Thursday, March 21, 2019

Across the Hall


I’m on my hands and knees in my dad’s little office, which is right across the hall from my bedroom.  My light is off so no one can tell I’m not in bed under those blue and white Smurf sheets, which I’ve totally outgrown now that I’m TEN, in FIFTH grade, but my mom insists are in perfectly good condition.  I’ve crept across the hall so I can do it. Again. Sin. I’m a sinner. The hallway light spills in as I kneel at one of my usual crime scenes. If I get caught, it’ll be my third offense. “Three strikes you’re out,” I imagine my dad singing off key at a Portland Beaver’s baseball game.

My dad’s office is small and painted mint green.  Even I seem too big for that little room. There’s a desk crammed into one corner with a floor to ceiling cabinet pinning it in.  Not one of those metal cabinets, but cheap pressboard which means the doors bow out, so it’s hard to slide them open. Unless you’re an expert, like me, at sneaking and stealing.  Burgling they call it on TV. The loot inside? My dad’s favorite thing ever, which is also my favorite thing ever. M&M’s. Peanut M&M’s. The real kind, even though my dad doesn’t keep them in the big yellow bag he gets at Safeway (whether they are “BUY one, GET one free” or not).  Nope, he pours his M&M’s in a brown paper lunch sack and rolls the top down. We agree that they’re much better than the generic ones my Grandma puts in a fake crystal dish on her coffee table each Christmas Eve. They are the only thing my dad will pay full price for, even on NON-payday weeks and he says the splurge is worth it because it makes me smile my silly Hobbit smile.

My dad started calling me “Hobbit” or “Hob” earlier this school year when I got the lead in the school play.  Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Yep. He came to the play all three nights, even though he slept through most of it.  My mom promised to wake him up when I killed the dragon. And each night, during the car ride home, he went on and on about my sword and how I took out the dragon.  He’d say, “You did it, didn’t you Hob?” And I’d say ”Yep, Big Dad, I did it!” I don’t know when I started calling him Big Dad because he really is the tiniest man ever.

My dad’s laugh is the one big thing about him.  It’s so big it almost sounds fake, like he’s trying on a Santa suit and borrowing the bellow.  I can always get him to laugh. It’s another one of my favorite things (even though it annoys my mom).  The best time is at the dinner table right after someone has taken their turn saying the prayer. I sit across from my dad, now that the oldest three kids are out of the house, my brother Kerry sits across from my mom.  Which means I have to hold Kerry’s hand when we pray, and he always squeezes too hard. But if I say anything I’m the one who gets in trouble. And if I’m in trouble I can’t do my silly smile which gets my dad to laugh, and always seems to make him a little less tired.  My dad’s strong, even though he’s tiny, and he works harder than anyone I’ve ever met. I’m pretty sure we’re pretty poor because he worries about money even harder than he works.


Each year, for his birthday, when I pick out his card, I try to find something particularly funny, because he’ll take extra time during his special birthday meal.  He’ll open the envelope slowly, notice my artwork on the outside, comment on how creative I am, say, “Hobbit, you sure can draw can’t you?” He’ll slide the card out carefully and read the start of the joke on the front and get the goofiest grin on his face, which tells me to get my silly smile ready.  And then, when he reads the punch line, he’ll say “You got me, Hob!” and I’ll give him my silly smile and he’ll Santa laugh. Then he’ll read the front again and the punch line again and we’ll crack up again, together! And it’s almost as good as my own birthday. Almost.

I think I hear someone in the hall so I sit back, the carpet scratchy on my bare knees.  I hold my breath and try to listen, try to hear something beyond the pounding in my chest.  But the rest of the house is quiet. It’s just my dad, noisy in the lazy boy, snoring. I imagine his mouth tipped open, the stubble darkening his chin, the strain of his workday leaving him limp in his lazy boy.

I’m already in the doghouse with my dad.  Royally. I’m in the doghouse because of last week and a couple things that happened.  See, first, I broke the little doorstopper for my bedroom door. I really like the sound it makes when you flick it, when you hold it all the way to one side and then let go.  “Thwooooing”. I love that sound. But my Dad caught me doing it and hit the roof, blew a gasket, and for him, that’s pretty odd because he’s usually off somewhere in his head, not noticing anything at all.

But even worse, is what happened with my dad’s Bearcat Emergency scanner.  There I was, sneaking into his office after school to get my M&M fix and I started fiddling with the mysterious black box because it’s just so cool with gleaming dials and a lovely extendable antenna.  That’s the part I broke, the antenna. (Which just doesn’t make sense to me because it’s supposed to extend. Really, they should make those things more durable. In my opinion.) But that time, he got so mad he barked at me.  “That’s. Not. A. Toy. Hobbit!” I tried to act sorry, even worked at making myself cry when he called me by my favorite name, Hobbit. Of the two of us, I think he was closer to crying than me.

Now, my dad’s not a fireman/medic/policeman, he doesn’t need the emergency scanner for his job, he delivers propane for a propane company.  But he loves that thing. And I love that thing. Whenever a siren sounds he’ll flip it on to discover what disaster has occurred, where the fire truck/ambulance/police car is headed.  And then he’ll sit there in his little office and listen. And I’ll listen from my bedroom across the hall. I’ve often wondered if you could see the images in our heads, how closely would they would compare?  So many times I’ve wished he’d pop his head into my room and say, “Hey Hobbit! Lets go!” And then we’d race through the kitchen to the garage (ignoring my mom’s ambush of questions) jump into his red Chevy truck and take off.  We’d chase those sirens with the windows down.

But he never does.  He just sits. Even when I linger by his door and try to catch his eye.  Sometimes, when he does notice me, he’ll swivel around in his chair, reach down and slide the cabinet door open.  His fist will disappear into the crinkled bag and emerge with a handful of Peanut M&M’s. Two at a time, he’ll drop them into my outstretched palm and say, “Sounds like fire, Hob. Sounds like a big one.”

I bought him a new antenna with some of my strawberry picking money that I’d been saving for one of those curling irons that’s also a brush.  When I gave it to him, he thanked me and said, ‘I know what this cost you Hob,’ which made me feel even more guilty because my mom helped me find the antenna on-sale at Waremart and I still got the curling iron.

Yeah, I KNOW what I do is awful sinful.  Stealing candy from my tiny tired dad. And I always try to hold out, try to be good, but I can’t help but do it again, I am just that BAD.  And I know it’s no excuse, but there’s something about having a fist full of those Peanut M&M’s that makes me feel like WE’RE GOING TO BE OKAY.  Because no matter when I sneak some, the bag seems full, like we’re doing just fine, like, there’s plenty for all of us kids, even me, the last of five.  And, there will be enough for my dad and mom if I ever make it to college and have to leave them.  See, when I reach down deep into the mass of M&M’s I think, maybe my dad’s got treats and treasures hidden all over and they’re not gonna end up sitting on the steps of the ‘Poor House’ like he likes to says.  (I’m pretty sure the Poor House is just an expression and not an actual place. Although my dad seems as afraid of going there as my mom is afraid of going to the loony bin, which I know is a an actual place because my mom said a distant cousin went there and never came back.)

I start to slide the cabinet door closed, the chocolate is coating my teeth and tongue. I really should dart back to my room but I want a second scoop so I stay.  I leave the cabinet door cracked open, just wide enough, so I can slip my hand back inside. I usually eat the green ones first and make a list of all the candy I love that is green (watermelon nerds, lime now & laters, apple blow-pops) and imagine having a Tupperware container of each stashed under my bed.  I make sure and save the red ones for last and get my list to cherry starbursts before diving my hand back into the paper sack.

And then suddenly the light goes out behind me.  Not completely. Not like someone flipped off the hallway light - that would have made my dad’s office go dark, concealing me completely.  More like… an eclipse, like the one I looked at with the shoebox I made at school. The light dims, it is diffused. I turn around to see my dad’s tiny figure silhouetted in the doorway, insignificant compared to the massive shadow he is casting down on me.

My mouth is packed with peanuts.  I can’t swallow, let alone speak. And my heart does that thing I’ve read about in Sweet Valley High romance novels, when one of the twins gets her heart broken.

“Night, Hob.”

That’s all he says, standing there, between me and the light.  An eclipse. I have been eclipsed. My sin covered.

He continues on down the hall to the bathroom.  I hear the water running in the sink as he brushes his teeth and then I hear the water stop, hear him come back into the hall.

“Make sure and brush your teeth, Hobbit.”  The light goes out, all the way this time and I hear his bedroom door open and close.  The walk back across the hall feels like desert miles. I sit there on my Smurf sheets trying to swallow.

'Big Dad' Kenneth L. Felton
9/22/42 - 3/21/16

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Now Know Do


...today i found myself on the third floor of a department store, in the bowels of their stockroom, in the back-back, sitting with sewing machines, spools of colorful thread and strangers. we were all locked in together, passing careful, quiet comments. some were teary, others uncomfortably talkative. a young couple with a doe-eyed five month old sat across from me kissing their baby's soft hair. two girls, just beyond their teens, huddled close holding hands, possibly sisters or best friends or partners. an older woman clutched a hyper maltese which her daughter, hair streaked a magnificent blue, scratched behind the ears while whispering, "I love you, syd vicious." we were all waiting to hear if there was in fact, an 'active shooter' running in our direction. we knelt beside café refrigerators and squeezed between shelving, hurried down unfamiliar halls, not yet knowing what we were hiding from. moved four times to more secure locations, intermittent prerecorded announcements reminding us that we were on emergency lockdown, directed by security guards and managers and shaken employees, away from windows, up-up-up escalators, as cellphones and spirits were drained. who do you think of in such an acute moment of Now? what hasn't been said, what shouldn't have mattered earlier in your day, week, lifetime? what do you know that you Know. and what is there left to Do once the doors are unlocked and you are let out?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Bubble Gum Pears: Fall, Chicago

From the bus I can look down into the taxi and see the woman in her crisp business attire, her portfolio open, white sheets with black text splayed out before her. I wonder if she is reviewing a resume, her own or someone else's, wonder if she is off to interview someone or be interviewed, or maybe she's off to make some big corporate presentation. I imagine her facing a boardroom of suited men, possibly silver haired, possibly two times or three times her age. Or, possibly there is one who she is secretly meeting in a hotel room on Wednesdays over the lunch hour, when she tells her officemate she's running to Bloomingdales. 


I wonder this as I look down into her taxi. Then my bus lurches forward and the taxi speeds off. I am left with my own wondering about what I am about to do. Three more stops, before I do this, two more stops before I am there. I could stay on the bus, pass by the familiar cross-streets and let the summer pass and fall come without doing this. One stop. And then I find myself rise, step off the bus.

My mind is a blur of possibilities, who will speak first, what will I say, what will he say, will I even be able to look him in the eye? It doesn't even occur to me until I am nearer that he might not even be there. And as I get nearer, it's obvious. He isn't. I did not expect this. Now what? I walk on, east, toward my office, embarrassment settling over me, the silliness of it all. I feel exposed and naked, like everyone passing me on the sidewalk can see that this (whatever this was suppose to be) will not be happening.

But as the walk signal changes and I start through the intersection I pass by him, recognize his blue sweatshirt, the blonde curls wisping out from under the heavy dark blue hood, and nearly brush his arm with my shoulder. He doesn't recognize me (I mean, how could he, why should he) but I see that it's him and it catches my breath and I have to stop walking, frozen in the middle of the crosswalk, people squeezing to get by.

But today's the day. The last possible day and if I’m going to do this it has to be today. So I turn around and cross back, barely making it before traffic zips behind me, drivers honking at my last minute sprint.

I don't go to where he stands immediately. I am sweaty and can't breathe so I circle the square, my sunglasses shielding my sightlines. I pretend to smell the flowers and check out the organic soaps and sample the cheese from Somewhere, WI. I skip the honey booth with the live bees packed between two sheets of Plexiglas, and I skip all the other booths that sell fruit.

His booth is right on the corner, the white canopy top makes me think of circus tents. I recognize the other employees, the one who uses a dirty knife to cut samples of bubble gum pears for all the girls, and the tallest one who's hands are always shoved into his pockets and he never seems to be helping anyone.

I pick out my pears, unaware of how many I’ve chosen until the plastic bag is bulging and my sweaty palms can barely hold on. I put some back. I decide to keep my sunglasses on because last time I got this close I just stared at his hair, could hardly hand him the $3, certainly couldn't string 3 words together. Just handed him my bag of corn on the cob, trembling. He said something chit-chatty, and I, I, well, I grunted (seriously), thrust the $3 into his hand and bolted. That was last year.

I'm up next in line and just as I step forward, dirty-knife-guy replaces him because some little old lady wants his opinion on the purple eggplants.

"Back for more?" dirty-knife-guy asks.

"Huh?!" I say quickly and suspiciously.

"More pears? Told ya last year you'd love those bubble gum pears."

"Yes, right, yes! I am back for more bubble gum pears!" I laugh a strange shrill laugh that sounds foreign even to my own ears and apparently to his too, because he backs away slightly when he gives me my change.

I start to walk away but I can't. Somehow this thing, this thing, this thing I want to do has become huge, defining, urgent. So when I go to leave, I don't cross to the crosswalk. I come around his table and stand behind him as he finishes bagging the little old lady's purple eggplant.

I step up to him, step in close and before I can think, I extend my hand. He starts to extend his, then seems unsure, can't tell if I’m going to hand him something, or if want one of the purple eggplants. But then he does take my hand, or I take his, and I lean in and whisper.

We are still holding hands when the words hit him, I can actually tell when the vocabulary is decoded in his brain and the text becomes meaning.

"Thank you," he says. "And you too." He is still holding my hand.

I smile and say, "That's all." I let go of his hand and walk away.

When I get to my office I immediately slice up a pear and hit the speed dial button with the heart on it. David picks up and I tell him what I’ve done. I sense him put on his 'best friend hat' as he says, "No way! You rock, you totally did that?!" and we laugh about how it took me all summer to work up the nerve. I tell him how I had to keep my shades on so the farmers market boy wouldn't see my eyes, so I could be brave enough to whisper, but David says, 'Hon, I can totally see your eyes through those shades.'

"Oh, seriously?" I say.

"Seriously."

David asks why today, since there is still one more week for the farmers market. And I say that I don't know, that it just had to be today.

"Sure, I get that." he says. There's a pause and I can tell he has something else he wants to say.

"What?" I ask.

"So does this mean this is the last of the bubble gum pears?" he asks.

I can't tell over the phone if he's serious about the pears (because he really does love those pears) or if he's talking about my crush on the farmers market boy.

"Yeah, I think so," I continue, fishing a bit. "Plus, I just ate one, and I’ve had better." I’m curious if his rarely worn 'jealous lover hat' has slipped on and I wait eagerly for his response. When it comes, I laugh, not really disappointed or surprised by his security or his honesty. He says, "Aw, too bad. Man I love those pears."



Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Big Deal Day



My husband stares at me across the table. He is concentrating deeply. I see him flip from thought to thought, like thumbing through a library’s card catalog back in the day, pausing, considering, then discarding idea after idea.

“Have you decided?” I ask, my knee jiggling against the tippy café table, making ripples in my water glass.


“It’s hard to say,” he replies, astonished at coming up empty.


I have seen this look before. I love this look. I’ve got him.


80’s rock floats in through the open window, I look over and for a minute expect to see some kid walking by with a bulky boom box perched on his shoulder. Instead I see one of those convertible Fiats, clownishly small, crammed with mutantly ripped body builders in wraparound shades.


“Remember when 80’s rock was just rock and we never listened to oldies stations?” I muse. David isn’t listening, he’s puzzling and piecing, looking for perfection.


Already having my answer, I am free to wander through Remembers. The mix-tape I made him after we officially became boyfriend/girlfriend on the Puddle Jumper path, kissing for the first time under the infinite Iowa sky. The mix-CD he made me for Valentine’s Day our first year in Chicago when we were constantly deciding which bill to pay first and banking on the timing of the U.S. Postal Service.


The mix-tape had Eric Clapton and Indigo Girls and Howard Jones.
The mix-CD had Journey and Foreigner and Shakira and Clapton.
The mix tape was labeled KIVID with the #1 and 1991 prudently penned.
The mix-CD had carefully created liner notes slipped inside a plastic purple case.

“I know what it is,” he says, eyes lighting up with discovery. “I know what it is.”


“Okay, what?” I invite. I'm more motivated by the fact that I’m closer to disclosing my answer than true interest in his.


“It would be…” He stops himself and I can tell he doesn’t like his choice, he is back-peddling, discontent.


I groan, “Come. On.”


“No no no, wait wait,” he rubs his palm against his shaved head. I know the prickliness of being on the brink of a major decision. I imagine the prickliness of his scalp against my palm and it softens my impatience at his stalling. I really shouldn’t rush him.


“It’s not like you can win or lose with your answer,” I say trying to ease his angst.


He gives me a look that says he knows what I mean but doesn’t necessarily agree. There is always a better and best to this particular query. And David likes to win. People don’t necessarily know this about him. He’s so laid back, he’s so easy going, he’s so chill, I hear year after year. All true, but he’s also fiercely focused and determined and a persistent pain in the ass when he thinks he needs to be.


“Come. ON.” I say again.


It’s not even one of the cumbersome conversations we’ve had since I married him in my mother’s wedding dress, in my parent’s back yard, under hulking fir trees. It's not about kids or no kids, about renting or buying, about faith or church or politics or environment or in-laws or art.  It’s not like we’re opting between east and west coast after sixteen years in Chicago. It’s not like we’re choosing careers or cars or even a couch.


But like everything he does, David puts his whole heart in and waits until he knows that he Knows.


Finally, he looks up at me and smiles.


It’s our 23rd wedding anniversary and it’s a big deal day. It’s also just another Sunday spent picking out our pirate names.




Wednesday, August 24, 2016

bored

...when your neighbors is newly retired and you compliment his landscaping and he asks you if you like succulents and you say yes but that you always manage to kill yours, so he walks you to his backyard, which you've never seen before (even though you've lived across the street almost seven years and he's been there since the 50s) and you find rows and rows of various succulents in different sized pots, scattered all around the backyard and hanging from balcony banisters (next to miniature orange and apple and plum trees) and he grabs a white ceramic pot (the one you would have picked out yourself) from of a pile of different sized pots and begins filling it with the most superb succulent starters, all the while giving you gardening tips and saying he'll teach you because it's the easiest thing (even though it's not easy for you) and you ask, "are you sure?" and he says "of course, i'm so bored" and goes on to tell you you'll learn about orchids next...

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Two Minutes


Fear.

I'm walking out of Ralph's and the automatic sliding doors are wide open, their sensors being triggered by a train of shopping carts, one tucked into the other. Behind the mass of metal there stands a Ralph's employee, young, with thinning hair and a soft face. He is clad in a glowing orange-yellow vest, the kind they wear while on cart patrol.

He's trying to talk to me over the carts, but he's nervous, distracted, his attention pulled by something I can't see.

"What?" I ask. He starts to point at something, shifting from foot to foot. 

"I don't understand," I say walking closer.

"I'm scared of him," he says, nearly whispering, prying his hands apart and gesturing generally toward the carts. I stop walking and wonder if this guy has just lost his mind and now sees dark demons in broad daylight.

"What?" I ask again. The sliding doors are still open and shoppers come and go around us. I wonder, with two cold cartons of almond milk in my arms (my reusable bag in the car as usual), why me, why not one of them? 

"There." He points passionately, specifically now, so I follow his finger and find a tiny bumble bee resting on one of the carts.

"Oh, it's a bumble bee," I say relieved, as if naming his demon will render it powerless. I half expect him to say, "Oh right, a bumble bee, I'm all good, never mind." I half expect this because I'm not afraid, because bumble bees are one of the only insects I'm not scared of.

I swat at the bee from across the carts, a good effort, and see it lift off, so I start to walk away.  

"He's still there," he yells after me. I turn back and see he is still dancing nervously, kneading his hands. I imagine the sweat between his palms and likely beading on his brow. I imagine the constriction in his chest, perhaps prickling in his cheeks, as his breath shallows and he can't get himself to take in air. I imagine all of the things that happen to me when I'm afraid. 

Not long ago I was walking through this same parking lot and a car rolled up along side me. I assumed it was looking for parking and scooted farther to one side. But as I continued, the car slowed, keeping pace with me. I kept moving, throwing sharp glances through the driver's darkened window in an attempt to say, 'Don't think I'm unaware, I can see you." Which I couldn't. I slowed slightly and so did he. I quickened my step and the car sped up. There were people in the parking lot, I could have called out to someone, but it was hard enough to breathe and walk and figure out when and where to run. Suddenly the driver's window descended and reflexively, I turned and looked. The man behind the wheel stared at me. No words or weapons, just the intrusion and intimidation of his stare. I glared back but by then I was running out of road. The cross street was coming and I'd have to decide which way to turn, so I slowed completely until I stopped, and he slowed until he stopped. 

"WHAT?!" I screamed, completely facing him as he sat in his car. He said nothing, just gave me a sliver of a smile. And then sped off. 

"I can't move these," the Ralph's employee exclaims to me, to everyone, to the universe. How many minutes have passed since he first called for help? Two maybe? How many minutes did that car trail me? Two. Maybe.   

I hurry around to the other side of his shopping carts and shoo the bumble bee away. I keep shooing and keep shooing until I hear him say a quiet thanks and the sound of carts clattering by. The automatic sliding doors finally slide shut as customers come and go.