No Idea

Tuesdays are “grampa takes the ballet lesson girl home after he gets off work” day. Except the girl who can usually talk and sing about nothing for half an hour in rush hour traffic was quiet and mopey, even after a pack of assorted princess fruit gummies. When the car rolled up in front of her parents’ house and stopped she worked her way through the back seat, drug out her backpack, let it drop to the the curb. All just barely four years of her completely dejected.

“Was ballet lesson a bummer?”

“Ballet class. No. At school. I wanted to be first.”

“Yeah? That first thing doesn’t happen all the time.”

“Even for princesses?”

“Even for princesses with lime green tutus.” That didn’t sit very well. “Here, I’ll get your bag, you go show me the door lock code again. I forgot.”

“‘Kay. You get the mail.” She shuffled up the driveway and grumped her way through the door lock code, left a trail of shoes and tutu and tiara in the living room.

“Want a cookie?”

“NO. I wanted to be first.” She was pacing around the family room of her parents’ house, arms folded, hrumphing, toe kicking random stuffed animals and floor pillows. Or pillows that had found the floor and maybe shouldn’t have been there. Telling the dogs and her brother both “NO.”

“You get to be first a lot. It’s okay not to be first every time. And you need to get used to it because nobody gets to be first all the time. Not even grampas. I’m gonna eat your cookie if you don’t ungrumpy.”

“NO.” She let one arm of the folded pair out, took the cookie. “I wanted to be first. You were never not first, papa?”

“I was not first a lot. I told my grampa about this guy I went to school with named Kent. He could play everything better than me. Run faster, kick the ball farther, go across the monkey bars better –”

“What’s monkeys bars?”

“Where you hang by your hands and climb all over –”

“Like playscapes?”

“Yeah. Playscapes. And Kent was always better than me, at least most of the time. Sometimes I got to be better. But I told my grampa all about Kent and he took me to meet the bear wrassler. That’s where I learned it’s okay not to be first all the time.”

“What’s bear wrassler mean?” Her arms were still folded and she wasn’t buying it yet.

“My grampa took me out in the woods in this place called Missouri to meet the bear wrassler. Because I was complaining so much about Kent not letting me win all the time. He took me waaaaay off in the woods where the wrassler man lived in this funny house made out of rocks, and he was sitting on the porch smoking a long pipe, waiting for us. He was kind of scary looking. Let’s get that cookie off your hands before your mom gets home.”

“Scary like a monster or a spider or like Beast?”

“Not as scary as Beast, but close. He had a black patch on his eye like a pirate and a big, long scar on his face where –”

“What’s a scar?”

“Where a really bad bo-bo happened.”


“And he had on old overalls and no shirt and was all hairy, and he had big brown boots.”

“Like Garcon?”

“Sorta. So my grampa says to him ‘Tell this boy ‘bout b’ar wrasslin’ ‘cause he’s driving me nuts whining about some kid not lettin’ him win all the time.’ And the scary man looks at me with his one eye, sets his pipe down on a table made out of an old piece of wood carved out like a bear, blows smoke in my face and says, ‘Boy, you look kinda short in the britches to hear ‘bout wrasslin’ b’ar.’ He meant maybe I wasn’t big enough. Like you, maybe.”

“I’m big! I can do all kinds of things now that I’m,” she worked her fingers, planted the thumb in her palm. “Four! You can tell me!”

“Okay, I guess you’re big enough. The bear wrassler man says to me his job is to get up every morning, early, and go out looking for a bear to wrassle. You know, he and the bear go after it like you and your brother sometimes.”

“I wrassle better than him ‘cause he’s a baby. And only, only because, um, he takes my stuff that he, he, um…that’s not his. Does the bear look like my brother?”

“Probably. With better manners. Anyway, the wrassler man goes out to find the bear every day so they can do their job wrasslin’. I thought the man was crazy going out to do that, you know, fighting with a bear? Crazy. But that was his job and I asked him why did he do something crazy like that and I hoped he kicked the bear’s booty or else it would eat him. He pointed at his eyepatch and said, ‘You got to be on your toes and ready to wrassle b’ar with all you got, every day. Some days I kick his butt and some days he kicks mine, but this eye patch is why I get up and go lookin’ for him. ‘Cause this here eyepatch is what happens when you expect to win all the time and whine about it when you don’t. You act thataway and the b’ar, he’ll just come up on you and RAWRRRR all over you standin’ there thinkin’ first is yours just because you’re some kind of princess. And that ain’t how it works a’tall.’”

“Were you a princess, too, papa?”

“No. He was saying that because even princesses don’t get to be first just because they’re princesses. So I’d understand the story he was telling me. Everybody knows princesses are special, but they have to fight the bear like even people who aren’t princesses.”

“Like Brave? She fights a bear!”

“She does, but it’s her mom, and your mom’s not a bear, is she?”


“Yeah, I can see that. So after the bear wrassler told me that, my grampa shakes hands with him and I gotta tell you, that man really scared me. We get in my grampa’s old truck and he looks at me for a minute and scratches his chin before he says, ‘You gonna be a b’ar wrassler or you just gonna keep complainin’?’ And I said I was gonna be a b’ar wrassler ‘cause I didn’t want him to think I was a weenie or anything and the wrassler man was so scary and I sure didn’t want an eye patch. Grampa took a drink out of this flat bottle he kept in his overalls and he says to me, all serious. ‘Good. S’long as you understand that you don’t always get to be first. Because I’m tellin’ you, like he said, some days you get the b’ar, and some days the b’ar gets you. But you gotta get up tomorrow and wrassle him again, win or lose.’ So at school tomorrow if you’re first, great. You got the b’ar. If you try and you’re not, that’s how it goes. Because some days you get the b’ar, and some days?” The tickle monster came out, she squealed and took off.

“Some days the b’ar gets me, papa!”


The grocery bag and car keys hit the kitchen island, the lawyer turns into daughter for a split second. “Dad, before you leave…My daughter is saying things at school to the kids behind her when she’s line leader like ‘I got the bar today and the bar got you.’ And sometimes she makes a monster noise to go with it. You have any idea what she’s talking about, or where that’s coming from?”

“Nope. No idea.”

Mow the Yard

Lamar sat down across the bar from the bartender-manager who had her sleeves rolled up to her elbows and was forearm deep in soapy water. She looked up, wiped off two Collins glasses.

“Hey, Lamar. Where’s your buddy Neeko?”

“Hey yourself, Reagan. Neeko fell in love. Stay put, you’re workin’. I’ll get my own pretzels.” He sat back down with a basket of salt free mini pretzels, something that, at one time, had been a one-off between him and Reagan. It was now a kind of hit with the young downtown health nut in a bar hipsters. Reagan wiped two wine glasses with a bath sized bar towel and set them in a green square restaurant dishwasher basket, dunked two more in the soapy water.

“Neeko being in love have anything to do with you all the time shoving him in that direction?”

“All I said was when the opportunity to put some poetry in your life comes along, take it. His wife’s been gone ten, eleven years now and his two girls were gettin’ worried about him and workin’ on me to fix it. Like I know a bunch of single women and could fix him up. I think it’s because they don’t want him and his reprobate friends drooling on their carpet more than any altruistic reasons. I was just an enabler. He’ll come up for air, it’s football season.”

Two more glasses wiped, two more dunked.

“I didn’t know he had daughters. How many?”

“Two. The youngest was twenty or so when her mom died. Been harder on them I think than Neeko. Weddings, grandkids, no mom, no gramma. He busts ass making himself available, I’ll give him that. But from what I can tell I think girls need their moms for as long as they can keep them.”

“True.” She held a wine glass with lipstick still on the rim up to the light, sighed, dunked it and got after it. The soapy water looked like a shark attack was going on in the sink. “I have a daughter and I wonder sometimes what would happen to her if I fell over behind this bar. You’re right, dads are great, even though she doesn’t have one. But the things I thought I’d never hear come out of her mouth? No man would know what to do with it.” She held the offensive lipsticked wine glass up, spotless. “Girls and all that shit out there. Sorry. But you know? I’m just glad she talks to me. If I was gone…Jeez, I hate to think.”

“No need for sorry and I do know. Had one myself. Except we had to pry her open to get her to talk. Yours talks to you?”

“Sometimes I think just to shock poor dumb mom. Like she came from the stork or somewhere and before that I lived in an all girl’s library where I studied how to be a bartending single parent and part time caterer. With a doctorate, according to her, in over punishing my children.” She shook out the glasses, wiped them down, racked them and grabbed two more. “Come on, Lamar. What’s the joke?”

“You have a dishwasher.”

“No, I don’t. It’s broken.”

“Broken how?”

“It’s just broken, Lamar. And there’s Zen in washing glasses. Or so the price of a service call tells me.”

He raised his eyebrows, gave her the “and?” look.

“Broken, Lamar. Just broken. Move on, nothing to see here, folks.”

“You’re not telling me why or how it’s broken because you’re a woman and think maybe you broke it?”

“It’s fucking broken, Lamar. Next.”

“I got your Vitamix fixed.”

“That was because you were nice and they were being shits where I bought it and you got me the letter from that lawyer that made them sit up and say ‘yes ma’am, here’s your new Vitamix in fewer than four hundred pieces.’ The dishwasher is broken, nothing you can do, thanks.”

“You’re a woman, Reagan. Right?”

“I’m not sure how to answer that. I don’t expect man junk from you and that’s sure the opener for some.”

“I wanted you to verify it, that’s all. And I got you to. Bar manager, mother, caterer, student.” He grinned at her. “Child discipline Nazi. All that. I know now you screwed up the dishwasher somehow. And I can guarantee you’re a woman because of those answers. I asked you about a mistake, you shut it down. I asked you a question that set off all kinds of female here-comes-the-bullshit alarms and you took a step back.”

“Shit, Lamar. Now I am worried.”

“Don’t be. I have another question, and it’s broader, and there’s not much man bull in it. Ready?”

She shook out the glasses, made a face. “Like I have something else to do and can run away?”

“I ask women questions and for some reason it pisses them off or runs them off, sends them into radio silence. I don’t know if it’s the questions, or the way I ask them, or what it is. I thought us being family and all you could help me out.”

“What are you asking them? I mean, there’s questions from a man, and then there’s questions. From a man. If you catch me.”

“Tell me a story.” He watched the glasses drip when she stopped mid flight and cocked her head to one side.

“I thought we were talking about you not being able to ask a woman a question.”

“That’s the question I ask. ‘Tell me a story.’ It seems simple enough to me. Here’s another part of it. I ask a stranger, like a bank teller, or a nurse. I find one of my old ‘get them to talk’ lines, and I’ll get a small story. I might dig for the whole story, but I’ll never get it. I ask someone who knew me back when to tell me a story? A whole story? I get two lines and a flat line. Even my fascinating wife. Part of the anecdote. Highlights, sound bites. That’s it.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you want from these women you ask, and maybe that’s their problem, too.”

“Just a story. Look, I say something offhand to a nurse about the bad waiting room TV and how the guy must be high. She says she was in Haight Ashbury, in the time. Tells me about guys and their weak lines for the summer of love and how they weren’t any better than usual guy down the street nonsense, they just happened have fringe vests, need a shower and be in San Francisco. Great story, good details. But I ask, ‘How did you come to be in Haight Ashbury? What part of your mind sent you there?’ Like I’m looking for motivation to the surface story. Oops. Look at the time. The more someone knows me, or knew me, the worse it is.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“What good is ten percent of a story? How can there any humane empathy in that? Guys tell me stories, more anyway, before they back up because they feel exposed. In my old business? Blood on the floor. We had to communicate on a number of levels. If your heart was broken, or your mother died, or you got divorced or scratched your perfect copy of Are You Experienced or forgot where you were in the middle of “Louie Louie” you had to stay in tune and finish it anyway. Here it is. My heart. My pain. On the table. Stand up straight and work it out. We didn’t sit on it, cover it up like it was something so ugly or personal no one could see. Because when you depend on each other to tell a whole story there’s no place for secrets of your own. Creativity comes from experience, and all experience isn’t sunshine, lollipops and prom orchids. I ask people about their lives? Especially women? I might has well have rung the digital doorbell in nothing but a diaper and an eye-patch with a dagger in my teeth and blood on my hands.”

When she stopped laughing she dropped the last two glasses in the square green basket, stacked it on the other four and picked up his pretzel basket for a reload. She came back around the outside of the bar and sat by him, leaned an elbow on the bar and pulled a couple of pretzels.

“I see what you’re getting at, now. How guarded people are about anything besides the ‘cute grandkids, is that your dog?’ FaceBook nonsense, but damn, Lamar. They may think you’re a nut case, or trying to expose them. There could be a million reasons. And truly, men are one thing, women are another. We aren’t Google. You can’t just go all advanced search on a woman and hit ‘story, please’ and complain when it comes back empty. Our histories aren’t, well, Goggle-able. We share what we share, and the rest is ours. We’re taught that from the time we’re born almost. We keep them in the memory album with love letters and either way boyfriend dumps and virginity and baby teeth. And no man has the key to that drawer because we don’t think you’d get it if we opened it.”

He twisted his Coke glass, knew he’d just heard a major truth and wasn’t happy about it. “They ought to be Google-able. There ought to be a filter for them in the search, so you own up, tell your stories. Like I should be able to ask for a story and hit the ‘select more estrogen’ button and actually get all of one.”

“And that will help you how, Lamar? If you ask a woman a question she doesn’t want to answer, you can click your estrogen button all you want, you’ll still get nothing useable.”

“It would help because it would be just like asking and hitting that button in real-life, without it telling me to give it up, get out from under foot and go mow the yard.”

“Funny guy. You’re welcome.”

“I am?”

“Yes, for your answer. Now go home, hug your lovely wife Marie, don’t give her any shit because she’s a woman and smarter than you are and feels things you’ll never understand.” She backed off the stool, draped the towel over her shoulder. “And Lamar? Mow the yard.”

No Why

He never asked her why she danced
Or why so long ago
Sewing elastic on new pink slippers
She stuck a needle in the comforter
Covering a waterbed

She never asked him why he had to play
Strange music
Or what he heard or where he went
In expensive headphones with
Famous strangers

She showed him Oxford on the power of her words
Walked the cold mist
Touched history together
In turn he rode a box of musical wires
Offered her Venice, kissed her
Under the Bridge of Sighs

Never much money
Very little time
They never asked why

The novel it is said resides within us
Lies inside our lives.

Written in response to Ian Graham’s 3 Day Quote Challenge

Nice to Meet You

Jackson bypassed sign-in and the new intern receptionist at 1700, walked the length of the hall to the PR office, let himself in. With a hand on either jamb no beard, old jeans, blue and white squares thrift store bowling shirt Jackson leaned in the doorway of Paula Whittier’s graphic design office.

“You’re Paula, huh? Nice earrings. Nicer crib. You rate a Double-Wide?”

“Yes. I had them knock out a wall for me because I work big. They also installed a big can under my desk marked ‘shit’, specifically for jive-ass salesmen’s compliments.” She continued to peer through a magnifying glass at photos scattered on a light desk the size of a ping pong table. “And it’s Ms. Whittier to vendors, please, and thank you. I don’t remember any appointments, so,” she switched off her light table and spun towards the door. “Whoa. Who let you in? I heard heaven starts on nineteen.”

“You kissed a frog once. Here I am.”

“Permission to vomit. I was six. Prince?”

“Jackson. That’s it, either way. Story or you can leave it.”

“Studley! You’re not just a voice on the phone! Um…They told me this one. Yvonne. Paula Yvonne when my mom was mad. Your name game? Yawn. Something this side of disco?”

“Permission to fold under trendsetter pressure. Paula and Yvonne, that’s extra Fifties. Bobby sox, girl bands, bad TV, worse movies. Mom made out by the jukebox with greasers, married penny loafers?”

“Smart and decent arm candy.”

“Same to you but way more of it.”

“Uh-oh, swoon attack. Marry me?”

“Sure. Lunch first?”

“You are a God.”

“First miracle. Cleavage Trace, on your blue Batgirl phone. Today.”

“Not in this dimension. Tell me another one ‘cause they’re so pretty?”

“Straight up. Ringing before lunch farts rumble.”

“Very wrong. Ethics forbid a blowjob, even if true.”

“Forbidden fruit is sweetest, but on legal authority? Blow is a figure of speech.”

“Not a Puffer fan?”

“Sick can’t be unseen. For real, Trace needs help. Concept, cover, merchandise. Work him.”

“’For real’ is so stale. Say it’s true. What should I wear to his party?”

“You is perfect. Listen, jam, take it where it needs to go. Spool it, print it, call a courier.”

“Talk the talk, bad boy. He’ll love me just the way I are?”

“Don’t go shavin’. I heard wedding bells and lunch. I do requests at the top of every hour.”

“Extreme burgers and onion rings I’ve never seen. Elmore’s? In a dark booth.”

“Whoa, demanding with a touch of bitch. Same-side dark booth romantic?”

“Down boy. Elbow room required. Fact on bitch, I own it.”

“Dreams do come true. I’m cab bait. You’re driving.”

“I’m not locally grown. Homes of the Rich and Famous tour?”

“Jesus. What have you done for me tomorrow?”

“My stereo is brain damage. Manilow’s Greatest-Live in Ecuador. Bootleg.”

“An all-day repeater. Up for a trade? Various Artists, Pan Flute Christmas.

“All over it. No ‘Sleigh Bells’ equals deal-breaker.”

“Track three.” He opened the PR office door, held it for her. “Ladies first.”

Throw Some Flowers

“I got a new costume this year! It’s blue and lavender, not that old green thing that just made me disappear. And there’s a girl, she’s one of my teacher’s old students, she’s a mom with me this year, she was a principle at Houston ballet until guess what? She broke her sesamoid, too, like me. Then she went to college while it healed and she works at some corporation now and has a four-year old and doesn’t have time for ballet or anything…” I see the look that is doing child age and career math equals time line to return to ballet class. “But after this and Ms. Kathy, she’ll be back. It’s like a habit you can’t quit or something, almost. You can quit for a while, but then it just runs over you again. And she was a principle, a real professional, so she can’t stop. And this guy? He was there last year, he said he was so glad to be back because this is the best time of the whole year. And he’s right. Last year I said I probably shouldn’t do it anymore, but now I’m glad I am. I don’t know why I got picked again.”

Please. Maybe because put you on stage in a costume, some $20 curls and too much red lipstick and you light up like a freaking Christmas tree. And that’s the real story of The Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker party scene is where, in regional productions anyway, lucky retired and adult ballet dancers get to put on costumes and make all of the rest of the year’s classes worthwhile. The hired dance-slingers from ABT or NYCB come to dance the dreams of a little girl named Clara alongside the best of the young dancers the area has to offer, some of their retired peers, maybe even an ex-childhood teacher. And a pretty grandmother who gets to wear a blue and lavender costume, not the old green one.

The remarkable thing about The Nutcracker is that it does with music and dance what we, as a global society, often cannot. It transcends religion and geography and tells a story full of cross cultural fantasy and spectacle and fear and joy and when it’s over everyone throws or delivers flowers to the stage where it happened. How cool is that?

Here’s the deal. The Nutcracker is supposed to be about Clara, a little girl who dreams her dreams of faraway magical lands that she shares with a brave, handsome prince. But what makes the music come to life, what makes the principle dancers from the best ballet companies in the world look so spectacular, what makes people cheer year after year is that the stage where it happens is packed with ageless little girls’ dreams, not just Clara’s. Dreams so big and real they fill up a theater with their hope and that inexplicable magic of belief in something bigger than reality.

So if it’s your neighbor’s kid or your kid or grand kid or your wife, or even if no one you know is in The Nutcracker playing in your part of the world this year, go see it. Talk to a stranger in the lobby, toast the season. Take some flowers with you and give them to a dancer who might be famous, might have been famous, might have been hurt, might even be a grandmother. This season, no matter what you believe, make yourself part of something bigger and better and more magical than what the nightly news would lead you to believe is our world.