Cumberland

It’s a stretch of highway between rolling hills of grazing cows where you will find the thawing carcass of a yeti that tried to go south for the winter, where old wooden ships are playhouses for children, where the crane operated box of chainsaws chews foliage away from traffic, where the cleaved open mountain looms over the lanes, where you may drive through fog or deer or falling rock, where you will stare ahead blankly wishing for the road to end and when it does, you know you are almost home.

Over the Train Tracks and Through the Hood

On my way to my parents’ house, I passed a house where my childhood best friend’s husband grew up.  It’s a square cinderblock house, the kind where one side of the block is coated with ceramic asbestos paint.  It’s a terrible puke-mint-green color with a white door, no shutters, and no shrubbery.  It looks somehow naked without those things.

He hated the house, called it The Cracker Box both because it was the approximate size of a cracker box and because many people in the small, conservative community considered him and his *gasp* divorced mother to be white trash.  His mother is a first rate Hell-bitch.  She once broke her ring and pinkie fingers by slapping him with her rings turned so that the stones were inside her palm.  He came to homeroom bleeding from three cuts on his chin and laughed when I told him.  She was mean and tough but had to be. She had a strong-willed boy to raise with no help from family.  She refused all government aid.

She waited until after he graduated from high school to marry her long-time “boyfriend.”  When she did, she moved out to his lakehouse and sold The Cracker Box.  It’s now Don’s Pawn Shop.  A large fluorescent sign with a giant pistol on top pokes out of the lawn to let potential customers know that cash for Christmas is only a sale away.  It’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen.  Someone I cared about lived there, grew up there, lost his virginity there, and now there’s is a giant pistol on top of a sign in the front yard.  Strange.

Ten Year Reunion

“I’m going to be a mortician,” Heather said as she blew her plume of smoke away from the circle of smokers gathered outside.  Her former classmates stared at her. “But, I’m scared there’s a lot of math involved.”

“I’m pretty sure you have to get a medical degree,” Reuben said. “So, yeah, some.”  Reuben stuffed his butt in the stone planter filled with sand and lit another. “Why do you want to be a mortician?”

“It’s just something I would be good at, and I can do it.”

Heather launched into a story about her mother’s brother. The family wasn’t very close, but when no one heard from him for about a month, she was elected to go visit and see if he was okay. He was not.

“The cops said he had been dead for a few weeks. It smelled pretty bad in there. I remember the sound it made when they pulled him off the recliner.” The daunting task of cleaning and cleaning out his house was left to Heather and her mother. “She couldn’t handle the smell, you know?” Heather’s eyes were wide, and we watched as a wisp of smoke rose from the tip of her cigarette and went straight into her eye. She didn’t even blink. “It didn’t bother me.”

Heather helped her mother make arrangements. She desperately wanted to see the embalming process, but there are rules about that. So Heather went home, booted up her brother’s computer, and watched instructional videos.

“I really want to do it,” she said. “Mom said I could have some of the money from the sale of his house, and that’s how I’m going to use it. I used my part of the money from the yard sale to sign up for a class.”

“Were y’all able to sell everything?” Reuben asked.

“Mostly. What was left, Mom let us divvy up. I took the recliner.”

They didn’t speak for a while, and then Reuben turned to another classmate and said, “So, you’re getting married…”

Type of Fool

I

If we had been lovers, I would’ve been a cliché – alone, lonely, the dinner I cooked for us cooling on the table. When you said you would come, I picked flowers from my garden. My heirloom and confederate roses, the tiny purple blooms on the monkey grass, Gerber daisies, and day lilies I arranged in a Mason jar. Aphids on the rose petals. You didn’t show. You didn’t call, but I didn’t worry. You have always been flaky, flighty. I knew better than to trust, than to depend on you, but I let myself hope. That’s what I get for loving you.

II

I wrote to you, many times – offering help when it wasn’t requested or welcomed. Me being me, I couldn’t help but do it, and you, being you, couldn’t help but spew bile at me. I cried for you, wasted tears. You love your sadness too much, your protection from others. I want you to experience joy, and you refuse. My heart breaks, over and over, for you, and you’ll never give a damn.

III

It began as friendly arguing, batting bad philosophy back-and-forth. What is real? What is love? What are we but a man and a woman, matter, anything that has mass and takes up space? Elementary. I had dreams of silver eagles that gutted and devoured nations. You liked that. You liked me until you didn’t. You told me you’d heard enough from me for a while, to run along and play with someone else. A true verbal slap and I hit back until whatever we were was irreparable. Are you still a zombie, little bird? Did you finally find someone to breathe life into you?

IV

I wanted the best for you, and I wanted you. For years, more than anything. You told me that I was the type of woman a man falls in love with, and that was not the type of woman for you. I used that in a story I wrote. I could kiss you for hours and did a few times, always swallowed whole by your eyes. Because of you, I keep my eyes open. After, I used to catch you watching me, your eyes darting away from mine, like two north poles, repellant. There were times I would’ve done anything for you. I would’ve strayed for you, away from what I knew, from a life and a man that were comfortable. You knew that, and that you didn’t take advantage showed me you were a good man. So many times, I wished that you weren’t.

V

I would trade with you if I could, but I wouldn’t do this for you. It’s too hard, too painful. Maybe you would change your mind if you knew, but you don’t talk to me. We’re strangers now. It was just too much, I guess. I should try harder, but I’m just so damned tired. So tired.

Waiting…a different time.

During the hours that I sat in the waiting room for Oncology, I studied dream interpretation. I bought several books on the subject, and while the doctors radiated my mother, I read about symbolism. The waiting room was large, so large that I could sit alone and never worry that anyone would need to sit next to me. I always sat in the section away from the TV and close to the refreshment center. I kept to myself and spoke to no one. I just read until the nurse called me to go out and pull the car around for my mother.

One Thursday, a woman sat next to me, which forced me stop reading and acknowledge her. She smiled and pointed to my book.  “Dream interpretation,” she said. “Sounds neat.”

“It can be,” I said.

We introduced ourselves and began a lengthy conversation on the symbolism of colors and numbers.

After talking for about ten minutes, she told me that she moved her father in with her family so she could take care of him, her husband, and her three kids. Bone cancer. Even now, I still wince at the thought of it. Not as bad as pancreatic, liver, or colon cancers but bad, very hard to treat, usually fatal. He was to the point where he had to wear a neck brace all the time. It was the first time that I was ever thankful for the type of cancer my mother had.

For the next week, she brought her father at the same time I brought my mother, and we talked about dreams and cancer. I feel a bit ashamed that I can’t remember her name, especially since I remember her dreams. They were normal dreams about every day sorts of things with the exception that she was always dragging a heavy black garbage bag. About the time he reached the point where he could no longer care for himself, her father began throwing all his trash down the ravine behind his house. The hillside was strewn with black garbage bags of trash, and this woman and her husband had to clean it all up before they could sell the house. She was angry and burdened, and those feelings made her feel guilty. After talking about it, she felt better and joked that I ought to charge her for my time.

Near the end of that week, her father’s white count was too low for him to receive more treatments. After that, I never saw her again, but one of the nurses, who overheard our conversations, commented to me that I was a sweet girl for talking to her.  Her father’s prognosis was poor, and I had likely eased her guilt about the situation.

Of the meeting, my mother said, “God works in mysterious ways.”

I replied, “Of course He does. If He didn’t, we would all understand everything, and there would be no cancer.”

“You know I believe that everything happens for a reason,” she said.

“Yeah, well, why do you think you got cancer?”

She shrugged. “Maybe to bring you and your father closer together.”

“That’s fucked up,” I said, to which she snapped at me for cursing. “I think you got cancer because you grew up in a city before there was any regulation on what toxins industries to pump into the air, and you went to college in a town where the morning air was so filled with chemicals it was yellow.”

“And I didn’t wear sunscreen like I should,” she added. “Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes things just break.”

So I thought, Even God answers his children’s questions with, “Because.” It’s not an answer at all, so why bother asking?

Dressing

In the barn, the deer hung on something that resembled a sadistic coat hanger.  The ends were sharpened spikes that pierced through the skin between the small bones in the deer’s lower hind legs.  The hook was a loop of metal hung on a fat tack, resembling a small railroad spike, in a beam of the barn.  The deer dangled, spread-eagle, over the vegetable tray from the beer fridge.

He’d killed it only two hours before and field dressed it, so it only smelled of blood and wild animal.  Gamey.  He’d let the dogs in to sniff around, and when he set the body to swinging, the lab licked up the dribbled blood while the rat terrier went berserk.  It leapt at the deer’s face, snapping until it latched onto the tongue.  The dog jerked its head from side-to-side, wrenching the deer’s neck in a blur of motion.

“That’s enough now,” he said to the terrier and herded both dogs outside so he could butcher the deer.  “We start with the saw.”

He lifted a rusted wood saw and put the blade against the silvery-brown fur of the deer.  “Right here, just above what we’ll call his elbow,” he explained as the saw slid through fur and skin, through tendons and ligaments and the joint.  For a moment, he held the lower right front leg by its ankle.  With a casual flick of the wrist, he flung it outside the barn, with the result of excited, shrill barks from the dogs.  He repeated the process on the other front leg.

When he’d made all the use he needed of the saw, he set it aside and picked up the fillet knife.  After poking a small hole in the skin above the shoulder, he slid the knife between meat and skin, being careful to cut off the silver skin as well.  “You gotta get it all.  It’s awful eatin’,” he said.  “Chewy as hell.”

The butchering went in stages – separating skin from meat and meat from bone.  All the while, the steady drip, drip, drip of blood and juices giving rhythm to his work and the twitching of the body as friction countered the knife blade.  When he finished, he had filled a large Tupperware tub with meat, and the deer was now a stripped skeleton with only its head intact.

“It’s not pretty enough to mount,” he complained, grabbing the antlers and staring the deer in its filmy eyes.  “Here,” he gestured to the tub, “take that on up to the house and let the dogs back in for just a minute.  I’ll let ’em play.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, picking up the tub.

I heard the yips of the terrier and deep-chested growls of the lab mix in with his laughter as I crossed the yard to the back door of the house.  In my hands, the meat was still slightly warm.

Alive

The summer before I turned 17, my family flew to Vegas.  I glued my face to the window of our rental car all the way from the airport to Bally’s.  I had never seen anything so marvelous and gaudy and utterly sinful.  I fell instantly in love.

I followed my parents from casino to casino, jaw dropped, eyes popped.  I had never been crammed in amongst so many people.  This trip occurred before Vegas tried to make anything family-friendly, so there was nothing much for a sixteen year old to do, legally.  Yet, I was never bored.  I was awed, stupefied, entranced.  The day was one long adrenaline rush, and I shivered from it.

That night, I stood at the picture window of the room I shared with my brother.  I watched the traffic, both foot and vehicular.  Synchronized floods of people in the scorching heat of July.

I wrote poetry about the city, about how the air was so dry that all tires squealed, how someone was always at my father’s elbow with a drink, how the lights of the Flamingo flashed in my brother’s dark, stoned eyes.  I hadn’t felt so alone and yet not alone since New Years in New Orleans, but this was different.  It felt good.

We left Vegas the next morning.

Five nights later, I stood outside a cabin at Grand Canyon Village, stared into the sky, and beheld a near-record meteor shower.  The lights in all the cabins and buildings were off, so it was utterly dark.  I stood there, holding my mother’s hand like the child I no longer believed I was, and I made wishes because that’s what you do when you see shooting stars.

I felt so completely connected with everything around me, even more so than looking over the rim of the canyon and feeling like I could catch a warm updraft in my over-sized T-shirt and hover like the eagles and condors.  I felt like I could fall forever, into the canyon or into the sky.  I felt like I belonged, that even though I was a tiny nothing on a tiny nothing planet, I existed and was loved.  I stood there for over an hour, with my finger pointed at the sky, and cried, and I don’t cry. It wasn’t until I met Fluffy that I felt so utterly alive again.

On the Corner of Main Street

The edge of the gray tub dug into my thigh as I pressed it against the ice machine.  The magnet that held the flap up had broken off, so I had to use one hand to hold the flap while I used the other to paw around in search of the scoop.  The lip around the edge of the tub had crumbled away on all but one side, so I used that side to hold up the tub while the opposite side threatened to saw its way through my jeans.  Finding the scoop, I winced and began chucking ice into the bucket.

“When you get both of them filled, get out the salads and then cut the fruit.  Damn!  I forgot to get tomatoes,” Jean said.

She’d been there since six, baking the bread, and she’d almost forgotten to make more chicken salad.  She absolutely refused to let anyone make it from start to finish – her secret recipe and all that.

“Start the soup in the crock pot, uh, shrimp bisque today, and get the Dutch oven going for the chicken,” she barked as she stomped off into the prep area.

“Yes, ma’am,” I muttered and let the flap fall closed with a snap.

The tubs were a nuisance, all because she didn’t have enough money to buy one of the refrigerated worktables like at Subway or in school lunchrooms.  The restaurant across the street offered to sell her one of theirs cheap, but she her competitive streak wouldn’t allow for that.  No, I had to fill two Rubbermaid tubs with ice and wiggle Rubbermaid containers of chicken, rice, and egg salads, Dijon mustard, mayo, pimento cheese, and four or five other spreadables down into the ice.  I took off the lids and slid serving spoons into each container.

There was no proper kitchen.  The place started out as a wine store, and when it became clear that she couldn’t make do on selling just wine, Jean expanded into a high-end deli/café.  There was an enormous work sink with no hot water (tisk, tisk), and one industrial oven she used for baking bread and cookies.  Instead of a proper range, she had a two-burner portable cook top, which she was now giving the evil eye.

“Why isn’t my pot ready?  You need to get faster at cutting the fruit.”  She set her travel cup down and pried off the lid.  As I dumped a handful of sliced honeydew into a plastic bowl, I looked into her cup.  I gave a smirk.  I liked to imagine that Jean’s travel cup contained something like the “Mother” used to make vinegar only hers was used to make a never-ending Bloody Mary.  If I asked, she would insist it was just tomato juice even as the stinging scent of vodka puffed out and she stuffed a celery stalk and wedge of lemon into the cup, followed by a few grinds of black pepper.  “I have to go get tomatoes.”  She threw her hands in the air.  “It’s always something.”

“It’ll be fine,” I assured her.  “I’ll get the chicken going.”

“You don’t know how much white wine to put in the water,” she reminded me, and bumped me out of her way.  “Go start some cookies.”

“I haven’t finished the fruit.”

“Well after then.  Jesus!”  She loved to say Jesus as a curse word.

The fruit was a touchy subject.  One morning, she’d thrown a fit when she found me tossing out moldy strawberries with a dead fly in the container.  She told me I should’ve cut off the mold and re-washed the berries.  I think if she’d told me to dig them out of the garbage, I would’ve jerked off my apron and quit on the spot.  From then on, I made sure to bury whatever food I threw away under a layer of paper towels.

“And you need to start studying up on wine so you can make informed sales when I’m not here.”

By this point, it was an hour to opening at eleven, and she was crashing.  It was best to just nod and do the other ten billion things she’d asked.  I would get it all done because the situation was never quite as dire as she made it out to be.  I could focus when she wasn’t scurrying around and sniping.

I knew that at 10:30, she would go out for whatever vegetable she conveniently forgot to buy.  Then, she would return with the energy only cocaine can provide and run herd on me and the other two girls working for her off the books.

While the chicken boiled, I retrieved the salad greens and baklava from the cooler.  I got the cookies out of the freezer, put them on pans, and slid them into the oven.  I wrote the special on the chalkboard and swept the black and white tile floor one more time before unlocking the antique doors and flipping the sign around to announce we were open.

I started out on the cash register, but once I showed I had a knack in the “kitchen,” I never worked the register again unless someone bought beer or wine.  I rarely waited tables, even though I wiped them every evening before closing.  I spent my time making sandwiches and salads, chopping more fruit, and keeping the soup from forming an icky skim.  I developed a flare for plating lunches that was both efficient and aesthetically pleasing.  Most of all, I learned that I never, ever wanted to own a café.

When the rush ended at two, Jean would disappear into the bathroom for ten minutes.  Every day, she came out high and ready to head to the gym, and every day, Hannah said, “She’s going to give herself a heart attack.”

The other girls went home at three, leaving me to the deal with the few stragglers that came in for a late lunch or early dinner.  It never failed that just about the time I put everything back in the cooler and mopped the floor, the town sculptor came in for dinner.  He was in his mid-twenties, a gilded prince of a man-boy with a smile to set girls’ hearts a-flutter, and he knew it.

“I’ll try not to get any crumbs on the floor so you don’t have to sweep,” he’d say.  “How is your roommate?”  He always asked.  “Is she still dating that older guy?”

“Yes, although I don’t think you can call it dating,” I said.

He always waited until fifteen minutes to closing to ask for a Red Stripe, and then he’s say, “I guess I’ll have to drink it fast.  Come over to The Pottager sometime.”

I mumbled curses under my breath as I locked the front door behind him and went to get the broom.  I made myself a go-box, grilled chicken with Swiss and a side salad with black olive feta dressing.  After double-checking the lights and the alarm, I locked the back door and walked two blocks to my apartment.  All in all, it wasn’t too bad for $4 an hour, tax-free, plus tips.

Waiting

I sat in Endoscopy, my nose shoved in a book, while I waited for the ass doctor to look in Fluffy’s ass. I heard the door open, close, open, close. Couples murmured as the patient filled out forms and the driver commented on how neat it was that the doctor uses those restaurant pagers to let you know he’s done shoving a camera in whichever orifice is questionable.

“You sign here.”

“I’ll fill that out for you.”

“Here’s a check for the co-pay.”

“My friend went back three hours ago. They have to laser cysts out of his stomach. I hope he’s okay.”

“Is that coffee any good?”

“No.”

Stupid idiot, asking a stupid question. I never drank anything out of a Bunn coffee maker that didn’t taste like a waterlogged ashtray. Asstray.

“Pardon me.”

Large man – in the tall, muscly meaning of the word – sat down next to me. Carhartt head-to-toe. He wore a class ring. I couldn’t tell what school. He laughed at a bit on whatever gig Kathie Lee has now. Seth Rogan was naked. Later, something about an anaconda not eating someone and how everyone was bummed out about it.

I shifted and then sprawled my knees apart, crossed my ankles. I can take up space, too. Although, I’d like to take up less space, honestly.

I get back into the book. I was buying a red Fiero with Miriam Black when the smell hit me. I reacted. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help the watering eyes, the burning nostrils. I thought the woman across from me was wearing enough perfume to cover the scent of a rotting corpse but apparently not.

She waddled down the aisle, sat down catty-cornered to me. It came in waves – the piss and shit smell of someone who is dying. I don’t know how else to describe it. This is the smell of nursing homes. No matter what they do, they can never cover the smell of old people who piss and shit themselves. Her name is Candy. She can’t be any less than 60, and her name is Candy, and I can smell what they will find when they stick the camera up her ass.

And hours later, I can’t get it out of my nose.