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(If you haven’t yet met Richard, you can do so here).

Once, in college, after a long night of studying, my dad borrowed his friend’s bike for the ride back into town. He says the last thing he remembers is heading onto the bridge back toward his house. When he woke up, he was riding out of town on a rural road. Sensing that his head was wet, he reached up to find it bloody.

When Jake and I first heard this story, many subsequent discussions surrounded the topic, “we don’t do anything cool.”

Of course, falling off a bike and hitting your head hard enough to jumble memory is hardly something one should hope to experience. But you might at least hold it in the back of your mind, an enticing reminder that certain blunders or awkward situations sometimes make decent stories.

I have a few such stories from my parents, those that I’ve set on the pinnacle of story-dom. These are not the types of stories I wish would happen to me in the same way that I would wish for my life to include traveling and dinner parties, but they stand as a landmark of sorts, between two college kids I do not know and the mom and dad they are today. There is a coming-of-age satisfaction in knowing that I could feasibly fall off my bike while riding home after a night of studying.  Should I be lucky enough to chance on repeating one of these pieces of family folklore, though: well, then that kind of milestone warrants a call home–which is just what I did when I was first sent by an employer to buy cigarettes.

When my dad was in college, he was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, down the street from a laundromat. While washing his clothes, he fell into conversation with a woman with dark glasses. She was heavy set, with a circle of curly gray hair lining her withered forehead, and she somehow convinced my college-age father to trek down to the store to buy cigarettes on her behalf.

The part of the story I heard time and again was the shopkeeper’s voice as she chided him for his cigarette preference.

“Eves?! You want Eves? That’s a woman’s cigarette!” Papa would sometimes say in a high pitched chirp, perhaps when questioned by a checker, or when buying something for someone else. It was like a fluttering call you might pick out from a clatter of bird songs, the words running together like a warble, rising in trill and descending on the last note. “You did not know that? That’s a woman’s cigarette.”

“I’m buying them for someone else,” my Dad responded to the mocking.

But similar to the responsiveness one might receive when reasoning with a song sparrow, the storekeeper was unconvinced. “You did not know that! That’s a woman’s cigarette!”

***

Richard would often call me into his office with the words, “Do you have a minute?”

I would be doing something like rearranging the colored metal frames so that they sat just one centimeter apart instead of one and a half. Or I might be rewriting the price on a piece of tape so that the six resolved in a perfect circle rather than over-crossing its tale. I could easily become lost in these tasks, but generally, a minute’s neglect would not affect their outcome.

So, go I would to Richard’s door, where he would lean back in his chair and cross his hands on his sweat-shirted belly.

“How are you today.” he would say, his drooping eyes quiet and observing, his questions always seeming to end in a period. “What did you have for dinner last night.”

As it happened, during the time I was working at the frame shop, I was eating ratatouille just about every night. Jake was in Montana for a month, and we were in the midst of a rather massive eggplant, pepper, and tomato harvest. I would make a batch of ratatouille and polenta, eat it for lunch the next day and for dinner the following night. Usually it would last me another three meals on top of that until I could cook up another batch. I was a little crazy for ratatouille. I could not get enough of the stuff. Richard asked me to describe it the first time I answered the dinner question. By the fifth or sixth time, his response was, “Do you always have ratatouille.”

His questions reminded me of a play I wrote around the age of ten, a short skit that a few neighborhood kids performed under a clothesline in the backyard of the next door apartments. The plot centered on Mad Man, played by our neighbor Tirzah dressed in a pink Tutu, and large glasses, lipstick running ear to ear. During each of the three scenes, she would march up to the clothesline, knock on the white painted pole, and when “answered,” ask one of many questions that my ten-year-old mind considered to be utterly absurd. “How many glasses of water did you drink this year?” “Do you keep chickens in your kitchen?”

“Do people wear leotards to your Pilates classes,” Richard liked to ask me. “I have one, you know.” Without waiting for an answer, he turned on his swivel chair to take a magazine from the file cabinet. He paused on a page displaying fluted ceramic cookware. “You should get some of these,” he insisted. “They’re great for making ratatouille.”

A day without Richard became a very boring day. He was once out sick for a week and each day, his empty office drowned me in disappointment as I stamped my time-sheet, a whole day of uninterrupted work ahead of me. I would pull a stool over to my work area and resign myself to four monotonous hours of un-labeling and relabeling, of cutting tape to fit just right on the tiny back of the frames. On these days, the tape pile of old labels grew to the size of a softball as I fell into a rhythm. It dwarfed the tape-scrap ball rendered on days where Richard was present, on days when he would call me over every half hour and ask about my dinner, or suggest that he might come to my Pilates class in a leotard.

He once devoted an hour of my paid time to convincing a customer that I was an avid runner and would be interested in participating in his running camp across Oregon desert. “She loves to run,” Richard told the man in a zip-up Oregon Ducks jacket.

“I’m really not a good runner,” I protested. The prospect of running in a high-altitude desert was nausea-inducing.

“Well, you can walk, too.” He turned to the man, “Don’t you have some people ride horseback.”

“No, not usually,” the track coach turned out his lips as he shook his head.

“You can ride horseback if you need to.” Richard interpreted. He gathered the camp website and sent me to the back to the computer where I spent the following twenty minutes obediently clicking through pictures of lithe, tanned high schoolers running uphill. “Registration is closed,” I responded to Richard’s questioning raised eyebrows when I returned.

“They’ll make an exception,” he assured me.

***

Some days, for Richard, were idea days. “Jessica, do you have a minute,” he called, and I pressed down the edge of brown tape and slid off my stool.

“Do you want a candy bar.”

I didn’t really. I said, “sure.”

“Or a soda pop.”

“Do you know what a Circle K is.”

After giving me directions to the nearby convenience store, Richard overturned a box of Winston cigarettes onto his desk, and handed the empty container to me with a twenty-dollar bill tucked inside. “You can get whatever you want. Will you get a box of these. Here’s a sample.”

He also wanted a bag of Cracker Jacks. You might not expect frame stores to draw organization ideas from candy displays, but it seemed Richard had been considering all morning. “How do they hang the cracker jacks?” was the question riddling his thoughts. I was having a hard time just fathoming what he was saying. Where I come from Cracker Jacks come in boxes.

In response to my blank look, he began to speak more slowly. “I want you to go to the store and take off one of the Cracker Jack bags and touch the spot where it was stuck and feel if it is gummy. And feel the strip to feel if it was gummy.” He walked me into the frame shop and explained the current disarray that might be gummied and hung into orderly submission. We returned to his office and he drew me a picture, drawing large circles around the allegedly gummy sites. “Just pull one off and feel if it is gummy.”

I was clueless. “They put hooks on the boxes now?” I kept thinking.

In my defense, the diagram would have been more helpful had he drawn it vertically so that it might have appeared less like stout box-cars on a train track and more like suspended bags of popcorn. Or maybe I was thrown by the word “gummy.” “Gummy,” I repeated to myself as the bell on the front door rang when I exited. “Feel if it is gummy.” This would be my mantra, for it really was all I had to go on.

In my confusion, I forgot about the cigarette box I was holding, about the momentous errand that it signified. I was so excited that I texted my dad as I walked. Then, I sent a text to Jake. “Richard sent me to buy cigarettes!” I wrote. And Jake responded, “Nice!”

I was basking in glow of the threshold before me until a picture of my fifth grade D.A.R.E. officer tossing neon key chains skidded across the chalkboard of my conscience. The only real memory I have of these sessions, is the time our pony-tailed officer told us her favorite word to write in her very messy hand-writing was “minimum” and she scribbled it across the board, a landscape of indecipherable bumps, above which she threw two “I” dots. I would scrawl this on my folders and in notebooks after that, writing it without looking, trying to make it more indecipherable than ever before, but then sifting through, distinguishing “I” from “N,” “M” from “U.” It may well be that this is the only tangible thing I drew from hours of D.A.R.E. discussion, but I did not miss the whole point. When your friends suggest smoking, you suggest another activity, but what of the boss scenario? D.A.R.E had not addressed this. I didn’t very well think I was going to stop Richard, but was I enabling?

Buying cigarettes is harder than I would think, harder than I would hope, too, being that I consider myself a fairly non-judgmental person. Then, again, I place far too much self-worth in my grocery basket, loving the trips full of produce, moving quickly through the line when I have to buy mayonnaise or bottled sauces. I couldn’t even buy cheap beer without explaining to the cashier, “I’m not going to drink this. It’s for the slugs.” Call smoking as “filthy” a habit as you want, such elitist shopping is all sorts of despicable.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling hugely conspicuous as I tossed the empty Winston box onto the counter with an air of non-cholance. “One of these,” I sighed (Whatever those are.) A large man in line behind me called out, “Cigarettes stunt your growth!” I tried to imagine the size of the overalls that were adorning him. They could have curtained a shower. “Yes, well, I know that.” It was odd to feel the need to defend myself to these men in the Circle K. Just like that, I had disowned Richard, condemned his habits. My dad could buy womens’ cigarettes in the face of a disbelieving shop owner, but despite the glistening opportunity for legacy, I was clearly not up for the job. I felt a little sick.

And what of the Cracker Jacks? They were just like the drawing. I diligently felt the joined part. Neither side was gummy.

***

A Pilates client and regular customer at Richard’s shop recently informed me that Richard passed away this winter. I had begun telling her about his questions and his playful conversation. It’s odd to now know that he isn’t there. I have passed by the storefront since and laughed to myself, or wondered if someone else was being questioned in the same way, a new person to replace me. I could imagine Richard saying to his current employee, “Jessica was a moron. She didn’t know that cracker jacks came in a bag.” And then again, I couldn’t. He at least gave the impression that he thought I was smart.

In the stories from my parents, the characters themselves are as much a landmark as the actions—the slapstick injuries, the buying of cigarettes. There is a landlord who could only gape at my dad’s broken window and repeat, “Why did you do that?” There is the friend who hoped to impress dinner guests with his German before visiting the bathroom and instead declared, “I am a toilet.” There my mom’s pompous classmate who walked on the edge of a bog and fell in with his camera, the teacher who folded her lip. These figures are iconic and, more importantly, they’re everlasting. My parents have a whimsical fondness for these bit-part players, and even though I’ve never met them, so do I. I can’t picture my mother’s white haired professor any other way than with three fingers bunching her bottom lip, her jaw dropped in an absent-minded nod. Short as her screen time may be, this woman completes the picture.

I think Richard will be the same way, to my kids at least, his lips curling up at the edges as he speaks of horse heads and soda pop. Really, he’s still behind his desk in my mind, too. Where other characters will devolop, Richard is a constant. He dutifully smokes through a pack a day, dreams up ideas for hanging frames. When it comes to such questions of reality and fiction, I have no real need for proof.

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A New Job (Richard, Part I)

When I walked into a downtown frame shop last September and handed over my resume, I was unaware that the job would be just what I was looking for. Not even when an older man in a navy sweatshirt and sweatpants, sandals over his socks, stepped from a back office, did I see the opportunity set before me. He had whitish curly hair and droopy eyes. I had been listening to the CDs of David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and had lamented my lack of odd experiences, of window cleaning jobs, and strange characters. There was much possibility in the way Richard smirked at me, comedy gold in this small man with a protruding pregnant belly. But, I was short on money and had been searching long enough. Stories were not the first thing on my mind; I just wanted a job.

Richard pulled up a stool in the middle of the shop where we were surrounded by walls of wood and metal frames and his eyes scanned me.  As time would go on, I would become accustomed to being regarded by Richard. I would learn to gaze back with an amused half-smile painted on my face. The first time it happened, though, I shifted uncomfortably. The stripes on my pants suddenly seemed gaudy, my sandals a poor choice for the Autumn day.

Richard always spoke with his chin tilted toward his chest and his eyebrows raised so that his eyes peered up at you with a skeptical look that said, “I think you are lying. But so am I.” His sentences poured out in a lofty jumble that seemed to swim across top of his throat, and resulted in questions that always ended in a period. “Do you have good handwriting,” was the first questioning statement he put to me.

Had I expected to be interviewed on the spot, this would have been an easy question. If I had spent half as much time concentrating on solving math calculus equations in high school rather than troubling over how they looked on the page, I might never have had to take math in college. Instead, I took math in college, and my handwriting, when necessary, can be impeccable.

“Is that a yes. Can you be on time.”

I nodded.

“Are you good at math . . . we had a woman from the university work here and she labeled everything wrong. All of these frames. So, we have to get you in here to re-check all of them.” There were walls of frames, doors and drawers of frames. As I would later find out, one door could be slid to the side, and behind it would reside another wall of frames. The sides of Richard’s mouth curled upward as he shifted on his chair. “Leah was a moron.”

Given that my only three requirements so far were that I have nice handwriting, be able to do math and be on time, I couldn’t decide whether his judgment of my predecessor was unfair—How could you honestly deem someone a moron based on such a simple job? Or perhaps it was completely just—anyone unable to meet such standards surely lacked aptitude. Still, this discussion of Leah the “imbecile” raised my apprehension about my own capacity for this position. The next question did nothing to help it.

“Do you have a sense of humor. Am I going to make you cry.”

I have cried when being corrected at the ballet barre, countless times while doing homework, and at some point during every other job I’ve had. It was nearly impossible I wouldn’t cry at this one. Pressing these instances to the back of my mind, I lied, and shook my head.

“Then come back tomorrow,” Richard told me. “Be on time.”

***

I do not expect to be asked “Do you want a Valium?” more than once on my first day of work, especially if my new boss is doing the asking and I do not for a second doubt that an affirmative answer would have him rifling through his desk for said pill. Given that I was asked, though, had I ever before needed a Valium, my first day of work at the frame shop was probably the day.

Fifteen minutes before I was set to “be on time” for my first day of my new job, Jake called with horrible news. His dad was not doing well, and we were going back. We were able to arrange for my friend to fly us in a small airplane, and we wouldn’t leave until evening. I went to work, but there was no saying when I might be back in Eugene to work again.

So, as it turned out, without any prodding from Richard and before I ever laid hands on a frame or calculator, I cried of my own accord–for Jake and for Scott, for my own frustration that I was being called away just when things were falling together–as I told him how I needed to leave.

Richard approached me. “Do you want to go home. That’s a serious question.” He spoke slowly now, articulating every word. “I’m not worried about the work. I’m worried that you’re going to have a nervous breakdown right here. The frames will still be here. So if you want to go home and sit in your arm-chair and drink tea or whatever, you can do that.”

I nodded but made no move to leave.

“Do you want a Valium.”

A while later, I went to his office with a question about a frame. Seeming to forget that I had initiated the encounter, he said, “You have four choices. Come closer.”

“One,” he held up a cigarette.

“Two,” he pointed to a jug of yellow Gatorade. Sometimes, in school, at times where a teacher was assigning paper topics, I would refrain from choosing one of the first few options in hopes that something better would come up later. Other times, when all topics were potentially undesirable, it was best to raise my hand more quickly. I accepted the Gatorade.

Richard turned to a framer who was already standing in his office, “Will you go in the back and get her a glass so she can have some Gatorade.” His directions had no urgency to them, which explained why Kelsey only nodded, but didn’t move. Richard continued.

“Three,” he pointed to a bag of Cheetos. The fourth was an orange, which I also took, to eat with my Gatorade. He handed it to me with a couple of paper towels, then turned to Kelsey again. “Will you get her a glass and pour her some Gatorade.”

I felt the need to connect somehow with Kelsey, but I didn’t know what was accepted interaction. Richard was clearly in charge, but his was a loosely defined position. He seemed to do little but walk between his office and the shop, offer people things he found in his desk drawer (e.g. Milwaukee Brewer pins), and speak mock-seriously to anyone who would listen. Were they amused and resigned to his antics or was I alienating myself from the others by accepting Richard’s edible offers?

“I’m going to give you another chance,” he said, again holding up the cigarette. When I again shook my head, he paused and raised his eyebrow toward Kelsey, who stood silently leaning on the door. “Then can you bring me something back from Montana. A pony.” Pause. “I have a horse head,” he added “from the desert.”

This was hardly what you could call a segue, but I offered “A taxidermied one?”

“No, it’s just the head. I got it from my ex-girlfriend.” His hands were clasped on his belly, making it look as if he were holding a puppy inside his sweatshirt. “The rest of the horse is buried somewhere, right next to where I buried my ex-girlfriend . . . Will you get her some Gatorade.”

A few moments later, Kelsey handed me a paper cup of neon liquid. I thanked her with a smile that tried to say, “You really didn’t have to. I mean I guess we both know you kind of did, or we wouldn’t hear the end of it,” and we continued to work in silence.

Pricing frames is oddly comforting in times of stress, there on a clean butcher-papered table, where all the colors have a number and the stickers go in the same place each time. I peeled my orange and tried not to drip onto the frames. I checked my math and wrote more neatly than I ever had before. These were my last few minutes of feeling normal for weeks and I was in an unfamiliar shop drinking yellow Gatorade with fruit, Richard peering through the spattered window of his office.

The art of the stand

Always attend weddings and funerals.
Do not neglect your thank you notes.
Follow the golden rule.

These represent a partial list of my best, and sometimes idealistic, intentions in this life.

I might also add:
Pet cats lazing on the sidewalk.
Give stranded drivers a jump-start.
Always run through green fields of sprinklers.
Do not ignore lemonade stands run by children.

This last one is especially important, because when I fail on other items, say on the rare occasion that I am wearing clothing unfit for sprinkler running, it is improbable that I will forgo a proffer of lemonade, especially if it comes from a child in a checkered camisole with braided hair, especially if she has a pony-tailed companion who stands beside her holding a hand-lettered sign.

While I have long since retired from summer lemonade sales, I remember well the feeling of anticipation with every potential customer. Does he look overheated? Is he carrying change? Is that the type of person who would stop for lemonade no matter what his destination?

A hush would fall over us, and we would straighten our table, setting out cups just in case. Then, with the eyes of a puppy at treat time, we would watch our approaching stranger, willing a generous disposition upon him.

I did not take many things seriously before my entrance into middle school. I dabbled in a co-ed soccer league, took piano lessons, but avoided my scales like a container of unappealing leftovers. I hated my dance classes so much that I sometimes made myself physically ill dreading the mere forty-five minutes I spent in the studio each week. Lemonade stands, on the other hand, were a different story. If I took trick-or-treating seriously, insisting on an early departure and late return, sorting and resorting my bounty, then my best friend Nicole and I embraced lemonade sales with the vivacity of an open flame to wood shavings. Give us some materials and you’d be hard-pressed to reign in our excitement.

Looking back at the age of ten or eleven, we would laugh about the days of lemonade stands past—our first one with a cardboard box for a table, a single pitcher and cups, one measly sign leaned up against our table, and the two of us sitting behind our box on two shrunken sticker-ed chairs.

“Try selling it for 10 cents,” Nicole’s mom suggested. “You’ll underbid the competition that way.”

We spent half a summer this way: just two girls and their pitcher. Once, at the end of what seemed like hours of selling, we squandered all hard-earned eighty-six cents on a fudgesicle from the ice cream truck. It rolled onto our street, a metallic sounding Yankee Doodle plinking from its speakers. In the seconds it took the truck to travel the half a block to our stand, panic overtook us as we debated the dilemma before us. Resist the irresistible–an ice cream truck so close we could have licked its treat-printed side? Or squander our meager profits on the promise of happiness?

Regret was already tugging at my throat as we surrendered our savings to a man in a crisp suit. With only money enough to buy one, we shared the fudgesicle between us. Chocolate dripped beguilingly down our forearms and dried on the stick but it tasted only of deceit.

Following our discouragement, we sought to revamp our advertising strategy. As the proud owner of vast supply of tiny penguin stickers, some with their flippers raised, some seeming to teeter on an invisible edge, I rethought our poster design. The penguins became an advertising constant, lined up on our signs along a marker-drawn ice-berg, diving one-by-one into a pale yellow pool of “ICE COLD LEMONADE.”

What followed was surely our golden age. Lemonade stands were a neighborhood affair, a festival of children in swimming suits and bare feet. After someone brought cookies to contribute to the sales, no stand was complete with out a preliminary trip to the corner store to buy a pack of sandwich cookies. We were ever on the lookout for ways to expand our enterprise. We began to sell friendship bracelets alongside food, someone began drawing pictures, someone else began making bouquets—whatever we could think of. In some of our later years, we introduced what somewhat erroneously called “advertising metro buses,” an operation headed by our younger siblings, who, on their bikes would take to the nearby streets calling “ICE COLD LEMONADE! TEN CENTS A CUP!” Our messengers would return from their travels sweaty and breathing heavily, park their bikes on a spot in the front lawn with signs saying “metro bus parking” and reach unabashedly for the pitcher.

Indeed, it was no secret that the majority of our sales went to neighborhood kids, who all seemed to know of my parent’s change bowl, a hollow stump my mom once built in a mother-daughter ceramics class. Every few minutes someone’s younger brother would disappear into our house and return with a dime, having stood on tiptoe to reach the shiny stump. The Dayton Street lemonade stand was an internal operation sustained largely by the change stump, but it was one that my mother didn’t mind supporting, at least not enough to hide all the change.

On certain days, we had competition. Rory, our across-the-street neighbor, sold lemonade just outside his front door. He was probably no more than twelve, but at the time we thought him ancient–a reprehensible phony in the world of lemonade standing. He seemed to swagger even when he sat, his legs spread wide with one outstretched down three concrete steps. He had no table. No set-up. No sign. He would just call out his wares. “What an embarrassment to the industry,” we thought, “no charm. And no passion at all.” He may as well have been smoking a cigar, we decided, with as little as it looked like he cared about his business. Just a man and two jugs, one with water from which he drew regular swigs, one with lemonade to be he sold. We glared at him and pitied the thirsty passersby who had naively chosen to tread his side of the street.

Rory, sitting casually on his stoop, probably had no idea his presence was a call-to-battle–that with his every customer, we quietly seethed and in whispered voices, plotted his demise. Lucky for Rory, we were not so ruthless in our actions as we were in our plans. While we often threatened to spread the word that he sometimes drank lemonade straight from his selling jug, we never brought him down in the colossal confrontation we sometimes imagined—a face-off of glacial proportions, where there would be no shortage of lemonade shed.

Our disdain for Rory and his minimalist sales made one thing clear: It had become unfathomable to us that there was any purpose in holding a lemonade stand without the hullabaloo—absurd that anyone would want to just sell lemonade. Such a simple-minded paradigm was rife with missed opportunity, we were certain. Of course, by that point, a somewhat elitist dichotomy was already emblazoned on my mind. There are two kinds of sellers: those who know how to hold a lemonade stand and there are those who do not care.

For years to follow, I would pull up alongside road-side stands, eager to vicariously revisit my own selling days, but would always face disappointment. “Fifty cents?” I would silently scoff. “At this ramshackle operation? Honey, at some point you have got to learn that that cute face will only get you so far.” The six year old stand owner would stare back at me with a smile, her slim arms tan like honey, hair curling delicately around her temples.

In July, while visiting a farmer’s market in Columbus, we took an alternate route back when we spotted two children parked behind a table, their sign boasting a reasonable 25 cents for lemonade. The sellers were no more than three—the girl, a wispy blonde in a sun dress and jelly shoes, the boy slightly younger with large watchful eyes. As she began to spoon ice into our cups, their mother stepped out of the front door and sat in a chair beside the stand. She helped them to pick up the pitcher as I resisted the urge to whisper to the girl that her young brother might better serve as an advertising agent. “He can ride a bike, can’t he?” “Just with training wheels? Really? Well, that could still work.”

Adorable, they certainly were, and their set-up was altogether respectable. Starting so young, they will surely blossom. In the meantime, I do hope I am carrying a twenty-dollar bill when I encounter a lemonade stand that surpasses all my hopes and expectations. It might not seem like much, but with that kind of profit, we could have bought ice cream treats for everyone—three times over at least!

Dreams of Control

My biggest problem with Kirk was the way he slouched in his chair—that, and he had just been moved to sit next to me. It was a Wednesday in fourth grade and we had just learned our new seating arrangement, one in which, much to my chagrin, my desk-mate was Kirk. He sat next to me gumming an eraser and rubbing it into the plastic wood lamination, breathing short gusts through his mouth. On the board, a student teacher helped us identify the grammar mistakes in the large printed sentence: Our neighbor Lorna spilled milk in my parent’s car and it is smelling like a pig sty? I didn’t even see the easy errors; I was too busy fuming about my new state of affairs.

If you had given me one desk-mate veto, one person in the whole class I could set in the corner never to breach my vicinity again, it would have been Kirk. Kirk, who wore the sleeveless Emmitt Smith Jersey with the smudge along his back bottom rib. Kirk, with the penchant for kicking balls over the fence. I preferred to disassociate from Kirk, especially on days when we had substitutes, because unlike the other days, when those in charge knew Kirk like I did and were aware of his malevolent capabilities, a substitute would be left unarmed. Kirk would read books in a corner when he should have been sitting at his desk, he would throw things and speak out of turn. Once, he and another boy in the class switched places so that each time the substitute called one of their names, she didn’t know she actually meant the other. Neither would respond as they both sniggered mockingly.

When I was taking class full time at the University, I would wake in terror over not showing up to a test, or forgetting I had another paper to write. Now, my most common nightmare involves me subbing a group exercise class. It usually goes something like this:

I am late to teach the class because the bathroom has flooded and I had to scale my way out of the stall pressing against the two walls and then jumping to the sink. My ipod is playing loud music during class and I cannot seem to turn it off. My dance professor brings in pizza to celebrate my brother’s birthday. I run out of things to do and decide we will do partner yoga, so I tell everyone to hold hands with the person across from them. Suddenly everyone is naked and they are holding hands and squatting and I can’t imagine many things more awkward than how everyone is paired—young with the old, women with men, young men with older women. Then the regular teacher comes back, five minutes before the end of my class. One of the women leans over to her and says “we miss you.” And the regular teacher nods understandingly.

It is a dream, yes, crazy and irrational, and yet, these dreams would not shake me so much were they not at least somewhat based in reality. Perhaps we are conditioned from our elementary days to view a substitute’s presence as a chance to act out, to test and tamper and push the boundaries. I wonder this because, while subbing Pilates classes, I have had people roll their eyes and walk out partway through class, others who stay but repeatedly huff in a dissatisfied way, still others who send text messages while doing their roll ups. When introduced to a new stretch for their hamstrings, I have had people look at me as if I asked them to de-pants and hold hands with the naked man across the room.

If this sort of mayhem can unfold in a roomful of fully matured, rational adults, I hate to think what sorts of nightmares public school substitutes see in their dream-time wanderings through a world where critical thinking is a skill still left undeveloped and impatience and compulsion reign supreme. Does the chalk come alive and pour from its boxes as they try to explain the algebra homework? Do children stand on chairs, hang from the shelves, spit on the floor? Or is it just Kirk wielding his squishy eraser, his tongue dangling from his mouth, a maniacal glint in his eye?

This is the plight of the  substitute who does not succeed in securing respect from the beginning. It is a position I’ve been in more than once. And in all my time in public schools, I have only witnessed one teacher do it so thoroughly and effectively that the whole time she was there, no one even dared to speak.

***

“I saw a girl get hit by lightning,” a third grade substitute confided gravely to my class. “It was at a softball game in Janesville.” She nodded thinking back on the incident. The woman occupied a wide area in front of the chalkboard, spindly hair rigid and alive as if an electrical current had only just left her body. Her wide-spread sneakered feet were anchored firmly to the tile, its gray surface cold as if all the warmth in the room had been channeled toward her, sucked up those two great tree trunk legs.

Sometimes, the best way to gain control is to spread a few nightmares of your own.

The classroom was dark and the only light sneaking in from underneath the drawn shades illuminated a word puzzle on the board, a game scribbled by this substitute in our first moments with her, just after we had returned from gym class to find our teacher unexpectedly gone, this woman in his place.

Man  _
Board

Man overboard.

This substitute looked like a softball player, I thought; with that unmoving stature, she would never miss a catch. “It was stormy from the third inning,” she drawled, her voice deep and rumbling, her arms dropped firmly by her sides.

I imagined a solemn gusty day—horizon, bleachers, spectator faces, everything in sight a different shade of gray except for lurid green grass. It was hot, electricity collecting in the air, but in spite of the heat, the softball coach wore a jacket, large letters printed across his back. It was the kind of day where the crowd sits silently, arms folded across their chests, their postures erect. Their cheers are half-hearted, almost timid, as they sense that more than the softball game is beyond their control.

No one sees a giant oak tree behind the field sway in the increasing wind, but suddenly everyone’s attention turns to the center-fielder. She is planted on two feet her arms outstretched for the coming hit, her appearance unchanged except that her long hair, tied up in a pony tail, now stands on end, framing her head like a crown of fanned gold. The spectators gasp with horror. The ball drops from the air.

Our substitute shifted her weight. She brought a hand to her face and rubbed her chin slowly. The class was spellbound, suspended like a pop fly sailing inexorably toward the substitute’s open glove. She couldn’t have known of my fear of lightning, I assured myself, the way I talked myself down from excitement every time I slept in a tent or heard thunder, how I convinced myself that if it were not safe, my parents wouldn’t let me stay outside. Lightning was deadly, I was certain, and no amount of comforting statistics or rational thought could wipe the girl’s electrified picture from my mind. The substitute nodded again—the corners of her charcoal lips curling ever so slightly upward. Then she shook her head, switching in a fluid motion as if it meant the same thing as nodding, her hand still on her chin, eyes scanning the room: “Never even heard the thunder.”

As we prepared for camping with my extended family, my Aunt Lee mentioned a canned stew they always take camping. “It’s really gross, but they love it,” she said, referring to her kids. “That’s what camping is to them.” Anyone I’ve ever meant who has camped with any regularity has some strong opinions on just what it is that makes any given woodsy experience camping. S’mores are a key component for me, along with speckled metal tableware, and the unmistakable sound of tent poles slipping against the canvas. For some, it’s not camping without ghost stories by the campfire or hot chocolate sipped in the dark. If you’re my cousin Oliver, it is all about the fire, tending it until the coals disassemble under the tap of a stick, to be restarted again with a blow from puffed cheeks.

If you’re one of the lucky offspring Jake and I may someday produce, you are in for a treat, because above and beyond our traditional burritos, some fork-flipped morning pancakes, a teepee style fire, and the smell of a certain green dish soap that will probably never run out, we are bent on providing a real psychological trip. Go to bed happy and full of puffed sugar, wake up at two a.m. convinced the camper across the way is going to axe your tent. Say what you will about how we set up camp, but we are two people exceptionally skilled in imagining our own bloody demise.

I have not watched many horror movies, but I am familiar with hubris, cognizant of the proclivity for bad things to happen in the dark, and a reasonable judge of events warranting ominous soundtracks. Horror movie heroes always look so silly, and we are ever crying after them:

“Don’t wander off alone!”

“Just forget about examining that sound, and find some light!”

“No, no, no! It is a bad idea to venture down that unbeaten path as the sun is setting!”

But then again, they aren’t aware they’re a horror movie character. They can’t hear the ominous music. No matter how reasonable your sense of foreboding, those little things (the matches you forgot, the significant look from the gas station stranger) don’t take on meaning until you know there is a potential killer on the loose and you’re heart is beating like you’ve just run a 3-minute mile. At that point, these little observations all assemble into the shocking realization that you are tragically doomed.

Jake and I camped two weekends ago at in the Cascade Lakes area near Bend. Things did not go as planned. The first night, the site where we planned to camp was full, and after touring a number of other packed campgrounds, we settled for a campground near the highway: acceptable, but no water in sight. The next day brought the same problem. We thought to get an early start on other campers, to snag a site right after checkout, but we again found ourselves rolling hopelessly past site after full site, each well-laid an assault on our campground short-fallings. “To hell with this,” we finally cried to the overstuffed campsite that became our last straw, where a young girl in a ruffled suit strode by with a pug, and a boy with spiky hair rode by on a bike. I swear they stared menacingly. I think their eyes may have gleamed a little. “To hell with this! We have a four wheel drive vehicle. We’re done with camping in civilization! We’re taking this to the forest roads, to the unchartered territory, the camps of the free!”

Cue ominous soundtrack as we turn onto National Forest Development Road 4209

“4209,” that’s what we call it, with a bit of scathing deference in our voices. 4209 and our car had met the day before, courtesy of a mistaken direction on GoogleMaps. Driving down then, we had deemed it all but impassable and turned around. But, campground vacancy, or lack thereof, worked in the favor of our sinister plot, and there we were, less than 24 hours later, a brand new hope for the same stretch of rubble.

4209 is unfit for travel by passenger cars. The road is like a riverbed in drought, rocks strewn hither and thither, enormous ruts, jutting boulders. Jake, in the driver seat, straddled the chasms and dodged buttes. There were moments we thought we’d never make it, thought we might turn back, but civilization had done us wrong.

As it turns out, so did the backwoods

There was the mosquito infestation, insects that swarmed as though they’d never before encountered human flesh, and still no more promise for a campsite. What ultimately slowed us down, though, was the other-worldly screeching emitting from our front right tire.

At first hint of this racket, Jake and I regard each other with dismay. We pull over and jack up the car, take off the tire, examine the brake. Jake bruises his forearm badly on the wheel well trying to loosen the bolts holding the brake to the rotor. I kick the car. Jake tells me not to kick the car when it is jacked up. I call my dad and get out the words, “car trouble . . .  camping . . . unimproved road . . . no one around . . . bad . . . reception . . .  can’t . . . hear . .  . ” before the phone cuts out. Jake swears at the car. We each have two flies circling our heads, their buzzing incessant, unmistakable mocking in their tone. I am standing 20 feet up the road and I begin to cry thinking that we will surely meet our end: If not starving to death, then devoured by mosquitoes. If not devoured by mosquitoes, then driven mad by these goddamn deer flies. But, we have a cooler full of food, the almost ripe huckleberries and the car’s shelter from swarming mosquitoes. Jake takes out his pajama pants and begins to swing them wildly around his head, cursing and gritting his teeth. So, it will be the third then.

***

It is Sunday night, and the neighboring campers at the campground we finally find are sparse–mostly fisherman and older couples occupying those sites directly on the lake. We have had our share of bugs, and are elated to have any choice of sites at all and so we choose a campsite far from the water, surrounded by dryness. We have one neighbor, who we don’t see all evening, but as we pass his site, Jake notes the neatness of the camp, a lamp hanging from a PVC stand, Coleman stove opened on the table’s end. “Who would have such a clean camp?” we wonder, and then we go to cook potatoes in the fire.

That night, I wake to a repeated rustling and the light of a flashlight scanning the nearby woods. Jake has left the tent. I turn over and close my eyes again, but the scanning continues. He goes to the car, then returns, then walks off in another direction. After ten minutes, I pull on some pants and go to investigate. Jake sits in the driver seat of the lighted car with his foot propped up on the seat, applying a band-aid to a hiking blister on his ankle.

“I walked by to catch a vibe, but he’s just sitting there staring in the fire,” Jake reports on our sickly neat neighbor. Evilly. Menacingly. I can hear these attributes in the undertones of his voice.

There is a sinister clarity that descends at 2:00 a.m., especially if you’re prone to embellishment and a bit of drama. There are things that might strike you odd about your camping experience early in the evening, but go ultimately unnoticed: perhaps an unattractive man-made fountain gracing the campground entrance, the fact that there’s no need to pay until morning, perhaps the presence of no one but a single RV parked behind the “Camp Host” sign, the owner of which insists he’s “not really the camp host, but just camp wherever you like.” Come 2 a.m., when you wake in a cold sweat, those details have sorted themselves into a rather gruesome story wherein the RV camper drowned the real camp host in the river, built a ramshackle fountain to lure people into a sense of beauty and security, but will personally see to it that you don’t pay in the end–well, you’ll pay, alright, but the currency won’t be money.

The onset of mosquitoes, the treacherous 4290 were clearly clever ruses to wear us down and weaken our resolve. Where we earlier joked about banishing a screeching demon from our wheel well, we now see the noise as an obvious incidence of foul play, an unmistakable intrusion of an ill-intentioned horror-seeking villain.

Finally, our neighbor’s neatness–at first, impressive–now seems too perfect and contrived: “Safari hat tipped against a water bottle, Coleman stove set up just so, lamp hanging from a pole, dish towel draping deliberate, yet casually, next to lamp as if to say, ‘Look other campers, I am just like you! I cooked my dinner and then did my dishes after a long day of wholesome recreation. I have no reckless and creepy intentions. I have no blood-stained axe stashed within my tent.'”

***

The dark is like a mirror trick, our image of this unseen camper’s face appearing like some flame-stained demon in the flickering of our imaginations, his expression contorted, his anguish palpable as he waits in silence for the last remaining variable, for us to slip back into the tent, so he can fulfill his perverse and gruesome plan. Smoke rises and it’s difficult to tell who is crazy, this nocturnal man staring into a dying fire, a beer in the crook of his elbow, or these robed strangers whispering conspiratorially by their unlit fire, one eye still fixed on the nearby camp.

Three times waking to a sound in the night, rising from the tent, sitting by the fire, going to sleep in the car, and it’s no longer something that happened by accident one night, and rather something you do. Perhaps this ritual has become a part of our camping experience like a certain handle-less corningware coffee pot is part of my parents’ morning, its inside stained brown in a ring three inches from the top, the exact depth my father fills when pouring water every day. My parents make good coffee, one with a rich flavor and sweetness to it that many an electric maker is hard-pressed to replicate. You could give them a new pot for Christmas, one with an internal percolator, but I’m certain it would go unused. Offer them a filter and they will say they like the grit. It’s possible they began by “roughing it,” making coffee in a ceramic pot, and grew so accustomed they began to prefer it. Whether that’s the case or not, it’s my sense that our camping experiences begin like that—making do until the clumpy canned soup, the too-thin sleeping pads become the norm, become fun. The grounds aren’t so gritty anymore, they make the whole cup better.

So, it might just be a case of “you can’t take the over-exaggerated gruesome fabrication” out of the camper. You can’t take it out because I think I enjoy it. Just a little. Just the part where the camp was less scary when Jake and I sat there together in the early morning, our shoulders almost touching, how the frogs became louder as our heartbeats grew slower.

Of course, I can’t guarantee our aforementioned offspring will view our horror movie ritual the same way. Perhaps they’ll see the late night flashlight, hear our whispers, groan and bury their head in the sleeping bag hood. Better, though, they will get the notion to start the fire, to cook another marshmallow, to point their sleeping bagged feet toward the center of the circle. Maybe they too will relish the stillness and the biting night air and our voices will droop heavy with sleeplessness as the moon slips into the Western sky.

A place on a hill

Should you ever wish to expose me as a narcissist, you might point to a moment in my youth where I propositioned that someday I live on a hill and my family live in lower houses surrounding me. I did not suggest that they live next door as my grandmother and her grandmother did on a little street in Swayzee, Indiana. Not even down the street as my father’s brother now lives from his parents, a stone’s throw if you have a good arm and the chosen stone is heavy enough to pick up some momentum. No, I wanted to live on an elevated out-cropping, hoarding the best view of the stars for myself.

Fortunately, my family didn’t interpret it quite like that and I’m fairly certain I didn’t mean it that way either. It was undoubtedly something said during an all-too-soon departure, where everyone stands around and exchanges hugs and leans through the windows to give kisses or comment on the odometer, or peer into the back windows and ask whether we checked under the bed for forgotten shoes. Maybe I was in the back seat of the Subaru and we joked about future meetings and living arrangements like people sharing the last few bites of cake, nibbling bits off the corners, pressing our forks to pick up crumbs, as if by drawing it out this way, we could make the conversation last until the next visit.

***

My earliest memories with my mom’s side of the family place us all around a metal basin full of cold water and fresh picked apples ready for cider. My three-year-old arms are in the cold water up to my elbows–it darkens wristbands of my coat and draws goose bumps on my wrists. The smell of dust coats the barn floor and the flowery smell of my Aunt Becky’s shampoo is wafting toward me from across the water. There’s the dull thump of the apples bumping each other in the water, sometimes the squeaking of their skins. Finally, there’s the sound of the conveyor belt, carrying inspected apples to the presser, always circling. I’m not sure how many times I was a part of this autumn ritual; I was still young when the Dougherty Orchard stopped producing cider on a large scale—maybe I was really only there once—but the image has a quintessential bearing, real or imagined, on my identity. “My family has an apple orchard,” is a phrase I uttered no small number of times in elementary school show and tell.

***

Grandmother lists available ingredients and turns over the kitchen: summer squash, beets, onions, garlic, fresh corn, swiss chard, all grown by my grandfather and great-uncle. “I’ll just wash the dishes,” she tells me. It is a good arrangement. I am happy there: planning squash soup and beet salad, a frittata, and pizza, a clafoutis with the Michigan cherries. Happily Busy. Every time someone comes into the kitchen—my Grandmother, back from her meeting with the women of the Methodist Church; my mom, in from the garden; Aunt Sarah, just arriving from work— they ask what they can do to help. A bowl sits between the sinks, garlic and oil re-gathering in the bottom, a whisk resting against the side. “Oh, I’ll wash dishes,” they say, “I can do that!” I don’t wash a dish the whole time I’m there.

***

Aunt Sue reminds me of the hill scenario: “You know, you used to want to live on a hill, surrounded by all of us. What if we supplied you with ingredients and you cooked for all of us, too?” I am reminded of a treaty simulation during fourth grade Native American history. “If you read for a whole day,” the student teacher proposes, “we will give you three days off of school.” I have been assigned to play the Indian chief, and I think it sounds like a pretty good deal. We agree to the treaty and the traders inform us that our days off will take place all in a row, the week after school is already out. I ponder the hill. You will supply all the ingredients, I think, what is the catch? Maybe it’s the dishes. That could make a lot of dishes.

***

Grandmother takes me to the Marion church to make noodles for a fundraiser. In the kitchen, members of the congregation mix the dough and run it through the machines, then fluff the noodles with flour. Grandmother and I take the trays, spread the noodles on the papered tables in the sanctuary. She shows me how to shake the dough through my fingers, to sift out the dumplings so that it falls in even curly piles across the surface. Two hours pass. It’s work akin to pea shelling and corn husking, to addressing large mailings at an office job I used to have—a little conversation, and I could do it all day.

***

Grandmother has a way to wash dishes, looking through the window toward the bird feeders and the trumpet vine growing over the shed, past the overgrown gravel lane where we used to pick the pineapple weeds just to smell them. She washes the plates first, and they dry fast. She talks about my great-grandmother and how she would whistle up the walk to see her, talks about the people at church and a bag I made for her that she uses to carry books at conferences. She washes the bowls and they drip onto the plastic mat. It has been a decade now that we have lived over a day’s drive away from my extended family. 20 trips back and forth and often times I’ve felt idle without my Montana friends. I’ve written many lost lists and watched far too many “That’s So Raven” reruns for one person’s sanity. This time, I don’t spend an idle minute all week. One meal over, and I start planning what to do with the bunch of beets Uncle John set in the sink.

Grandmother rinses the glasses, stacks them close together along the rack. Her process is zen-like, no questions about her next move, a measured method like shelling peas or placing apples on the conveyor belt. A hummingbird comes and goes.  I watch as butter sizzles in the skillet.

A bit of a pickle

I once got myself stuck in a mint green un-zippered skirt that wouldn’t come over my head.

In Traverse City, Michigan.

At the National Cherry Festival.

In a Porta Potty.

I may have bumped into wall, and I kind of cringe to think of it, because I am capable of eating a lot of cherries in one sitting. I have done it. And while I won’t fully admit to the after-effects, I can only imagine the smelly plights that a porta-potty, unlucky enough to be placed at a festival celebrating easily poppable stone fruits might endure. I’ll just say this: prunes take a lot of flak, but it’s not all their fault.

My senior year of high school, I went through a skirt sewing phase, by which I mean I came home every day from school and I sewed a skirt. By the time I got to the sixth or seventh one, I wasn’t even using another skirt as a pattern anymore. I would just cut four rhombuses, two taller, two shorter. Sew the front together, sew the back together, sew sides, hem bottom, hem top. Bam! Skirt!

There was only one problem. Having already passed through puberty, I had these pesky protuberances above and below precisely where I wanted the narrowest part of my skirt to fit. And so, each of my waists had to be large enough that I could weasel my my way into it, but not so wide that it would fall over my hips.

Learn to sew a zipper, you say? Why, yes, that does have some rational grounding. In fact, even I was not so thick as to not see the logic in the general availability of fastened skirts in department stores. Because to pay money for a skirt that takes you five minutes to fit over your head in the morning, a skirt whose application requires you to pause briefly to breathe before holding your breath again, so that your rib cage won’t expand and your shoulders won’t move as you force a cotton weave to stretch to it’s greatest capacity–to pay for that, well, that would be absurd. But, when your primary objective is to quadruple your skirt collection, ease and wearability be damned—well—then an hour spent learning to sew a zipper means an hour thoroughly squandered. So it was that I showed up to school the last month of senior year, with each day a new skirt.

I have talked a lot about getting the skirts on. I have not so much mentioned getting them off, and I should, for while getting them on was a bit of an ordeal, shedding them was something I usually opted to behind closed doors, where no one was around to hear the grunting or knocking that ensued when I extracted my body from the tightly hemmed bondage. It usually involved undressing from the waist up, so as to not restrict anything in places where it could not be adjusted. Without fail, I would find myself bent over trying to will my shoulders into my ears as my hands tugged at the bottom hem.

So, of course I had some inkling of the endeavor at hand when, at the Cherry Festival, we readied ourselves for a swim. Even though I wore my very appropriately cherry printed swimsuit underneath my clothes and could easily have stripped down to that had my wardrobe involved functional pieces, I marched to the porta-potties. No unintentional exhibitionism here!

What I had not factored into the equation was the sticky nature of sweat and the expanding effect that a hot summer day can have on the skin. What I had not planned on was inserting myself directly into the movie scene where the girl, having forgotten to lock the porta-potty door, stumbles into it and out into the world as she works to pull her skirt over her head. She finds herself strewn on the ground amidst gaping onlookers, her legs askew, her head obscured by said skirt, her cherry-print bikini bottoms exposed for all to see. This is the stuff front pages photos are made of—at least that’s what I would be on the look out for if I were the photographer at the Cherry Festival. A fresh perspective. A bit of an edge.

In the end, we had to cut it off right there on the beach, the failure of my porta-potty mishap hanging from my person. I stood there, hunched with my dad’s pocket knife and seam-ripped the skirt from my hips. All-told, this is rather a sad story. The original handy work was never the same again.

Today, I embark on my summer adventure which once again includes a trip to the Cherry Festival. The cherry swimming suit will surely adorn my luggage. I’m not sure about the skirts yet. You might imagine one would have learned her lesson, but alas, while I have more actual sewing patterns under my belt now, the fact of the matter remains: I have still not learned to sew a zipper.