Monday, October 29, 2012


There are two dozen, maybe more, nails in the wall. The space where the pictures hung is nearly white, rimmed in the brown grime of smoke, grease and the accumulated filth of years. 

It makes me want a cigarette.

I haven't smoked in years, and the smell of it on a person makes my stomach roll. Sometimes, I'll smell it on a child's coat as I pull it from their backpack, or in their hair as they come close for a hug. Sometimes, I will smell it on my husband after a round of golf with a smoking friend. The further removed I am from being a smoker, the more sensitive I become to it. 

Who were you with? I ask. He is clearly thinking, wondering what brush he had with nicotine. Paul, he says, in the lumber yard. Twelve hours ago.

I smell it. It makes me sick; it calls me. 

I can feel it between the fingers of my left hand, light and hot and substantial. I feel the nail of my thumb press into the filter, crinkle the paper, then flick. I see the stain it has left on my middle finger and am ashamed. I scratch at it and bite it and scrub it with all manner of soaps and detergents and bleach and it refuses to go away. I take to pressing my fingers together to hide it. 

I can feel it between my dry lips, rolling over my tongue, down my throat, into my lungs. It burns, but I hold it there before reluctantly releasing it in a thin stream. 

Seven minutes. I took me seven minutes to smoke a cigarette. If I lit one as I was backing out of the driveway, I could smoke two on the way to work. One between the salad and entree. One while I dried my hair, another as I out on my makeup. Four while I hosed off the driveway. One, hot and tired after yard work, stretched out on the floorboards on the front porch, cold beer pressed against my forehead.

Once, I sat the garden on fire, tanning and throwing half lit butts of the deck. Once, I singed my eyebrows, lighting a cigarette on an electric stove. Once, I stuck a cigarette in my mouth backward and lit the filter. More than once, I found holes in places I didn't remember putting holes and wondered, just exactly how close did I come to burning us down? 

Once, smoking killed my father. 

I sit and look at the nails in the wall and hate the stain and think, God, I'd like a cigarette.

Monday, October 22, 2012

That Dummy Dwayne

Dwayne was what we called honest dumb. He made no pretenses that he possessed anything resembling intelligence. When he graduated high school with a D- average, his parents thanked their lucky stars, threw him a big party, and gave him one week to find someplace else to live.

You could say, and Dwayne often did, that it was his mama's fault to begin with. A person can't name their child Dwayne and expect great things. A person certainly could not, as Dwayne's mama did, name their child Dwayne Lee Ray and expect anything more than a life of Mountain Dew, chewing tobacco, and mild to moderate criminal pursuits.

Dwayne, being dumb, was never going to rise to boss-level at anything, even meth cooking, which is the career path he settled into once he moved out from under the ambivilant eye of his parents. He moved into a single wide trailer on the very edge of a large farm. The land the trailer sat on had been in contention for years. The county, not knowing exactly to whom it belonged, refused to maintain it. The farmer, unwilling to maintain it, refused to claim it. And so when Dwayne and his seventeen cardboard boxes full of concert t-shirts and porn moved into the abandoned trailer, no one said a word.

It might have been that they felt sorry for him. He was dumb, and everyone knew it, and he couldn't get in much trouble out there all by himself. That's what they thought, anyway.

Dwayne tried to get me to come out there, once. We were all sitting in the back of Dulin's Bar - Robbie and Heather and Peewee and his little sister Mercy, me and Mandy Dwyer, who I was desperately trying to convince that giving me a blowjob would not make her a slut and would absolutely mean she was still a virgin. I almost had her talked into it, too, until Dwayne came in and started spreading his stupid all over the place.

"You gotta come out and see the operation, man," he was jacked up and jittery, and looked like he'd lost twenty-five pounds since I'd last seen him.

"Dwayne, I don't mess with that shit."

"Aww, aww man! Me neither! I'm a businessman!" He smiled wide, his lips pulled tight over his teeth, what was left of them. He looked like his skull might split open if he kept grinning like that. He looked dry as bones.

"You're gonna blow yourself up," said Mandy Dwyer, and I turned to her and said, for everyone to hear, "I got something you can blow up." The men laughed and the women blushed and Dwayne stood there, grinning and confused.

I went home alone that night.

So did Dwayne. He went home and cooked up a big pot (or skillet or saucepan, or whatever the hell you cook meth in), and made some little mistake, and blew himself right the fuck up.

When the cops and fire department and paramedics showed up, they had to contend with random pieces of burning paper. Centerfolds floated through the air in various states of undress, burning bits of fantasy flesh. They called to you to get just a little closer, take a better look, before burning you with them. They found Dwayne, the top half of him at least, under an oak tree. He lay on his back, Miss December covering the smile on his face.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

You Too!

I am a moderately well spoken individual. I don't say things like, "I done seen them two times today," or, "I ain't got no books," or, "she don't need to study grammar." I do not, in short, sound like I fell off the turnip truck. Because let's face it, no matter the content, if you have a super thick country accent, you sound stupid. You could be explaining quantum physics and sound like a complete mo-ron if you hillbilly it up.

So, I have that going for me.

What I do not seem capable of doing is engaging in small talk. I cannot seem to string together a series of pleasantries in a way that doesn't make me sound like an idiot, or an asshole, or both.

I recently ran into an acquaintance who'd started a new job out here in the county.

"Hey! Hey! Are you out here slumming across the river? Heh-heh."

I don't know what I meant by that, really. Like his job was shitty? Like the location was? I immediately became uncomfortable, and he responded -

"Well, it's a nice place, and a good job."

And I, with all the wisdom of my years, said -

"At least you'll stay dry!"

I have no idea what I meant by that. Stay dry? <i>What</i>? And then, to further solidify my position as a complete imbecile, as I left I shouted, "Enjoy the weather today!"

Inside that building that you're sitting in. With no windows. Enjoy it!

Sean and I call it the 'you, too!', after a routine by comedian Brian Regan. Go ahead and watch it if you don't know what I'm talking about.

I live in fear of running into casual acquaintances. Because of the size of our town, and the stores I frequent (a constant rotation of grocery store-Costco-library-Target), it happens often. I spent two hours in Costco yesterday, one hour shopping and one hour ducking people. It's not that I don't want to see them, it's that I know I'm going to have to make small talk and will almost certainly say something ridiculous.

If not ridiculous, completely inappropriate. I don't know how many times I've verbally assaulted someone with details of my bowels or the fact that I hadn't taken a shower or the time I stuck a fetal pigs tail in it's own anus (regrettably true). It's like my brain takes a complete shit and dumps out the first random thing that surfaces.

"Hey, Kelly! How's it going?"

"Hey, good! I had too much coffee and I am going to poop my pants!"

It's a wonder people still talk to me in public.

Maybe I should get some little cards to hand out, like the folks at the airport. <i>I am a shitty conversationalist. If you choose to engage, please be aware that I may randomly mention my bodily functions and slightly, unintentionally, insult you</i>.

I envy my husband, who is glib and relaxed, and welcomes random interactions in public places. I have stood by his side countless times, grinning like a fool and sweating profusely while he has a completely normal conversation with someone he barely knows. I don't know how he does it. I remain silent until the very end, when at last it's my moment to shine.

"Good to see you again," they say. "Tell your kids I said hello!"

I smile and wave and all out shrilly, <i>"You, too!"</i>

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Man I Most Want to Be

I am not an excellent parent, overall.

I am, at my best, a very good parent. Above average, mostly. I think my kids would agree.

But sometimes, I see or hear or read something that makes me realize how incredibly short I fall of the mark. This week I watched a video of Fred Rogers speaking to the U.S. Senate regarding funding for PBS. This was in 1969. It is six minutes of the most compassionate, loving, and impassioned speech I have ever.

Somewhere around eighty percent of our television viewing in this house is of PBS programs. We are not freaks who don't like cable, we are cheap. But over time, we've found that in addition to being free, it's really good stuff. If I turn on Mister Rogers, my kids are quiet and focused and interested. It is not his warm voice or funny sweaters or gentleness of movement. It is not his quiet or his slowness or the fact that he never, ever, has to yell and shout and jump and sing and holler to get a child's attention.

They love him for all of those reasons, but they listen to him because he respects them.

(This is the point where you might roll your eyes and think, hoo boy! She's one of them. I'm not, probably. Depending on who you mean by them.)

There is something hugely powerful about looking at a child and saying, without patronizing, you are a valuable and worthy human being; you are wonderfully made and I love you just the way you are. Saying it, and meaning it, and treating that child with the respect we should give every person on earth. But no one, no one more than the very people we want to continue everything that we st rive and hope and work for today.

There was a recent trend of parents posting 'discipline' videos on the internet to teach their kids a lesson.  I have been embarrassed, shamed and humiliated as an adult and a child, and there is no lesson in it. There are few things as cruel as debasing another human being. It is a universally accepted rule - do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are your brother's keeper.

Yet somehow we've decided that this doesn't apply to our children.

I am a yeller. I hate to admit it, and every Sunday I pray to my God that I can be calmer, more patient. But, I yell. I get irritated and agitated and I snip and snipe. I perpetrate subtle cruelties against the people I love most in the world. Because I am a human being, and I try my best and often fail.

Just like you.
Just like them.

I watched Fred Rogers talk for six minutes and tell me everything I need to know to be a good parent, and person. It is so insanely simply, yet it confounds even the wisest among us. We fight wars big and small, we throw insults and call names and spew hatred in the name of our Creator. We yell, a lot. And we tell our children in our words and our actions that we don't value them.

Mister Rogers is sitting us down and in the calmest way telling us to recognize.

I am not an excellent parent. But maybe I can, with  help and patience and respect and PBS, do a pretty good job of being a wonderful mother.

Monday, October 8, 2012


I was someone, once.

I walked down the sidewalk, back straight, chin up. I met your gaze. You might have tipped your hat to me, had you been wearing one.

I sat in the same pew every Sunday at the Methodist church; the big one in the center of town, not the new one on the outskirts, where the Yankees and people of questionable descent went. That church had a folk trio and people felt it was okay to wear jeans to the service. They called it contemporary. I called it hogwash. I might have called it bullshit, after a few beers, and only in the company of men.
My family sat with me. My wife, quiet and proper; our children, scrubbed until their ears were red, lips pressed together, hands clasped in their laps tight enough to make their knuckles go white. They knew better than to talk during the sermon, or let a stray hand sneak over and pinch their neighbor.

They knew how to behave.

The problem was the job. If the job hadn't gone south, I'd still be sitting in that pew. My conscience led me to say things that had to be said, but the devil in me led me down the path of anger and regret. I shouldn't have hit the man, I will admit it. Even if he had it coming.

Yesterday, I went walking to nowhere in particular. Sometimes I just need to clear my head, shake away the storm that brews up there when I think too much. I am close to old and my legs fight me now. Go faster! I silently scream and they protest, shuffling along the sidewalk. Stand up straight! I yell to my back and, just to incite me, it stoops lower. All the moisture in my mouth seems to have gone to my eyes, collecting there in great watery pools. People don't meet my gaze anymore.

I was someone, once! I want to tell them. But my dry mouth can't form the words, my lips purse over empty gums. They think I'm a fool.

My doctor likes to say things like quality of life and unfortunate circumstances and minimal treatment options. He likes to put his hand on my knee when he says those things, and that bothers me more than what he's saying. There are always forms to fill out, and the 'office manager' talks to me about gaps in my coverage and instead of treatment options she talks about payment options. The prognosis is the same, though.


I heard the truck coming up behind me long before it reached me. It rumbled and roared and blasted unfamiliar music that jarred my bones and made the ground tremble. The beer can hit me square on the back of the head, and the pools in my eyes overflowed and spilled hot rivers that ran down my face.

When it passes, I see it's just boys, young and stupid and a little drunk. They point and laugh and slap hands. I want to chase them down and hit their mouths until they bust open and spray their young blood. Instead, I stand on the side of the road with my head down and cry like a child. I whisper the words I don't want them to hear. I say them to myself and try to remember when I was someone, once.

Monday, October 1, 2012

This Place I Live: The Drive to School

I drive the girls to school every morning, and pick them up every afternoon. It requires that I put on a bra, and load everyone in the car, and drive to two different schools in my very environmentally unfriendly vehicle. The total in-car time for both trips is right around an hour and a quarter. It is inconvenient, and yet I don't mind at all.

The morning drive is significantly different than the afternoon one. Bellies full of pancakes, sleep still in their eyes, my children are as quiet as they ever are. Julia might comment on the weather, Katie might read, Henry - still in his pajamas - might make quiet brrrmmm brrrmmm sounds as he runs a toy car over his leg. The radio is rarely on. Mostly, we just watch.

It is a quick trip to Katie's school; six miles down a freeway that seems to cut through a forest. Overnight, the trees have gone from green to a soft yellow. There is no traffic; there is never any traffic. Off the exit ramp, past the gas station and hardware store and we're there. Middle school drop off is everything that middle schoolers are not - quick, effortless, organized. Katie ducks out with a quick kiss and the littles and I drive on.

If we're lucky, we get behind a school bus. I like watching the bus chug down the road, in no big hurry. It stops in front of long driveways where mothers wrapped in worn robes stand, one hand clutching the top of the robe closed, the other holding a cup of coffee. Mornings are getting cooler here, pants are being worn for the first time in months. A mother, unprepared, watches a small boy board the bus, the hem of his jeans high, exposing white socks pulled over still tan ankles. She will have to go shopping soon.

As the bus pulls away, she raises a hand, and does not turn away until the bus is out of sight. She walks back down the driveway to the house, calling dogs and shooing cats. The house is the same house that dots much of the landscape here - modest and square, set back far from the road on more land than they can out to good use. It is different than the city-side of the county, where big houses sit on small lots, crowded together, putting the value in what sits on the land instead of the land itself.

But these people know, land is everything.

There are only a few miles separating the middle school from the elementary school, most of it farmland. Some of it pasture. On some mornings, cows or horses will be so far out to pasture, you can hardly tell them apart. On others, they lean over fences and chew slowly and give you that deep animal stare that seems to say, if only I had thumbs. The little ones will exclaim, cow!, as if there were an elephant on the side of the road, and not an animal they've seen nearly every day of their lives.

But mostly, we pass corn. Rows and endless rows of corn. For the first few weeks of school, it stands tall and green and proud. Slowly, the fields age and turn brown and brittle until one day, the corn is gone, cut down to a bristle brush. There is no need for calendars or proclamations by weathermen, the corn knows and tells us - fall is here.

Where there is not corn, there are soybeans.

Soybeans. There used to be tobacco in those fields, I can nearly guarantee it.

Then the last half mile, up the hill where the sun breaks through the low fog. A red silo. A small house. Acres and acres of fertile ground and the ghosts of generations who've worked it. A dog and a rusty mailbox on a crooked post and then, out of nowhere, a little school. A line of cars and smiling teachers, hustling children out and collecting backpacks and lunchboxes and Julia kisses me once, then again, before running into the building.

The morning ride home is shorter, down a different road peppered with newer neighborhoods and small businesses. I am suddenly lonely, and turn on the radio. I look in the rearview mirror at Henry, and he waits to see if I'll say the same thing I say every morning. I do. "So, what are we going to do today, Boy-o?"