Category Archives: Narrative Nonfiction

Street Mama

Amarillo, TX

“Name’s Pixie. Friends call me Street Mama. Ise raised forty miles southa Dallas.”

It’s impossible not to overhear other people’s conversations in the compact Amarillo bus station. Standing by the bathrooms near the only vent that’s pumping cool air is a woman whose little finger wouldn’t fit the description of a Pixie. Summertime is Street Mama’s time. Her leisurely confidence while wearing a snug spaghetti strap tank top, sans bra, gives her away. This is the type of woman who doesn’t keep secrets.

“My mother was a real piece-a work,” she says to a group loitering under the vent. “I use ta be called Samantha Lynn, but I been Pixie for over ten years now. The first guy I been with called me that and it stuck. But my baby daddy thinks it’s too girlish, so he jus’ call me Mama.”

Street Mama turns her head and gasps. “Ethan Daniel! Get over here! You hear me? You stop that, right now!” She grabs what must be her son and sets his diapered bottom on a covered trashcan. She gives three sharp, quick raps to the toddler’s bony hand. The child is frail and doll-like with a complexion like dishwater. Ethan Daniel wails, inciting three more raps to his other hand.

“Ethan Daniel, can’t you see I’m talkin’ to grownups? Apologize to these people! Apologize!”

Ethan Daniel can’t yet be three years old. His face is a contortion of pain from the striking and confusion as to why he’s being punished.

At the drinking fountain stands a line six people deep. There’s been a lot of recent rainfall, and everything in the station is sheathed in a thin layer of dew. Even the walls are sweating—years of condensation having warped the paint. The bus driver is late.

In a rage, Ethan Daniel strikes out at Street Mama, and she in turn scolds him for hitting.

CNN drones from a TV in a corner of the station’s waiting area, lulling entranced travelers into lethargic, shell-shocked expressions. But Street Mama’s voice carries over it all. She’s on the phone now with her mother.

“He won’t listen to me! Mama—are you listenin’ to me?! Goddamnit, he won’t fuckin’ listen to me! I’ll use whatever language I wanna use!” There’s a pause, then: “Little shit. He’s so filthy. I know that, Mama. What do you think I been doin? Here—I’m passin’ over the phone so you can talk some sense into ‘im.” She holds the phone at her son’s shoulder. “Ethan Daniel, take the damn phone!” The child cries and knocks the phone to the ground.

The line at the drinking fountain dissipates, and in the corner of the waiting area a man reaches up to raise the volume of the latest news report.

Summer 2007


Retracing My Breadcrumb Trail

Talen was living with his sister-in-law in a rented house in Englewood. When Derek and I went to pick him up he wasn’t ready, so we waited inside.

On the living room floor slept a toddler, lulled to sleep by the antics of SpongeBob and Patrick Star. I followed Derek into the kitchen, where I skirted around a gradually expanding orange-brown spill that, if left unattended much longer would surely evaporate and be forgotten altogether. Next to the sink and amidst scattered pot ashes and produce peelings, the sullen eyes of Hansel and Gretel peered out from the cover of a Little Golden Book—their faces distorted by the flaked ashes as though in homage to their cremated witch. I wondered if the book had ever been read to the boy in the living room, or if this children’s horror story stayed shut up in its cardboard house.

Talen emerged from his bedroom, and as I looked around I saw a stuffed Broncos mascot and a stubby, bubblegum pink penis sucker taped to the wall. Surrounding the sucker, in a nook meant for a landline phone, was a shrine-like display venerating the Playboy Bunny.

I knew one thing for sure: I had nothing in common with the owner of this house.

Later that night, half-consciously scanning my apartment, I noticed my own book-laden countertops and brightly decorated walls, and thought, Maybe we’re not so different.

 


Squatting in the Wrong Decade

The first time I saw a horse on a rooftop was in Lexington, Nebraska. It wasn’t a real horse, but I’ve never seen one, alive or otherwise, on a roof since. Coming from a packing plant town, the familiar Tyson aroma of seared hog flesh filled my nostrils and gave me a sense of home as we drove into Lexington. Barmore Drugs could’ve passed as Storm Lake’s Ressler’s. All these small Midwestern towns resembled each other in the details.

Down a residential street, two young girls in oversized T-shirts helped their mom rake the lawn. I pictured my childhood self and friend jumping into leaf piles at my grandma’s house, then heading inside for a snack of apples with caramel.

I was with my dad, spending two days driving to Broomfield and stopping here for the night like two road-weary truckers—a bed and a clean bathroom our main requirements.

On the outskirts of town a giant plum-painted water tower sat, like an industrialized Jack Horner, squatting in the wrong decade. Front lawns along residential roads were spotted with rusted truck beds filled with such things as wood, torn-out carpet, and empty bottles of engine oil.

Sticking out like Jack’s thumb on the edge of town, an African restaurant and a huddle of tall, well-dressed black men talking and laughing in the parking lot.

In its prime, the heart of this town must’ve been the railroad. Two spiral ramps supporting a footbridge over the tracks–for the days when it was needed to cross without danger–stood as the town’s most notable landmark.

Our motel parking lot was strewn with semis, and as we walked past them to the office my dad straightened protectively. In our motel room, we opened our paper Sonic bags to find cold fries, a chicken sandwich coated with black lettuce, and no appetite.

My next meal came as a Styrofoam cupful of Froot Loops, dry, the next morning. I frowned at the assortment of O’s, but kept any complaints to myself. I couldn’t wait to get to Colorado and the well-stocked cupboards of my uncle’s house.

March 2007


Smokey Taboo

bluebird

Bluebird Theater: CocoRosie

I knew as soon as I saw the winged and face-painted fans in line that this would be a good show. A guy in a fur coat with a platinum blond Mohawk stood in front of me. To my left: two young women in stretchy headbands bedecked in Native American gift shop paraphernalia—miniature dream catchers, beads, feathers.

Glitter was everywhere. Women outnumbered the men.

Bianca: uniquely sexy with her bizarre clothes and makeup, sharp features, and child-like voice. Sierra: garbed in a gold leotard from ankle to wrist and waving her arms angelically like mid-summer stalks of wheat. A smile never left her face.

A tall ginger-haired man, mustachioed and gay, zeroed in on Derek. It appeared that this man waxed and twirled the ends of his mustache on a regular basis. His face was rosy, cherubic, and he wore a brown leather hat stuck with a dainty, pale pink hatpin.

“I work at Victoriana,” he explained, and told us stories about his bald, hypoallergenic kitty. It sounded like true love.

Two women joined the conversation. Both with long gray hair, never dyed.

Everyone seemed to be big fans of Florence and the Machine. Why am I always gestured at when another redhead is mentioned?

The floor: sticky; The venue: warm, confined.

A Hermione-haired rave dancer on the level below weaved her arms in abnormal, impulsive patterns for the whole three hours–an unavoidable presence, though she kept to her given dimensions.

Smoke and must floated halfway to the ceiling, hovering as though hesitant to dissolve. Hesitant to miss the next nonsensical costume change, the beat boxer’s solo performance, the second encore.

More than just a show, the concert was a communal celebration of sound and beauty held by citywide strangers. It was an observation of human expression.

October 2013


Locks

The woman’s hands were in my hair before I could stop her.

I was sitting on a bench outside the Grand Junction bus station, piecing together a Lunchable before my next transfer, when she walked up behind me–her skin tanned and leathery, her breath warm and pungent–and grabbed hold of my hair, twisting it between her fingers. Tangling it into knots.

She was a beggar, this woman. Her own hair stringy, dreadlocked. I turned and looked her in the face. My heart sped up and I dropped a cracker.

“Such pretty hair,” she drawled. “My mother had red hair.”

I stammered a thank you and made to stand up.

“I wish I could just—ha!” She brandished the air like a pair of scissors and made a mocking hack at my hair. “–Snip it off and sew it onto mine.” She smiled devilishly and fondled her dreadlocks.

I excused myself and walked to the nearest trash can as if to discard my lunch. I would walk around the entire station to get back in before I’d invite any more attention from outside.

June 2006


Rainbow Warriors

Teenage flower children, their long hair strung with beads, play handclap games in front of me at the Amarillo, TX bus station. They tickle each another and make googly eyes despite the presence of the girl’s mother. This petite woman–a hippie hangover–smiles at them, her thin lips stretching to meet a smattering of pale freckles.

They’re headed to the Rainbow Gathering in Arkansas, held annually in a National Forest since 1972. Hippie Mom asks my friend where we’re headed. “Twin cities,” says Emily. She’s returning to her nanny job, and I’ll be headed five hours south from there once our two-day bus trip concludes.

Next stop: Oklahoma City, where a one-hour layover turns into six, then seven. An MIA bus driver means we’ll be spending the night on the most uncomfortable metal mesh benches ever designed for extended public waiting. If it weren’t for the obscene hour and lack of cell phone service, I’d call my boyfriend to pass the time.

Grumpy from lack of sleep, and anxious to get back on the road–a trip that would take over 50 hours between Phoenix and Minneapolis–I look to Emily for support. She’s given up on sleep and stares down at a book, her eyes unmoving. She feels my gaze and scrunches her nose in commiseration. There’s no denying the mid-summer stench of road travel. If our bags hadn’t disappeared with the driver, we would’ve changed clothes hours ago. I look down at my grubby t-shirt and feel depressed. The rainbow gatherers still appear fresh–the women in matching striped skirts and the boy in a Hawaiian shirt with his thin brown hair tied back in a low ponytail. A cool, airy skirt would be nice about now. I scrounge through my purse for a hair tie, but come up empty.

With nothing better to do, I watch the teenage couple paint glitter on each other’s faces, then braid the other’s hair. Hippie Mom sits knitting with a peaceful expression as though she were home and life couldn’t be sweeter. A soft hum rises from her throat. The teens get up and spin while holding hands, repeating what sounds like a tribal chant:

“When Earth is ravaged and animals die

A new people shall come

Many colors, classes, many creeds

Who by their actions and their deeds

Shall once again make Earth green

And be called

Warriors of the Rainbow.”

I lean forward and ask Hippie Mom what they’re singing.

“It is an old Native American prophecy.” Her eyes brighten and she looks at the kids. “The Rainbow Gathering, where we’re headed, has no leaders. We commune non-violently to celebrate peace and love on our planet. All are welcome. It’s a transformative and empowering experience. Here…” She pauses to retrieve a crumpled scrap of paper from her knitting bag. She scrawls two words on it then hands it to me.

The scrap was torn from a flier advertising free community basket weaving classes. I scan for her handwriting and read aloud the two words, presumably a name: “Art Penny.”

“If you wish to find him, he will be found,” says Hippie Mom’s daughter, smiling at me encouragingly. I give a polite nod, but I’m too tired to inquire further.

“Thank you,” I say, and dismiss myself from the conversation by extensively folding and slipping the scrap with Art Penny’s name on it into my purse.

The next day, near Topeka, Emily asks me what I talked about with the rainbow family.

“I can’t be sure,” I say, “but they were very friendly.”

July 2007


Quake

IMG_1153 copy 2

Approx. 2:30pm

I’m chatting with my mom over Facebook, attempting to convince her in the most electronically reassuring tone possible that I am, in fact, very much alive. We did feel the earthquake, but up here in Sapporo, we’re well removed from the ensuing tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown.

My husband and I were eating at a popular second-floor soup curry shop with our Japanese friends when we felt the quake. Derek’s legs jiggled compulsively under our lunch table, so at first it didn’t concern me that my soup was mimicking a scene from Jurassic Park. Not until he said, “Is the whole building shaking?” with a nervous laugh.

Outside, lampposts wavered precariously in the street. Iron fixtures and concrete foundations never felt so unreliable as in the moment Naoki told us that we were experiencing our first Japanese earthquake. He and Yurika were excited for us, taking pictures of our bemused faces. Then they eyed each other and frowned.

“This is lasting too long,” said Yurika, her lower lip puckered out in confusion.

My heart raced and I gulped in deep breaths of air to slow it down. A waiter came out and turned on a small TV mounted to a wall. A multi-colored map of the country lit up the screen, red indicating the greatest damage. The earthquake’s epicenter had reached a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter Scale (the highest being 10.0), and here in Sapporo we’d felt a 3.0.

I’d underestimated the lack of control that an earthquake can elicit. The lack of anywhere to go–whether inside or out, higher up or underground–where you can’t feel the shaking. There’s nothing to grab hold of to steady yourself. Feet are unreliable.

The aftershocks lasted for hours; the first of which we felt from inside a nearby Pachinko Parlor. The cacophony of slot machines cycling thousands of little metal balls through their thick groves of pins, the TVs at full volume declaring public transit closures, and the rumbling echo of exposed heating vents, did little to disguise the reality that dozens of people just lost their balance at the same time.

With an uncharacteristic scowl, Naoki left to catch a train back home to Chitose. The rest of us decided to do the same, boarding a jam-packed shuttle through the city.

In Yurika’s apartment, I sit next to her grieving family as we watch the helmeted news anchors update us on the death toll; thousands are missing, nine hundred (the number growing by the minute) are confirmed dead. Aftershocks will likely continue for months.

An entire country has felt this disaster–in their homes and in their hearts. I suddenly feel as though I’ve overstayed my welcome. It seems inappropriate to be American in this time and place. I can escape; I can cross the ocean to where radiation isn’t an immediate threat to my well-being. Where many people haven’t even heard of the tragedy, let alone succumbed to it.

Derek wants to stay and help with the recovery efforts. But how? And is it practical? At times like this, family matters most; and in their minds the most helpful thing we can do is return to them in safety.

Friday, Mar. 11th, 2011


Albuquerque to Phoenix

bus-seats

The Greyhound permeates an undefinable smell–a sweaty blend of passengers and stained seats, all in varying states of cleanliness. Some of us have been traveling for four days. My trip should be over in two.

Across the aisle is a longhaired man wearing a borderline-pornographic T-shirt. He’s in his late twenties and clutching the hand of the woman beside him. They don matching track marks and speak to each other in hushed tones.

An hour later I wake from a half-nap to the sound of a low, agonizing moan and the stomping of feet. I look over at the longhaired man whose head now rests in his hands. His knees bounce rhythmically as if propelled by tiny trampolines–the apparent signs of withdrawal–and I hope, for his sake, that his trip is shorter than mine.

July 2007


Bowling and Beyond

Z-Coverphoto_bowling(GooglePlus)

Goleta, CA

It was midnight when we decided to go bowling. The only open alley was over thirty miles away but Scott, Andy, and I were bored enough to make the drive, with or without the guarantee of a lane.

As we pulled into the Zodo’s parking lot, I saw a jagged neon sign, glowing purple and gold with promises of late-night good times. The place was packed. Andy grumbled under his breath, parked the car, and then led the way into the night club-style bowling alley.

Inside, the hip-hop was loud, intoxicating. College students swarmed the bar and tables like flies to fresh road kill. Top-heavy girls wore slinky blouses and short jean skirts. Heels added height. Bracelets: a touch of glam. One twenty-something in a low-cut tank bent in the direction of a tan blonde boy. Everyone was carefree and reckless. These were the best times of their lives.

Scott ordered a drink and slid in between two girls too young to yet understand his game. Andy and I changed our shoes and alternated playing Scott’s turn. Scott won.

More bored than before we arrived, Andy and I peeled Scott off a spray-tanned brunette–him swearing he’d find a ride if only we’d leave him there. He relented after a smoke, and we drove home in silence with our windows open to the arid summer night, each of us defeated by our respective weekend expectations.

June 2006


The Vineyard Owner

New Zealand

Waiheke Island, NZ

The vineyard owner lived under a corrugated tin roof with his young son. Sheet metal and two-by-fours served as their home. Insects scuttled through the three-inch crack between sliding door and wall—where at night, a rusty padlock hung.

Their house resembled a makeshift shed from the outside, and from the inside it looked much the same. The walls and floors were bare. No paint, no rugs. A wooden divider separated the kitchen from the main room where the man and his son sat with their stew dinner watching Pirates of the Caribbean on TV, getting up for seconds during commercials.

They didn’t mind the dirt and spiders in the shower. They didn’t mind waiting for the ferry when supplies ran low. Life was simple, and they were happy.

Jan. 2009


Cody the Grower

Cody the Grower wore a dirty jumpsuit as he staggered into the living room. He was barely 30 but moved like the walking dead. A patchy beard mottled his face, obscuring his sunken cheeks and aging him at least ten years. I saw him as my emaciated grandfather, dragging his oxygen tank behind the garage to smoke hidden cigarettes.

That morning Andy and I had driven the forty odd miles south from Santa Barbara to Oxnard to see Cody’s two “daughters,” and to take care of some business for the housemates.

We waved hello to Cody’s other visitors before following him through the sunless apartment. I imagined a pair of brunette pixies napping in a back room, spindly and pale with long straight hair.

Through the cluttered kitchen and around a corner–the walls hung with frameless pictures of plants and naked women–we came to a door with a sign warning us not to enter. Cody turned the handle and I saw that his daughters were not, by my definition, what I had expected. Inside was an ersatz grow room housing two large cannabis plants—Ms. Morning Glory and Lady AK-47—the flourishing offspring of one man’s paternal hands. Cody stood taller as he showed them off, pride in his ashen eyes.

He took out a cigarette and lit it, guiding us back through the kitchen. The daughters were for show only. Not mature enough yet, he said with a laugh. We’d get to the pills, but first he wanted to play us some music. Andy and I sat next to Cody’s friends while he demoed his private mixing studio. The thin apartment walls rattled with house music. Cody added strobe lights while scratching and mixing and sliding a series of switches on his equalizers.

After twenty minutes of this he finally turned off his amp and lit another cigarette. He took two long, deep drags in a row and then joined us in the living room, taking a stiff seat on a queen-size bed centered beneath a ceiling mirror.

Two small baggies were passed across the room. In one: three oranges, the other: blues—their stamps intricate and no bigger than a freckle. His guy would be back next Tuesday, he said. He could offer us so much more then…The men shook hands and then Andy and I took off. As we drove along the coast, I rolled down my window and breathed in the ocean air. Out here, it seemed, you either got too much of it, or not enough.

June 2006


On Your Mark

It’s January and I’m sleeping in my jeans on a stranger’s floor. Well, not so much sleeping as scanning. Scanning my fiancee beside me. Scanning the floors, the walls, the furniture. By the room’s primary decor, I see that at least one member of this household is more than a fair-weather NASCAR fan.

My first trip to another hemisphere starts with a pre-flight night at a classmates’ mom’s house in Lincoln, Nebraska. My fiancee, Derek, and I are taking advantage of our university’s New Zealand trip, and since we’re from a town with no shopping mall, let alone an airport, arrangements like this are a necessity.

Beside me, Derek breathes steadily from inside his sleeping bag. Apparently he was able to ignore the musty scent of cat hair and stale cigarette smoke mingling in the carpet under our heads. The noxious smell mixes in my travel-anxious stomach with my last meal. Breakfast may not happen. And with a 12-hour trans-Pacific flight looming in the near future, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’ll be a couple days before I get any significant sleep.

Looking up at the shadowy TV stand before me, I wonder at the variety of huddled NASCAR coffee mugs. Were they ever meant to be out of the cupboard and on display as a room’s focal point?

I turn to look at Derek, who’s separated from me only by the closed zippers of our sleeping bags. His face is relaxed and I think, This is going to be okay. This will be a trip I won’t ever forget.

Jan. 2/3-2009