How Junior High Almost Crushed Me

You can survive growing up different in a small town, but you have to find your tribe. This was something I didn’t know until I was grown up.  It would have changed everything about my junior high school years.

Instead I did it all alone. At home, even when my mom implored me to share why I dreaded school so much, at my most honest moment, I could only say, “The kids all call me fag.”  What I would say now is, “I’m gay and the kids are hateful about it.”

But the reason I couldn’t say it the honest way was because I had already picked up on the fact that being gay was undesirable at home and at school. Everywhere. When I told my mom what the kids were saying, she said, “Well, you aren’t, are you?”

I knew the answer she wanted and I said it. “Of course not.”

I’m sure I looked at the floor when I said it because I’ve never been comfortable lying.

In sixth grade I ditched school by hiding in the pines halfway down our driveway on the way to the bus. I would stay in the woods all day and come out when the bus returned to drop off the neighbor kids. Instead my brother-in-law spotted me sneaking across the lawn to another part of the farm and he and my mom slowly hounded me through the woods, cutting me off eventually like prey, and they drove me into school.

I was absent from school so often, eventually my mom and the principal had an understanding: he would drive out and pick me up himself.  She used to threaten that social services would take me away from her for being an unfit mother.  I had played sick so much the last year or two, she knew all my tricks, even the one about putting soap in my eye to pretend I had an infection.

In the car ride with my principal, he’d ask me if I didn’t like learning. I could only fixate on the fear of being teased and ridiculed; learning was somehow secondary to feeling safe.

So by seventh grade I knew I had no more passes left. The principal of the junior high was a different person altogether; not only did she not have Dr. Blanton’s worry-creased brow and pitying southern drawl, she was too busy herding the monsters that are middle schoolers to make car trips for one kid who refused to get on the bus.

If I were to survive seventh grade, I would have to be as invisible as possible, avoiding anyone who might hurt me.  That meant not going into the cafeteria, where I feared that the gathered masses would introduce me to a replay of what I experienced each morning when we assembled in the gym after getting off the buses and before homeroom. Every day as I walked along the bleachers, a silence would fall among just enough of my peers that I noticed it. It was followed by whispers and snickers. Sometimes one word would rise above the murmurs: “Queer.”

I couldn’t avoid morning assembly, but I had found a way to dodge the repeat airing of it at lunchtime. As we left Mrs. Bardwell’s class each day to head to the cafeteria, I would let myself fall to the back of the line.  When we rounded the first corner, I ducked into the bathroom and waited until the halls grew silent again. Then I pushed through the outside door and squat-walked along the side of the building to the windows of our class room. I always made sure one was unlocked before we went to lunch.  I would push it open and climb in, waiting in the silent comfort of the classroom where only moments before I had dreaded being called on by the teacher. If I was called on, it meant hearing the giggles, the ones that meant at least two people were sharing the joke about me. The same joke about me that brought the chatter of morning assembly to a halt.

So I kept my head down in class, avoided raising my hand even when I knew the answer. If I could make myself invisible, I could avoid the pain of being ridiculed.

In the half hour that I spent alone in the classroom, I felt at peace and I wished it could go on and on forever. Hearing the lunch bell brought a knot of pain to my stomach because I knew my sanctuary time was up. So in reverse I repeated the steps that had brought me there: shimmied out the window, slithered along the side of the building, pushed back into the hall, ducked into the bathroom, fell back into line as my classmates dashed past.

I hid in the bathroom in fourth period. The kids in that class seemed especially hard around the edges.  And despite the attempts of a few sympathetic family members to convince me that most of it was in my head, I knew that I wasn’t imagining how much contempt my classmates had for me.

It was confirmed one Monday morning when the whispering about me didn’t end with morning assembly, but followed me down the hall to my locker, which it normally did not, since the other kids started thinking about homework to be turned in and finding their buddies before classes. This day the whispering was still going on after first and second and third period. Finally I found out why.

Someone had dedicated a song to me the night before on the local radio station. It was Aerosmith’s Dude Looks Like A Lady.  At fourteen I was plump, wore my hair in a luxuriant brunette mullet, and had porcelain skin that I would kill for now. Maybe I did look more like a girl than a boy, but I knew the song was about more than that. Someone in my class wanted to put it out there so their friends could hear it and laugh in appreciation.  The joke about what a fag I was should be shared with the world outside of school.

Now I realize a different kind of kid would put a pithy, Rupaul-inspired spin on the whole situation. They would decide their foe had instead made them famous. Maybe what I needed more than anything was more fearless drag queens on TV.  I think my whole generation would have benefited.

I can almost relive the rise in my blood pressure that happened when I was told about the song on the radio.  It wasn’t anger. It was fear. Whether it was genetic or just a learned response, by this age I was strictly a flight strategist. Fighting was not my norm. So I hid the rest of the day in the bathrooms, roaming from one to another only when classes were in session. I ducked as I went past each door so I wouldn’t be spotted.

I luckily didn’t learn to loathe myself because of how I was treated, but it did make me loathe society for many years.  It took a long time to learn how to move through the world with an open mind toward others. One thing that I am always thankful for is that I have a lot of compassion for underdogs, for people who are misrepresented or even ignored. It is part of why I care so much about how our society treats people based on ethnicity, cultural and religious origin, gender, sexuality, age, size, income.  I know how feeling unsafe turns everyday life into a precarious obstacle course. How it twists you up inside.

If I could parent myself through the whole thing now, I would make sure it turned out differently. No one should be made to feel like hiding is the option, like being invisible is preferable to finding your light and place. And perhaps I could have gotten to myself at the perfect moment when my future empathy would be assured, but before I learned to be quite as cynical as I became. Probably I would even leave that alone, because I grew out of it eventually.

The one thing I know I would do to help myself is that I wouldn’t try to convince myself not to worry about what was happening to me. Every grown up tried to take that course, from my parents to the shrinks they sent me to. “Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

That would be the saddest coffee mug quote in the world and it didn’t do much to comfort me.

What I would say is, “You’re right to let this bother you so much. You want to be liked and instead you feel loathed.” Then I would explain that having the whole world love you is impossible and not even the goal.  You just need a small but meaningful tribe.

It starts with taking the time to notice the other kids being picked on. I know I wasn’t alone.  There were kids who were teased because their clothes were ragged. There were kids who were tripped and knocked down because they had a speech impediment.  I would tell my fourteen year old self to give the other beaten up and spit on kids a smile when I got to assembly in the morning. Eventually, I would say, you can choose to sit next to one of them and ask them their name. Then you might find them in the cafeteria and sit with them.

Friends matter because there is safety in numbers.  A group that is made up of people who have been shaped by rejection may be the strongest, because they value what it means to find inclusion after feeling adrift and alone.  If the world had more tribes made of people who were vastly different except that they shared only the desire to protect and encourage each other to personal happiness, we would perhaps divide ourselves less by race and creed and more by the contents of our hearts.  It would have saved me a lot of pain in junior high and it would certainly heal so much of what ails the world today.

 

Acquaintance

I wouldn’t say we were friends.  It may have looked like that for a while – at the beginning – but before long the whole thing sort of plateaued.  We ended up merely acquaintances, the people who will stand together at a party if the rest of the company is flat.  We were a bookend match of each other’s awkwardness, holding our drinks close to our chins as our arms tried to fold themselves over our chests, while one hand took orders from the brain to dose hard early because this gathering was going to suck.

She went by Caro in college, although when we were in junior high school she was called Carol or sometimes Fats.  In tenth grade, before Mom and I moved away, she found the theater club, dyed her hair red, and dropped the ‘l’.  She also dropped thirty pounds and found a light, languid gait unlike the slightly panicked walk-run that used to propel her into classrooms just after the bell.  Damned if Carol didn’t always knock something over with her backpack trying to slip into her seat unnoticed.

But not Caro.  This new tenth-grade artsy-fartsy goddess entered the room within a cocoon of laughing thespians, her auburn waves falling over her eyes, pushed back with a careless gesture now and again as she rolled her eyes at the droll nonsense of her troupe.  No shit.  Every day of tenth grade her entrance to Mr. Martolli’s class played like the opening credits of a show about with-it teens figuring out life while giggling over Twizzlers.

When my mother was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, we had to move to her hometown in Maryland.  It was all very sudden and she knew we’d need help.

“I don’t want to ask your grandma, let alone live with her, but how are we going to do this otherwise?”

“I could quit school – just for a year – and get a job.  Wouldn’t that help?”

“Me watching you make milkshakes for minimum wage when you should be learning? Knowing all the while the only reason for it is my being too proud to ask that woman for help…”  Mom was washing dishes.  Her gaze slipped out the window, whisked the worn picnic table and brown grass of the yard, and rose to the pale blue November sky.  The silence stretched and I almost tried to make my pitch again.  I was licking my lips and taking a breath when she finished her thought.

“It would kill me to see you working instead of being in school.  We’re going to Perryville and that’s that.  It’s a year. We’ll technically be closer to Johns Hopkins there than we are here and their program is good.”

“But UVA…”

“We don’t know anyone there. I can’t keep working. You can’t quit school. We’re going to live with your grandma.”

And so we did.

The last day of school in Virginia floated along like a dream.  A friend had got me a card that played a song from Peanuts and someone else thrust a balloon tied to a candy bar in my hand.  I was always vague about who had done it, although everyone knew I loved candy.  I spent too much time on the drive trying to figure it out.  When we got to the bridge at Havre de Grace, I put it out of my mind, knowing on a visceral level that in ten minutes we’d be carrying suitcases into Grandma’s house and that from then on out, it would be a daily battle to find any calm.  And not just watching Mom fight for her life.  My stomach was already in knots; I twisted around in the car seat to watch the sunset poking through the steel arch of the bridge.

 


 

I didn’t see Caro for three years. I had kind of forgotten she existed.  High school wasn’t when we started talking.  It was in college, when Mom and I moved back to Virginia. I was a year behind because we had to wait to reestablish our residency for in-state tuition.  I was surprised to see Caro in a class with me; surprised she was studying science, too.

“Well, acting is fun, but I get too nervous,” she told me once.  “Like everyone says they do, too, but this one time I was so close to puking on stage that I realized I needed another option.  My Dad suggested I rethink science, which I loved first. It felt right.”

I looked away, swallowing a chalky little bitterness that I always felt when people talked about their fathers.  I wondered if I’d ever stop being jealous of that.  It drove me crazy because I knew my mom ought to be enough.  She certainly worked her ass off to fill the void.

“Well, they say what you loved doing at seven is what you’re meant to do,” I said.

We were standing amid the trees in the quad, watching clouds thicken and tighten above us.  Other students were ambling about, some clinging to their perches in the grass, determined to stay until the rain chased them off.  I remember watching the president of the university pacing in her private garden at the top of the hill, disappearing and reappearing from behind a bronze bust of Mary Wollstonecraft.  She was talking into her cell phone, her face pale within a frame of black hair and red dress.

“Prima donna,” I heard myself say aloud.

Caro followed my gaze, her eyebrows raised in surprise.

“You’ve heard stories,” I added.

She shrugged and I realized then she didn’t play this game.  Caro the actress with the red hair and the nose ring. Carol the bookworm who’d come packaged with a beaker if she were a doll.  These girls didn’t talk smack.  That’s why we’d never really be friends.  I’d spend a lifetime figuring out the shape of the world by critiquing others as harshly as I would myself.  Girls like Caro would opt for a simple motto like ‘be nice’.

The rain started to fall one big splashy drop at a time and we turned in unison, holding our books up in front of our chests as we headed for the shelter of a portico nearby.  She smiled into the distance.

“So what did you want to be when you were seven?”

“Cruella. Maleficent. Ursula.”

She laughed.

“I never wanted to be the princess, either,” she said.

I side-eyed her then, thinking that she was the princess whether she liked it or not.  It was her right.  It came with being beautiful and kind and natural and smart.  Caro was all the things they try to show us about the princess, the qualities so remarkable that they come wrapped in a ball gown and a tiara.  She had all the things that draw men and magic and sometimes foes.  I didn’t want to be her enemy. Yet I couldn’t see how to be her friend, either, because she seemed to exist on a higher plane of self-confidence.  I was sure I’d never know how to breathe that air.

“Anyway,” I said. I tried to sound light. (I always tried to sound light back then.) “I realize now that none of those Disney witches are very real. I’d settle for being Dorothy Parker.”

I had to explain to her who that was and I knew she barely found it interesting.  Still, we found things to talk about in the coming years, dosing ourselves with gin and tonics, two people who sometimes defaulted to chatter when the room wasn’t entirely ours. And later I realized that we didn’t exist on a different tier; we were just two kinds of people whose overlapping interests made a narrow bridge, hastily traversed in youth and vanity. Now I would try to take it slower, see what developed if we walked instead of driving.

On Burying A Friend

The air is still moist from the night when I with gloved hands take up the shovel to make the grave for our very old friend.  It helps to be alone out here, bent over the earth with my thoughts.

Later the loneliness is edging close as thankfully my husband joins me in a cap to keep his ears warm. And so we take turns cracking through tree roots and pulling up stones. Helpmates. Silent in our grief, the passing of our ginger cat.

Our Guy.

The scratch of iron and rock make a sharp cry to break the calm of the woods, fittingly rough, like how we aren’t ready to let go.  Finally the hole is deep enough.  We climb the steep hill and I take off my muddy boots before entering the house.

My eye drops toward the floor as I push the door open, to where he usually stands with curious eyes asking to go out.  I cannot give a moment for tears just yet.  I push through the house, to the cool spare room, where he waits in his carrier.

I take him outside and together my husband and I wrap him up for burial.  He weighs the same in my hands as he ever did.  Or is he lighter now, not twisting to protest being cradled like a human baby?   I feel he must be given a final hug, something to say that inside the bundle is still the lovely creature who shared so many years with us.  I curve around his still form, weeping freely, my husband weeping with me, the two of us with rubbery garden gloves, hands a little cartoonish, eyes as red as pickled eggs.

“Okay,” I say.

Somehow we fitted his resting place perfectly.  The bundle settles into the depression as if sized by tireless craft, rather than the educated guess of two men unfamiliar with the digging of graves.  I gather a wad of mud between my hands, say a word of good-bye and sprinkle him over with earth.  My husband says his farewell and reaches out to let his gathered clay fall like dark heavy snow.

I am careful with the first shovels-full of dirt, filling in the edges until the ground is level with the top of him.   Then another level until the black bundle is covered over. When the ground is filled in again, we pull a rake over the earth until it is smooth.  Then I rake away the autumn leaves because they make his resting place seem too forlorn.

I decide we ought to cover him over in stones to keep animals from digging him up.  We root around at the edge of the woods as the day opens up bright and warm above us.  The mud on ours boots grows thicker as we work.  We cannot seem to stop hunting for new stones.  I like best the ones from under the leaves, the ones cleaned by a recent rain.  One crude rock at a time, we build a mound to cover the grave of this our very old friend.

“We’ll put a ring of bulbs around it in the spring,” I say.

And my husband nods through his tears.

“I’m glad it got warm. I fell asleep last night dreading the cold, knowing how he hated it.”

We are silent a moment more before taking up the shovel and the rake and climbing the hill.  At the side of the house, I realize we have forgotten the pick axe.  When I return to the edge of the woods to fetch it, I see a small rock winking up from the ground.  I almost turn away from it, but it seems that in noticing it, I ought to add it to the mound.kingly-guy

 

Acting 201

Felix went all in to help Adele with her final performance in acting class.  Perhaps he was regretting that he hadn’t signed up for 201 with her; every time they hung out with friends from the first class, they said they missed him.  Weeks before the end of semester, he had mapped out a plan for Adele.  He chose the monologue, coached her through it line by line, designed the set, and did her hair and makeup.  All because she looked like Bette Davis.

It wasn’t an easy three weeks.

There were times when Adele begged to abandon the project.  One night she came really close to putting her foot down entirely.  When she yet again failed to enunciate her lines with the proper Davis clarity, she tossed herself across the battered sectional in Felix’s basement.  Hugging a pillow close to her chest, she suggested she might rather do the monologue from Fame, which she still remembered from high school.  It was a little on the short side, but she even had the clothes she’d worn. The leg warmers were doing double duty as curtain tiebacks in her bedroom.

Felix wouldn’t hear of it.

“You’re destined for this role, Adele! Don’t be faint of heart…”

He motioned for her to stand, and she rolled her eyes, but she climbed out of the sunken cushions.   She had the big eyes and the small mouth and if she could just learn to actually be dramatic and articulate all at once, while not dropping a line or forgetting a mark, then she’d be fine.  His big obstacle was getting her to embrace the bigness of the part.  Adele had a dry, close-lipped personality, but for this she’d need to have sweep and volume.

Secretly Adele thought the lines were corny, but Felix was protective of his heroes.  “Bette exudes corruption once you get to the end and look back on it, but for at least the first half, you’re convinced she’s the classic woman wronged. She plays it so well.”

His eyes would drop to the floor each time he praised the long dead actress, as if embarrassed that Adele might feel inadequate by comparison.  She could have told him she didn’t like that whole old style – people didn’t act like that anymore – but they’d had exhaustive talks about it in the past.  He thought there simply wasn’t enough guts and saliva in modern theater.

That night they watched the movie together again.  Maybe for the first time ever,  Adele was glad she wasn’t stoned because there were some line readings that would give a nun church giggles.  Glancing over at Felix, she saw a pleased little smile on his lips. With his dyed black hair and painted on brows and lips, he looked vampiric in the television light. Not that she would ever tell him; he was too vain about his looks already.  He’d spent almost two months pay on green contact lenses to look like Louis from The Vampire Lestat.  And one night he told her about an exhaustive face lightening regimen that involved peroxide and a nail brush.

He was silly, she thought then, growing frustrated with the movie.

“Can’t we turn it off and try the lines again?” she asked.

He agreed too readily and she wondered if subjecting her to the film had become a tactic.

“Feed me my line…”

He was about to when they heard a soft knock, telling them Felix’s mom had come down the steps and wanted to enter her son’s subterranean den.

“Hello?” Jean called out warmly.

Felix looked peeved, but Adele felt like she was getting a pardon.

“You two still working on the play?” Jean asked.  She was dressed in denims that rose all the way up to her bra and a sweat shirt with an appliquéd kitten clambering anxiously out of a watering can.  Her shoulder length hair was messy except for scrupulously combed bangs.

“Yes,” Adele said. “The drill sergeant never sleeps.”

“Ha, ha,” Jean laughed.  “Well, Felix, you ought to give Adele a break. You two could come upstairs and eat with me. I made goulash.”

“No, Mother,” Felix said. “Maybe later.”

Adele never knew how to act around Jean.  If she followed Felix’s example, her demeanor would hardly be warm.  She was raised to be polite to elders, but like her friend she wasn’t always comfortable with chit-chat.  As usually happened, a silence stretched between the three of them and eventually Jean edged towards the steps.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to it then…”

“Thanks, Mom.”

When she’d gone, Felix made a little face. It wasn’t exactly mocking, but it seemed to say, ‘What just happened?’ As if it were odd that a mom would offer supper to two teenagers who rarely left her basement except to go to their classes.  Feeling angry at him but unsure of exactly why, Adele took a deep breath and began her monologue.

“‘I was in love with Jeff Hammond. Been in love for years. We used to meet each other, constantly, once or twice a week-”

“Can you hit those t’s a little harder? It’s like this…”

Pulling his characteristically slumped shoulders back, Felix launched into the monologue in a perfect impersonation of the old movie idol.  Adele stared at him with a mouth like she was eating worms.

“What?”

“You,” she said. “You ought to do it.”

“I didn’t take the class. Besides, I’m not a girl.”

She almost said maybe that was up for debate, but she bit the comment back, turning away to gather up her things.  “I’m going home.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you’re tired-”

“I am. You’re right.”

When she turned on her car lights, they shone through the patio doors of the basement, and she saw that Felix had already put the movie back on.  If she knew him at all, he’d make a run upstairs for goulash in about two minutes.  But he wouldn’t eat it with Jean.

 


 

The day of the performance was hectic.  Felix had made a list of all the things they needed from home.  Adele would bring her own extensive makeup kit, a curling iron, bobby pins, and the 1940’s outfit she’d borrowed from one of her mother’s friends.  He would bring a piece of plastic rattan valance to wrap around the base of a plant he was borrowing from the admissions lobby.  This would help make the set look more Malaysian, he determined. And he had a piece of cloth his dad had brought from Guam that they could drape over the This-End-Up sofa ubiquitous to all theater department performances at the college.

Tension propelled them through makeup in near silence, but they started to get testy with one another while he was curling her hair.  Worrying that he’d burn her skin and ruin the show, his hands trembled and he got the waves around her face wrong.  Luckily her brow was just as high and rounded as Bette’s because he doubted he could have talked her into shaving back her hairline, even though Davis had done it herself twice in her career, both times to play Elizabeth I.

“You’re pulling!” she said, punching his arm.  He was through with the iron now or else she wouldn’t have dared.

Unperturbed, he spoke through a mouthful of bobby pins, “Don’t forget the line is, ‘We’d always been so careful before about writing in the past.’ You said ‘calling’ instead twice last week and you could still hit those t’s a little more aggressively.

“I’ll pretend each one of them is you,” she muttered.

He smiled for the first time all day.

“That’s right, my queen,” Felix said. “Get it all out.”

Finally there was nothing else he could do and Felix had to leave the stage area and take a seat with the class. As he watched Adele perform her scene, he was glad they’d chosen dark green for her outfit, but he couldn’t help but feel she never quite rose above a level of emotion one might call robotic. It was worse than that she wasn’t as fiery as his favorite actress. Rather she was flat, like someone who’d never felt anything before. Maybe she was on the sociopath spectrum, he wondered. Was there a spectrum for that?

The class applauded nicely for Adele.  After the curtain closed on stage,  Professor Dupree studied Felix for an awkward moment.  He imagined she was realizing how much of a role he’d played in Adele’s final project.  Impulsively, he leaned towards her and made a bold suggestion.

“Since I’ve done so much of the work in helping Adele, do you think admissions would let me sign up for the class retroactively, if I could complete all the homework assignments before next Tuesday?”

Her eyes widening, the professor said haltingly, “I don’t think they’d go for that.”

Quelled, Felix studied his lap.

A moment later, Adele was cautiously descending from the stage in her borrowed pumps. Professor Dupree gave her an empathetic smile.

“That was an interesting choice, Adele.”

“It was all Felix,” she answered.

For a moment, it seemed that the two women were transmitting a silent message to each other.  Felix felt if he had a moment, he might figure it out.  But then someone up on stage was asking who brought the plastic rattan valance. They needed to break things down quickly to do their monologue from Fame.

When he was done corralling all of their props and the makeup kit, he couldn’t find Adele anywhere.  The class was recomposing themselves for the next number and the professor gave him a smile that was thin.

As he stepped out of the student center to see if Adele was having a smoke, he heard Professor Dupree give a gleeful little squeal, saying aloud about the next act, “Oh, I love this one!” He shrugged, thinking with some pleasure that Dupree had always struck him as fatally boring.

Adele was sitting on a picnic table on the smoker’s terrace.  She’d unbuttoned the vintage blouse a little, but left her hair up off her neck and face.  In the harsh afternoon light, the makeup looked thick, but her eyes were magnificent.  He shook a cigarette from his pack as he approached her.

“You were great.”

“No I wasn’t,” she said.  “But I’m glad its over.”

He lit his cigarette with a lighter that had a spent flint.  After a moment it sparked, but it was too late to continue to argue her defense.  He said instead, “You want to come over tonight.  We can watch whatever you want.”

She shrugged, “Okay.”

They both knew it would need to be something funny.

 

 

Momentos

As my high school graduation grew nearer, my father sent away for my class ring.  I wore it for about a year or two before it embarrassed me to put it on.  No one I knew advertised they finished high school through jewelry and I didn’t want to either.  The ring was exactly what it should have been: large and golden with a ruby stone and engravings to show I concentrated on The Arts.  A pair of brushes cross over a painter’s amoebic palette and some Greek letters make the case for the man my father thought I was becoming. 

The ring still surfaces now and then, floating to the top of a box of forgotten things from about the age of ten up through my twentieth year.   In that box there is also a keychain with a picture of an old friend in it; a few chess pieces from a set my mother made me in ceramics class;  blue and white shards of a Chinese umbrella holder that I cut my knee on when I was nine; shells from a beach where a girl and I sat in the blast of January winds not talking about things we might.


The keychain is a tapered square of turquoise plastic with a white tip on the narrow end.  In the tip there is a lens and when you look through it you see my old friend.  She is on the beach, her thick dark blond hair pushed behind one ear in defiance of a breeze off the water behind her.  When she and I first became friends, my world was small; my best friends were family and it was a joyful discovery to build my own friendship from scratch. We were close at one time and luckily it did not end in fire, as some of my relationships did when I was younger.  Rather we just drifted apart, first in our interests and later geographically.  Before social media, we were as good as invisible to one another for over a dozen years.  Now we reach out from time to time to say hello.

During all those years when many friendships were considered not only diminished but severed by lost addresses and by telephone numbers that no longer worked, I would occasion upon that keychain, squint into it and try to remember something about how she came to give it to me.  Had she gone to the beach alone or with one of her more loyal childhood friends?  Had we met for lunch, she proffering the memento as I worked out in my head who I’d be partying with later that night?


My mother didn’t handle my growing up very well.   Two dreamers who were much happier at home than out in the world, we needed one another mutually when I was young.  It must have been hard to see me making friends and moving outward into the world, while she was still fixed in a place defined by her phobias and her traditionalism.  When I was seventeen she and I were at our most tumultuous point.  In between our heated arguments about where I was going and who I was going out with – why did I like so and so more than my own family and what did we know about their people? – she would be moved to do very kind things.  One of them was the chess set, although by the time she finished it and presented it at Christmas, there were already changes in my worldview that made me feel only lackluster about the gift. 

Rendered in blue and grey, the Civil War iteration of the game did not suit who I was becoming – a person with growing disgust for a romantic take on rich southern slaveowners who turned on their own neighbors rather than follow the shifting moral imperative of their country. 

Having watched the film Gone With the Wind at nine and consuming the book greedily afterward, I spent the first half of my teen years in a love affair with the antebellum south. I wrote and rewrote novels with heroines who lived on plantations and wore hoop skirts.  With each rewrite my shifting principles showed evermore. As I discovered feminism, my heroine became pluckier.  I added character details to make her seem less organized around feminine norms.  Now she liked to sneak off bare footed to go fishing when she wasn’t sparring with our enigmatic and handsome hero. 

As I discovered my empathy for the economically disadvantaged, my heroine developed a friendship with a ‘po-white’ family down the road from the Big House and helped their ‘clean but respectable’ Irish children with their lessons in between trips to the trout creek.  Just as I may have been likely to start writing a slave rebellion into the plot, I grew tired of the whole Southern aristocracy schtick altogether.  By the time I received the chess set, it felt like a postcard from another year to another me, although I was careful to pretend I loved it.  My mother is very, very sensitive.


At the age of ten I was well in the midst of my romance with all things old world and opulent  when I discovered an umbrella holder in the cluttered storage cum laundry room in our basement.  Made of thick china and hand-painted in the Asian fashion with blue flowers and birds on a white field, it seemed like a relic from a much finer home than our fly-specked little ranch house in the country.  Perhaps this was the last vestige of the grand manor our family used to own on the Mississippi, I speculated – until my mother told me they were a dime a dozen in the seventies.

The top was broken and looked a little like the shape of the Coliseum, with pierced arches left incomplete where the missing pieces used to fit.  I found some of the broken bits in the bottom of the vessel and pestered my parents to buy me crazy glue so I could fix this treasure.  I was still working on the restoration months later – frustrated that not all the pieces had been saved by my parents – when a tumble with my sister landed me on a jagged point that split my knee open like a cruel smile.  They stitched it closed and it still looked like a punished mouth for weeks, weeping blood at the iodine-stained threads when I flexed my leg a bit too much.  For a couple years easily I worried that somehow I’d crack it open again, even when all that was left was a quite sturdy white scar, a lumpy albino worm where the mouth had once ruefully grinned.  I still have the umbrella holder and the shards; the mend was never complete.


I don’t remember gathering the shells with Jenny, but a visceral thread woven into the beginning of my manhood hangs free of me, teased even now by the mood of a wintry beach.  When all the umbrellas have been tucked away and the children have returned to school, beach towns become something more like wilderness again.  They become raw and savage: the breakers are cold knives nosing the sand, the blackened tangles of seaweed like so many Medusa headdresses abandoned. No matter where I am, when cold air that smells like salt water hits me, I am taken back to a Carolina beach and seventeen.

We walked with our heads down, our chins protecting our throats as the wind tore at our curls and rippled our too thin clothes.  It had been an awkward holiday, me liking Jenny’s green-haired artist friend we had come to visit so much that the three of us fell into a strange discord. In youth we wear our jealousy loosely on chapped lips, with faces still too childlike to hide our fleeting pain and rage.  Yet we are already learning to ignore what we think we will not be able to change.  And so Jenny continued to love me and I made funny faces and let the incoming storm off the water lift my hair into a wild black mop that she caught in her camera.  When my whimsical bravura was spent, we sat in the sand not talking about anything, unsure yet sure that the holiday had already pulled loose what had gathered us together.  The silence felt intimate, but we were no longer.

In the cold mist we watched the tide go out while three broken shells found a home in my pocket.  It has been over twenty years and I have yet to send them back to sea.

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.”

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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.

Imperfect

It began with the car ride home, the leaden silence that clung to them, unshakable, through the weekend.  They had disagreed before. This was different. It was as if each knew they were implacable, opposed to the stance of the other in some meaningful way.

In the past, one or the other of them found themselves petty, licked their lips, took a breath, and began the stilted process of talking them back from the brink. Together.

This was not the way of it that weekend.

If George had wanted to make it right, he could have done so.  His charm was winning.  He was gifted with words.

And Sam had simple candor that was likely better than charisma or gilded phrases.  He might have said, with his dark brandy eyes focused on the road, “I was wrong. This is your decision. I’m sorry.”

That would have put the thaw on them.

George would have come at it more cautiously, as was his wont, edging at the thing with words that made neither of them at fault. Perhaps he might have even cast himself in the golden and violet shades of the noble and misunderstood.  He was good at that; a revisionist of his own immediate history.  Although he was not without humility, sincerity. He would have come around at the end, sighing in disgust with himself.

“You know what? It doesn’t matter. I was an ass not to ask you yesterday, when I might have done. Maybe we can stay for part of the week, if we call them up tonight and let them know.”

But neither of them followed the usual path of reconciliation this time.  George did not disrobe his truth slowly, crown and cloak giving way, layer by layer, to thin socks with holes in the toes. Sam did not set the ice to melting with his guileless warmth.

They sat side by side in the car as it carried them out of the mountains, the naked forests of winter to left and right casting spider web reflections on the glass.  Once Sam reached out as if to find music on the dash, but his hand dropped back into his lap.

When they got home, they carried in the luggage, turning on lights as they moved from front to back.  They were not giving each other the silent treatment. They were simply opting not to discuss the disagreement.

“Did you want me to throw away the rest of that cake? You said it was no good.”

“You can.”

“I won’t if you don’t think I should. Or I can offer it to Mrs. Jaffee.”

And later, as they crawled warily into bed, Sam said, “It’ll be good to sleep.”

George said, “Yes.”

They kissed good night.

It was not like their pattern to let a quarrel go unexplored. They had always picked them apart carefully, leaving no meat on the bones of malcontent.  It brought tears like a hateful onion, opened up forgotten hurts; then gently they brought it round to what it was, reducing the thing until it was sweeter, understandable.  And it ended with them lying in each others arms, still like after their first orgasm together, a long ago afternoon in a park, staring up into a white sky, listening to birds calling out with hearts bursting.

They didn’t like to argue.  Raised each in houses where emotions either paralyzed or polarized, where the eruptions were volcanic and corrosive, they had a distaste for conflict.  Yet in the face of this new thing – this passive, dispassionate response to one another – it seemed that they had either lost something or gained something.

Had the years given them the gift of allowing or had it numbed them to caring passionately?  And wasn’t caring passionately often so wrapped up in ego and prejudice? How often had they competed to be simply right? How often had that slow, cumbersome journey back to peace proven that to them?  Perhaps finally the thing had been found – a blessed acceptance of profound opposition.

Yet on Monday morning, as they hustled to be ready for work, Sam said, “If you want to leave on Thursday instead, we can call and have them move the reservation.”

And George heaved a sigh. “It isn’t really about when we leave, but more about the fact that you might have said last week, before I put the room on my card.”

It wasn’t exactly a relief to find themselves getting heated on the ride into town, yet it felt a little more like home than the silence.

“We are imperfect,” Sam said.

And George nodded.  “That we are.”

 

Go Out, Go Out

“Go out,” she said.  His protector, his champion. Old Granny: mother of none; keeper of all. He glanced up at her over the faded cloth of the table, watching her peel a potato, the sharp edge of the blade coming up soft against her thumb, over and over again, never going farther than the peel.  The brown petals of skin fell into an enamel pan on her lap.

“Go out and find me something to fix with these taters.”

His heart skipped once in his chest, a pang that drew his hand up to touch the spot.  He glanced away from her, thinking two thoughts at once.  Where had he put his boots? And: if Baizie came to supper, she’d tell about what happened at the creek.

“You left them by the door,” she said.

He rose, moving heavily to take up the boots.  His feet took their place in the familiar leather, pushing air up his pant legs, an earthy breath that smelled like him and animal and uncounted weeks of working in the sun and the rain, sliding on muddy hillsides, crackling the floor of the forest.

When he was little, Daddy took him hunting.  It was a foggy morning, warm and cool colliding.  When the first shot met its mark, he was sent into the trees to find the squirrel.  The soft fur was warm in his hands, the animal holdings it heat, though its breath was stolen for good.  It hurt him to think of the little thing dying. He put it in the crook of his arm and walked back slowly, gentle like he was holding a baby.

“Put it there,” his father said.

When he didn’t want to let it go, the man who was almost a stranger, if as much to himself as his son, turned away with darkening eyes.  He fished a cigarette out of his pocket and smoked it slowly, squinting into the depth of the forest. Then he shifted the weight of his gun, peered through the sights, and lifted it again to kill another squirrel.

“That ought to keep your hands full,” he said, his voice a coarse rasp, like the shovel scraping the stove when they took out the ashes. And he chuckled with the cigarette in his lips, though maybe he hadn’t meant to sound cruel.

It had been a long time since that morning in the forest, though the memory came back at queer moments. He could see his feet, small as they were then, landing carefully in the leaves underneath as he walked to get the second squirrel. When he cozied it next to the first one, he saw the cradle of his arm was filled with blood.  When they got home, Granny eyed the stain, cocked her head at an angle.

“Did you like hunting with your Daddy?”

He shook his head, then thought better of it. Maybe Daddy would mind.

“It was okay.”

But when he looked over at his father, the man was pulling off his socks with eyes seeing another room.  As was the case most often, his father was there and not there.  Like the dead squirrel giving off warmth, yet no longer in the world of living things.

“Well, take Casper’s coat, the long grey one on my door, and get me some eggs,” Granny said. “And when you get back, go out and run around a while, till you’re good and tired.”

She knew he was tangled up inside better than he knew it himself.

________________________

He shook off the memory of that day and stepped out into the spring evening.  A breeze was stirring the forsythia, yellow arms waving with joy that he did not feel in his own heart.  He dug a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and smoked it slowly as the light shifted, the sky over the meadow turning violet and lemonade.

When he came back into the house later, carrying a hen with a broken neck, Granny was pouring water and broth over beans for soaking.  She had the ham hock sizzling in a skillet with some onions and grease from the morning bacon.  She glanced up at him.

“Put her on the table,” she said. “So I can clean her.”

As she took the bird in hand, she told him about a peddler who used to come around with catfish and trout for sale.  He’d heard the story before, but it calmed him when she talked about the past.  “The best catfish you ever saw.  He was a born fisher, that one. Tall.  He always walked a little bent in the middle, like to bring himself down closer to the rest of us.  Kind of a gentleman type, like Ray Burke at the grocery store.  The pinkest cheeks, pinker than a bride’s bouquet.”

She shrugged, “He smelled like hair tonic and, if you got real close, like booze. I guess he liked to take a nip now and again. Maybe that’s what made him so mild and gentle.  Never cut in when you were talking, always asked what you thought you wanted to pay.”

“He fell on hard times, came one day to sell me watermelon.  Said he’d lost his luck for fishing.  His hands shook so bad, I guess I knew what I had to do. So I gave him a little whisky, put him to bed in the barn, and sat out under the biggest moon you ever saw and ate a whole watermelon instead of dinner.  Figured that squared us up.”

Her laughter came up out of her like the sound of a hundred eggs cracking. It was like that when she was happy: breakfast for everyone and some more left over just in case.  They were quiet for a while, she pulling feathers slow, ignoring the little fluffs that clung to her hands.  Then, as he though to take off his boots again and bent forward to do it, she looked across at him with soft eyes.

“Baizie stopped me in the yard this morning. She’d come up through the woods so quick, she could hardly catch her breath.”

He felt himself freeze slowly, like the pond come winter, the cold starting at his head, taking his heart and slowly covering every inch of him.  He was probably grey like ice, he thought.  If you threw a stone at him now, he’d crack into shards. The stone would sink out of sight.

“When I was your age, there was a boy I loved. He was prettier than most girls. Curls all over his head, light brown that turned to gold the first day of haying.  I watched him like a hawk, every minute, wished he’d look up and find me looking. Wished he’d know what was in my heart. And terrified lest he figured it out, too.”

Granny was done with stripping the hen.  She grabbed up her knife and took off the head, drawing it away from the neck with the side of the blade.  She dropped the bird into a bowl to let it bleed out.  Then she went to the tap and washed her hands.

He felt a cramp in his side, realized he was still bent forward with one boot half off his foot.  He shook it off abruptly, as if it offended him, as if it were a bee or a horse fly.  “What’d Baizie tell you?”

Granny smiled as she moved a cloth over her hands.  “Baizie said a lot of things, most of them ugly.  But when she was done, I reckon all I heard was that you were in love.  Not that she ever used that word.”

“She’ll tell everyone.”

“Not after what I said back to her.”

He frowned, unable to read her.

“Aren’t you upset with me?”

“No.”

“Aren’t you disgusted? Ashamed?”

“I think maybe you are.”

He lowered his eyes to the floor.

“But you shouldn’t be,” she said. “I’ve known men and women just like you.  Plenty of them. Don’t despise your nature, boy. Just know it as best you can. Measure it for itself, not against the world.  Keep yourself safe, travel wise, but never hate yourself.”

He licked his lips. “He wants us to leave together. But I told him I couldn’t leave you alone. You took me and Daddy in when we didn’t have no place to go. You’re my only friend in the world. We need each other.”

“You told this boy that?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what’d he say?”

“He cried. If his folks hear what Baizie’s got to say, they’ll kill him themselves. You know how Sunder is, Granny. I think he would.”

She nodded.

“I took you and your father in because you needed me, not because I needed you.  I love you, boy, of course I do.  But that was then. This is now.”

“Granny-“

“Find your young man and you two go find someplace else.”

He stared at her for a long while, hoping he’d never forget her face, the creases around her eyes, the silver cloud of hair her braids could never wrangle.  “Is it time?”

“Go out, boy. Go out.”

Apricot

The hydrangeas were the color of sunshine in crayons.  Wavy sprigs of stock, as purple as a king’s cloak, felt like tissue paper flowers when he pressed his finger against them.  The tulips were a beautiful shade of apricot.  They looked like they might not last the weekend, yet he shrugged off the thought and bought the bouquet anyway.  It would be nice to have a little color in the flat.  When Bryce moved out, he took everything bright and bold with him.

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They had only been together a year, yet they had quickly meshed together their lives.  When the rooms were reduced again to only what he had before, Bennett was astonished to discover that on his own he was quite drab.  His friend Alison brought over Thai food and beer the first night and they sat together on the tan sofa, staring at the wall where a collection of paint by numbers had hung the Saturday before.

“It looks like the first, sad half of an allergy commercial,” Bennett said.

Allison said, “It’s like if ‘mid-century morgue’ became a thing.”

They laughed a short bray, something they did to make fun of themselves being funny.

“Well, anyway,” Allison said, digging through her dinner.

“Yep.”

It became a joke among his friends, how dismal his place was without Bryce.  People said it was funny, they didn’t remember it being so colorless before.  Had he given some of his things away?

“I never thought Bryce was that dynamic,” his friend Sharp said as they walked Washington Square one morning. “But it really is like the first five minutes of The Wizard of Oz now.”

Bennett laughed, but the joke had started to wear thin.

Bryce had liked thrift store art in mad shades.  If he found a scrap of ribbon on the sidewalk, he brought it home and tied it around a cabinet knob.  He was a cheer scavenger.  He loved summer bright shoes and coats, so there was always some of that around, too, peaking out from under tables or spilling over the sofa arm.

They had grown apart quickly, once the early magic of sex and common loves was mined.  If he were honest, he would say they had only been sharing home for a couple of months when it stopped feeling right.  By Christmas, they were eating together in near silence, like old couples in diners, without the years to make any sense of it.  It was no shock when Bryce announced he wanted to move out when he got his tax refund.

“Okay,” Bennett said.

“Is that it?”

“I guess so. Is it?”

“Yes,” Bryce said. “I guess.”

They were stiff with each other for a while, then friendly again – one small kindness at a time – until one day they were as happy to see each other as when they were in love.  Except that now they weren’t.

“It’s like we should have just stuck to dating,” Bryce said one night, as they walked home from a movie.

“I know.”

“We really are a lot alike in some ways.”

“It’s true.”

Later Bennett had to smile when he thought about the two of them being a lot alike.  How could it be true, he wondered, when everything that was lively went out the door with Bryce.  If his world was charcoals and Bryce’s was Crayolas, could they be that much alike?

It was hard to fall asleep the first few weeks alone.  He missed the warmth beside him in bed, the brush of elbows or thighs as he rolled over in the middle of the night.  The pillows were no longer to his satisfaction; the streetlight peeking through the blind seemed brighter than before.  Maybe they had changed something about it.  He drank a little heavier to sleep deeper and it worked, though he felt groggy for much of the mornings.

Sundays were drab and lonely, so he made himself get up early to go for long walks.  He took pictures of things with his phone, stopped at cafes to drink coffee for far too long.  He was really quite bored when he wasn’t doing things.  When he was done avoiding the flat, when he could stand being out no more, he made his way back home.  It was usually early afternoon.  He always passed by the flower vendor without a glance until today.

When he put the arrangement on the coffee table, the flowers seemed small, their color swallowed by the vast, beige room.  They had looked so promising down on the sunlit corner, tucked in among the tiger lilies and the irises.  Shrugging, he flipped on the TV and said to the blooms, “Welcome to Kansas.”

There was nothing on worth watching, he decided in seconds, but he flipped through the channels for another fifteen minutes at least.  Finally he turned off the set and closed his eyes, shutting out the sunlight and shadows, the wall where Bryce’s paintings had hung, the pathetic little bouquet in the mason jar.

He opened his eyes a moment later because his nose picked up a memory smell, something that reminded him of the first place his folks had ever owned.  A ranch house huddled on a windy cul-de-sac, it had brick walls the dull, dark red of old scabs.  It was a little place with big shrubs, shy on sunlight, neighbored with old people.  The floors had dog piss stains in the wood.  His father couldn’t sand them out.

He hadn’t thought of that place in years and the memory smell was not of dog piss nor of wood dust.  It was the odor of fresh paint, which his mother had used everywhere to chase off the gloom of a house his father regretted from the beginning.

“It looked so much better with their stuff in it,” he said on moving day.

“Bullshit,” his mother said. “We’ll make it work.”

He remembered the weeks that followed, the stacks of boxes, half opened.  His father wanted to set everything up and tackle the changes later, but she wouldn’t hear of it.  When Bennett got home from school each afternoon, she had a roller or a brush in her hand. There was always a Virginia Slim hanging out of her mouth and a crease in her brow you could have lost a dime in.  He changed into cutoffs and a tee and took over while she started supper.

“Your father is a pessimist,” she said one day from the kitchen doorway.  “Don’t ever be a pessimist.”

“Okay.”

“I mean it now.”

Bennett sat up and looked around the flat, surprised by the memories.  It was funny that he should smell paint like that, opening up a forgotten afternoon with his mother.  He could even remember what they had for supper.  Salisbury steak, TV dinner.  It had always been his favorite.

“Well, paint,” he said.  “That’s funny.”

Then he glanced at the bouquet again, thinking about color and wondering why he never had before.  Maybe fifteen years of rentals, of wanting to get back deposits, had made him dull.  Was beige a pessimist color?  He shrugged.  It didn’t feel like it fit him very well, in any event, not that he’d ever questioned it until now.  Well, to be bold, he’d have to simply leap without a second guess.

“Apricot,” he said to the room, reaching for his shoes.

 

Neighbor

Lord, how I miss having Lady B next door.  The new people don’t do nothing but come and go, never looking right or left.  Act like throwing up a hand might kill them. All those big, dumb-looking boys do is work on they dog cages.  Never crack each other up, just mumble back and forth like they got nails in they mouths.  And the woman, she let all the weeds choke out Lady B’s pretty flowers.  Looks a mess over there.  You’d never know anyone ever cared for that house, oiled the floors, gave the curtains a spring wash.

When she was beside me, the world was all right.  Everyday that door of hers be swinging open, that hinge her man couldn’t fix whining like a cat in heat.  She had a light way of walking, but I always heard her feet on the hen gravel.  She pop that head around the corner of the porch and smile like sunshine on the lake.  Rooney said she wasn’t pretty at all, but that fool only like thick girls with blond hair all down they back.  I thought Lady B. was just about the prettiest thing I ever set eyes on.

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“I got a piece of pie, if you want it,” she say to me sometimes.  Or else, “I made a pot of chili.” I already knew if she was making chili because it made the whole holler smell good and warm like flannel.  Lady B never had no little ones of her own, but she was a mamma through and through.  She fed anyone who wanted a bite.  I was just the luckiest one, my porch right next to hers.

Her kitchen was small and yellow.  The table was just big enough for two.  When that man of hers rumbled away in the morning in his truck, long before the sun was up, she had that place to herself until nigh dark.  We’d start the morning off with some little cake or something and coffee, telling the same stories over and over, and agreeing on who was good and who was rotten of the folks we knew.  We’d part for a while in the middle of the day, clean up our places a little bit, maybe do a little fuss with the dirty clothes and start a pot of soup.  But always I think I hear her on the porch and wish I could get my chores done sooner.

Then one day that man come home and tell her he got a new job, other side of the valley, and they ought to move on down the mountain, closer to town.  She was sad to say good-bye to that little house and the holler, but I was more sad than Lady B.  It didn’t hurt much, knowing I was more torn up to see her go than she was to be leaving.  It weren’t her fault she could cotton to anything and anyone, while I be the kind who keeps close to myself.  She give out her last cup of flour to a tramp.  I be thinking, ‘What he gonna do with it? Don’t look like he got anything else to make bread with.’

Lady B could get herself caught by the Bible thumpers, standing behind the screen door, smiling all nice while they talk Jesus at her with they hats in they hands.  I peep out from behind my sorry front room curtain, trying not to breath unless they gonna hear me.

When she went down off the mountain, she took her light with her.  Wherever she landed, she’s passing out little bits of herself, sweet slices of pie and all kind of kindness.  I wish she changed me.  I wish sometimes I took over a bowl of chili to that worn old dog living in Lady B’s house.  But that woman got small eyes, a jaw you could split logs with.  She ain’t nothing but meanness, I can tell, and I’d rather my rooms be quiet all the day than trade an angel for a sore old sow.  Anyway, maybe it’s time we got out of the holler anyway.

I think sometimes we could make it down in town, maybe find a couple little rooms on the street where Lady B lives.  She’d have all kinds of friends now, but she’d make room for me at her table, I know.  And this house would fall apart like her own had done, but that wouldn’t matter none.  It’s people that mean anything.  Houses are just wood and clay and tin and they ain’t no better than them what keeps them.