…Just to pass the time away…

We pulled off the highway in the dark high dessert sometime close to 9pm into a dirt lot that has a stone edifice in the middle with a plaque on it. He still doesn’t tell me what we’re doing here. I figure he has to pee. Then he turns around and talks to the back seat:

” Hey kid, you wanna see some stars?”

“Yesstttthhh” with a deep nod. He has been awake for a while, “reading” books and eating snacks.

We must be miles and miles from any large city, because the night sky is doing that thing that makes it look like there might be more stars than emptiness. Mr. Eagle scout knows all the constellations of course, and the kid loves to point at things so it’s a great little time we are having – pointing up at the little pearly specs and naming them – telling him the old stories behind all the shapes. The warm wind blowing our voices away. How can it all be so fragile and so magnificent? How is this one blue and that one yellow? What is the damn meaning behind all this?

Nothing or everything. We are nothing or we are everything. We are either the center of the creators attention, we have paths, purpose, and a personal relationship with a great magnanimous and omnipotent being OR, OR, OR…. we are a product of happenstance. Here by the shear willpower of our ancestors to keep producing. Evolution shaved and wittled us down into these upright animals that will find any way to make our own existence more leisurely.  I am only here because my stout celtic ancestors were smarter, meaner, luckier and hornier than all the other families in the area.

A product of luck and carbon molecules.  I prefer this theory because it makes me feel more interesting and yet, more like nothing, so much less to worry about when you know that your life is really nothing at all. You aren’t “straying” or “obeying” or having to ask some one else for guidance. Because It doesn’t matter. We are smallest specs of nothingness gone in a blip. It’s just a ride. And so far, I really enjoy this little ride. If I need guidance I just ask myself. And myself is a great guide. I have a very sweet little ride right here with this Eagle scout and this baby monkey. I wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s. The best we can work towards is feeling happy everyday in little ways, and everything I have is of my own making. Nothing is bequeathed me by the grace of someone else. Everything is either luck, choice or hard work. I like that but it’s surely not a philosophy for everyone, it’s just mine. I always get like this when I look at stars.

We are made up of the same dust that’s in that star and that cactus, and that stone, and that plaque that says something about these dudes that came out of the Mojave on horseback at this very spot. They spent a whole year traveling together, looking for that great golden California promise, and parted ways. That’s it. Just a couple of dudes, younger than me,  that said goodbye to each other right here after going on a trip together. Now there is a little river stone chimney here that smells like urine. What strange, strange creatures.

I can hear the power lines before I see them. Almost directly above us, buzzing. Carrying light back and forth across empty miles of nothingness and sage. Power – to have power, to need power – the human condition is –

“Hey, peanut or plain M&Ms…?”

“Um, shit…plain.”

We pile back in the car and sing “I’ve been working on the railroad” for the millionth time until the kid falls asleep. Then we can enjoy our M&Ms without sharing and listen to LotR on tape. I don’t need to say it, but I will, life is good.

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I know there are hot dogs in heaven.

I am ten years old, visiting grandma and grandpa for the first time on my own. I take the train to Sacremento, they great me at the station standing side by side. Grandpa Owen with his hat and cane. Grandma Maura with her tent-like lavender blouse. I ride in the back seat of his big blue cadillac, sinking into the velveteen apolstry. The air thin and hot. Always too hot. He drives as if the thing is made of glass, not detroit steel. He sings to me in his thick brogue, In Dublin’s fair city…where the girls are so pretty… I first set me eyes on sweet Molly Malone… he smiles at me through the mile-wide rearview and tells me he’s going to ship me to Ireland to be Rose of Tralee. I think he tells all the grand daughters that, but it feels like he is telling just me.

The house is like a balm. I can almost see through the slats of the tall wood fence. We fumble with the latch on the dutch-door. The side yard is shaded by a two-story maple, the interlocking bricks have the tiniest hint of moss. The ash-tray on the patio table is half filled, and the ceramic garden goose in a light blue bonnet, sunk deep in the muddy planter,  gazes across the wild lawn at the junipers, where the leprechauns live. Grandpa brought them over from Ireland in a trunk, But they don’t like it here, grandma says, it’s too hot, they’d rather live by the sea. She uncrosses her legs, looking at me through her lashes she flashes a wink, so quick, you’d think you imagined it.

The  noon- sun beams just-so through the paint-by-number glass decoration, suctioned to a small square pane of the side door. The carpet, long and green gets between my toes, and hides chocolate crumbs. Its worn flat and bald where everyone shuffles in, dumping their purses and back packs on the flowered couch. It’s quiet without my thirteen cousins and 8 or so Aunts and Uncles, except for the steady clock,  but the air buzzes like after a shout.

I stay in “the mices” room (the nickname for my mom and my aunt Sheila, always rolling around in a trouble-some pair). Always choosing the bed by the window. My mom’s old bed. She slept here when she was my age. The closet is full of sweaters in all colors and sizes, toys that fall apart, it smells like old things. The hall closet is the most interesting, full of thin creamy linens, and pinging china. I know the priest is coming for dinner because the good plates are out and the whiskey.  The kitchen is hot with steam from the potatoes. She is making turnips for me, my favorite, after reading a book about a girl named Molly who had a Victory garden and  hated turnips. I had to ask my mom what turnips were, I don’t think she knew much more than I did about them. But grandma knew all about victory gardens, and turnips. It turns out, I liked turnips: boiled, salted, and mashed with parsnips, onions and carrots.

All the pictures on the walls and on the shelves are peeling away, or wrinkling. The people’s faces are just a collection of black and white specks. Thats Aunt Nan, and Pat, there is your mother and your Aunt sheila. Thats Aunt Deb at her wedding, thats my brother Billy, he died in the war, thats me on the Queen Elizabeth…thats a boat, we called it the QE2, a very fancy boat.

 I like the way she takes a breath in when she says “yes” while she is remembering something…Yes…(breath-in) yes, yes. Her eyes will flick around  and she will nod and lick her lips, thats when I met your grandpa. I went to Ireland, and met him at confession, now THERE’S a place to meet a nice boy. She points at me with her wooden spoon, hot water and potato bits flinging onto the gold-flecked linoleum. It bubbles in places, making nice long creaks when your trying to get to the candy cabinet. If we all lined up, all the cousins and held out our hands and closed our eyes and said “please” she would go down the line and pour from a 1 pound bag of M&Ms into our outstretched hands. It was like getting communion but better,  and you had to cup your hands real tight so they would slip through your fingers. By the time you were done, you had sweaty multi-colored palms, your mouth raw with sugary milk chocolate.

She showed me how to knead the dough for the irish soda bread, her fingers, pale and already warping under the knotted pressure of arthritis. Push it back with the heal of your palms, then fold it over, getting flour in all the air pockets. then you make a cross on each loaf, father, son, and the holy ghost. We’d eat the dough off our fingers, salty and sweet.

In the morning I would climb into her bed after grandpa went for his walk, with our books and tea and toast, dipping the corner of the toast triangle in the molten belly of the egg: sitting up-right and decapitated in one of her many egg-cups. In the afternoons we would hang up her “un mentionables” on the clothes line, large flesh-colored silks that I could use as a hammock if I dared. I would poke around in the yard, sticking my face unside the large  hollow globes of hydrangea. They came out different colors every season. Sometimes punches of blue and lavender, sometimes pale pink and red. If it was a good season, yellow and white daffodils would spring up from bulbs, the fairies plant them and use them for tea-cups, she told me, and she would find me hiding in the spidery caves of the junipers, waiting for fairies with a handful of daffodils. They won’t come out when you’re here sweetie, lets go get a treat and let them have tea. We would go out to the market and stop at the bakery for an eclair or a raspberry swirl, watching the wild chickens strut around old town. They belong to everybody and nobody, they are wild chickens, they tried to kick them out, but they didn’t want to leave… no we can’t eat them. Then we would wrap the roast in twine and watch Murder She Wrote  while it cooked. Angela Landsbury was her hero, I think.

In much later years, we would break her out the back door of the nursing home on Foothill  at and 35th  at dinner time (3 pm) in a wheel chair with her big sunglasses on to go get a handmade pork tamale at the taco-truck across the street. Braving the deadliest  cross walk in the world, for what is sure to be the fluffiest tamale north of Lompoc. She loved the melon agua fresca.

One of the last things she ever asked me for was a hot dog. I’m not hungry but I could always go for a hot dog.  It’s such a simple American thing. A tube of beef parts (if you’re lucky) wrapped in a white flour bun, doused in relish, mustard and ketchup. But for her it symbolized an elementary part of life, living in the burroughs of New York City, nestled in between jews, italians, and puerto ricans, the lowest common denominator is a hot-dog.

I wish I could have gotten her a good old-fashioned dog. I hope that when I’m taking my last breaths at a catholic nursing home that someone I love will bring me a “mission dog”. Something so foundational to my young-adult personality. An item that that you can only get between the hours of 11pm and 4am roughly between 16th street and Ceasar Chavez, the smell of grilling meat and onions will guide you to a small man, next to a rolling grill, wrapping bacon around a meat tube, grilling onions and jalepenos, You wan onions? Si. Peppers? Si. You wan mustard? Si. Ketchup? Si. Mayo? No, no mayo pro favor,  I have a thing with mayonnaise. .. and he shrugs, hands me the foil wrapped savior, and asks for 4 dollars.

How well can you know a person? I know her, my grandmother, like I know the sea-glass bottles she kept on the kitchen window sill, and the soft way she smelled, and the way her breath would whistle through her teeth, or how she would slap your leg if you told her something biting and funny. I told her once that she was like a compfy couch, a compliment not appreciated by any woman, and for good reason. It was possibly my first metaphor, misguided and naive. What I was trying to say was that you could curl up in her and feel safe, steady. But how well do I know her sadness and her anger? How well do I know what she thought about her life, the choices she made, mistakes, guilt, loss. She looked up at me, on my last day with her, shortly before her hot-dog craving, It was never all that great, she said. This is something you never want to hear from an old person. We want to know that it’s great to get old, to live a long life with intermittent pain and joy. We want to know even on our heaviest days, thats it’s worth it.  All I could offer her was some juice and a scone. Even if it wasn’t ever all that great for her, it was great for us, maybe she just couldn’t see it and it still is great for us, and it will always be great. Dancing an amateur version of the irish jig after we’ve all had seconds on dessert, irish coffees, and gone through the 7th bottle of wine, and the last slice of yorkshire pudding (which is neither a pudding, nor from Yorkshire), laughing like idiots… thats great. It’s moments like that, making it all worth it, getting us out of bed in the morning. We wouldn’t have any of it, if it wasn’t for her, picking up a cute guy after confession one sodden afternoon in Tralee, Ireland.

Making my mom cry…

Over the next couple days I will post here, on this blog, the stories I used as my portfolio to apply to graduate schools for fiction writing.

I applied not only to the University of Texas at Austin, but also to Texas State at San Marcos and Portland State in Oregon.

The one I am posting today is the one that made my mom cry and threaten to run down and “whack”, with a wooden spoon, anyone who rejected my application.

  The Pool

A row of mothers – reclined – watching us; draped a-top white rubber deck loungers in sunglasses and pastel swimsuits. We stare across the length of the pool at them – our toes curling around the wet lip.  The sun licks every divot in their thighs – glazed in tropical scented oil. Magazines spread open – pages slicing air under their voices. They smile and pass around tequila soaked pineapple slices.  Behind them a short dark haired man in a khaki uniform mows the lawn.

In science class we learned that the sky is blue because it reflects the oceans of earth. We saw a picture of what the earth looks like from space; a sapphire marble.  I take my little brother’s wet hand in mine, and tell him this. The sky is like a mirror, I say, Then how come we can’t see ourselves? He asks. Because it’s very far away.  His stomach is drum-tight and round, his skin a deep caramel color, and getting darker everyday. We don’t need sunscreen like the other kids do. Their mothers press and rub their skin with the thick white cream. Don’t forget your ears – don’t forget the tops of you feetDon’t forget to rub it in – if you don’t rub it in it will come off in the water.  My mother smiles – You have your father’s skin, she says, It protects you, like a shield, from the sun.  My father’s skin is covered in hair like black spiders legs. I want my mother to rub the cream into my skin. Maybe then I would look milky, and soft.

It’s Saturday afternoon, Dad tells me to come to the garage he has a surprise for me. He holds his hand out toward my bike; white with a pink seat and matching sparkly handlebars the training wheels are gone. We go around and around the cul-de-sac with him gripping the back of my seat. Let go, let go! I say. He shouts that he already has. I look behind me to follow his voice and he is standing with his hands on his hips, blocking the sun making his figure glow like pictures of saints.  Turn! He yells. I jerk the handlebars to quickly and slam into the asphalt.

Last Saturday, a man named “Angel” fell from our roof. We were having it re-tiled. But no one called him ‘angel’; they called him “Ann-Hell”. We heard a crackling of tile, then a bunch of yelling, a large scraping sound, and then a body hurdled past the kitchen window, a comet trail of broken tile rained down after him. The other workers jumped down and crowded around him saying his name It’s Ann- Hell, they said, Ann-Hell has fallen. Mom called the ambulance, Hi, yes one of the workers fell off our roof, please hurry…Watching with my face pressed against the window, It’s Ann-Hell, I tried the sounds out, Mom, Ann-hell fell from the roof.  I watched his eyes rolling around in his head, a bloody pool forming and the other workers, lifting him up with their dirty hands.

The sun presses down, we are almost dry, and stinking of sour chlorine. My mother smiles – waves – a half-slice of pineapple between her fingers. Our toes grip the wet edge. The deep end – the darkest blue – I can see the drain at the bottom where that girl got her hair stuck and drowned last year. Her name was Michelle, and she had beautiful long blond hair. We had to go to a church service for her, and light candles. She died and the pool was closed for a week. Her mom moved away after that, but we can still see the drain, although there is now a cover on it. The Drain of Death we call it we dare each other to swim down and touch it. Everyone in the neighborhood has done it.  If you swim in the pool at night, she will grab you by the hair and pull you down to swim with her. I squeeze my bother’s plump hand;. We will jump in on the count of three and swim down to the bottom to touch the Drain of Death, every kid in the neighborhood has to do it – my brother’s hand is smaller than mine  – today is my day to touch the drain of death – he grips my finger 1…2…3…

Silver shadows sweep across my ceiling; the glow-in-the-dark stars are peeling off. There is an uneven tapping on my window. Dad is standing down in the court-yard, swaying, something has stolen his skin. He is whispering up at the window: Let me in – His face is not his face – Dad it’s me, mom is asleep, I whisper down to him. He repeats Anne, I love you, I’ll do anything, please let me in. His car is parked on the lawn – the headlights point up, humming at the sky. I am clean Anne, I’ll get sober, just please, let me in Anne, please, I just want to come home…His eyes are blank caves, his body starts shaking. Dad – I say – it’s me. He leans back and screams, he wails up at the roof. A light goes on across the street. A cool hand presses on my shoulder and I jump. Go to bed in your brother’s room. My mother is behind me, stiff as a tight-rope-walker – steady and tense, the phone in her hand, like a brick. The neighbors – she repeats – Ed, keep it down, the neighbors – her voice compressed, livid – Please, he says, Anne, I love you, I promise to be better, please, let me in.

Brother is huddled under his bed with his blanket and a flashlight. I crawl in next to him and we stay like that singing songs until we both fall asleep.

Dad is slumped on a thin cot in a small white room. I wrote him a note on the title page of the book I brought him to read – Call of the Wild. We had to read it in class, I really liked it, I got an A on the book report. The note says – get better. His shirt is huge and wrinkled, his eyes are cavernous, he is unshaven. My mother hands him an overflowing duffle bag. It’s “Family Visit Day” and the staff has provided ice cream sundaes. The toppings are organized floral printed-paper bowls on a folding table in the center of the cafeteria. Mom sits opposite him, she is silent. My brother talks about his baseball team, in the way that little boys do: coach says… coach says… The problem with putting gumballs in your ice cream is that they freeze and are useless, they just bleed unnatural color all over everything else in the bowl – you begin to realize that the colors mean nothing – that they are all the same flavor. My father makes little pigeon sounds when he hugs me goodbye. My tongue is swollen and heavy, my stomach wants to come up and meet it – I have eaten two whole bowls of ice cream with syrup, and Mom didn’t even turn to frown at me. He lifts his hand then lets it fall to his side. The nurse touches his elbow. My mother turns, takes us firmly by the shoulders, I lift my hand in some kind of salute, then turn and follow. I hear the nurses’ shoes click-click down the hall like doors closing. The hospital doors suck open – a blast of hot hair and baking asphalt. I wait until we get close then I lean over the planter, grip the neck of a tiger lily and let my stomach out. Jesus – she says – at least it wasn’t in the car this time­. She scratches my back with her thick fake nails, pulling my hair away from my face.

We are in the air – clinging to each other between sky and water we are tense and waiting for the blow our eyes are closed and our mouths are open and we are thinking about that little dead girl at the bottom of the pool and how the color of our skin protects us from the sun unlike others – we are thinking of the dead girl and deepness and coldness and our mother. We are thinking of our mother in the row of mothers and how she looks like them and we don’t. We are thinking of the sun and our skin and the dead girl and her skin. We are thinking of the color blue and the lips of the dead girl and the eyes of our father and the difference between sky and water. We are thinking of the dead girl – we are clinging to each other – we are waiting for the water – we are smiling at our mother.