Tag Archives: creative nonfiction

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


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.


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


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


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