Rideshare

originally posted under the name ‘Fireflies’


Mariam was quick at everything she did, but when she was angry, another kind of fuel kicked in to keep her jets lit high. He could gauge her irritation by the time it took her to fold laundry or sort the bills and pay them.

The evening was thick, scented with a rain to come, and in the distance he could hear the traffic that ran alongside the subway station. It was late and he was the only one waiting just now.  At last he took his phone from his pocket.  He stared down at it for a moment before calling home. She answered on the second ring.

“You on the way?”

“Well, I’ve run into a snag.”

“Oh.”

“Well, there were a lot of people because the holiday-”

“The holiday is why I suggested you leave earlier,” she said. “But what about all these people?”

He held the phone away so she wouldn’t hear his sigh. Mariam hated to hear it; she would tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself.

“Of the four card machines, two were out of order, so the lines were twice as long as ever. I almost made it, ran all the way down and even scratched my leg on the escalator, but I was just a couple of seconds too late. I’m sorry, Mariam.”

She took in a breath. It sounded like she dropped something heavily on the counter. It might have been metal: a knife or a spatula maybe.

“The next one will be here in about seven minutes.”

“But you’ll miss Will,” she said. “He never waits – not even for a minute. Remember last week?”

“He saw me running across the lot. I know he did.”

“He’s kind of a prick that way.”

“Isn’t he though?” he said. Perhaps she would direct her ire at the man who always gave him a ride to the end of their drive, providing he didn’t have to wait. “It really was too much this last time.  He’s so rude.”

“It’s still your fault,” she said.

“Yes, I know.”

A pause snaked between them, too long and too thin. Finally she said, “I guess I’ll drive into town when you get in, but you’ll have to call me when you pass Dunn Grave so I’ll have about five minutes.”

“Okay,” he said.

“But this has to stop. We have to get your car fixed.”

He didn’t know what to say. They both knew they couldn’t afford the repairs. As it was, they were always a month behind on the house payment. Their little house with the crack in the stoop and the stink of mildew in the bathroom, it was a little bit of nothing that even so they could scarcely afford. How did she imagine that repairing the car was going to happen?

“Call me at Dunn Grave,” she said and she rang off without a good-bye.

“Thank you,” he said a moment too late. She hadn’t heard.

____________

When the train got beyond Mauricetown, the city glow was blotted out by the overhanging trees.  If he pressed his face to the glass, he could watch the fireflies begin to light, green stars in a galaxy of woods.  He noticed them last week, when he was late the last time.  They weren’t visible on the earlier trip; the waning days of summer were still too bright at that time to note them.  But if one missed the train and came on the very next one, there they were, something hopeful and beautiful to watch all the dreary ride homeward.

He recalled a night when he was a child, when his father was still alive.  It had been the two of them and his sister, returning from the barn after feeding the animals.  They spilled out into the night, the three of them, when the sky was purple all but for a ribbon of gold over the mountains.

“Do you see that?” his father whispered.  The two children fell silent.

At first, like star gazing, they could not quite see the fireflies.  Then they noticed one and then another and then a dozen more and finally countless lights in the dark lower pasture.

“Daddy,” his sister said.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he answered.

They stood in the silence and the night, hearing the throaty noises of the summer bugs, watching the green lights come and go and come again.  Behind them, a few pale rectangles marked the windows of their house on the hill, but they were lost in the beauty before them and forgot everything else.

It was hard to tell how long they stood there, three side by side, so calm and happy together, unlike so many other times.  Whether it was a minute or an hour, in the years after, he learned it was not long enough.  Had he deliberately missed the train tonight so that he’d see these fireflies again?  He wondered about that, unable to answer. There had been no broken machines at the station.  He’d just sort of moved too slow, his mind elsewhere, until suddenly he heard the train departing.  It would never do to let Mariam know the truth.

He was so happy to watch the fireflies of this day, pressed to the train window, that he forgot to call her as the train went through the station at Dunn Grave.  Finally, it came to his own stop, the end of the line, where the parking lot lights of the sprawling commuter town wore unholy halos in the muggy evening air.

At the end of the station lot, where a strip mall butted up seamlessly, his gaze fell briefly on the spot where Will usually parked his car while at work.  The slot was empty, as he already knew it would be.  He faced the street toward home and started walking away from the town.  He might have called Mariam, told her he couldn’t get a signal at Dunn Grave, told her he’d wait in the vestibule of the Target until she drove up to get him.  Instead, he headed toward home, grim and sure of the argument that would await.  He would never know why suddenly he couldn’t lie to placate her, but he trudged into the shadows of the county road like a child going to meet the strap.

When the last street light was at his back, he started to notice the fireflies again.  He thought of a spot on the road ahead where he could sit and watch them; the porch steps of an empty, plain farm house overgrown with Virginia creeper.  The iron gate cried out when he pressed through, and while it startled an owl out of a hole in the eaves, it did not startle him.  Nothing about the house frightened him tonight, though at times he’d thought it vaguely sinister.  In the autumn, if he glanced over just as his car lights flashed on the dusty window glass, he feared seeing a grim face looking out.  Tonight it was merely a lonely old thing, dead inside and out, with a little of its bones poking through its outsides, like a deer rotting open on the roadside.

He sat on the step and looked out into the familiar points of light.

It had been a long time since the night that he and his sister and his father shared this simple pleasure.  He remembered when the memory of it still was fresh, when he was a younger man, and he recalled that for a while it lay dormant, pushed aside by many other cares, only some his own.  But since last week, it was as clear as if it had just happened. It seemed like a sort of magic was waiting to unfold.  Perhaps there was an enchanted door somewhere, maybe inside the old house, that would spill him out into that other meadow and that other night.  He could steal up softly beside the three figures, the tall one and two little ones.  His steps would have to be still, so as not to frighten them, but if he could manage it, he’d stay as long as they had stayed and then he’d wait longer still, until the last light went out.

Learning Curve

Vancy Jordan was on the fast track at the prestigious Paris-based couture house Millard et Jaspes until last week, when she stumbled unwittingly into a decades-old political scandal. Miles Orne, the creative director of M & J’s American studio, Haute Shack, was Jordan’s biggest fan until this week, calling her a ‘rising star’ in a People Magazine article earlier this year.  Now the junior designer is out of a job and wondering if she’ll ever work in fashion again.

Enter Monica Lewinsky, a figure in a political scandal that Vancy admits she knew only a little about until this week. “It’s weird to think my political hero is basically the reason I’m now a pariah in the world of couture.”  Jordan blushed as she mused, “I mean, fashion and culture and history are all this byzantine tapestry. I get it. I just didn’t connect the right threads.”

pariah-quote

In July, Millard et Jaspes did what all fashion forward design houses are doing this year, bidding to design the most coveted outfit of the season.  No, it isn’t the next red carpet dress for Michelle Obama.  The one frock all of the fashion world is vying to create is the outfit Hillary Clinton will wear to her inaugural ball.

“This is her-story in the making, ” Miles Orne said in July.  “Everyone is asking, what will it be? Is it a tux with tucks? Or a dress with pant legs hiding coyly in the drape of the cloth?  Speculation is high and we’re not getting any help from the Clinton camp.”

Indeed, when pressed for details on how the Secretary of State will approach fashion when she takes office, the former first lady has been conspicuously vague, saying on Ellen in February, “I don’t NOT like dresses, but – you know – I’m someone who likes to get things done and, boy, that sure is easier in flats and a pantsuit.”

And when asked by Joy Behar on the View in August what she’d wear to her Inaugural Ball, Secretary Clinton replied, “I’ll cross that bridge when and if the American people choose me to be their next president.”  Amid a roar of applause from the audience, Clinton added, “But probably white.”

This was just the kind of glimpse into the candidate’s mind that Millard et Jaspes had been wanting.  The five second clip went viral in the fashion community, with Isaac Mizrahi tweeting, “I’d love to drape this wonk goddess head-to-toe in platinum chain mail. She’s a warrior! Fierce!”

mizrahi

Last week as the team at Shack finalized drawings for their ball gown concept, Miles Orne turned over the design of Secretary Clinton’s swearing-in ceremony outerwear to Jordan.

“I was thrilled.  The image of Secretary Clinton taking her oath of office will live down in history.  I wanted a hat for her that was both cozy grandma and world traveler. It needed a dash of Paris, but I wanted something fuzzy and warm because January.  Blue just seemed right on so many levels.”  That was when she grabbed a lapis coloring pencil and in a few confident strokes perched a blue beret on the head of the former FLOTUS.

Jordan claims she didn’t really know about the hat Monica Lewinsky famously wore. When Orne first saw her submissions, he laughed, saying, “You’re naughty, Vancy.  Now show me your real drawings.”

But once Orne realized Jordan had intended to submit a sketch of Secretary Clinton wearing a blue beret to her own inauguration ceremony, his laughter quickly subsided.

“He was like a mad man,” Jordan said. “He accused me of being a plant.  He said that with our deadline on the bid so tight, my drawings might very well have been overlooked.  Then he said people had been hanged for less and I was like OMG.”

Still reeling from the events of the past week, Vancy is considering taking her case to the courts in the hopes that her story will change the way junior designers are treated in the fashion world.  Over a cappuccino at Toby’s Estate in Williamsburg on Friday, she admitted that’s a long shot.

“All I’ve done for the past three years is eat, sleep – I don’t know, breath? – the world of Millard et Jaspes.  Fashion has been my life since I was a kid.  When they were working me full-time for basically lunch money, my Dad was like, ‘Come home, baby.’  He offered me a job at his psychiatric practice.  Even when I barely had enough to go to yoga or to keep my brows on fleek, I wouldn’t give up.”

While catastrophe was avoided before the controversial sketches left the inner sanctum of Millard et Jaspe, the fallout for Vancy Jordan has been profound.  In addition to having security escort her out of the studio, Shack’s entire team of senior designers have been spreading the word around the clock that in Orne’s eyes Jordan is a saboteur.

“I’m basically blacklisted.”

A harsh history lesson indeed.

Master of Chess

If Marcy had written the time down wrong, he’d send her packing this time for sure.  As if beating his way across town in rush hour traffic weren’t enough annoyance without having to wait outside a bodega in the sweltering heat with the smell of warm cabbage and liverwurst and stale mop water drifting out each time the door opened.  The handles of the sample boards were biting into the palms of his hands and he shifted them for the umpteenth time.

George squinted at the building across the street, resenting his client for going with a row house instead of a condo.  A doorman would let a respectable designer wait in an air conditioned lobby.  He’d be perched on the ubiquitous chrome and leather mid century chair, checking emails on his phone and spending a little more time on Facebook than he could ever admit to himself.

As the potpourri of the bodega hit him anew, he cursed the makers of sample boards for not fitting the handles with a flange of soft rubber.  Could you get a blood clot in your fingers from having your circulation pinched?

Finally he ground his teeth at the obstructionists in congress who’d spent thirty years standing in the way of true environmental reforms.  Surely it was hotter today than July ought to be.  Bastard republicans.

Then a black car slowed in front of him, the door swung open, and his client stepped out into the heat.  Like an elf queen from a Peter Jackson trilogy, she was tall and elegant, all flowing white folds and corrugated blond tresses.  It was rumored among the know-almost-nothing People magazine set that she hated Blanchett for getting the role, but George knew that during a year of the epically long filming of the series she’d already committed herself to The House of Blue Leaves at the Walter Kerr – a venue and  play she was mysteriously sentimental about.

She gave him a radiant smile.

“My apologies would hardly be adequate, so I will spare us both the awkwardness of suffering through them.”  She stepped forward and took a few sample boards from him before he could protest.  Giving him a fond smile, she said, “Ah, love, you look positively wilted.”

Before he could respond, she’d turned on her heels and was drifting across the street, so ethereal with each languid, ballerina-like step that it occurred to him the only accessory she was short of was a celestial nimbus.  It also passed through his mind that she’d artfully managed to suggest apologies were in order without actually extending one. He ought to dislike her for it a bit, but in truth it just increased his respect.  She was a master of chess.

He hastened across the street, and despite the fact he was almost six feet tall, he couldn’t help but feel a little like a hobbit as his eyes darted back and forth to spy a break in traffic.


 

She paused in the foyer and he watched her, shuffling the sample boards she’d handed back to him while she unlocked the door.  Turning with a long alligator smile stretched out under her shades, she said in a rapt whisper, “Can you hear them?”

Tilting an ear to listen for rats or hissing gas pipes, he lowered the samples and his attache onto the dusty marble floor.  His eyes moved over the moldings and the faded paper.  It was dim in the house after the glare of the street.

She removed her shades slowly, the grin tightening into a secretive smile, lips drawing in like a moonflower in the sun.

“These walls have so many stories,” she whispered.  “How do we paint them?”

He paused.  There was no doubt that they had discussed colors a week ago in his studio. She’d been firm about brightening up the place.  They had discussed the merits of peach, which she loved, but which she also found terrifying.  He had a clear recollection of her rising and moving to stand at his window, holding back the sheers with one long-boned hand while she studied the street.  He’d been mesmerized by the light bouncing off her diamonds.

Turning from the window suddenly, she’d revealed the complexity of her feelings about peach. “My grandmother.  The darling.  She loved it as I do, but she died in a room covered in peach roses.  They smothered her, I always felt.  Cruel really.”

That afternoon he’d thought not for the first time that she deserved awards for being the perfect dramatist in real life.  He’d once watched her debate the merits of two salad dressings with so much pathos he’d almost cried into his two o’clock martini.

Today, in the present, sweat pooling at the small of his back, he cautioned, “Well, if we don’t paint, fixing some of the water damage will be tricky.”

Hanging her shades from the opening of her white blouse, she frowned at him.

“Oh, we’re painting this fucker,” she said.

“Oh, yes. Oh, good.”

She caressed the newell post lovingly.  “I was just feeling sentimental.”


 

He’d waited his entire career for a woman like this to walk into his office.  It was like Mary Astor stepping into Bogart’s grimy set of rooms, spinning wild tales about her missing kid sister.  He couldn’t remember the names of anyone in The Maltese Falcon except for Sam Spade, but he felt like this was his own screwy version of the story.  A man labors faithfully but humbly at his craft, just keeping the landlord at bay with a little luck and sometimes his personal savings, until one day a dame walks in and changes everything.

Nothing else about the analogy worked.  He didn’t want to peel off her stockings, he wanted to see her wallpaper stripped.  And she wasn’t weaving tales to walk away with a jewel-incrusted statue, although they had discussed on the first meeting a vitrine to house her Tonys and Oscars and the Grammy.  This was actually happening to him – his first real celebrity client – and somehow she made it all seem like a sequence from a movie.  There were times when her accounts of interiors past were so gilded yet raw he wondered if Truman Capote were beaming down on her from whatever heaven existed for hateful genius bastards.

He smiled to think how much Marcy failed to overlap the rest of the similarities.  While she was as much a girl Friday as he deserved, she’d never enter stage left after his each meeting, perching on the corner of his desk, reminding him not to get caught up in spider webs.  Rather, she moved about his office clumsily, Swiffering up fabric lint while holding back sneezes, asking not one question about what it was like to help a living legend design her home.

One day he’d not been able to stand it.  “Aren’t you curious in the least about what she’s like?”

Entering bills onto the laptop at her desk, she peered at him through the doorway that connected their offices.  She shoved her glasses up into her head, making her bangs poke up and out like a hairdo from the eighties.

“She seems nice?”

He’d rolled his eyes.  “She’s  more than nice, Marcy!  She exudes glamour.  She’s old school.  Her every move is a poem.  Her vocabulary is Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner.  She doesn’t step through space like we mere mortals, she floats through time like the heroines that exist in books, waiting only to be read again to live anew, each time as fresh as the last.”

Marcy blinked at him, pinched her nose.

He stood, “She is the fucking mother of all ether and substance!  She is a goddess!”

Marcy was having none of it.  “So long as this check don’t bounce.”

He’d been forced to close the door to his office then, unable to imagine not killing Marcy. It was like she’d perfected nonchalance simply to drive him nuts.  By the time she knocked on the glass to let him know she was heading out with the deposits, he’d forgiven her her trespasses against the actress.  He needed Marcy.  She knew his office like it was her own kitchen layout and her wife had benefits at her job, which meant he could afford to keep her on even after the meager raise he’d managed the year before.

To soften the tension still lingering in the office, he’d popped his head out before she got on the elevator.  “If you want to grab us some macarons from the bakery out of petty cash, I’ll dust off the French press while you’re at the bank.”

She paused and he thought, ‘If she says she could take macarons or leave them, I’ll throw a potted succulent at her head.’  But then she nodded and gave him the thumbs up before stepping onto the lift.


 

They walked the house again.

She paused in the kitchen, frowning at the ceiling fan.  “There are times when I think we should get an architect after all.”

He nodded, “I definitely think that has merits.”

Not for the first time, she explained her reservations.  “The last one took me for a ride, you understand.  I just can’t be hurt like that again.  It was devastating.”

George found himself wanting to lean against the countertop, to put his cheek into the palm of his hand.  It felt like a monologue was brewing.

But goddesses are fickle creatures and she merely turned away from the room with a little shrug.  “Who’m I kidding? I hate cooking.”

They took the little back stairs up to the second floor.  He reminded her that he’d have to consult with an engineer about taking the wall out between two bedrooms.  He almost suggested they revisit the architect, then thought better of it.

She stood at the center of the room, hugging herself despite the humidity of the house.  “So long as you handle it yourself.  I don’t want this thing to balloon into a big deal.”

Tilting her head, she said to him, “I know it is a big deal, you understand. I love this house. But I just can’t have the renovations devolve into some miserable ass table read in a play with too many characters.  I’d like to think of this project as something intimate.”

He nodded.

“You know, I never told you why I really came to you.”

He found that he was hugging himself, unconsciously mirroring her.

“I thought you went to a party at the Weinstein’s place and you saw my work there.”

Shelby Weinstein was the closest thing to ‘arriving’ that had happened to him before the actress.  It was a lucky break, as they would say in show biz parlance.  Shelby had dropped out of a design class they took together years before, opting for a degree in accounting instead.  Twenty years later she was handling a client list that was like a who’s who of the theater world and this close to firing her interior designer when Facebook, by whatever creepy mechanism the internet uses to connect human dots, suggested she friend George Resnick, her old, very much forgotten school chum.

The actress shook her head.  “Not entirely.  Shelby’s place is lovely, don’t get me wrong.”

He waited.

She shrugged, “Well, the short story is that I need this to go smoothly.  Drama is my calling professionally. I would live and die by that sword.  But at home I’ve learned I want things to be soft, easy.  Shelby said you took the blows.  No matter how maddening the contractors were or how much the architect fought her on things, you kept it humming.”

It came back to him then, the way Shelby’s project had teetered close to ruin every day for two months that felt like ten years.  He recalled the heartburn, like nothing he’d ever felt before.  A night at the hospital while they ran tests and eventually proved that he hadn’t suffered a heart attack. Marcy scrambling into the hospital room the next morning with a shopping bag from Duane Reade, feeding him omeprazole with a ginger ale; putting a muffin in his attache and telling him to eat it in exactly a half hour; washing a stain out of his neck tie in the sink and patting it dry with a paper towel; walking with him all the way to the subway, reading out his emails to him – only the important ones; shouting over the turnstile at the station, “Go get em, chief.”  He’d walked through that day in a daze and when he got back to his apartment, he’d wept into a pint of ice cream while watching The Good Wife.  While he kept Shelby’s project humming, his body began to fall apart from the strain.

Only later, when the photographs of her project came back for the website, did he feel some repayment for the stress.  It couldn’t be accounted for in the monies that passed into his bank account.  That had been nice – paying rent in advance for once, finally getting the rugs at his place cleaned – but the money had felt like nothing special when weighed against that night in the hospital.  Staring up into the blackness of a turned off television, he’d been held captive between two impulses: to unpack his life and figure out how to make it easier and to merely ignore it and hope that a little vacation at the end of the project would suffice.  Yet on the day he uploaded the pictures of Shelby’s house, he had at last found a modicum of comfort.  The way the sunlight struck her statue of a Hindu priest in the courtyard – the placement of which was one of the only things no one had argued about – had given him just one sweet teaspoon of joy.  Just enough for that moment.

The actress was studying him.

“I need someone who can take all the hits, George.  My life’s a wreck just now – I wouldn’t dream of telling you all the particulars.  Still, if you can make this whole thing feel like a dream on my end. A happy dream.”

He ought to run.

The light shifted in the room and without thinking he reached up and took the wrappings off the chandelier.  The crystals, opened up to the world like Venus rising from the sea, cast hundreds of rainbow shards over the walls, the ceiling and the floor.  He took a breath.

sparkling chandelier

“I am your servant,” he said.  He’d wanted it to sound courtly and perhaps a little funny, but he felt foolish the moment he heard it aloud.

She gave him that alligator smile again.

“Tell me, George: Can we make peach just a little bit ironic?”

The Clit Rocks

[A writing I found on my computer from a couple of years ago, inspired by female punk bands and a few inside jokes with my bestie that came from laughing at the wrong parts in The Vagina Monologues.]

It was Vic’s idea to wear the cone hats on stage.  When she saw the others hesitate, she said, “Only for the first set.”

Carrie laughed right out loud. “The first song, maybe.” For her part, Jen could not be moved to look up from the latest issue of Blender.

As always, she resented their doubts.  It was always been her thing to come up with fresh gimmicks and their thing to shoot them down, if only for a while.  The debates were usually short and eventually – after days of her freeze treatment – the girls would relent.  She held up her drawing to them again.

“It’s like we’re wizards of badass,” she said.

From behind a gleaming cover photo of Snoop eating a cherry out of Pink’s navel, Jen said, “They already know my pussy’s magic.”

Carrie howled with laughter, almost setting her hair on fire while lighting a smoke.  

Vic stalked to the back of the bus, threw herself over her  bed, and placed a call to Florida to vent the indignity.  Her mom, juicing something and so talking loudly over the whirring blades, said, “You always wind up in a huff, Victoria, and in the end, they always agree to some version of your idea.  And they’re usually good ideas.”

Vic  bristled, “What do you mean ‘usually’? Wasn’t the cat paws on the Cesarean Section tour my idea? Didn’t Rollingstones say, and I quote, ‘Vic Legend, styling the band as a rogue box of kittens, is as mad a cow as ever.’?”  She paused. “I mean, the mad cow reference made sense back then.”

punk image

Her mother seemed doubtful. “Hon, I think he was just calling you a cow.  Remember, that was the year you went off your meds and started comfort eating again.”

Jen walked past, opening a pack of toilet paper, “Didn’t he also say, ‘Always one to add more icing, Legend gets the outside of hard rock just right, even when her lyrics veer into maudlin pop cliches.'”

“Fuck Loder and his ugly fucking, fuck face,” Vic shrieked. 

Her mother just laughed. “Don’t let Jen get to you so much, Victoria.  Put her on for a sec.”

 

The older woman’s voice was as easy to hear in the bus as if they were standing in her sunny, pastel Miami kitchen; the slender drummer with the sleepy eyes was already reaching for the phone.  “Hello, Mrs. Hockman.”

“Jennifer, are you giving my girl heartburn again?”

Jen said, “Ha, ha, Mrs. Hockman, Vic’s giving us the stink eye. She wants us to wear these wizard costumes on stage when we get to L.A. and Carrie and I are like no way.”

Vic’s mother laughed. “Seems a little obvious, doesn’t it? I mean they already know you have a magical vagina.”  

Jen shot her bandmate a meaningful glance, “That’s what I told her, too, Mrs. Hockman.  Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to play a lot from the Sex Wizards album.  We had talked about throwing out some of our new stuff.”

There was a scraping sound as the older woman pushed open her patio door and stepped out onto her lanai.  She sighed as she plopped onto a chaise by the pool.  “Well, take it easy on her. She’s my girl.  You know, she does have some good ideas now and again.  You have to admit that.”

Jen was unmoved. “Like calling us the Poon Mullets? Something like that good idea?”

Vic’s mom laughed until she almost choked on her black cherry and kale juice.  “That one was stupid.  No, dear, the Clit Rocks is much better, and such a loving homage to Eve Ensler.”

Vic snatched the phone from Jen’s hand.  The drummer shrugged and closed herself in the bathroom.

“I’ve got to go, mom,” Vic said. “I don’t appreciate you and Jen using up all my minutes.”

“Was that calling plan your idea, too?” Jen said, opening the bathroom door just enough to peer out.  

The mother was still laughing when she ended the call.  “It smells like shit in here,” Vic mumbled, rolling over and burying her face in a pillow.  There was about an hour when the bus was silent.  Bob, the driver, never spoke and the rest of the crew were ahead of them in the other bus.  Finally Carrie – the peacekeeper – settled down next to Vic and offered to braid her hair.  Humming one of their songs, she combed through the gossamer gold, occasionally finding a grey hair and pulling it out, as was their custom.  Eventually, she said, “What if they were less sexy wizards, more scary – like with beards and stuff?”

Vic snorted.  But then she mulled over the idea.  “Yeah.  Maybe.”

Jen was tilting up an empty bag of Doritos and letting the crumbs fall into her mouth.  She weighed in, “What if the beards were on out tits?”

Vic rolled her eyes.  The bus hit a bump and Carrie pulled her hair.  Wincing, she said, “Hairy tits? That’s your idea?”

Jen shrugged.

“Maybe wizard hats and mustaches?” Carrie tried again.

“On our tits or our veejays?”

Carrie laughed, “I was thinking on our faces.”

Vic was nodding, “Pink mustaches.”

And soon they were in agreement. As the tour bus rolled into a vivid Kansas sunset, the Clit Rocks settled down to practice some harmonies with Real Housewives on the TV and the sound on mute.  Bob rocked his head back and forth to their grooves and it felt like this comeback tour was going to be better than all the others.

Burning Down the House

My people take it on the chin.

We absorb the blow.

Yet I have observed a curious thing about being hurt by someone else.  Even when the hurt is unintended, merely a clumsy misuse of words, it gets at something cold and murky in my psyche.  When I’m burned, I answer with ice.

Perhaps it is a protective skiff of the cold stuff, a pristine shield that rises until I am done licking my wounds – be they imagined or real.  The good news is that I pick away at it with logic and eventually pull myself from the numbing tomb.

While I am in that place, though, I am not easy to be around.  My words are few, my smile is absent – laughter unimaginable.  A dry observer would call it pouting, but that would be ungenerous.  Or perhaps only partly true.

It wasn’t always this way.  Before there was ice, there was fire.

christmas shopping

Friends of mine know a story I tell about a plastic flashlight in my childhood.  It involved my sister, Bird; there are few stories centered on this one that aren’t complicated.   The story ends with me climbing under a thorny hedgerow to retrieve a Christmas gift.  Yet the aftershocks are permanent, leaving their impression on my adult self.  The artifact of that day is the reason I always go to ice.  It is a safer alternative to setting fires.

When I was a kid, shopping for other people was a pleasure.  I wasn’t so concerned with whether or not the recipient would like it, so long as it made sense for them in some vague way and so long as it fit my firmly defined budget.  Our parents gave my sisters and I each a small sum to get everyone’s gifts with and then shepherded us through the mall until we were finished. It must have been crushingly obnoxious to them.

Because I always saved my cleaning allowance (marveling that I got cash for doing my favorite thing) it meant that I had a little more to spend.  I started with Mommy and Daddy, then picked something for the girls, then my aunt Becky and my Grandma.  If there was enough left over, I might get something for a favorite cousin.  Somehow I always made the budget work.  When it worked out perfectly, I ended with one small self-indulgence, a candy bar to eat in secret.

My sister Bird was another person altogether.  She started shopping for her school friends first, sparing no expense, as she had all the spontaneous generosity of a bi-polar lottery winner on a spree.  This meant that she had to ask for more money at some point in the afternoon.  The one Christmas shopping trip I remember clearest is the one that led to my tussle with the thorn bushes later in the winter.

My mother wasn’t gifted at setting boundaries. When Bird found her in the  JC Penney and asked for more money, Mom started with a defense weaker than day one of a little league training camp. Answering in a tone that is the closest audible rendering of hand-wringing I have ever heard, she said, “Bird, damn it. You know your father and I said you only get fifty this year. You knew that going in.”

“I know, Mommy, but Travis’ friendship ring was eight dollars and the pack of scrunchies I got for Tammy was another three and-”

“Who’s Travis?” Mom asked.

“He’s new in school. He’s awesome.”

“But, damn it, Bird. Your father and I are really pressed this year. We barely had enough money for the Christmas tree lights.”

I heard this with a chill, horrified to imagine we were so close to ruin.

Bird didn’t miss a beat.  “But I think Cassie would love a vanity set for her Cabbage Patch Kid and she gave me something for my birthday and I forgot hers. Please, Mommy, please.”

Her desire to please her friends was admirable.  Eventually, as she kept the whining up through the department store, Mom forked over another twenty. Her parting comment was, “But if me and your father lose the house, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Then as Bird skipped off to finish her purchases, Mom turned to me and confided resentfully, “If she cared about us as much as she does her friends…”

I had heard this before and knew her take on it.  Bird just used us as a crashing pad, a money dispensary, a food bank.  She showered her affections on everyone but the family. Her heart was really with those people who lived further along the school bus route.  Mom viewed them as coarse and simple.  She couldn’t imagine what Bird saw in them.

“Those old Butterfields,” she’d say. “More like Butterballs. I don’t get it.”

This was a conversation she had with her sister on the telephone, zig-zagging her way through the house with a spiral cord marking her path like a line on a treasure map.  My aunt said something funny and Mom laughed before leaning in on a remembered scandal.

“You know old Carol Butterfield?  Poor homely thing. Wasn’t her husband mixed up in that thing with…”

Disappearing into the depths of her bedroom and shutting the door, I would never find out what scandal had befallen Carol Butterfield’s husband.

Before we left the mall that day, Mom double checked that we each finished our shopping. My oldest sister, Moo, who had done hers in the first hour and spent the rest of the day perched at the fountain, reading a new book, looked up from the last chapter and nodded. I patted the sides of my bags with a look that said I’d shopped like a hero: Dad was saved again from the yearly horror of running out of monogrammed handkerchiefs; Grandma would have a new addition to her collection of trivets; and Mom was going to love finding room for another what-not in the china cabinet.

Bird glanced away cagily.  Knowing she’d already pushed the limits, she was smart enough to back off for the present.  In the coming weeks, she’d find the gifts for the family here and there, as we went to the Dollar General.  And she’d have less trouble wheedling a dollar or two at a time out of our parents to add to her stash of gifts.  Still, I would keep track, watching every transaction jealously from behind a TV Guide.

And I tallied her abuses to our family finances like an estate planner with only one client. “One curiously egg-shaped pack of pantyhose for Aunt Becky. Check. There goes the oil bill. If Mom’s right, we’ll be bedding down in sleeping bags by the end of January.”

Or, “A completely unnecessary multi-pack of Pez dispensers for all the boy cousins. I hope she likes eating beans and rice, because our days of chicken patties are going the way of Unions.”

One cheaply packaged Christmas gift at a time was sending us straight to the poor house. Fostered on this idea of imminent ruin and miserly concern about how others acquire their goods, it is no wonder I reached adulthood as a young republican, the admittedly androgynous Alex P. Keating of our knotty little family.

When Christmas day arrived, Bird’s gift for me was a flashlight.  It was small and yellow, not much bigger than a fat Crayola marker.  I studied it for a moment trying to understand the reason she’d picked it. Seeing me puzzling over it, she said, “Because you like to play detective.”

Then it made sense.  I liked it.  She was right: when I wasn’t cleaning the house and singing the soundtrack to Disney’s Cinderella, I was embroiled in cases of espionage and detection.  Many dollar bills had been taped behind the pictures on the living room walls, so that I could discover them as a clue in a later hunt.  And that year I had formed a detective agency with Bird and my cousin Carrie that involved gory coroner’s reports and copious notations about serial murders.

I was touched that Bird’s gift matched up to something I cared about.  The weeks of staking out her every shopping decision were forgotten as I placed the yellow flashlight with my other treasures on my immaculate dresser.

As is the way with kids, we are sometimes enemies and sometimes friends.  Weeks later, when Bird and I got into a quarrel – the cause of which is long forgotten – I spotted the flashlight on the dresser. Remembering my mother’s comments about how Bird always spent more on her friends and gave them better gifts, I no longer saw how the flashlight fitted my sleuthing life.  I saw it as something else; a Dollar Store find. One of the cheap pick ups that crowded the check out line.

I snatched it up as we bickered back and forth.

“I hate your stupid, cheap gift,” I said.  It took the words from her, it took the air out of the room, extracted the sunlight from the day, greyed the snow on the window sill.  Still I wasn’t through.  Even as her eyes filled with tears, I had to keep burning down the house. I had to make her hurt like what ever (now forgotten) thing she’d said that hurt me.

I took the flashlight out of the house and I threw it into the overgrown bushes that lined the yard.  It was trash.  She was trash. I hated everyone.  It still chills me to remember that act of wicked loathing.

I remember her face peering out at me from the screen door, streaked with tears, her small brown eyes crinkled closed, two painful lines in a reddened circle to remind me this was a human face.  I had succeeded in setting that fire but it brought me no joy.

Flooded with immediate regret, I crawled under the bushes, pushing through even as the thorns cut my arms and the snow shocked my skin, and I found the flashlight  and brought it to her in muddy hands.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I really do like it.  I really do.”

She couldn’t answer yet.

“I’ll clean it,” I promised.

But the thing about setting fires is that they leave only scorched earth, fragments of what existed before only found if you kick through the ashes.  The building of new takes time and there is no replicating the old.

We hope to find peace with our own transgressions and if we’re lucky we learn something that helps us later.  I cannot reclaim that bubble of time during which the flashlight was pristine and my friendship with Bird imperfect but unscarred, but my empathy was finely tuned by that day.  And though instinct may stir to set the fire, I have learned to draw the ice over me until it passes.

 

 

Hell Fire

In the early autumn of 1981, my Mom and I discovered a new radio song to harmonize over as we drove around town.  It was an Oak Ridge Boys tune called Elvira.  You should go Youtube it and then unfollow me.  I deserve nothing less.  Of all the things I share with Mom, the biggest may be that I’m a big picture dreamer who sometimes needs to focus on the details as to not screw them up.  With that song, we spent about a year singing the lyrics wrong.  Although to this day, I still think ‘My heart’s on fire….hell fire-ah” is a gutsier choice than what the Oak Ridge Boys recorded.

station wagon edit

Those last weeks of August were dreamy, though the threat of school skulked at the edges of my mind.  Still, it was hot enough for shorts and we weren’t yet ready to go shopping for Trapper Keepers and pencils. The station wagon didn’t have air conditioning, so the drives were windy and warm.  Our legs stuck to the seats unless we wiggled around from time to time. The syrupy remains of cola in the console drew flies if you stopped in traffic too long. The music took our minds off the heat and bugs.  We didn’t care who heard us singing.

If you were to catch our passionate duet as we pulled into a parking lot in those days, you would likely be in one of three places in town.  This might be outside the A & P, as grocery shopping was our never ending endeavor.  You could be a tired commuter stopping to grab some low calorie TV dinners on the way home, your double knits really chafing your thighs, your comb over slipping down over your gigantic eyeglasses as you glanced up to see who was making the commotion.

Actually that guy would be my father and if he had smarts he’d disavow any knowledge of our existence in that moment.  He’d hunch down in his gas-guzzling, Flint-built Ford, waiting for us to disembark from the station wagon and make our way inside.  This was a different time, before smart phones, so he would have likely wound his wrist watch, balanced the check book, and people watched while he waited for us to leave.

The other place you might find our mother son performance playing out would be the parking lot of the Tastee-Freez.   Musical artists need creamy indulgences – it is our fuel, our reward and our punishment.   My sister Bird would be along for the ride, scowling out the side window, puzzling over a thing she’d heard about on 20/20.  Called emancipation, it was something kids could do to divorce their parents.  Most likely she would have been working out who to hit up for shopping money if she went through with it.  Tinkerbell makeup didn’t buy itself. One thing was for sure: she wasn’t enjoying our singing and she wasn’t joining in.  When we got to the counter, we all united around the theme of helping Mom cheat Weight Watchers, that cult she and Dad had joined earlier in the year.

That had started innocently enough in the late winter.  At our first barbecue of the spring, Mom made a special sauce that had half the calories.  They took the skin off the drumsticks before they grilled them.  We were likely not told that the mayo in the potato salad was low cholesterol because in memory we gobbled it down with all the usual verve.   Our new ways were different, but they were tasty enough, so we had no reason to fear.

But then our grocery shopping began to entail skipping whole sections of the store. There would be no more strawberry Quik, so more Chips Ahoy. Breakfast cereals were edited to only beige and brown as colorful bowls of morning happiness became a thing of the past.  It was as if this Weight Watchers crowd had explicitly said,  “Children should learn nobody promises us rainbows.”

Then came melba toast and cottage cheese.  It was war.

“Mommy, we were good at K-Mart.  Can we go to Tastee Freeze?”

“Now, damn it, kids. No.”

“Please? Please? Please?”

“Goddam it.”

Ever the staunch hold out, she’d make an abrupt u-turn, cutting off a pedestrian with a stroller, and in moments we’d be heading toward sweet, icy bliss.  As we drove around town ten minutes later, licking down our cones while singing Elvira wrong, she’d say, “This will be our little secret. Daddy will be sad that he didn’t get any.”

We’d shrug in agreement and though Bird would still not sing with us, she was happy to lean her face out into the crisp sunlight, letting the wind ruffle her hair and eyelashes like a winsome golden retriever. Up along Main Street, belting ‘hell-fire-ah, hell-fire-ah’ as we passed the movie house, the five and dime, the old ladies gaping at us from the bench outside the furniture store.

The other place you might have been standing as our car pulled in, blaring that song, was the local library.  If it were a light day there, we’d find a spot quickly, happily dashing in to find new books.  On a busy day, Mom circled the parking lot with a seething resentment. She was all too happy to explain who was to blame for our parking troubles.  Lest there be confusion, our family holds the belief that someone is always to blame.

“It’s the transplants.  They come here to live, bringing their snobby Northern Virginia attitudes, telling us there’s nothing to do here. But they love to belly up to the public library.”

Then as a woman approached a car, she’d pause hopefully.  If the woman got in and drove off, we were golden.  If she were merely retrieving a forgotten volume from the car seat, Mom watched her return to the cool, air-conditioned library with a scowl.

“Now she saw me waiting there. She could have waved me on. Typical transplant.”

Perhaps Mom was cranky.  It had been a couple of hours since she perched a slice of canned peaches and a dollop of cottage cheese onto a melba toast wafer and called it lunch.  As she scoped out the next opening with a set jaw, we gazed out into the grasshoppery meadow along side the library, knowing that this too would pass, that the song would catch us up again, carrying us along to the next stop.  Most importantly, if we played our cards right, there would be ice cream.

 

 

1986

He was closer to his mother when he was a boy.  The father could not put him to sleep; only she, the soft love of her soft voice reading.  As she spoke the stories, he forgot to be afraid of shadows.  He found the enchantment of other worlds: a cabin in the prairie with a china lady on the mantle; a little island out over Canada where the roads were red and the gables green.

The boysome, bounding bravery of others did not come easily to him.  His voice was gentle, his brown eyes shadowed.  Early on in his childhood, he found a dread of school.  Other children sensed something about him was different.  The questions in their faces humiliated him and when they found the words that fit, if clumsily, their savagery cleaved him from any sense of belonging.  The world at school was terrible to him.  Had he been able to disappear into it, had he a talent for that, he might have slipped through the years less scathed.

In his fear, he was friendless, except that he had his mother.  She forgave him his fears, by and large, even if she couldn’t pry the cause of them from him.  It made sense that she understood him.  She was a nervous wreck herself: afraid of spiders, big open spaces and stairwells.  In their little ranch house with the yellow walls and the low ceilings, they were safe for a long while.  Then she began to fear crossing the bridge between the house and town.  It began to imprison them.