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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Unwelcome Visitor

We have a mouse. Not a welcome mouse. Not a cheerful friend who squeaks adorably and nibbles cheese in a charming fashion. This one gnaws at the corners of things and leaves droppings in the cabinets. I am not pleased. I am, in fact, embarrassed. As if my house is unclean. Which it is, but not pest-level unclean. Or so I thought.

Our guest is a lovely shade of brown. I know this because last night when I returned home it was on the counter; I watched as it scurried into an oven vent. Not long after, the oven was on for several very, very hot hours. Coincidence? You decide.
The turkey was delicious. There was no mousearoma in our supper. I was a tad disappointed.

Demon Dog remains aloof from the excitement of mouse hunting. I am disappointed. He has terrier blood; he should be intent on defeating this unwelcome addition to our family. Instead he drapes himself before the kitchen's heating vent, or claims the entire floor in front of the woodstove, basking in warmth. I need a cat. Bonus? A cat would leave room for me to warm my toes.

The rodent -- or, more realistically, rodents, because they multiply and scrabble inside walls and the noises, oh, the noises and imaginings of wee beasts test-tasting the niblet-like toes of my children -- has thus far ignored the peanut-butter baited traps. I've escalated to raisin bread. Who can resist raisin bread?

In the meantime I wash and wipe and sweep the neglected corners of my home. The children are being trained ever more enthusiastically how to clean up spills and put food away. I check the traps and sweep again. I obsessively empty the crumb tray of the toaster, denying cruel and sinister thoughts that liken a simple household appliance to the electric chair.

Scrubbing and fuming gives me time to ponder boundaries. The summer place in Vermont is rife with mice, but I do not mind them so much. We visit only every other summer, while they make it their home year-round. We are the invaders there. They disappear at our noisesome tromping. Some nights they take advantage of my carelessness -- striated tooth marks in an apple on the counter, a missing corner from the loaf of bread atop the refrigerator. They cannot be excluded, anyway. There are gaps and openings in walls and at corners. It is a camp, a transitory place. Here, in this house? The presence of a mouse disrupts the sense of solidity and security of my home. It is an unwelcome reminder that I do not truly control my little world. Perhaps I should be grateful. Maybe I will -- after the traps do their vile work, and I claim my home again.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Day In the Life of a Handyman

Rise early. Sometimes you gotta get to a person's house before they leave for work; if you're lucky, they trusted you enough to give you a key last time. You’ve been there twice already. The first time was officially so they could tell you what needs done, but really so they could size you up. “Is this a guy we want in our home?” You went back a week later — on the weekend, or maybe after supper, ’cause that’s easiest for them — to go over the estimate line-by-line. You had to justify why it costs so damn much to do something so simple.

It’s on that second visit that you size them up. Can you work with the wife? (Always the wife. Stereotypes exist for a reason.) Sometimes, talking to the customer, you just know they’re gonna lose it in the middle of the project and nothing is worth that particular headache. If they’re picky but not real bad you might tack on a fifteen percent PITA charge to cover all the change-orders or “little things” you know are coming. Thing is, nobody ever knows what they really want. “Fix the bathroom doorknob” could mean the toilet's running and the light fixture flickers and the door sometimes sticks. It's a mystery. But you'll do your best. It’s their home, after all. And if it's a little old lady, you might do a little bit more because hell, you're there, and her kids aren't doing it for her.

Quick breakfast while you make phone calls to line up subs and your crew, then load tools for the day. They're in the basement or the garage, locked up because some punks like to steal tools -- they're easy to pawn -- and tool insurance gives shit compared to what they’re worth. Make sure you get everything, especially if the job's across town. Work close to home is best ‘cause of that. If there's more than one job, make sure you cover ’em all. Time is money, and you can't be coming home every time you need a different tool. This is why you spend hours every night figuring out the scheduling. It's a jigsaw puzzle, fitting when this customer is going to be home with when that other customer is available, and if you’re doing wiring it sure is nice to get all those jobs done in the same week because it's easier to leave the electrical toolbox in the van instead of switching it out for plumbing every other day. If some other company’s involved? Make sure you get the timing right. You can't tile if the mud is wet. Two puzzles glancing off each other. You make it work, though. Gotta keep all the balls in the air.

Before you head to the job you need to run to Home Depot, or maybe Lowe's if they've got a better price. Your probably have most of what you need somewhere in the garage or the basement, or that storage place you rent. Hard to keep it all straight. You get your tools at yard sales and from friends who go out of business, and even pawn shops sometimes. Same for materials. Sometimes you find a treasure trove of custom moulding at a dead guy’s garage sale. Like gold, because there's only one lumber yard in town that can get that anymore. Maybe you have a custom jig and can make your own, but it's not usually worth it. The customer doesn't know the difference, anyway. So you stop by the home improvement store for this and that, and hope the customer already called in the order for the special tile they wanted. You'll buy it at contractor pricing and charge them retail, and that mark up right there might be the margin that gets you through the holiday season when folks have visitors and don't want the house all torn up, or strangers tromping through.

At the house you're friendly, respectful. There are specific demands -- don't use this doorway, make sure the cats stay locked in the basement. The worst are the women who don't really want you in the house. Those ones ask you not to use their bathrooms. Like you're dirty. Well, you are — sawdust and plaster dust, drywall mud and paint on you — but what the hell are you supposed to do? The neighbors get twitchy when you pee in the alley. Forget about taking a shit. So you take a break, hoping they don't raise an eyebrow at your slacking, and run to the corner store to use the bathroom. Sometimes you come back with a cup of coffee, but not always.

The work. Oh, you sing if it goes well. The pride of craftsmanship. The best are the unusual jobs, the ones that take a little thinking, some good planning. Hanging curtains and repairing ceiling fans is all well and good, and it pays the bills, but the big ones? The one where you had to tuck a bathroom somewhere on the main floor so the old lady didn't have to climb up and down the stairs all day? That was fun. You like making window boxes. Driving past the house a couple months later, seeing the geraniums all in bloom? That's good. That's making a house into a home. You did that.

At lunch you and the crew take a strange pride in walking into a sandwich shop together, catching the glances from the white-collar types who look sour at you, like they need to wash after you pass. Maybe you step back outside to dust off the fiberglass or plaster or whatever shit is all over. You're never really clean, even after a shower. Your calloused hands snag your worn t-shirt, grate across the canvas of your work pants. The guys inside are laughing, ordering huge meals justified by hard work. You join them. After some storytelling there’s figuring out who does what next: maybe some guys are gonna move on to the next job while you wrap up, or somebody’s making a quick run to the hardware store. There's a camaraderie that comes from physical labor that you don't see in the suits.
You're glad you don't have to wear one of those every day.


Back to work. Hope to get it done by the end of the day. Maybe stay an hour late, just to finish. There's a sweet satisfaction in the completion of a project, no matter how small. If you're good you might finish early and have time for a beer before heading home. That’s if you're charging by the project. Time and materials it doesn't make such a difference. 

Clean up really well. Better than you'd do at home. Dust all vacuumed up, everything put back just so, make it look like you were never there. That's the goal. You're meant to be invisible the second you leave. Even if it's a two day job you clean up, no matter that you'll be making a mess again. It's respectful. Takes a little extra time, but when you live by word-of-mouth, your reputation is on the line. Keep ’em happy and you might be able to send the kids to college. One bad customer and you might not work for a year. It's all about salesmanship. 

At home you unload the tools and start the phone calls. Think your way through all the jobs you’re managing: mind the customer's vacation; track who wanted you next; shoehorn in that emergency plumbing job that came up today and just has to be done tomorrow. Talk to that other contractor, see if his crew will be working at the house tomorrow — can you overlap? Fit another piece into the jigsaw puzzle. Say hi to the kids and check their homework. Maybe a quick hug for the wife, then sit down and write up bills. If you focus you might have time to sit on your ass and watch an hour of TV before bed. Not that you’ll see any of it. Exhaustion will have your head back on the sofa pillow and you’ll doze your way to the credits.

It's a living. A good one. You might even like it. But you're dirty and tired at the end of the day, boots heavy and hair filled with crap. As you get older you ache a little more. The ladders get a little steeper, the lumber more awkward. Still, a hundred years from now people won't know your name, but they'll love that house. The one with the window boxes full of flowers. The one you made into a home.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Intimacy

I’ve been thinking about intimacy, lately. Not sex. They are not the same thing. 
My pondering did start with musings about sex and intimacy and power and relationships, but in my usual tangential way I wound up also considering something entirely else: social media.

Recently a number of people I know joined the new social media site Ello and exclaimed with joy: “It’s so different!” and “There’s so much interaction!” I’ve been told they feel less restricted in what they say. They wondered why exactly, Ello feels so special? I joined, too, in part to see what all the hoopla is about.

After a couple of days of dabbling, my take is that the structure and presentation of Ello isn’t really different. It’s a social network, just like Facebook and G+ and Tumblr and Twitter. I have a theory about Ello, but honestly? I see them all as dating sites where the users seek some sort of match. Not looking for sex. Seeking connection. Validation. A response to barbaric yawps and howls in the wilderness. 

You disagree? A riddle for you: what do Facebook, a church basement, and the sidelines of a children’s soccer game have in common? 

My answer: they are places where communities form. If you think about it, that’s all social media is – an online substitute for the in-person interaction that used to come naturally (if not voluntarily) in church-basement suppers and sideline commiseration. Human beings have a primal need to create social groups. Some of us aren’t church or soccer types. Instead we find electronic contacts who share our experiences or have common interests. 

I’m not judging. Hell, my “virtual” relationships have restored my sanity, propped up my marriage, and probably saved my life once when I was in a really desperate place. I spent years feeling alone and isolated, until I built my tribe online. Here I share fandoms and post my real writing as well as drivel about my day, and people respond with care. They are my friends.

The question of why Ello feels so different is linked to all of this.

In the real world, we advertise our personalities externally: we choose how we dress, style our hair, even how we smell. Online we cannot put on our best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes; instead we carefully select avatars and make sure the wallpaper on the "about" page is meant to convey something about ourselves. I used the term “dating site,” but we’re not here to hook up. We want longer term. We want friendship. We want shared experience. We seek connection. That doesn’t come easily, though, either in person or online. We stand in our own way with first impressions and crafted personas. Moreover, we cannot interact online without words, which means everything we do online is a calculated reveal. Some people are deliberately provocative and even obnoxious. Others lurk. Some people might never mention a spouse – the electronic equivalent of removing a wedding ring in a bar. Others (like me) say far too much.

But if we do find our place, our tribe, our online community – then we can share our quirky humor. Announce our triumphs. And sometimes, if we trust enough, if we have enough commonalities and interactions, if we feel safe, we share our bad days or our wretched pasts. That? That is intimacy.

The thing is, it’s just as easy to get lost in a sea of bits as it is in a sea of faces. I’m unusual in that my Facebook friends list is fewer than 175 and although I’ve circled just under 500 people on G+ my “important people” list has 28. That’s not very much. Many folks with whom I interact regularly have followers in the tens of thousands. When they “share privately” the message may go out to a thousand people. On just one site. Some people have different identities on Tumblr and Instagram than they do on Facebook and Twitter. I get that. I wonder, though, how one can have any intimacy with one's contacts at that volume. My approach has been to keep my list of connections small and my posts similar (if not the same) across platforms. This saves me from feeling the need to switch hats depending on my audience, and to recognize the people who, by being responsive, fulfill my need for emotional connection – what I consider the intimacy of friendship. 

Circling once again to the question of why Ello feels different, I posit that the difference is simply a matter of size. Small towns are curious places. When you run into someone on the street, familiarity allows you to bypass the pleasantries and jump to the more intimate inquiries of health and wellbeing. In a small online community the same thing happens. Ello is young and has relatively few users. People who bounce to that platform have an opportunity to build a fresh persona and develop intimate connections with folks who share common experiences and interests. Ello is doing exactly what users want in a social media network – providing a space where people can build a community. 

I’ll keep my profile, although I probably won’t shift to Ello as my primary online home. I am very fortunate to already have thought-provoking, supportive, amusing, intimate communities already both on Facebook and G+. I have shouted over the rooftops and my voice has been heard. I just hope Ello becomes a place where those who seek the same can find it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

First Date

His pinkie was startlingly warm when it brushed hers. He was gracefully, deliberately, accidental in every touch; the kindness both thrilled and confused her. The men — boys — she normally dated were crafty and obtrusive, grasping her shoulder and rubbing her arm roughly, drawing her whole body in like prey to be devoured. He was unhurried. At the restaurant he sat back, eyes intent but leaving enough space that she, for once, was the one to lean in, to lay her hand on the cloth in an open - and ultimately unanswered - invitation. At the movie theater they shared a popcorn and rather than manufacturing an opportunity he waited for her to withdraw before plunging his own hand in to the buttery mess.

She invited him in as soon as he parked in front of her house. She was curious, and attracted, and a little bit nervous that he didn’t feel the same. His sudden grin was reassuring. Of course he’d love to walk her to the door, but he didn’t dare come in. Too tempting, he said with a slow, hot, smile. Something deep inside fluttered, and she had trouble drawing the next breath. Could they just sit together for a while on her porch swing?

So they sat, and his pinkie brushed hers, and then their hands were resting next to each other. All her attention was on that single line of heat where skin met skin, so she only barely felt the wind pick up, only absently heard the clanking of the wooden wind chimes. Which is why his yelp seemed so very loud, and the sudden leap to his feet was so unnerving. 

He was pale. His eyes were fixed on the corner of the porch where the wind chimes swung erratically into the light shining from the kitchen. He stepped forward, raising a trembling hand, then dropped it again. “They’re, they’re dolls!” he gasped. He turned and stared at her, then took a step backward. “What? Why would you do that?” he didn’t wait for an answer, but stepped to the stairs. “They looked like hollow children, in the darkness.” He said nothing further as he walked to his car. She rubbed her hand where they had touched, then walked over to the chimes — wooden baby dolls, unstuffed and strung up by their necks to blow and knock in the wind. She stilled the bodies, and listened in the silence as he drove away.

Written in response to a prompt by Bliss
#PromptsAndCircumstance

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Survival

He was the only reason I survived. At least, that’s the story we built together, him and me. I was so boy-crazy then that I spent my attention on him rather than physics. He absorbed my adoration in trade for morsels of knowledge, just enough to get me through that week’s class, just enough that I’d come back close to tears, begging for help with the next formula. That’s how it worked. I’d sit on his bed eating shards of dry ramen and he’d pace – the room only allowed four steps each way – using his hands to sketch invisible diagrams of falling rocks and flying balls and how mass and distance would predict where they’d land. He was like a wizard, you know? He could wave his arms and conjure up the laws that made our world spin.

Nothing changed in five years, except maybe I wasn’t so boy crazy anymore. But he still gave me only just enough to bring me back on my knees. Just enough time. Just enough attention. Then he’d get up on his soap box and make my world spin all over again. Sure, it was a little slower, and the whole thing seemed less magical, but we were getting older.

That day? No, we didn’t fight. We never fought. That was one of his laws. He gave me everything. I only survived because of him. Who was I to argue? He was my world. So yeah. He told me I had to come right home after work. Huh? Yeah, I asked if I could go to Emmy’s farewell party. She was important to me. I think he knew that. I think he maybe could hear something in my voice. He didn’t like me talking about her. He said she was uppity, and when I talked to her I got uppity. I don’t know about that. All I know is she asked me questions, and didn’t really want to hear about him. She wanted me to have ideas. She’s the one who said I was smart. She said I could have passed that first class by myself. That I didn’t need him.

You ever turn the map upside down? I mean, put Antarctica at the top? I read somewhere that the regular map – the one with us at the top, you know, like they have in schools and on the news – is totally arbitrary. Hm? Oh, it means randomly chosen. Gosh, thanks. I’ve always had a good vocabulary. He takes pride in that. Says I’m well-spoken for a dumb girl. Anyway, you ever look at a map upside down? It’s the same thing, but it looks totally weird. That’s what Emmy did. She turned my map. Got me thinking. 

What? Oh, yeah. That day. No, he told me to come right home. Oh gosh no! He would never go out with my friends. Said he had no time for hen parties. But I really wanted to go. I called and told him I was working late. I did that sometimes. He was okay with it. The overtime, you know. He didn’t believe that day, though. He knew it was Emmy’s last day and that there were plans. He was really mad. I was packing up to go home when Emmy hijacked me. Really. She grabbed my bag and my keys and ran out of the office. I was laughing, but it was scary, thinking about what he’d do. I never expected, well, you know.

No, I got it, thanks. 

This hankie belonged to my grandma. Can you tell? I’ve washed it probably a thousand times. She always told me to use it like it was meant to be used. She wasn’t real fond of tissues. She’d lick a corner to scrub our faces and the paper would dissolve. A handkerchief, though. She could really attack a messy face with one of her hankies. Oh. Sorry. Yeah, that day.

So we were at the bar and Emmy talked me into trying some fancy drink I’d never had before. I don’t remember what it was called, but it had vodka and pineapple juice and something red. It looked like a sunset. So pretty. Oh, man did that thing get to me, though. I’m not much of a drinker. He said I got even dumber when I drank, and told me I shouldn’t have more than one of anything. I only had one of those sunset drinks, but it must have been like five glasses of wine. Emmy told me I laughed a lot. She likes it when I laugh. 

I should have gone home but I wasn’t thinking straight. I believe that’s why Harold offered his couch. If I’d been thinking right I never would have agreed. I had to get home. I was in enough trouble already! But Harold took me back to his place and -- oh God no! He’s a married man! His wife was there and everything! No he just, well, I don’t know why he’s the one who took me home. I think all the arranging was done without me. I was trying to call home. Trying to explain myself. I was crying by then, I think. But he wasn’t answering. Emmy said she thought he was being petulant, not answering my calls. Huh? She told me later. I don’t remember that night so well. I’m kind of embarrassed now, you know. That’s not like me. So, um that’s why I didn’t know until the next day. I called, and someone answered his phone, and told me to come right away to the hospital. 

You know, I never asked why you’re going over this. I understand the life insurance people – they’re protecting their assets and all – but why the police? Do you investigate everyone who drives off a cliff? I mean, you guys said it was an accident. That's what the insurance company said. Death certificate says accidental trauma. They wouldn't have paid otherwise, you know. If they thought it wasn't an accident.

He was an awful driver. My mom won’t even ride in the car with him anymore. And I'm sure he was mad. Really mad. I know sometimes that makes people drive stupid, too. He told me that. Defensive driving, he called it, but I don’t know how you can drive like that and be defensive. But I don’t drive much, so what do I know. Oh. Sorry. I guess I’m still not thinking straight, that’s why I’m talking so much. But why are you asking?

Brakes? I don’t know. I’m sure they were fine. He was in charge of the car. Didn’t trust me to get it serviced “in a timely fashion” he said. Told me I never did what I was supposed to do, or at least, not when it needed done. He has the records at home. I mean, I do, I guess. I can dig them out if you’d like. 

Can you ask that again? I’m not sure I understand. 

No! No I didn’t “plan to draw him out of the house.” What do you think I am? I just wanted to say goodbye to Emmy. We’ve worked together for a long time and she’s my friend. My only friend, really. That’s why I went out. I don’t know anything about the accident. You’re the police. You figure it out.

I need to go home.  Emmy’s waiting for me. She’s a good friend. 

Yes, thank you, I will. Good night, officer.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Coal Train

Diesels bay at 3 a.m.
as they prowl railyards
on the north end of town

A screen lights the kitchen
half-cleaned, still
fragrant with cumin and onions

an update chimes:
the rodeo queen has shared
another picture of her boys

Facebook maps a diaspora 
coal-dusted children
departure-seared

poured like mine tailings
from the Valley down the 
slopes of the Rocky Mountains

Goodbyes trace like fireworks
the explosion at the mine
blew out the heart of our town

Iron wheels clatter in time
with breakfast pans. Men
descend into the seam
echoing 
the whistle of the coal train

Poets of G+ Challenge: write a  poem the starts at the end and moves toward the beginning

A List

Things that hollowed me out
today, a list for
no good reason

Casual jazz under red
string lights
a gift from a man who
will never be my friend

The moment a little
girl rested her head
butterfly gentle
against my shoulder
before flitting off to play

The elusive scent
of lilacs

Two chattering women speed
walking past
as I untangled
The dog’s leash from
my legs

The wobbling path
of my son’s bicycle
as he rode away