Once Upon a Time...

I's Cream

It's warm in San Francisco today, and the sundresses are on parade. I'd say it's hot in San Francisco today, but it's not hot to anyone who has suffered through even one day of 100+ degree heat this summer. It's merely warm, but oddly so. July is typically a month for overcast skies and windy, cool days in this city by the bay. It's only 73 or so degrees, but the breezes are scarce and the city's Mission residents are taking this opportunity to put on flimsy things with no bras beneath.

On warm days like today the air twinkles with the sound of bells on ice cream carts. Fruit pops and tri-colored ice cream bars are pushed around on wheels, typically by an older Latino man, and sold to pleading children who promise not to get it on their new shorts. I don't know how much this ice cream costs. I bypass the carts for the expensive, fancy ice cream with bourbon in it at the trendy shop on the corner.

In my head the ice cream bars in the carts on the street cost only 35 cents, but I can't afford them. 

One of my strongest memories from elementary school were the afternoon ice cream breaks. At around 2:15, between social studies and math, some children in my class got ice cream. Some did not. Ice cream privilege wasn't determined based on attendance, good grades or good behavior. Instead, the children that got ice cream were the children who brought 35 cents to school.


This ice cream could be had every day, Monday through Friday, if you could afford it. Some kids bought and ate ice cream every day. Some kids only once a week. Some kids only a few times a year. 

I didn't get to eat ice cream every day or even every week. I wanted to; instead I watched.

I remember watching LeAnn sometimes not finish her Nutty Buddy cone. She probably wasn't hungry after her mom-packed brown bag lunch complete with sandwich, chips, pudding and fruit. But she got a cone every day anyway. The trash can saw as much of that ice cream as she did.

I didn't deserve ice cream every day, anyway. Does any child deserve ice cream five days a week? Perhaps had I had ice cream five days a week this wouldn't be one of my strongest memories from elementary school, and I wouldn't be sitting in this coffee shop on this warm day watching girls straining sundresses, writing about ice cream.

Maybe today I'll finally buy an ice cream sandwich from the man with the cart, eat half, then throw it in the trash.

A Lap Death

One time a baby squirrel died in my lap. It is was breathing, feeding, suckling from an eye dropper, then in some infinitesimal instant, it stopped living. It inhaled atmosphere, expeled what couldn’t save it, then ceased to be. 

And it doesn’t matter. 

This baby squirrel was one of a nest of baby squirrels that were being reared in a tree in my mom’s yard. Until my stepfather cut that tree down. The babies’ mother was driven from her branch home. Our front yard was suddenly saddled with soon-to-be-furry little rodents.

My mother looked up how to raise baby squirrels on the internet, and it turns out, it’s not very different from how you keep newborn kittens alive. She got formula from a veterinarian, the same one who left an ovary in the cat, and set to saving these wriggly beings that she’d inadvertently made orphans.

One night when I was visiting, home from college, I fed one. I took its fragile body, so wispy you could end it with a false start, and nestled it between my knees. I drew formula into the dropper and placed it at its mouth. It was weak, but there was drinking. I remember feeling so nurturing and gentle.

Then it died. It died because my mother is not a squirrel, and neither am I, and without a mom a baby squirrel has a rotten chance in this cruel world.

But it doesn’t matter.

It’s an odd thing to watch the life fade from something as you hold it. You feel responsible, even if you were trying to help. Because that is what we do, we make that baby squirrel into the hero of its own story, and if the shoe fits, ourselves into the evil, murderous queen.

Fact is, a baby squirrel died in my lap.

It is no matter.

Drink Days, The First One

"Would you like another cocktail?," I asked.

I was working my first night behind the bar. She was drinking Marker's Mark & 7-Up. The bar actually was hooked up to Coca-Cola products, so in reality it was a Maker's & Sprite. But no one ever ordered that. At a bar it's 7-Up or else you couldn't order the classic 7&7, and that is that.

Her drink was about three-fourths of the way dry. I heard the wet thud of melded ice slide into the flat, glass bottom of her beverage.

She was blonde. Even in her mid-30s I believe her hair was naturally very pale. She was short, athletic looking with ruddy cheeks. She leaned forward onto the bar's top on her forearms, one shin in the barstool. She used her other leg to push against the brass banister near the floor. She got very close to my face.

"Would you like a cocktail," she said. It was not a question. I peered back at her, a wet rag in my hand.

I was nervous about being a drink slinger. Bartenders know shit, and I didn't know shit. "If you don't know how to make something, speak up. Just tell them. There is no shame in being a rookie." Words of wisdom from my trainer ran laps in my head.

"Would you like a cocktail." She repeated herself. Again, this was not a question.

The bar was relatively empty that Sunday night. There was NFL football on both big screen t.v.s. I was scheduled for my first shift on a slow night so I could get my sea legs. Despite a small number of patrons, Sunday night was when the regulars came out en masse. At this bar, perhaps at any bar, the regulars were also fully committed alcoholics.

"Lemme give you some advice," she slurred at me with an old money accent that reeked of Kentucky, disappointment and privilege. Her empty drink was the first she'd ordered. From us. "Never ask if someone wants another cocktail. Don't be gauche." Her final, declarative sentence clung in the air.

Her eyes were glassy and blank. She was still leaning onto her arms at me over the bar. Her fists held the laquered wood, and her knuckles were white. She pulled her lips back over slick teeth, and smiled a smile draped in bourbon and condescension.

"Can I get you one more, man?," I heard my trainer ask a guest in the corner.

"Yeah," the gentleman replied. "One more."

Transitional Moment

I cried softly in the dark, slumped in a faded neon green t-shirt, guzzling orange soda. A Boyz II Men ballad blaring through fuzzy-sounding speakers flooded the tinsel strewn cafeteria. Tables were pushed along the wall, the mint and pink stool seats clashing with the decorations selected by a select committee of my classmates. I would like to have been on this homecoming dance planning committee, but I had no idea when those kids were chosen. It was the way those things would often go. Cool things like dance planning or group outings to the teacher's house on the 4th of July would occur, always with the same rich kids in attendance, and none of the rest of us would be informed.

I cried, but no one noticed in the dark. I hated the slow songs. Even still, when I heard the tempo slow I'd nonchalantly walk around the handful of boys in my classes who might ask me to sway face-to-face with them, trying to catch their eye. They craned their necks to see over my head to the girls who weren't growing out a short, botched haircut. Eventually I retreated to a chair after purchasing the soda, then sat and watched an 8th grade couple dance really close, chest to chest and crotch to crotch, deeply kissing for minutes with their tongues. They were out of sight of the chaperones, not that they cared. They were staring one another down when they didn't have their mouths mashed together. He held her head in his hands as he kissed her on the dance floor.

I decided through my tears that a boy would kiss me like that some day, not like a prince kisses his bride and not like the kisses I saw on television, but like that couple who didn't care if they got caught.

[Inspired by Sarah Brown]

Stuck With Me Like Caramel On A Hot Summer Day

I never have trouble spelling 'desert' and 'dessert' correctly because of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Bell.

She one said to me, "Which one would you rather have two of? A big, sandy desert or a delicious chocolate dessert? You would rather have two ice creams than two dry deserts, right? Then you put two s's in dessert and just one s in desert."

And I've never misspelled it since. However, I still have to think back to Mrs. Bell's memory trick to get it right, lo these twenty years later.

A Eulogy

Last week the boyfriend and I went out for Mexican food at our favorite Nolensville Road restaurant and just happened to be seated by the managing editor, Mark, of the news station where I work. He was sitting alone because his family was out of town, so I asked him to join us. Since he was already drinking a beer, he did the sensible thing and invited me to sit with him. We accepted his kind invitation.

He asked me about my day, and I told him it's always been a good day when you've been called a pro-anarchist baby killer. The boyfriend found it funny that I'd been labeled pro-anarchist since I am so laughably not at all like that. I grew up a total goody-two shoes and even now, I explained, I'm always afraid I'm going to get in trouble. I always want to know the rules and try to follow them out of general fear. The few rules I do break I break willfully and after giving it much thought.

Mark asked me why I was like that, always afraid of getting into trouble. I paused because the answer is so complex and sordid it would take days to tell. I found the right words in, "My childhood was somewhat chaotic." We all left it at that and dove for more salsa.

But after spending a wonderful afternoon with my mom and my sister yesterday reminiscing, I was able to think more about the chaos. And learn more. My mother told me things about very messy part of my past that, frankly, I don't remember much about.

She told me about the divorce from the man she married after she and my Dad split up. He was abusive mentally and physically, and he had been hoarding money. He controlled every aspect of our lives and worked us like little slaves on his propery, raking leaves for hours on end, picking up cigarette butts he'd thrown on the ground. I was too young to fully grasp it at the time, but my stepfather was exploiting this mentally disabled man who was poor and lived on our street for labor. He'd work him for hours on end with payment of only a meal for his effort. He was such a sweet man, and I felt so sorry for him.

My mother, who worked at the time as a church secretary, spent hours in counselling with the pastor at our church. She finally found it in her to leave him, even with the little money she had. I never thought until now how much that preacher saved my family. I should contact him and thank him for that.

So, she told him she wanted a divorce. Then he bugged our house.

Seriously. It's like something out of a movie, but it happened. He installed a surveillance system in our home and on our phones to monitor her every move. He was going to try to prevent her from leaving in whatever way he could. He was hoping to catch her in an affair with the pastor of the church who was helping her flee his abuse. He listened in on her conversations, then would take phrases or snatches of her speech he couldn't have possibly heard and repeat them to her later. She thought she was losing her mind, and how could she not have?

My stepfather confronted the pastor with the tapes as if that was proof my mother was cheating. That is how far gone this guy was. He's the one who told my preacher about bugging our house, which is how we all knew. Luckily, this information saved my mother from losing her mind. Can you imagine having someone repeat your private conversation back to you when you know they were somewhere else entirely?

It wasn't long after that that we left. We actually fled his house in the night and ran to my uncle's house. But not before he hit my mother one last time. We stayed at my uncle's house for two days, and I was just happy to be out of there.

We got a tiny apartment in Ashland City and for a while my stepfather stalked us. He would follow my sister and I on our walks home from school and offer us donughts if we'd get in his car.

I learned last night that soon thereafter he had a heart attack.

My mother went with my aunt to visit him in the hospital. She knew his children who lived out of state didn't know about his heart attack, so she thought she'd do the decent thing and contact them. She looked for his children's numbers in his wallet, but they weren't there.

She called to his room a few days later to check on his status when she was told she'd been barred from contacting him in person or in phone. When he awoke, apparently, he thought that my mother had been going through his wallet to steal his money. And with that phone call she ended her relationship to a severely sick individual.

He moved to Phoenix with his childeren after that where he had another heart attack and died. My mother did not learn this until she saw that mentally disabled man my dead stepfather also once abused working as a greeter at our hometown Wal-Mart. He stopped to tell my mother that my stepfather's family had flown him out to Arizona for the funeral. Apparently that sweet man did not know he'd been mistreated, or could not hold a grudge.

Then he asked my mother if she'd been the one to send dead flowers to his funeral. She said no, that that was the first she'd heard of his passing. And with that we made our way to buy whatever it is we were there for.

Dead flowers will always be how I remember him.

Things I Miss About Waiting Tables

  • Free drinks. Man, I never bought anything to drink (excluding alcohol, of course). As a server and bartender I always had access to all kinds of beverages, and helped myself to them liberally. I'd snag Perriers behind the bar, or come in for free coffee fifteen minutes early in the morning. When I felt sick to my stomach I could choose from an assortment of herbal teas accompanied by fresh cut lemon to soothe my nausea. All without paying a penny.
  • Good food all the time. It's a good thing waiting tables requires an extended workout, because I was always surrounded by scrumptious food I eagerly partook in. Sure, much of the time I was starving and surrounded by beautiful dishes with no chance of eating for four more hours. But after work each night I'd end the shift with smoked salmon and goat cheese mousse or baked brie with crositini. After my lunch shift I'd splurge on hummus and feta salads or crispy fried green tomatoes--not exactly things I whip up regularly at home. These are foods a girl could get used to, and did. Now I have to pay full price plus tip for all that gourmet goodness, so I madly miss the daily meals out.
  • Weekdays off. I never fully realized how glorious it was to go to the gym at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday when everyone was working. I always took for granted grocery trips in the middle of the day on a Monday, with their wide open aisles and short register waits.
  • The server "tax break."
  • Never having to decide what to wear to work. Strapping on an apron over all black for ten years left my wardrobe somewhat lacking. And tattered.
  • Wine tastings.
  • People who work in restaurants are often very funny. At least to me, anyway. I miss the laughing.
  • Late night television.
  • Drinking on Monday and Wednesday and Friday and Saturday. Then directly after Sunday brunch.
  • The constant cursing.
  • The customers. I got so used to interacting with a revolving assortment of freaks and fools that I took it for granted. In fact, I didn't so much like the majority of them. That isn't to say I would like them today, but I miss the fodder. I miss getting a glimpse of human nature for an hour or so--witnessing their joy over a new engagement or watching them struggle to choose a wine to impress a new date. I saw many tears and many missed chances. I miss peeking in on people at their most primal--eating--and investigating what I saw that day later in my writing. I think I miss that most of all.

Back When I Danced

I'd gotten my hair cut too short the year before, a mistake that turned into an unfortunate mullet. I spent all of 7th grade trying to grow it out. Long curly hair with giant teased bangs was the standard of beauty at my junior high, neither of which I could attain.

Our school regularly had dances, about one every six weeks. They'd push all the tables out of the cafeteria and turn the lights off and bring out some strobes. It was a money maker for the school. It cost $2, I think, to get in, and damn near every body came, all grades 6-8. The strains of the day were Tony, Toni, Tone and Boyz 2 Men, with a little Whitney thrown in for good measure. I'd dance with my friends to the upbeat songs, decked out in a flourescent yellow shirt and tight-rolled stonewashed jeans. The girls would dance in a circle, one brave soul willing to try a new move, only to have the entire circle copy her style. Middle school was about conformity, and no one wanted to be made fun of. It was this junior higher's scariest thought: "Is someone out there making fun of me, even in their mind?"

Then later in the evening they'd change it all to slow ballads. "Every Rose Has It's Thorn" or maybe a sweet country song. Obivous couples would immediately pair up, mostly the 8th graders. Kids with crushes would linger near each other until one of them drug the other by the hand, pretending not to like it all the while. I would sit with my back against the wall and watch, and sometimes cry.

I don't know why, but I always ended up crying at school dances. And it wasn't as though I had some mad crush on someone who jilted me for a bigger haired broad, it was that I never danced with any boys ever. No one ever asked me to slow dance with them. I would buy a Sprite and a Snickers and watch as the 8th grade girls, with their blossoming everything, would place their heads on the boys' shoulders and just sway. I thought it would be wonderful if someone would want to stand and sway with me, in front of the entire school.

There was this 8th grade couple, she a model and he the captain of the football team. She was tall, but he was taller, and they truly looked like real live adults. She'd wear very grown up clothes, and he already had to shave every day. The two of them danced like a couple of old pros, spinning and dipping and all that jazz. They were often the focal point of the room, wowing everyone with their skills. But they'd also stand crotch to crotch and kiss each other deeply on the dance floor when no teachers were looking. He mouthed her hungrily, and it only made me cry that much harder.

But I always went back. School dances were not to be missed. That little ritual went away in high school, replaced only by prom, where no one danced anyway, just figured out the best and quickest way to get drunk. Anyway, I overheard a twelve year old talking about wanting a shorter skirt than her mother would allow to wear to the dance, and all that came flooding back.

Day Cares Where I Once Grew

I went to day care on Main Street. It was actually a house, a big, old white one with peeling paint and a big front porch. There was a large front room where much of the playing was done. The floors were hardwood, but dark and gritty smooth with the dirt and slobber of children. They were always a little bit dusty.

I remember very little about the inside of that place, because I spent all my time outside. The home that was renovated into my day care had a large backyard. Almost no grass though, due to constant little feet. There was a swing tied to a high oak tree with thick rope. And there was a basketball goal.

I guess I was eight or so when I started going to the day care. The first day I arrived--my sister and I--I remember discovering the place from behind my mothers' legs, flashes at a time. I was shy and nervous, and we'd just moved to that town. A girl from my grade immediately asked if I wanted to play a game of Horse. If I ever see that girl again I'm going to thank her for that, because it made me feel at ease and accepted, and it gave me something to take the anxiety away. That girl and I stayed friends through high school.

They served the nastiest snacks at this day care. Peanut butter and celery? Gross, I didn't want to eat that. I mean, I don't want to eat that now. There isn't enough milk in the world, and that was the other thing. Each parent had to take turns bringing in milk for all the kids to drink. Don't ask me why that wasn't included in the price of day care, biut whatever. It happened. My mother, not known for exorbitant spending or for being particularly rich at the time, brought in jugs of milk. Other parents did not. They sent their child to day care with powdered milk.

Typing the words "powdered milk" just now made me gag a tiny bit. And again just then. Powdered milk (blar) was always, at best, luke warm and gray in color, and I am going to puke if I go any further. That shit shouldn't be given to anything that breathes. It is beyond cruel.

I wrote plays at that day care. Yes, I did. Well, I basically retold fairy tales, but if James Lapine can do it my eight-year-old self could do it. I wrote a dark and somewhat morbid revision of Cinderella and cast all my day care friends in it. There was a large cast, and I basically had to force some of the children too young to put up a fight to play along. The production was a chaotic affair that disintegrated after about two minutes. I never wrote another play.

I went to a different day care later. One in a little yellow house up on the hill, just a few blocks from the one on Main Street. One of the day care workers played serious favorites with the girls--taking some out for breakfast, bringing them along to listen to the tape player while she ran errands. And sometimes I was included, and sometimes I wasn't. And that fucked me right up. I am totally against day care workers playing favorites like that with nine-year-old girls. Ya know, for the record.

This older girl Christie (who had a trampoline, though I never used it--she just talked about it all the time) and I put on a beauty pageant there once. With us as the only two contestants, obviously. No need to waste time. Christie whipped my ass at that pageant. She had a shiny, sparkly leotard with feathers on it and I just had my old, janky Ashland City Cowboys cheerleader uniform that was a size too small. Christie always got to go along in the car to run errands.

I can't believe some kids have never spent a single day in day care. I'm happy I went. I think it contributes to a bit of that bend I pride myself on. In other words, day care made me a little bit weird, but I'm glad about it.

When I Found Magic in a Barn

I would tongue the skins of unpopped popcorn kernels between my teeth and gums for the entire night. My skinny, tanned thighs spread over a rusted metal chair, I'd shove my hands into the red and white, waxed paper bag full of bright yellow puffs. A coke in a small, clear plastic cup was twenty-five cents and it came over that cylindrical, textured ice. I hated being there. Layers of cigarette smoke clung to the wet, hot air like a stain even the giant fans could not get out.

A man on the microphone up front spoke quickly and on purpose, his booming voice punctuated with numbers and prices slowly escalating. Everything was going once, going twice, then sold. The concrete floor was where I kept my eyes most of the time. We went every weekend. I can't understand why. It was mostly cheap, dirty stuff no one before us wanted. Old, broken clocks, handsaws, toilet seats, and dusty rugs. Only in a place like that could a fairgrounds auction be the preferred end-of-week activity.

At least there was popcorn and coke with that ice that made it taste like a slushie. And there were unicorns. Majestic, wonderous creatures who came in glass and porcelain and wood. Figurines were the only thing I ever asked for, and occasionally I got them. I acquired a small but well-selected collection. I only asked for figurines of true unicorns, not white horses with a horn.

I kept those figurines for far too long. Until I was like 16 or so. One by one their horns broke off. Sometimes a unicorn would become an innocent victim in the fights Amy and I had. Eventually I was down to three unicorns when I sacked them all, replacing them with Smashing Pumpkins and Tori Amos posters.

They say never date a girl who is into pegasuses or unicorns. No explanation needed. I think if I came across a unicorn figurine that I really like that I would buy it. Maybe it would remind me of a time when I kept an eye out for flashes of silver in the woods.