Tag Archives: narrative nonfiction

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.


Stop Licking Your Cheese: An Ode to ECE

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

FAVORITE STORIES AND QUESTIONS:

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

Me: How does it live?

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

Me: How does it die?

B: If you don’t cry, it dies.

***

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

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A: …I was going so fast that I flew.

Me: How did you fly?

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

Me: Doesn’t that hurt?

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

Me: Isn’t that gross?

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

Me: How do you do that?

S: With a hot mold cutter.

Me: Sounds about right.

***

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

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

***

A: My mom’s friend’s name is Easy.

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FAVORITE OVERHEARD CONVERSATIONS:

E: Do you know what ‘pass gas’ is?

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

***

M: Are you scared of Chuck E. Cheese?

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

***

E: What if the trees walked on two legs?

***

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

***

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

 

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THINGS MY CO-TEACHER AND I SAY:

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

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

“Stop licking your cheese and eat it.”

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

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

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

 

NOT-SO-FAVORITE MOMENTS:

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

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

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

Being coughed or sneezed on nearly everyday

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

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

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

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

 

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FAVORITE MOMENTS:

Asking kids their dreams

Cloud-watching on the playground

Kids telling stories about their art

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

When JC picked up a dead bird in the grass

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

Daily high-fives, hugs, and compliments

Daily wholehearted laughter

 

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Hometown Sketch: Hells Angels Rumor

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In the summer of 1971, a rumor went around Storm Lake, Iowa that the Hells Angels were coming to town. The rumor was linked to a vague mention of the Midwest in a biker magazine, but through the nuanced and intricate ways that news spreads in small towns, the rumor grew into the greatest panic Storm Lake has ever known.

At this point the Angels were long notorious for their exploits all over the country. People were either enthralled with or repulsed by them. The Angels had links to The Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and were immortalized in print (outside of news headlines) by New Journalist writers such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. The Angels symbolized ultimate freedom and debauchery, anti-hippiedom with a Beat-like mindset for exploring what our expansive country had to offer. But unlike the peace-loving, Zen-seeking Beats, the Angels liked to stir shit up, starting fights and assaulting women. Or so it was said.

I first heard of the rumor while sitting at my grandma Shirley’s kitchen table (where we had all of our best conversations), enthusiastically scribbling down notes as she recounted how she’d considered hiding in the bushes behind her house and how she’d worried that the bikers would raid her and my grandpa’s Wholesale Market of all their beer. “People actually left town because they were afraid it would be too dangerous,” she said. My grandpa Jack wanted her to leave but she wouldn’t. Instead, she said, they went and bought some .22 bullets for their rifle. Other families shipped their wives and daughters off to relatives in other towns, or banned them from leaving the house. Men were entreated to stand guard and protect those who dared to stay.

Forty thousand bikers were guesstimated to arrive for the town’s 4th of July Star Spangled Spectacular, inciting a request for the National Guard’s services. Baseball bats were stashed at the ready, a bank boarded up its windows, and trucks were assigned to blockade the girls’ dorms at the local college.

The idea of this event in my hometown’s past thrilled me and I went to my grandma Rose—a lifelong resident of the county—with questions about her experience. She said she hadn’t believed anything would happen even if the Angels did come through, despite my grandpa’s boss warning him that the filthy fiends might rape his four young daughters. But even my grandpa said, “We’re staying right here.”

My mom, along with her siblings, must have read something in their parents’ nonchalance and ditched the house to go swimming at the lake where they saw some visiting bikers, enjoyed their time, and left unscathed.

My dad and uncle were also told to stay home, but in true form they took off on their bikes for another park where dozens of visitors on motorcycles were camped out hoping to see or possibly join up with the Angels. The boys talked to one couple from Pennsylvania who had a baby with them and thought they were the nicest people, so what was everyone so worried about?

The crowds grew so large that the lake road was jammed bumper to bumper with traffic. The state moved in 40 cops with a communications truck for crowd control. Two helicopters were borrowed from the National Guard, and when 35 bikers headed out from Mason City towards Storm Lake, a highway patrol plane followed them in and had them diverted to a park about 10 miles outside of town. Local residents flocked to see the assembly like eyes to fresh road kill on an unmarked highway. But in the end the most unnerving run-in happened at Grace Lutheran Church where a wedding was in session. Two curious bikers saw the full parking lot and assumed it was the rumored biker rally. They were spotted— before any of the immediate family saw them—and were told to leave before the mother of the bride had a conniption fit.

When the fear of the Angels’ visit began to dissipate, rationality filled in the gaps and left the town wondering, How could we have reacted differently?

Is there something to be learned from unfulfilled mass hysteria? I wonder how I might’ve reacted in said time and place. I can speculate that I’d keep my cool and wait for it to all blow over. That I’d be more practical in my efforts to defend my home and self. But there are things that we only know we’re capable of once put in those situations, and we must do the best we can to simply make it out alive.

 


Cabin Ghost of Okoboji

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We were nine, maybe ten or eleven. Old enough to know better but young enough to reject any sort of objective explanation. We were the Goosebumps generation—thrilled by the supernatural and open to the possibility of the beyond. Cheap thrills and thunderstorms were the height of entertainment, and Hide-and-Seek was the best way to waste an afternoon.

We were Okoboji babies—annual visitors to the lake resort town hidden inside the forests and corn-laced highways of Northwest Iowa. My extended family had met there for years, sharing conjoined cabins and living up a short-term life of leisure. It was a town rife with history and allusions to spectral sightings, made all the more believable by the aged and creaking rides at Arnold’s Park with its abandoned-chic vendor shops.

Midday at the lakefront cabin, the men and boys dangled their feet over docks in hopes that a fish might bite, while the women went off to peruse the Emporium, leaving the girls behind, swapping stories in the back bedroom.

As we sat on the bed, laughing and painting our nails, a sound from inside the bathroom caught my attention. I asked my cousins if they heard it, and the three of us paused to listen.

A low, rhythmic flapping beat like the blood pulsing in my ears.

We exaggerated our fright, clinging to each other by wrists and elbows so as not to mar the half-dried paint. Sydney—the oldest—stood up and we followed, inching to the bathroom to flip on the switch. As light filled the shadows, the bedroom door shut by itself as though it had just admitted an invisible guest. We huddled, frozen in the bathroom doorway, where above us a rogue ceiling tile lifted and fell in attempts to communicate. We screamed again and ran through the room, spilling a bottle of red nail polish in our haste, leaving it to spread on the carpet like a fresh pool of blood.

We flung open the door and ran toward the lake, calling out for the men at the docks. But there was no one in sight. Where could they be? Our fear rose and we felt deserted by the ones who could save us.

We didn’t dare turn back. We wandered the shore until my grandfather approached, shirtless and baring a rod with a barbed and swinging hook. Could he be trusted? Was it him, or had he already been possessed?

We took our chances and related our encounter. He raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “Sounds like a draft to me,” he said. We denied it up and down. The day was stagnant and steamy; there was no breeze to support his theory. No, it was a ghost, we cried, unwilling to consent to his nonchalance. Come look, we said and led him through to the back.

The bathroom tile gave a single immoderate flap and settled into place for good. My grandfather, tall as a tree, reached up and prodded the tile. “Just a draft,” he repeated. “You girls should get out and enjoy the lake. Go for a swim. And clean up that spill before your mothers give you a real reason to be scared.”

He left, leaving the door open in his wake. We looked at each other and shrugged. No matter what might haunt the back of the cabin, there was no way we were going to test what lay beneath the waters of the lake.


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.

 


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.


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.


Retracing My Breadcrumb Trail

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

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

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

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

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

 


Smokey Taboo

bluebird

Bluebird Theater: CocoRosie

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

Glitter was everywhere. Women outnumbered the men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2013


Locks

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

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

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

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

I stammered a thank you and made to stand up.

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

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

June 2006


Rainbow Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

“When Earth is ravaged and animals die

A new people shall come

Many colors, classes, many creeds

Who by their actions and their deeds

Shall once again make Earth green

And be called

Warriors of the Rainbow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 2007


Quake

IMG_1153 copy 2

Approx. 2:30pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, Mar. 11th, 2011


Albuquerque to Phoenix

bus-seats

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

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

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

July 2007


Bowling and Beyond

Z-Coverphoto_bowling(GooglePlus)

Goleta, CA

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

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

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

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

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

June 2006


The Vineyard Owner

New Zealand

Waiheke Island, NZ

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

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

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

Jan. 2009