Poor You

 

A thin woman with gray hair pulled back in a tight ponytail shouted across the street at me. I’d encountered her once before, last year, on the sidewalk by my house. She was examining the trees the City had planted on the boulevard.

“You killed them.” she said. There was fury in her eyes. She looked at me as if I was the drought, killing the baby trees, drying up the creek with my sucking, unquenchable thirst.

It hadn’t occurred to me to water them; I didn’t plant them. But I watered those trees that day and the next and the next.

So when I saw her on the other side of the street staring closely at someone else’s sapling, I was a little relieved. I noticed she was wearing tennis shoes and that her jeans fit her the same way jeans fit my mom, dangling almost, from the sharp hooks of her hips.

And then she shouted, “I suppose you’re going to let your dog shit on my lawn.”

Well, no, I hadn’t planned on it. But it’s possible, I guess, since I don’t know where you live. There wouldn’t be any malice in it. I mean dogs aren’t like that. And anyway, I’d clean it up.

I didn’t say anything. My dog, Betty, and I just watched her walk away, like we watched that coyote walk away last fall, after eating its warm squirrel breakfast.

Poor you, I thought and then I wondered what I could possibly have said to dissolve her meanness. I came up with nothing. But who am I to try and fix her, as if she’s the broken one, as if we all don’t have stuck gears and rusty springs and all sorts of missing pieces.

I am broken just like she is.

I’m the thief who breaks into your garage and I’m the thief in shiny, fancy clothes helping myself to your paycheck. I’m the fat guy that lies and the thin guy that lies. I’m a rapist, a torturer. I’m a murderer too. And I’m a notorious slut.

But I’m also Jimmy Carter and Mary Oliver and Jean Vanier. I’m all the writers and artists and music makers. I’m the people who raise their voices against war, who are willing to accept less, to give freely of what they have for peace. I am all of these people and they are all me.

I am the thin, angry woman, the protector of trees, who shows her brokenness so openly. I had better be kind.

 

 

Ann is Resting

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Ann is resting, I think.

She moved her house, her husband, and the silver to a new apartment. She did not bring the clunky pieces of silver or the bust of John F. Kennedy’s head.

She moved 40 coffee cups and at least 20 china tea cups. I don’t know of anyone who drinks from those anymore since our appetites have grown and our manners have become brutish.

She moved her Rolodex, the kitchen towels, her pots and pans, and filled a new junk drawer with all that was in the old junk drawer.

She brought the big family picture taken in the 1970s, all those redheads in front of the brightly autumn trees.

She brought the books, so many books, but not as many as she left behind.

She brought the crucifix, the one where Jesus slides up, right off the cross, to reveal a secret compartment with a bottle for holy water.

She gave away the cross country skis, the slide projector, and all four couches.

We have the blue beveled glass tumblers and the baby grand. The wooden sign that reads Rose’s garden is here, too, holding up a plant laden with tomatoes. (Rose was Ann’s mom.)

At the old house, Ann left behind 9 miles of creek through the picture window. She left behind the geese and the ducks and the long, long yard. She also left behind the mice and the tree roots clogging the pipes. She left behind the furrow in her brow and the ache in her eye.

For many months she was like a ball of string. We all helped out where and when we could but ultimately it fell to her. She carried the weight and her knees hurt.

Once she said, “Mine is a first world problem.”

I said, “If it feels heavy, it is heavy.”

At the new apartment she doesn’t get to see the creek every morning. Instead, she gets to hear bells from the church up the street and walk barefoot on the carpet.

If she feels like it, she can walk downstairs and play Bridge or Bingo with her new friends. Even though their bodies tell them they’re in their 80s, I imagine they talk and laugh like they’re 30. But who of us ever really feels older than 30?

Now Ann is happy again. She’s like a ball of yellow yarn.

It’s good to be reminded that the hard parts of life do come to an end.

Seeking Employment

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I am literate and write well. I am organized, efficient, and I easily retain information.

I don’t often use big words and I don’t usually swear.

Dogs like me.

I can’t fly a plane but I know how to book cargo or set a person up for a pleasant vacation.

I’ve taught people, children mostly, despite the fact that I don’t have a teaching license.

I’ve cared for the elderly and those with developmental disabilities (I hate that categorization), but I don’t have current certification to prove it.

Once I fit a square peg into a round hole, though the square was a couch and the round hole was a doorway.

I’ve hung sheetrock, laid tile, rewired, and fixed toilets. I’ve hung doors. Admittedly, getting them to hang straight with the latch gliding smoothly over the strike plate to click quietly was more luck than skill. I’ve mowed lawns, shoveled snow, hauled dirt, laid patio stones. And I’ve painted. I’ve done lots of painting.

I can’t drive a bus and I don’t want to.

I understand english and spanish and french. I would say that I speak those languages but I’m really not much of a talker. Sometimes I speak in different accents.

I know how to prioritize tasks. For example, in order to make pancakes for my hungry household, first I have to wake up, brush my teeth, and start the coffee. Since I’ve used most the distilled water in the coffee pot, I’ll have to refill the distiller. Before I can do that, I need to empty the dishwasher so I can load it with last night’s popcorn bowls and milk cups that are in the sink. I’ll start the quinoa for the pancakes while I’m doing that and by the time it boils and simmers for a while, I can turn off the stove, turn my attention to Betty, who has been gazing at me this whole time, wondering when it will be her turn for a walk.

I do have an MFA in creative writing and I won a prize for my thesis. That’s just a bit of extra information.

I’m 50.

I’m not naive and I like it when people are straightforward and honest. I’m not easily offended. If you maligned my kids in some way, that would offend me. Or if you gave me one cent as a raise, that would offend me.

So, if you or someone you know is looking for a person like me to fill a vacancy, send me a message. I will be like that machine that never breaks down, humming in the background.

 

81

Dad

 

My dad would’ve been 81 today and all morning I was thinking that I’d write something light-hearted. Maybe it’d even be funny in places. He would’ve appreciated that. But I mulled too long and recognized anew that I didn’t know him.

I can tell you that he was handsome.

I can tell you that he liked palm hearts with salsa rosada and that I’ve never known anyone who ate as slowly as he.

I can tell you he did this thing with his mouth. With his lips together, he’d thrust them forward, usually when he was deep in thought.

I never saw him demonstrably angry.

He expected people to take care of themselves.

I can tell you that he was in Korea, that he was in charge of doling out the soldier’s pay. It is likely that when asked if he would slip in a little extra cash, he had a whole litany of clever come backs. He was the guy that was reserved, no great talker, but when he did speak up, he was funny.

I’ve been told he named Post road in St. Paul. I wonder what the joke was.

I can tell you that he preferred pencils to pens and that he kept them sharp with erasers intact. His handwriting was on the small side and leaned sharply to the right. His politics were that way too.

He enjoyed carpentry and had a lathe. I liked to watch him shape out rounded spindles from straight flat wood. I liked the way a long squared piece of wood became cylindrical just by the spinning. Turn off the machine and,although the wood was shaved and chipped in places, it was still square. What was its true shape? What was my dad’s true shape?

I can tell you he didn’t like to come home or, rather, he liked to go drinking. When I was growing up, before I knew about hangovers, I thought of him as  a man who was a little terse, who never wanted to be disturbed.

I can tell you he died of ALS. When he still could bear weight, I remember helping him up the steps into his house.

“Lift your right foot,” I said, because I was going to nudge it forward to the next step.To be funny, he lifted his left. “You rebel,” I said.

And he smiled.

And I smiled.

And that is how relationships reshape themselves.

 

Smoking

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The first time I quit smoking wasn’t because I coughed sometimes when I got out of bed in the morning. It wasn’t because the house stank, the stale smoke smell clinging to the walls like tartar on teeth. It wasn’t because smoking had become uncool and I already wasn’t cool. The first time I quit smoking was because I wanted to climb mountains.

I started climbing the week after I quit. Every day I’d embark on a trek up the Himalayas. The first day, I lasted eleven minutes. The next day I lasted twelve, then fifteen. Soon I was climbing for 36 sweaty and strenuous minutes, surrounded by an eerily unnatural phenomenon, the health club.

All around me were rows of black machines- biking machines, rowing machines, running machines, and climbing machines. Some of them buzzed. All of them hummed.

In four weeks I was speed climbing, 62 feet a minute. There are 5280 feet in a mile. That meant I could cover a mile in about an hour and a half on a machine in a climate controlled environment. I could do this.

While I climbed my electronic mountain, I often thought about mountains. In Valencia, Venezuela, where I spent a lot of my childhood, there were mountains all around us. I remember the time when my older brother, Brian, ran away from home. Ten years old and he stomped out of the house, up the road to the mountains, a half of a mile away. I don’t know if he climbed. The important thing was that he had the option. When you climb a mountain, cross the ridge, descend on the other side, you can’t be seen. It’s a full separation from where you were.

“Aren’t you going to go get him?!” I yelled at my mom.

“He’ll come home.” she said and sat down on one of the kitchen chairs and lit a cigarette.

I learned smoking from her. It was how a person waited. I suppose I am like her in that way, always wrestling with time. I think about the past and there’s so much I want to relive and there’s so much I want to forget. How does a person reconcile those opposing impulses? They smoke. I think about the future, what changes are coming. But it’s so hard to see change and newness until it’s sitting like a smiling dog in your memory. So what does a person do while waiting for the future to arrive? They smoke.

After all the months of not smoking, of going to the health club, we, Terry and I, were in a car crash. We weren’t killed or maimed. I don’t know if it was with the loud pop of impact, the sound of crunching metal or the wild spin we took, that I decided I needed a cigarette.

The other times I quit was when I was pregnant, well mostly, anyway.

And now, I’m going to quit again. It’s not because I’m having any more children, because I’m not. It’s not because I’m worried about my health, because I’m not. It isn’t because my boys are always on my back about it. It isn’t because it’s gross.

The reason I’m quitting is because I don’t want to be like my mother. In some confused way I’ve been holding on to her, cigarette by cigarette. I don’t know how I’m going to do it but it’s time to let her go.