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

 


Hometown Sketch: Neighborhood Watch

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Nobody got away with secrets on Lorna’s street. Affairs were unlikely. Teenage liaisons: failures from the start. Unemployed, and unable to sleep, Lorna was a one-woman neighborhood watch.

“New car?” she asked at the door of any neighbor whose driveway sported unfamiliar wheels. Several times a week she’d turn off the stove, leave on the TV, and go out knocking. And she already knew who was home, so there was no pretending you weren’t.

“Hi, Lorna. Sue’s brother is over for dinner.”

Lorna didn’t take hints. “How nice. Is Paul staying long?”

She stood with her arms crossed over her sagging, unsupported chest barely concealed by an over-worn purple blouse. Her left foot stuck out, as though ready at any moment to slip inside the door.

“Just today. Better not keep him waiting. Take care.”

Slam.

When the Branders to the East put up a garage between their houses, Lorna gave them up for an entire year. But not without withdrawals. She and her daughter Mary—who often sat lounging in their driveway after Lorna watered the pavement with a garden hose—grabbed the aluminum arms of their lawn chairs at the sight of the Branders, and swiveled their ample bottoms to face the other way.

This left Lorna to turn her attention to the west, slicing her hand in front of her neck to stop Mr. Fletcher from mowing, or beckoning to his wife, Nancy, while she hung clothes on the line out back.

“I don’t know why he had to go and move us out here,” Lorna said of her husband, Earl. “California has post offices, too! How do you stand this place? I’m so miserable.”

Nancy clipped a pair of Hawkeye boxers to her clothesline and asked, “How long have you lived in Iowa?”

Lorna’s eyes widened, accentuating the charged look of her black and gray striped hair. “Twenty-two years next month! Can you believe it?”

Across the lawn, Earl felt for snakes in the landscaping and flung them windmill-fashion into the cornfield.

Lorna called over to him, waving her arms wildly. “Earl! Watch your hands! We don’t need another trip to the emergency room.” Then to Nancy she said, “I’ve never met a more accident-prone man. I won’t let him near the kitchen. I’m Italian, after all, not Cajun!” She laughed and then stopped abruptly as she spotted another neighbor through the houses. “There’s Sheri. Her mother passed away last month and she’s taken up the bottle to cope. I’m gonna go say hi. We’ll catch up later,” she said and took off.

“Thank God,” muttered Nancy.

Most of Lorna’s neighbors endured her intrusions with good humor. Those who didn’t moved away or installed deadbolts. Yet despite her meddling, Lorna’s neighbors felt secure knowing that their children were safe and their spouses faithful. And there was something to living with such an assurance.


Hometown Sketch: Walking Man

 

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No two days on the streets were the same. Flowers bloomed at different rates and snow accumulated in shifting waves and peaks. The sights of this small town didn’t get old when each day the cloud patterns cast new shadows on the lake’s surface and on the red brick businesses just north of the water’s edge.

All weather was walking weather for Walking Man.

An addiction, people called it—equating him with the meth heads in the basements and trailer parks of the town’s underground. But his was a lifestyle of health and vigor. Of gainful occupation.

A stolen car incident in high school prompted his hobby—the same high school, incidentally, by which he now lived and started his daily trek. He clocked out at the packing plant before dawn and was on the streets by noon, making his way south to the lake, along the shore past the University then west towards the hospital. School traffic sent him north, where kids attempting greatness at the Field of Dreams provided passing entertainment.

He knew what people called him. Not that it was clever. A red-haired man in a Chevy sang out in smooth tenor whenever he crossed his path: “Walking Man, walk-ing the streets aga-ain!” It’d be more amusing if it weren’t the same man who stole his car all those years ago.

In his forties Walking Man married a woman whose only daughter kept mostly to her room. It was a good arrangement; neither he nor his wife required much affection or attention. And if she did—well, then she had the daughter, or her hospital patients. They divided the domestic duties, and the yard work they hired out. She hadn’t the time, and his snake phobia kept him out of the grass. The pavement was his domain.

When the local Times took notice of him, he wondered whether the Cullens were lacking for material. Who would find his routine interesting? They even printed his miles per day. He got more attention than expected and endured months of exaggerated nods and waves from townsfolk—those people who, from a distance, Walking Man watched grow older, plant gardens, run stoplights. There was serenity in the events not in his control. He had his walking, and his work, and that was enough.

In many ways this town didn’t change. The farmers offered their predictions, the mayor maintained the vote, Walking Man walked the streets, and the paper published it all.


Hometown Sketch: Thorna Walstrom

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“Our bodies adjust to nature if we let them,” says Thorna Walstrom, a woman with a high, sun-bronzed forehead and an air of omniscience. You can read her thoughts in the wrinkles around her mouth: If only people thought to ask my advice, this town might be a better place to live. But she doesn’t wait for people to ask; she puts her opinions in the newspaper, from the inconvenience of street closings to the need for a community auditorium.

Thorna is one of the stragglers, holding up the library exit after Tuesday night book club, testing the patience of the facilitator who stands with a pasted smile and feet inching closer to the door, key poised, for each minute past closing.

Thorna has a way with words and knows how to get results. Her editorials spurn City Council decisions, but in person she’s more likely to inspire a mental run-through of your to-do list.

“I never turn my heat above fifty, whether it’s thirty above or twenty below. And air conditioners—you know, we invent all these things for convenience but are lost when they break down.” She stands at the exit in one of her monochrome outfits, thinning brown hair, and no makeup. “I like to feel connected to the earth. There’s beauty in recognizing our insignificance.”

Thorna doesn’t own a car. She relies on her bike and her own two feet—a lifestyle uncommon in small-town Iowa. If not for her editorials, locals recognize her by her stooped-shoulder jog and unmistakable sense of fashion. Her shoes, socks, leggings, shorts, shirt, jacket, scarf, jewelry, belt, and headband all follow a single color scheme. Green is her favorite.

For this my mother calls her the Green Hornet. But it’s not Thorna’s only nickname. Favored by students (Thorna works in education) is The SPAM Lady. This is less an insult than an invitation she brings upon herself.

Her SPAM collection exceeds the thousands—has even caught notice of the LA Times. She enters classrooms looking like a walking ad for SPAM, down to the miniature cans dangling from her ears (though she’s never tasted the product).

Not a teenager in town has taken her seriously in twenty years.

But Thorna doesn’t give a damn. She displays her collection for charity, and when she’s not advocating for the town, she’s running marathons and coaching track. Her classroom is wallpapered in clippings devoted to running. She’s a multi-medal holder, and doesn’t stop moving even while her dog takes a dump.

“Humans shouldn’t be so comfortable,” she says, putting a hand on the library door. “It weakens our resolve. Get rid of your TV and see how it improves your life. I dare you.”

She exits, leaving the librarian to shake her head and with a curt laugh say to herself, “It takes all sorts to make a town.”


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.


Snooky Bear’s Bad Day

“Snooky Bear hasn’t been acting herself,” said Sissy Struthers at the library desk. Sissy had wild hair and judged books by their covers. New, shiny, sultry–a well-conceived cover graphic trumped the story every time.

“In this one,” she said, displaying a cover of a surly cat staring down a middle-aged woman, “a cat-whisperer falls in love with a client’s owner. It doesn’t seem like much of a love story, but I’m hoping it’ll give me insight into Snooky Bear’s recent behavior.”

There were a dozen books on the counter for checkout, and a dozen more in the return pile. Sissy came in two times a week—sometimes three—each book she brought back smelling of cat dander and cigarettes. The librarians took turns fanning them over charcoal in the smoke box.

“She won’t even chase the red dot,” said Sissy, scooping her checkouts into an old blue backpack. From the bag’s front pocket she pulled two wrinkled photographs. “This is my last cat, Winifred, at the vet before she was put down. And here she is with her favorite yarn ball. The way Winifred acted then is how Snooky Bear’s acting now. I don’t know if I can go through that again.” She sighed and shook her head.

“Estuse me,” said a girl walking up to the counter. “Do you have the Jussin Bieber movie?” One hand palmed her left hip while the other stretched her Dora the Explorer necklace like a slingshot. Her name was Myra. She was four years old and came in every weekend with her mom and brother. She knew all three High School Musical soundtracks by heart, and her literary tastes were of the princess variety.

“Who’s Justin Bieber?” Sissy asked, looking down.

“What? You don’ know Jussin Bieber?” She released her necklace and suppressed a wince from the backlash. “He’s only the bestest, cutest singer ever!” She looked as though she might start dancing any moment.

Sissy nodded.

“Is that your cat?” Myra poked at the vet photo.

“Yes, that’s Winifred. Right before she was put down.”

“Put down where?”

Sissy frowned, choosing her words. “Put to sleep.”

Myra squinted and said, “Ohhhh.” Her head tipped back as though weighted by the word. “My cat puts to sleep all the time. It’s so boring.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“If your cat’s being boring, you should watch High School Musical with her. The songs will cheer her up and she’ll be fun again. Here, I’ll show you.”

Myra led Sissy to the Family Movies shelf and pointed just out of reach.

“Ooh, nice cover,” said Sissy. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Sissy checked out the movie and then left with a renewed energy, her backpack bouncing behind her.


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.


Trucker Couple from Indiana

Norma’s lips curled over her toothless gums as she squeezed her husband’s arm. “This is so exciting, Eddie! Our first nice picture together.”

They were like teens posing at junior prom.

Eddie was standing with his arms crossed loosely over a smudged V-neck tee. Around his neck he wore three gold chains that caught at the curls of his exposed chest hair. Smiling at his wife he said, “Yes it is.”

Norma and Eddie were truckers from Indiana, passing time at the local Wal-Mart while stopped on route.

In small-town Iowa, Wal-Marts are one of the few retailers left and are utilized as community centers as well as department stores. They’re host to egg hunts, teenage rendezvouses, and the mother-daughter pair from the nearby church who, even on nice days, don workout clothes every Saturday morning to speed-walk the aisles.

In the entrance to the in-store portrait studio, Eddie tried his luck on the Spin-to-Win wheel—its bold pink, yellow, and green pie slices blurring into gray. The wheel ticked to a stop, landing on: Free 16×20 Portrait.

“Whoo-eee!” said Eddie, snugging up to Norma.

“Can we get our picture taken today?” she asked, smoothing the front of her NASCAR t-shirt.

Tucked back in the small studio, Norma and Eddie sat side by side on a sheet-draped posing block. They smiled at each other–their heads touching and their hands held between them. At the flash, their pupils dilated and they blinked several times, Eddie sneaking a wink at Norma.

“Will you hold the picture till we’re in next, please?” Norma asked at the register. Then with a Thank-you, she and Eddie left, their shoulders together and their fingers linked.

2010


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.


Peace, Love, and Mung Beans

Off the coast of Auckland, NZ

 

“Hell of a long swim,” the old man laughed from his dinghy at the opposite end of our survival rope. Our motor had died on the Hauraki Gulf while heading back to our group’s sailboat, and we had no oars. But the old man spotted us idling in the water before panic set in—the rope he tossed as strong as the Island wine.

Our teammate with the short-cropped hair, the oldest student in our group, thanked the old man as he pulled in his rope.

“No worries,” he said.

No worries: the slogan of a nation.

A slogan for the previous night spent on Waiheke, where there were only open skies, a row of sleeping bags on a hillside, and a basket of seashells at my feet.

Kia Ora, we said at sunrise to the sound of zippers punctuating the dewy morning. Kia Ora, said the heads behind the zippers.

We docked after two days out, and for two days more felt the gentle rock of the Gulf with every step we took on land. We tried the local fare—breaded cod, with chips, wrapped in that morning’s newspaper. We bent the stalks of native foliage to our noses, breathing in memories of a place we may never return to again.

Jan. 2009


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.


I-80 Essentials

Music:

Brand New, Modest Mouse, Taking Back Sunday (4 songs tops), Slayer (2 songs), Tegan and Sara, Motion City Soundtrack, Straylight Run, any soundtrack or mix cd made in college, Mmmbop.

(No matter the cheese factor, sing-along music is a stay-awake must)

Foods:

Doughnuts loaded up on at hometown bakery. Nothing compares. Nothing. Also: apples, bananas, and carrots for good energy (confession: health nut, apart from homemade pastries).

Drinks:

None! Don’t drink anything! Why would you make the trip take any longer than it already is?!

Topics of Conversation:

How much we’ve become like our parents, How much we differ from our parents, Who looks different/graduated/got married/had a baby–babies? Sucks to be them. Monsanto. Capitalism. American education. These are all acceptable.

Activities:

License plate game, napping, reading aloud (so the driver knows why you keep laughing, of course), air drumming.

 

Good luck, and may the state of Nebraska never consume you.


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.