Friday, August 26, 2011

Hospitality Lost and Found

I can’t remember if I trembled when they asked. I’m pretty sure I did. The question came in an e-mail but would’ve been cooler if it arrived via telegraph.

            “Coming to your town for five days –(STOP)-
Can we stay with you –(STOP)-
Or at least share one good Italian meal”

I held my hand under my mouth to catch the excuses as they flowed. Mostly buts. But I think Big Girl (their three-month missionary nanny and then some) will be at college by then. But we have a softball tournament that weekend. But we don’t really have enough room; folks will have to sleep on the floor. And the sofa. But I’m intimidated. ‘Cause the wife mommy’s a food blogger. And freaked. What if she’s also a white-gloved dust inspector? The house hasn’t been cleaned, really spiffed up, in so long.
            And yet, how could I say no? Big Girl had lived with them for three months. In a compact casa in Honduras. They’d shared their every meal, their children, and their vision with her. I couldn’t say no. But I wanted to. Was ashamed that I considered it.
            I tried to say, “Mi casa es tu casa,” but I couldn’t get my Irish, German, English, French lips around the words, much less the concept. The only way I can achieve a really good Latin accent is to mimic the Verizon recording, “Para Espanol, marque el dos.”
            Where did they go? My gift of hospitality? My spirit of generosity? I grew up. Little Me (“Wanna figure out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Lollipop with me? Here, you go first.”) was cannibalized by Grown-up Me (“Me, my, mine. That’s all I have time for. You, your, yours? Stay in your own yard. Don’t come knocking on my door. And certainly not at the one around back. That’s only for a small number of folks. The ones I can count on my fingers. The names at the top of my phone list on the side of our refrigerator.”)

Honk! Honk! Honk!
            Big Girl clambered down the stairs. “They’re here.” I heard jubilation in her voice. Does she sound like that when she speaks of us? Her real family?
            The wife mommy’s hair was like cotton candy with one drop of yellow food coloring. But her eyes weren’t blue. With hair that Swedish looking, I would’ve thought they’d be glacier, no, fjord, blue. If I took two glass prep bowls and filled them with good quality, Italian olive oil and whisked in vanilla, they’d be the color of her eyes. She was smaller than me, with an elegant slice to her deltoids.
            Now he, the husband daddy, was a Mr. America leprechaun. He had fabulous hair and just-bonked-a-tuning-fork-on-a-brick energy. I have that vitality too, but somehow, while they were here, I felt subdued. Calm, not jangly. Hot chocolate instead of espresso.
            All three offspring had blue, surprised eyes and banana-colored hair. Baby boy buried his face in wife mommy’s neck. The two girls catapulted into Big Girl’s embrace.
            “We missed you! Tell us a story!”
            I observed the reunion. Waited to face plant into an invisible ice-cube structure I was sure would lie between us. I know. I’ll get my crème brulee torch. But I didn’t need to. I never even got goosebumps. All that lay between us was a puddle—warm, organic, inviting.

I confess. Weeks ago I had crafted a plan, a schedule, to keep them busy. Out of our house. ‘Cause really, how could ten people in a hundred-year old house for five days be good? Send 'em sightseeing. Somewhere else. Go, go, go. Vroom, vroom, vroom. Then they’ll pass out every night by nine, right? It worked.  On them and me.
            And then came the day they didn’t want to go anywhere. They just wanted to be. Here. Everyone went upstairs but me and the wife mommy.  How do two sleep deprived female foodies spend three hours? Peel, pour, season, sauté, taste, sigh. That’s how.
            I sliced strawberries into thin, red halos. Wife mommy showered them in balsamic vinegar. Sprinkled them with raw sugar. We ate. And smiled.
            I peeled and chopped roasted, golden beets. Vinaigretted them. Rained  down toasted pecans and tiny diced feta.
            “Add that to the list,” wife mommy said. “Of recipes you have to send me.”
            I handed her the menu from Italian Feast Night. “Mark all the things you want recipes for.”
            She circled almost every item then turned her attention to the shitake mushrooms from the farmer’s market. She sautéed them in golden green olive oil with heaps of garlic, minced by me. She flicked in a speck of Silafunghi, my favorite Italian hot pepper concoction. Stirred. Lifted the wooden spoon to her lips.
            “Wait!” I said. I pressed the spoon back into the sauté pan. “Don’t taste it yet.” I held up my pointer finger. “I have to do one thing.”
            I sprinted outside to my herb garden. Used my fingernails to nip off the largest sage leaves I could find. Brushed the soil flecks away. Thought of my mom’s philosophy—You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.
            I came back in. Floated the silvery leaves in hot oil. Flipped them when they became see-through. Used my grandmother’s thongs to hold them up to the light.
            “See? Don’t they look like stained glass? Now put some of the mushrooms on your fork. Top them with a sage leaf. Taste it now.”
            I held my breath and watched. Her tongue worked. Her lids fluttered. She grinned. I laughed.  
            As she prepped another bite to eat, I whispered. So she couldn’t hear me. Turned away, so she couldn’t see me. My mouth.  She’s hearing impaired, but boy howdy, is she awesome at reading lips. She can talk great too. Just like Marlee Matlin.
            “I wish you lived here. Then we could be friends. We could eat like this over and over. Not one Sunday afternoon and never again.”

The next day, Big Girl and I watched and waved as their van drove away. The morning sun glinted off her tear tracks. I didn’t cry. I was working on my accent. In my head. Trying to get it just right. In case they went around the block and stopped in front of our house for one more Big Girl hug or kiss. But they didn’t come back. If they had, I would’ve run down the steps to the street. Pecked on the husband daddy’s window ‘til he rolled it down.
            “Just so you know, mi casa es tu casa.”


Friday, August 19, 2011

No More Messes

The dog got sick last night on boy child’s bed. He took to the stairs, all hands and feet, to tell us.  Sliced through a dream I never would’ve remembered had I not been wakened in its midst.
            The beautiful blonde boy who lives three doors down in the castle-looking house? His folks fussed him out for making his like-Drew-Barrymore-in-E.T. little sister have bad dreams.
            “Give her good ones,” the parents said. “Of silver and gold unicorns and pastel pink lollipops.”
            Weird with a beard, I remember thinking as I sat on the back porch in my Me-Jane nightgown, sleep still wrapped around my head like gauze.
            It was probably the anchovies. That made the dog hurl. No one but me knew they were in the substance that bathed the Cavatappi Nicoise. Gave it a mud-colored hue. The hairy slabs hid in the bell of the immersion blender, but I found all four of them. Whirled them into an omega 3-rich, silken sauce. Daisy, the not yet dead dog, received the rest of the fish on top of her kibble. Maybe one got stuck in her craw and she couldn’t stop the plunger action of her digestive system ‘til it evacuated.
The back porch light blinked Morse code messages into the night. Its motion sensor has never worked right. Not in the sixteen years we’ve lived in this house. I splayed my fingers on either side of my belly button. I was pregnant with the sandwich child the day we moved here. 
            I raked the mosquito bite on my neck and squinted out at the yard. In lightness and in dark, the dog snatched great mouthfuls of grass.  Puppy Pepcid. After a bit, she disappeared over the hill. I waited for the sound of heaves but it never came. I’ll be mopping in the morning. Least she’ll be gated in the kitchen. Vinyl’s way easier to wash than quilt, sheets, and mattress pad.
            I watched a leaf make its way to the ground, unable to resist gravity, all but a hint of green drained away. It’s almost time. Fall. Cooler weather, thankfully. Kids gone, all day, Monday through Friday. And then some. One down the hill to high school. Another a mile away to middle. The oldest off to college. Not here. She wanted to be anywhere but here. Reckon the others will say the same.
            I counted on my fingers. It’ll be this way for the next seven years. Someone departing every autumn. Me mourning. Then a one-year break before boy child ventures out into the world. Five minus three will equal two.
            I should’ve had six kids. That would’ve postponed the solitude. The quiet. The piercing. Right? Right?
            The dog won’t even be here. She’ll be gone by then too. I’ll have no more messes to clean. Except for my own. Laundry baskets heaped with soaked handkerchiefs for sure.

Friday, August 12, 2011


Shhhhhh! I hear something. It’s coming from . . . Oh no! It’s coming from inside me. From my mouth. It’s the gnashing of teeth. Know why? ‘Cause it finally happened. To me. Some people say writer’s block is a myth. I now know they’re wrong. It does indeed happen. But to me?  To moi?  The idea hamster? Say it isn’t so.
            “It isn’t so.”
             Dang it!  It’s still here. The void. The grey, stinking abyss. I’d use puce ‘cause it’s such an ugly word and hue, but really, puce is too colorful a modifier for the state of Suckedrydia.
            Drop something in. I dare you. You’ll never hear it hit bottom. No ping. No doink. Panenda.
            I’ve got nothing this week. To write. My brain has been exposed to that gizmo the dentist uses to dry out your mouth. What’s that thing sound like?  Schluusshhh? Vithhhhhh? You tell me. I can’t make a decision right now. I’m stressed. Stressed, I say!
            When the panic first started pinching my toe webbing (That’s where it started, for me any way.), I flipped through my orchid-colored, Barnes and Noble writing journal with silver cursive phrases on the cover. Sorted through scraps with sentences scrawled (I know. The alliteration is killing you, isn’t it?). I searched my folder of story ideas. Nada. Squat. Panenda. There it is again. Panenda. Is that how you spell nothing in Italian?  That’s how it sounded whenever the word exited my came-over-on-the-boat-grandma-in-law’s mouth. Her thin, mouse tail-colored mouth. I’m not even gonna Google Translate it ‘cause I’m cranky. I don’t like this blockage. At all. Creative constipation inhales my joie d’vivre. Not gonna Spell Check that either. Living large today. Taking risks. That I am.
Blame. I think I’m overstimulated. There’s this, that, and the other thing vying for my brain’s capacity. “Pick me!”  “No, me!” My writing area seems to be surrounded by the seagulls from Finding Nemo--“Mine!” “Mine!” “Mine!” Wouldn’t you know, the minute I get them to hush, the Jeopardy theme song starts.
            And another thing, I’m not a competent multi-tasker. I can’t even listen to music when I type. One issue at a time, people, world!  Worries. Coming. Going. Sick. Sad. It’s all in a blender on level ten. Screeeeee!
Escape. If I close my eyes and utter something in another language, when I open them, will I be in that country? That would be cool. I’ll . . . pick . . . Belize. In one hand I’ll clutch a tropical drink with an aqua mini-parasol. In the other, I’ll have an orange mocha latte with whipped cream. One drink to relax, the other to keep from passing out. I’ll recline on a hand-woven (silk, not cotton) hammock between two Mimosa trees. Don’t you dare tell me they’re not indigenous to Belize. I. Don't. Care.

Breathe. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Slower. You have that fight or flight respiration going on. In, two, three. Out, two, three. Repeat. And again.
            Chant. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
            Trust. Really I should. You always come through. It’s just that by Wednesday, sometimes Tuesday, I start to get damp body parts, except for my mouth. And tachycardia (I confess. I did Spell Check that one.). At the thought that I might be done. No more stories. My tale tank sucked dry. Forever.
            Pray. Please God?  Pretty please? A little breath of life down here. You, the ultimate Creator. Stand over me. I don’t care if I almost smother in your temple-filling vestments. Cup your hands around your mouth (Do you have hands?  Do you have a mouth? I know I’m made in your image but maybe it’s the inside of me that looks like the outside of you.) and spit. I’m totally fine with being spat on ‘cause it'd be holy spit. Creative juices for sure. There’d be enough stories in one drop for me to write one a day for eternity. Now that’s my idea of heaven.
            But wait! Look there. At the screen. Check out all the words. Those gorgeous letters strung together. I kiss my pointer finger and pounce it on each one. Get tired of that and rest my palm in the middle of the page instead. I drop my head back. Grin.         
            Thank you so much, sir! For rescuing me. From the grey stinking abyss I named Suckedrydia. What with all the weeping and teeth-gnashing, I’m guessing it’s a whole lot like h-e-double-toothpicks.

Friday, August 5, 2011

*The Best Part Is Jumping In*

They say it's gonna be a scorcher today.  Wanna go swimming?  I know the perfect place.  The water is so beautiful, it looks toxic.  Like a cocktail of Midori and Blue Curacao.  Sort of like if you mixed a blue raspberry and a lime Slush Puppy. 
            The water temperature's always just right.  Not so cold your heart stops when you get in, but not warm as a summer puddle either.
            The best part is jumping in, but first you have to climb the rocky, dry path.  Watch out for the pull tabs though.  They'll slice your foot right open.  Make you bleed like nuts.  Take turns watching where you're going and glancing down.  A tetanus shot might be a good idea too.  In case you get cut.  Or bit.

For starters, you gotta know the way.  Keep your eye out for a big ole farmhouse, white with dark green shutters, on the left. The property looks like a farm. Has a split rail fence around the front yard and a barn in the back. 
            My girlfriends and I always stopped to see the guys who hung out there.  They were wild.  Cute too.  In that I'm-bad-and-I-might-just-ask-you-to-be-bad kinda way.  They lived life more outdoors than in.  Up at the swimming hole.  Out in the woods.  Down on the river bank.
            They took us in the barn once and I saw one of the scariest things ever.  Saddest too.  They had a pit bull in there.  Back before it was cool.  Before Michael Vick got caught.  They couldn't let it out 'cause it was crazy vicious.  It'd kill anything with four legs. 
            It was the guys' fault.  They made the dog that way.  Taught it to hate all animals.  They'd take a rag and use it to pick up something dead.  Then they'd beat the tar out of the dog with it.  They started small and worked their way up.  Squirrels to possums to groundhogs.
            The dog got out once.  Took down a goat.  After that, they put one of those super mean collars on him with big spikes that dug into his neck if he made a wrong move.  Chained him inside the barn.  I never understood why the dog hated the animals the boys beat him with.  Why didn't the dog hate them?  Heck, why didn't we?

The wild boys were the ones who showed us the swimming hole.  We'd heard about it but we weren't sure where it was.  All we knew was to cross the bridge from West Virginia to Ohio and turn right.  After that, the gravel road up the mountain would be somewhere near a gas station. 
            We passed the Esso station and that's when we spotted the boys.  Sitting at a picnic table out in the yard, in the shade.  Suzy pulled her car into the driveway.  We sent Laura Jane over to ask for directions.  Boys'll tell her anything.  
            Laura ducked between the top and middle split rail and sashayed over to the boys in her white bikini and blue jean short shorts. 
            The biggest guy whistled.  "Well, well, well," he said. "What have we here?  I seen that same sorta swing on a back porch once."
            From the car, we watched Laura flash her Ultra-Brite smile.  The windows were down so we could hear her too. She flipped her almost black, bra strap-length hair and said, "You boys know where the secret swimming hole is?"
            "You mean the filled-up strip mine?" the youngest one said.  I thought he was good looking.  Kinda reminded me of John Denver, only smaller.
            The other boys seemed to tense up.  Their eyes got all squinty.  Like they were miffed.  Little John Denver ignored them.  He grinned up at Laura Jane, stretched out his arm, and pointed.
            "Go back the way you came but drive real slow," he said.  "In between here and the Esso,  you'll see a rusty oil drum.  When y'all get to it, keep your eyes peeled 'cause the turn's right beyond it."
            The biggest boy shoved Little John.  "Aw, man!  Why'd you do that?  We don't want no girls up there."
            "Says who?" Little John said.  He turned back to Laura.  "I can take y'all up, if you want."

Our new friend's name was actually Danny.
            "Why's it called the strip mine?" I said from the back seat.
            "'Cause that's what it used to be," Danny said.  "When there was no more coal, they flooded it."
            He turned to look at me.  "Wait 'til you see it.  The water's the coolest color ever."
            He led us up the steep, granola-looking trail.  Held back brambly branches so we wouldn't scratch our shaved that morning legs.  All of a sudden, the path ended.  We stood at the edge of a sandstone cliff, twenty or more feet over the opaque and aqua water.  The Mountain Dew in my stomach simmered.
            I peeked over the edge.  "How do you get down to the water?" 
            I can't believe I asked that.  I slapped my hands over my ears 'cause I didn't wanna know the answer. Heard him anyway.
           "You jump, silly."
            I pursed my lips and swallowed the jawbreaker-feeling lump in my throat. Danny took a step toward me.  I blinked.  Before I knew it, I was hurtling through the air.  Beside Danny.  I backstroked, over and over.  Trying to . . . I don't know.  Save myself?  Make it back to the cliff's edge?
            When I hit the water, my eyes and mouth slammed shut.  I felt my hair float over my head as I sank.  I opened my eyes and saw the light through the teal murk above me.  I pushed water down to get up.  To the light.  To the air.
            I broke through the water's surface like a baby being born.  Whipped my head around. Tried to locate Suzy and Laura Jane.  They waved from way up there.  My legs fluttered beneath me like beaters on a mixer.  I cupped my hand and circled it over and over, toward me.
            "Come on!  Jump in!  The water's awesome!"
            I spotted Danny.  He was floating on his back about ten feet away.  Eyes squeezed shut, mouth in a goofy grin.  I stretched out and did the same.  Pulled little puffs of air into my lungs so I could stay on top of the water.

            "I love this place, Danny," I said, even though I wasn't sure he could hear me. "It's perfect."


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