School Bus Drop-off

The handle that operated the door of our school bus was almost impossibly shiny.  I would see it sit idle, floating ever ready next to the driver, awaiting activation, and then suddenly how lovingly and gracefully it would move to open the doors and welcome the bus’s newest rider.  In the afternoons, it would slide over again to usher us back to our home places, right where we’d begun the day, waiting in the chill that only seven a.m. in a New England valley town can supply.

After school, after the bus door squeaked closed behind me, after the engine pulled against the hill of Webber Road until it reached the top and the sound of it faded down the other side, I walked to Aunt Mary and Uncle Phil’s house.  I could have walked all the way home, but that would have involved another three quarters of a mile up the dirt road, beyond still a long and sometimes steep hill.  Instead, I’d decide to wait the two hours for Mom to pick me up on her way home from work.

The farmhouse was a giant, sticky, urine-odored place, maintained at about eighty degrees.  (It seemed to be, anyway.  Perhaps when a place smells like urine that strongly, it also seems to be warmer than it actually is.)  Mary and Phil were elderly, heavy drinkers, and limited in their ability to care for themselves.  Still, they lived together in relative safety with the help of Mom and Dad’s checking in and the occasional ambulance ride to the emergency room.

The two doors to the side entrance into the kitchen were heavy, the first because it was connected to the frame with a kind of contraption whose job it was to softly close the door behind its user.  It worked too well.  The second door was heavy because it was adhered to its frame with a gunk comprised of body oils, dust, and decades of lemon scented wood polish.  You really had to use some shoulder to break its hold, but it would give with the right touch.

Inside, dull over-waxed linoleum, patterned to look like a collage of blue slate tiles lined the floor.  The heat and smell of urine enveloped me. A claw-foot table covered in mail sat in the near corner.  In the window sills was a collection of Christmas cacti, dust.  Momma Cat was very thin, shiny, oily black with a white bib.  She sleekly jumped up onto the white marbled formica countertop.  Canned cat food.  Electric can opener; the lid of its latest work still magnetized to it, hovering like a UFO.  Momma Cat would yowl a desperate meow.

There was always ice cream in the freezer, and it was always recently purchased.  It was one of the only reliable foods in the house because it was always eaten quickly. Uncle Phil had almost as much penchant for sugar as he did for scotch.

***

That’s it for now– just ramblings, but I’m trying to exercise my writing a little again.  It’s funny what you remember when you start thinking about details.

Other stuff to add– Coffee flavored ice cream (sometimes cookies and cream or peppermint stick)-too soft-was the freezer not cold enough?/sticky box with cellophane/the drawer of silverware and how it had to be rocked out side to side/The People’s Court/Aunt Mary’s toenails/ the squeak of Phil’s recliner/Well, I gotta/Frosty/the quiet and mystery of upstairs

 

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The Smokers’ Christmas

I was probably 10 when my parents decided it was time to take control of the air in our home around holidays.  Until then, either the current of smoke was too strong, the number of smokers too many, or the resolve too faltering.  This year, Uncle Phil, Uncle Jack, Uncle Pat, Dad, and Grammy would be relegated to the “office” to fix their nicotine cravings.

The office was really only called the office because it had a desk and a phone in it.  It was one of those rooms that was the last to be finished in the building of the house.  It was a forgotten place, an inconvenience.  It smelled cold.  Putting a door on it was important because that meant we could close it and not look at it and not remember how much unfinished business was in there.  The desk in the office was actually two metal filing cabinets supporting a wide board between them.  The newsroom era metal desk chair must have weighed 50 pounds.  It had some limited green vinyl upholstering on the arms and back, and with a cut in the seat, revealing yellowed cotton fill.   Its wheels, which were intended to work in unison, seemed to each have its own mission in mind.  There was an answering machine next to the phone on the desk made of black plastic and wood laminate on the sides.  It recorded on a miniature cassette tape that made a squeaky and bubbly bird chirpy sound when your rewound it.   The covers weren’t yet installed on the light switches, which made turning on the lights a bit more skilled and graceful an act than typical.   We did manage to scrape together the wherewithal to buy a cheap scrap of wall-to-wall carpet and cut it to fit the shape of the room, thereby covering the particle board floor that would give you splinters if you dared walk barefoot upon it.  The carpet was a dark teal green and it wasn’t properly affixed to the floor or walls.  We let the spare furniture hold it in place, and though it did curl at the sides revealing white polyester fringe at its edges, it served its purpose to keep the chill at bay and provide just enough sense of utility.

It was this room, the office, which was to be the official smokers’ lounge of that Christmas.  I remember Mom and Dad strategizing before the arrival of our guests– that they would simply explain that we were trying to keep everyone comfortable to enjoy the day and so to please, when you decide you’d like a cigarette, to please go into the office and close the door.  That last part was the sticking point.  It was hard to make sequestering your guests to a forgotten space sound happy and welcoming.

Being simple, happy, and rather young, the uncles were easily sold on the plan.  I think they liked that there was a special place for smoking, where few children would spend time and they could speak freely.  Dad was glad to role model happily using the space, though later he would end up going outside where there were no relatives at all.  Even with temperatures in the teens, being among the trees and surrounded by silence was better still than sharing the office with the in-law smokers.

It was Grammy whose hackles jumped at the request.  “What am I?!  An outlaw?!”  She resented the office and she saw it for what it was– a forgotten place where we stored the things we didn’t otherwise know what to do with.  “What about my rights?”  This was also a raging debate in the mid 80s– how to honor and defend the right to smoke while acknowledging that perhaps there were some health risks to smokers and those around them… perhaps.  Grammy was having none of it.  She would not be stored in the office with the chair and the rug with the unfinished edges.

Instead, Grammy intentionally smoked louder and longer, and more dramatically than ever before.  She lit her Slim 100’s one after another in the kitchen, in the living room with the cathedral ceiling, magical swirls of smoke up, up, up.  Her arms gestured grandly and her voice cracked and she would pull and swallow that smoke and ahhhhhh…. it went everywhere.  It wound around her hands and her face and head, over the dining room table, past the candles and across the mirror on the sideboard, through the kitchen, the smell of ham and smoke.  She was like Tinkerbell, but her wand was a Slim 100 and her glitter, tar and ash.

Dad was furious and started doing a thing he would do when he didn’t know what to do–  his brow would crunch and his look took on the look of someone in search of a weapon.  He would walk around erratically.  (Really he was in search of a reasonable reaction, as they didn’t easily reveal themselves to him.)  Mom’s voice became high-pitched, “Mom, please!  It’s not that big a deal.”  The tension filling the house postured to take over the smoke in every hidden nook and cranny, from Mom to Grammy, and Dad to Mom and Grammy, which didn’t make sense, but there it was anyway.  Dad’s tension spread to everyone really, for not taking up arms, rocks, pitchforks, charge!!!  Where was the sanity in this family?, he would wonder.

Uncle Phil, Uncle Pat, and Uncle Jack enjoyed the office and laughed in there all day, coming out only for gifts, dinner, and the occasional refill.  They had the merriest Christmas of all.  Grammy enjoyed herself to a degree that would annoy my father for years to come.  She would tell the story of that Christmas as “The Year They Tried to Lock Me Up.”  I remembered the video game under the tree that year, and how sad I was when Christmas was over, despite the madness.  When everyone was gone, the office door was opened and the smell of Marlboro’s stood stale in the hallway.

A Lonely Night with My Still Whole Cervix

In less than 48 hours, a chunk of my cervix will be removed by electrified loop, deposited into a vial, and sent to a lab for testing.  My husband is at work and I’ve told him to stay there.  I’m starting to regret this poorly scheduled appointment.  I’m starting to get scared.

I’ve also been musing on death and the after-life, of which I doubt the existence, and yet feel desperate to confirm.  This is a nasty habit of mine.  Other people bite their nails or tap their foot.  I search for God and meaning and sometimes feel such a hollow and inescapable echo in my chest to think of it that I retreat to the ultra-… ultra what?- ultra passive, ultra benign, ultra numb!… zombied state that being American makes me excel at.  I watch marathons of hour-long dramas like Law & Order and House and play Candy Crush.  In these longing and seeking, quiet and contemplative journeys, there comes a point at which my courage at spiritual exploration shrivels and picks up the remote.

My gynecologist has told me twice that my cervix is cute.  The last time she even imitated its voice, high and squeaky like a mouse’s might be.  “I’ve never birthed anything,” it said.  And it’s true, it never has, nor will it ever.  This is by choice, but you know how choices go– there was always another one that wasn’t made.  After Monday, I don’t think “cute” will be the word that comes to mind at seeing my cervix.  “Burnt” maybe, or “corroded,” or “scarred.”  I guess as much as I want to put my head down and charge forth toward getting this behind me, there is a mourning that goes with it that demands my attention, as well.  There is something sad about imagining damage and cob webs on what was once so full of potential life, quite literally.

Life does pass and the wonder only grows, as does the sorrow, and delicious richness of understanding it, and NOT understanding it.  It’s a wonder human beings are able to function at all knowing we don’t know, and its no wonder we can’t navigate all of our depth sometimes.  It’s all an impossibly beautiful and spell-binding world.

Scene from a Low Budget Restaurant at a Lower Budget Hotel, Right Off the Highway

I’ve left Tom and Ernie to sleep in the room so I don’t disturb them.  A little girl, maybe four, is hanging from the bar trying to see the fruits.  She’s wearing pink velour pants with camouflage rubber rain boots.  An urgent beep! beep! beeping from the waffle iron.  Wouldn’t it be so awesome to have one of them at home?, says the girl’s mother. 

CBSSports, Nascar News, snowmobiles race around a track, climbing and falling over moguls of packed powder.  (God, that track is really rather tiny.)  From the front camera angle they look like headlight-nosed reindeer jumping through a field.  Why would one do the coldest, most monotonous and uncomfortable sport in North America?  The gladiators of Michigan, sponsored by SkiDoo.  The television in the opposite corner features the robot competition of a science and technology conference.

March is the month that I gain weight and this year is no different.  You would think December’s holidays or February’s sedentary evenings would do it, but no.  I’ve been watching myself and it’s true that March would be the fatty month.  It’s just warm enough for me to think I’ll go outside and exercise today, but in the end, not really warm enough.  Meanwhile, I’m tired of counting winter calories.  Last night I asked Tom for a candy bar and he brought me a hot chocolate.  What the hell?  I asked him to go out and buy me a candy bar again.  He wasn’t happy, and I’m not either now that it’s morning and I regret the late-night nutritional fail.

This restaurant is closing in fifteen minutes.  The toaster will be put to bed until tomorrow, and the fruit salad cocktail will, I imagine, be dumped back into the bucket from whence it came.  Maybe it will be thrown away, but I doubt it.