The Grandest Illusion / Throw Some Flowers

The Nutcracker

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.

 

In North Texas? Chamberlain’s Nutcracker at the Eismann Center is my choice. My wife is in it.

http://chamberlainperformingarts.org/

Heart

From The Hot Girl – Part One

“Daddy?” For the sixth time, Deanna watched her father pull a card from a vase of flowers, put it in a stack with others just like it before he tossed the flowers into a rolling trash can, dumped the vase in the sink and set it on a nurse’s cart. “Why are you keeping the cards?”

Doc Collings turned toward Deanna from the other side of what had been her Gramma Cora’s hospital bed. “So your mother can send them ‘thank you’ notes.”

“Mom hates cut flowers. What’s she going to say, ‘thanks so much for sending dying flowers to my dying mother’?” She hadn’t expected him to wince.

“Flowers are okay at our house, DeeDee. Twice a year.”

“I know. Valentine’s and your anniversary. But you buy mom plants.”

“Sometimes what your mother says is okay, and what she really thinks is okay, are entirely different. She has tolerance for flowers on days where flowers are the norm. And tolerance for your brother or you giving her flowers or something fattening is different from her fully accepting it as okay across the board. Like with me. I don’t gamble with your mom. If I know where the strike zone is I don’t get fancy and try to throw curveballs.” He held his hand out perfectly flat. “I go straight down the middle. Living plants, in pots, are in the strike zone every time.”

Doc Collings’ sports analogies worked with his super jock son, but now he was in a situation where he was always lost. Alone, attempting meaningful conversation with his daughter. Who, since she’d outgrown her Sting-Ray bike and Barbies lived on an intellectual diet of Romantic poetry, art books, Medieval versions of fables and fairy tales, and top forty radio. And until his mother-in-law’s failing health had sent her to live with them a couple of years ago, there hadn’t been anyone else in their house who “got” the post grade school version of Deanna except their black lab, Hayden.

“DeeDee, your grandmother knew you cared.” He tossed another handful of flowers, spun a guest chair around and sat in front of her. “She had all the pictures you copied out of the art books for her. All of your notes and poems and Polaroids were taped to the wall. She was so sick the last week or so she didn’t open anything.”

“I looked for this card forever…” Deanna stared at the unopened envelope in her lap, a thumb and finger holding it on each side. “If she’d just opened it… Maybe… ”

“There was no magic in that card that would have saved her.” He ran his hand through his hair, left it at the back of his head. “I know how it hurts when you lose someone you love. In ways you can’t explain to anyone. My parents are gone, my brother died in the war… If you live long enough you lose people… And unfortunately, there’s nothing anyone can say… or do… to make it easier. I wish I could, but…” He reached out, put his hand on top of hers, took the card and gave it a long look before he handed it back. “Deanna, when things like this happen? The old saying about how ‘it’s the thought that counts’ is true. She knew how you felt, card or no card. Believe me.”

She searched his face, registered the hurt and confusion. “It’s okay, Daddy. She told me before. About her heart and everything.” She glanced around the room, landed in turn on the stripped bed, dying flowers, empty vases and back to her lost father. “And how if I gave myself time I’d realize the heart that doctors understand isn’t the most important one I have.”

Thoughts and commentary on this one are requested, here or via email

White Lies and Dirty Laundry

 From The Hot Girl – I

Roosevelt Junior High, October 20th, 1971

Deanna clung to her open locker door with her right hand, leaned her head on the shelf inside. She couldn’t go to homeroom. She didn’t want to talk, or smile, or lead cheerleading practice. Or read the afternoon announcements or do anything at all. Just for a day, she didn’t want to be who she was. All she wanted was to be alone and maybe have one real friend she could tell about Gramma Cora. Goddammit. Was that too much to ask, really?

***

“Mornin’, Jackson.” Coach Stephens raised his chin in acknowledgment at the growth-spurt skinny eighth-grade boy in his doorway, tilted his head slightly toward the wall to Jackson’s left. “Some geniuses clogged the shitter in the band room.” Stephens pushed his chair back, hitched up his coach sweats, tossed the blue nylon bag full of his laundry at Jackson like it was a medicine ball. “C’mon. I’ll get you out through the girl’s side. Grab a hall pass in case you meet a stranger on that side of the building.”

Jackson picked up the pad, tore off several hall passes pre-stamped with Coach Stephens signature, stuffed them in his back pocket even though, after a year and a half, there wasn’t much likelihood of anyone stopping him on blue bag days. He hefted the laundry bag to his shoulder, followed Stephens to the center of the basketball court, the invisible wall between the only non-coed homerooms at Roosevelt Junior High. Stephens chirped his whistle.
“Heads up, skirts down, legs crossed, ladies. Man comin’ through.”

Jackson turned red, shielded his head with the bag and sent his eyes to the floor for his trek through the minefield of girl’s gym homeroom. Damn. They sat on the floor cross legged, or laid on their backs with an ankle on their knee, skirts dropped to almost there. He heard them all shuffling positions, heard the giggles, the murmured comments that followed him across the basketball court until he was out the double doors. Up five steps and he was in the hall headed toward daylight.

He shifted the bag, raised his eyes, and noticed most of the hall was blocked with junk that had been pulled out of the janitor’s closet to go deal with the clogged band room commode. Directly across from that obstacle was an open locker. Visible under the locker door were a pair girl’s ankles in low cut sweat socks stuffed in saddle oxfords. Cheerleader gear. Shit. And down the hall from the other direction, on a collision course with him and the cheerleader’s feet was Mr. Han, the asshole French teacher and hall pass Nazi. Double shit.

Bonjour, Mr. Han.”

“Always halfway clever, Monsieur Jackson. You and the bag say it’s Wednesday but on the wrong side of the building. Something to do with who we have at their locker that should be in homeroom?”

Jackson stepped into the narrow space between the cheerleader’s open locker door and Mr. Han, swung the laundry bag around his right shoulder, knocked the unseen girl backward into her locker. He was chest to chest and eye to eye with Han and butt faced the cheerleader. In near-zero personal space, he managed to lift a hall pass out of his back pocket with a thumb and finger, held it under the bag, and waited until he felt whoever she was grab it.

“She was with me, Han. Mr. Han There’s shit, uh, sewage all on the floor by the band room on our side, and Coach sent her to escort me out the girl’s side. So I wouldn’t do anything stupid or talk to anybody. And, um, anyway, she needed a book, that’s why he sent her with me. And, uh, she ran ahead of me. To get her book.”
The girl pushed the crumpled pink slip past the bottom of the blue bag for Han, who snatched it, gave it a cursory glance.

“Don’t you have somewhere you’re supposed to be, Mr. Jackson?”

“Yes sir.” Jackson stepped off in a hurry, just under the ‘don’t run in the hall’ rule, didn’t look back. Han followed him with his eyes until Jackson and the blue bag were around the corner.

“Miss Collings, are you feeling alright?”

“Yes. And no.” Deanna hauled herself up out of her locker, brushed her butt, checked her effort and the pleats of her skirt over both shoulders. “My grandmother’s funeral was yesterday. I just didn’t want to talk to everyone…Anyone. That’s why I, um, ran to my locker, like he, like Jackson said. I’ll be okay. Really.”

“I understand. There’s never a good time for a funeral.” Han glared down the empty hallway. “Or Jackson.” He flicked the pink pass in his hand with his middle finger, handed it back. “Someday Stephens will learn to put names and dates on his hall passes and sign them like the rest of us. Why he’d send someone like you out with that kid and the bag is beyond me.”

“Well,” she waved her hand under her nose, “there is some really gross shhh…Poop. And stuff. All on the floor on their side and Jackson can get in trouble. I mean pretty easy, and kind of a lot. And I did need my book.”

“As usual, Miss Collings, everything you have said is true.” He pushed her locker door closed. “But homeroom young lady. Now.”

“Yes sir.” She smoothed out the hall pass, put it inside the history book she wouldn’t need for four hours. Wow. Blue Bag Jackson had spare, stamped hall passes from Coach Stephens? Covered her on the fly and slacked her hassle with Han before it got started, no big deal, no stupid guy conversation, no junk? How cool was that? Even if he was kind of a jerk, knocking her on her butt with that bag… But still. Cool.

Skin Deep

The Nutcracker – Dress Rehearsal 2016

“You looked great up there.”

“For someone more than twice as old as the principals from New York City Ballet.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I did. We’ve been married ten years longer than they’ve been alive.”

“So, it’s good that you looked great up there on the same stage with them.”

“Mmm. I’m not so sure how great I looked.”

“I have pictures.”

“You weren’t supposed to take pictures.”

“No flash. How long have I been doing this?”

“We just had that discussion.” She flipped the visor down, opened the mirror. “Anyway, my costume is a blue velvet corset I’m cinched into. And I have my extra nylon hair.” She put the ringlets in a large zip lock, stuffed them in the dance bag then dumped fifteen bobby pins that would stay in the cup holder on her side of the console until the next trip to the free vacuums at the car wash. Or we bought drive-thru coffee in her car. Or she ran out of bobby pins.

“You still looked great.”

“The secret is old lady ballerina make up.” She peeled off one eyelash that would have made Dolly Parton envious, blinked in the mirror.

“I didn’t know they made that.”

“Oh, they make it, alright.” The other eyelash came off, got stuck to a small piece of white cardboard with the first one, wrapped in wax paper, dropped in a make up bag. She blinked again. Her own lipstick had come out and she did that thing women do with lipstick and a car vanity mirror.

“What’s in it that makes it so special?”

“Spackling.”  She rubbed her lips together, checked the mirror, smiled. “And formaldehyde.”

The Nutcracker

Go see The Nutcracker, wherever you are, whoever is doing it. It’s good for you. Trust me, I’ve seen it more than a couple of times and it hasn’t killed me. Yet.

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.

Nuts

She waved her hand in a wide but unobtrusive arc, more wrist than arm. “Every time I see these things I think about John’s nuts.”

Here we go. “Yeah? What things?”

“All these big green egg things. They remind me of John’s nuts, that’s all.”

Big green egg shaped things and John somebody’s nuts.

“He’s dead, now.” She let that hang a moment. “He was at work one day, all chirpy, saying he was okay, and he was gone the next day. It was all kind of sad.”

Okay, maybe this John guy had big green nuts and that’s what killed him. Big green nuts would do that, kill a guy if he didn’t get them checked out. If I woke up with big green nuts I would sure as hell beat it to the Doc’s.

“We all ate his nuts for like three months.”

Hold on. “You all ate John’s nuts?”

“So did we, you and I. You remember, from the Christmas party a few years ago? Taller, kind of poinky. Gray hair. He was gay and a really nice man. We saw him that time at the store and I introduced you?”

“Oh yeah, right. Him. You worked with him for a while?” The only person I remembered from the Christmas parties was a black dude trumpet player who taught music and was fun, and a sparkly older lady whose daddy had been a senator or governor or something from Louisiana. She held the patent on the old school Southern Belle thing and was sharper than a barber’s razor. Otherwise, like most work Christmas parties, there was never a lack of shortish or tallish, poinky-ish, gray haired, maybe gay people around.

“Yes. He’s dead now.”

“You said that.” Okay. Deep breath. “He didn’t die of giant green egg shaped nuts, did he?”

“No…” She was off somewhere remembering poinky gray gay John, missing his presence at work. Hopefully not his nuts. “It was cancer. They told him he had five or six years after his first round with it, and like clockwork, in four and a half years it was back with a vengeance. He was gone in six months. Anyway, he gave us all a big bag of his roasted nuts for Christmas that year and we ate them for a couple of months.”

“He didn’t like give us chunks of his big green egg shaped nuts that he roasted, right?”

“No. Listen, and don’t be goofy. He roasted his own nuts in one of these green egg griller-roaster things. And gave them to us in a big bag with a ribbon around the top. When I see all these green egg things it reminds me of him and his nuts. Like when I see those beat up cooking pots, you know, the big ones? I think of my grandpa’s boiled peanuts.”

“Boiled what?”

“Peanuts. Big ol’ green egg things and big ol’ beat up cook pots making me think about John’s and grampa’s nuts. I guess I’m weird, huh?”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Oh, you. Stop it. Talk about weird, Mister Weird-o. Did you get those screw-on nipple things you wanted so we can leave?”

nipples

Fathers Day

If you’re a father you know how this goes. “Happy Father’s Day!” Maybe it’s wrapped, probably not. Then you go out to eat. You’ve gone out to eat somewhere kid or grand kid friendly for as long as you can remember, you get the check. Or someone with joint account privileges makes a nice gesture.

I got this one yesterday, Father’s Day Eve, which was okay because everybody is busy and “Dad doesn’t mind.” I tipped this guy the max. Twenty percent. In a Taco place with Formica tables and grand kid proof tile floors. Because you never know. I almost put the receipt in the charitable donations file because I’m still not sure if it was a tip, or a tithe. The scary thing? He kinda looked the part.

And that really got me to wondering. You know, what does that guy give his dad for Father’s Day? Did he wrap it?

Stigma

Neeko watched Lamar blow in through the door with the wind, late. He knew how much Lamar hated being late to anything, and on top of that, he was a sight. His half-a-head of hair windblown, the shirt tail on a cleaner’s stiff shirt was out. Slacks. Not the usual Friday Lamar. It was Neeko’s turn to offer the contents of the plastic wicker bowl when Lamar dropped on the stool to his right.

“Your girlfriend in the body shirt down there got your pretzels ready, I was afraid her heart would break when she thought you’d stood her up.”

Lamar looked down the bar, got a smile and a towel wave. Sure enough, Neeko’s offering was full of low-sodium baby pretzels. At least he could count on his friends.

“Hey, Neeko. You told her thanks and tipped her five, right?”

“Told her you were a dirty old man and the tip I offered was to run as far and fast as she could.”

“Fucker.”

“You’re late,” Neeko grinned, tipped a Collins glass that had been full of Coke, rattled the ice around. “Not like you.”

“Man. You know, what I wanna say is ‘what the fuck.’ Just ‘what, the, fuck.’”

“Long week?”

“Shit. It started last Sunday when I got light weight bad-husbanded. Marie and I spent half the day bustin’ ass on garden cleanup, I moved fifteen fuckin’ bags of wet cedar mulch into the van, out of the van and stacked up. Then up the sidewalk and stacked them again then threw them out in front of the garden like dead soldiers before I moved all of Marie’s rocks and pave stones and leveled a couple of giant pots. I finished all of that, went to the store covered in sweat and mulch, got her some shrimp, first time in forever she wanted to bust the ban of cholesterol. I had a good Sunday goin’. So she takes a bath while I’m gone and the whole bedroom smells like heaven when I get home so I took a shower and you what happened next. Later she tells me ‘I’m sorry I didn’t have anything sexy to wear, but my husband hasn’t bought me any new lingerie in for-ever.’ Which is bullshit because at Christmas I load her up on those panties she won’t buy herself. Loud, silky, fun everyday panties don’t count. I hear her when she moans about no off-white hose anyplace so I get online, deal with that and all of her ballet tights and leotards. None of that counts because it’s not that sort of lady gear. So I’m screwed. No Charming Charlie, no easy way out of lingerie.”

“That’s the what the fuck? Why you haven’t bought Marie sexy satiny nighties lately?”

“What’s the point? That lingerie shit’s coming off pretty soon anyway, right? This old fart told me back in high school that foreplay started at the mall, and I was like ‘What?’ Holding hands or go make out behind the big potted trees or what? No, he meant shopping for the right kind of undies and both of us thinking about what we were gonna do with that bottle of sandalwood body lotion, gettin’ primed in advance. And I haven’t been doing that, and that was why I took the bad husband bash. But my ‘what the fuck’ is way worse than that.”

“That wasn’t really bad enough for there to be a worst, man. Buying gas on a rainy day is worse than that if that’s all you got.”

“No, man. All week, when I tried to solve any kind of issue with her is why the what the fuck. I go to Home Depot, trying to replace an old faucet set. I’m waiting, and there’re these two women next to me, don’t even know each other and one of them asks the other a question about what the other one said about her health, and they go off on cysts. Vaginal cysts. How one has these cysts that show up and send her blood pressure through the roof and gave her a stroke, and she’s only maybe forty. The other one says how she had these cysts, and her metabolism was so cranked she could eat anything she wanted and lose weight but had to get it operated on, and they were telling all these vaginal scrape and medication stories, and all I wanted was a cheap bathroom faucet. Can I do that? Hell no. I get to wait for the one person with a clue in plumbing while these two women get down on their plumbing. It’s not like they didn’t know there were men around while they blew it out all over the aisle about growing mushrooms and shit in their vajayjay’s and how it fucked them up.”

“Marie might have your ass for doggin’ women not being able to talk about their business like anybody else.”

“Not my point. Look, I had a nut twist in junior high, and it got the size of an orange. They un-twisted it, it was okay. I didn’t stand around in the hall with girls in earshot talkin’ about my giant nut or how my nutsack got so stretched it lost the raisin look. A couple of years ago I thought I was dead because fluid can settle around your nuts and I had a regular and a large in there. I didn’t even wanna tell the doctor. ‘Hey, Doc, while I’m here, am I dying or what?’ He talks about this happens a lot, the fluid on a nut thing. Okay, cool. But you and I, we’re waiting in Home Depot, and we are not going to say ‘swollen nuts’ out loud. ‘Oh? Really? How big did it get? Well mine was ginormous, and I fell in love with pizza again, and I looked great in tight jeans. I mean that shit belongs where it belongs, not in the plumbing aisle.”

“Did you not tell Marie you thought you were dying of a giant testicle? Because that would be stupid. What do you say to her just before you croak? ‘By the way Marie, I, uh, had this giant nut just like killed me overnight.’”

“Marie is going to know if I have a giant nut, that’s how I got the bad husband knock in the first place. The other thing is she decided to start watching this NetFlix show and will I watch it with her so sure, whatever. It beats ignoring reruns and wishing she was wearing something sexy I forgot to buy so we watch, and there’s a hint of a plot and BANG, Kevin Spacey has his face buried in the crotch of this girl half his age while she talks to her father on the phone. And there’s three-way sex and gay sex and all of this in the middle of an episodic treachery drama, and I’m like no wonder she wanted me to buy her something sexy because all these people are standing around in their underwear with their tongues out and moaning. And I’m like wait, this is TV. That’s porn, not a politics show. Every episode it’s like somebody has to assume the bra and panties or less pose and fake an orgasm. If Marie binges on two or three on the weekend it’s like all these people trying to fuck each other over, and then actually fucking each other, over, under sideways, and that’s a TV series? I mean politics by Leave it to Beaver. Beavers.”

Neeko thought about the pretzels in front Lamar, held up his Collins glass instead. “Television isn’t the same, Lamar, nothing is the same. We could talk about why forever. Shifting cultural paradigms and all of that. We know better than to waste air on that shit, part of it is our fault. Nothing is new, it’s just more out front.”

“That’s the deal, Neeko. Stigma. There is no fuckin’ stigma about anything. And in some ways, that’s a good thing. I’m just not ready for anatomical funk where sex happens to be like, ‘Oh, did you have any hail damage Friday? How is your vag?’ at Home Depot.”

“None of that is enough to piss you off.” Neeko was shaking a little with silent laughter. “Get to the good shit before I have to leave.”

Lamar ran his tongue around his teeth, gathered it all up.

“This morning, the reason I’m late? Victoria’s Secret. I’m too old for that place, and that is an unfortunate stigma. But I defy the letch shit and go in. First, they don’t have anywhere near what I found online. Then I’m prowling through silk and satin and being followed by this big bi-cultural guy who asks me in a very affected way if I need any help. A guy. In Victoria’s Secret. A linebacker-sized gay guy who is delighted by the complimentary colors on the nightie I pick out. Of course, it’s not Wal-Mart where the cheap itchy lace panties are on the same hanger. So he goes off to find me some non-itchy Victoria’s Secret matching undies while a couple of girls, one with a figure that would have netted me a restraining order forty years ago are giggling and watching this whole episode go down like something out of Marie’s NetFlix. The gay linebacker comes back really pleased with himself waving Marie’s ‘aren’t these just perfect?’ panties like a fuckin’ ‘Go Niners’ banner. We transact, the girls all still watching while he rolls everything up in pink tissue paper, you know down to the size of nothing and puts it in a bag that might as well have been a billboard for me to carry out of the mall. ‘Old dude buys peach colored panties!’ Jesus. You know? What, the, fuck?”

“A gay, I’m guessing half-black linebacker since you don’t like to talk race at all, helping you pick panties for Marie that you probably wouldn’t have found on your own, that’s the big ‘what the fuck,’ right? The rest of it was just –”

“No the rest of it is just all of it. I want to know when did stigma go away.”

“I’m not sure there was a sell-by-date posted anywhere or if it was officially repealed. It just happened. Why?”

“Here’s why. You remember when I was a kid and sold expensive men’s clothes for a while in college? People called me sir when I was twenty-one ‘cause I had on a Pierre Cardin suit and needed a haircut. Well if stigma had taken a hike earlier and men could have sold lingerie my whole career path might have changed. I woulda stuck around a lot longer and had a shitload more fun with a tape measure at Victoria’s Secret measuring what needs measuring in there than I did knuckle knocking nutsacks out of the way to measure inseams.”