When I took command of my dog in the presence of men is when I knew I had turned a corner, when I rejected the men who didn’t understand dogs, worship dogs like I did, men who tried to be the alpha to my dog which was easy to do with my small submissive fluffy she-dog. Some men were weird, would treat her like she was their very own bitch. My little darling died of heart failure and after a period of grief, I began to take my vitamins and sharpen my nails. I got me a man dog. Muscled haunches, shoulders, and jaws, bite up to 743 pound-force per square inch, power on a choke collar, loyal to the death, command ready. I loved this dog as much as any other but in a different way. He required I command respect. He required I show who’s boss. Further, he would brook no suitor’s disrespect toward me, not even a hint. That low, rumbling thunder growl was my built-in red flag. The moment Joe shambled into my life, held his hand upside down for Brutus to sniff and approach unthreatened was the moment my life clicked into place.
On Thanksgiving, I sit in my room after my guests have gone, a room darkened by the dying day. From my bed, I can see my grandmother’s Audubon Society print of blue hummingbirds. It is cream-colored and blends with my walls except for the mat and gold beaded frame. If you were here, I could show you the shadow created by the white lights in a wreath on my secretary desk, a wreath placed around a tall cream vase. I like the way the shadows create a frame around the frame of my grandmother’s Audubon society print.
When I open my bedroom door and step into the family room, I am grateful I can still smell the huge feast my son and I made in the adjoining kitchen and hear echoes of the laughter of my company over prosecco and my sister’s dessert. I am grateful for the items I have managed to bring with me to furnish this place, items that create meaning, items everyone can enjoy such as furniture to sit upon and tables for plates and wine, items that are pleasing to the eyes and spirit.
But for now, in the silence and the dark illuminated by tiny lights, I am grateful to write about things as tiny as shadows, for the gift of tiny things, for the things we need to live and fight, for small instances of beauty, for signs of life—joy, and even pain.
Barbie—lady boobies, blond hair, pointy toes. I held her by the waist in the room with the spindle bed, the room in the dark church manse in Texas, the home my new mother and father had prepared for us. Barbies were our first gift. That early memory began my years-long obsession of hoarding my dollar-a-week allowance in order to purchase my tiny blond god raiment. Her richer patrons—my parents—provided a bicycle, a convertible, Ken, a working shower, a pool, a dream townhome. When I dressed as a Kilgore Rangerette with my younger sister, complete with white boots and a broad brim hat, it was Barbie I hoped would approve. Barbie. Barbie. Barbie. My preacher father did not grasp the extent of my idolatry, but he was not the kind of father to deprive his children of their obsessions.
On Thanksgiving, a picture of a young man’s face popped up on the news. My breath caught. It was the same young man who had stood out in the freezing cold last year on an Orlando Christmas Eve, trying to flag down a ride. The buses had stopped running for the holiday. When I see his face on the news, I remember how much he resembled my late brother, in height, stance, and mannerisms. My brother had died Christmas Eve twenty-five years before, careening around one of the lakes where many had died. It had nearly killed my mother.
That night we were driving home, I begged my husband to give him a ride. We had our baby in the car as well as my elderly mother-in-law. It was a huge risk, but I couldn’t take leaving this guy outside in these conditions.
The young man was on the news for walking into a bank, naked. When I saw his face, I thought: Some mother’s heart is breaking.
My husband took me aside as I served our guests. What is wrong? he said. I could tell he didn’t see what I saw, didn’t remember this young man who had appeared on the news we always watched while we drank our morning coffee. I hadn’t said anything. He had barely tolerated the risk I took with our family and I didn’t want to dredge it up again.
The young man’s face, that fragile face, penetrating blue eyes, so much like my brother.
For years, my mother had been unable to enjoy holidays. She now convalesces in a memory care home.
I made it through Thanksgiving meal but let my guests help themselves to dessert and the way to the door.
I rocked my child to sleep, savoring his warm cheek on my chest.
I closed the door to my bedroom and wrote a story for my brother.
I have learned a few things by being someone with hair. Hair can help you win and it can cause you to lose—affections, jobs, confidence. It can help you lie and it can betray you. By its presence or absence, color or cut, it can reveal others’ true feelings and motives towards you. My hair is not part of my body, it’s a chameleon, an animal that shows by its changing nature what life is.
When I was young, my mother loved to fix my towheaded hair, pulling the sides up into a yarn bow—red, yellow, white, blue—depending on the season, depending on my outfit. Although I was adopted, my hair when I was young was the same color as my parents’ hair and matched their hopes, though when I grew up and it darkened, I had to dye it to stay in line with what they wanted for me. It was what good young women did. It was what my mother did and I would fall along her path. I had beautiful, light hair and married well.
The year after my divorce, I had to get a buzz cut from my favorite hairdresser. Chemo was causing hair to fall on my shoulders in places like the grocery. Although I had always been very vain about my hair, and it was still shoulder length and blond, it was thinning and falling out because of treatment. I began to think about those poor people in the grocery. What if my hair fell on their food? I sat with my sister in my hairdresser’s living room and we held hands as my head made its debut as an egg.
After treatment, I eventually shed wigs, not being able to take the itchiness in the Florida heat. I read my creative work in a museum downtown with some friends. I dressed up for the reading, but so much of what I had considered “me” had been shed and now, it was penciled in eyebrows and short dark hair, just as short as a pixie if not shorter. “What happened to your hair?” The organizer said, aghast, not realizing that the long blond hair I wore to the last reading was a wig. And that’s when I knew: You have to learn to love yourself no matter what you look like. Some people prefer people pressed from molds.
I thank my chameleon hair. She has always been wiser than I have been. I know so much more because I have had hair, no hair, worn other people’s hair. I could never have done it without her though I must say, I have experienced some pain in her lessons. No pain, no gain as they say.
What with the sight of one of the receptionists stumbling into my general physician’s office looking tumbled down drunk, her ignoring me at the desk, the other receptionist seeming sweet, apologizing for her colleague, but speaking too softly so I can’t hear, and then asking questions I had long since answered on an intake, and then not hearing my concerns about the lab not having my correct address and I, thinking maybe she can’t hear me because of my mask or the counter-to-ceiling glass partition or because she didn’t like the look of me with my red hello kitty t and my pink puffy headband with my now shorter hair and the leather backpack I sometimes wear on both shoulders and my height being very tall and my frame being reminiscent of my biological grandfather of six foot five descended from full blooded Cherokee, I repeat myself several times and then she turns to her colleague and I know she hasn’t understood a word I have said or she hasn’t listened, and so I semi-lose it in a way that it is not frequent for me, though not quite in a youtube-video-lose-it way, but so that I see her flinch slightly, though the check-out receptionist kinda digs me and maybe that woman drives her nuts too, and what with all of that, and Florida having finally implemented infrastructure measures, and high-speed rail being built but a few miles from my apartment, and at night the ground thundering slightly, and hearing it the first first night I was terrified but then remembered the petition that was being signed, though by that time it was too late, petitions hardly ever mattering anyway, and my busy neighbor overhead this morning whose child is often screaming and running around as early as 6:00 a.m., though this morning she was doing a craft project using a tiny harmer to drive in something placed on the floor, and what with all that I stand in the doctor’s reception, over-warm, my face sweating under my mask and the taste of iron on my tongue—blood.
I will miss Thanksgiving at Aunt Mareen’s this year. In a strange turn of events, Covid has wiped out or incapacitated many of the city’s fat Santas and Aunt Mareen has signed up for holiday appearances as Mrs. Claus. She is skinny as a string bean and not super Claus-like we mused as we thought of how to keep her spirit alive at our table. We decided we needed to borrow her plastic pilgrims and Indians for our tablescape to set alongside her favorite solid cranberry jelly with can rings. She sent us selfies of her on the Santa throne at Disney Springs. There was enough room for children to sit beside her on the massive red chair. As a former underwater Weeki Wachee entertainer, she looked right in her element. We were jealous of her little believers. We said they must be spoiled little monsters.
Every year for Thanksgiving, Ms. Myska loved to give of herself in a way that was wholly singular. However, being a low-key mouse type of person, she sought no fanfare. And because this year, she was without her beloved Queen Annie, her Coton de Toulears, the holiday was threatening to be dreadfully lonely. Ergo, she became prodigious in gifting—gluing little chocolate kisses to her dribbles and drabbles of written thought, and leaving her “sweet love grams” in random places.
Here is the story she decided to duplicate in her own hand this year, leaving copies in coffee shops and bars; neighborhood book exchange boxes and libraries; churches and synagogues; gyms and homeless shelters: “Do not let bitterness build up within you. Let it flow out in your tears, flowing out of you and down and around, becoming lakes and ponds, rivers meeting with the sea and supporting creatures, evaporating and feeding life, becoming rain that quenches fire and thirst, renewing, refreshing, sustaining, gentling.”
I had only been in town a year when I was sent an invitation to the Michael Smith Club. I had no idea what it was, but when Julie found out, she was crushed. Each year, she thought she and her husband would become members but they never received an invite. If anyone deserved membership to anything, it was Julie. She was hilarious, well-read, generous. I was a bit of an introverted milquetoast by comparison, though I suspected it had to do with my husband’s lucrative career. I blew off the invitation, didn’t say anything to my husband. Bitches.
I was riding to Daytona with Mac on his Harley that day we stopped by Cassadaga. We had been dating a couple of months and in that time, his mother had died. In fact, I had met Mac at the hospice center where he and a couple of friends sat beside her bed. She had already passed when I arrived. Looking back, I realized it was quite strange that I thought it might be a sign of support to show up there. It was just too personal a family situation for me, a relative stranger.
And yet, Mac had wanted me to help him plan with the funeral home, choose his mother’s clothing for the casket. I made a lot of strange decisions in those days, fresh out of divorce, fresh out of cancer treatment. I had been too used to over-involvement as a full-time mother and wife. I had been too anxious to please, too desirous of affection.
Our reader at Cassadaga did a three-card reading for me, based on the three figures in the lovers’ card in which the man on the right rules the conscious mind, the woman on the left represents the subconscious, and the angel standing over the two represents who we think we are, who we think God is. The tarot reader asked me what I wanted to know from the cards.
“Is this like talking to God?” I say, knowing my conservative minister father would be devastated by this situation.
“You can think of it like this,” she said.
I say: “I want to know who I am at this moment.”
The Three of Pentacles, Lord of Material Works, was revealed to be upright and at the angel position of the lovers’ card, meaning I am focused on career. The Page of Pentacles was also upright and in the male position of the lovers’ card meaning I am entering a new phase of life, but in the female or subconscious position, The Star was reversed, showing fear.
On the back of Mac’s bike on the way to the beach, I knew I wouldn’t stay with him long. We were both injured children lacking in some adult capacities to love well. But for the moment, I enjoyed the hum of the engine, the heat of the sun. The water would feel good on my feet. Mac had a good smile.
Pop a .5 mg tablet from the klonopin blisterpack. Let it dissolve on your tongue along with the memory of your panic in the convenience store while your three-year-old son sits in the car – air-conditioned and locked, but still – Baby Ruth or Reese’s? – your mystery disorder having cropped up comorbidly with your move from a three-bedroom two-story Florida cracker house into a temporary two-bedroom apartment, your husband working through the holiday, your father-in-law having drawn a precise map of where every collapsed piece of furniture will be placed, your mother-in-law needing help finding things and on the brink of a migraine, your toddler needing everything, and issues in your marriage eclipsed by events collapsing, falling, descending.
And yet…you are still years from the moment your doctor stops prescribing because of new regulations – only a day-or-two- medication he says, and you have been on a maximum dosage for thirteen years. You are still years before your therapist suggests that as a mother, you are unfit.
Hello, and good evening. I want to thank you for this Lifetime Achievement Award in Escapism. Had it not been for you and others recognizing in me a strong desire to check out, I would not be standing before you tonight. Looking back, I realize I have probably been lost in a total of over one hundred thousand worlds whether it be dreams, ancient histories, wishful thoughts, overthinking, fantasies, streaming shows, social media, and youtube cat videos. And sure, sometimes I have managed to put my escapist visions on paper in thinly shrouded fictions. In fact, if you will look under your seat tonight, you will find how I have used your life, my perceptions of your life, and my feelings about you in a story. As fellow escapists, we never say whether we like how one of us portrays another of our kind, we just play by the rules and agree it won’t devolve into bloodsport. If you accept my version of you or at least find it interesting, let’s work on a small biopic or I’m good for hire as a ghostwriter. If you’re mad as hell, I’m not here for that sweeties! Cheers!
When I was ten, I wore YoYo sandals, Gloria Vanderbilts. Jayne Anne Westerfield taught me the disco line dance. “Are you clicking your teeth to the beat?” she said. I stopped clicking, tried to be cool like Jayne Anne. You were nobody in Arkansas if you couldn’t “Fever” dance. Chad had taught me “Cat Scratch Fever” on my guitar. Karen’s big sister used to drag Cherry Street, something “cool.” But Karen wasn’t cool anymore; her mom was a klepto. No one was as cool and dismissive as Jayne Anne. When I moved to Florida, I realized Arkansas was nowhere.
I didn’t completely follow the instructions, but I put my story in the general vicinity of a bodybuilder going on a disappointing blind date. Admittedly, I did a little research on the sport of bodybuilding. I loved a documentary narrated by Mickey Rourke called Generation Iron. My main character is based very loosely on one of its wholly singular subjects.
Ever since he saw a picture of the warrior and Ethiopian king Memnon in a book at the public library, he knew his destiny: To be a god. But the path was not straight. There were foster families and even prison. In faith, he grew and sculpted his body, grew his long warrior braids, performed poses in subways, fought his demons and doubts, became an artist, both in his body and in his love songs.
He was desirous of a queen to see him to a Las Vegas Mount Olympus for the title: Mr. Olympia. A trainer friend asked some lady friends for a reference, some ideas. Finally, someone was found. She was gorgeous, his impromptu female matchmaker said, offering a picture. Yes, he concurred, a beauty, as he noted a fall of blond hair, a sleek body, a sweet smile.
The night of the meet, she put him at ease with her smile and infectious laughter. She seemed to like him. He felt himself relax. When their dinner arrived, they took their first bite. And that’s when his insides dissolved, but not in a good way. She chewed her food like the evil half-serpent Echidna who devoured her victims after dragging them down to hell!
To this day, he shivers to think of it. He struggles to put it out of his mind before competition, before the front double bicep, front lat spread, side chest, back double bicep. Perfect love cannot be found in life but in art, he says to himself drawing deep from within to flex. It it is found in muscle upon muscle, note upon note, braid upon braid ad infinitum.
I need to smell my mother’s perfume. She is losing her memories but I keep them for her and we tell stories, inspired by Shalimar. I love the smell of classic Listerine on my father’s breath, original flavor. I love the tall smell of my son—the outdoors, his running by Tampa Bay, his cutting up, his brilliant smile. I revel in the smell of my sister’s laughter, always so light and beautiful, like her favorite prosecco. I savor a long history with my niece and nephew, the making-cookies-smell when they would stay over. I remember the chocolate orange memory of making them milkshakes and they, along with my son, drank them on our porch, my dog hovering near, our Bouvier des Flanders—he, a black hulk of a goofy dog with his water-logged smell (R.I.P.) I miss the smell of my brother, his blue-eyed smell, his cigarette and beach smell, his surfboard wax smell, the warm cinnamon smell of his love for animals. I love the smell of roses I buy for myself and the honeysuckle smell of the bougainvillea I’ve transplanted around my Florida yard, these hardy plants that miraculously and profusely bloom. My life smells like the days when the devil beats his wife—sunshine mixed with rain. Nothing is better than the smell of rain, even in a hurricane, even when everything is about to blow. You feel yourself the most alive then, even when you could die, be known no more, disappear. When the sun shines during rain, there is the smell is of wet pavement and earth and your face is soaked but you are no longer burning on a hot day.
I had lost my alimony, the pandemic being what it is, the source of my income having passed. I sold everything, including my car, furniture, and almost all possessions. I managed to find night work as a turndown attendant for Hilton. I managed to put a roof over my head, but just. I now qualified for low-income housing.
On my first bus ride into work, I sat near the back, hoping to avoid passengers peopling rows on their return journeys home, their night jobs at Disney and surrounding theme parks.
But then, wouldn’t you know who climbed aboard: a repairman for my former apartment. It was the kind of apartment you had to be wealthy to afford. Tony had become overly friendly during those last few months of my residence. Water had flooded into my hallway and soaked the carpet. He spent as much time flirting as trying to solve an increasingly dire issue. He asked me if I wanted to get a massage with him and went so far as to touch my back.
I pulled up my jacket hood and rang the bell to get off. I had managed to avoid him. One more month to find another job. One more month until eviction.
I will never forget that stretch of road outside of Starke, Florida, as we headed up to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I was singing my favorite Alison Krauss song playing on the CD player and our child was in the back. Apropos of nothing, you banged your hand on the wheel, “The sound of your voice, that strained, breathy quality just makes me want to go out of my brain.” And then the silence, the burning shame, the hours of the drive spent thinking how hideous my voice had been all this time when all along I hadn’t really considered it.