22 Apr

Yard Work

Today, Eileen said to me, “You know what this house needs?” I responded by saying, “Yes, actually. You told me yesterday.” But she proceeded to list, “a new roof, new kitchen cabinets, a paint job on the outside, and some landscaping.”

So I borrowed an axe and chopped down one of the offending trees in the backyard — offending because it’s not real attractive and since it’s growing to close to the house. It wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but it turned the trick. Eileen came out just as it was falling over, and then almost wordlessly, we started working on clearing some more of the mess of young trees, bushes, and weeds lining the back of the house.

Our backyard is actually pretty cool, but we’re not really all that quick on the upkeep. Still, it’s much better than Boo Radley’s. Boo is our backdoor neighbor; his yard is directly behind ours. Once, a few years ago, a huge tree in his yard fell into ours. It smashed through our fence and made a big mess. That was the only time I’ve ever spoken to Boo. He told me to just give him the bill for the clean-up and fence repair, but we procrastinated on the fence repair for a while and when we finally got around to calling fence companies, nobody would come out to look at it even. I eventually did it myself a year or two later and never got around to billing Boo cuz it was so ridiculously late.

A couple of summers ago, right before we left for Ecuador, we heard a rumor that the city was requiring Boo to do some yard work. For years, he had simply let everything grow and it was truly a mess. There was a tree leaning precariously over his roof; unkempt bushes and weeds crowded his tiny front yard; the backyard was a veritable prairie, full of grass that grew up to three feet in the summer.

Sure enough, one day a for-hire grounds crew was working in the backyard. I spoke with a guy operating one of those mow-anything lawn mowers that you used to see for sale on late night commercials. He confirmed the rumor and explained how bad it was — baby trees growing in gutters, stuff like that.

When we got back from Ecuador last summer, I was amused to see a lawn mower sitting in the middle of Boo’s yard amidst the three-foot high grass. It remained there all winter, which also amused me, and it’s still there now. I’m still amused. But here’s the kicker: near the lawn mower and barely visible under the cover of field grass, there’s a small garden gnome, a little like the one that was in Amelie.

20 Apr

What would Jesus do?

In my Science Fiction class today, we were discussing whether revenge is ever justified. One girl in one of my (two) classes held the position that whereas revenge may be justifiable in some instances, it’s never the best idea since it doesn’t solve problems and since it seldom ever makes the perpetrator of the revenge actually feel better — her opinions stood out to me since they are pretty much my own and since they are pretty wise (I think). But her position was very marginal. Most kids in both classes were proponents of revenge (at least the more vocal kids were), some even going so far as to say that revenge would be preferable to discipline. How did we arrive there? Well, someone brought up how if a parent punished you by grounding you or something, it would have less of an effect than if the parent expressed sincere disappointment. Not everyone agreed with this point, though I liked it myself for the sake of discussion. But then one other girl pointed out that discipline is different from revenge, that the parents would be disciplining you, whereas revenge is more of an eye for an eye type of thing.

Then, a boy in the back of the room (who talks a lot) said that revenge made a lot more sense because then the person who was wronged can deliver the just punishment rather than some third party administering it. I retorted with an example of two toddlers on a playground: “let’s say Kim hits Steve; you’re saying it would be better to let Steve hit back rather than to have a parent scold Kim?” Talkative boy rescinded but claimed that since that examples was with toddlers it wasn’t fair. So I upped the ages: “so let’s say George here hits Corey. Instead of taking George down to the principal, I should just say, ‘okay, Corey, your turn; batter up’?” The number of kids who said yes was astonishing.

In other news, a year ago today I was in Ecuador, excitedly watching the city of Quito ousting the president of the country. Tonight, as I drive to a cooking class with my wife, I’m going to honk the “fuera Lucio” chant just for old times’ sake.

18 Apr

This is uncomfortable, but I’m doing it anyway

Calling Brinkley

As she reached for the phone, she hesitated momentarily and bit her lower lip, second-thinking her plan to call collect. If her mother accepted the charges, it might put her into less of a giving mood. So, yeah, she decided, don’t call collect. She’d been careful to consider how to go about making the call. She’d figured 3:00 would be best since her mom would be at work, excited about the recent boom in business, but during the afternoon lull so she wouldn’t be so stressed out.

All day, she’d rehearsed the conversation. It had gone so well in her imaginings: she would listen patiently to her mother ranting about her customers from Britain and Pennsylvania; she’d feign interest in the gossip – whose baby was having a baby, whose mother just died; and she’d willingly divulge a balanced account of her Austin experience, telling an amusing tale about Jackie’s cat and making sure to garner some sympathy by mentioning that everyone at work spoke Spanish so she couldn’t understand them and she was pretty sure they nicknamed her “the flake.” Then she would make the request.

In her rehearsals, it worked so well. But now, here she was, 30 seconds from making the call, and she had neglected a detail as fundamental as not calling collect. It shook her confidence. She momentarily decided she’d wait until tomorrow, but when she peered up at the calendar, she remembered tomorrow was a Friday and it was the 31st. The call couldn’t wait.

She picked up the phone and dialed the lodge. She held her breath as it rang two, three, four times.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice answered.

“Uh, hi. This is, uh, Cassie Mitchell.” She intoned “Mitchell” like it was a question.

“Oh, hi Cassie! It’s Rhonda Miller. You’re probably trying to get ahold of your mom.”

“Um, yeah. Uh, hi Mrs. Miller,” Cassie stuttered. “Do you work at the lodge now?”

“Oh, no,” she replied. Cassie could picture her gesturing as she spoke. “See, the lodge just changed its number to 870-WOODPECK, so Marvin got the lodge’s old number so we’d get all those outta-towners calling for the lodge and we could tell “˜em about the Ivory-Billed Burger. We just tell “˜em to come on in and try it when they’re in town, then we give “˜em the lodge’s new number.”

“Wow,” Cassie said politely. “That’s a good idea.”

“Yeah, we get twice as many calls now.”

“So the lodge’s new number is 870-WOODPECK?”

“Yep. Clever, huh?”

“Yeah.” She hesitated. “But that’s eight numbers.”

“What are you getting at?”

“Well, I mean, normally a phone number is seven numbers, right?”

“Is it? Never occurred to me.” She paused briefly. “Why, you’re right! College must be doin’ you good.” She laughed.

“Oh, I’m not in college,” Cassie replied too quickly.

“Really? I thought you and Jackie LaFarge were both at the University of Texas.”

She considered lying, saying she was indeed in school at Texas or maybe not at UT but in some community college. But nothing really fit with her “I’m not in college” disclosure. “No,” she began, resigning herself to the truth. “Jackie’s in school here, but I’m just working.”

“Really? Hmm. That’s strange.” Cassie guessed correctly that Mrs. Miller was currently trying to reconcile this version of reality with Cassie’s mom’s story about why she was in Austin. “So where are you workin’?”

Cassie nervously looked at the clock on the wall. If this conversation dragged on much longer, she’d miss out on her small window of opportunity to make the request. But if she cut it off too soon, Mrs. Miller would be armed with some scandalous gossip. “Um,” she started, “I work at a hotel.”

“Oh! Just like your mama! Apple doesn’t fall far, does it?”

Cassie suspected she may have just been insulted, but she wasn’t sure. “Yeah,” she said, drawing out the “yeah” so it had just a hint of sarcasm, in case it needed to be taken as a retort.

“You like it?”

“It’s alright. Most of the people I work with speak Spanish.” Maybe if she could get Mrs. Miller to feel sorry for her, she could save some face. “They call me la flaka, which I think means “˜the flake.'”

“Now why would they call you “˜the flake’?”

“Cuz I forget towels and stuff every once in a while.”

“Well, we all know how good those Mexicans work, don’t we?”

Cassie did know. In fact, she’d been so impressed by her co-workers, she once confided to Jackie that “everyone says they’re lazy, but it’s not true at all.” For a second, she thought Mrs. Miller was consoling her – as if to say, “well, you can’t compete with all-stars.” But then she remembered where she was from. “Actually,” she began, but censored what she wanted to say – that’s why we left, you know; that’s why everyone leaves Brinkley; we wanted to not be so narrow-minded. “I guess I am a little flakey.”

“Oh, honey, don’t sell yourself short.” Jackie had said the same thing to her just two days ago. The previous weekend, they had gone out with a couple of sophomore guys down to an expensive club on 6th Street. They left around midnight and started walking east, past the pawn shops underneath the highway and into a sketchy neighborhood. One of the guys, Jason, claimed there was a college over in that area and that he knew a guy who was throwing an “after-bar,” he called it. But Cassie doubted him. “College neighborhoods don’t look like this,” she whispered to Jackie. And when they passed a storefront with a dilapidated sign that read “Mercadito,” she nudged Jackie and pointed discreetly.

The boys tried to talk them into walking just a bit farther, but the girls wouldn’t have it. In the days that followed, both boys called for Jackie, but Cassie was apparently off their list. “Don’t worry,” Jackie said, “they’re jerks. I’m not gonna call them back.”

“I know,” Cassie pouted, “but you’re still more fun than me and prettier and smarter.”

“Oh, c’mon,” Jackie protested, “we both know you’re way smarter and prettier than me. Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Cassie?” Mrs. Miller asked. “Are you still there?”

“Yeah,” Cassie said. “Sorry. Just remembering something I had to do.”

Last night, as they were sitting on their couch brainstorming Cassie’s predicament, Jackie had burst out excitedly, “Ooh, I know what you should do!”

“And what’s that?” Mrs. Miller inquired.

Jackie had leaned toward Cassie with a mischievous grin. “You should call your mom and be like, “˜Mom, I’m pregnant. The father just flew back to Jamaica and I lost my job at the hotel.'”

“Um,” Cassie said to Mrs. Miller, “it’s nothing. I just kinda have a problem.”

“And then,” Jackie had said, “when she’s freaking out, you can be like, “˜just kidding. Everything’s fine. I just need 200 dollars for rent.'”

“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Miller sympathized. “You’re not pregnant, are you?”

“A girl in one of my classes said she did that to her father and he was so relieved he was like, “˜okay, here’s $300. Just promise me you won’t ever actually do that.'”

“Yeah,” Cassie said. Mrs. Miller went silent. Cassie could picture her holding her hand over her mouth. “And I need $200 for an abortion.” The words escaped her like a handful of frogs.

“Oh, honey, you don’t want to do that.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Miller. I shouldn’t have told you.” Rhonda Miller couldn’t have known what Cassie actually meant by these words. Two hundred dollars was much easier to come by these days, with the birdwatchers coming in to town to see this great big extinct woodpecker. Of course, Joanne Mitchell should have had easy access to that amount with business at the lodge being so good, but poor girl. How could you tell your mom you need $200 for an abortion?

“Don’t worry, Cassie, I’ll keep your secret,” Rhonda announced. “Listen, when do you need this money by?”




“Oh, dear.”

“There aren’t many people here I can trust.” As soon as she said it, Cassie realized it was true. Austin was not home. Cassie heard Rhonda Miller arranging to wire her $200, but the voice was muddled, like it was traveling through a string and a paper cup.

By the time she hung up, she felt nauseous. She wanted to vomit, to exorcise the lie she had given birth to, but at the same time, she felt hollow, like she had just aborted a fetus. And in a sense, she had.

She never felt closer to her mother.

17 Apr

Good Monday

Well so, I’m not quite done with my rough draft of the Arkansas assignment, so I’m gonna have to post that one tomorrow. But I do have a quick story.

Being new to cycling, I tend to be a bit naive and hopeful. Today, when I was pedaling out of town, cruising fairly easily at 25 mph, I was thinking to myself, “Wow, I’ve really improved since Saturday.” Once I turned into the wind, however, I discovered why the upper 20s came so easily.

Later, I took a couple different turns, relying on my wonderful sense of direction to get me back to Madison. An hour later, as I was approaching a busy intersection, I thought, “Aha! That must be the edge of Fitchburg or something. Madison’s got to be straight ahead.” Turns out I was just entering Paoli, which is 12 miles southwest of Madison. Oops.

When I finally got home, I discovered further evidence of my innocent unpreparedness. Eileen was gone, the house was locked, and I had forgotten to take a key. Doh! Guess how I got in. Through the bathroom window. It was the hardest part of the whole workout, since I had to hoist myself up there and crawl through head-first. The window itself is about 7 feet off the ground, and the opening is about 12 X 18 inches.

Oh well.