View-Master

Staying Married Secret #12 – It pays to sit on your Smart Ass commentary when they’re frustrated.

The Professor, sometimes known affectionately as Mrs. Magoo, doesn’t like to wear her glasses. Which is another discussion, women over forty and their glasses that they put on and take off thirty or forty times an hour. Anyway, she must have gotten reading-glasses elbow and ordered the wrong thing off a menu she couldn’t read one too many times, because she opted for contacts and a new morning ritual a few weeks ago.

“I’m not sure I’m going to like this whole contacts idea. They take forever to go in and now one of the progressives tore in half. I was just trying to put the stupid thing in my eye.” The frustration oozing out of the cracked open bathroom door was tangible.

“Do you have another one?”

“No, they were the test ones. She gave me these mono-visons when I started, to get used to having them in my eyes until she got my test prescription in. I didn’t like them at all. I feel like I’m walking around blinking to see what’s close and then what’s far. My eyes never do it right like they’re supposed to.”

I knew she was making big, theatrical winks in the mirror while she said that. “Mono-vision is why I finally gave up on contacts.” I’d told her that probably a thousand times, with variations. It was my only support line for contacts, so I had to use it even if it was tired. I turned off the talking heads news readers and could hear water running on her side of the bathroom, along with some low-key, mumbled profanity.

“I guess I’m going to have to wear these mono-vison things then, and be the winking lady trying to decide which eye looks where. I get to spend all day today with a confused brain.”

I let it sit. So did she, for a minute or two.

“I said I’m going to have to spend the day with a confused brain.” She said it a little louder that time.

I bit my tongue. Hard. A few minutes later I heard her heels going across the living room into the kitchen and caught a glimpse of color. “Is that one of your new dresses?”

“Yes. It’s not too tight, is it? I get so self-conscious.”

She looked great and it wasn’t too tight and by now I was talking to her back. “No, you look great. It is a pretty dress and you’re the perfect girl for it.”

“Stop. I’m not a girl, I’m an old lady and I feel like one today.” She rounded up professor paraphernalia while the K-cup finished spitting. “I don’t have all day to wait for it, Mister Man.” I could see her twisting the lid on her to-go coffee cup. “Okay, I’ve gotta go, I’ll do it for you. ‘What do you mean confused brain today, dear? I thought that was your natural state.’ Feel better?”

“It really is a pretty dress. Kiss?”

“Yes. Thank you. Have a nice day at work. Do I have everything?”

“Phone?”

“Mmm…Yes. Four-thirty, probably. Thanks for making me a sandwich and being sweet when I went off about my contacts. Bye. Love you!”

The Cure

Note: This is the full version of Aftertaste, located in the Flash menu

Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mid-May, 1977

Harper woke up like he had almost every morning for the last two weeks. In his underwear, under a plain white hospital sheet on top of the bumpy fabric of a twenty-year-old rectangular couch that was just short enough to make him bend his knees. After he’d made a cup of instant coffee, dealt with all the morning issues, brushed his teeth, pulled on his jeans and stuck his feet in some old canvas deck shoes, he sorted through the nasty gold-tone aluminum ashtray on the coffee table searching for a roach from the previous night.

Late every evening on the mostly perfect spring nights the small house hidden across the creek and behind the hedges was filled with people. Musicians, artists, writers. UFO chasers, incense burners and crystal gazers. A doctor, a lawyer or two, a promoter, small business owners, men and women who worked with them, knew them all or wanted to know them all.

He found what he was looking for in the ashtray and took the short walk to the gazebo at the back of the art museum grounds, said “good morning” to the goldfish as he passed. They followed him down the side of their terraced ponds as always like he might have, or be, food.

He’d gotten the divorce that he’d blown off for two and a half years, finally. Hadn’t seen her for months except when he’d asked her if she wanted her maiden name back. Every morning for the last week, since he’d found out it was final, he’d sat in the copy of Marie Antoinette’s gazebo, hit the roach, sipped his instant coffee and thought about how now that anything that had anchored him to anything else was gone and he should be getting gone himself. Today was getting gone day. One of those women from the late night Bohemian rhapsodies was coming to pick him up later this morning to get them both gone.

This morning was different in another way. Aside from being his last in Marie’s gazebo, he had a letter in his hand from someone else he hadn’t seen for a while. In years, not months, except when he’d tripped over her in a store a week ago. After checking her watch she’d said, “You can come over, but you can’t stay very long.” He stopped by that afternoon, coincidental to the day he’d found out the divorce was final. She’d had on a plain, gray suit, an apprehensive girl cloaked in a woman’s demeanor. She told him that she’d graduated, was maybe headed for a master’s, was getting married whenever whoever he was graduated doing whatever he was going to do. And intimated, by way of half-asked questions, that whoever he was might be a couple of light shades of jerk. But the man had a plan, got things done and she was on board.

They talked about very little of substance, forced a laugh about the divorce he’d drug his feet on. She didn’t care. Neither did he, really. Telling her was a simple touchstone to a kind of life he’d turned his back on, just as she’d turned hers on him. Before he left he’d looked her in the eyes, told her how special she was, in so many words, and not to worry. She could handle the demands of a possibly lightweight jerk and run his plan like she was born for it.

He hoped the letter he was holding contained what he’d always wished had just been a short conversation between them, years ago when it needed to happen. Two kids standing under a tree in a park somewhere, hands in their pockets. They’d say words that would hit the ground between them and wobble off like a drunken Frisbee and they’d walk away. For some reason, she wouldn’t give him that one, not even now. Put the stray dog back on the porch, “See ya around, dog,” don’t leave food out, hope it gets the message. Sad.

The letter was handwritten on light blue notepaper. Two pages, but they were small and she wrote like a Seventies girl, large and loopy. He read it twice before he tore it into small pieces. Not methodically, or geometrically, just into pieces that came off between his finger and thumb when he pulled.

***

She rolled to a stop on the grass and gravel next to the greenhouse at the end of the service lot, saw him standing on the bridge between the public grounds and the groundskeeper’s house hidden behind the shrub wall to his left. The house where they’d met and laughed and eaten and partied like a wayward Methodist potluck supper among loosely knit friends with casseroles, leftovers, bags of deli sandwiches, and burnt, grilled whatever that got thrown on the rusty grate over the brick fire pit. They’d stand around, talk until midnight or after then go out on the grounds somewhere and make gentle or crazy or wild love. Grass stains, mosquitos, and all.

She’d been collecting men for a while, in short spurts one after another, looking for someone “worth it.” She knew worth, the way she measured it, and after a week-and-a-half she knew it was worth splitting a U-Haul trailer with him, loading what was left of her life after selling her antiques and going wherever they ended up. She walked the thirty feet to the bridge and continued to watch as he dropped bits of paper the size of dimes that fluttered out of sight. She knew they would find the creek at the end of their flight and continue to float and flutter on the water until they disappeared, which looked to her like what he was after.

When he squinted, the morning sun that forced its way through the oak tree canopy wove a blanket of diamonds on the ripples of the creek. He thought of the refracting sunglasses someone had given him as a gift, and how they would have made the creek diamonds explode into color, then made him lose his balance and fall off the bridge like he’d fallen off a median and into traffic the first time he wore them. There was some irony in almost being wannabe-hippie roadkill in “rush” hour traffic.

He rolled the dead roach between his thumb and forefinger and she saw that drop away with the other bits of paper. He’d waited long after it was useful before he walked down to the bridge and gave it to the creek every morning. He thought it unfair to drop it on the unsuspecting fish. At least any fish he considered neighbors.

He turned to greet her when she arrived at his point of reverie in the center of the bridge and received a big, warm, cheerful kiss for his effort. She was still wearing her sunglasses, squeezed his butt with both hands, pulled him to her, kissed him again before she let him go.

“Hey babe. What was that?”

“Arrogance.” He gazed at the creek where the paper bits had landed, floated away.

She raised the sunglasses, let her eyes ask the next question.

“Nice to see you but not really, beat it, don’t ever call, come by or anything ever again. Forget you know me, get lost, stay that way.”

“Yeah?” She stood beside him now, put her hand in his back pocket, grabbed his butt again one-handed. “Anyone I know?”

“No, you wouldn’t. Grown up sorority girl from the City I knew a long time gone. Getting married sometime. It’s cool. I should have expected it.” He sent the butt of a Marlboro menthol spinning toward the creek in pursuit of the pieces of arrogance.

“You’re nothing but a long, hard weekend a sorority girl couldn’t talk about, buddy. You should know that by now.” She turned him, draped her arms on top of his shoulders, kissed him again. She’d been to the lake already this spring, had the dusting of freckles to prove it. “You know the lady could just be protecting herself.” She grinned with a hint of girlish blush behind the freckle dust. “You look a lot like a serial fornicator I know.”

He grinned back. She was a take-charge girl who left the feeling of a thrown party in her wake, would initiate sex often and enthusiastically, anything deeper than the surface was too deep. She asked for little emotional investment, only mutual gratification, and someone willing to split the check and live in right now. It was nowhere near a forever deal, but it was going to get them both out from under some recent, claustrophobic anchored-to-a-futureless-past baggage.

She smiled, kept her eyes on his face. “Just like that, beat it?”

“She dressed it up. Wrote it by hand.”

“That was a nice touch. Personalized stationery?”

“Pretty and blue, no initials. Lipstick on a pig. Only one of those I’ve ever gotten.” He decided he liked the light freckles. Not usually, but on her they worked. “Have you ever been the most embarrassing thing that happened to someone?”

Her eyes got wide and quickly filled with humor before her voice dropped into a theatric “Noooo-ooo.”

Her? Of course not. Attractive, sexually predatory women in their mid-twenties who had been married, divorced, walked like they owned the pavement and were born to wear clothes embarrassed no one. Him? There was a good chance that he had been. He wanted to look off down the creek but kept her face in focus.

“Looks like I have.”

“That’s hard to believe.” She shook her hair back, her smile wouldn’t go away. “Were you a butt-ugly baby, or what?”

“A lot of stupid high school guy shit. Maybe a virginity thief.”

“You all do that to one of us, at least. You might have been a repeat offender. And you were all stupid and horny. So what? That’s the arrogance part? I’m different now, beat it, if I never knew you I’m a slightly used, unembarrassed arrogant virgin again?”

“In that pocket somewhere. Like I’m some lovesick puppy whining and peeing on her door to get let back in, needed to be reminded where I don’t belong. I thought about sending her an ‘I’m not an idiot’ note back. You know, ‘Excuse me, it was hard to miss the first time I ate some ego in your driveway. I’m on my way the hell out of Dodge with a long-legged sex-machine.’ The ‘last word’ is always a shitty gig, you know, so I’ll let it ride. It is what it is.”

***

She held the trunk open, her make up case in the other hand, waited for him to lift his soft-sided suitcase. “Long-legged I liked. Machine might grow on me. This one stays on top. Drop yours, I’ll drop mine and we’ll blow this high-rent cab stand.”

“Drop yours, drop mine and blow I liked.” He checked the U-Haul chain. Checked her eyes as he stood.

“Done is done, babe. Now is now.” She let that land, wanted to be sure he heard it. “Understood?”

“Yeah. Six years done. It was about time.”

“Six years?” She dropped the trunk lid, stepped over the hitch and into him. “Okay, after that long, she’s not married yet, right, you’re not interrupting dinner or anything? You’re invited to drop by, say ‘Hi,’ and you get a ‘beat it’ letter? Like there’s nothing going on in your world, and what, she thinks you’re all ‘Lucy, I’m home’ again? Some sisters… I didn’t want to before, you’re assholes when you get the word sometimes, but six years to drop ‘We’re done, beat it’ in the mail? I’ll give you that arrogance call now.” She didn’t light the cigarette in her hand, instead she set it on the trunk and tried to suck his tongue out. They were eye to eye. “Done is done. Done stays done.” Her free hand was in his back pocket again.

“I know. Like licking a penny, though. It’s the aftertaste.”

She was still right up in his face. The other hand she’d gotten trapped between them tugged on his shirt. It pulled them even closer and she whispered, right on his lips.

“I have a cure for that.”

Aftertaste

This is the stripped Flash version of “The Cure” in Short Story Fiction

She rolled to a stop on the grass and gravel, walked the ten yards, watched a moment.

He stood in the center of the bridge over the creek, dropped bits of paper the size of dimes. She knew as they fluttered out of sight they would find the water for him, float away.

When he squinted, the morning sun that forced its way though the oak canopy wove a blanket of diamonds over the creek. He thought of the refracting sunglasses someone had given him as a gift. How they would have made the creek diamonds explode into color, made him lose his balance. He rolled the dead roach between his thumb and finger, set the paper free.

He turned to greet her, received a big, warm, cheerful kiss for his effort. She was wearing sunglasses, squeezed his butt with both hands, pulled him to her, kissed him again, let him go.

“What was that, babe?”

He gazed at the creek where the paper bits had landed, floated away. “Arrogance?”

She raised the sunglasses, her eyes a question mark.

“Nice to see you but not really. Beat it, don’t ever call, come by, ever again. Get lost, stay that way.”

“Yeah?” Beside him now she stuck her hand in his back pocket, squeezed his butt again. “Anyone I know?”

“No. Grown up sorority girl a long time gone. Getting married sometime.” He sent a Marlboro menthol spinning toward the creek in pursuit of the shredded arrogance.

“You’ll never be anything but a long, hard weekend for a sorority girl, buddy. You should know that by now.” She turned him, draped her arms on top of his shoulders, kissed him again. She’d been to the lake early this spring, had the dusting of freckles to prove it.

“It was way before Kama Sutra Judy and her waterbed.”

“Still…”

She was a take charge girl who left the feeling of a thrown party in her wake, would initiate sex often and enthusiastically, anything deeper than the surface was too deep, she wished no emotional investment only mutual gratification. She smiled, kept her eyes on his face. “Just like that, beat it?”

“She dressed it up. Wrote it by hand.”

“Nice stationary?”

“Yeah. Lipstick on a pig. Only one of those I’ve ever gotten.” He liked the freckles. Not usually but on her they worked. “Have you ever been the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to someone?”

Her eyes got wide, filled quickly with humor. Her voice dropped to a theatric “Noooo-ooo.”

Of course she hadn’t. Attractive, sexually predatory women in their mid twenties who had been married, divorced, walked like they owned the pavement and were born to wear clothes embarrassed no one. Him? Probably.

“I think I have.”

“That’s hard to believe. Were you a butt-ugly baby?”

“A lot of stupid high school guy shit I think. Virginity thief maybe.”

“You all do that. So what? Next. That’s the arrogance? I’m different now, beat it. If you vanish she’s a slightly used, unembarrassed virgin?”

“In that pocket. Like after all this time I’m the love sick puppy peeing on her door. Again. I thought about sending her an ‘I’m not an idiot’ note. ‘Excuse me, your highness. I’m on my way the hell out of Dodge with a long legged sex machine. I made you and your trip years ago.’ The last word game sucks. So it slides.”

She held the trunk open, make up case in the other hand. “Long legged I liked. Machine might grow on me. This stays on top, drop yours in, I’ll drop mine and we’ll blow this high rent cab stand.”

“Drop yours, drop mine in, blow I liked.” He checked the U-Haul chain. Checked her with a look.

“Done is done, babe.”

“You’re right. Six years done.”

“Six years? Okay. For a won’t face you ‘beat it’ letter after six years I’ll give you the arrogance call. Didn’t want to.” She set the makeup case down, smiled. “Guys are assholes sometimes when they get the word, but six years late and a stamp? Some sisters…” She didn’t light the cigarette in her hand, tried to suck his tongue out instead. Eye to eye. “Done is done. Now is now. Okay?”

“Yeah. Like licking a penny. It’s the aftertaste.”

She was in his face with a handful of shirt, pulled him closer.”I have a cure for that.”

 

 

 

A Farewell to Gatsby’s Bride

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Early May, 1977

The shade was a relief. This had always been a shady driveway, and there were always leaves of some kind scattered on and around it. The Crepe Myrtle barricade down the right side. Yeah, the shade was a good thing, spring was hot early this year. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, wondered why the hell he was there, what he expected to find.

He’d dropped by his mother’s before driving to this shade covered memory. He’d been homeless by choice, in that band guy way, since Christmas Day, but she’d gotten word though a network of his friends that he had some important mail waiting.

His divorce was final, that was what the mail was about. The Judge had asked him a month ago if he was sure, his ex hadn’t bothered to show up for court or contest anything, so he’d said “yes.” Bang. So granted, so decreed, and now final. Not that the girl who belonged to the leaf-covered driveway would care.

They hadn’t spoken in three years, but here he was sitting in the driveway where’d they’d gotten up to more shit as teenagers, Jesus. Last-minute gropes before curfew, arguments, make-ups, make-outs, getting their stories straight about why she was late. All the tire chirping in the driveway that she’d had to clean with a bucket and brush, and more in the street that netted him a ticket from a waiting cop. Probably her mom. Maybe her dad or her smirking brother. Maybe a pissed off neighbor. Somebody had set him up. He saw his own absurd testosterone driven stupidity and grinned. Too much sex and not enough dinners. The world’s worst high school boyfriend.

That was one of the reasons he was here. There had never been a clear cut end, just a fade out. Her mother had broken up with him at least twice for her. “Get out, shut up, don’t talk like that in my house.” But her? She’d called him, said they should see other people, no more “just us.” She’d played him, let him make ‘love ya miss ya’ long-distance phone calls when she could have cared less. Let him hang around to make several of the stupidest, most embarrassing young guy mistakes on his record. At the end were the embarrassments, the arguments, the car wrecks, all the things she let him get up to with her while she shagged her way through her senior class. The grand finale being where she’d said “help out, see you tomorrow” knowing full well she’d have a minion or two to do her dirty work in this very driveway “tomorrow.” Behaviors as predictable as the themes of a three-minute pop song. What a lousy way it had been to start his nineteenth summer.

Later she’d even shown up on his twentieth birthday with an offer he couldn’t refuse, but he had, mostly. And been an asshole about it in the bargain. Arrogance. That’s why he’d gotten angry that night, why he’d been angry. That was the other thing he was looking for. The girl he’d known before the arrogance. If he could see that one more time he could close the door on everything. He was three gigs and less than two weeks from beating it out for good and he wanted to see her, the real her, one last time. Not the arrogance, not the girl who turned and ran the other way when she saw him. He thought he might be the only one who knew her before all that set in. Before she started believing the smoke that got blown up a pretty girl’s dress. He laughed to himself, sure that she hiked that dress up a little now and then to help some of that smoke find its way.

It was too damn hot to sit in his aircraft carrier without the air conditioner running, and he knew he was stalling. He hoped what was wrong with the transmission hadn’t leaked. That was a lie, sure he wished it had leaked, just a little. He knew she wouldn’t be out there in a tank top and shorts to clean it like the tire marks he’d left in her driveway years ago, but it was worth the memory. He’d stopped by the day after leaving a serious set of those marks, seen her working, told her she was cute when she was sweaty.

“Girls don’t sweat,” she’d told him. “Cows sweat, men perspire and women glow.” That was the tell, right there. Who she was, where she was headed. And he’d missed it.

***

The spring sun stumbled through the southern windows of her mother’s kitchen, casting awkward, partial shadows about the room. A metaphor for the two of them. She’d let him in, hesitantly, and walked herself into the corner, behind a chair, behind the table. Away and barricaded from the wrong man. Fully grown now, wearing a conservative woman’s suit, he saw in her face for the first time in years a flash of the schoolgirl he’d known. Her tension palpable, her gaze wavering, defensive, vulnerable.

He told her he’d stopped to take her temperature, that was all. How was she? She sidestepped. Him? His lost years spiritually and legally behind him. Telling an old friend his baggage was light before setting off on an uncharted life. It didn’t matter now if she had never cared for him, he was on his way. He wanted her to know, that was all. Wanted to wave goodbye, to say things that didn’t matter anymore. He saw the universal side of their old friendship. She did not.

His short tale told, their small talk came like an unwanted tooth extraction. Difficult. Forced. Painful. Good for you. That’s nice. Really? Congratulations. The wrong man still standing in her mother’s kitchen, his wrong shadow thrown against the wall beside her. She sparked them out of it, smiled, exposed an instant of her old self again, relaxing slightly to rest her hands on the back of a chair, engagement ring teasing the sun.

“What would you…I dropped an ice cream cone…a white couch on display… how would you…Never mind, it doesn’t matter.” The wrong man, the wrong questions incompletely asked, the wrong almost sharing. Something old and now unnecessary had opened slightly and slammed quickly shut.

Almost questions posed to the wrong man truly irrelevant. Her own life, unlike his, mapped and before her, staring her down. Enveloping her. Owning her. “I’m getting…we’re going to be…I’m not sure if I can do this.” Her eyes took her face away. Tangible uncertainty replacing postured composure.

He walked the table’s barricade until her face and cast down eyes were in front of him. He hadn’t touched her in years yet his first two fingers appeared, lifted her chin. “Hey…” Spoken as though he’d breathed it. His eyes found hers. Soft, moist, frightened, guarded against the wrong man. They were the color of the spring sky, and were momentarily filled with clouds of lost. His eyes studied hers, her right first, across the bridge of her nose to her left. Neither of them blinked. They might not have breathed.

“You can do whatever you need to do.” He searched her eyes again, they dropped their guard, opened. “You can do anything. You know that.”

Silence danced with the sun on the dust motes that floated in the wrongness between them. The angle of the sun, the wrong man’s shadow. His fingers, his touch, his eyes. The strong, frightened, unsure, determined little girl in the guise of a woman.

“No one ever talks to me the way you do.” she said, barely audible. “No one.” He held her eyes a moment longer, turned away.

“Of course they don’t,” he said silently through a shallow exhale that might have been a sigh before he thumbed the once familiar latch, closed the door on a long yesterday, rejoined the rest of the leaves that drifted across her driveway.

 

Nana Ballet

I asked a three-year-old what I should put on a Facebook page when I was considering it. I thought she’d be a good barometer. Without hesitation, she said, “Nana ballet!”

“Well, I thought it might be about, you know, me.”

“Not you. Me an’ Nana ballet!” “You” was said like someone would say it if they’d just stepped in used dog food. “Not poo!” I haven’t won an argument with a female in thirty-seven years, I’m not going to start today. Nana ballet it is. The one on the left has been three once, and to two Nutcrackers already. The one on the right has been three *ahem* times and I quit counting Nutcracker and Snow Queen rehearsals and performances in the Eighties. The two of them, together, brings me to an old saying; Grandchildren are parents’ best revenge.

There are a lot of those sayings about spoiling grandkids and sending them home full of sugar, how nice it is that they go home, even after a (very) long weekend. How you get to love them and not have to take them to the pediatrician unless they develop projectile vomiting while you have them over spring break. That’s all okay, and understood, as far as the grandparent one-liners go, but what about your kids and those grandkids of yours?

ava bWhat if one of those beautiful grandchildren of yours is your child’s worst nightmare? My daughter’s daughter is my daughter’s mother. Seriously. As well as my son-in-law’s. How messed up is that for them? How could that happen? Those two kids are the pragmatic children, the very antithesis of their Fine Arts and Liberal Arts tree hugging middle-class Last of the Romantics type parents. Parents who dance and play music and still “bust a move” with students when Michael Jackson blows out of the pit at the student center. My daughter was reasonable, talented, smart. Self-motivating and very little trouble until she got Senioritis in high school and started driving by braille. Still nowhere near as much trouble as me, or, I’m sure, her mother. She got over it and turned into an attorney. Just like my son-in-law got over couch surfing and skateboards and became a school principal. They are organized and prepared and scheduled. But their first kid? God help them. My granddaughter is a clone of my wife.

As they run to meet each other “Nana, Nana! Are you going to ballet, too?” bounces off the walls of the studio lobby. The child will dance at the drop of a hat, just like my wife and, I am told, just like her other, now deceased, grandmother. It doesn’t matter if it’s kiddie songs, ZZ Top piped into a restaurant or classical. Gotta move. And read. And imagine. And talk. Talk, talk, talk. Princesses and tutus, fake eyelashes and costumes, all day long.

Nana is actually aBG Denton Ballet on point on Stagen English professor who puts on leotards and tights and becomes ten years old again at least three times a week. Now she has real, kid-sized company. She can even be three now, if she wants, which she does very well. Princesses and coloring books and fairy tales and all that magic you can believe when you’re three that some people, like Nana, have never put away or stopped believing. I told my daughter one day that if she ever wondered how to deal with her daughter, just think about how she dealt with her mom, with maybe a little more patience.

I have heard my granddaughter’s parents say things while rolling their eyes, like “here comes little Nana now…” and my favorite “Will somebody please go get both three-year-olds?” They are inseparable when they’re together. Nana will brave weather she wouldn’t go out in otherwise to see her granddaughter. Stay up late, get behind, go without sleep catching up, make herself sick for a little more time to be ten or three or Belle or Cinderella. To drink tea on the ceiling or hide from a dragon or a wicked witch, dance with a magic scarf or a giant flying stuffed sheep.

girls and nutI used to believe that innocence was the province of children, and that all of our youthful fairy tales from daydreams of ballerinas and pirates rescuing damsels in distress to the sanctity of first true love, were destined to end in heartbreak. Like one day we all get our moment to be Puff when he becomes the un-magic dragon and slumps off to his cave like a big, sad, scaly fire breathing Eeyore. Now, even when I’m tired of crayon bits in the remote control and TV shows laden with songs about everything from “be nice to your brother” to “flush the potty,” I see the magic in my child’s worst nightmare.  The pure, unapologetic logic of Nana Ballet. And I go re-write the last verse of Puff the Magic Dragon.

I believe that the very best thing you can hope for the granddaughters you can spoil and send home is that someday they too will give birth to a nightmare who becomes that very special place where their mother’s magic stays alive.

 

Women Don’t Talk Enough

I’ll take the heat for that. It could have read, “Women don’t say enough when they talk.” And that would be true as well. Now I admit, there’s a stereotype qualifier and it is this; all of the Betty and Suzie and Julie and Crissy and LaTeesha too, and all the stupid and wonderful and awful and competitive bitchy things they do is, well, what it is and for the most part out of this discussion. Also out are the discussions and the Pinterest pins and the websites where it would be so nice to remodel the kitchen with one having slightly more square footage than the footprint of the entire house. What is in this discussion is asking a woman about pointed, personal history, and how we have to pry that out. Even when we do, what we get is female haiku. If you slow down and really listen to it, that’s almost enough.

In a relationship, we, as men, are expected to expose ourselves. “Who was she? What was she like? Why did you/she break up? Did you ever go here/there/anywhere? Have any fun? Beat her, get arrested, wreck her car? Well there was some reason you were together.” Women drill down for detail.

“Where did you go?”

“I stopped at the store for lettuce.”

“Oh? How was that?”

“I dunno. Like buying lettuce?”

“That’s all? That’s it?”

“Uh…” So we invent an emotional and experiential travelogue or shrug and slump away lost like there’s more to shopping for lettuce that we missed and somehow we’re stupid for missing it. However, even a busy woman will answer;

“Well, first I had to move the man with the all the vegetables on the cart, and that took forever because he didn’t speak English but that’s okay, he smiled and I finally got him moved but then the stupid sprinkler thing with the fake thunder? Well, it went off and if he hadn’t been in the way I could have just grabbed the lettuce first and I wouldn’t have a wet sleeve. And they had the cutest cookies. Little round ones with strawberry filling? I got some for the kids when they come over next time. And you wouldn’t believe it. The snottiest girl in the world was checking on express. Would I like a bag? Like I want wet lettuce rolling around in my car. Really? Just put it in the bag, silly girl. So she had to drop it two feet into the bag but by then I was tired of dealing with it. And that parking lot is the absolute worst. No one knows how to drive anymore. They’re all messing with their phones, they don’t look, they just point and go…”

When I bought lettuce, maybe all that happened, but I didn’t care. I got lettuce, got out, maybe gave somebody in the parking lot the finger, got home, got the third degree, let it go. Lettuce, in the bag. Done.

That was facetious on the face of it, but pretty accurate. My point is, if that was buying lettuce, then the next time your wife, girlfriend, significant other female glosses over a question, call her on it. Find a picture of an old boyfriend, her prom, some picture of a beach in an old book she has in the closet, ask her about it. “Oh, that was awful. I hated that trip.” Done. Next. Whoa. Why? “I just did. You know what happened after. He was a real jerk.” No, I have no idea what happened. Why? Exasperated we hear, “What is it that you want me to say?” Okay, right here is the break point between men and women. This is where a guy will say, “She was crazy, she was lousy sex, she cried all the time, her cat peed on my shoes, she was jealous of her own shadow, she was a kleptomaniac, insomniac, nymphomaniac, alcoholic, shopaholic…” We will invent things to say just to get off the topic. Women? Ask them why was it awful? “It just was, alright?” Female communication haiku. Maybe they’ll tell other women a whole story. Us? No way.

So I learned, after a very long and difficult time, to read the novel between the sparse words that women say about things that hurt, or were embarrassing. Things they’ve “forgotten.” I’ll buy some of that, but I’m no genius and I remember things. Good and bad and embarrassing. This is where I go back to that ladies lettuce moment. They have some stories in there and unless estrogen automatically shreds memory after a given amount of time, we’re not getting the stories. Because they don’t want to let go of them. They aren’t part of their lives anymore, they aren’t relevant. I say they’re wrong. Anything formative, anything that makes or made them who they are is important. Not just the fun and funny things, but the embarrassing things, the foolish things, the things they want the kids, and us sometimes, to believe they never did.

One afternoon not long ago I leaned pretty hard on a grown woman with three college degrees when, after about a tenth of a story, I got an “It’s not important.”  Headlines. No substance. Like the female mastery of soundbites and verbal haiku was enough for the simple minded male. She fought me all the different ways I tried to ask, and I was being one of those psych profile tests with a heartbeat so she was having to work. It was maybe half an hour before she finally said, “We’re all girls like that once, alright? All of us. For a summer, for a semester, for a month or a year or at some party summer job we had maybe, and any girl our age who tells you she wasn’t is lying. Alright? Jesus. Are you happy now?”

Hell yeah. No details, okay. Access to the female mindset? Priceless. Because I thought there was a magic word or phrase or coolness factor and I find out they’re just people. And they hate to give that up, let us know they’re human. To give us a chance to know a little more about them, so we can care a little more about them.

Why should we care? Because women and their stories are valuable and they sell themselves short with all of the dodgy answers. Because they think we’re men and we don’t or won’t get it and there’s something judgmental or Neanderthal going on in our heads when they talk. Like if they’re talking about Twelfth Century poetry we’re thinking about beer and booty and that red bra in the top drawer. Not always. Personally, I love to hear my wife talk when she has something to say because there’s music in her voice. Beer and booty is saved for all that office politics and people you never heard of and their cute babies and so-and-so’s such a bitch stuff. Then? Yes, ladies, we surf our brains for pictures of you naked, or at least in that red bra, so we don’t kill you.

***

Something that I found almost always inextricably linked to women and their stories is their mothers. I have no idea why, but if you’ve ever lived with a mother-daughter combo you’ve seen it. If you’re smart you stay out of the middle of it. I don’t care if a girl’s mom was a crackhead or a dentist or civic leader or a man-chasing drunk. She’s mom. I asked some women when I was doing research one time to tell me about how they got where they were, what happened. All of them, mom was in the picture. “Mom died, my family imploded and I got lost.” “Mom decided she wanted to re-career and moved us, and decided against it, and then moved us back and I felt kind of lost.” “Mom did this when she empty nested, and when that happened to me, I followed her.” “Mom did me a favor when she committed suicide. Because my sister and I didn’t need what she’d become in our lives. I don’t get mad, I thank her for that.” “Mom let my brothers feed me dog food so I’d learn not to listen to everything a man said.” “I live with her now, she’s on disability with cataracts. She was messed up a lot when I was a kid, but we always lived someplace okay, she made me go to school and she never made me do anything weird or be like her. She was a good mom.” “I wish my mom had known what to do with me.” “I wish I still had my mom.” “I wish I could ask my mom what to do sometimes.” “I really miss my mom.”

I was asking questions of grown women roughly my own age because I wanted to know what made a girl tick. I’m not one, so I had no idea. Every one of those answers, even paraphrased as they are, contains a novel in between the words. When you can get in between them, the words and the fences around them, there’s beauty and wisdom and insight and laughter and tears. If you look closely there’s an entire story in every one of them. Hopefully not many about desperation and loneliness because I found a few like that, along with the headstones of the women those kind of stories belonged to.

***

Women, for the most part, seem to be blessed with a “now” gene that somehow supersedes memory and pain and even us men and puts the immediacy of what’s important now in their lives right in front of them. It makes shopping for lettuce more than a couple of plastic bags and transacted commerce, makes a weekend  with the grandkids a return to being three years old instead of just bruised thighs, bad TV, a sore back and unknown but colorful sticky stuff on everything. It makes what they want from life and for their kids more important than flowers and poetry and romance. It’s amazing that they can manage all of that, be all of that, with whatever suitcase of blues they keep in their attics. It seems simple from the outside, like if they are loved and allowed to love they flourish like flowers, often in spite of the quality of the soil. Their answers may sound simple as well, but they are actually very poetic, and tell remarkable tales.

So make your girl talk to you. Dig out the real story. You might have to work for it, you might have to listen to her , but you’ll learn something fascinating about her you didn’t know. Something that might make you smile, maybe make you a little jealous or even really proud of her when she shows you where her strength, her humor, her judgement and her heart came from. What made her who she is. That for sure trumps hearing about what that bitch Audrey did at work today, right? Or that bag of lettuce and kitchen remodeling you don’t want to talk about. Some more.

 

How Old Guys Get Lucky

I got lucky the other day. I didn’t win the lottery, don’t have a fat retirement portfolio or a ranch with a vineyard or a golf course out back or a luxury foreign car. I don’t vacation in the islands or the keys or ski anywhere and none of the twenty somethings at Trader Joe’s winked at me. But stay with me, and I’ll tell you how I got lucky.

If you’ve been married a while you know all of your wife’s names. Nana, Gramma, Mom, Professor, Doctor, Executive, Boss, Volunteer, Nurse, Conflict Manager. All of them and more. I’m telling you, if you want to get lucky put all of them in the top of the linen closet. Here’s why.

Our wives carry all of our sins in a big ol’ bag around their neck and seeing them, sometimes I think we see all of that. The missed opportunities, our failings and faults. We see the girl who keeps us even when we fart the covers off at two A.M., who knows our hearts, our dreams, even our pain. All of it in that albatross around her neck, the one we made. It’s not all bad. Our successes, our wins, the BG Denton Ballet on point on Stageones that counted, when we remembered to love them. Read that carefully. Not the flowers or the gifts, but when we remembered to really love them, the girls we married. Take that necklace away from her, put it up there in the closet, too. Now stop. Look at the girl. Not what you’ve been through, kids and jobs and houses. Just look at the girl you married.

My wife still goes to ballet class three times a week, Pilates streams from the living room ROKU, she says “Hey you, want to do some yoga with me?” Some red lipstick, jeans and a t-shirt, I’d still follow her home if I didn’t have to. Professor, Nana, Ballet, Pilates, read, write, teach, learn go, go, go. She may be all of that, but what is she really?

The Box of photosother day my wife was out of town and I was rummaging around looking for something. I was up in the top of the linen closet and pulled down a cardboard banker’s box. Inside, not whatever I was looking for, but what I needed to find. There, in a toe-shoe box full of photographs, was the beautiful girl I married.

Nothing says pretty girl to me like a pretty girl in a summer sundress. There she was. Man. Think of a sleeveless summer dress. It fits her figure, it’s soft, it’s not naughty or short, it’s meant to catch the breeze and make her grab it before oops! She can twirl around in it, put her arms around my neck, and she did. She’s just a girl. That special, flirty innocent girl I married. Her hair barely under control, her big blue eyes, smart and pretty. Strong and passionate, shy. She still runs me off and closes the bathroom door. She dresses in private, or shoos me away unless she’s got her ‘hey, sailor’ working. I used to be a major pest. Semi-exposed girl parts, she would be fixing her hair, defenseless. I learned better, but what a pain in the ass I was, thinking I was cute and affectionate, honking her boobs, pinching her butt.

Passionate. Oh hell yes. About many things, but best of all, about us. We could piss off  the neighbors. The lady upstairs thought I was killing her, the one next door smiled. Back before baby or business that sweet smiling girl stole my heart and gave me hers. Sometimes I think if I’d known then what I know now I’d have said “Run little girl, as fast and far as you can.” But I was selfish, how could I not be? I’d found a mainstream girl. Beautiful, artsy, a college degree. And she liked me. Go figure that.

She was angry, mostly at men and the things we do. How some men treat women like objects, culture trophies, how pretty you are, look at what I raised, look who I was screwing when your back was turned. She was mad at all of us but she let me in, told me how it was going to be if I was going to stick around. Beautiful and standing in a deep hole of insecurity that I never saw. How could I? I saw everything else and she loved me anyway.

There she was, sitting on the porch surrounded by the plants that loved her, playing Scrabble. She always won. She had an English degree and I’m not an idiot. Warm afternoons we’d drink cheap Chardonnay and talk, eat Triscuits and cheese, read, play Scrabble, make love.

One day we sold it or gave it away, put what was left, including a noisy cat, in aPH w vw van htown VW van and a trailer, headed to the San Francisco Bay. I was going to be the next big thing. We know how that turned out. On the way I got tired and said “You can drive.” Through those narrow mountain passes in the dead of night, a tin can van and a trailer. The big strong man curled up in the back, sleeping through it, secretly scared to death knowing we were a fireball down the mountain in the making. When the sun came up and the desert loomed I took over again. The van blew up at Pea Soup Anderson’s on the I-5, got fixed in Modesto, twice what they said it would be. She was a trouper. My dream, my adventure, this girl who loved me right there.

The day after we got there she hit the temp agency with her Houston creds and Liberal Arts degree, went right to work. I drug my feet for a week. She handed me a phone number with her foot in my ass, asked what was I scared of? Rejection, working, paying the rent? A short time later when she said she wanted a baby, I said get some insurance we can’t afford it. The big chip company hired her, baby insurance included.

To this day she thinks I wanted her to wait to tell anyone when she got pregnant thinking maybe I thought I could talk her out of it. My long haired, no suburbs, no station wagon, no republican rants. The truth was that guy was back, the scared one, curled up in ball. Whatever could go wrong, would go wrong, don’t tell anybody it will mess it all up. I hadn’t had an adult thought in my life and Ash w mom and bottle 2that precious, innocent girl I married had a baby to carry. And me. Two babies to carry. The things we do when we’re lovers, the things she said, making a baby. I heard the words. I didn’t grasp their meaning.

Here she is, pregnant as can be in that purple maternity dress. We had a king size waterbed frame that looked like real furniture, but we lived upstairs so we put an air mattress in it. The last two months she was pregnant I slept on the floor on a couple of giant pillows we got at a flea market the size of a small town. Why? I was on that air mattress without baffles, she came in after work and flopped. I was up in the air and on the floor before I knew what happened. A nice five foot five girl, eight or nine months pregnant can own a king size bed, and I let her. I did it to her, that small, tired girl. It was the least I could do.

She worked right up until she gave birth to our one dollar insurance daughter. The best thing about my girl being pregnant? Junk food. Well, our daughter, but junk food runs second. Never before would she darken the door of a fast food joint with me, her shaggy rock n’ roll husband. But on the way home from Bradley birthing class, Tuesday night was Taco Bell night. It was only for a couple of weeks, and our daughter turned out fine. And yes, I know better now. But I can get her to eat some things. Burgers have always been no. No red meat. Something happened before my time and never again she said. She meant it. Chicken or fish or fresh and leafy. You should see the pizza I have to order.

EH w PH and Ash after mastersI’d forgotten how I marveled at her, her masters, her doctorate. Our daughter in tow, me in tow. Her ethic and tenacity. Her strength. Fearless and frightened and determined. I found her in a toe-shoe box in the linen closet, the amazing little girl I married.

If you want to get lucky, put Nana and Mom and all the other things she is and has been in the linen closet where that box was. Go find the beautiful young girl you married, dust off your heart, tell her how you feel. Tell her how empty your life would have been without her, open the windows and piss off the neighbors. If you can get any luckier than that, send me your lottery numbers.

Nemesis

Everyone has a nemesis, real or imagined. A sneaky co-worker you’re sure wants your job. A personal or professional competitor who wants to crank up your materialism envy, run off with your wife or your “big idea” or your market share. Or all of those. Health can be a nemesis, too. Holy crap. Allergies? I’m sure ragweed is good for something, but I would gladly volunteer in a ragweed eradication project starting yesterday. Even bad habits. I won’t try to name them all, but they can be adversarial and out to get you just like a living, breathing nemesis with a face. Just ask anyone who’s quit smoking.

I’ve noticed that some of them hang with us for what seems like almost ever. Allergies since childhood. Bad habits since who knows when? Most of the really scary things, monsters under the bed, Zombies in the closet, the Blob; those are long gone. However, the reality of a nemesis and the fact that they often haunt us, follow us around like a ghost’s shadow for most of our lives and pop up when we least expect them was made clear to me the other day.

The first insidious nemesis that gave me bad dreams for a long time wasn’t a person, allergy, habit or even anything living. It was inanimate. Dangerous. A Don Juan and Lord Byron with four wheels. A formidable, treacherous, wicked, unstoppable suitor. The Chevelle SS396. They sat in parking lots like Tritons, calling away the fair damsels of my youthful heart. No kidding.

First there was Betsy. Being young and stupid I should have known that a girl who was an officer in the local Tom Jones fan club had something on her mind. Of course I missed it. What was Tom Jones selling, anyway? His finely honed operatic tenor? No. Tom Jones was selling sex. Duh. Me? I thought how stupid. Tom Jones? Please. I thought I could maybe do without Betsy for a while in the summer, and maybe find a girl who liked Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, so I let her down gently. Figuring unwisely the Tom Jones girl would be jonesing for me pretty soon and things might heat up a little more, her missing me so much and all.

redchevconvBetsy’s turnaround time on returning my calls was getting longer and longer, and when she did call she was brusque. Yes, no, bye. Oh well. A few weeks later I showed up at a party with my cruising friend because I couldn’t buy a date, and I for sure didn’t want to call Betsy and ask her because she would know I was a chump. We pull up and there she is, sliding out of a Garnet Red SS396 convertible with Mr. Underwear Model. The baby fat went somewhere, she’s got a tan and looks great.

I wait until she’s inside then get out and investigate the pretty boy’s car. Horrors! What a loser! It had split bench seats, not buckets. In retrospect I now realize that he was no loser. He had my girlfriend, an SS396, Tom Jones tapes and a big slab of vinyl real estate where Betsy could lay on her back and look up at the stars. Ouch.

She was nice to me at the party. Really nicer than she had to be. He was one of those guys who was way too pretty and more into himself than anyone else and I don’t think she was laying on her back all that much in his front seat. Betsy and I got back together for a while toward the end of the summer but it was never the same. She saw right through my new Tom Jones tapes. Plus, my Camaro was smaller, had bucket seats and a hard top. And she was never sold on the blanket in my trunk and a private picnic table.

Jackie was next. She had a Firebird the same color as my car and we used to trade them at lunch, much to both of our parents’ chagrin. I thought we had more in common than that, particularly since every time we ran into each other at a varsity sporting event we left together holding hands. We went out a few times, but her father was a crazy conservative and hated me almost as much as their little rat dog that bit me on the ankle. That was okay because I was always kind of afraid to get too friendly with Jackie. She was a classic waif. Thin as a pencil, long, strawberry blonde hair and light golden freckles. She was bluessalmost translucent. Ephemeral. Even to someone of my unintimidating stature, she seemed fragile. A real-life Tinkerbell. But I ran out of history class anyway one Friday afternoon so I could ask her out. Our lockers were almost next to each other, it was a sure thing. Bam! Big guy, big sideburns, letter jacket. I walked right on by and dumped my books. Sure enough, in the parking lot after school on the other side of her car, Senior Jock  was waiting in his Le Mans Blue with black vinyl top SS396. Shit! He was no dork, either. Black buckets, fake woodgrain console, Clarion tape deck. Jackie and I hardly spoke after that until a year later when I was at a different school and we saw each other at a drive-in. We traded phone numbers and then cars a couple of times again, but the magic was gone. I asked her about the jock and she just shrugged and looked at the ground. Way to go Chevelle. Love ‘em and leave ‘em. Deflower my Tinkerbell, put another notch on the console and move on. Can you call a car an asshole?

Here is where I have to disagree with the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. Shake your nemesis’s hand, look it in the eye. Hang out with it. Ride in it. Think you understand it? Forget that. When I swapped schools, I made friends with a guy who had another Le Mans Blue, black vinyl top SS396. I spent a lot of time in that car. But it was always something. I was making out with a girl in the back seat when my buddy who was driving failed to say “railroad tracks” and I chipped a tooth. Those damn cars knew me, I swear they did. I had a hot date with a hot girl and we were going out in that car because a double date was the only way she’d go. After about three hours of making excuses about why I was late because the damn muffler welds wouldn’t hold, the girl bailed and rejected any offer of a do-over. There I was, dumped before I even got a chance. Hosed by an SS396 I mistakenly thought was my friend. It knew. I know it did. The SS396 was no longer a nemesis. It was now a superstition.

greenssFor about three weeks when I was a senior in high school I was head over heels in teenage boy love with a girl I’ll call Darla. When I was supposed to have a girlfriend or two already. But Darla was like a primo girl drug. A real back-up-on-the-freeway, sneak out, sneak around, lie to people about it girl. She wasn’t Miss America or anything, but she was plugged in electric. Cute, fiesty, smart. Sexy. It wasn’t going anywhere, and I knew that. But still. Friday night of week three she said that she was just going somewhere with this guy, she’d be home at 9:30, come by and get her. I tell any of my regular obligations I’m sick, and about 9:20 I’m on the way to the rendevouz. One more time, two years after my initial confrontation with a Chevelle, there I was again. What do I see idling in front of her house? An SS396.  Nine-thirty comes and goes while I sit a block away with my lights off, waiting. That’s something I should have known better than to do. Me, a girl and someone else’s SS? Just go on home, call the girlfriend and tell her it was a twenty-four-hour bug. Kiss her ass a lot and offer her Steak and Ale on Saturday, hope that smirking brother of hers doesn’t know anyone with an SS396.

I retained all those lessons the SS396 taught me when I was young andimages7VA3X18Y impressionable. Which is a good thing, because where I live now I have this neighbor who likes my wife a lot more than all three of the ones he’s had. Guys can tell, and my wife is cute. He’s not a real nemesis in an amorous way because he’s as old as I am and he’s a dork. He’s a grown up dork with money from somewhere, but he’s a for-sure dork who drinks too much sometimes and listens to whiny Americana too loud in his garage just to look hip and trendy and makes eyes at my wife. My wife would eat him alive the first time his eyes glazed over when she brought him into one of those “that’s poor scholarship” arguments about Beowulf with an editor from Harvard who wasn’t even there. Anyway, he throws some of that money of his at restoring things. Old boats, old furniture, old jukeboxes, old houses. And old cars. He offered me a beer the other evening and invited me over to see his latest project even though my wife wasn’t home yet to join us.

primerssIn his garage, sitting on jack stands, was a stripped, sanded and primer coated 1969 Chevelle SS396. He even pulled out an original 1969 sales brochure, handed it to me and asked, “What color d’ya think?”

I wanted to sell him on the pukey butternut squash color like my father’s ’68 Impala wagon. But no matter how much I sometimes dislike my dorky, letchy, posey neighbor, and those damn cars, in my heart I knew that SS deserved better. I told him I was always partial to Le Mans Blue.

I’m also more than a little partial to my wife, so she was surprised when she came home that evening to find me escorting an attractive, over dressed, overly made-up and overdone young woman out our front door. I got the quizzical look that comes from her knowing how old I am and being married a long time.

“And that was…?”

“The girl who sold the house down the street in like ten days.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask, just start packing. And stay inside.”