Friday, June 24, 2011

*Saving Booger Hole*

In college I knew this guy named Francis.  Sometimes I called him the Gentle Giant but that all stopped the day I found out he was gonna feed a cute little mouse to a mean old tarantula.
            “No how, no way,” I said.  “Not on my watch.”   

I'm not sure why Frank got a tarantula.  It's not like you can cuddle one or anything.  Frank named it Legs, 'cause he liked ZZ Top.    The mouse was a BOGO item--buy a tarantula, get its first meal free.
            I was walking through the common room on my dorm floor when I heard the announcement. 
            "Frank's gonna feed a mouse to his tarantula.  Who wants to--"
            That's all I heard.  I left a trail of my econ textbook, a spiral notebook, two Bic pens, my gloves, and a hoodie in the hall.  I flung open the door to Frank's room.  He lowered the beer bottle that was en route to his lips.  One corner of his mouth went up.  He didn't say it, but it seemed he was expecting me.
            I put my hands on my hips and glared at him and his red-headed roommate. "Where's the mouse?"
            The guys looked at each other, then back at me.  Frank used his beer bottle to point to the other side of the room.  I walked over and sat at his desk.  Put my hands on the ends of the cardboard pet box.  A half-dozen fiber optic-looking whiskers stuck out of the air holes.  I touched them.  They retracted.  After a minute, a little eraser pink nose poked out, all quivery. 

            "That does it,"  I said.
            I picked up the mouse house and held it close to my heart.  Walked back to the red head's side of the room. 
            "How much?"
            Frank squinted.  "How much what?"
            "How much for the mouse?"
            Frank shrugged.  "I don't know," he said.  "That probably would’ve fed Legs for a good month."
            "Crickets 'til the end of the year," I said.
            Frank shook his head.  "What?"
            "I'll buy your stupid spider a bag of crickets every week 'til the end of the year in exchange for this little guy."  I tapped the top of the box.
            When he didn't answer, I braced the pet container on my hip with one hand and held out my other. 
            Frank looked at the ceiling a minute, then stuck his hand out.  "Deal." 
            He took his time letting my hand go.

The next day, Frank and I rode the elevator to the ninth floor after lunch.
            "You want a lift to the pet store?" he said, before he turned left and I went right off the elevator.
            I looked up at him and wrinkled my nose.  "What for?"
            "You know.  Mouse food?  Crickets?"
            "Oh.  Yeah.  I guess I do.  Let me get some cash."
            My mad money from Dad was running low so I bought Booger Hole a glass turtle bowl instead of a fancy Habitrail.  I didn't buy him any food.  I'd just bring him scraps up from the dining hall.  I found a little blue dish for him to drink water out of 'cause I couldn't figure out how to attach a water bottle to the turtle bowl.
            Frank waited for me by the register, hands deep in his Wrangler pockets.  “All set?”
            I grinned.  “Yep.”

I named my  mouse Booger Hole 'cause one of my brothers had told me about a bluegrass band called Booger Hole Revival.  When you revive something, isn't it like snatching it from the jaws of death?  Like Jesus did Lazarus?
            Booger Hole was a silky, charcoal-colored mouse, the size of my thumb.  I could tell he was a boy 'cause--  Well, I could tell.  Even though he was super cute, Booger Hole turned out to be a pain in my butt.  He was forever peeing in my sweatshirt pockets and escaping his turtle bowl.  He didn't seem to realize or appreciate what I'd done for him--the way I'd purchased his redemption and all.  I loved him anyway.
            Booger figured out how to come and go early on.  Every morning he was inside his bowl, but there were always chocolate jimmy-looking mouse presents all over my desk.  I started putting a textbook on top of his bowl with a sliver of a gap for him to get air.  Each of my school books wound up with a crescent moon-shaped hole on the side opposite the spine.  I didn't get cash back for used books that semester. 

On about our fourth trip to the pet store, Frank turned to me at the stoplight right before the Mileground. 
            He looked at my knees instead of my face.  "Legs was scared of Booger." 
            I looked over at him and huffed.  "Are you serious?"
            Frank bent forward to see if the light had changed. 
            "Yeah.  I put Booger in with him and he ran to the other side of the tank."
            I didn't say anything.
            Frank cleared his throat.  "You don't have to keep buying crickets.  If you don't want to."
            I looked out my window and shook my head.  "No.  A deal's a deal."

And then I killed him--Booger Hole.  School was out for summer so Booger Hole and I went home to Huntington.
            One night I had one too many at the Varsity Club and I made a bad choice at two in the morning.  After I brushed my teeth, I got Booger out to play on my bed.  I passed out and when I woke up, I felt like the Princess and the Pea.  What is that lump under me?  It was Booger Hole, dead, but still warm. 
            I held him in my hand and sobbed.  Tried to wash my guilt away with tears.  I stroked his little body with my pointer finger.  All his important stuff was smooshed to one side.  Like when the loaf of bread gets crushed by the gallon of milk in your grocery bag.

I never got around to telling Frank I killed Booger Hole.  If I did, I’d have to face the fact that I’m a giant as sure as he is, only not as gentle.  Not by a long shot.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Ripley . . . Believe It or Not

I arrived at Ripley a hummingbird on acid.  I departed a ghost of a girl.

Three gals packed into a red scoot-about car.  Each with more luggage than the last.  Enough snacks for a nation.  Beverages too.  Brunette, blonde, and flame-colored tresses swung.  Blended.  Connected.  A first date really.  E Harmony without a man.  W Harmony. Words.  Women.  A little bit a wildness.
            Destination?  Ripley.  Believe it or not.  Write Here.  Write Now.  A word summit.  An artesian uprising of literary talent.  Education, entertainment, and then some.  Classrooms filled with folks painting pages with phrases and flourishes.  New.  Experienced. Frail.  Vital.  Trembling with power.  Quaking with fear.
            And me?  For three days I poured myself out, a living sacrifice, like Paul in Romans.  I gave all I had to the cause.  To the moment.  Opened my pores to gulp every item in.  A breath.  A word.  A note.  A memory.
A giant of a man with a stick he will not always need, fairly roared.  I straightened in my seat, dazzled.  I admired how he twisted and almost shouted.  No notes.  Just a flow.  A rhythmic almost rap.
            A gentle and generous fairy spirit with waist length, mist-like locks simultaneously cantored and spellbound us.
            A chaos of comedy, confusion, and impulses included and amused me.   A “this is where and what I was meant to be and do” feeling gripped me with its  twitching,  velvet gloves.
            And Lord help us.  That was just the prologue.
Not everyone knew it, but the wise ones did.  A legend was among us.  Witty, famous, handsome, infamous.  Brilliant.  Let us not forget brilliant.  Man and woman alike leaned forward, palms exposed.  To catch every single nuance.  A sonorous voice accompanied by six-stringed passion.  In the exact same key.  
            And later, if by chance the man who has lived life so fully it sucked the color from his hair and beard spoke to you, everything behind and around you dissolved.  Dissipated.  And you became a diamond in a beautiful setting.  Elevated, sparkling, and also brilliant.
            Soon after, we ensnared a gorgeous young couple, electric in black, with our admiration.   His hands were a blur while hers caressed a hulking yet graceful dance partner--an upright bass.  An almost virgin song broke us open with the memory (or warning) of how love can cool like coffee.  Be not enough, like portions at a fancy restaurant.  A mere appetizer to a starving soul.
And then there were circles.  ‘Round a fire.  ‘Round a porch.  Music.  Fluids.  Laughter.  Words.  Repeat.  A like-minded soil that will surely reap a harvest someday.
            We were a necklace.  Strung with synergy and synchronicity, or both.  Somehow we managed to hover a pinch shy of perfection.  Any closer and the pin of jealousy, or some mean spirit, would've pricked our existence.  And the pieces of us would've floated hither and yon.  Seventeen or more flaps of translucent skin instead of a single, living and breathing, organism.

I am the ghost of the Ripley girl
Bound to travel ‘round this world
Find the folks with words inside.
Say to them, “Write ‘til you die.”
Jot down the verbs and adjectives
Only this will make you live
(fading, slowing)
I am the ghost of the Ripley girl
Every word a precious pearl

-Song verse inspired by Doug and Telisha Williams’ song, “Ghost of the Knoxville Girl.
-Thanks to Sarah Robinson for permission to use her photograph of Cedar Lakes Conference Center in Ripley, WV.

Friday, June 10, 2011

*Bluegills from Gallaher Elementary*

Sometimes you have to squint and strain your brain real hard in order to remember.  Else you'll forget.  It's like fishing.  You throw back your arm.  Whip it forward.  Let go of the little button on the reel in mid-arc.  And the see-through line sighs as it sails toward the center of the pond.  The red and white bobber goes plop, and then you wait. 
            That's how I caught these memories.  I lay in bed on a Sunday morning and waited for the red and white bobber in my brain to pop in and out of the water. 
            "Got one!" I said. 
            Actually, I got a couple.  The fish were biting.  They do that in the morning, you know.

I went to Gallaher Elementary School in Huntington, West Virginia.  Or was it Gallagher?  I'll have to ask my mom or my oldest brother, Mike.  He's the only brother who cares about the old stuff.  It's not like I can drive down to Huntington and check the sign on the school.  Mike called one day a few years back and told me they tore Gallaher Elementary down. 
            "I got some bricks," he said.  "Want one?"

My daddy walked me to school every day.  It was just five blocks.  We'd talk about everything--Alistair Cook on Masterpiece Theater, our next camping trip to Carter Caves, or Piggy Boy Twisty Tail.  He was the pig on the farm in Mill Creek where Daddy grew up.
            Dad got grumpy when I told him I was going steady with David Lively. 
            "You're only in the fourth grade, for crying out loud!" 
            David was the only guy who signed up for the Gallaher School Summertime Reading Contest and he beat me.  Me!  Of all people.  I went to the Gallaher Village Library twice a week in the summer.  Read under the covers at night with a flashlight and everything.  I was a shoo-in to win.  But the summer before fourth grade, David Lively crashed his bike.  His foot got stuck on the banana seat and he ended up with a cast from his ankle to his hip.  Wasn't like he could do anything but read that summer.  That made me think he was pretty neat.  That he read a lot.
David wasn't my first crush at Gallaher School.  In first grade I was gaga for a boy named Beau.  Know what beau means in French?  Beautiful.  And he was.  Had the biggest blue eyes ever.  We were all the time staring at each other with silly grins pasted on our faces.      Mrs. Collins would bang on the pull down maps with her pointer stick. 
            "Pay attention, you two."
Green paint's what I remember from second grade.  Mrs. Calfee handed us each a piece of off-white paper, big as our desk tops. 
            "Green starts with the letter 'g,' so we're going to paint something green." 
            Then she picked up the big container of green bean-colored tempera paint and shook it real hard.  I guess the lid wasn't on good 'cause next thing you know, we were something green.  I bet if Gallaher Elementary was still standing, you could walk into Mrs. Calfee's classroom and the green polka dots would still be on the ceiling.

In fifth and sixth grade, I got picked to be a safety patrol and a fire patrol.  When I was on safety patrol duty, I wore a white cross-my-heart-go-'round-my-waist thingy.  I carried a flag made out of a bamboo pole and a twelve-inch square of orange cloth.  I'd open it after I looked both ways 'cross Gallaher Street or Norway Avenue.  I’d close it once the kids got to the other side.  If it rained, we got to wear cool yellow coats and hats, like the guy on the box of fish sticks. 
            When the fire drill bell rang, I'd put on my orange cross-my-heart-go-'round-my-waist thingy.  I'd run to my post--the second floor stairwell on the Gallaher Street side of the building--and hold the door open.  I was ready to shout, "Stop, drop and roll!" if I saw someone a-flame.
            The cool thing 'bout being either kind of patrol was going to Camden Park at the end of the school year.  I was too chicken to ride the rickety and creaky Big Dipper roller coaster so I'd go on the Whip and the Tilt-a-Whirl over and over.  And eat cotton candy.  “Pink, please.”  Oh, and pronto pups with gobs of bloody ketchup and curlicues  of sunny yellow mustard.

Mr. Lee was our principal.  Remember that saying?  "The principal is your pal."  Mr. Lee looked like a bull dog.  Like the one on the Purina dog food commercial.  "This is Dog Chow's finest hour."  Mr. Lee made it his personal mission to make every child at Gallaher School an adventurous eater. 
            "Eat the nutritious before the delicious."  Like there was something delicious.
            The worst day of the month was Liver Day.  The school would stink to high heaven.  'Round 'bout eleven o'clock I'd start poking at my uvula with the Pepto-Bismol pink eraser of my orangey-yellow, #2 pencil.  Tried to make myself barf so I wouldn't have to taste the liver.  Mr. Lee would stand over your shoulder 'til you took, "just one bite."
            The thing was, the liver looked like a square b.m..  My mom was a registered nurse and that's what she made us call poop.  It smelled like it too.  If I'd been unsuccessful triggering my gag reflex, there was always Timmy Howard.  He was the only kid in school who liked liver.  For a quarter, he'd eat yours.  Man, that kid ate a lot of liver!  I always wondered if he died young.  Doesn't eating a lot of organ meat give you something called gout?

I think my sixth grade teacher ate something that made her sick.  Her skin was super bumply.  All the time.  She tried to cover it up with lots of face makeup and cream rouge the color of Bozo the clown's nose.  You could still see the lumps though.  Kinda looked like toad skin.
            I had to mouth breathe whenever I went up to her desk to ask a question.  Her perfume was rank.  She said it was Wind Song but us kids called it Break Wind Song.  Her lips looked like the Joker's but she didn't smile much.  I reckon I was partly to blame for that.
            See, I was ornery.  No one knew it 'cause I made good grades.  No one thinks the smart kids ever do anything wrong, but I did.  I had the world's A #1, best spit ball system ever.  First, I made my ammo.  I'd tear off little bits of notebook paper and put 'em in my mouth.  When they were good and soggy, I'd roll 'em into little balls, just a tiny bit bigger than a beebee.  Then I'd coat 'em in Elmer's glue.  The last step was covering 'em in pencil shavings. 
            When I had a dozen or so of my super awesome spitwads, I'd work on the delivery system.  I'd pry the stopper off my Bic pen with my teeth.  Couldn't use my fingernails 'cause I bit 'em way far down.  I'd grab a hold of the writing tip and pull it and the ink tube out.  Then real sneaky like, I'd load the clear plastic cylinder with a spitball.  When the teacher went to write on the blackboard, I'd . . . ready, aim, FIRE. 
            The spitwad would fly through the air and get trapped in the adhesive that held her hair together.  See, every day after lunch, she'd spray her hair real good with a blast from her big, pink can of Aqua Net.  The spitwads would dangle in the back of her hair for a little while, then one by one,  they'd fall to the floor like little woody booger balls. 
            The hardest part was trying not to bust a gut.  I had to bite my lip big time.  If I laughed, I'd get caught.  If I got caught, I'd probably have to go to the principal's office.  I'd never been in Mr. Lee's office, but I was pretty sure it'd be scary.  He'd probably get in my face and I'd keel over from the terribleness of his breath.  I was sure he had bits of liver between his teeth, decomposing at various rates.  Worse even than his halitosis was the possibility that my safety and fire patrol privileges might be yanked.  No more Camden Park?  Perish the thought!

Well, the sun's coming up now.  The fish are swimming away from me.  Toward the shadows.  I should probably get moving too.  I sure am glad I went fishing first.  Just think, if I hadn't cast way far out, into my pond of memories, the woody booger balls and the bits of liver might've been the ones that got away.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Never Say Never

“Mommy?  Why does that lady have a moustache?”
            I heard my molars clack together.  I kept 'em clenched.  Turned slowly.  Tried not to be obvious.  There she was.  Looked like she’d stepped right out of Little House on the Prairie.  Her blue calico dress L’d where it hit the ground.  A creamy apron, edged in eyelet, bathed her front.  Or is that called a pinafore?  A circle of lace hugged her storm-colored bun.  In her hands lay a hank of yarn, yellow-orange from an onion-skin dye bath.  Her blunt fingers caressed the fibers as she gazed off into the fire-colored foliage.  Whew!  I don't think she heard.
            I put my finger to my lips.  “Shhh!” I told my daughter.  “Remember the Thumper Rule?  If you can’t say anything nice—“
            “But, Mommy.  I wasn’t being--“
            I pounced my pointer finger on my lips and made mad eyes.  She shushed.  I pretended to fiddle with my younger daughter’s stroller blanket.  At the same time, I stole another glance at Gunsmoke gal from beneath my lashes.  I had to nip my lower lip to keep from gasping.  Cream-gone-to-butter strands sprouted above her pursed lips.  Honestly?  I’m not sure moustache was the right word for the thing.  It was more of a fringe.  Reminded me of the stringy edge of the off-white muffler my Nan made me years ago to match my camel-colored, Bobbi Brooks winter coat. 
            I murmured.  To me, not her.  “God bless her.  Why she doesn’t yank that thing is beyond me.” 
            I gave the stroller a shove to get it out of a mud rut.  Then I couldn’t help myself.  I did a Lot’s wife.  Glanced back one more time.  I puffed at my bangs and shook my head.     
            “Gracious!  That’s never gonna be me.”

Know where you can find us the first Saturday of every October?  The Springs Festival in Springs, Pennsylvania, but don’t go on a Sunday.  It won’t be there.  Most everyone over that way, especially the Amish, Quaker, and Mennonite folk—will be in church ‘cause  Sunday’s the Lord’s Day.
            The first thing we do when we arrive is buy a couple homemade, soft pretzels.  I love the salt polka dots, almost big as pebbles, all over the glossy brown surface.  I squirt sunny mustard all over my pretzel and open wide.  The kids gobble theirs plain or with nacho cheese.  Fight over the leftover viscous orange sauce that  paints the waxed paper.
            I smile and hand the girl who can't stop blushing two dollars.
           “Two lemonades, please.  ‘Cause it’s so good, one is never enough.”
            Next we head for the Forest Trail.  My older daughter tugs at my jean jacket sleeve.    
             “Is it time, Mom?  Or did we miss it?  I hope not.  We've never missed it before.  Not even once.
            I peruse the printed schedule.  “In five minutes the sheep shearing gal from Morgantown will be here.  Run up and save us a seat on the front row.  Or snag us one of those boulders, one that's dry.”
            We oooh and ah over the lamb getting its first ever haircut.  My girls tear up when "she" gets nicked in her pink, fleshy armpit. Of course, my daughters assume it's a girl. 
              After they pet the shorn she, we get back on the Forest Trail and continue the loop.  We pause at the soap maker and sniff every flavor of her essential oils.  Then we use broken pretzel sticks to sample all the dips and spreads the Tasty Shoppe vendor has to offer.  We listen closely as Musket Man, who looks like a skinny Santa in buckskin instead of red velvet, does his demo.  We can almost recite his whole spiel.  I cover my ears right before he pulls the trigger.  KABOOM!  I feel the sonic force in my skeleton.  We clap and he bows low.  I grin and toss my hair behind my shoulder when he winks at me.
            “There’s a blacksmith this year,” I tell the girls as we continue on.  “Let’s go see.  And then we’ll get homemade ice cream, pet the Alpacas, and buy a broom for Gram.”
            My older girl steps in front of me and locks her brown Bambi  eyes with my blue ones. 
           “Can we take a hayride too?  Pretty please?”
            I herd her close with my arm. Bend to kiss her curls.  “Of course, sweetie.  You know how this is.  We do every thing, every year.”

My younger daughter sits criss cross applesauce on the sidewalk next to the flagpole outside her middle school.  I pull alongside the curb and push the gearshift to P.  She stands.  Opens the back door.  Drops her bookbag on the seat.
            I look over my shoulder.  “Did you tell your music teacher you’ve got a good excuse for leaving play practice early? That we’re going to the Springs Festival?”
            She nods as she opens the front door.  “Can I ride shotgun?”
            “Sure.  You’re almost twelve.  But when we get your sister, she’ll probably--”
            “I know.  I know.   I’ll sit in the back then, with the little guy.”
            I flip the visor down to check my lipgloss status in the mirror.  I feel my daughter’s gaze and turn to her. 
            “There’s something on your face.  On your jaw right there.  An eyelash maybe?”
            I flip the visor back down.  “Where?”
            “There,” she says.  She puts her finger on my chin.  Jerks her hand back and rubs it on her shirt.
            I huff.  “What?  Why’d you do that?”
            Her mouth pulls to one side.  “’Cause it’s icky.  Wiry,” she said.  “You touch it.”
            I release my seat belt.  Scoot forward to get closer to the mirror.  My fingers search my jaw line.  Brush toward my neck, then away from it.  Finally my fingernails find the thing.  Tug. 
            “Oh, poop!”
            My daughter’s eyes are huge.  “What?  What is it?”
            “It’s attached, that’s what it is!”
            She makes a gagging noise.  “Ew!  Are you kidding?  Gross!”
            I yank, hard.  My eyes water.  I inspect the offender.  It's a silver S.  It almost gleams in the noon day sun.  A tiny speck of skin, a flesh rootball, clings to one end.  I hold it in a pincer grip.  Offer it to my daughter.  Her glossed lips curl and twitch.
            “What do you want me to do with it?”
            “Put it somewhere safe,” I say.  “’Til we get home.”
            I watch her swallow.  Her nostrils flare. “You’re not going to do that thing, are you?”
            I grin and re-buckle my seatbelt.  “Of course I am.”
            She moans and presses her palms into her eyelids.  “I hate that urn where you keep all our personal stuff. Our belly button stumps after they fell off, our first fingernail clippings, Dad’s super long eyebrow hair, L'il Paint's toe.  Do you know how weird you are?”
            I chuckle and put the car in drive.  “I think the word is sentimental, dear.”
            She shakes her head.  “No, I’m pretty sure it’s weird.” 
            She turns the radio on, then off.  “Oh, and just for the record?” she says.  “The whisker on the chin thing?  That’ll never happen to me.”
            I snort.  “Really?” I say.  “Oh, sweet pea.  If there’s one thing having children has taught me, it’s to never say never.”


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