Monday, January 17, 2011

A WHITE TRASH STARTER KIT: What You'll Need

1. A trailer, single-wide, set out under pines and live oak, and monthly lot rent 'til the day you die;

2. Your grandmother's lace curtains at the kitchen window and, on the sill, those three monkeys always on your back: see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil;

3. In the dirt yard, a bent aluminum lawn chair missing most of its webbing;

4. A good-sized plastic cooler with a duct-taped handle, for keeping beer and sodas cold and for sitting on (see #3 above);

5. A shoebox with a lid in which to put away, for good, all your girlhood dreams;

6. A man your mama warned you would come to nothing but trouble;

7. His recliner in the living room;

8. His porn by the toilet;

9. His truck, up on concrete blocks in the yard, sporting his Confederate flag in the busted rear window;

10. His skinny hunting hounds sleeping on the stoop;

11. His velvet paint-by-number Jesus painting hung over the living room sofa;

12. The camo Snuggie he gave you last Christmas;

13. Pride: not the kind of pride that "goeth before a fall," but the kind of pride that lets you pass – head-up, unscathed – through a sea of your "betters" as you read on their faces, There but for the grace of God. . . .

14. A strong back, strong arms, two good feet that can carry you to the bus stop and back again in any weather;

15. The prayer you begin every night as you fall into bed, Anywhere, Lord, but here. . .

16. The exhaustion of having spent all day, every day, elbow-deep in dishwater and detergent taking you under long before the bars close at 2 a.m. when the man will stumble in raunchy with beer and smoke, reeking of other women, to slur in your ear, Hey, Baby, you awake?

17. The way you have learned to feign sleep so as not to have sex with him;

18. The minute between when his infernal snoring begins and your insomnia returns;

19. The way you think, those nights, you hear the kitchen matches taunting you, Strike One. Strike Two. Strike Three.

20. And all the mornings, after a night like that, that begin with some other broken, barren thing coming to your door to borrow a cup of sugar.

photo courtesy of Markt3

THINGS I DISCOVERED THIS YEAR


Instead of making the list of resolutions on New Year's Eve as many of my friends and family are doing tonight – that list of resolutions likely to be broken (given my proclivities) and likely to leave me riddled with guilt and loathing about my inability to stick to even a plan I'd made – I've decided to make another kind of list while waiting by the fire to hear the arrival of the New Year heralded by the local church bells and the fireworks in town square.

~ ~ ~

I thought I would amuse myself by making a list of "Things I Discovered This Year." I ended up with a 15- page list – shocking even to me – but here, for your amusement and horror, are 25 of them:

1. About transvestites: always use the pronoun which corresponds to the gender presentation. (Thank you, Eddie Izzard.)

2. Dandelions do not "nod in agreement." (So saith two of my fellow writers.)

3. What the world really wants from a Southern writer is a "White Trash Starter Kit." (I'm working my way through that one right now.)

4. Memory is an unreliable narrator. (Excellent news in regards to putting together that White Trash Starter Kit.)

5. The Devil's knickers are full of hot chili peppers and spicy salsa. (Don't ask. Don't.)

6. The devil singing in my inkwell has perfect-pitch. That's how I know he's the Devil.

7. Some days I am so close to being utterly lost, I let God play me like His fool.

8. There is a swing-shift at the local slaughterhouse.

9. You may explain the tides to me. You may point out the moon. But you will have to allow me to decipher for myself the undertow.

10. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Jones, had such a profound effect on me that, even in my dreams, I still conjugate the verb infinitive to be.

11. Something in me is always choosing. But between what and what, I do not always know.

12. Human beings have a large amount of retroviral material in their "junk" DNA.

13. Sometimes I am wrong – no; often I am wrong. And sometimes willfully so.

14. I miss pistons sometimes – the herky-jerky hump and frenzy of them under the hood – exchanged as they are now for the more efficient hum of the motherboard.

15. There is a difference between the rain and its parade.

16. Death sings nine songs as he comes for you.

17. Some nights, a dark bell rings me to sleep.

18. Some days, every cup in my kitchen cabinet wants to fly off its handle.

19. When I sense something is about to happen over which I have no control, I have that dream again I had as a girl: a man with a knife in his teeth looking at me as if I were hot butter.

20. God sleeps with one eye open.

21. I bought an old trunk at an estate sale and found in it a Book of Spells, but someone had torn out the pages for "Resurrecting the Dead."

22. When you are very ill, the wind can carry your soul away and even the smallest thimble can hold all the crumbling syllables of your name; that's how slender the tether is from you to the-world-as-you-know-it.

23. When I am committing the world to memory, I do not appreciate it when someone annoys me with the facts.

24. A man cannot promise you the moon when all he has is a barn.

25. When it comes to rodeos, my sympathies lie with the bull.

photo courtesy of photos.com

BREAD OF HEAVEN

The snow clouds that only threatened yesterday are making good today on their promises: it's beginning to snow outside and I can see this clearly from the hospital window where I have taken up my second-morning vigil. Large, irregular-shaped flakes are slamming wetly against the panes already and the nursing staff arriving for the day shift are pink-cheeked and glad to be indoors. The morning temps are hovering around 20 degrees and, while there's no wind today, it's damp and cold and miserable out there: a good day to be inside, out of the weather of the day. Or so they tell me.

So then, why do I want to be out there in it myself? Or, rather, to be well enough again to be out there in it, to be part of the whole rushing, slushy, wintry morning and those who are traveling miserably through it. There is nothing like a brush with serious illness to make you see something that ridiculous, this clearly.

Sitting here in the high-backed chair at the prow-front windows of my fourth-floor room, looking down on the streets and the hills far off to the west that I can only barely make out now in the early flurries of the day, I think this early-morning view may still be one of the most beatific I've seen in a long while. The city seems wrapped in its soft gray flannel and the streets are shining with snowmelt already. The dullness of the day makes the particulars of all the small bright things stand out today starkly so that I notice them when I didn't yesterday: tail-lights and brake-lights on the commuter's cars, the bright green wreaths on the door and windows of the house below me, and the elementary school children in their bright parkas and boots, walking down the sidewalks together towards school. And that little church with the wooden cross on its front – the Lebanon Wesleyan Church – which has a sign out front that reads, "Many an argument is sound – and only sound."

I've been puzzling on that one this morning. Do they mean "noise," as in full of sound and fury? Or do they mean "solid," as in sound of mind? Or are they implying that being sound is just not sufficient unto itself? That's the problem, I suppose, with signs and bumper-sticker slogans and their employment of clever twists and turns of phrase: it's so easy for the meaning to slide right past you and to saunter on down the block.

Farther down the block, the rowhouses still gleam in their bright colors but today they look wet – as if some painterly hand has just laid on the colors – and today many of their chimneys have small spires of hearth-smoke rising out of them.

It's not exactly a Norman Rockwell scene from middle America, but it's got a certain appeal and charm today for someone like me.

* * * * *

In the two days I've been up here on the fourth floor, I have learned a secret about this hospital: the dietary services food staff makes and serves the best warm bread pudding that I have ever put into my mouth. I know bread pudding – in all its various and nefarious forms – and I'm not exaggerating here. It is warm and buttery and sweet and the whole concoction is swimming in butter. It's like a wallow of all my favorite ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and a little cinnamon. I found it my first day here on the dessert part of the menu the staff hands out to patients, and it's available every day at two meals: lunch and dinner. You can have as many sides and appetizers as you want – unless you happen to be on a restricted diet, which I thankfully am not – and you can have as much bread as you want. Drinks too. But, they warned me, you can only have one entrĂ©e and only two desserts.

Two desserts!

Two desserts. It's a bit like having died and gone to kindergarten heaven. Never have I been allowed to even think it is proper to have two desserts at one meal. Yet here is the dietary services corps of the Good Samaritan Hospital giving me permission, in my illness, to indulge in such sweet madness. Still, my upbringing won't let me take two: the guilt of it would do me in. But I do order one warm bread pudding with each lunch and dinner I have. I save the pudding for last – along with my half-pint of cold whole milk from the local Swiss dairies – so the little dish of warm bread pudding is the last-and-best thing I will savor of the meal. Just like I used to tell my undergraduate students in Composition classes: save your best point of persuasion for last.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to warn me, Never eat food made by a mean-spirited cook. (Or a sick one, or a spiteful one, or a sad one: the saying shifted slightly to accommodate the proper lesson for the day's woes.) She said that kind of cook would poison the pot and, if you ate the food, it would bring you no end of trouble, digestive and otherwise.

That may sound like charming folk wisdom. Like an old wives' tale. Like some quaint grandmotherly expression. But my grandmother was always tapped into some deep knowing about how things actually worked and I knew that even then, so I tended to pay attention to what she said.

So here's what I think today. The antibiotics and steroids are doing a little work towards making me healthy again. So is the respiratory therapy department. The nursing staff of the hospital helps it along a little more. The rest and sleep surely help healing along too. But as good as those things are, they fall just slightly short, pointed as they are and relentless about the push towards health.

But I'm pretty sure it is that cook – that happy, indulgent cook baking away in the hospital kitchen – who is doing the heavy-lifting work of making me well again right now. All that voluptuous attention to taste, to something sweet and warm. All those eggs and milk and flour. All of it beat and stirred and poured into a pan and sent into the heat of the ovens. And that final little whiff of warm cinnamon every time it comes to the bedside table! The whole thing is working towards the satisfaction of some longing I didn’t even know I had. It's not even meant to be healthy for me; it's a dessert, mind you, and its sole purpose is to move at someone with the intention of delivering a sudden jolt of pleasure and satisfaction through the teeth and tongue and taste buds and down into the stomach. For an unapologetic hedonist like me, that IS the ticket to well-being. At least it is for today.

I don't know who here gave this dish such a modest name, but I think it might be something more than just the "warm bread pudding" it's billed as. I think it may be the Bread of Heaven, going incognito as ordinary pudding, a poor man's dessert made from leftover crusts of bread and sauced up with eggs, butter, milk, and cinnamon. Or maybe the bread of heaven IS just ordinary food, a warm dish made by a happy cook in some kitchen that is not your own, and served up to you by a Mennonite volunteer who delivers it to you, smiling, as if it were not the miracle it really is sitting there in its steaming little white ceramic dish, waiting for you to take it into yourself and be made whole – or at least pleased – again in a way you can't remember having been since childhood.

photo by the author, December 11, 2010

WAITING FOR THE SUN


It's been a long time since I had a vantage-point like this: four stories up, facing west, overlooking a cold, dark, sleepy town in the foothills, staring up at the starless sky, waiting for the sun to arrive. Well, I have no assurance that the morning will be sunny, not gray and overcast or foggy, as early mornings here in the hills and valleys of Central Pennsylvania can often be. But I'm hoping for sun.

I've gotten up early and moved my bed – tilted it askew actually – so I can see out the prow-front double window of my room: room 452, Good Samaritan Hospital, Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

By seven a.m., I've already had blood drawn, had a nebulizer treatment, have had two of the myriad intravenous antibiotics prescribed for the pneumonia, and have phoned in my selections for breakfast from the "Room Service Dining" Menu. Now, I'm sitting here upright, watching the sky pink up and waiting for first sun and that steamy bowl of Cream of Wheat, when it suddenly occurs to me, I am breathing again.

And now, as if on cue, the sun crests somewhere behind me, over the eastern ridge. I can't see it, but I know it's happening: all the windows of the row-houses below flash like brightly-burnished mirrors and their twilight-dulled colors leap into rich barn reds, dove-grays, burnt golds, Williamsburg blues, and that late-70s Dusky Rose that's come into fashion again across the country. I can distinguish again the lush evergreens from the bare-limbed oaks and maples and sycamores. The street below my window is thrumming now with morning traffic and the large, wooden, burnt-umber cross on the church across the street comes into sharp relief against its ochre-colored clapboard and rusting steeple spire. The house to the left of the church – one half of a two-family house – has greenery wreaths tied with big red bows in celebration of the holiday season. Maybe tonight, I'll be lucky enough to see this town transformed again by street-light and holiday-light before someone arrives at the appointed time to pull the heavy drapes into place again and turn down the room-lights.

I can make out the brickworks and glass of the old steel foundry building and its tall, rust-eaten water tower midway across the valley and I am reminded of how much steel once meant to this state and the hard economy of loss that followed as production shut down, foundry by foundry.

* * * * *

Midmorning now and the clouds are moving in from the west, damping the blue morning sky and throwing into shadow the whole sun-bright town, and my IV monitor (Horizon® Nxt – Modular Infusion System) starts pinging like a mad devil of sonar and is flashing red digital letters across the front: OCCL. . .OCCL. . . .OCCL. . . . An occlusion somewhere in the line. And though I am at the farthest end of the hall from the nurses' station and have promptly rung my call bell, as instructed, it will be a while yet before anyone comes to reset the beast. I know this because I can hear several other things pinging and ringing down the hall.

So here's what I'll do. I am going to sit here at my fourth-floor window breathing again, in and out and in, without having to will my lungs to expand and contract – blissfully ignorant again of the mysterious workings of my ancient reptilian brain - enduring the annoyingly loud, fouled mechanics of modern medical technology while I look westward, to the foothills and ridges beyond Lebanon Valley, watching the snow-clouds move in, feeling my whole body pinging with a strange happiness at being right here, right now, in the world and of it. . . .

photo courtesy of photos.com


THE MAP, THE COMPASS, THE ROAD AWAY


We were third-graders then, and learning the Florida State Song – "We are the children of Florida, F-L-O-R-I-D-A…" – and drawing, from memory, the state flag, the official seal at its center. Mrs. Danforth has been telling us the "first stories of our fair state:" the Spanish galleons arriving; Ponce de Leon, his long hair flowing, wearing a leather breastplate and balloon-legged pants and tights, stepping out to plant the flag of Spain on the white dunes; the search for the Fountain of Youth; the Seminoles and their chief, Osceola; the deep Everglades the Seminoles vanished into rather than sign the treaties and live on the reservations they were offered.

She moves us forward, through time and space, to the city in which we live. Jacksonville. Then she tells us that its first name was Cow Ford, named this because this is the very place where the herders brought their cattle in order to drive them across the river to the other side.

What, she asks us sweetly, twirling the chalk in her long fingers, is the name of that river?

Bobby Thompson shouts, without even raising his hand, The River Jordan!

But no; this is wrong. Mrs. Danforth tells us so and we believe her, though we are surprised a little by the news because we have all heard in church that the River Jordan is where one crosses over to the other side. We take things literally and this is no fault of our own. Castro's bombs are real to us as they are to our parents. And Mrs. Danforth has told us the world is now "teetering on the brink of annihilation."

Annihiliation. She says the word twice. And we all know that to say a word twice – a word with five syllables, a word that sounds like all the breath in your body is escaping when you say it – is to make it true. And so each time the sirens go off, we line up and follow her out the schoolroom door, across the playground, beyond the chain link fence, across the gooey midday asphalt of the road, into the drainage ditches. We will crouch there, next to her, through the sirens' long wail. Even when the ditches are half-filled with rainwater, we will follow her in our one pair of good shoes, in our picture-day, Sunday-best skirts, with our fear of the water snakes we have seen swimming in them. Whatever evil a snake might do to us, fangs and venom, is small next to something like annihilation. In the seconds between the end of the sirens and the one long blast of the all clear, we think we might understand what it is to teeter on the brink of something terrible; we feel the edge of it around us there, though we do not know, exactly, what that something is.

But this morning there are no sirens, no mucky ditches to crawl in and out of, and we are content to sit here in our sunny classroom and be astonished that the "other side" is just across the St. John's River from us. We go on drawing the flag while she tells us the story of our town, Jacksonville, renamed for Andrew Jackson: "Jackson's Village." We listen to her while we draw, rapt and almost-interested, but later – at recess under the tall pines – we will make of that name a little joke among ourselves: Jack-SIN-ville. We say the word under our breath – like a nasty word we say only when adults are not present to punish us for it – and we snicker because that is sometimes what Preacher calls it from the pulpit on Sundays.

But now, I am trying, for this test, to remember the insignia, that blue and gold place at the heart of the white flag. I know there is a sun, a ship, a Seminole woman. . .but I cannot remember what else is there. An alligator? Some flowers? Some trees? I think, for a moment, that I would be able to remember it, exactly, if I could just let my eyes drift – for just a second – over Delia Becker's drawing. She is sitting at the desk directly across from mine. It would be so easy.

This will become the story of my life, though I don't yet know it – this wrestling with the Angel of Small Deceits. This time, however, I win out: I keep my eyes on my own flag. The blue crayon, clenched in my right fist, is poised an inch, maybe two, above the white square of the flag. I am still sitting like this ten minutes later when time runs down and the history lesson is over and the papers must be passed forward. I beat the Devil. . .and am defeated again: defeated by the desire to please God and to keep Jesus – that One-Who-Watches, that Peeping-Tom-Who-Has-His-Father's-Ear, from having to put one more black mark beside my name. How many marks does it take before God's eraser smudges someone's name from the Book of Life? And how many Xs are there, already, next to my own name?

I surrender the blue crayon again to the darkness of the cigar box which still smalls faintly of cigars, the smell I believe is the smell of Cuba and Castro. And now it is time for maps and the color for maps is black: X marks Jacksonville, the city of our childhoods; O marks the capital, Tallahassee; E is the mark where the Everglades and the swamps sprawl; P for the Pacific Ocean; G for the Gulf of Mexico, and GA for Georgia, which stretches beyond the dashed boundary lines just north of our city, the live oaks there heavy with Spanish moss. Because this is only a practice for the real test, which will be tomorrow, we don't have to turn in our maps.

On my left is John Galway, a mean Irish boy. His map turns ugly right away. He is drawing brown stick figures hanging from the trees. He's lynching colored people, the way we've heard his daddy really does some nights. To my right, Delia, in her blonde braids and blue satin ribbons, has got the Pacific Ocean where the Gulf of Mexico should be. She figures this out though and she changes the compass points on her map. East goes West, and North goes South, and Florida dangles there still at the bottom of the page, a large tonsil of land – a peninsula – just under Georgia. When I see her do this – when I see Delia change the directions - I notice at last the small compass at the upper right-hand corner of our maps: a star-pronged thing like the star of Bethlehem with a corona at its heart, all the spokes of it pointing away from its center to something important, something maybe only the Wise Men, the Three Kings, would know about. But I am in third grade and I am not kingly nor wise, nor ever likely to be. Wisdom is not my gift; my gift is sin. I have a penchant for it. A predisposition. So says my Sunday School teacher who would know.

So I draw a likeness of this compass, a second compass, over this city, my city, the city in which I live. I am here, dead-center of JackSINville, at its dark coronaed heart. All the compass spokes point away from here: East is on my right: the Pacific, water, ocean. West is the Gulf of Mexico, more water. I am afraid of water, afraid of drowning though I do not know, exactly, what drowning is. My grandmother has warned me about it, mostly so I won't wander off too near the pond in the woods near our house. She has told me it is possible for a grown man to drown in a teacup of water: it gets into his lungs and that's it for him. Drowned.

Too much water, East and West. And South is just more Florida, the endless search for the Fountain of Everlasting, for Youth. And at the end of Florida is more water. Beyond that water, somewhere off the end of our maps, is Cuba and Castro, the bearded dictator who puts his poets in prison, and the Bay of Pigs. Between us and those waiting bombs, the Everglades rises, thick as Eden with snakes, with cypress and palmetto, wild boars and Florida panthers, and deep in its watery mucky heart, the toothy croc circles – the old Leviathan of the Swamp – with his five sets of teeth and his great hunger.

I feel him there this morning, just below the bright noontime sun of Jacksonville and the ringing of heat in my ears. I can almost feel the wide yawn of his jaws, that great jaw hooked by God who, Preacher says, has "created the Destroyer to destroy." He is waiting out there, Leviathan, with his teeth and his open maw and his great empty belly-of-the-beast hunger. For me. I am making my map of escape already – me and my little Jonah heart – crossing over to the other side: North – away from the terrible hungers of beasts, beyond the lit streets and the neat green lawns, past the live oaks of Georgia and the old ghosts of hatred that still haunt them, past all the sharp compass points of this Nothingness to the Something that I will one day travel to, inhabit, and make my own. . . .