The Risk Dish

I stood on the rutted dirt holding a block of Spanikopita in a Pyrex. It was a risk-dish. Most men I’d dated, including my ex-husband, were avid carnivores and hated it. Sometimes they would grin with their mouths full and make fake yum-yum noises before leaving two-thirds of their serving on the plate and asking if I felt like ordering pizza. Spanikopita was the dish I made best. Lesbians would love it, I betted. Tonight, I must have settled on it as a test, a set-up. I even sprinkled dill over the top. If he didn’t go for it, it wouldn’t be a total deal breaker, but it would be disappointing. It would tell me something. It might stop me from doing the stupid thing that I already knew I was going to do anyway. 

About 20 yards away, Owen’s headlamp swooped left and then right and then left again. He was like a wandering lighthouse lost in the dark. “Christ. What am I doing?,” I mused. “He’s not the one.” I looked away and tried to focus on enjoying the warm air on my bare arms. I was wearing my new lavender spaghetti strap tank with hiking pants that barely stayed on my hips. “You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?,” My boss observed. “Yeah, divorce’ll do that for you,” he added, making me uncomfortable. 

I probably bought that top just for this occasion, though Owen and I made a big show of pretending our picnic was a spontaneous idea, not the premeditated fantasy we’d both nurtured since he’d helped me paint the kitchen to charm up my new place, a shabby chic shack that qualified as “affordable housing.” 

We were just going to take a walk and then have dinner together for the first time on our own without a group of friends to inadvertently chaperone. We’d engaged in long and tedious discussions about preserving our friendship, about propriety. Owen had also been acquainted with my ex. But last minute, he suggested that he knew this great surprise place. It was too late to get into the state park by the lake, but this would be similar. “Sure,” I agreed, disgracefully eager.

I was wearing nice lingerie too, slightly trampy but with that right hint of class. That’s how I was selecting my undergarments in those days: lacy enough to maybe get my groove back but understated enough to stave off images of myself as the harlot my Victorian Grandmother feared I might become. “Did you see your friend Kristin with that young man? They were all over each other! You can just tell that they have sex,” Grandmother once announced, scandalized after spotting Kristin and the young man holding hands. At least she hadn’t made me sign a “Chastity Agreement” like my friend Leanne’s mom. The contract bound her to “reserve” sexual intercourse for the sanctity of marriage. LeAnne dropped out of her first year of college and married at age 19 b/c she “just couldn’t wait any longer.”

The pyrex was getting heavy. I considered finding smoother ground where I could sit, but I was afraid I’d trip on a rut and risk sacrificing my culinary trap to a stagnant puddle infested with parasites. What hope would there be for me then to keep my senses, to remain pure until I was, you know, really ready to get out there again. 

I was left standing alone in the night with no headlamp but the one way off there, atop the meandering lost lighthouse in the distance. It had been at least 10 minutes. There were a lot of scary “No Trespassing” signs posted along the fence we’d circumvented to get to a semi-secret rural quarry with the term “Sugar” in the title.

I tried again to focus on feeling the night air on my skin, I mean REALLY feel it. The meditations my ex-husband sent instructed me to focus on singular sensations: the presence of my toes or just on the fact that I have skin. Or I could try feeling the breath move through my nostrils, but my inhalations always stuck halfway up my nasal passage. As my allergist told me, something wasn’t right with my septum. Kevin, the ex and an army veteran, was treating his newly diagnosed PTSD with meditation, and it was working. Well, working-ish. 

We hadn’t heard much about PTSD back when he was throwing full coffee pots at the wall for no readily identifiable reason. I’d seen the acronym somewhere, but I thought it had to do with Weed that somebody laced with hallucinogens. Once in college, I’d smoked something like that. It was supposed to help me see the face of God; instead I saw Keith Richards.  

Kevin and I hadn’t been apart all that long. He’d tried a couple of times to get me to take him back, and it made me cry uncontrollably because I really wanted to. Friends and family had been waiting a long time for me to be, as they put it, “finally done.” And I was. Finally.  

During the earlier part of my marriage, I’d heard people talk about the “Seven Year Itch” and how women have a switch that can get flipped off. It sounded like a lot of nonsense to me. It reminded me of how shots and childbirth hurt a lot more when people tell you how much they’re going to hurt.  The power of suggestion can reliably transform myth into reality. But when Kevin hit a blind rage and knocked our seven-year-old nephew off a tire swing, my flip got switched. What I’d perceived as hooey hit me like an epiphany I’d never un-comprehend. 

“You should start trying to date again,” Kevin urged. “I’m seeing someone now. You’d like her. She’s really, really aware, and she loves animals. She’s an artist even.” 

I told him that I was thinking about it. 

“Not Owen though.” Kevin warned. He didn’t miss a beat. “Don’t date Owen. That nebbish has been trying to wriggle into your pants for years. I bet he’s been really helpful since you and me split, hasn’t he?”

He had. 

“It’ll be tempting, but trust me. It’s a bad idea.”

My naked silence revealed me. 

“Don’t date Owen” Kevin repeated before hanging up the receiver. 

God my arms were tired, but the headlamp was heading my way.

“I’ve found the spot,” Owen told me before leading me back toward the woods. Headlamp straps stretching over hair isn’t as disconcerting as the Red Cross logo-like target they made on his moonlit bald scalp. Silently invoking the name of the Lord our Savior and summoning whatever salvation from my bad judgment any deity might offer, I hobbled over more uneven ground and gravel in my flip-flops. I tightened my grip on the pyrex like it was a battle shield and followed Owen to his tranquil den of sin by the lake.

He unzipped a shoulder bag that unfolded into a picnic blanket. “That’s handy,” I said unable to think of anything more witty or tantalizing. In high school, Owen earned Eagle Scout status by launching an initiative to teach foster children to play rock and roll. Plus, he’d been on a record-setting mission to earn every merit badge conceived save the ones in dentistry and bugling. Bugling seemed like low-hanging fruit for him, I thought. He always came prepared, so the shapeshifting shoulder bag/picnic blanket posed little surprise. “It’s a re-gift from my sister,” he told me. “Several friends gave her one for her wedding. It was a trendy item that year.”

“Oh,” I said working myself into a blind panic over the need for banter, a daunting task when all one can think about is whether or not her jogging blisters look like foot fungus or her dry mouth makes her breath smell like the dead opossum her dog rolled in earlier. The pyrex was shaking as I began to, despite a sultry summer breeze, develop something akin to the night sweats that accompany menopause. 

I set it down and settled in next to him, crossing my legs to conceal my gnarled Hobbit hooves beneath me. I must have suddenly inhaled a heap of his pheromones. I had a thing for scent. I could have barely noticed someone until I grabbed a good whiff of them. Then, KABLAM.  I strained to regain control of my hypothalamus by focusing on the elastic bull’s-eye on Owen’s head, but that was no help either. I’d harbored a preoccupation with bald men after learning that strong, barren-scalped Vin Diesel was a sensitive English major before he was typecast as high-octane, testosterone-overloaded bad boys. Despite the cliche, for me, paradox was erotic Kryptonite.

We continued nestling close on Owen’s clever blanket contraption. I cut him a Spanikopita square and waited. He made a couple of yum-yum noises before sliding his hand to the back of my neck with his thumb resting on my face and leaning in. I could feel the heat from his face and body before the rest of him was even touching me. I felt a familiar but long lost shiver. I took a deep breath. 

During the early stages of any romance, it’s tough for me to tell if someone is *really* a good kisser or if I just *think* that he’s a good kisser because a sudden dose of nerve transmitters are overwhelming me with delusion. I hate being trite, but in no time, we’d set my risk dish aside, and the spaghetti strap top and hiking pants went flying. It was smoking hot. Thank God for nerve transmitters and delusion.

Our abdication to primal urge forced me to forget all about my ex-husband’s warnings and about the myriad “No Trespassing” signs surrounding us. We were buck naked and grunting like wild boars when the beam of a Maglite brought it all flooding back. The spotlight came from only about an eight-foot distance. We live in a very small town but could not see who stood on the other side of that beacon. Statistically speaking, chances were it was someone we knew. And chances were that my shining white, Scotch Irish backside was blinding him. For once, my powdery pale complexion served me well.

“I’m pretty sure you know that this is private property,” said the disembodied voice that I couldn’t quite place. “And I’m pretty sure that you’d appreciate knowing that in five minutes, there are going to be six other men here. So . . .” The voice trailed off, and we began feverishly feeling about for boxer shorts and sundry trampy but elegant under pants.

We located enough clothing items to return us to a state of modesty. Owen velcroed his water shoes as I continued scanning our blanket with my hands for one lone remaining flip flop. The man with the flashlight began counting down. I’m not sure what we did about the Pyrex, but we fled, leaving the flip-flop behind like Cinderella’s lost slipper. We had a long hike to our parking spot. Owen hoisted me on his back with my bare foot dangling and toted me to safety. I forecast a future in which I’d receive an envelope containing my lost shoe. The return address would bare my boss’s name.

We scrambled into Owen’s truck and fell together laughing. He rolled the windows down, started the ignition, and we could feel the summer night on our skin, REALLY feel it, as we drove and, like young kids, listened to Owen’s favorite band croon from his cassette player. 

Dolphins at Play

If I were a dolphin, I’d be one of those loner ones that leaves the pod at an early age. I would fear the frozen smiles that never fade while my kind gang rapes each other, commits infanticide, and bats around baby sharks like volleyballs. Of course I’d see the good in my peers too. Sometimes cetaceans mourn loss, and sometimes they rescue members of other species. And everyone knows that dolphins milk a lot out of living. Perhaps more than any other mammal, they really know how to throw down.  But this wouldn’t convince me to abandon my guard. I’d strike out from the crowd just to get a little clarity, to block out the weird psychic static and the behavioral contradictions. I would seek freedom, the occasional more meaningful connection, and just something better. It would be safer. It would be good judgment. 

One of my friends, newly involved in something called re-evaluative therapy, had grown convinced that all adult hang-ups could be resolved by “going early,” as she called it. “When was the first time you remember feeling this way, seeing yourself as a loner dolphin?” 

“Oh. Well. It was first-grade Show-and-Tell,” I told her. 

I reached way, way back and dusted off long abandoned thoughts of my then best friend, “Wally” Bealer. Wally was out sick that day which left her open and vulnerable to ridicule. It could have been any one of us who had fallen, but today was her day because she was not present to defend herself. And because Show-and-Tell allowed our teacher, Mrs. Sutherland a long, lingering smoke break, there would be no one to disrupt our inevitable descent toward a Lord of the Flies free-for-all. 

I’d started school a year early because my mother had died, and my dad worked and needed a place for me to be during the day. It was a gritty, downtown schoolhouse by the train tracks. First grade is the singular time in my life that I have felt truly urban. The only greenery on the property included a few blades of grass pushing through pavement and a tree that scattered helicopter seeds over the see-saws. Chip Baker once told me that those seeds are where babies come from. Seeds. That was logical. But I argued, “No, babies come from our mother’s bellies.” 

“Gross!” he cried before running away.

It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t fit in with the other kids, but I was a bit on the fringes of first-grade high society. Ours was a small class, and nearly all of the other kids’ parents were divorced or separated. My classmates were child souls bound by broken homes, but broken home by mortality didn’t count. I wasn’t picked on; I just wasn’t really picked

Anne Crenshaw was suddenly made hyper-popular by virtue of becoming the most recent product of domestic fracture. She was cute, smart-mouthed if not a little aggressive, and wore red tops that matched her mom’s. I didn’t know the term for it then, but Anne’s mom was hot — shapely, tall, poured into Gloria Vanderbilt denim and clearly putting herself out there. “Oh, and already,” my Grandmother drawled while driving me home in her giant green LTD one evening. Anne’s mom’s hair was frosted like Farrah Fawcett’s, and the sprayed mass of it flicked across her shoulders like curled claws every time she nodded. She came to class one day to issue invitations to a sleepover for all of Anne’s female schoolmates. “Maybe she could meet my dad and be my new mom,” I’d considered. 

It was at Anne’s overnight that Wally picked me out to be her friend. Call it pattern recognition. She was a loner dolphin and she must have spotted the loner dolphin in me too. This made me feel special in my lonerness. Most of my best friendships have begun in this way.

It’s not always positive though, this loner dolphin pattern recognition. Not surprisingly, it’s magnetized a stalker or two. You read about how the wrong kind of loner dolphin sometimes can’t handle the isolation and will try to force itself on unsuspecting scuba divers. So, you know, it’s bound to happen when you’re out there exposed and vulnerable flashing unmistakable loner patterns at the more predatory brand of fellow loner.  

But overall, the loner dolphin thing has had its merits. 

I was lucky to be Wally’s chosen one. I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but I imagine a confident Wally striding up, putting her arm around mine and saying something like, “Stick with me kid.” At various points during Anne’s slumber party, things alternated between boring and frightening. Anne orchestrated Barbie shopping sprees; Shannon Green divided everyone up into teams to run around and pretend-kill each other in mock wars like the ones she famously instigated during recess.

In these moments, Wally always knew how to find the best escape hatch. She’d invite me to a Stretch Armstrong tug-of-war while the others helped Barbie find tiny plastic shoes to match Ken. Barbie was fine and all, but she wasn’t filled with something you could spread on your favorite sandwich if you sprung a leak from her arm. 

Wally had pet hamsters and a fanciful gurgling stream that ran across the back of her parents’ property. I went to her house for playdates often, and we nearly always caught salamanders. We kept them in her aquarium where we watched them grow. Sometimes we took very rudimentary notes on their behavior. Wally was cool as shit. Anyone could see that. But actually, they couldn’t. 

On Show-and-Tell day, Paul Miller showed and told about his favorite KISS album, Hotter than Hell. This was the same presentation he had done twice before because it gave him cause to thrust his tongue out appreciably at the close of his talk. We had positively conditioned him to repeat his antic by increasing our awe and approval with every performance. For the occasion, Paul liked to apply his mother’s coral-colored nail polish and lipstick, which he claimed made him more like Gene Simmons. “Nunh unh,” said Shannon Green who felt that these adornments only made him resemble his mom. But Paul was an alpha kid, and as the only one of us who could get away with giving the same “show and tell” speech three consecutive times, he was also able to pull off pre-adolescent cosmetics for very young males. 

Then Anne told us about how it had been her Dad’s weekend, so he took her shopping for any two toys she wanted. She got a new Weeble Wobble tree house, which I thought was really great but would have been better if it was big enough for real children to play in. Anne also got a large inflatable Incredible Hulk shaped like a Weeble Wobble. It was designed so that the airy monster would fall backward when you punched him and then quickly right himself so that you could go in for another wallop immediately. 

Chip Baker told us that he looked down the stairwell adjacent to our classroom and saw the glowing orange eyes of the devil right there in the basement. Unsupervised, some of us walked to the doorway and looked down, but the demon must have been taking his afternoon nap.

Gene Simmons, Weeble Wobbles, and the Dark One in the basement would be tough to top, but I was sure that my presentation would be the envy of everyone. What I brought was alive and an homage to Wally Bealer, the coolest kid who’d ever lived. I’d never have guessed that I would be the one to arouse the classes’ inner beast and to trigger such rapid social decline. 

I’d brought a glass mason jar with holes in the top. It contained fireflies likely gasping for air, desperately clinging to life although Wally’s although Wally’s sweet mother had assured us that they would be fine. I trusted that they would.

I told everyone that Wally had taught me how to catch these creatures the way that she taught me how to catch salamanders and frogs. Then, I unveiled my unquestionably fascinating theory that fireflies and fairies were one and the same. My dad or someone had told me that fireflies inspired the character of Tinker Bell. As much as I wanted Tinker Bell to actually be a tiny winged woman, this news had not really diminished my fascination with fairies but rather had enhanced my fascination with fireflies.

“BUGS!,” Shannon Green screeched as she climbed atop her chair. I never understood this phenomenon of other females scaling furniture and cowering at the sight of insects, mice, or anything really awe inspiring. I’m sure someone told us that this is what we’re supposed to do, that this is “proper behavior befitting a lady.” But such reactions seemed wholly counter to my instincts. Mice were furry like puppies. If we were to be lucky enough to encounter one, shouldn’t we get busy trying to scramble up a rodent wheel and some toys for it?

“I hate Wally!,” announced Anne. “She’s a Tomboy! She even has a boy’s name; she should just be a boy. I can’t believe that you go to her house. Eeew.”

Foul accusations flew and carried a subtle subtext wholly incomprehensible to us all, yet we each knew that whatever that subtext was, it was very, very bad. I stood strong and defended the honor of my best friend for whom I was so very grateful, “Wally is not a Tomboy!” She was a Tomboy, but that was beside the point.

“Wally’s great. You’re just mean!”

This was met with more collective bedlam through which I could no longer decipher individual commentary.

“Wally’s magical. Wally helps baby hamsters survive birth!”

It was to my further shock and disbelief that my irresistibly inspirational, heroic even, calls for love vs. hate utterly flopped. The entire class morphed into a barbaric mob of the sort built on decades of fomenting animosity. If Wally had been in the room at that moment, I’m certain that she would have been knocked to the floor and prodded with pointy sticks. I was darned lucky to survive.

I continued to bellow Wally’s attributes, “Wally’s nice! Wally likes Stretch Armstrong!,” but no one heard my pleas through their fearsome rage. I sort of knew that when Wally returned, everyone would treat her the same way as before and act like nothing had happened. But I wouldn’t be able to act like nothing had happened. What most bewildered me was not the other children’s unbridled unkindness but the fact that they couldn’t see in Wally what I saw. And anyway, what was bad about Tomboys? Who wouldn’t want to hang out with a girl who could catch frogs and salamanders with her bare hands and coo them into a state of comfort and trust? 

I had stood up for my friend, something that would prepare me for a few other events in my future. But I didn’t feel proud until much later. That day, I just felt like the pod wasn’t for me. Instead of the usual recess war play, Chip Baker led a labor gang in an effort to dig to China where we would be able to “see the devil.” Apparently, Lucifer had discovered better digs than the schoolhouse basement.

I kept quiet, grabbed a stick and dug. 

Tail/Tale of Two Tushkins: Getting to the Bottom of the Tushkin Presence

To understand the Tushkins, you must first understand their homeland.  Amidst a frenzy of roadwork and planned developments, Bynum stands out like an extra five pounds on a supermodel.  Now an artists’ enclave and natural oasis, Bynum was first settled by a family of yeomen in 1779.

We moved to Bynum in January 2001.  Like many others, we chose this area because we love the sound of birds, rushing water, and rustling leaves more than we love the sound of traffic and sirens. Some people don’t recognize its beauty right away, but to us, Bynum is paradise.

We discover something new each day that we explore this town of 250 residents just 10 miles south of Chapel Hill.  It was during one such exploration that we made our find.  A bunch of friends were over for our housewarming party.  It was near midnight, and we were sitting around a lovely blazing bonfire.  We’d partaken of some frosty beverages, which must have bolstered our collective sense of adventure as well as our vulnerability to peer pressure.

Consequently, we decided to take a moonlit stroll down to the river.  We were standing on the sad, sagging, old bridge, now closed to traffic. We listened to the rush of the Haw River before someone noticed the dark silhouette of the old mill shrouded in a light fog. We had an enormous Maglite with us.  Naturally, we seized the moment made apparent by our rare state of impairment.

What we saw there looked eerie under the atmospheric conditions.  Dark brick columns and ash surrounded the burnt out ruins of a once solid pillar of a once vibrant community.  We were to learn later that it required five tries for a mysterious arsonist to reduce the mill to this unseemly condition.  It was also one of those nights when the clouds pass swiftly across the moon.  For some reason, those sorts of scenes always give me the feeling that something big is about to happen, and that night, it did.

Having not yet done our historical “homework,” we were wondering what the purpose of the mill had been, what they might have made or stored there before this place fell to cinders.  So, we started stepping through all of the debris, sleuthing for clues.  We found pottery shards, some clothes that people had dumped, that sort of thing.

Then, I shone the flashlight onto something that didn’t belong, something I will never, never forget.  I remember somebody saying, “What the . . .”  We moved closer.  There were zillions of them lying there.  All these smiling, happy little – well, you can imagine.  I picked one up.  “Look,” I said.  “They’re jolly little bottoms with feet.”

Our friend, Lancie located the boxes that once housed these inexplicable artifacts.  The title read: “It’s Tush, the Squeezable, Scented Greeting Card.”

We ascertained that these had once been air fresheners bearing some sort of Hal-mark style adage like “Happy New Year and Bottoms Up!”  What was particularly striking, however, was that several ethnicities were represented in the Tushkin fold.  There were African American ones, Anglo ones, Latino ones, Jewish ones, but no Asians.  “Yeah, what’s up with that?” a friend from Calcutta interjected with indignation.

We glanced back at the disaster-ravaged ground around us.  Some of the Tushkins were scorched; some had lost their stylish straw hats.  Yet even more of them were tragically pinned beneath cinder blocks, and a whole mess of them were, in fact, surrounded by yellow police tape.  It was one jolly bottom graveyard.  It gave us pause.

We felt we should at least observe a moment of silence.  Then, we began feverishly stuffing Tushkins into our pockets.  These could make a mint on E-bay.

As we retreated up the block to our house, I grew overcome with guilt.  “Don’t ya’ll sort of feel like we’re tomb raiding?,” I queried.  My friend, Joy offered a wise perspective/justification.  “No, don’t you see, Molly?” she responded.  “These were creatures intended to go forth into the world and explore the beauty all around us, but they were thwarted.  This is our chance to liberate the Tushes!!”

“Free Tushie!” we chanted all the way home.

It turns out that someone else had already liberated hundreds of Tushkins about a decade prior to our own effort.  The next morning, which we now refer to as “THE DAY AFTER,” we wandered into the Bynum General Store.  I asked the store owner, Jerry Partin, “So now, Jerry, what exactly was it that they had down there in that mill?”

Jerry waited a moment and then smirked, “Well you know about the Tushkins, don’t you?”

I told him that I perhaps possessed some casual knowledge of the Tushkins, but I’d like to hear more from him.

“Well, the mill started out as a textile mill.  Most of our families worked there back when Bynum was bustling with its own movie theater, five stores, school, restaurant, game room; it was full of life then.  When we were kids, we’d eat at each other’s house.  If we got in trouble there, our parents would know about it before we reached home, and we’d get another spanking.  In the later years, they began to make those large ceramic desk lamps you see in motels.  Then, they stored models of the Roman Coliseum or something like that.  And then came the Tushkins.  I don’t really know where they were made, but they definitely were stored in Bynum.”

Several of us simultaneously asked the obvious, “Uh, what were they for?”

“No one knows,” said Jerry.  “But a while back, somebody broke into the mill and stole box loads of those things.  I guess when they opened the crates, they didn’t like what they saw, because it seems they tossed each and every one out the car window. For years, Tushkins were found scattered all over the highways and byways of North Carolina.”

I imagined what it would have looked like if Hansel and Gretel had left a trail of Tushkins instead of breadcrumbs.  “I’ll have to take a load with me next time I go for one of my treks in the woods,” I thought to myself.

After talking with our neighbors about this fascinating topic of Tushkins, we learned that they have been one of the village’s best-kept secrets until recently.  Now they are finally beginning to enjoy the fame they are due, and they are, as Joy predicted, seizing the day to become world travelers at last.  My friend, Josh has a photo of his Shirpa holding a Tushkin at base camp on Everest.  My friend, Jodie has tourist shots of Tushkins at every major monument in D.C.  Tushkins are just one of the many things that make Bynum special.  Aloha, you great Tushkin adventurers!!  We miss you back home.

P.S. Supposedly, the mill once stored praying pig figurines as well.  My friend, Dan has one, but that’s another story.

Sharon Jones Shakes It; Drunk Girl Breaks It

So, despite the late Tuesday timing, I went because Chrissy promised I’d remember this one. It was 9:30 pm and the opener hadn’t taken the stage. I’d done fifteen minutes in the beer line to get my bottled water only to learn that the bar was cash only. I was life-threateningly parched; still, I obediently stepped out to the ATM, then did my time in line again.

I heard a few catcalls from front stage and knew it was time to weave back through the mass of tall bodies that refused to acknowledge the existence of shorter ones. By the time I reached the front, I was pretty well ready for a fight. Enter drunk girl. A decidedly beautiful twenty-something trying to look like a 1970s supermodel interrupted her faux, stage-side photo shoot to get up in my face. She reeked. I no longer regretted opting for Aquafina vs. Fat Tire. I got a contact buzz just from the fumes. “Where do you think you’re going? What’s happening here?,” Glamour Girl challenged. I still don’t know why.

“Are you a bouncer?,” I asked. She let me pass.

I rejoined my friends and within the next thirty seconds, the opening act owned the room ( An L.A. band, they call themselves “Fitz and the Tantrums” and they put on the best live show I’ve seen since David Byrne performed with the Tosca Strings in 2005. And speaking of David Byrne, Fitz looks like the love child of Byrne and Geraldine Ferraro, a trait that certainly works in his favor for me. Don’t ask.

It took me a moment to recover from my recent and unanticipated confrontation, but soon all the soul in the air had me shaking my groove thing. Glamour girl was too, and I even felt a slight kinship with her as with everyone else in the nightclub. “We are all just stardust together,” a friend lists on her Facebook profile under “Religious Views.”

I felt a slight sense of loss after the Tantrums ended their set and I fretted that Ms. Jones might not live up to the hype. Um, she lives up to it, with her eight-piece brass band, perfectly controlled wail, and a fifty-year-old strength that makes every woman in the room want to be just like her. As her song lyrics indicate, she learned a lot the hard way. But she learned a lot.

If I could even just stand still as confidently as she does, I know no one would dare get in my face to ask me where I think I’m going.

And Jones was kind. Even to drunken, Glamour Shots Girl. Jones invites a lot of crowd participation, a habit I would not tolerate from any other stage diva. Note: I really hate sing-a-longs. Jones invited “the youngest man in the room” to join her on stage. And let me tell you, baby-faced, white, and likely an SAE, that child did not look like he was going to be able to handle her. Ah, but he delivered. Hip swinging, shoulder shaking, and a down and dirty groove face-to-face with one of the most spirited songstresses on the international music scene. Button down polo shirt or no, that frat boy got downright pornographic. Get it, frat boy.

Then it was “the ladies” turn. Two of my friends took Jones’ offer alongside about five other femme fatales from the audience. I stayed glued to the sticky floor down below but enjoyed seeing them shine. They were awesome, though a bit eclipsed by the aforementioned horribly intoxicated young woman who kept blocking Sharon Jones’ spotlight. The shit-faced urchin kept bending over and shaking out her hair like a stripper; spinning around, wiggling her booty, stumbling drunkenly, bending over like a stripper again, and then repeating the whole cycle almost indefinitely. She did do this Wonder Woman whirl that was pretty good. It was hard for Sharon Jones to get her off the stage.

For much of the remainder, the young woman’s friend banged an empty beer bottle against the stage in rhythm with the songs. “She’s going to break that,” Chrissy yelled into my ear. Smash. After the crowd dispersed, we noted the jagged remnants left behind for the cleanup crew.

Once we reached the open air, we saw shit-faced girl running wildly into the street and then back to her boyfriend like a pet dog that’s just been let out to pee before dashing back to its master.

I was a little worried about her.

I hoped her friends and (MUCH older) male companion would make sure she got home safely and that she would remember a great night fondly (if not a bit spottily). I hoped we both went home “a better woman than we were before.”


Dear Love,

I found out that one can actually be arrested for having an expired
license tag. I could be locked up wearing a fashionable orange jump
suit right now, and Big Barb could be waiting for me to drop the soap
in the shower. So, if I’m arrested for having a suspended license tag
for lapse of insurance that never really lapsed, and I decide to spend
my one phone call on you, here’s what to do (don’t lose this email):

Sound comforting while I sob some incoherent nonsense about jail
cafeterias, the Bone Yard, and how I had to hammer out my own new
license plate while visiting “the Big Yard.”

Next, instruct me on some crucial martial arts maneuvers that could be helpful for surviving any sudden and violent prison riots.

Finally, say something sweet about how I look great in orange, and
hang up the receiver.

Now, call Ablaze Bail Bonds at 542-BAIL.

Tell the sales rep that “No, we won’t qualify for the discount since
this is only my first arrest.” For future reference, they grant discounts to third-time customers. But you have to have done something really bad.

Find out how much it’s going to be to bust me out, and go to the
Chatham Marketplace and take up a collection.

Pay Ablaze whatever they ask, and don’t leave without grabbing one of
their bright red promo ink pens labeled, “When You Need a Little Help from the Pen.”

If you can’t raise enough money, buy a dry erase board from Staples
and haul it on over to the Bynum General Store. Call a Community
meeting and devise a way to rig up some explosives near my jail cell
for a breakout.

For what is enjoying the constant challenge of life-long love if not to have someone to help you plan prison breaks or to call when your neurotic fear of unjust arrest becomes a bright orange reality?

You know I’d do the same for you.

Ghost Dreams



Now that you know that tornadoes and Oldsmobiles regularly haunt my subconscious, you should also know that I dream about ghosts. A lot for some reason. Once I dreamt that I was house sitting someone’s basement playroom. There was one door to the outside, and the slide lock slid into place without human assistance. Toys were played with by some unseen hand. I asked the entity if it was happy living there. I watched the condensation on a single window shift to slowly reveal the letters Y-E-S. I could not see the fingers writing, but I could see the response rendered.

In another ghost dream, I’m a guest at a Caribbean resort that once operated as a sugar plantation. Gauzy whiteness dominates the place, spreading and ensnaring as Kudzu. I’m sitting in a white wicker love seat on a rear patio. Nearby palm fronds casually sway atop tall, thin and bending trunks. Something about their carriage reminds me of 1920s catalog models with their chic cigarette holders. Elegant, relaxed, aloof.

Across the room, a woman wearing a white sundress sits with her feet folded beneath her in a chair matching my hard woven seat with pale floral cushion. I do not know her. She reads a contemporary home decorating magazine, yet something about our surroundings feels like an Agatha Christie mystery set in the jazz age – or maybe it’s more Victorian era. Mist hovers like mosquito netting as the white ceiling fan above us whirs with slow-motioned repetition.

Though the air feels heavy and too sticky to inhale, the current from the fan feels sensual as it brushes my shoulders. I catch a brief chill. A young girl approaches me and places a miniature teapot in the cup of my hands. She explains that if I hold it to my ear like a seashell, I can hear the sounds of the house where she found it.

She clasps my fingers around the handle and gently raises my hand to my ear. And I do hear the sounds of home: the clanking of pans, footsteps, a call to dinner. Then there’s the voice of another young female who explains to me that her house was destroyed by a hurricane years prior. The teapot comes from the ruins where her family perished. Again, I feel a chill, this time coupled with suspicion.

The pre-pubescent girl on the patio with me bounces, happy and eager. “See?” she says. No one else would believe her. Somehow, I realize that the spirit voice is using the teapot as a conduit to return to the living, like a body snatcher. I want to consume more of her story, but I know that the more I hear, the more she’ll consume me. I tell the little girl never to play with the teapot again. “It’s dangerous.” I carry it with me as I walk away from her before waking.

Just Fine

IMG_0096The horses were indifferent. They were the chance offspring of chance offspring. They were here and so they grazed. Tip-toeing around ping pong piles of equine droppings and the foot pricking remains of dead sea oats, I’d wandered inland and alone from the beach. The horses I found there are called “wild,” which seems imprecise considering their nonchalance. I’m serious. They really don’t care.

Last summer, my significant other worked on a certain reality t.v. show that has recently become the darling of tabloid covers. The episodes he did were set “on vacation” at another NC island touting Iberian Stallions as a prime tourist attraction. The female lead, normally a shrew of Shakespearean proportions, suddenly began to wax Snow White: “Oh they’re so free,” she crooned. “Those are the happiest horses in the world.” If one didn’t know better (but believe me, one did know better), one might have thought the Wizard of Oz had bestowed upon her a soul.

In contrast, my findings held that those horses weren’t happy. They weren’t unhappy. They were just eating grass to fill the time until there was no more time to do so. They were fine with that.

Looking for a spot clear of biowaste stacks, I settled into the sand 10 feet from them. Apparently, this was their boundary. I tested 9 feet, but they took a few steps away now placing me at 13. I stepped again closer but stopped at the estimated 10-foot force field. They seemed fine with it.

The island was vast, as islands can be. Something about the spotty patches of grass and low lying shrubs evoked memories of Cape Cod. I closed my eyes to better hear surf, grass chewing, and big bugs who were far less motivated to feed on human juices than I’d feared. I half fantasized that the most elegant of the herd, sensing our kindredness, would allow me to jump right up, grab some fistfuls of mane and ride him bareback like Alec in the Black Stallion. But I couldn’t remember the timeline required for Alec to step across the 10-foot personal space barrier. The horses didn’t know me.

So, I just was and I just watched.

The stillness made me need more stillness.

Just over the bank lay long bare stretches of beach, bayside and seaside. And beyond that lay “the line-up.” On my walk to the horses, I briefly met “David,” a stereotypically sun-bleached, sanded-down surfer who instructed, “Enjoy the day; that’s what it’s all about.”

“Really?,” I asked. “I thought the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about.” We watched one of his wet-suit be-clad friends glide through North Carolina’s version of the “tube.”

“Hope I’ll see you again,” an inspired David called back as he took off toward the water. “You’re the King of the Waves,” I called back doubting that he could hear me.

He was the third in a week to tell me to live like the horses. Another man in a weathered red ball cap was grabbing take-out from the all-locals cafe in Beaufort. The cafe manager ordered him to have a nice day. “Every day is a nice day,” He said. “Isn’t it?” he asked looking directly to me for an answer. Do I really look like a completely harried non-profit director weathering the worst economic crisis in US history, even when I’m vacationing? Do I look like I need to be reminded to enjoy my day? Do I look paranoid about people reminding me to enjoy my day?

For the surfers and the horses, problems are not problems. Chasing happiness is just something people do to keep themselves unhappy. There’s no difference between good and fine. They are fine with being just fine. Now that I’m back inland doing non-profit management (something often akin to indentured servitude) with no horses or surfers in sight, I hope I can be too.

Fini and Fine.

On Leaving: Never Speak Ill of the Dead

“Oh, doesn’t she look lovely?”
“Yes, they did a really nice job.”

We all searched for something original to say, but this was all we mustered. And it was meaningful in that the deceased would sigh relief to know that she was decomposing in style and carefully coordinated accessories. It helps to have a decorator in the family. Truly.

But now, how to be truthful without being mean? How irreverent is it really to mention that while her make-up lent color to her cheeks, the beige foundation on her hands made her seem waxy and dead? Her bright coral manicure was flawless but her fingers long as a concert pianist’s and spotted as a Florida snowbird’s. The sight of the shining pointy nails combined with the dark mahogany coffin could only make me think of Ann Rice. Telling the unglamorous gospel about sacred experience is aptly distancing, providing the perfect emotional defense when one is already well-defended.

“Eileen, you look lovely,” my Grandmother said directly to the corpse. Eileen lay permanently resting in the pink chiffon, pearlescent beads, and white sequins often brandished at ballroom dance marathons. She’d worn the dress to her daughter’s first wedding,” my step-sister explained. Since the groom turned out to be a scoundrel, and a homo-sexual scoundrel at that, it wasn’t the happiest moment of the woman’s life. Still, she had asked to be buried in pink, and in a pinch, this was all anyone could find.

Surprising even myself, I gasped. “I thought her favorite color was purple,” I told my substitute sister. “No, it’s definitely pink,” she informed.

“But she has that purple room in her house.”

“That’s just the guest room.”

“I’ve been giving her purple all this time,” I accused like I’d discovered some long-standing practical joke. “Purple pendants, purple flowers, purple hand towels with reindeer on them.”

Since I graduated college, Eileen had begun sending money: $100, sometimes $500. It embarrassed me. I rarely sent a thank you note; sometimes I forgot to make the deposit.

My sister added, “They had a pink casket. We thought about it; we almost got it, but it was too . . .”

“Mary Kay?”

Briefly smiling, pseudo-sister nodded. This was one of those rarely achieved moments of kinship that made us each feel great, though we never said so aloud.

We met when we were six, and our first fight was over how to fill our time. We were at her grandmother, Eileen’s lake house. I had discovered that if we looked, we could find dusty, broken quartz rock revealing smooth pinkish, sparkling contents. Chelsea wanted to make our Barbie and Ken dolls make out.

“Why do you want to look for rocks all the time; rocks are stupid,” she said.

“Rocks are interesting,” I replied disregarding someone I had already deemed an inexplicable alien life form.

“Rocks are not intestering.”

Dropping my most recent find, I looked up at her. “It’s ‘interesting,’ not intestering.” I said it pretentiously and a bit too loudly.

We fought until we were sixteen. She told me that Jewish people were going to hell. Scornfully, I asked, “Really? Haven’t they been through enough?” Her mom told my dad that Chelsea was afraid of me. This made me feel guilty and not just a little self-satisfied. From there, Chelsea and I simply avoided one another.

From the age of thirteen, we lived in the same house, but ten years was an exhausting battle for us both. At age sixteen, I stayed in my room and read or spent time with friends’ families until I could escape to college. She stayed in our hometown, had kids, and decorated people’s living rooms. I went away, searched for more cool rocks, and went home as infrequently as possible.

I was standing closer, but my brother-in-law noticed my Grandmother’s tears before I did. He rushed to slide a simple wooden kitchen chair behind her as I watched the 95-year-old matriarch’s shoulders shake. I suddenly liked him better, which was a relief because I wanted a reason to like him. I wanted him to be good the way I wanted Darth Vader to turn out to be good in the end of the Star Wars Trilogy. But I was scared and thrown off guard. I thought I was closer to Eileen than Grandma was, and not even I could cry. At least I couldn’t until I saw her cry. Then I cried, but only a little. She collapsed into a chair too small for her and her grief.

Grandma and Eileen weren’t related. Did the two of them even get along? I’m fairly certain they didn’t get along. In recent years, they would share an hour or two together post-dinner in the living room, Eileen reading US Magazine while Grandma’s chin rested on her chest in slumber.

Once during their seven-year courtship, my dad broke up with Lana, Chelsea’s mother. Soon after, my Grandma and I bumped into Chelsea and her own Grandmother at a downtown Travelogue. It was about the Smoky Mountains, and in the lobby, one could sip Cool-Aid from paper cups while touring an exhibit of Appalachian taxidermy. We stood by a red fox with rigor mortis and pondered what to do. My grandmother encouraged me to exercise southern grace by saying, “hello,” but Eileen shot us a look and steered Chelsea quickly away. Clearly, we had entered enemy camp.

The funeral home carpet was so mauve it made me feel my spaghetti dinner. I excused myself to find the ladies room, that ever welcoming and generous space so available when one must hide alone to pull one’s flailing self together. I closed and locked the stall door and “breathed to my knees,” as my yoga instructor challenged me to do in such moments. This was not enough to curb my runaway internal dialogue. I imagined what it will feel like to see my own Grandmother lying dead, waxy, and made over by the local king cosmetologist to the rich and cadaverous.

Was I wallowing or just preparing myself?

I wiped my nose on thin, rough toilet paper. Funeral homes should have Charmin. Is not their purpose to provide comfort and gentle, squeezable softness?

So selfish of me – to be only thinking of my own impending loss as my – sister? Is that what she is? As Chelsea’s greatest comfort lies lifeless and gone. Eileen was one of the three – five people in the world who loved my sister most. I knew this wholly, and I wished I could feel more for her and for the woman who had been both mother & grandmother to her the way mine has been to me. But I suspected that my lack of appropriate feeling was genuine.

(As pittance, I would at the very least self-flagellate for being a bad person.)

I did care, but I didn’t know what, if much at all, I felt for them. I kept trying and I kept pretending. I kept trying to convince myself otherwise. As my aunt told me once, “You’re an only child, and she’s the only family you’ll have one day.” I know that this reality weighs heavily on my sister too and that she also tries and pretends and sometimes convinces herself that things are different.

If only they would have at some point slid a chair beneath my crying kin, perhaps everything would have been the way we keep trying to make it. I never thought they liked me either, and I was always trying so damn fruitlessly hard to please. Despairingly contrasted we were, then and now.

I’m not a smoker, but for some reason I briefly visualized myself a sullen observer in the corner of the parlor, taking drags off a cigarette and turning my head to exhale. Imaginary addiction, a merely moderate black sheep’s coping mechanism.

My step-mother stood far from my father. He looked like this did not come as a surprise. Come to notice it, my step-sister stood far from her husband too. This did surprise me.

Soon, when I’m in this very same funeral space again, I thought, I’ll be clinging to Elrond’s arm like a broken and pathetic creature. But Eileen was like this with Frank. She seemed embarrassed to be with him. She was too Republican to be feminist, and yet men were the enemy. All of them, no matter how kind. Well except for my brother-in-law, but he’s a doctor. And he’s charming, never revealing a hint of vulnerability.

Eileen acted proud of her marriage. Frank was from prominence, but her disappointed heart permanently adorned her sleeve. Nevertheless, their family remained steadfastly united by their common belief in God’s will, predestination, and low taxes. I wanted to feel the same poetry & romance as others when my sister announced that Eileen died on the same date and at the same time as her husband had six years prior. Again, God clearly wanted it that way. But I was skeptical.

From where I stood, it always seemed that Frank was around to swat spiders and fix hinges on broken cabinets. Eventually, he became (or was he always?) the sort who incessantly talked at and never listened to. I see the same thing happening to my father as he learns to shut out the world, an ineffectual defense from constant harping abuse.

“No one wants to listen to you talk about war, James. Stop scratching your bald head, James. Do you want to go more bald?”

One time, we were traveling in Texas. My dad and Lana got into an argument over the volume control on the t.v. set. Dad lost some of his hearing when he was a navigator in Vietnam. Like quarreling siblings, like me and Chelsea pre-1986, one would turn the volume up before the other would grab the remote and turn it down. They went on like that for a while; I sought refuge in the restroom.

Then, there was the time that Dad’s commuter van got hit by a Dodge Caravan. I watched the two of them talk on the stairs. Lana wouldn’t go to the hospital with him b/c she had an appointment at the Acura dealership. She was in the market. Dad had a concussion.

Chelsea defended her mother; I defended my father.

(But he’s an engineer, and how else are they supposed to get his attention?)

On the one hand, I can kind of understand it, these patterns and ruts, but this is the real story about why I don’t visit. I suppose it’s not that uncommon once one leaves.

Not knowing how to deal with disbelief, my sister compliments me on my dress. I compliment her too. Dolled up in madras, her seven-year-old son sits well-behaved, showing signs of knowing and not knowing enough to know. His name is Chaplain, a title really more than a name. He’s a cute kid but like most of the men in his family, starving to be noticed and appreciated. His sister is too young to be there. Their dad’s mom is home with her, watching Kung-Fu Panda.

I smile and try to notice when and who needs space. I’m determined not to go until I make myself feel something more. I briefly converse with my step-mother’s cousin who, over dinner, clandestinely revealed that she’s an Obama supporter. I let her know that it was safe to unleash her secret to me; it even provided me a sort of catharsis as though we might suddenly lend one another, even as strangers, the courage to brazenly announce our political preferences. As if everyone didn’t know. It wasn’t a good time.

I grab gift baskets of high-quality coffee items and give them to Lana and Chelsea. I say it’s to get them through the next few days of relentless estate management and funerary ritual. Lana hugs me and tells me she loves me. I say it back and really want to believe us both.

My sister and step-mother depart together in a large, black Toyota Landcruiser built not only for transportation but also as a potential dwelling should the latest election, in fact, be the dawning of the apocalypse. I leave with my dad and Grandma in her 1991 sea green Buick. Dad tells me that the downtown neighborhood we’re in is being re-developed by Lexington’s nouveau hippie elite. Surrounding the mortuary are food coops, crack houses, coffee shops, and tattoo parlors. He knew I would approve of this, and he transparently hopes I might move back. I never knew Lexington had craftsman-style housing.

I watched the night time through the car window and tried to figure out why Eileen would take her last breath at the same minute that her husband, so seemingly disconnected from her, would take his. I didn’t really believe in God, but I was the only one who noticed a custom, back-lit business sign outside a bridal shop. Cosmically, it bore one word: “Frank.”

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