Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Daughter from Nowhere


My daughter calls me from wherever she is; of course I pick up the phone.  I didn’t really know I had a daughter, but I’d always suspected it.  She’s finally found me.

“How can I help you?” I say, piling things up before the cleaning lady comes.

She hesitates like a little seed not knowing what to do with all the dirt piled on top of her.

“Tell me everything,” I say. “Where have you been?”

Mom, my first memory is eating an apple on a doorstep to a new home.  We kept a dog tied up there for a long time.  I was skipping double dutch in the church parking lot when my family pulled alongside me and told me to get in. My brother peed in the milk jug and the five of us pummeled one another all the way there.  Dad parked the car and spanked us once in the rain.

“Oh,” I say. “That must have been tough.  Then where did you go?”  I fold up laundry so the cleaning ladies don’t have to deal with it tomorrow.

Mom, we moved to a whole new world.  Dad said not to stare at the Indians as we drove through town.  I skated on ice rinks and roller skated too; I made out with a cute boy underneath the plastic wrap on a landing pad.  There was another girl there and she did it too.  I flirted with the hockey boys through the wire fence.  My sister found me one time on the Indian Trail; I was smoking one of your cigarettes.  She was sixteen months pregnant.

I grip my teeth and set my jaw, like I do the timer on the stove.  “And then what?” I say.

Oh, and then la la, my daughter says.  I moved to Pennsylvania and then to Washington and then to Alaska and now I’m in Arizona.  I was just wondering how you were doing.

I hedge.  It’s in my nature.  I cannot deal with this honest little human being.  “Do you know who got laid by a thousand men?” I ask.

Alas Kanpipeline, she says. 

“Why not Minot?” I say.

Freezin’ is the reason.

Now I know it’s my daughter.  I kind of  jump for joy.  We can start over again.  “Honey, there’s a man here I want you to meet,” I say.

Is it my dad?

“No,” I say. “It’s better than that.  It’s Woody Allen.  Do you have any memories of Woody Allen?”  My daughter tries to think; I can hear her energy.  She is trying to conjure Woody Allen.  Is that the guy who married his step-daughter and kept a park between himself and Mia Farrow?

I could not be prouder of my daughter than at this time.  “Indeed,” I say, whipping the trees in my front yard with my rugs, dusting.  I go back, way back to the bathroom where Woody likes to hang.

“Hey,” I say to the freak of an individual hanging upside down from my towel rack at Halloween.  “Long time no see.”  Woody folds his wings and tries to be handsome with his face turned towards the ceiling.  His thin t-shirt gives him away.

“Our daughter called,” I say.

What? he bleets.

I feed him a fruit fly, a fat one I’ve been saving off my bananas.  “She found us,” I say.

Well, everybody knows Woody, so it’s no surprise that he just ate the fly and looked at me like it was my fault.  I take a clean towel off the rack because I want to clean again.

“Don’t make me be alone in this,” I say, knowing before the words leave my beak that there is nothing left to do but scratch in the sand. “You do this every time.”

The phone rings again and we look at each other—Woody and me—knowing it’s our daughter.  Neither of us wants to pick up.  She is so happy camping; we don’t know why she would want any part of us.  We look at each other again.  “At least put on the shower curtain,” I say. 

Woody hangs himself on the shower rod.  That was not exactly what I was thinking. 

“Hi Honey,” I say.

Mom, I just wanted you to know that I can keep up good humor in the face of nothingness.  I do look at everyone and try to adjust accordingly.  The absence of you and Dad has helped raise me.  Thank you.

I want to throttle my daughter in this moment.  Where was she when we had picnics by the lake?  Where was she when we were taking notes on what movies won awards at the Oscars?  Was she even in the car all those times?  I pull Woody’s wing and he wakes up. What? he bleets.

“She doesn’t remember us.”

My daughter is still on the phone and I don’t know what to do with her.  I would give her fruit and bits of bread if she wanted, but again, I don’t know.  I fly into a snit, thinking that Woody should get down and I should make things more comfortable.  I mean, if I don’t, at least he should.


“What’s your name?”  I ask my daughter. 



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bad Examples are the Best Examples of All


I walk into class this morning totally prepared for a different class at another time.  Slightly taken aback at first—dummy—I revert to Plan B of Teaching, which in the old days meant going back to the textbook because the technology didn’t work, but which today means checking in with my students because I need a jump-start.

“Have we learned about quotation format yet?” I thunder.

“NO!” they chorus back.  I hand out candy and begin the lesson.  I hand out markers and soon students are clamoring to write on the board.  “Don’t be afraid!” I shout out over the din. “Bad examples are the best examples of all!”

I close up shop five minutes after the hour, rolling around in my chair, asking a boy not to clean my erasers.  I will do it myself; I don’t want to be viewed as having favorites. Two hours later I’m on the phone with my brother, talking about jail time and death.  It is a real winner of a conversation.  We need to work on transitions.

“Did you hear that new song by Glen Campbell?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says. "It made me really sad.”  He pauses.  “Weren’t you in jail when he was?”

“No,” I say, slightly indignant but only to a degree.  “I was in when Martha Stewart was in.”


You look back at those days as fast as two seconds can take and remember feeling sorry for Glen Campbell, not as sorry for Martha, but commiseration with both.  The only thing on your mind these days is why people write “arrived to” rather than “arrived at”.  It is your new mission in life to find out.  You would also like to know how your sister is doing and how your dad is doing and what everybody else is thinking.  



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An Understood Rule


You lie in bed in all of your fifteenishness, arms akimbo, your stomach growling for breakfast on Saturday.  Your parents are out on the breakfast date they’ve been on since 1956.  You heard them leave. You pull the remnants of your own last night—a purple truck and purple drink and your own purple blanket—together around you, and go downstairs to make food.

You can make anything you want and this is an understood rule of the house, as long as you clean up after yourself and do the other things on the list. 

The first thing you do is look for eggs.

Your ability to turn eggs into meals as a sub-adult is quickly laughed off and then marketed by Eggo.  You have never felt more under-appreciated.  You feel the same way when you make chef salad from everything in the refrigerator and suddenly all restaurants country-wide are offering chef salads.

Your story is an old story before you even knew the story existed.

*

Thirty years later and two thousand miles away, you wake up in the morning.  You are still lying in bed in all your fiftyishness, arms akimbo, your stomach still growling for Saturday breakfast.  Your parents are still out on a date.

Suddenly, your entire life as you know it throws itself on the loveseat you use for decoration, and starts crying.  This is the last thing you need.  It’s not like you punished it.  You turn your head away in hopes of seeing other people suffering more, anything to get you off the hook, but your life continues to throw a tantrum in the loveseat.  Stupid baby.

You get yourself comfortable in a propped-up-chin, leg-look way, ready to hear all the stories and everybody’s excuses.  You can’t wait to hear what everybody thinks.  The polls are open.  You feel like you’re in control in a way you haven’t been in in awhile.  You pull your remnants around yourself, this time clean laundry you left on the bed last night and a few cats who have been experimenting with weightlessness.

“Get up,” you say, draping lifeless forms of cats around you. “Gravity still works here.” 

In the apparent absence of gravity—in the face of everything you know that has worked up to this time but which now has suddenly stopped working—you have to do better.  “Who wants to hear a story?” you burble.  Twin peaks of ears funnel towards you.  You clear the throat that was gifted to you from your father, the same throat that runs with the phlegm and can be heard clearing not only itself but entire cathedrals at certain times of the year. 

You suck up any remaining vestiges of the night, hoping that your weightless children can still benefit from a story, and begin, “There are the people who have killed themselves, and there are the people who haven’t.”  You wipe the inside tears off your glasses.  You set your jaw and gather the purple blanket.  “One time with my back against a wall,” you continue, “and no instruments of survival within my reach, I looked to fire as my friend.  I had been taught against it, the same with knives and friendship, but this was a desperate situation.  I looked for a girl but there wasn’t one; I looked for the bridge that I had been told my grandfather built, one particular pile of stones, but I couldn’t find it either.”

It’s a good start, but you don’t know how to end it, plus it’s your dad’s story, not yours.  You look for boys.

“Thirty years ago I didn’t pay attention to my father’s rules of never using a knife in the wrong direction, never setting a fire unless it’s controlled, never leaving a hazard for someone else to walk into, and never going into the woods without blazing a trail first,” you bludgeon.

You shift around in the sheets you haven’t left yet, a bandage on your thumb.




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.