Journey Home

Yesterday was my first day of unemployment since I was sixteen. We all saw more lay-offs coming. To be honest I lasted longer than expected, but it still sucks. After dropping my daughter off at kindergarten, I had no clue what to do with myself. I pulled out of the school parking lot and kept driving. I drove around aimlessly at first, then decided to turn towards the green hills and sagging barns outside of town. It had been years since I drove around the countryside by myself. Seven years to be exact. I drove by spring-green fields of baby goats, lowing angus, buzzards, wild turkey, and peafowl. I slowed down long enough to roll down the window and stare at a family estate with raging jealousy. I wondered at how someone got so lucky to have such a beautiful house complete with a barn, workshop, horses, and pond. I sighed and grumbled; “Even a fucking tree swing”. Thats when my Dad called and asked what I was doing. I lied. “Oh, I’m just getting some stuff in order, looking at finances…you know.” He told me I should come help out at Journey Home, the local soup kitchen he volunteers at on Wednesdays. After declining, I felt like a jerk and called him back saying I would be there at eleven.

It was crowded when I arrived, and I was tasked to sign people in as they came through the door so I spoke with everyone. Every nationality, every walk of life, every age. A couple that lived in their car, many from the women’s shelter, Salvation Army, tents, motels, friend’s couches. Last week, they were even picked up half-conscious in the middle of the road in front of the center. An hour into lunch, a woman collapsed into a grand mal seizure on the floor. People rushed to lay her on her side and pulled tables away, making it clear they had experienced this before with this lady. But a fellow volunteer made the cardinal sin of calling an ambulance for help. When my father realized what she was doing, he sprang at her and kept saying we didn’t need an ambulance, but they came anyway. In the homeless community, an ambulance is only for those who are suspected dead or almost dead. The last thing this woman needed was yet another bill she couldn’t pay.

I chatted a while with Robert, a toothless, mentally ill man intent on showing me his pets (a bag of stuffed animals), a prostitute “headed to a commune in San Francisco”, Fieldston, a Vietnam Vet with the voice of Barry White and a doo-rag covered in dollar bills, and Enrique…whose face lit up when he learned you could have seconds if there was enough. I’ve never seen that kind of hunger on a man’s face before. Everyone I signed in yesterday, had no clue that they silently told me to “sit down and shut up”.

I have more than I need, even without a job at the moment. I know one is coming, I’m certain of that. But yesterdays lesson was heard loud and clear. At this very moment someone is driving by my house, wondering at how someone got so lucky to have such a sweet yellow house complete with a dog, porch, and shade trees. They sigh and grumble; “Even a fucking lawn mower”.

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East Tennessee

No apologies. I miss this blog something awful, though my computer was stolen, and the ability to write at work is slim. But I stole a moment to post a spoken word piece I wrote recently. I hope you enjoy. Oh… and Happy Valentines Day.

East Tennessee

That beer tasted like freedom.
Tasted like east Tennessee
Riding through back roads in the mountains
Windows down
Rolling my palm up and down through the wind
Racing across the hood of a 69 Skylark

Lust tasted like late nights and tight jeans
Across Mr. Wrong’s ass in June
A handkerchief in his back pocket
Covered in oil from the car that you drove,
And he expertly fixed
with his hands
With his tools
With his jawbone
With his weight on your pelvis.

Tasted like pool.
The one you threw back on the last break
The night you stumbled into the street
Laughing at the thought that no one could touch you,
Invincible in your underwire bra.

Tasted like the Nolichucky
Rolling and diving in whitewater
When the water finally calmed
And you sat sun-drunk
Basking in a limestone gorge
Surrounding you like a protector
Watching rafts go past

Tasted like the river’s bend
Near the cabin that was so quiet
With faulty plumbing
And an occasional visit
from the bartender you picked up
while watching the game.

Tasted like the hot springs
Skinny dipping with the girls
Laughing at our thighs
and slippery sexual energy
That was wasted on some guy from  Wisconsin

Gold bubbles rising in the heat
Effervescent
Sexual fizz
Freedom from the day
Hot heat
Hot and stupid
Blissfully ignorant

Fumbling through the beginnings of adulthood
Fumbling for zippers
Fumbling bra clasps
Fumbling for door handles
Fumbling for tent flaps
Fumbling…Fumbling………Fumbling.

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Weapons of Tiny Destruction

Early this morning, I made a trip to the hardware store. I was a woman on a mission. I had reached under the sink for a roll of toilet paper the other day, and instead pulled something out that resembled a shredded white paper pom pom with a cardboard handle. The tiny black specks of poo around the perimeter confirmed my suspicion. A mouse had found it’s way beyond the faulty sink plumbing, past the toilet cleaner, and into a large eight-pack of fluffy white nesting material. A “one stop shop” for building it’s little rotovirus–ladened  dream home. The slogan for Home Depot came to mind; “You can do it, I can help…little mouse“. This was the first time I had witnessed any sign of a rodent in here and I’m chalking it up to the recent upgrade of fancy TP I splurged on. The fancy kind that bears wipe their butts with in the woods.  This is war, I thought.

The softie in me thinks mice are some of the most adorable creatures on earth. In middle school I even owned a pet rat named Snatch, that rode on my shoulder everywhere I went. He was a great pet, though I began feeling sorry for him when his nuts became so large they drug on the ground behind him when he walked. I wasn’t sure if this was normal, but this was long before the advent of Google you see, and the idea of a trip to the library to research rat nuts seemed ridiculous. I can imagine the look I would’ve received from the Reference Librarian. But I’m getting sidetracked here.

So there I was in the “kill” section. The area that contained every trap, spray, powder, cake, bag, fog and foam to kill anything that walks around with their back to the sun. I stood with this arsenal of weapons before me and felt terrible. I wanted the most humane way of getting rid of the buggers and nothing seemed right, until I saw the black box. “Kills instantly” it said. And I made my way to the register with my miniature electrocution chamber now sitting in my laundry room (seems they like paper towels too). It feels unfair to lure the little guys with their last meals of peanut butter. But the mice played dirty too. They shredded and pooped on my fancy woodland-bear-strength toilet paper. It’s payback time.

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Chan Chu, the Debris-Removing Money Toad

So I had this pile of rubble on my back patio where  I tore down an ancient cinderblock BBQ pit last weekend. I knew it was too much for me to cart off to the dump, so I called a guy on Craigslist to come pick it all up and take it away. When he and his help arrived, I looked out the window to see what I’d be dealing with. A beat up pickup truck, stuffed with three men and a fourth faceless person rolled into my driveway.

The door opened, and out rolled a man of great girth with tattoos up and down his forearms and a shirt decorated with snakes draped around his large belly. His white beard and long gray hair were twisted into dreads, and his left hand had so many gold and diamond rings stacked on every finger that he could scarcely make a fist. Picture a Mexican druglord’s henchman, and that’s exactly the man who strolled onto my back patio. He had brought his son with him, a strapping guy of about 25 with a slight beer belly himself, and a scrawny shirtless man of indeterminate age due to a leathery pallor brought on by a long romance with cheap bourbon. It might sound strange, but I immediately liked these guys.

After haggling a bit over the price, the two younger men then went to work. The henchman eased himself into a patio chair across from me and raised his ring-covered hand to light a cigarette. As he did this, it struck me how closely he resembled a Chinese “Chan Chu”, also called a “golden money toad”. You’ll see money toads on counters of Asian restaurants by the front door or cash register, as a chan chu will bring in luck, good fortune, and protect wealth. It’s a large fat toad with coins stuck all over it’s body, and is always found sitting on a stack of gold, jewels, and cash. So here I was sitting with my money toad (who would soon be sitting on my money). Money Toad was full of all kinds of questions about my age, my house and more pointedly, my husband or lack thereof. I changed the subject but Money Toad persisted. “I was married once” he said. “She’s in the truck over there as a matter of fact”. He pointed an armored finger towards the driveway. “Your ex wife is sitting in your truck?” I asked. “Yeah. I know it’s crazy, but I can’t stand to be alone ya know? I get lonely”. I sighed and told him I’d rather be lonely than miserable. And that he must be either a glutton for punishment or the lonliest person on earth to feel the need to hang with the ex.

Money Toad and I talked for a while as the two men heaved cinderblock after cinderblock over the fence. He then told me of the worst house he had encountered on junk removal from a home. It was cold at the time, and the house they had been called to, had been abandoned for almost eight months. The owner had passed away, though her family had left everything as it was inside without touching a thing. Right down to all of the food in the kitchen and what looked like a breakfast plate and morning newspaper. The mice from a nearby field had taken up residence in the house for the winter, and had bred rapidly. When they opened the door thousands of mice had scattered in every direction into the sofa, bookshelves, even the mattresses. “After seven hours of hauling mouse-shit covered clothes, furniture and everything else I got to wheezing real bad” he said. “I was gasping for air, and finally I got Steve to take me to the ER” he said, pointing to his son. “I got the mutherfuckin Rotovirus from that nasty house”. Money Toad looked disgusted and swore he would never do a job like that again without a respirator. “It damn near killed my ass”.

So after a few hours and two trips to the dump, contrary to a true Chan Chu, Money Toad left my home with a large wad of twenties I had slapped into his hand . I said goodbye. Money Toad walked towards the truck calling over his shoulder; “Thanks Elizabeth, you’re beautiful”. “Thanks John” I said, and closed the door behind me.

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Treasure

This evening I was digging through long-forgotten boxes and envelopes in my bedroom closet. I was looking for a short narrative I had written years ago to rework for a humorous speech contest I’ll be competing in in a few weeks. But to say these things were long forgotten may be a lie. Okay… It is a lie. I knew damn well what was in one of those boxes, and I half dreaded opening it. But I thought for sure I would find it folded up among the contents. So I opened the lid for the first time in over five years.

This box is a layered lasagna of papers, photos, newspaper clippings, ephemera, and bits of art that I have accumulated for almost fifteen years. Included, were things I threw in that were important to me at the time, letters that were written to me when I was living in the wilds of Alaska, ghosts of boyfriends past, and things that I tossed in that I imagine were too difficult to deal with at the time but too important to throw away. Looking back I suppose I thought I’d keep them there until I could dig them out and sort them out for myself when I could get a grip. The bottom of the box began in 1997, and layered on top were more recent additions. Basically, I just recovered shipwreck treasure in my closet. A haunted treasure. An obituary of a dear friend, images of asshole husband #1, snapshots of my most beloved pet, etc. There’s some serious heartbreak in that box, and my first impulse was to burn the damn thing in the back yard immediately.

But as I sifted through the contents looking for that printout, I discovered items that made my heart shout out for joy. Tens of letters written to me by my mother who’s been gone for almost five years now. Pictures of my best friends and I waving at the camera, beers in hand. Just like so many years ago, inside this box they stood out like flecks of gold in a troubled terrain. My priceless gems that have proven to keep me afloat over the years. Diamonds. I am a very wealthy woman.

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Every Man is an Island

My BFF Jessica and I decided to ditch household chores on Sunday, and take the kiddos out for a swim. Jess had been lured by a spray painted sign on the side of the road advertising someone’s local “swimming hole five dollars a car” and dialed the number sprayed at the bottom. After getting directions, we set of with a cooler of beer, sandwiches, and sunscreen. It would be an adventure, we thought. A trek into the unknown following directions given to us by he proprietor further out into the boonies. After turning into the drive, we were met by a leathery-faced wirey man in his fifties sporting a tattered pair of blue shorts with busted elastic, and an inside out t-shirt. “Is this the nudist swimming hole?” I asked as I rolled down the window. His face changed from confusion to disbelief as his gaze landed first on me, to Jess, and finally to the two eager faces beaming from carseats in the back. “We’re joking” we said, and he quickly recognized Jess as the girl who had called earlier. “You’re in for a treat!” he said, pointing us towards a road leading to God knows where. “Just follow that road until it turns to dirt, then keep driving. You’ll run right into it. And hey! You can even use the captains table!” Jess and I glanced at each other and I could tell we were both dying to see what he was talking about.

We headed towards where he pointed and drove on slowly alongside overgrown hayfields and a line of hackberry trees. Deer bounded through the overgrowth and disappeared behind a patch of pokeweed. As we rounded the next field, we could see a treehouse in the distance, and then the banks of the Stones River. That’s when we saw it. There, anchored in the middle of the river in all of it’s glory, was a pirate ship. The proprietor, whose name we soon discovered was Johny, had installed two masts and draped them in dramatic tattered black sails and a large jolly roger that flapped in the breeze. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me” I said.

We unloaded the car and quickly found “the captains table” underneath a sail of an old sailboat that was rigged between two locust trees. Scattered about here and there were small wooden troll-like dolls hidden along the bases of trees and in the branches. Jess pointed to a small wooden head peeping out of the ground nearby. “Oh Liz” said Jessica, “This place is special” and I wholeheartedly agreed. After looking around we also discovered a grill, a floating dock with a tent firmly tacked down on top so as to not roll off into the river in your sleep, a swing above the water, a hammock, and a floating crocodile whose eyes peered up from the green water. It smelled strongly of eccentricity, and that’s just the kind of stuff that my close friends and myself thrive on. The spice of life. Jess, the kids, and I were pleased.

After a few minutes, Johny joined us down at the waters edge and talked about the various people he had encountered while living there. The various families, boyscout troops, an ex con or two. Johny told us of his ill-fated online dating attempts, and the last one that ended with his date asking for an application once she spotted a stripper pole towards the back of the bar. Afterwards, Jess and I both commented on how lonely he seemed. And I couldn’t help but feel like I knew how he felt.

Years ago, freshly divorced, I lived in a log cabin by the banks of the Nolichucky river in East Tennessee. It was a beautiful, picturesque place located amongst rolling hills, farmland, and deep woods. Not a night went by that I didn’t see a shooting star or hear owls hooting away. It was the first time in my life I had no friends to speak of within a two hour radius. I both looked forward to the weekends and dreaded them at the same time, as after the work week, I knew that for two days I would literally see no one. I filled my time with perfecting my cast on an inherited fishing rod though the brook trout proved to be smarter than I had thought. And when I wasn’t fishing, I’d take a can of plaster down to the river banks and make molds of the animal tracks I found. I became pretty good at identifying animal tracks, and followed the nightly soap opera between a raccoon that left piles of fresh water clam shells on his dinner rock and a river otter that lived in a den around the bend upstream. Somehow it made me feel connected in a place where I felt completely disconnected. It was a time of deep introspection for me, as well as a time of deep loneliness.

They say that every man is an island, and to some extent I believe this to be true. It certainly felt like it during my time spent there at the cabin. But today I feel like I see Johny in a different way. Like most people on deserted islands, I finally escaped to be closer to friends and family. But Johny built a boat. A pirate ship, to bring people to him instead.

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What is There to Believe in This World?

My sisters and I by the porch of our creepy house

My father and I had a long talk on the phone tonight. It’s rare that he ever talks longer than a few sentences and then abruptly hangs up without a “bye” or a “see ya”. But tonight we talked for almost an hour. The subject changed from lawn furniture, to child abuse, to the American Civil War. When we finally landed on the topic of the “thing” that lived in our house that my sisters and I grew up in on Montclair Avenue here in town. The only thing beneficial about growing up in a supremely haunted house, is that it makes for good stories. That’s it. And to speak of it still today will never fail to raise the hairs on he backs of our necks.

We lived in this house from 1978 to 1990. Looking at it, it doesn’t look like your typical ghost-infested home. When you think of a “haunted house” you would expect to imagine an old plantation home or a Victorian monstrosity from long ago. But not our haunted house. It was built in 1972, dressed with harvest gold and avocado green appliances, shag carpeting, and fuzzy red wallpaper that would have made Sonny and Cher proud. But it was haunted nonetheless. And it made for an interesting and scary environment to raise three young daughters.

We were scared all the time. Not only because we often saw it in the hallway or in the bedrooms, but because you never really felt alone even when you were. It was an unspoken rule that if you were left alone for any period of time, you would sit on the front steps or on the back porch to wait for the rest of the family to come home. Growing up there, you just didn’t know any different. It was just the way things were.

My first memory I have was getting in trouble for getting out of bed. This happened on more than one occasion. A dark figure would dart from room to room, or cross in front of an open doorway when I was supposed to be asleep. My sisters or parents would shout for me to get back in bed, though I was already in bed. It sat on my sisters bed and leaned towards her in the middle of the night. It made people gasp out loud in unison when no one else was supposed to be there, yet someone could be walking in the hallway… You get the picture. But my father denied seeing it every time we shrieked in fear. For years he denied it’s existence, telling us we were being rediculous. Until a few years ago at a family diner he admitted to everyone he had, in fact, seen it. We were floored and angry. But his strategy was pretty smart. By the patriarch of the house not believing it, it made it, in some ways, less of a valid threat.

As we spoke on the phone tonight, my father recalled the night when he saw it clearly. He was watching TV late at night, about to go to bed, when it appeared at the doorway of the room just to his side, walked down the hallway, and straight into my bedroom. This was the first time he told me this, and I asked him what he did. He said “I finished watching TV and went to bed. I asked; “So you didn’t come to check on me?” and he answered no. When I asked why, he explained by telling me a story of what happened to him late one night at a funeral home he worked at in his twenties.

He was sweeping the floor of a room that housed an open coffin of a man who had just been embalmed.. When he glanced at the man inside, he noticed that the man’s chest was rising and falling as if he was breathing. He stared a long time, sure that he was seeing things until he couldn’t take it anymore. Terrified, he dropped the broom and ran to tell his friend what he had seen. The man was an old-timer embalmer who was close to retirement. When my father told him what he had seen. The man looked up and said “You saw it” and went back to work. When my dad asked “What do you mean I saw it?!” the man replied; “It happens all the time. But you can go back in now. You won’t see it again.

My father ended this story by saying; “Sometimes your mind sees things because it says you it sees things. And sometimes you see nothing because your mind says you see nothing. But things are always occurring, whether you see them or not. So what is there to believe in this world?”

I see where he was coming from certainly. But what do I believe in this world? I believe if a creepy see-through woman were to walk in my daughters bedroom, I would follow her in and tell her to get the hell out.

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