bed.


Outlet

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The Cherry Creek Mall was teeming with teens whose haircuts cost more than my utility bill; and every third person, it seemed, was gesturing with the aid of a Starbucks cup. I went to the mall with some birthday money on a whim to find one thing I’d been looking for. Instead I found moms pushing strollers and wearing designer heels with matching leather belts. Matching stroller fabric lining. I found bite-size chocolates equaling the price of a gallon of gas and a play area swarming with kids too short for the rides at Elitch’s. I don’t normally do this—go shopping. I avoid most conventions, as far as female stereotypes go, and my aversion to shopping is one of them. I’d rather go hiking, or disc golfing, or nothing. But I was in the mood and took the scene in stride, while taking as many Teavana samples as I could get away with. One of the most overheard phrases of the day was, “I think I’m gonna go ahead and get this.” Followed by: “Okay, I’ll wait here.” The waiters were mostly men. Shopping malls are one of those things that are ubiquitous worldwide. You can be in a foreign country, clinging to fellow English-speakers like yoga pants to cellulite, but enter a shopping mall and there’s a familiar comfort that settles over you. The food court might have a sushi bar instead of a Sbarro, but you can count on it being representative of the local food culture. And the people…what better place than a mall to take in the social mores of a nation? Wealthy, broke, elderly or infant, the diversity is beautiful and compelling. Even if you’ve been underground for years, count on the mall to let you know what season it is. Bathing suits and barely-there tops hung in every Cherry Creek storefront and I saw more breasts than not popping out of their owner’s tops. It must’ve been this that inspired the influx of father/son duos out for consumer-driven strolls in their Sunday best. Photoshopped images advertising the everywoman’s dreams—as if we’re the same, think the same—flirted with me for all of thirty minutes until I left, empty-handed, weaving through the multi-level parking garage, half-believing there was no exit. I’ve never liked being told what to do, or what I should want, especially not by corporations. I prefer the intentional search, to discover for myself what I like best. But the mall will more than likely draw me back, if only to satiate the desire to be surrounded by strangers, all sharing the same afternoon activity in common. Because I think what we’re all looking for, amidst the flashy ads and consumer goods, is a connection to something bigger—something greater than us. And apart from religion, what is larger than the influence of capitalism?


In the places you go, you’ll see the place where you’re from

 

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Driving through the night was worth it to not see Nebraska. Semis lit up like suburban neighborhoods on Christmas Eve and exits claiming towns that may or may not exist guided me back to Iowa—home, where I hadn’t been in nearly a year and a half.

Growing up in the Midwest I often pretended the low-lying clouds were mountains in the distance. I figured kids that grew up near mountains, or ocean, or any landscape different from cornfields must be the luckiest kids in the world. But, I’d remind myself, I was the one who had the secret cornstalk playground in my back yard every summer. It was common knowledge among the neighborhood kids to follow a row to its end in the event of getting lost. One time I walked the length of my block through the six feet stalks—thrilled, frightened, happy.

When I’m home, I get to ask things like, “Who made that?” instead of, “Where’d you get that?” I like this. I like that the woman at the bank remembers me and even pronounces my last name 90% accurately. I like that the local jeweler still does my repair work for free. And the doughnuts…Sorry Winchell’s, Waltons, Lamar’s, Donut House, Voodoo, Glazed and Confuzed, and Dunkin Donuts—Page’s Bakery wins, hands down.

However, as is the case with all places we leave behind, there are also things not to like. Things like hurricane-level winds strong enough to realign car doors and bend trees to their demise. Curvy one-lane highways bordered by deer-littered ditches. And cows like scorch marks dotting the parched earth, their smell enough to turn any good carnivore into a temporary vegetarian.

Interstate travel never fails to make me wonder: Who are the people buying fashion accessories at gas stations? Sunglasses I get, but faux-leather studded purses? Quandary.

On the drive back to Denver, while for miles passing nothing but farmhouses and gas stations with only two pumps, a scene from the movie Big Fish came to mind. Karl the giant says to Edward Bloom, “I don’t want to eat you. I just get so hungry. I’m just too big.” And Edward replies, “Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you’re not too big? That maybe this place is just too small?”

To me this makes sense. The life I get to live in Denver wasn’t possible in a small town. And despite the underwhelming confections, I’ve come to take city life for granted (e.g. “What do you mean, no local cage-free eggs?” Or, “Why aren’t you flipping off that asshole who just cut us off?”). The mountains have a pull on me and always will. They ground me, and for this Denver is the first place I haven’t dreamed of leaving.

I believe it is good to be with family and connect with one’s past.

It is also good to be home.


Day 13

Franz Josef, New Zealand

 

Dedication is the Franz Josef Glacier site workers who re-cut the ice steps every morning.

With a stitch in my side I look out over the river and its crying cliff-faces. I don’t blame them—words here are not enough.

More satisfying than softball cleats, my crampons lodge me in fearless position. I test my balance, like someone strapped into skis for the first time, able to bend backward without falling.

Blue ice is something I’ve only seen in pictures, like the ombre autumn mountains in Vermont until I moved there.

We start our hike in t-shirts. By glacier’s top, triple layers—more as protection from ice burn than chill, the strenuous cardio sufficiently warming my skin.

There was no preparing for this.

When I do something I fear, I learn more about myself than in any college psychology class.

I meet my fiancé’s eyes, both our backs flattened to an ice wall, shuffling sideways on a narrow shelf. I want to take his hand, but there’s a deep trench at our feet just wide enough for an average-size adult to slip through.

He takes mine anyway.

When I conquer something I fear, it usually starts with a suggestion from Derek.

It’s not the ensuing muscle pain that I remember—though I know it was there—or whether I was sweating or shivering.

What I remember is feeling small and more involved with this Earth than I knew I could be–amazed by the landscape of a country that for half my life I didn’t even know existed.

I remember promising myself: never stop exploring.

Jan. 2009


What’s with House Parties?

I’d never seen my husband so close to punching another man until the night the Mexican version of Saturday Night Live’s Drunk Uncle asked if I wanted to bang. It was his house after all, he reminded us, each repetition louder and more slurred than the last.

Fireball tastes like Red Hots—the candy my grandma always kept stocked in her basement pantry. Fireball was Pink-Haired Girl’s favorite libation, and we talked Harry Potter on the front porch until M.D.U. stumbled out, so rudely interrupting us. In honor of H.P., Pink-Haired Girl had “DA” tattooed on her arm–the kind of tattoo done at home by a friend who does it because he likes it enough to not get paid.

Next to the bathroom a bedroom door opened on a lanky black boy attempting to feed sips of water to his passed-out girlfriend. She incoherently vocalized her misery from the twin bed, refusing to drink.

The kitchen seemed like the safest grounds.

Until the backyard became the best.

Then no place at all.

Time to go.


Vacation ’96

Blood-spotted bedspread. I’m nine years old.

Barred windows; bullet holes in the glass.

This is Nashville.

The woman behind the counter at our Days Inn is way taller than my mom. Maybe even my dad. Maybe she’s the first black woman I’ve ever seen. Two of her long fake fingernails are pierced with a tiny silver hoop. I wonder how accurate her typing is as she checks us in.

Music City, USA.

I’m hoping to see Shania Twain. Or even Deana Carter. I can’t get Collin Raye’s song about that 8-year-old out of my head. I hope I don’t mess up like those women in the video. Like the women I see on COPS—my dad’s favorite show that he watches from his recliner after work. My mom wishes he wouldn’t watch that trash around me, but it’s his nighttime version of coffee. I like when he lets me watch Power Rangers. My mom hates that show, too.

But we all agree on country music and it’s cool to stand peaking in from the entrance of The Ryman. Though it’s not very interesting without a star on stage. Maybe the janitor, when he’s mopping the stage floor, imagines a live audience and a different career.

Maybe my dad pictures me on that stage.

This is the farthest I’ve been away from home. And for the record, the Bluegrass State does NOT have blue grass. But it does have a converted rest stop mansion.

Our first day driving from Iowa we stopped in Hannibal, Missouri. In the cave where Jesse James graffitied his name, a tour guide turned off all the lights to show how scary it was for Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher way back when. My dad likes to kid around and he clicked on his green watch light. Everyone laughed and then the tour guide gave an okay, that’s enough look.

Somehow we keep getting lost in this city.

Through my backseat window in a dirty gas station parking lot, I see a brown-skinned man talking to my mom with his hands. Back in the car she says he kept saying, “You listen to me!” when giving her directions. We all laugh, but I think my mom’s glad to be back on the road.

I like the Bobby Bare Trap store and get my picture taken with the world’s largest teddy bear. Something to write home about, as they say.

My mom and I buy matching Nashville t-shirts and I wear mine to bed that night. I like staying at motels, but I’m ready to be back in my bedroom where I can be alone and write. Two more days still. I wish we could fly.