Serial Baptism

My stepfather’s job had brought us to Decatur, Mississippi this time. Regardless of what state we moved to, we always settled in a trailer park, nestled into the ugliest pleat of the outskirts of a small town. There were no trees, but plenty of half naked, dirty toddlers running around, and a church about a half mile or so down the road. Inevitably, my little brother, Jack, and I would be invited to church, typically by a neighbor kid who wanted to be able to say he discovered the new kids first; sometimes by a well-meaning elder who couldn’t abide the thought of our parents not bringing us. Besides, converting a couple of heathen children from Somewhere Else was a thrilling endeavor for the folks at First Baptist Church of The Middle of Nowhere.

“Honey, have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart, as your lord and savior?” I wore the prettiest dress I owned, with my long black hair in braids that I did myself. I sat criss cross applesauce on the forest green carpet that seems standard in Baptist churches across the south, in a circle of other fourth and fifth graders in their Sunday best. I looked down meekly, “No, ma’am.” Every face in Sunday school turned to me, including Jack’s. He uttered, “But…” I promptly shot him the kind of look that only a big sister can give, the kind that means the hell you’ll have to pay isn’t worth what you have to say. 

“Oh, sweetpea!” the big bosomed, big haired Sunday school teacher said, her words dripping with equal parts alarm and pity. “We’re just gonna have to fix that then, ain’t we?” The following Sunday would be my big day! 

On the way home, in the backseat of our neighbor’s car, Jack whisper-yelled at me, “You done got baptised. Twice. Why you gonna do it again? And what are you gonna tell Mama?” I rolled my eyes at him. “First of all, I ‘already’ got baptised, not ‘done’ got baptised.” I was on a mission to rid us both of our bad grammar and southern accent after we were teased relentlessly two towns ago. “Secondly, Mama doesn’t come to church anyway. She doesn’t even know we got baptised when we were in Texas! Thirdly, I’m going to do it again because I like it. It’s fun. You wanna do it again with me?”

Jack was baptised in the last town we lived in, and he did not think it was fun. He was that kid that hated the possibility of getting water in his eyes. When Mama washed his hair, she had to put a dry washcloth over his eyes. Then she’d slowly, slowly lean his head back, until his hairline was just under the water, his eyes shut so tight under that washcloth that his upper lip stretched all the way to his nostrils. If even a drop of water dared to land on his face, he would thrash around, water going everywhere, putting Mama in a bad mood.

“It ain’t right. You lied.” Seatbelts weren’t really a thing back then, so he was on his knees, the front of his body pressed into the back of the seat, with his arms folded under his chin as he stared out of the rear window of the car. His black curls fell so that I couldn’t see his eyes. “It ‘isn’t’ right,” I said, “And you lied three times last week when Mama asked if you brushed your teeth before bed. Listen, you know we’re only going to be living here until Christmas. I just want to make some friends first, maybe even some that will write to me after we move away. Getting baptised makes everyone so happy for you! Remember how it was last time?” He was still pouting. “Hey, how about I try to make friends with that girl who was sitting beside me in Sunday school – Charlene? She has a little brother, too. Maybe he has Hot Wheels and GI Joe.” He looked at me for a split second, then turned back to looking out of the rear window. “You think he has Transformers? ‘Cause I don’t have any Transformers.” he said, while drawing circles on the window with his finger. “I don’t know,” I shrugged. “We’ll have to be their friends to find out.”

When we got home, Ms. Nancy, the neighbor who had taken us to church, invited herself in. Mama was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking while reading a Dean R Koontz novel. Ms. Nancy told her the great news. From her chair, Mama thanked her for taking us and bringing us home, took a drag off her cigarette, and went back to reading. Jack and I were already making ourselves sandwiches. I was spreading peanut butter on generic brand white bread, and he had the refrigerator open, looking for jelly. Ms. Nancy stood there, just inside the front door of the mobile home, for a long quiet moment before she managed to get the words out, “Should I pick up the children again next Sunday, or will you be joining us for your daughter’s baptism?” The word “baptism” was a thing in the room with us. It might as well have pulled a chair up to the table and sat down. Without looking up from her book, Mama said, “You can pick ‘em up. I ain’t been feelin’ too good lately. It’d be best if I stayed home.” She turned the page and took another long, slow drag. Jack handed me the jelly. Ms. Nancy let herself out. 

Truth or Consequences

I’m in Truth or Consequences, NM for Ariel Gore‘s writers camp. We got off to a great start last night meeting and greeting in The Loft of The Pelican Spa. Half of us did five minute readings of something we’re working on. The other half will read tonight. It’s inspiring to be with these brilliant creatives. Writers read everything from poetry to fantasy fiction to creative nonfiction, and I know that tonight we’ll be getting at least one scene from a play. Today we’re focusing on story structure, after which there will be a couple of skill share breakouts, and finally we’ll collage and chill. I attended this same retreat two years ago and loved it, came away with some of my favorite material that I’ve ever written. My next post will be the unfinished piece I read last night, that I will likely be working to finish while I’m here. In the meantime, here’s a bit of nonsense from the trip over here.

Must have a window seat for purposes of sky scavenging
Cloudbusting
Mountains ❤️
Getting supplies from Sprouts
Accommodations

A Farmer and A Beautician

winter 2020 Kenyon Review submission

“C’mon, sugar.” My Papaw is holding the front door open for me. He gently takes my five year old hand into his sun damaged, calloused hand. We say goodbye to Mama, who hands me her cup, with the tiniest bit of coffee left in the bottom, an extinguished cigarette butt bobbing around in it. “Be good for Mamaw and Papaw, now, you hear me? I’ll see you tomorrow morning, just like always.” Papaw leads me through the house and toward the backdoor. 

I am barefoot, wearing a yellow sundress. In the kitchen, my Mamaw stops us and takes the lipstick stained mug from me. Right before we get to the backdoor, she hollers after us, “Now look, I just brushed her hair! Don’t let it get all tangled!” This is no small feat. Mamaw and Mama say that with hair like mine – thick, black, all the way down to my waist – I don’t need a coat for winter. “Hush, Ruby. You should’ve done fixed it. She’s gonna drive the tractor with me. Ain’t you, baby?” He looks down at me. “Yessir!” 

Once we are outside, he picks me up and swings me onto his shoulders. We make our way across the backyard. Immediately I have to duck under the clothesline as we dodge the laundry that’s hanging. Once clear of those obstacles, I pluck a ripe fig off its branch as we pass by the fig trees. Just ahead is Papaw’s workshed, where he stops in and grabs the keys hanging above an array of dusty, rusty tools. He reaches up and hands them to me, saying, “Now hold on tight to them keys. We’re about to go by the pond, and you don’t wanna drop them in there, now do you?” On the other side of the shed, about 30 yards away, is the pond where he fishes, and beyond the pond is “the woods,” the pine forest where he hunts for deer and wild boar. 

Just between the pond and the woods is a clearing with a stand alone aluminum awning, under which is a tractor. In one fell swoop he takes me from his shoulders and whirls me onto the seat. Papaw is small himself, not taller than 5’8” and rail thin his entire life. He will never weigh more than 130 pounds, despite the fried southern suppers Mamaw cooks for him; despite finishing a six pack of beer after supper every night; despite having bacon, biscuits, and fried eggs for breakfast every morning; despite coming home daily at noon from his paper mill job in the neighboring town – Bastrop, Louisiana – to a dinner (not lunch, mind you, dinner) of leftovers from supper the night before, with a glass of buttermilk that he crumbles his cornbread into.

Papaw hoists himself up onto the tractor by grabbing the bottom of the steering wheel with one hand, and a metal handle that juts out from the seat with the other. Standing on the platform that encases the 3 foot long gear shift, he picks me up by wrapping his forearm around my waist and sets me on his lap just as his rear end lands in the seat. He looks at me, his arm still holding me to him, and says, “You ready, sugar booger? You got them keys for me?” 

I hold them out. Papaw points to the largest one, and then at the ignition. “Take that big one, and put it in there.” I try a few times. I am afraid of breaking something or doing it wrong, so I’m just not putting enough force into it. “Shove it in there like you’re mad at somebody, like when you was fussing at your brother the other day.” I do it. I get it all the way in. I look at Papaw and we both grin. He takes the liberty of turning the ignition over, then puts my hand on the knob of the gear shift, and rests his hand on top of mine. We shift, and the tractor lurches forward, as if it is surprised to be moving at all. My spindly, baby soft arm marionettes beneath his, doing the exact same movements in miniature. 

We roll onto a barren section of the garden, which lies between a dozen rows of corn and a half dozen rows of peanuts, on the other side of which are tomatoes, okra, and butter beans. The garden runs the length of the front yard, the house, the backyard, the fig trees, and the shed, ending just short of the pond. I feel every jolt and bump, and although I’m nervous, I know I’m safe. I am an easily frightened child, often called “dainty” and “sensitive” by grownups. Papaw isn’t one of them, though. When he hears Mama and Mamaw say that, he says, “No she aint. She’s my strong little Mandy.” 

“Look at you! A little farmer, just like your papaw. You’re doing good. How about you do some steering?” The steering wheel is so wide that in order to hold it with both hands, I have to outstretch my arms as far as I can, the way a child does when she says, “I love you THIS much!” “Alright now, I want you to go left, toward the corn.” I turn the steering wheel with the strength of my entire body, and I squeal with delight as the tractor swings in the direction I am taking it. Of course, Papaw has his hand on the very bottom of the wheel, controlling every move.

My hair is getting in my eyes, flying in front of us and all around us when the wind picks up. “We gotta do something about this hair of yours so we can finish up and go in for supper, before Mamaw calls us in.” Papaw shifts the tractor into neutral, picks up his left foot, sets it against the steering wheel, and unlaces his work boot. He has me stand on the seat and face away from him. He uses his boot lace to gather all my hair into one hand and corral into submission. “Well how about that? You’re a farmer, and I’m a beautician!” he says, laughing. He turns me around to face him, and I catch my reflection in his glasses. 

Just as Papaw shifts the tractor into first gear, we hear Mamaw yelling from the backdoor, “Supper’s ready and it’s getting cold! Get that baby in here, Bobby!” Papaw looks down at me and smiles. He starts the tractor back up, then shouts back, with a hand cupped over one ear, “WHAT’S THAT, RUBY? I CAN’T HEAR YOU,” as we roll past the corn. 

American Girl

summer 2020 Kenyon Review submission

1977, north Louisiana – Silver, shiny, round – the only characteristics an object needs to find its way inside a toddler’s mouth. How I managed to pull it off the face of a brand new stereo system is a mystery, and it’s the reason my father is standing over us, screaming at Mama while she has her finger in my mouth trying to retrieve it. “WHY WASN’T YOU WATCHING HER?” 

1980, north Louisiana –  “C’mon, sugar.” My papaw is holding the front door open for me. He gently takes my five year old hand into his sun damaged, calloused hand. We say goodbye to Mama as she hands me her coffee cup, with the tiniest bit of coffee left in the bottom, an extinguished cigarette butt bobbing around in it. “Be good for Mamaw and Papaw, now, you hear me? I’ll see you tomorrow morning, just like always.” Papaw tells her not to worry, that I’m going to help him drive the tractor today.

1982, east Texas – My little brother and I hop out of the bed of the pickup truck, just getting back from a trip to the hardware store with our new stepdad. He starts unloading the supplies he bought, not yet noticing what my brother and I are seeing. There’s a wet, dark red streak across the slab of broken concrete in front of the mobile home we just moved into. It starts in a rogue patch of yellowed crabgrass sprouting out from the edge. It continues across the cracked surface, then up the three cinder block stairs, and into the wide open front door of the trailer. 

1984, Georgia – “You think you can grow up to be an ASTRONOMER? Astronomers are scientists, and scientists don’t have messy desks!” I am sitting on the floor, hyperventilating through sobs, pulling wrinkled papers, crayon stubs, books that are falling apart, and bits of trash out of the bottom of my desk. “She does the same thing at home. You should see her bedroom. It’s disgusting.” Standing over me are my pregnant 3rd grade teacher, in a flower print pink and yellow mumu, and my mother, her eyeshadow so blue that I can see it from the floor, through my tears, and through her glasses. They are discussing their disgust for me.

1985, Mississippi – The two scars, while caused by the same bullet, at almost precisely the same moment three years ago, look completely different. The one that is just above Mama’s knee looks like a thumbprint minus the lines and swirls, all smooth and white. The other scar is just below the same knee, diagonal from the one above, and is puckered and pink. Entry and exit. Mama was the first one to ever say it: “Look at that! I got an asshole on my knee!” 

1985, Florida – This is the first package I’ve ever gotten from my father, a box wrapped in brown paper bag. It doesn’t look exciting, but I am so excited. Mama makes me wait the three days until my 10th birthday to open it. It’s seafoam green, with a salmon colored button for recording and a teal button for playing. Inside the cassette player, I find Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet.” I mail a letter to Casey Kasem, asking him to play a song from the album on American Top 40 and dedicate it to my dad.

1987, south Louisiana – “It’s called Atomic Turquoise. Since your hair is so black, you’d have to bleach it first to get it this color.” Her hair is exactly the same shade of blue as the raspberry snow cone she hands me. She and the snow cone stand are right across the street from our house, and I stop by every day after school. I’m in love with her and her hair. “Get your ass in here and watch your sister! You was supposed to be home twenty minutes ago!” Mama is yelling from the front porch.

1988, north Louisiana – “You know your mama was trying to kill herself that time she put a bullet through her knee?” I’m watching lazy white trails of cigarette smoke snake in and out of my Mamaw’s too-orange, too-teased curls as she tells me this. Her legs are crossed, one bare foot tapping the yellow linoleum in time to her own story, pausing only to take another drag. Apparently thirteen years old is just the right age for me to learn this. It’s a rite of passage in my family to be gossiped to, as it is to be gossiped about.

1989, New Mexico – “Look, I’ll talk to you if you fuck me.” I lose my virginity to a teenage boy in the back of a motorcycle garage, on a filthy, gray tarp, while an equally filthy, gray cat watches from the seat of a deconstructed Harley Davidson. He doesn’t talk to me after all. Two more teenage boys later, I’m pregnant, and still, no one to talk to.

1990, South Carolina – “Can you believe this bullshit? Her mama is trying to say I put my hands on her when she was little. Listen, I’m not saying I did or I didn’t, but look at her. She’s looked like that since she was 10 years old, titties and everything! Hell, she’s done been pregnant once,” my stepdad says to the constable. The officer takes a can of snuff out of his pocket. The label is green and black – my stepdad’s brand – and offers him some. He is here because a neighbor heard my mother screaming. The constable listens and spits, putrid brown saliva landing on the ground between them. My stepdad spits, talks some more. Out here against the dark of the trailer park, one of them looks like the shadow of the other.

1991, Alabama – A Joker’s grin of black paint from my mother’s Silverado interrupts the yellow of the emergency exit. I’ve smashed into the school bus, a bus that I would normally be on, a bus with my only two friends on it (and several classmates who are not my friends). I’m not on it because Mama stumbled in the front door at 6:00 am and passed out, so I have to stay home and take care of my two-year-old brother. I got my little sister on her bus, but my other brother, who is in middle school, missed his. So with a toddler in tow, I’ve driven him to the next bus stop. There’s pointing. There’s laughing, the cruel kind that only adolescents do. Cops arrive. One drives us home, another drives Mama’s truck.

1992 – It’s my first time flying, and I have a sunset view from the front end of the plane. I’m watching purples, pinks, and oranges mingle and change to more muted versions of themselves as we ascend. I am heading from Alabama to Texas to finish my senior year of high school living with my aunt. My eyes don’t leave the sky for the entire two hour flight. I witness it go from blue to purple to black, craning my neck to take in the stars, which, unlike the clouds, seem as far away as they ever have, silver, shiny, and round.

Downed

first published on March 28, 2020 by The Literary Kitchen

Running sucks, but I just, I need to warm up. I’m cold, and I can’t go through this without being warmed up. It will hurt too much.

“I.. I.. I just. We need to break up.” When I answered the phone, I thought it would be to discuss the plans we had to go out to dinner for his birthday, plans that were fake because I had been coordinating a surprise party for him with his closest friends for weeks. 

Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll start with loaded, alternating, reverse lunges, twenty on each side, so 40 total. Let’s be careful. The last time I did these, I wasn’t paying attention. I went too deep and injured myself.

He called me from the college he works at, between the creative writing classes he teaches. I was driving from home to the gym. I was so blindsided, that it simply wasn’t registering with me. 

That went better than expected! I feel strong, capable. Let’s push it a bit. Fifteen push-ups. Twenty squat jumps. Twenty loaded sit-ups.

We’d had five magical months together. Sounds silly, but we both talked as if we were each other’s death bullet. I was a 36yo divorced mother of three, and he was a soft spoken, 47yo writer/professor. We were jaded grown-ups who were not prone to naive infatuation, yet just a few nights prior, he had held my gaze until tears welled in his eyes, and said, “I have never loved anyone like this.”

Fifteen burpees. Plank for one minute. Fifteen more burpees. Plank for one more minute. Going from the floor to standing and back again frequently is good for the heart and lungs. I’m taking a risk with my knees, but I haven’t felt this good in a while.

I pulled the car over and parked against the curb. “Wait. What? Let’s talk about this tonight, when you get home from work.” 

It’s time to repeat the circuit. 

“No. No. No. I promised myself I would get completely through this. I can’t see you. If I see you, I won’t do it. This isn’t good for me. I mean, I love you. I LOVE YOU, but I haven’t written anything since we’ve been together. I’m not writing. I’m a writer who isn’t writing, and I’m not writing because we’re together.

Lunges. Push-ups. Squat jumps. Sit-ups. Burpees. Plank. Burpees. Plank.

I’m quiet for a long time because I have so much to say and I don’t know where to start. I finally squeak out, “You can’t tell me you don’t have time to write because of me. We are equally busy. We only see each other a couple times a week. What are you talking about?”

I’m going to do all this a third time, but I need a water break. I’ve forgotten to bring my own, but the gym has a water cooler.

“I’m not saying you take up too much of my time. I’m saying that I’m blocked, and this has been happening since we started seeing each other.”

I’m jogging across the gym to get to it, feeling light, with a confidence I haven’t had since my knee injury.

I tell him that this is crazy, that it doesn’t make sense, that it feels like it’s coming out of nowhere, that there was going to be a surprise party for him, that I can’t believe he’s doing it over the phone, while he’s at work. He tells me that he’s as hurt as I am, that he has to do it. 

I’m about five feet from the water cooler, and almost in slow motion, I feel it. The ball of my right foot strikes the turf at just the wrong angle, and my knee buckles, twisting in a direction that knees don’t go, and I plummet, face to floor. Downed.

The Lion, the Wish, and the Wonder

We were in the throes of moving a few weeks ago, from our small apartment to a larger house, so that working and studying from home will be a little easier on all of us. We were unloading our second big haul of the weekend, and I was placing something in the bottom of the hallway closet for the first time. The bottom-most shelf is about 18 inches above the floor, so I had to really get down there to organize things. As I was lowering myself to the floor, I noticed a metal box built into the wall. Just an old alarm system, nothing exciting. Upon closer inspection, though, I found a little package, a box just big enough for a Christmas ornament, wedged between the alarm box and the shelf.

I moved so many times in my childhood that I’ve lost count. I read enough fiction that with every move, I had a secret wish of finding some little treasure in the next house. It wouldn’t have been happenstance either, like in a book, because I would intentionally search every corner, every shelf, and the furthest reaches of cabinets and closets. I never found anything growing up, but in this moment, I felt the culmination of all those searches.

I pulled the box out of the closet and excitedly called everyone over. It was small and white with broken tape across the top, covered in dust. I opened it to find bubble wrap that was stiff with age, which I gently shimmied out of the box. Inside the bubble wrap was a palm sized, amber colored, glass blown winged lion. I held it up to the light, and it reflected the same amber color onto the floor. Francesco (my fiancé), my 18yo son, his girlfriend, and I oohed and ahhed over it. I remembered there was writing on top of the box that I was too excited to read before opening: “glass lion st marks.”

My online query confirmed Francesco’s theory — it’s likely Venetian blown glass (although nothing so fancy as Murano), a souvenir from someone’s visit to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. I was immediately reminded of a trip with my daughter to Italy, during her senior year of high school. Part of the itinerary had us all, students and chaperones, crowded into the tiniest studio, up the narrowest stairwell, to watch a detailed and fascinating demonstration of how the glass is blown in Venice.

I placed him on the table in the foyer, on a small pedestal, facing the front door – our guardian. Today (weeks later), I was reminded that my mother, who passed away recently, was a Leo, born August 14, 1958. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to relate this to her because we had a complicated, mostly estranged relationship. It wouldn’t be natural to connect her to something so auspicious. She wasn’t protective or even present. I wonder now, though, if this is perhaps her gift to me. Now that she’s at peace, she finally has some light to offer.

On the Bayou

I am greeted by a small glass vase, set in the center of a rustic kitchen table, holding purple veronica and rosemary, undoubtedly picked from the beds lining the kudzu covered front porch. My little Shih Tzu/Chihuahua mix runs ahead of me to inspect the new digs. A 65° breeze blows through the open windows, and birds can be heard chirping from all directions. This place is even more charming than the photos online promised.

Walls of shiplap and pine are covered in milk paint, and local art surrounds me. Weathered hardwood floors creak beneath me. There’s an antique, roll top writing desk in the corner of the bedroom. I do some rearranging of the furniture. The writing desk won’t get used in the bedroom. There was a time in my life – actually, for most of my life – that I was a borderline hoarder. I got help from a professional organizer. She taught me that bedrooms are for sleeping and sex. There should never be a place to work, such as a desk, in a bedroom, not to mention the desk is just too large for the space. So I move it into the living room, in a corner just below two framed photos of Black Masking Indians, and just to the left of a window that overlooks the bayou. I now have two places for writing: at the desk and on the back porch.

As lovely as the cottage is, the back porch is the jewel at the center of this crown, despite there being absolutely nothing extravagant or elegant about it. It is stunning in its simplicity and deference to nature – unfinished pine planks crawling with kudzu, with red Turk’s caps growing from the ground below and through the wooden slats of the railing, so that hummingbirds, monarchs, and bumblebees fly directly onto the porch to dine. The backyard is a modest swath of green with well placed patches of wildflowers, a hammock, a fire pit, and the Bayou Teche just ten yards from the porch. Its current moves quickly, but the shore is so covered in brush and various swamp trees, that the twinge of worry I feel about Tyrion (my dog) getting carried away and eaten by alligators dissipates. He is ultimately a city dog, getting up there in years, and simply won’t bother with any terrain that isn’t effortless to traipse through. There are two doors leading back inside the house – one into the bedroom and one into the living room. As I head back inside, I hear church bells, coming from a block away.

This little cottage, Les Deux Mondes, is exactly where I need to be.