Tag Archives: creative writing

Socorro’s Doomsday Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought she was awesome,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hometown Sketch: Night at Malarky’s

 

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

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

And there was always, without exception, a fight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

 


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.

 


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


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


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.


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