Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Geographic Tongue

I am home for the holidays and we are once again hanging out in the Emergency Room, my dad resting comfortably on the white bed.  My mom and sister and I sit on chairs by the curtain, picking our nails, sending texts, wondering if Dad will be staying overnight this time, or longer.  The doctor in charge that day comes in and runs my dad through a series of tests, all in good humor.  We dislike this doctor because he has tried to bring Jesus to Dad a few times before, and all he has done is bring my father to tears.  I distrust him, but he’s the doctor.

“Can I get ya to stick your tongue out, Jim?” the doctor says.

My father complies.  He’s had a mild stroke and has been listing to the left in all regards.  Sure enough, his tongue comes out on the left.

My mom interjects, “Jim has geographic tongue.  He’s had it all his life.” 

I look at my mother, once again wondering what language she speaks.  “What’s ‘geographic tongue’?” I ask.

“He’s always had hills and valleys and rivulets on his tongue,” she says. “Normal tongues are smooth.  It’s a harmless condition.”

So my father sticks his geographic tongue out and it lists to the left, and this is more evidence that he’s had a stroke on the right side.  A mild stroke.

In not two minutes’ time, my sister comes back in from smoking a cigarette and lets us know that a corpse has just been wheeled out, and Dr. Jesus bounces back in with one last word of cheer for my dad: “Jim!  Ya know what the great thing is about bein’ your age versus bein’ my age?”

Dr. Jesus is probably 58.  My dad is 79.

“No, Dave, why don’t you tell me?”

Dr. Freeman looks like the Michelin Man compared to my dad, at the moment.  “Jim!  You’re gonna see the Glory Land a lot sooner than I do!”  Dr. Freeman is all smiles.

My dad sets his jaw against whatever Dr. Freeman is selling this time.  There is nowhere for my dad to go, not a lot of fight in him today.  “Personally, Dave, I’d rather see you than the Glory Land anytime soon,” my dad says.

Finally, it’s time to take my dad home.  He’s passed inspection this time.  Just more rehab, with maybe a closer watch.  My sister and I are the last ones to walk out of the E.R. past the nurses’ station; Dr. Freeman is sitting behind it, shouting out his happy goodnights.  There’s a little rage swirling between my brain and my heart: Don’t you talk to my father about the Glory Land.  Don’t you sell Jesus to my father.

We take Dad home, get him inside the house, resting in his chair.  At supper time, does he want soup?  No.  Does he want an apple tartlet?  No.  Does he want soup?  Okay, maybe a cup.  Maybe some ice cream with his tartlet.

I don’t know how my mom is dealing with it, but I know how I am.  The last time I was home, I stole a few of my mom’s washcloths.  She likes the cheap ones that are thin and rough; they give a better wash.  I agree.  This year, I steal a pair of my dad’s black socks.  It’s fifteen below zero and I am cold anyway.  Seems legitimate, or at least defensible.

The day of my departure—before Christmas this time, that’s just how my schedule panned out—I run around my parents’ house, gathering my gifts, my electronic devices, any other little things I can steal that won’t be missed.  Who knows what might happen by the time I make it back.  I stop by my dad’s chair for a visit.  He’s waiting for his bath lady.  Bath days are good days.

“Kathryn, are you going to be here for Christmas?” my dad asks.

“No,” I say. “I’m going back to Arizona today.”

“That’s shitty,” my dad says, but he’s still in good humor.

“Different strokes for different folks,” I say, repeating the phrase I’ve been using since he had one and we’ve been trying to reassure him that his is not serious.

He grimaces at me.  All this darkness from his children.

“Dad,” I say. “Stick out your tongue.”

He looks at me like the slave-driver I am, gives up, and sticks his tongue out.  It lists to the left and is covered in yellow.  Those are not daisies.

“Thanks Dad,” I say.

I know the bath lady is coming and after that, my dad is scheduled for a non-emergency ambulance ride back to the hospital, where he’ll be reevaluated because he can’t really walk anymore.  I run to my mom and tell her to put one more thing on the list of Dad’s new symptoms: infected geographic tongue.

My dad is hungry and would eat another cup of tomato-basil soup if he could make it to the table.  His chair is electronic and boosts him up to almost a standing position, from where he can grab his walker and make it into the kitchen.  My mom is doing her hair for the rest of the day; the non-emergency ambulance will be here soon.  I help my dad get situated with his walker, halfway between standing and falling back into the chair, and I use the words I’ve learned in his therapy to prompt him: “Big! March!”

My dad’s feet stay planted, his whole body trembling.  We are both willing those feet to move towards the table.  I repeat “Big!” and “March!” for the fifteen minutes it takes us to make it fifteen feet.  My father is tired from his stint in the emergency room, tired from lack of good sleep, tired from knowing that in another half hour, he’ll be leaving his house in a non-emergency ambulance.

“I don’t think I can make it,” he whispers.

My arms are already around him; I have the rib cage and arm-pit area covered.  My eyes have been on his feet and all obstacles.  There is no way this man is going down on my shift.  I remember a lesson that one of my nurse-sisters told me just a couple days before about smaller people ensuring the safety of larger people who are falling: “Wedge your knee between their legs and begin to kneel down on the other one.  Use your arms to guide them to the floor; slide them down your leg.  It always works—it’s like ballet, almost.”

I am doing ballet with my dad in the hallway.  I call for my mother, and she comes to help.


I still have to get ready for my flight.  I leave my dad eating tomato-basil soup at the kitchen table.  I hear noise from downstairs and I know it’s the non-emergency paramedics packing my dad up for the hospital again, then probably the Care Center again for rehab.  I run up the stairs and there my dad is, zipped into an insulated sleeping bag on a mobile stretcher, just his face showing.

“Dad, you look like you’re in a cocoon,” I say. “Maybe you’ll come out like a butterfly.”

One of the paramedics says, “Or a moth.”  Obviously, he knows my dad better than I do.  He’s seen my dad more than I have.

I stand there teetering between Minnesota and Arizona.  “Can I give him a kiss?” I ask the paramedics.  My dad is so bundled up; only his face will show between the house and the ambulance for ten seconds.

“Of course,” they say.

I walk up to my dad and kissy-kiss him on the cheek and nose.

“See you in May.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013


As if my life wasn’t hectic enough already trying to win speech contests and learn how to juggle for the school play, one of my older siblings or maybe even my mom left the TV station on Sybil one day.  It was like everybody I knew and loved disappeared for an entire afternoon so PBS could show me, personally, on this oddly quiet Saturday when I was twelve, what schizophrenia was all about.

Then somebody brought the book home, the detailed history of Sybil herself.  I picked it up, much as I did Roots and The Thornbirds around the same time.  I was attached to every word of those books; they were like movies in my mind, though I had yet to see a real movie, since Blue Lagoon wasn’t out yet.

I got the ickies reading Sybil; now I can say that the movie was tame compared to the book.  I would go so far as to say that reading this book impaired my ability to make faces for at least a year; that is, I was straight-faced for a long time after I read Sybil.  Anything weird that happened to me or around me, I just glanced at and nodded.  I learned to acknowledge, but not react.

It's been forever since I’ve seen the full Sybil movie, and I never returned to the book after my first reading.  Together, they whammied me in such a way that almost all the characters and personalities from both would live in me forever.  I hear Sybil pounding in the book, and I match that up with Sally Field building cupboards in the movie.  I precisely imagine how all the personalities emerged at the end in the park, some hesitantly, but in the movie, I see Sally Field meeting her friends.
One without the other—the movie without the book—would not have been the same. 


The phone rings and it’s my sister.  This one and I are cut from the same cloth.  Our spirits are the same, just playing out in different scenarios. “Are you comin’ home for Christmas?” she says.

“Of course,” I say. “I’ve been on Mom and Dad’s calendar for a month.”

“Oh,” she retreats.  I know the face she’s making because I make it myself all the time, the “Well, thank God I can relax about that” face.

“You gonna be nice to everybody?” she asks.  Actually, she doesn’t ask this.  I am asking myself.  It would seem like an easy question with only one response.  It was a very large piece of fabric that our parents cut us from.


Probably the most forgiving words of my life came from my father when I was home on break from school many years ago, maybe 1994.  I was still unsure of myself around the house my parents were living in; it was the only one that they had ever bought without us.  It took a long time for me to find my footsteps around there.

One Sunday morning I was hesitatingly creating Monster Omelets by chopping up everything in the kitchen that could go into an omelet, surreptitiously tossing out the moldy and bad food in my parents’ fridge at the same time, hoping not to get nailed for wasting.  There came a moment when I wanted to use paper towels to mop up the water that had leaked from the vegetables, but my dad was watching me do all of this, and I wasn’t sure what the paper towel rules were.

He must have seen the question on my face because he leaned back, picking his teeth with a toothpick, and nodded.“We use a lot of paper towels in this house.”

He could have told me he’d be alive for the next hundred years, that’s how relieved I was.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


I was the baby for a long time in my family, for ten years in fact before my oldest sister got married and had a baby of her own.  It had been hard enough to see her marry the big-lipped white guy…there she was going…but it was harder when they would bring the new baby to our house…there she was gone.  I was no longer the special girl who would get the first attention.  There were two people in my way now.

This first baby, I was probably a little unfair with.  I had been usurped and disrupted, but I was in love with this big-headed thing for some reason too.  I had sat next to it when it was still in my sister’s belly all summer, getting my sister iced tea and watching her knit.  I still really didn’t understand why she was living in an apartment so far away from our house, but I felt proud to be sitting next to her in the sun on the couch, watching TV in the daytime.  It seemed like important work.

And then they started bringing the real baby to our house.  There was a crib in my room—I had seen it being built—the same room I used to share with my sister.  This was not a fair exchange.  I never said it, but I remember thinking, So, you’re going to put the baby in my room.  You’re putting the baby in my room.

That was fine.  I don’t think the baby lasted very long in my room, though.  I don’t know where she went after that, probably closer to her parents downstairs on the blow-up.  These weekend visits would set me off in a way.  The closer this new family was around us, the less sense it made for me to keep writing notes to God and burning them in the wood stove.  There were no fairies in the sky.

More serious times had set in.

That house had a winding staircase in it that had seen many a drama play out.  I would lie on the couch, in my eights and nines and tens, and watch my parents chase the older kids up and down those stairs.  Sometimes I would be scared, and sometimes I’d be sick; sometimes I would hear it coming, and sometimes it would be a surprise.  One time I really was sick, but my mom was working, so my dad was in charge of me.  He gave me a glass of cold ginger ale fresh from the store and I promptly threw up just outside my parents’ bedroom.  I waved it off and said I needed to lie down right now, so I did, on my parents’ bed.  It was one of the best rests I’ve ever had.

One day I walked down that staircase from my room, having studied nursing for three hours on my bed with my sister’s nursing books, always stored in the closet.  I came around the end of the stairs and there was the baby again: this time the family couch had been dismantled and she was sleeping in all her big-headedness where a cushion had been removed.  The cushion was pressed up against the couch, held in place by a coffee table, the baby all safe and secure in the crevice of the couch.  She looked pretty comfortable in there.

I came off the stairs, took about four steps towards the baby, took in her serene sleeping face and her chubby little legs, then I reached in and pinched her.  I took her big grubby thigh and squeezed it together between my thumb and index finger.  She was a slow crier; apparently, this hadn’t been done to her before.  She woke up slowly, all negative, then she scrunched up her face and started crying.  Waa, waa, waa.

I walked away with a tiny bit of guilt, calling out as usual in our house then, “The baby’s crying.”  I had no idea why.


Another thing they told me about babies was that they had a “soft spot” on their heads.  Apparently this was because their skulls hadn’t grown shut yet, so you had to wait before the final finishing touches took place.  You always had to be careful of the soft spot.  “Don’t bump her head,” I would hear.  “That’s why she wears a bonnet!”

I would look at my tow-headed niece with the big blue eyes, always kicking her fat little thighs, and I couldn’t wait to get my thumb on her soft spot.  When I did—hers was about the size of a quarter—I started tracing the edges every second I got.  They were really smooth, not jagged. 

I never poked my finger in there because I knew that was her brain, but I liked tracing the edges of it, gently on her bald head, knowing how easy it would be to hurt her.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


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I like to be honest only sometimes.  These times don’t get me very far.  There is not really a jackpot at the end of the rainbow of honesty.

I know I’m not the most social of human beings; I value quiet more than I should.  If things can be quiet, I can relax.  Some noisy times I remember in life were when I pressed my ear to the heating vent on our living room floor in 1979, when my sister told my parents in the basement that she was pregnant.  The older kids were always noisier. I remember when the middle girls were teenagers and didn’t want to wear their snowboots to school anymore.  Secretly, in my mind, I already knew they left their boots behind the garbage cans in the alley, but when they would argue about it with my mom—who really wanted them to wear their boots—I would just cave in and promise the world that I would always wear mine.

Not that the world was listening.  I was just never looking for trouble.

I remember stealing a cigarette lighter from my mom one time when we were still living in the upper peninsula.  I probably didn’t like it that she smoked, but that’s not why I took the lighter.  We were moving again, this time back to Minnesota, so I figured I’d bury an artifact of us behind the lilac bushes.  Maybe I’d get the chance to dig it up one day.  It was 1976.  There were a lot of time capsules being buried then.

In my memory, there is a segue between tromping around in deep snow to find Christmas trees in Escanaba, Michigan, to sitting at the breakfast table in Bemidji, Minnesota, watching my parents chase my older siblings around.  It was entire discord.  I would be having a fine enough time eating fried eggs on a Friday morning and my mother would go shooting by, trying to drag my sisters into their boots.  I would wait for us to go to the state park, then a drunk sister would show up and she would have to go with us.  I remember sitting at the top of the staircase when I should have been in bed, listening to my own parents’ raised voices…with nobody else in the house.  I was kind of used to noise then, because the older kids were starting to have babies, but the tenor of my parents’ voices against one another was new.  That definitely meant that something was wrong.

My dad liked to transplant trees and never thought much about moving us around, so off we went again from Minnesota to Pennsylvania in what seemed like a sorry parade, but I was so used to it.  I was fourteen but grew up to match my next sister’s 19, the next one at 21, and so forth.  There were enough kids and babies at that point to distract everyone from me.  I felt largely on my own, but I wasn’t. 

I would always be surprised in Pennsylvania when a sibling or anybody would show up.  Sometimes they wanted to live with us, and sometimes they got their own apartment.  I remember having to share a fan with my pregnant sister, the two and a half of us sleeping in a tiny upstairs. I knew then that quiet would get me nowhere, so I thrusted myself upon the world in my way.  I had never done this before, to my mind.

This took playing my guitar in a musty basement, making six-egg cheesy omelets by myself on Saturday mornings, and making my dog a bologna-cheese sandwich the night before my dad put him down. 

We were moving again.

I was voted “most outgoing” in our senior year high school album, but I have no idea why.  I was the photographer for our yearbook, but for as much as I felt part of anything, I might as well have been the film. 

I went on to work the regular jobs as camp counselor, barmaid, tutor at the challenged center, my dry-cleaning stint.  I must have been loud sometimes in my relationships, but it was always quiet when I ran at night.  Not safe, but quiet.

I am still jangled to the present almost every time I look up.  I respect people who have had jobs outside of education; it seems like I’ve been raised in school and I’m still there.  “Huh?” and “What?” come out of my mouth too often.  I still can’t take a break-up, yours or mine, or President Kennedy’s.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Three Guys Who Met My Work

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A rainy day is a good day to talk about old boyfriends.  But when there are so many, you want to group them somehow in order to make sense of what’s happened.  You have a collection of nicknames for men you ended up not loving but who left an impression on you anyway:  Pigeon Man, Spanking Beanie Baby Boy, The Giggling Immigrant, Dane the Great.  But those were just the freaks.

When you think about it another way, you could come up with the category of “Boyfriends Who Have Met My Work”, the phrase “my work” (capitalized or not) being synonymous with the phrases “my colleagues” and “my work community”, a hybrid of sorts.

You could also go in the opposite direction and create a category called “When My Work Has Met My Boyfriends”, but that would be an utterly unendurable category for such a sensitive creature as you. Thus, you go with the fine-tuned and sterile: “The Three Guys Who Met My Work”.

You look forward to filling in the blanks.


Oh, Him.

You had a new job that paid well, then a man happened along.  You don’t call this guy “ex-husband” because he was never a husband in the first place.  You feel kind of ripped off in the marriage department; if you were still Catholic, you could easily get this annulled.  But, whatever.  Somebody at work one time mentioned just in passing, when he was getting a divorce, that you should “keep all papers for ten years. Don’t throw anything out.  Believe me.”  He looked so serious and distressed; you must have made a special note of it.

When you got divorced in 2005, you boxed up all your papers.  You haven’t looked at them since.  They sit on a high shelf in one closet, waiting to be excavated.

It’s difficult to write about when your ex met your work, because you think of him so negatively but you still love your work so much.  You regret the times they had to meet him.  You shake your head now and wish you could take back that one office Christmas party, and those few times you tried to couple-date within the department.  You never valued graduation ceremonies and still make it a habit to not attend them, but this man is still the only quasi-family member who actually came with you to a graduation, even though you really didn't want to go.

It’s surprising how much people wonder about him still.  They ask you about him.  You have no idea.


The Leprechaun

Well, you never know when love is gonna come along.  You don’t know what it’s going to look like, what color it will be, how much it will weigh, but you know it when you see it.  Sometimes love arrives in neat little packages, and sometimes it arrives in a family of boys because the dad is the Irish painter painting your house, and he’s divorced.

That’s how love happens.

You were proud of this man who represented well in all kinds of venues across the board.  You had no hesitations bringing him to that one after-work gathering involving food and alcohol.  You were glad and proud in a who-knows-kind-of-way when somebody from your work handed him all of the banquet leftovers because probably everybody felt bad that your boyfriend’s children were starving.

There are so few people who have four anymore, let alone all boys.

The spirit of this man still tugs on your heart.  He would have done it if you would have done it.

He lives abroad now with his wife.



You didn’t think anybody named kids that anymore, but God is always experimenting with you, isn’t he. Why else would he have sent you to a work conference on one of the Florida Keys in springtime to meet a Ninja German?  For the following seven months, you feel like an immigrant, an accident, and a nuisance all at the same time.

The L Word is never said, except for work.  You love your work.

Maybe to use one spark to ignite the future, you let your work meet Adolf.  He presents remarkably well, all polite and quizzically interested.  You’re glad that nobody asks why he’s dressed all in black.  You know he only understands 60% of what you say, so you’re wondering if your friends are getting anything more out of this man than what you’ve gotten up to this point.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Blame It on the Mama

My baby comes to me after a long weekend of my being gone and home again, back and forth, home long enough to make a mess and not clean it up.  He doesn’t want this to become standard behavior, so he walks circles on my chest starting at 4 a.m., then settles into a curled snake pattern on my chest, purring the whole time.

He knows I’m not going back to sleep.

“Now that I have your attention, Mom,” Leo says to me, in pretty good language, “I just want you to know how much I love you.”

I use a little energy to raise my right arm and run my palm down his back.  “That’s nice,” I mumble-jumble, hoping that a small good dream might come back if I lie still enough before it’s really time to get up.

Leo remains in his snake-curl on my chest, purring.  He’d probably stay there forever.  He is always one to tell the truth.


My oldest one has also come to me recently with dreadful stories of what’s really going on in the house, in my absence.  I walk through my entire estate with a winsome grin on my face, and Sara gallops through with indignance, home around the same time as me, back from her job as a sign-spinner.

“Well one thing’s for sure,” she says.  I hope she completes her sentence.

“It’s not the same around here as the other time, when it was just you and me and Luce.  Now it’s never the same, plus there’s boys, plus you never play with me anymore.”  She gives me the big hazel eyes, so often green.  She knows how to break my heart.

“But did you have a good day?” I ask, scooping her up and cuddling her under my neck, supporting her backside because a cat’s backside should always be supported, if you want to keep holding her.

“Well I did, Mom,” Sara begins, “but then a car stopped and people started coming out, and I got kind of scared.”

“Did you come home then?” I nibble on her ear flap.

“I did, but I think I was too far away in the first place, and I decided I like it here better.”  Sara realizes she is getting schmaltzy, so she gets up, stretches, drags her anal glands across my afghan, and love-bites me through the Mexican weave.

“You are a bad girl,” I say to her.  I don’t know where she gets it from.  “Welcome home.”


My middle child—the one who follows me around in secret, always hoping for and expecting a morsel of worship, and at the same time, the only one who never grumbles about her snacks—has been approaching me on and off all weekend.  I’ve been here, I haven’t—she probably thinks I’m leading her on, even though we’ve been together almost six years.  That’s fine; she’s never really trusted me, but I have always loved her.  Even though I wanted non-chatty cats and Lucy fit that bill to begin with, apparently she’s been studying up.  She’s grown out of her weakness.  She is a bold kitty now.

“Meep!” she says to me, in her own good time, after all these years.

“But why?” I say.

“Meep!  Meepmeepmeepmeepmeep,” Lucy says.

“But why didn’t you mention this before?” I say, imploring.

“MEEP!  MEEP MEEP MEEP!” Lucy insists.

I hate to see anger in anybody’s eyes.  I always try to deflect it.

“Sweetpea,” I say, “it cannot always be my fault.  You’re putting a little too much blame on the mama.”

We both meep.  She gets that from me.  We meep as we disentangle and I make another treat plate for the family, somebody always getting something, somebody always a favorite. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Meddling from Heaven

The first time I spent $100 on a pair of shoes, I instinctively wanted to breed them to make more.  My second best option was shoe repair.  Just as I wasn’t in the market for hundred-dollar shoes in the first place—thanks, girlfriend—I had no idea about shoe repair shops.  Who fixes shoes?

I know now that people do this, and every once in awhile—when one or two of my shoes needs fixing—off I go again to Abe’s.  I learned about Abe’s Shoe Repair by chance, as we do all good places; it was a shop next to a shop next to a major grocery store near where I used to live in Tempe, Arizona.

The entire intersection—Guadalupe and McClintock—holds part of my history in its hands.  My first house is down the street, my first significant neighbor lived next to me, my favorite bookstore is there, and then I found Abe’s.

Abe himself was of small build, handsome in the face and strong.  I didn’t know his last name, but from the stories he would tell me over the crossing of shoes over the counter, I gathered that he was from the Middle East.  I was happy one day when he told me that his one daughter smoked, and he didn’t approve.  I can still see the daughter pacing around their front grassy yard with a cigarette dangling from her fingers; I can imagine Abe peering out at her from behind the blinds in the house.  He shook his head on that one.

He knew I was a teacher and he had big dreams for his sons; they would be in the shop once in awhile when I went in…very handsome boys.

But I had my life too.  In a matter of three years, I sold my house, left my best neighbor, got married and divorced, then bought a new house, again not far from Abe’s.  He kept fixing the shoes I kept bringing him—educating me in what could be salvaged, what couldn’t be, and what really should be thrown out.  He taught me the difference between a great shoe and a regular shoe.  I usually had great ones, well worth saving.

A day came when I clipped Abe’s obituary out of the local newspaper and sent it to my ex-best neighbor in Wisconsin.  After the couldn’t-believe-its and thanks-for-letting-me-knows, it seemed like the very next shoe season—when my friend and I should’ve been shopping for Clarks—that she was dead too.

I walked for an hour and cried ten tears, but did not allow myself more than that.  Nobody would have been proud of me then.


I still take my shoes to Abe’s, though Abe isn’t there anymore—it’s a new guy.  I guess you’re probably not new after being five years in the same place, but he is still new to me.  He drives a harder bargain than Abe did.  I like that.

I took two pair of shoes in on Thursday last week, one pair that needed hope and the other just insoles.  The new guy has another guy who helps him at the counter sometimes, so I plopped my shoes in front of him and asked, “Ya think these can be saved?”

The new guy to the new guy held up my raunchy pair and said, “Those are plastic heels.  We can’t fix ‘em.”

I nodded my understanding, my best chin.  “Um, can ya do anything to make ‘em look better?”

“We can’t fix plastic,” he said again. “Plastic is cheap, it just disintegrates…look: this is just falling apart.”  He further picked apart my shoes.

“I understand that, sir,” I said. “But is there anything you guys can do to make them look nicer?  Maybe so I can wear ‘em for another season?”

He dangled that pair of shoes by their straps for what seemed like a longer time than necessary, and again came down firmly on the side of No.

“Look,” I said, sidling up in my way. “I’ve been bringing my shoes here for fifteen years, and I understand that you guys don’t work miracles.  I know these shoes are cheap.  I’m just asking if you can do anything to make them look better.”

The man thought.

“We could shave down the heel and dye it,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said, so completely weary of shoe-bargaining. “I really appreciate it.”  I don’t think I’ve ever left shoes behind with less of a sense of owning them.


My brother calls, because my brother always does.  We start talking about death, because we always do.  We talk about my mom—his mom—it seems like we have different moms, but she is one and the same.  She’s just different people to us.  We talk about Mom meddling from heaven.

 “It’ll never be over,” I say. “She has special powers.”

“I know,” my brother says.

We hang up peaceably and agreeably, two shaggy dogs.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Feast of the Hairiest

Due to circumstances out of control, my parents and I moved from Minnesota to Pennsylvania in the middle of my ninth grade year.  We looked behind us in the rearview mirror at everything we were leaving behind: our house, the rest of our family, our dashed expectations.  We drugged our dog so that he would be comfortable making this uncomfortable trip with us.
It did not take long to settle in again as a family unit, for as much as we were up for that.  We lived in a nice hotel with suppers out for a month while my dad did his work and my mom prepared our new house: cleaning, scraping, painting.  I would go there from school every afternoon and start homework next to the heat register in the empty family room—no furniture yet, but drapes on the window.  I would lay my head down on the fumes of new book and new carpet smell, hallucinating, or maybe just tired.

We were good and proper people always looking for the best in life.  We were also fans of big breakfasts.  We ended up going out a lot for meals, which was totally anti-us, but we did it because circumstances demanded it.  Our first breakfast in our new chosen town—the three of us sitting there with our own personal bullets in our own personal chambers—was tense.  The waitress came around, all cheerful.  “Would youns like some more coffee?”

I cringed in the way that a fourteen year old girl does when she knows that something like the paint is about to jump off the walls.  I knew my dad could control himself in situations like these, but my mother…no.  She was just too curious.

“Youns?” she said to the waitress.  “How do you spell that please?”

I further sank into the dark heart of my not-knowingness, me sitting there with my orange juice.  My dad sat across from us; I never knew what was on his mind.  But I knew where my mother was coming from, and where she was going.

“I guess it would be y-o-u-n-s,” the waitress said.  “Why do you ask?”

“Well I’ve never heard that term before, so I just wanted to know.  Thanks,” my mom said, raising coffee in a standard white mug to her lips.


Everybody picks up language differently.  All families have their own lingo.  I talk to my dad on the phone tonight and one of the first phrases out of his mouth is “feast of the hairiest”.  

I can hear my mom bustling around in the background, probably cleaning, wanting to correct.  It is torture for her to keep quiet.

“Whaddya mean, Dad?”  I say.  I don’t care about anything other than hearing my father’s voice.  He’s concerned about my voice, which is deep and low because I’m recovering from a sinus infection, but the best of him wants to tell a story.

“Do you remember the feast of the hairiest?” he says.

I do not.  “What is it?” I say.

My dad clears his throat a thousand splendid times before saying, “Well, do you know anything about the horn of plenty?”

I roll my eyes and throw my silent fit.  “Yes.”

My dad sallies forth in his way and I can feel him grinning: “That’s the feast of the hairiest!”

I’m stumped.  I cannot go further with this man or this conversation; I am too much like both of those people in that house.  I bite my tongue and am too quiet for too long.  I hear my mother in the background: “That’s not the right one!  It’s the other one!”  Suddenly my dad is tired and has to let go of the phone.  But he insists upon his love of me.  I love him too.

“Ma,” I say, when she’s finally back from wherever she has deposited my father. “What’s the feast of the hairiest?”  I always think I can make it through Halloweens without having to know more.

“Well!” my mother says.  “It’s a very cute story.  When your oldest sister was just learning words, we always had a stitched picture of the horn of plenty on our wall.  She couldn’t say ‘feast of the harvest', so she said 'feast of the hairiest'."

She smiles to herself.  I can always hear my mother smiling.