Monday, February 27, 2006

Tending the Flock

I'm not the type to be rude to folks just because they knock on my door. It doesn't matter what they're selling... Vacuum cleaners, magazines, religion... it's all the same to me. It's a tough job, and I'm just glad I don't have to do it. I don't typically get many uninvited visitors, and most door-knockers have the sense not to ply their trade in the middle of February in the Midwest; it's just too cold. This year, however, the weather's been unusually warm through the central United States.

Today we hit 70 degrees. I was in the kitchen, dancing around with dish suds up to my elbows, singing at the top of my lungs to the Avenue Q soundtrack, when some one rapped on my door. On the porch was a mocha-skinned man in a knit vest the color of egg yolk and navy blue pants that broke above his ankles.

"Excuse me, ma'am, and please pardon the intrusion, but I'm Mr. Social Studies Teacher at Church of the Holy Somethin-or-Other parochial school two towns over. I was wondering if I couldn't take a moment of your time?" It was about this time I realized that the song pouring through the cocked screen door was "Every One's a Little Bit Racist", which is, of course, backed by hokey Sesame-street-esque music.

"We have a few students this semester that are having difficulty paying their tuition. We've never turned students away before, and although the school is prepared to operate at a loss, we're looking for support from our local community."

Now, I just happen to be blessed with the knowledge that this private school takes on "problem" youth and helps them get their lives turned around. It also received a write-up in the local paper a few years back (amazing what the mind will regurgitate) for being a Christian school with an outstandingly strong curriculum. I'd like to do my part to contribute, and I say so. "If you'll hold on for just a moment, I'll be right back."

I scrawl out a check for what I can spare and deliver it back to the porch. The man, awkward and appreciative, accepts the check with a heart-felt, "Thank you!" He walks down the steps in time with the music from "The Internet is for Porn", which is pouring through my open living room windows.

Halfway through his decent, he stops and turns, looking up at me. "Are you a counselor?" the man asks. "A teacher?"

"Nah."

"Mind if I ask about your interest in the school?" It's pretty obvious I'm not the church-going type.

"Education is important to me. Beyond that, I'm a student. I know how hard it can be to get together enough money for tuition. Everybody needs a little help now and then."

I'm reasonably sure that at some point during our interaction, the man noticed the lyrics to the songs in the background. I'm also reasonably certain he was surprised to find support in "a wretch like me". Sometimes, I guess, it's okay to let a stranger watch over the flock. Sometimes it's okay to shake the hand of a neighbor we don't necessarily like or understand. I don't know if he only accepted the money because the school is desperate. I don't know if, given a different set of circumstances, he would have judged me for the lifestyle I lead. I'd like to think he's the type of man who follows the word of the book to the letter when it says, "Love thy neighbor..."

Compassion is a beautiful thing.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Sunday Night Blues

Cigarette and cigar smoke mingle with the distinctive incense of a pit barbeque, hanging over the crowd like a blanket of fog. The drummer onstage growls into the microphone, “I’m tore down. I’m almost level to the ground,” and one can’t help but believe him. It’s Sunday night at eight o’clock, and Parker’s is packed with a motley crew. Bikers and yuppies, barflies, lovers, and drunks ensure that it’s standing room only tonight. They’re all here for the same reason: the Sunday night jam session.

The Bobs and Williams of Monday through Friday become Hambone and Buffalo Bill on Sunday night. A sign-up list for would-be jammers is clamped to a cracked clip board, resting on top of the neglected jukebox. Behind it, the wall is covered with photographs of regulars, past and present. Musicians sit along the walls, both in the crowd and of it, warming up while they wait for their turn on the stage. Any other night of the week, that jukebox would be spouting the latest top forties pop, but not on Sunday. Sunday night is sacred. Sunday night is reserved for the Blues.

Neon red from the “Parker’s” sign out front flickers through the window, tapping out its staccato rhythm in time with the driving backbeat. The host band, a local “Rockin’ Blues” quad from Kansas City, has dragged the Sunday night jam session from site to site for five years. It’s to the point now that the regular jammers have been playing together so long the music is seamless. This isn’t a bunch of wanna-be rock-star types getting together and hiccupping out a song or two; these are professional-grade musicians who, for one reason or another, can’t quit their day jobs, so they wind up here, putting on a show anybody on the floor would gladly pay to see.

The host band’s vocalist, a short, plain woman with a voice reminiscent of Janis Joplin, wails into the microphone as she shakes her crimped hair. The bassist plucks out a heartbeat designed to draw a man’s soul straight through his chest, stretching long, strong fingers over the neck of a customized eight-string. A guitar solo kicks in, and the crowd is enraptured by the talent of fingers over strings and the sheer intensity and energy flowing through man and instrument. The guitarist’s stringy, unkempt hair and beard frame his long face, hanging down onto clothes that appear to have been slept in two nights already. Were they anywhere but in this bar, on that stage, with those instruments, this rag-tag group would be shown the door.

The song ends, signaling the conclusion of the host band’s set, and the beginning of the jam. Among the whistles and applause, a crowd member jeers, “Man, my grandmamma can rip a better lick than that!”

The singer, grinning and leaning into the microphone, jokes back, “Yeah, well, at least I don’t think the lyrics to Texas Flood are, ‘Well back home I know floods and tomatoes, baby the sun shines in the hay!’” The audience explodes into hysterical laughter. It’s just as likely for the stage group to initiate the provocation, and it’s all in good fun; no egos are bruised by the light-hearted banter.

The night wears on, each musician taking the stage in turn, slowly cycling out the group of performers so that roughly every forth song, there’s a whole new band up front. As jammers come offstage, they’re met with hearty slaps on the back, good-natured ribbing, and frosty mugs of beer. The line to the bathrooms start to creep out through the swinging saloon doors and across the front of the stage. The restrooms, which are designated “male” and “female” by paper sign printouts stuck to the doors with box tape, are tucked down a back hallway stuffed with instrument cases. In a place with plastic-coated table cloths where smoked meat is sold by the pound and beer flows freely from the tap, both male and female customers cycle through whichever stall becomes available first, without regard to gender.

The waitresses are petite and young, but quick on their feet, and quicker with a smile. They know how to work this crowd, casually leaning on tables, cracking jokes and calling everybody “Darlin’”. They tend to ignore the clusters of new folks that bunch around the “Please Wait to be Seated” sign at the front door. Eventually, the customers figure it out and seat themselves. Without fail, at least one person in the party will trip over the uneven flooring in the entranceway. The regulars never cease to be entertained by this, and they watch in glowing anticipation for the moment a toe catches on the raised board. Everybody trips the first time. It’s almost an initiation rite.

Parker’s isn’t much to look at. It’s a cheap, run-down place snugged in between a fading Mexican restaurant and a gas station in a small town a lot of people from the city have never heard of, despite the fact that it’s a mere fifteen miles away. Part of what makes it so special, though, is that “gem in the rough” quality. Not many can guess that a place with faded, second-hand theater drapes hanging in the windows and corrugated sheet metal lining half the inside walls would be a place one could find their soul. It isn’t the location that makes Parker’s so special. It isn’t the d├ęcor. It isn’t their A-list clientele. Parker’s is special because for a few hours every Sunday night, a broken-down old smoke-shack becomes home to every stranger that walks through its doors. Black and white, old and young, day laborer and CEO can sit side-by-side in genuine friendship, bound together by the music pouring out into the parking lot and down a quiet country highway.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Stalker Bob

Stalker Bob* has been admiring me from not-so-afar for close to three and a half years. He used to come by and bug me at work, following me around the warehouse talking for an hour or two, until I finally got tired of playing "Serve the Customer" and told him I really, really had to get back to work.

Somewhere along the way, he was driving down my street and I just happened to be outside doing yardwork. Of course he had to stop and say hello. Of course I didn't tell him how absolutely creeped out I was that he now knew where I lived. Of course. He is, after all, a reasonably harmless fellow. A lonely old professor for some city university who fancies himself attractive to a younger woman. He doesn't mean me any harm, he's just annoying. More nuisance than threat.

While I was overseas, I began getting emails from Stalker Bob. I guess he stopped by the house one time while I was away, and my sister (who was "taking care" of the place while I was gone) gave him the house phone number and my e-mail address. Let's ignore for a moment the fact that my sister is giving out my personal information to complete strangers... it's just WEIRD getting random e-mails from some one you never think about unless they're standing right in front of you.

Stalker Bob called at random the entire time I was gone, according to my sister (serves her right, having to deal with him, after giving out the information). One of these random calls occurred about a month ago. Since I didn't recognize the number, I picked up the phone. Great way to confirm to your stalker that you've returned to the homeland and are prepared to resume normal activities, such as recieving uninvited house calls.

I guess he got tired of me not answering his e-mails or the telephone, and decided to stop by this morning. We had a bit of an ice storm blow in last night, so everything was covered with a thin, shiney layer of the hard, slippery stuff. Bob announced his arrival by falling up the front steps, which of course set the dog to barking. After a brief chat, which ended in me saying, "You know, you really should call before you come over," Bob fell again going back down the stairs. Highlight of my day... you don't get two smiles from the same idiot in a 30-minute period very often.

Some people just can't see the signs, even when they're smacking them dead in the face... multiple times... and laughing about it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Be my Valentine!

My friend L took me out for Valentine's day on Tuesday. He'd made reservations at 6:30 at Ivy's, a restaurant he really liked, but I'd never been to. The plan was to meet him at his place around quarter to six and then head to dinner. When I got there, he was standing next to the car, keys in hand.

"We have to go," he says, climbing into his car.
"I thought we were at 6:30?" Now I'm confused... I could have sworn he'd said 6:30.
"Well, we were at 6:30, until they lost the reservation. Now we're at 6:00."

So it's Valentine's Day... it's one of the biggest food-days of the year, next to Mother's Day (it may actually beat Mom's out, but you'd have to ask somebody who knows... I'm not in the food business). Maybe they've been crazy for the last few weeks. Maybe the book got lost or something, and that's why they dont have the reservation. Maybe.

The parking lot, which is shared with a half-dozen or so other restaurants, was full of cars. I was positive the restaurant would be packed. In the foyer, though, there seemed to be a problem. Not only did they lose the original reservation, but they seated some one else on the pencilled-in reservation they made when he called to confirm. We were standing there blinking at the hostess, while she frantically searched through the (very full) guest list for somewhere to stick us. Just as I thought she was about to chew a hole through her bottom lip, a couple came out of the dining area, scowling.

The waitress (who was serving them, I assume) was following them out, appologizing profusely. "I'm very sorry, sir. Your drinks are on the house."
He stopped dead, turned his head, looked her square in the eye and snorted, "Oh, I know."
He then strode out behind his puffed-up wife.

L and I watched the exchange, watched the hostess ask the waitress what the couple's name was, watched her erase the couple's name from the guest list and pencil in his. Obviously pleased with her ingenuity, she picked up a couple pieces of paper from the host stand and chirped, "Follow me!" with a grin.

She dropped us off at a cozy table in a corner, near a window. It was a nice, intimate table a bit removed from the rest of the dining hall. The first thing I noticed was that the room was nearly empty. There was one other couple there with an infant in the opposite corner, and a table of fifteen or so men across the room from us, laughing noisily and kicking back a few beers. Strange, on Valentine's Day. Maybe the dinner rush starts at 7:00? The Midwest isn't known for it's night-owls, though. Something wasn't right.

The entire time I was looking around the dining room, the waitress was babbling about the "select" menu. She put a piece of paper down in front of us with four menu items on it. I scanned over it. L scanned over it. There wasn't one item on the menu I wasn't allergic to.

"Excuse me, Miss?
Where's the regular menu?"" L knows what I can and cannot have. He pays attention to that sort of thing.
"Well, because of the holiday, we have a special menu tonight."
"She can't eat any of this. Is there any way we can order something else?"
"I'll have to check. Hold on just a sec." She pranced off to the kitchen, presumably to ask the cook if he could fix up somethin special.

"They didn't tell me about the menu," L said, pursing his lips and wiggling the table, which is teetering back and forth unsteadily on a gimp leg.
"So, let me get this straight," I said, eying him. "They failed to inform you when you called to make the reservation the first time that they had a restricted menu. Then they lost you reservation. Then, when you called to confirm your reservation, they rebooked you, but gave it to some one else before you got here, and again did not inform you of the restricted menu. Nor did they inform us of the restricted menu while we were waiting to be seated out front."
"Yeah, that's about right," he said, leaning on the table edge, which caused the entire table to shift a good three inches towards him. "We're gonna need a new table."

The waitress, of course, came back to inform us that no, there were no other foodstuffs in the kitchen that could be scrounged together to make a meal that wasn't already listed on the menu, but she'd be happy to take our order and request that they not use any sauces or butter, and that would probably be okay.

She shifted us to a new (structurally sound) table as L grilled me about why I was willing to risk a trip to the Emergency Room for a night out.
The waitress, who has heard this entire exchange, blinks at us with an empty-headed smile. "So, can I take your order?"

"Actually, I'd really like to speak with your manager," L says. The waitress, not nearly as bouncy now, slinks off to retrieve the requested manager, and returns with the hostess.
"Sarah* says you asked to speak with me." No question, just that simple statement.
"Well, yes," L starts. "We were never informed that the menu wouldn't be your normal menu. No one told me when I called to make the reservation, or when I called to confirm. We wouldn't have come here if we'd known. She has food allergies that prevent her from eating anything you're serving tonight. It's now nearly 7:00 on Valentine's day, and we're sitting in a restaurant looking at a menu from which we cannot eat."
She just stood there and blinked at him, and L blinked back. They did that for awhile. Finally, she said, "I'm sorry, Sir," collected the menues, and turned to walk off. As an afterthought, she turned back and picked up the bill (for the two drinks we ordered but didn't drink, since we wern't staying for dinner). "The house will take care of your drinks." She laid his card back on the table and carried off the bill folder.

We wound up chowing down on hot, fresh, EDIBLE Chinese food from a place two doors down. We laughed and talked and had a great time in our cheap little booth with the plastic flower on the table. Damn shame about Ivy's, though. They've lost L's business, and probably a few of his friends', too. Cozy little place, and I'm sure their food is delightful, but eating out is about more than what's on the plate. It's about service. Apparently, the folks at Ivy's don't understand that.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Balance in White

It's snowing. Fat white flakes that float instead of fall, and cover everything in a blanket of insulated white. There aren't too many things in this world more beautiful than freshly-fallen snow. The whole of everything looks clean and new and soft. This is only the third snow of the year, but, since it's into February, it's probably one of the last.

I'm looking out my window, watching miniature drifts peak along the picket fence, contemplating the future, and movement, and stagnation. Life seems to be hovering on a precipice, waiting for the slightest breeze to tilt the balance just a little... just enough.

I was bustling around my little house today, tidying up from the renovations that are in progress, doing normal, mundane, domestic things. I've been here for five years, last October, not counting the 12 months I spent in the Gulf. It's the longest I've ever lived anywhere in my life. This is home for me... at least, the closest thing to home I've ever known. I'm finding peace here, in my little house on the prairie. School and life and work and home.

Balance.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Plaster: Good AND Good for You!

So I got this idea rolling around in my head, and, as per the usual with me, became totally obsessed with it. I wanted to make a body in plaster. I had the image of what I wanted it to look like in my head, but of course the only female torso I have immediate access to on a consistent basis is my own, and there's no way I'd have been able to hold still AND wrap my naked bod in plaster-dipped gauze, so I drafted L to help me (go figure, he didn't complain). I now have a plaster mold of my torso with a shoulder, collar bone, breast, belly button, and hip. It's got great curve, but it isn't perfect, so we'll have to make another one. Poor L.

I took my first music lesson yesterday. When I was in school (we're talking Middle- and High-School) I played the Euphonium (which, for all intents and purposes is nearly the same thing as a baritone). I decided a few weeks ago that I really need to start doing some things for myself, activities whose sole purpose is to feed my mind and spirit. Music is one of those things. It's amazing to pick up my horn and play it again. I'm not near as rusty as I expected to be, which is a good thing. My tone quality is terrible, and by the end of the first duet, I was completely winded, but I'll get back into shape eventually.

The house is coming along nicely. L helped me tear out half a wall between the living room and the kitchen. We moved the cabinets all over the kitchen and rewired some things. In a week or so, that'll be finished, and hopefully by the time August rolls around, I'll be ready to dive into school full time, without worrying about this place falling down around my ears.

So that's that. I'm getting back into artistic expression, getting back into music, getting myself lined up to start a real courseload in the fall. Life is moving right along.

What d'ya know? He didn't kill me after all.... I just went to sleep for awhile.

------------------------------------------------------------------
"We are made to persist. That's how we find out who we are." (Tobias Wolf, "In Pharoh's Army")

Short Story - Untitled

This was for an assignment from one of the classes I'm taking. It's a bit formulaic because of the assignment outline, but it's passable (I hope). -p.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I stood alone on flagstone steps in the shadow of an ancient courthouse, looking toward a horizon my accumulated sixteen years of life experience couldn’t define. The faces of its limestone blocks, worn and green with moss and time, stood cold and resolute against my plight. This was to be my fate, and there would be no rescue, no respite, no waking from the dream that was to become my reality. I didn’t understand then, the changes that would be brought about over the course of the next hour; the ego of youth does not allow comprehension in that way.

The weight of that building seemed to tie me to the Earth, as though, over time, it had filled to bursting with law and order. They were spilling out now, pouring over and around and through me, and I was drowning in them, stuck in the mud of guilt and tears. Images from the moments before flashed through my head like snapshots: my mother, standing up and screaming at the judge; the judge threatening to hold her in contempt of court; the bailiff escorting her from the courtroom; the judge looking at me over the rim of his glasses and mouthing his declaration of, “Unfit parent. State custody.” The echoed memory of the gavel snapped me back to the present.

I watched as my case-worker, Lashaunda, wedged herself into her sea-foam green, base-model compact, and I barked out a short, hollow laugh. The scene was somewhat reminiscent of an inflated balloon being stuffed into a jellybean; she was nearly as big around as she was tall. She waved at me impatiently through the windshield, urging me to hurry into the car. I stood for a moment, unable to move. Movement meant progression. Movement meant leaving everything I’d known behind. Movement meant acceptance of the situation. Finally, I stepped off the landing.

The sea-foam jellybean turned out of the courthouse parking lot and towards Downtown. Lashaunda took to murmuring into her mobile phone about another case of hers, a boy who’d slit his wrists the night before and was in intensive care at the local mercy hospital. I watched her as she spoke, studied her, and noticed for the first time how tired she looked. Lines of misery were etched deeply into her full face, lines that shouldn’t have been there at her young age. I turned away from her pain and stared out the window, letting her voice become fuzzy and indistinct as I concentrated on the things going on around us.

We moved from Downtown into the Historic District, full of renovated Victorian homes. Birds chirped unseen in the trees. Somewhere in the distance, a mower whirred, clipping a manicured lawn to perfection. There were no signs of life beyond the leaded windows. Those big, beautiful homes, full of everything money could buy, were empty. There was no life in them, no love, no joy, no sorrow. For all their grandeur, they served no purpose. The jellybean rolled right past them.

We turned into the suburban neighborhoods. Middle class homes, each nestled precisely in the middle of its designated grid square, each a perfect replica of its neighbors, mirrored themselves down both sides of the street. Familiarity tickled the base of my neck as I looked around this neighborhood, so much like my own. Multicolored family vehicles carried over-stressed, over-medicated passengers back to their perfect, boring houses with their perfect, boring families and their perfect, boring lives. A car door slammed as a brown-haired, brown-eyed man climbed out of a deep red minivan. The color was most likely supposed to look sporty, but failed to hide the utilitarian functionality of the vehicle. He slung his drab suit jacket over his arm, gripping his standard-issue black briefcase in one hand while loosening his hideous tie, most likely a birthday present from one of his 2.5 blond-haired, blue-eyed children. The man stopped suddenly and looked at me, his brown eyes reflected in mine. His shoulders slumped forward, as if the pity there awakened a long-sleeping recognition that his life was a shrine to mediocrity. He blinked, then, and turned away, and we proceeded with our journey. We did not stop at any of those houses.

The jellybean pushed on, turning seemingly random corners, with Lashaunda still a muffled hum in the background. We left the middling neighborhoods and drove through the lower-middle neighborhoods, past town homes and row homes in stern, sedate brick, beyond everything that was familiar and known, beyond everything that had been labeled safe in my childhood. We passed through the upper-lower neighborhoods, the lower neighborhoods, and the lower-lower neighborhoods, past the trailer parks with their doublewides in various stages of disrepair, and turned onto a tiny stretch of street nestled just behind the city projects, into an area even I knew was called Broke Town.

Dilapidated homes with layers of peeling, multi-colored paint were crammed up and down both sides of the street. Broken windows were stuffed with crumpled newspapers and plastic bags, and a torn, moth-eaten blanket hung over a doorway with empty hinges. In one driveway, three young men bent under the hood of an old sky-blue Cadillac with an earthquake of bass pouring through its open doors. Ink-black children and filthy mutt-dogs raced across the street, laughing and barking, oblivious to the cars on the road. Overgrown lawns, littered with car parts and empty beer bottles, were surrounded by sagging chain-linked fences. Some of those fences served to hold in dogs, some were to keep intruders out, and some provided wired prisons where smaller children played. Their mothers carried on animated conversations across side-yards, oblivious to my shock.

Gravel crunched under the tiny black tires of the jellybean as we pulled into the last driveway at the end of the street. Vertical wrought-iron bars covered the faces of the windows, combining with the brick walls and crumbling mortar to give the overall impression of a miniature prison. The lawn, yellowing in the hot summer sun, was edged severely along the side of the drive. A curled old man, who later turned out to be the paternal figure for my new foster family, stood in the doorway, leaning heavily on his cane and sucking on his gums. Shock-white eyebrows stood out dramatically against his wrinkled, blue-black skin. I climbed out of the car, retrieving my bag from the backseat, and staggered back a few steps as Lashaunda backed out of the drive. Not one word was directed at me, not one moment of reassurance, not one ounce of advice. She didn’t miss a beat in the staccato rhythm of her mobile conversation.

I eyed the man on the porch, and he eyed me. Hard ebony eyes pierced me, studied me, dared me to sneer at his proud home, this single thing that was his to tend to, his to care for. We stood for awhile like that, and finally, as the heat drew a bead of perspiration across my forehead, he jerked his head towards the inside of the house and turned away, allowing the barred screen door to slam shut behind him. I stood for a moment alone on that gravel drive, and time stopped. I would not grasp until several years later the precipice from which I had just been thrown, but even then, wrapped in naivety and confusion, I knew my life would never be the same. I took a deep breath, adjusted my grip on my bag, and stepped forward into my new life.