Monday, December 28, 2009

Charlene's armadillo

Just today's freewriting exercise . . . don't ask me to explain what goes on inside my head.

December 28, 2009 Roy Parvin—Betty Hutton (from Best American Short Stories, 2001), p. 205.

“He was a big man who looked like trouble, even with his glasses.”

The judge pounded the gavel, warning her against further outbursts, and she became increasingly concerned that Job would win custody of the armadillo and the set of coffee mugs from the OK Café in Ashtabula, Ohio—such an injustice because Job was not the one who nursed her beloved armadillo back to health and Job had never even been to the OK Café in Ashtabula, Ohio. Charlene was what the guys at the truck stop used to call a “knock out”—a buxom blonde former Texas beauty queen. Job wasn’t her type—a nerdy little weasel of a man who didn’t even own a hat. Charlene knew the judge didn’t like her from the start and she started to weep profusely even before he reached for his gavel. Let’s be honest about this—any fool could see that Job was an asshole and an unfit parent for Artemis the armadillo. When asked by Charlene’s attorney to describe the armadillo’s feeding regime, Job responded that she ate seeds and grass. Wrong—Charlene had gone to considerable expense to get organically raised grubs and beetles for the creature and often hand-fed Artemis when her appetite was poor. Job never once fed her and Artemis didn’t ever respond to Job’s voice like she did to Charlene’s soft cooing. Job was just using the custody issue to annoy Charlene and he knew ever so well how to annoy her. Charlene said Job could have the baby grand piano and the Jaguar XKE roadster and the condo in Maui, but Job would not yield his negotiating position—he would give Charlene all the real estate and the cars and $10,000 a month in alimony for life. All he wanted was the armadillo and the OK Café coffee mugs. “Damn you, Job,” she shouted, “you don’t give a rat’s ass about those coffee mugs,” at which point the judge pounded his gavel again. He looked down at Charlene over his glasses and pointed the gavel at her, saying, “Ma’am, I have given you your final warning. If your disrespectful decorum continues I will have you removed from this courtroom and hold you in contempt of court.” Even though she wasn’t quite sure what decorum was, she knew at that moment that she was in danger of losing the only things she truly loved. For when the judge looked at her that way, pointing the gavel in her direction, she recognized him. He was the creepy guy she met in that bar in Amarillo when she was still in high school. He was the one buying her drinks and telling her how beautiful she was. Then he got fresh with her and she poured an entire bottle of Lone Star in his lap and sauntered off, leaving him cursing and sputtering. He was a big man who looked like trouble, even with his glasses.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cooking with Roberto

Perfect, perfect day. I took a cooking class from famed Italian chef Roberto Donna in his home kitchen in McLean. Thank you Roberto, Nancy, and Martin for making it so much fun and for giving us a chance to learn how to do what you do so well. We made our own pasta (fettucine) and cooked seven pasta sauces. And we ate all of the sauces. Here's what we made (and ate):

  1. Bolognese sauce
  2. Salsa Puttanesca
  3. Arrabiata sauce
  4. Cream sauce
  5. Salsa alla Matriciana
  6. Pesto Genovese
  7. Salsa Carbonara
There is nothing more perfect than pasta sauce on freshly made pasta, wine, hot bread from the oven. My heart is smiling, my hands smell gloriously of garlic, and I need a nap. And now I can do all of this at home on my own. I'm in big trouble.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

White out

What is all this white stuff that fell from the sky? Unbelievable--it snowed and snowed yesterday. We got nearly two feet of snow in 24 hours and it's not even officially winter yet. It has its own special beauty. I went outside last night when it was still snowing lightly. I just stood on my front steps, feeling like I was the only soul in the universe. I took in the stillness, caught snowflakes on my tongue, and thanked God for all of His blessings, even those that I don't always recognize as blessings.

I can't use my arms to type this this blog entry. I've shoveled so much snow in the past two days that my arms don't work any more so I'm typing with my chin. That's an exaggeration--I'm not that agile with my chin. But I may need to learn how. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. I've seen simple acts of kindness and generosity from near strangers that warm my heart. And I've also seen some huge acts of selfish idiocracy. (If idiocracy is not a real word, it should be.) I suppose it's just life.

I'm wondering how much pain reliever and wine it's going to take to alleviate the pain in my back and shoulders. Lord, have mercy!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Larry Looby

Freewriting. Inspired by a friend telling me about a scary man who lived in his neighborhood when he was a boy.

December 18, 2009 Anne Lamott—Joe Jones, p. 132

“Don’t hold this against me, she prays.”

I was thinking about abundance and how good life is. I liked the word abundance and was remembering how Mrs. Duncan used the word in Sunday school back a couple of weeks ago, saying that Jesus had blessed us with an abundance of grace. And while thinking about abundance and trying to use the word in a sentence, I was drawing pictures of daisies, some with five petals, some with six, some with seven. Then Mama came out on the porch, slammed the screen door, and said, “You need to do something useful instead of frittering away the day. Run down to the store for me and get me some milk.” I started to tell her that I was busy even though I didn’t look busy and besides I didn’t really feel like going but she was standing there with her hands on her hips like the queen of all the earth and I knew better than to talk back to her. So I reluctantly agreed. She handed me some money and a list. “But Mama,” I said, “I thought you just needed milk.” “Just do as you’re told and do it quick,” she said. “Now don’t you dilly dally.” Doggonit, I can think of better things to do on a summer morning than going to the food store. But I went anyway, got everything on Mama’s list, and headed home with the groceries loaded into the basket of my bike. I needed to hurry so I took the short-cut through the park and came out at the end of the dead-end road where Larry Looby lived. Now Mama had told me time and time again not to go near Larry Looby’s house and never to speak to him, but Larry Looby didn’t scare me. Everyone in town thought he was creepy because he lived in that old house all covered with vines, with rusted cars and broken refrigerators in the backyard. I had seen him from a distance, but never talked to him, and I thought it was mean of people to think he was creepy and not even give him a chance. So when I was riding past his house, he was walking toward the mailbox and he said hello to me, all nice and friendly like. I have to admit that he is a bit creepy to look at. He’s got this long stringy black hair all swirled around his head and stuck down on his skull, only a few rotten teeth, and he walks sort of tilted to one side. But I was thinking about how Jesus loved the lepers and all the people no one else liked and I thought I should be kind to Larry Looby and not judge him based on what other people thought about him. So I stopped my bike and politely said hello back to him. He said, “Come quick! I have something to show you—it’s quite a scene.” Well, I didn’t want him to think I was mean, so I said I needed to get home quickly because I had groceries in my basket but I guess I could come and take a look. So he led me to the side of his house, up behind some honeysuckle vines. I was getting a weird feeling, like I shouldn’t be doing this, but he just kept smiling at me, saying, “Come see this—it’s quite a scene.” There in his side yard, he had a big piece of canvas laid out on the grass. On the canvas were five wooden crosses and five dead cats. One of the cats was a whole dead cat but the others were all smushy and rotten, their eyes all chewed out, more like week-old road kill than a newly dead cat. He just smiled and said, “It’s quite a scene.” I was afraid to scream. I just ran to my bike and pedaled home as fast as I could, my heart nearly beating out of my chest. When I got home, I upchucked in the front yard and Mama came running out and I told her what had happened. I was afraid she would get mad at me, but she began to cry too. She said it was her fault for sending me to the store and telling me to hurry. She said she should have just gone with me, that she should have been there to protect me. “Please don’t ever go near that man again. Please, please forgive me. And please don’t hold this against me,” she prays.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I’ve spent a harrowing couple of days driving back and forth from the hospital to see my father who has been hospitalized with pneumonia and a failing heart. Yesterday was horrible—he couldn’t breathe, even with oxygen, and he said he didn’t want to live that way. He seems to be improving somewhat today and we have our fingers crossed that he has jumped yet another health hurdle. He is 88 years old and I know he won’t be here forever, but I can’t imagine life without him.

I have an old photograph of him when he was about 20 years old, with a charming crooked-toothed grin, proudly wearing his Coast Guard uniform. He and his best buddy Les Sizemore enlisted in the Coast Guard together in 1939. My dad grew up on the Chesapeake Bay and spent his boyhood summers sailing the Bay and restoring an old sailboat, so his love of the sea attracted him to the Coast Guard. Not long after he completed basic training, the country entered World War II. He served on ships in the North Atlantic and the South Pacific and much of his time was spent on the Sea Cloud, a square-rigged ship (a barque) that belonged to Marjorie Merriweather Post (Close Hutton Davies May). When the United States entered the War, she rented the ship to the Coast Guard for one dollar a year and the ship was refitted for war as a U-Boat spotter and weather ship. My father served until the end of the War and came home to raise a family.

He’s something between a rock and a pillow. All five of his children rely on him still and turn to him when we need advice or reassurance. Yet he wonders if he failed as a father whenever he sees his kids’ lives get messed up—a thought that could not be farther from the truth. He’s strong, yet he is sweet and comforting. My sister and I both think he ruined us because we will never find husbands like him. He knows all the important things—like how to patch the rotting wood on the back gate or how to wire the dimmer on the light switch. Even though he’s blind now, he talks me through these minor house repairs. He can see it in his head and remembers the colors of the electrical connectors. He doesn’t complain about losing his sight. He just keeps going, doing what he can. He goes to church, he walks almost every day, and he talks. He talks and talks and talks. And now we read him his Father’s Day cards. For some reason, it’s one thing to give him a preprinted card with some sappy sentiment, written by a professional sap writer. It’s another thing to read the cards aloud to him. Generally, I look for a simple, heartfelt message. I don’t like the ones that run on and on, neither do I want one that just says, “Happy Father’s Day”—that’s insufficient for a father of his caliber. The funny cards don’t do it either. I do want to send him a message: that I love him dearly and that he is the best father I ever could have imagined. So I find the preprinted card that says something close to that. But when I give him the usual Father’s Day Hawaiian shirt and read him the card, I steel myself so I don’t burst into tears.

Hang in there, Daddy. I love you.

Friday, December 11, 2009

He knows when you're awake

Christmas Eve, probably 1950. I am 3 years old, sitting in the living room at my grandparents’ house, staring sleepily at the lights on the Christmas tree, vowing that I would not go to sleep until I saw Santa Claus arrive with the loot, when some cruel adult told me something that changed my life. That cruel adult told me that he heard an announcement on the radio that Santa and his sleigh had been caught in foul weather and there was going to be no Christmas that year. Even then I was a rather intense child and was devastated. So on Christmas Eve every year from then on I had a stomach ache from the stress of worrying about Santa Claus. I would pace the floors when my family was sleeping. I would climb into bed with my mother because I was so worked up with anticipation and concern that I needed extreme comfort. I heard Santa and the reindeer on the roof. I swear I did. I distinctly remember being in bed with my mother, hearing footsteps on the roof, and I lay frozen with my head under the blankets for fear that Santa would know I was awake. Remember he knows when you’re awake. I believed it all; nothing could sway me from my belief. I still believe. Even though I had to be Santa when my children were little, I still believe. Even though I now live alone and no one fills my empty Christmas stocking, I still believe. So this Christmas Eve I’ll be lying awake in my bed in fear and anticipation, waiting for Santa Claus. I don't give up easily.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

At the edge of the light

Just today's freewriting . . .

December 10, 2009 Rachel Naomi Remen—Kitchen Table Wisdom, p. 15

“It’s hard to trust something you cannot see.”

"When you walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for you to stand upon or you will be taught how to fly." Patrick Overton

Grammy had that saying in a frame on her bedroom wall, just above the nightstand where she kept her Bible and the glass for her teeth. If Grammy told me once, she told me three thousand times to trust the Lord to provide. But I’m having trouble believing the Lord is really taking care of me now. I miss Grammy. I need her here now to remind me not to be afraid. But ever since I saw her laid out so waxy looking in that coffin with the rose-colored lining, I’ve been having trouble trusting in the Lord. I wasn’t prepared to look at her all dead in that funeral parlor. Aunt Marilee dragged me up there to the front and forced me to look. I kept telling Aunt Marilee that I wanted to remember Grammy like she was alive, her soft skin, her smell like Pond’s cold cream and sugar cookies, her sparkling blue eyes. Now I’ve got that horrible image of Grammy in the box, not looking one bit like herself. She would have hated the way the funeral people fluffed up her hair and she would have hated all that rouge they put on her cheeks. And I think Aunt Marilee went to J.C. Penney’s and bought that old-lady mint green church dress just to spite Grammy. Grammy would have worn that dress over her dead body. Which, I suppose is exactly what she’s doing. Aunt Marilee was yelling at me in a quiet way in the lobby of Mr. Marsden’s funeral home. She said that I would never accept the finality, that’s the word she used, finality, of Grammy’s death if I didn’t see her dead. But I did see her dead, slumped down on the ground out by the clothesline when I got home from school on the first day of sixth grade. I didn’t get close to her because I just knew she was dead and death scared me. I just ran down the street and got Mrs. Grant because she was a nurse. She called the ambulance but she said Grammy had been dead for a while already and there was nothing anyone could do. They wouldn’t let my daddy out of prison for the funeral, but they told him. Maybe he cried; I don’t know. I’ve been wishing harder than ever that my mama was still around. My life sure took an evil turn back then. But Grammy took me in and gave me a home. She didn’t give up on my daddy either, though he was going to be in prison for all his life. Every night she prayed with me, said that if Jesus could forgive daddy then I could too, that Jesus taught us everything we ever needed to know about forgiveness. But how can I have faith now? Seems to me that God has taken away everyone who ever cared for me. I can hear Grammy’s voice telling me not to fear the darkness, to trust that the Lord will provide. But it’s hard to trust something you cannot see.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

From nowhere

“You’re not from here, are you?” That’s what the woman asked me while I was pumping gas the other day. She and her husband were standing outside with me in the cold dark drizzle, fussing with the gasoline pump that was acting quite sluggish. We were chatting about the weather and wondering if the funky cold had thickened the gasoline to the consistency of molasses, making it move through the pump like molasses in January. However it’s just December, so technically it would be molasses in December.

“Well, yes, I am from here,” I replied, “I’ve lived here all my life.” The woman and her husband both chuckled and said that they were really surprised to hear that, for they were certain I was going to say that I was European. What? I was on my way to my French class—was I speaking in a pretentious French accent? Did I say “laissez-moi tranquille” (leave me alone)—the only truly useful phrase I know in French? I was wearing my usual unmatched drab-colored clothing—did that make me look European? I’ve never even been to Europe—how do I know what Europeans wear?

Perhaps it is rather boring to have lived in one place my entire life. I don’t want to be from here any longer. I should lie. I’m going to make up some sort of exotic story about having been kidnapped by gypsies when I was a baby. They raised me in a tinkers’ caravan in Ireland and I escaped from the tinkers when I was 12. I’ve been traveling the world ever since, trying to find my family. Then I could ask people if I looked familiar to them, do they know my parents, would they like to adopt me? Then I can be from somewhere.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The boogieman

Flew back from Austin last night--a lovely pre-Christmas visit with my daughter and granddaughters. It's cold and gray back here at home. Just a writing exercise evoked by the cold.

December 7, 2009----Nasdijj, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams, p. 110.

“I am the boogieman and might eat them.”

Those kids don’t know that I once had a life. Yes, I once had a life worthy of envy. But now I’m just the creepy old man who walks the streets, day and night, humming Haydn and Mozart, speaking French. I wrap myself in layers of moth-eaten woolens, scarves wrapped about my head to keep away the cold, leaning on my cane. I walk, even when the sidewalks are covered in snow and ice. I walk when the winds blow so cold that the steam from my breath freezes on my scraggly gray beard. I walk even though my hardened bones ache. I walk because I can’t stay in the sullen sadness of my apartment all day and all night without seeing another living soul. It seems a lifetime ago that I played Carnegie Hall, that people wept when I played. My violin and I were one then. But now the violin has been in its case for years. Once a year I take it out and play Vivaldi for Rosalina on our anniversary. Rosalina loved Vivaldi. She said that I was playing Vivaldi when she fell in love with me. I rosin the bow and play for her, though she has been gone for 20 years now. My mind knows every note but my hands can barely find them. And I recite over and over again in French the poetry that she loved. If I forget the music and I forget the poetry, then I have lost what is left of her. So I walk the streets so I can breathe the frigid air and know that I am still alive. Yesterday I heard that little ragamuffin from the floor below me. He shouted to his friend, “Quick! Run! It’s that old man who hums and talks crazy to himself. He’ll eat you up!” They don’t know who I am. They don’t think there’s still a man inside these rags. They don’t know that I’m humming the most beautiful music ever composed. They don’t know I am reciting words of love. They think I am the boogieman and might eat them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


More magazine online just notified me that they are not only publishing one of my stories but also featuring it on the home page of a section on reinventing yourself. It's available at

And Texas Monthly used two of my pieces this month at and at

Now if I can just sell my book I can retire and live in glorious splendor in a trailer park in Pensacola. It's such an easy way to get rich quick!

The civet

Ever since I stayed in that inn in Vermont last summer, I’ve been having nightmares involving civets. I open my closet and there’s a civet peering out of one of my cowboy boots. A civet is chewing on my toes. There’s a civet under the stairs and it has had a litter of about 80 little civets, all staring at me in the dark with their beady red eyes. Last night I dreamed I opened the freezer to get out some frozen spinach and there was a frozen civet in the freezer and it had eaten all the food before it froze to death. Even dead civets, frozen stiff, are terrifying.

The inn in Vermont was idyllic. My room was lovely—it had a big bed with a whimsical canopy of bent twigs, a stone fireplace, a patio, and a Jacuzzi tub. But on the mantle above the stone fireplace was a stuffed animal. Not a pleasant little furry toy stuffed animal, but a previously living thing that had been stuffed by a taxidermist. It was a ferret-like beast with piercing red eyes and sharp teeth. I arbitrarily decided it was a civet. Why would the innkeeper think that it was a charming addition to an otherwise peaceful room to have a small predator in the room? I couldn’t sleep with the civet looking at me. Even in the dark I felt its presence. So I covered it with a towel. I wanted to take the thing out of the room and put it on the patio, but I was afraid the innkeepers would throw me out for breaking some sort of rule.

Maybe it was a Vermont tradition to welcome guests with small predators. Although I didn’t bother to look through the information binder in my room until the day before I checked out of the inn, I found a long, long list of rules. For example, it was FORBIDDEN (in all caps) to light any candles in the room. I had brought my little tranquility candles with me and lit them at night when I was soaking in the Jacuzzi, so I was already in trouble. Neighbors had banged on the adjoining wall at 9 p.m. when I was playing banjo. I was playing softly, I swear. So between the banjo and the candles, I was already a troublesome guest. I had to sleep with that damned civet in the room for four nights. No wonder I’m having nightmares.