Monday, September 22, 2014

Still September

You sit at the keyboard of your computer, the same type of keyboard you sat at as a child, although now, it’s not a piano.  You know it better than you ever knew the piano; you think in typeset now, and you time yourself in all important events by how many words per minute.  These are hard habits to break.

You remember your first walk down the sidewalk to your first and only guitar teacher’s house.  He was probably seventy to your eight, your guitar case bigger than you.  You lugged that thing from your house on America Avenue to his house on America Avenue every Wednesday after school.  His main thing was trying to make you better when you were already happy enough the way you were.  In later years, you would liken yourself to Tom Petty when your guitar instructor was trying to make you Eddie Van Halen.

Piano lessons and guitar lessons spiraled into a nightmarish spectacle of not knowing how to do anything except to read.

Read, you could do.  There were clubs for this, and awards. You squeezed the ability to read into the lacking parts of your brain; you learned to play first-chair trumpet with one hand and your lips, you played the guitar by anchoring a pinky…basically you could do anything one-handed that other people saw as only being able to be accomplished by using more than one hand.

You look at abbreviations now very skeptically.  What used to mean something to you doesn’t mean anything to anybody anymore, and what means everything to people now has you asking questions.  But questions do not alight liltingly from your tongue into any conversation.  You are your father’s daughter.  Your eyes always cross and your hair stands on end; your tonsils grab the question back because you should already know.

Yet you have to ask. 

On your own best day when you’re liking yourself to the greatest degree, you liken yourself to a student who puts himself in the path of a bus to say, “I don’t get that.  I don’t get what you’re talking about.”  You start out all snobbish in your answer, then you soften when you realize that it was the bravest of the group who asked the question, and you’re the bus.  What does that mean? 

You were using html code in 1986 to create files and drawers that somehow were supposed to simulate the same thing in real life.  To you, the definitions of these terms were closer to what your parents put money in every week for church and grocery and taxes.  There was a test during senior year and it was the only time you ever cheated.  Okay, it wasn’t.  The mathematical part of your brain kicked in enough for you to get through High School HTML and College Math 100.  You got through without a second language, too. 

You smirked all the way to the line that divided you from the over-achievers.

Math, never having been your strong suit, is the one thing you have to get better at for the good of mankind.  Math is the only thing that saves you in times of trouble when counting counts.  Nobody showed you how to play tennis, but you learned it up against the cement wall.  Nobody has to show you every equation to prove that a certain something is correct. 

You knew how to play cards from the moment your parents needed a third for Merry Widow.



Monday, September 15, 2014

How to Survive September in Arizona


First, you need to be sick in August.  It doesn’t matter what’s wrong with you—a broken heart, a broken arm, a terminal disease, a slumbering addiction coming awake—just as long as blood tests are needed.  One of those tests should be so special that one vial of your blood has to fly cross-country to an equally special testing lab.  The travel of your blood should take place over a long holiday weekend so that your blood dies en route, necessitating more labs as soon as you are available, the nurse says on the phone. But no charge this time.

You go back to your doctor’s office to get a matching bruise on the crook of your other arm.  You are pleased when the nurse calls the following week to say that your blood arrived alive and well at the Special Lab, and that she will be faxing the results to your Special Doctor that very afternoon.  Yay.
You hang up the phone, but it will start ringing again thirty seconds later: it is the nurse trying to fax your home phone number instead of your Special Doctor's.  Your phone will ring like this every six minutes for forty-five minutes—screaming the fax scream every time you pick up—before you will be so moved to call your doctor’s office and inform them of the mix-up.  It will be after-hours, and the fax machine will be on automatic dial all night long.

You turn your phone off, thinking of the unfairness of life. 

You awaken the next morning to texts from your sister in Minnesota featuring photos of massive conifers with their roots in the air, their trunks and branches six inches from your parents’ house, front and back.  Your father’s garden is sitting about even with the roof, balanced on a web of roots, its own roots dangling underneath.  A tornado blew through while you were sleeping; your sister just wants you to know that your parents are okay.

Your heart will tighten, thinking of what could have happened.  You’ll grit your teeth and look at the floor.  You will call your parents and hear how they spent the wee hours of the morning sitting on lawn chairs in the laundry room with a battery-operated radio and a flashlight.

 *

When you feel your own and everybody else’s survival slipping, you’ll need to get out of town.  Go south.  There, in the ruins of mining towns and artificial divides, your eyeglasses will drop from you, breaking themselves.  You always remember to put mishaps this way because, though you don’t speak Spanish, you know from listening that it’s better to say “it fell from me”, not so much “I dropped it.”

You’ll begin the fix by wrapping a long single piece of Scotch tape from the screw part down the ear handle, essentially cocooning that side of your glasses for the butterfly it will never be again.  You’ll repeatedly forget that your glasses no longer have the bendy feature on the broken side; your glasses will break themselves again.  Luckily you have a pipe cleaner on you; you wrap one bristly end around the screw part and bend the rest around your ear.

You’re one step closer to surviving September.  You drive home.

The next morning, after being soothed all night by the steady fall of rain—such a treat in Arizona—you wake up to a flood, another natural disaster: Hurricane Somebody dumping tons of water on your part of the world.  You have never seen a rainy day like this, not in Arizona.  It isn’t long before everything gets canceled and the entire state is ordered to stay home, out of harm’s way, lest the citizenry cause even more problems.

Your own street will flood to the point that your yard is now everybody else’s yard, and their yards are yours.  Stay-at-homers kayak down our river-street; a child floats by in an inner tube.  One family, everybody in swimsuits, has a barbecue in their driveway.  You only know this because your friend comes by in a Ski-Doo to take you out for lunch.

Another week later—how can it be this many into September—you’ll be standing in an eyeglass repair shop with your mangled glasses on the counter.  You’re sure the man waiting on you has seen it all, like you have.  “I bet you’ve seen glasses fixed in a lot of strange ways,” you’ll venture as this man turns your eyewear over in his hands.

“I’ve never seen a pipe cleaner used,” he’ll say.

Oh, you’ll think, pipe cleaner user.

Tomorrow, another flood is in the forecast because of Tropical Storm Stupid. This could happen at any time, even tonight.  For you, it’s just a continued bloodletting, another mosquito sunrise.  Listen to a colleague before you leave work when he brings your mutual flood conversation back to reality: “Well, it’s not like it’s Hurricane Katrina.”  Katrina, the German diminutive that your mother uses when she wants you to know that everything is going to be okay.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Modernization


The manager of the hotel where I’ll be staying over Thanksgiving calls to leave a message: “The elevator will be out of service during your stay as it undergoes modernization.  If you have any questions or concerns, please call back.”

Questions and concerns do indeed pop into my brain: What floor is my room on?  How many floors are there?  What does “modernization” mean?  Is it gonna be noisy?  It can’t be noisy!

The manager’s name is Benny and the hotel is in San Diego, on the beach.  I call the hotel back but Benny is gone, so I explain my concerns to an assistant who assures me that Benny will call back.  I tell the assistant to warn Benny that I will be looking for a discount or a premium room in exchange for the elevator inconvenience, or assistance in re-booking at another nearby hotel.  We hang up amicably enough, but I am steamed.

Every bad trait I have—every bad habit, every unkind word, every emotion that I can’t control—has its roots in another story that taught me an unfortunate lesson.  I can’t help but think back to my honeymoon.

*
We had decided to honeymoon in Sonoma Valley at a historic inn.  Actually, I was the one who had decided because I was the one with the money, and my husband was the one who was high all the time.  This was to be a vacation of a lifetime, for me anyway.

Our first walk down the streets of Sonoma were spent looking for a Wells Fargo bank so my husband could pay the mortgage on his house at the very last second.  I was still not privy to his complete array of financial shenanigans, even after two years.  I remember buying two long strings of paper stars—one wine, one royal blue—excited to hang them up for decoration somewhere.

Back at the inn that first night of our honeymoon, I lowered my body-of-a-17-year-old into the steaming waters of our huge grape seed Jacuzzi, wine at my side.  My disgruntled husband stared at my happiness through the cut-out in the wall.  He didn’t have any paraphernalia.

“Listen,” I said before submerging. “You can stand over there and feel sorry for yourself all you want, but you’re not going to ruin this for me.”  With that, I dunked under the pleasant waters, just a grape seed myself.

The next day, while I got a long massage in the morning and took another long mosey through the town of Sonoma to make sure we knew where all the best spots were, my husband went looking for a bong.  Meeting with no success in the 50-mile radius he had limited himself to, he came back in the evening all pitiful again.  It wasn’t that he didn’t have pot; he just didn’t have anything to smoke it with.  He was too proud to use a Coke can.

Running a very close parallel to the miserable-husband phenomena was the state of affairs at our inn.  No one had told me that the street outside would be under construction for the entire week of our stay, that we would be listening to the beep beep beep of machinery and the destruction of asphalt every day, all day.  Nor had anyone mentioned that there was an elementary school located directly behind us, complete with bells and buses and a thousand splendid recesses.  In emotional shambles by our third night, I went to sit and rock in the manager’s office.  This performance won me a refund, $450 back in my pocket, one free dreary night out of the seven.

*

It’s been three days and I have yet to hear from Benny.  I wonder if my warnings don’t carry as much weight as they used to.  Maybe there’s a new way to reason with hotel managers that I haven’t learned yet.  Maybe I should stop giving warnings.  




Saturday, August 23, 2014

At the Idea of Company


At the idea of company, my father would curl his lip.  That was just the start.  Once he knew that Mom really meant that company was coming over, his lip would relax and he would tilt back in his chair, his arms crossed behind his head, his eyes rolled to the top of his forehead.  I would usually watch this from underneath my fairy napkin.

When company did come, my mom was always happy from the start, but it would take my dad longer to warm up.  He had probably been chasing teenagers around all day, and I had probably toddled in on him going to the bathroom again.

Stuck in the family room with my older siblings, I was a pinball in a pinball machine.  My brother would pretend that if he fell off the couch without my kissing his big toe, he would die.  I always kissed his toe, sometimes frantically.  My sisters would send me into the kitchen for more chips and dip.  I’d come back with that and some mints in my pocket.

The results of my parents’ having company over varied.  When I was younger and just learning to spell, it meant that they would sleep in and I would pour my own bowl of K-I-X without falling off the countertop or spilling milk.  I would take it upon myself—the only awake person in the house—to compromise the rules and eat my cereal away from the breakfast table, eight inches from the television screen, me and Scooby-Doo.

Ten years later, backyard parties meant that the back of my guitar got scratched when my dad said to let the company have it, but I didn’t really mind.  It was the least of my worries.

Now with me and my parents in elderly states—having kind of grown up as the most troubled triplets in the world—we are the same as we were forty years ago: my mother still looking forward to the doorbell ringing, my dad and I still drugging ourselves, or hoping at least for drugs later.  My mom was a convert long-coming into the tripleness of us, but now she likes to take the phone off the hook as much as we do.

*
As might be imagined, my father was not a fan of my beaus, though my mother always went wild for them.  High school times were very hard for us as a unit.  Variously throughout the years such as in South Africa and the Iraq and everywhere like such as, especially when perhaps a stash of unsmoked cigarettes, unused condoms, and an unopened package of No Doz had been discovered in my bedroom’s attic, my dad would look at me, his identical, and put the pained look of You’re such an idiot across his face.  He and I would look at each other that way while Mom glanced back and forth. 

Everything always had something to do with a boy.

“Under no circumstances,” my father would level me, “will that young man be welcomed back into this house before I get a chance to speak to him.”

I would bite my lips; my dad always won.  He was the bouncer of our house.

One Friday night I had been let off being grounded for two weeks and had firmly reaffixed my fairy wings.  I was expecting the wrestler who had gotten me grounded in the first place—we were all expecting him—when my dad reminded me: “I’ll have a talk with him on the deck before you go.”  My mom heard this too, and when the wrestler arrived, my mom and I were suddenly mosquitoes listening at the screen.  We big-brown-eyed one another and telepathically exchanged, Is he really saying that? 

“You don’t take my daughter out and get her drunk,” my dad said.

“Yes sir,” the wrestler said.

“If I ever get a notion of anything like this happening again, you won’t see her again.”

“Yes sir,” the wrestler said.

My mom and I listened in the kitchen with the lights turned off so we wouldn’t be seen ourselves.

*

The three of us are still prone to speak like Yoda:
Quiet and peaceful it’s been around here.
Cold and windy it’s been all week.

We want even less company than we ever did.




Friday, August 15, 2014

Imitating People


There have been so many people coming to your door this week, you have become an a-door-a-phobe.  You sit on the couch with the front blinds open, watching the shadows of birds and trees, wondering if any of these shapes are going to morph into a human being walking up to your door again.  Landscapers have been coming to give you bids on your yard, cleaning services have been coming to give you bids on scouring the inside of your home, and there’s a pigeon that you’re allowing to roost right outside the front door on top of one of the patio pillars, in full view, so every time you hear her coo and flap and make shadows, it’s like she’s a person at your door, too.

The third and final landscaper comes by this morning.  You think you’ll like him best because the spelling of his last name is so similar to the spelling of your own.  You start out merrily walking the yard with him—the vast and sweltering front, back, and sides—pointing out things you’d like done.  Although he keeps saying that the customer is always right, he keeps contradicting you “from a botanist’s point of view”.  What you want to prune, he wants to chop down to the roots.  What you are growing into a bush, he wants to shape into a tree.

He doesn’t know the names of bushes and plants; he thinks your olives are plums.  He has never heard of a female Brazilian Pepper.  You inform him that they are native to Florida, wanting to emphasize your own knowledge and the hard work that you have already put into this property.  You keep admitting that you are only an amateur, but you are ready for a professional job.  He points out that the water pooling underneath your air conditioner's drip pipe is ruining the foundation of your house. 

“You need to put a bucket underneath that,” he says.

“It’s my pigeon bird-bath,” you joke.

“They can take a bath in the bucket,” he says.

He seems to enjoy standing in the direct sun at noon with sweat pouring down his face and pooling between his breasts.  You yourself can’t take it anymore.  You dismiss yourself and run inside; he strolls to his truck to do the estimate.  You’re so dehydrated, you won’t pee for hours.  You glug down some water and remember the bright side: you’re getting the yards and trees professionally done!  Your giddiness returns.

You see him coming up the walk, so you go outside.  He doesn’t want to give you the total cost before he breaks down the entire job into pieces.  You start listening a little more carefully through the glee when he says that because you want your hedge taken down one foot instead of the standard six inches, that’s an extra fifty dollars.  And because he’s gonna have to bring in his specialists to identify the trees and their sodium needs, that’s also going to cost more.  But the grand total is $425…twenty-five dollars less than the two other quotes.  You have your man.

You walk down the driveway with him, going to get your mail, chattering on about how excited you are to finally be getting a professional job.  You are hanging from the mailbox like a monkey when the botanist informs you that his company isn’t licensed and bonded, but they are insured.  If anybody falls out of a tree on your property, they can’t sue you.  And while he’s not a botanist yet—he still does tech stuff—he hopes for this to become his second career.  You climb down and look away from him, into your mailbox, reaching your hand in to grab the envelopes.

“So you guys aren’t really professionals?” you ask.

You remember that you picked this company because its ad said, “We Wear Uniforms!”  Indeed, Would-Be Botanist is wearing a t-shirt with his last name—again, very close to the spelling of your own last name—printed on the back with “Landscaping Services” printed underneath.  The same logo is printed smaller in front, to the left.  There is no first name.

“Listen,” he says, sweat pouring from his red hair down his pale cheeks into his puffy red beard, and again from between his breasts.  “I have a cousin who’s a teacher and he makes half of what I did when I was a tech full-time.  I’m doing this because I have a natural talent for it.  So do all my guys.”

Your teacherly self stands there dripping in sweat, remembering how much time you just invested standing out in the heat for nothing.  Your envelopes are getting damp. You say you have to get in, and Quasimodo it up the driveway.


Later, truly in the heat of the day, the pest control guy arrives.  You have taken yourself off summer naps, so you are cranky.  You have grocery shopped and the food is not put away.  Carl rings the doorbell and you go outside.  You walk the yard together, looking for spiders and ants.  They are staring at you in the eyes.  Your house is Halloween in August. 

Carl says he recognizes everyone from last month and can’t believe they’re all back.

You tell him you have to go in because your groceries are melting, melting, but to knock if he needs anything.  Forty-five minutes later he rings the doorbell instead, scaring the cats, but it’s not his fault.  You lean your forehead against the security door and ask him how it went.  He leans against your house, in the blue uniform of the brand-name pest-control service you use, looking like he has just crossed the border.

“I looked so hard, my eyes watered,” he says.

*

You sit on the couch for an hour, waiting for the third and final cleaning service representative.  You watch out your front windows.  By now the shadows have shifted, but they still dance on the street and your front pillars, imitating people coming to your door.

You wish it could be Robin Williams coming to your door.



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Complaints of the Summer


I stay on the patio longer than usual because my heart wants to get back into my throat.  I have to keep her from getting too upset before we go back in.  “Play with this,” I say, shooting a rubber band at her.

She surges joyously around in the wagon, just thankful for being touched.  I hate her in this moment.  I decide to tell her a story.  Maybe she’ll go to sleep.

“One day,” I begin, “there was a very large and interesting person who came down from Heaven and infected everyone.”

My heart cares not.  She flip-flops around in the constant water.  She is happy by herself.

My anger rises from not being recognized and it comes from a place I don’t particularly like.  I always have to put anger down in the regime of me.  I turn towards a beckoning lord.

“Lord?” I say.

“Yes Ma’am,” he says back.

“I feel disenchanted,” I whisper, “but my task for the morrow is to enchant.”

God says to me in this moment and summer of weakness, Sweet baby pie, I have been watching you.  I raised you to know yourself.  Do not let a moment or day or month of disenchantment steer you away from what you know is right.  Isn’t that why you got gas in your car yesterday?

God is joking with me.  I ask if he wants to be capitalized. 

He says no.

I challenge him.  I kick my feet.  I know I’m gonna get crucified anyway, so why wait.  “I didn’t get to go camping!” I tiny-shout about the complaints of the summer.  “I wanted this and that and the other!”

I tiny-vomit in my throat but swallow and go on. “Plus I was really hoping you could come through for me this time.”

God walks around in huge puffy footsteps.  I can hear the voice of him in my brother’s speech and my mother’s language and the vocabulary that my family has shared for years.  God has been arriving on my doorstep in semi-truck trailers and boxes all summer.  How excellent for me. 


God tells me this.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Drugstore

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I went to the CVS this morning to get some lotion and cat treats, and the place was surrounded by cops.  I pulled in and cruised through and saw the gang of my CVS—the employees—sitting on a cinder block wall, smoking, eating pastries.  I rolled down my window and asked, “What’s goin’ on?”

The manager said, “A little robbery."

I gasped in my brain.  “I want to shop here but I can’t!”

The four of those employees sitting there in the early morning light, in the hazy cloud of their cigarette smoke, almost spontaneously and in sync lowered their hands that held the cigarettes.

 “We want you to shop here,” their chorus called out, “but we know that you don’t have a choice!”

“I’m goin’ to Walgreen’s!”

*

I drove across the street feeling totally bad for everything that could have happened at the CVS.  These were my people and I saw them most days.  And then there I was at Walgreen’s, buying what I wanted anyway.  The most cheerful and tallest and oldest and baldest check-out clerk waited on me that day.  There was something about him that brought out the honesty in me.  “The CVS got robbed,” I said. “That’s why I’m here and not over there.”

“We’ve gotten robbed before,” he said, looking around like a tall Bob Newhart. “Guys come in here with sawed-off shotguns up their sleeves.  Basically, they want the pharmacy.”

I stood there, not exactly in my Sunday best, but held together.  I wondered if this old bald man was the same one who used to sell me liquor on the other side of the store.  That man had a bad case of psoriasis on his scalp, and this person does not.  I get the twinge that I should have been paying better attention.  My face makes the machinations of emotion, but my heart is slow.

“Well, I hope you have a good day,” I say as I tip-toe out of the store.

*

You go home and Lanacane yourself.  The ants have been thick this summer.  You often take your languishing body to the back porch, whether it is morning or night.  You sit out there in uncomfortable chairs, getting bit by ants, because you want your body to get used to it. 

There have been some birthdays lately that have made some people older, but these people are the same to you, so you didn't give presents.  You could be looking at an iceberg with fangs in the ocean, still hoping for a good sail.  You wish you were an animal sometimes so a whip would be in order, but since no whips or chains or harnesses are allowed anymore, you step onto the patio to give the ants their due.