A Light-Year of a Dark Mile

Shamrocke

When the world changed
from 6 degrees of separation
to 6 feet,
the longer this change
became a way of life,
the more that distance began to be
measured by time apart.
Children seemed to disappear
like caterpillars
into the cocoons of their homes,
their siblings their only friends;
but for the only child,
Mom & Dad
became their whole world,
other children,
a voice & a face on a screen.
FaceTiming with the grandparents,
whose hugs had become something dreamlike—
the spicy scent of Grandpa’s Clove gum
& wiry whiskers that felt like pine needles,
the intoxicating scent of Grandma’s Charly perfume
& powdery, rouged cheeks that left their mark—
began to fade into something indescribable.

Sweet Little Nothings

It's your call chocolate

She had grown up with Pat & Vanna—
witnessing the progression
of the turning of the letters
to the touching of the letters,
of Pat’s lousy jokes & receding hairline,
& the ushering in of the
lame-ass “crossword” category.
Through “The Wheel,”
she’d learned her alphabet,
then her spelling,
then the combinations of words
& the categorization of those combinations.
She’d learned to count in fifties & hundreds
before twos & fives
& that mispronouncing a word
could cost you dearly.
She’d seen snippets of every part of the world
& where they were located on the map,
so that she was curious enough to look them up
in Encyclopedia Brittanica.
She’d learned when to take chances
& when to play it safe.
When she became a contestant—
meeting these personalities
who’d lit up her living room
with their Fifties blandness—
it was like living her childhood dream
& connecting with a friend
that had grown up with her
without them even knowing it.
The money she won changed her life
but only because she used it
to change someone else’s.

 

Sweet Little Nothings

Laugh it off chocolate

She’d grown up in the less white-trash version of the Bundy family–
rather than coming home with “A fat woman walked into the shoe store” stories,
her dad would cuss for 30 minutes about the customers who’d cussed him out over the phone because they didn’t agree with their cable bill.
Rather than her mom sitting on the couch watching Oprah & eating bonbons all day,
she’d watched crime shows in bed,
drinking frozen Cokes with peanuts in them
all night.
Rather than her brother
playing with rubber women,
he’d come home & say he hated his job & his life or put a finger to his temple
whenever his girlfriend came over–
an Al Bundy in training.
But she was the Wild Card
(more of a card than wild)
who was known as
the Wednesday Addams of Malibu Drive.
She was the all-American gothic girl who loved
Girl Scout cookies–
back when they were called Samoas
& not the way less creative name
of Caramel Delites.

Fiction Friday: Micropoetry from the Novel

mormoni

Had there been 12 places,
it would’ve been like The Last Supper,
but there were 16—
a perfect square full of imperfect squares—
a latter day First Dinner.

Her husband was a descendant of Brigham Young—
who had been a modern day Abraham
& whose descendants may not have numbered the sands of the sea
but the stars on the BYU sports teams.

The Urim & Thummim—
the seer stones that the Prophet Joseph
had used to translate the golden plates
& had been taken back by the angel Moroni—
had been placed in the Schafers’ backyard
that was like a shady, suburban wooded lot.
This Urim & Thummim glowed like breast implants
in each of Brother Schafer’s hands,
& of course,
Saint Tony had been the one to find them,
while Brother Schafer kept them safe,
being one generation
closer to Brigham Young.

What David found laughable,
Mother found laudable,
& it was as if the stones
were the eyes of an albino,
mesmerizing her.

What some would consider Tony & Kath’s dirty little secret,
I considered a wonderful little secret,
& what Kath did not show,
she did not have to tell.

Logline for Because of Mindy Wiley An Irish-Catholic girl coming of age in the Deep South during the New Millennium finds her family splintered when two Mormon missionaries come to her door, their presence and promise unearthing long-buried family secrets, which lead to her excommunication and exile.

Humor column: What I learned at a student poetry reading

Poetry walk

Remnants of a Poetry Walk on campus.

Being a Health Information Technology student, I seem an unlikely poet. I’m not all broody in a not-so-little-black dress, hanging out in non-corporate coffee shops, and my lipstick more resembles the color of blood than death.

My writing took off when I ended up placing in a college writing contest, with a piece on chimerism (when one person has two sets of DNA). That led me to taking Jamey Jones’ poetry class.

I have found that people who are going to school for healthcare tend to just want to get their degree and get the hell out, while people who are going for an arts degree tend to immerse themselves in the college experience. I started out the first and became the latter.

When I signed up for poetry, I was expecting a bunch of hipsters, but the students ranged from a red-hatted redneck who liked to talk about guns, liberals and communism, to a girl who told me I shouldn’t give evil corporations credit in my poem.

I’d never thought about doing a poetry reading until Poetry Night, when I performed “Hanging from the Family Tree”—a narrative about my family, who I like to say is the gift that keeps on giving (and, in their case, regifting).

So I was all poetry-esque in my white snood (a retro-style knit hat held in place with bobby pins), trying to keep cool so I wouldn’t break out in hives; I’d worn thigh high stockings (which were starting to roll down, so I had to take them off discreetly lest I be like Romy in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, where Lisa Kudrow tells her classmates that she lost her top).

During those minutes leading up to my turn, I was thinking I should’ve had a “sodaburb” (my pet name for bourbon, tempered with Stevia Coca-Cola), but I was stepping outside my comfort zone, barelegged and sober.

One of the guys in my poetry class had suggested we open with a joke; I’m no stand-up comic, but I’d overhead a good one while work-studying in the English Department (as I am a shameless eavesdropper): “What does the Secret Service say when they see a bullet coming toward the President?” “Donald! Duck!”

That cracked the ice, and the more I shared about my family, the more comfortable I became. I’m fairly certain I saw my ENC1102 professor wiping tears of laughter, and I was like, “I’d rather make them happy cry than sad cry any day.”

So I told the world (okay, about 50 people) about my mom who left her bras hanging on floor lamps, and confessed the sins of my father who used the dogs to pre-rinse the dishes. I flash-roasted my grandmother, who thought Obama was a Muslim because he had purple lips and her common-law husband (my grandfather, as far as I know) who helped dig up their dead dogs and put them in storage because they didn’t want to leave their candy-assed carcasses behind.

After that night, I felt more comfortable sharing my work; I’d always believed in it, but I learned also to believe in myself. I wasn’t just the message, but the messenger. I hadn’t gotten shot (and I’d done it without a shot).

I wasn’t being filmed (as the camera adds 50 pounds), so I didn’t have to worry about being tagged by a Facebook frenemy.

An encore performance was requested in the English Department the next day, and I felt, for the first time, I could shine without having to sing or act.

Performing among other poets that night in the library rotunda, I realized that poetry was a communal activity—almost spiritual in nature—bringing people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs together.

That night, I overcame my fear of public speaking, because I knew even if I was nervous before future readings, I would read anyway.

I learned about medical technology through my major, but through poetry, I learned about myself.

Originally published as “Majoring in my Minor: Poetry Night Stage Fright” in the September 2017 issue of The Corsair, Pensacola State College’s student newspaper; second place winner in the humor category at the FCSPA State Publications.

It Happened One Night in Poplar Bluff

The Not-So-Great Missouri Robbery

Clipping of the newspaper article from The Daily American Republic in Poplar Bluff, MO.

Poplar Bluff, Missouri, is the kind of small town that rural America is made of. P.B. (what the locals call it) is just past the Bootheel after you drive out of Arkansas. There is one high school—the Home of the Mules—so generations of children grow up together. It is the kind of place where the names in the newspaper mean something to you. If you didn’t run into someone you knew, you’d run into someone who knew someone you knew. Violent crime is out-of-character for this town that isn’t on every map, and is often mispronounced by city slicking anchors as “Popular Bluff.”

A lot of the outdoorsy residents like to go to Black River to hang out, and Wal-Mart is the biggest non-wild game in town. The newspaper, The Daily American Republic, comes out in the evenings, and is more of a large pamphlet than a newspaper; there’s very little breaking news in this hilly region of the heartland. This area of Butler County is where life has an ebb and flow to it like Pensacola Bay at low tide.

If you want a good barbecue, you have to go to Dexter Queen in Dexter, Missouri, where they put shredded cabbage on the sandwiches and the inside looks like a throwback from a teenage hangout in The Fifties.

P.B. is all built up now, but in the early eighties, it was home to my parents. Dad had grown up there, and Mom had moved in and out several times. Their first place was an apartment on Fairmont Street where my dad’s tenth grade Spanish teacher would bang a broom handle on the ceiling to let them know they were being too loud.

I remember when I became a nanny in Sidney, Montana—eastern and hilly, rather than western and mountainous—I called my aunt Cheryll that first night after my mom left to board the Greyhound bus cross country. Those first few days I was on my own in a strange house with two little girls who were my responsibility, I was rereading my favorite book, Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer, set in Wintergreen, Missouri, where Poplar Bluff is mentioned once.

I was never homesick for Pensacola but for my summer place, for I hadn’t yet established a presence there.

Poplar Bluff was like my Disney World, for so many kids I knew saw their grandmas every day, whereas we had no ties to this touristy, military town on the Gulf Coast.

It often seemed like the only memories of which my parents were fond or nostalgic for were the ones that hadn’t been made in Pensacola; I suppose that made me nostalgic, too.

Maybe that was why the first episode of Bewitched resonated, for when Samantha tells Darrin (played by Dick York, and the only actor I acknowledge as being the true Darrin Stephens, whose name I always thought should’ve been spelled Darren Stevens—much cleaner) that she’s a witch, and he says something like, “I’m from Missouri. You’re just going to have to show me.”

Being from the “Show Me State,” I suppose that’s why we’re all as stubborn as mules and have to prove we’re right about everything (often via Google).

Grandma and Grandpa Booker’s house was like going back in time—from televisions that were a giant block of wood with convex screens in them to the library-orange, hardcover Childcraft books (which included the politically-incorrect legend of “Little Black Sambo”) to vinyl records of The Andrews Sisters. Grandma and Grandma still had the seventies-style paneling in their downstairs basement that was as big as a private bowling alley, with furniture in forest-green and burnt orange, and carpet that looked like autumn leaves after a rain.

I would play away the hours going through Grandma’s Better Homes and Gardens magazines, tearing out all the pictures of the porcelain dolls and writing their autobiographies or just exploring, though I never went in the closet under the stairwell, for it smelled like rubber from all of Grandpa’s boots.

Their house seemed ginormous, with Grandpa’s desk that looked like it belonged to a judge and Grandma’s double closet stuffed with hatboxes and fur coats—relics of women in her time.

The smell of coffee and bacon permeating the air brings me back to Grandma’s downstairs kitchen that is as clear to me as if I were sitting there with her, eating cold cereal late at night. That kitchen was where I had my first scoop of peanut butter with Karo syrup (still the only way I can eat p.b. that isn’t drenched in chocolate). Their house seemed like the land of plenty, for whereas our cupboards were sometimes bare (like Old Mother Hubbard’s), their pantries and deep freezer were always stocked like a famine was coming.

Grandma and Grandpa would sit on their porch swings outside the kitchen door, and I’d be way down the hill, sometimes barefoot, laying in the clover and soft grass while the martens and wrens built their nests in the Jetson-like birdhouse apartments.

Even at twilight, when the lightning bugs would come out with their lime-green glow, my grandparents never worried if I was out of their sight.

As for me, just looking back and seeing the patio light on was all the reassurance I needed.

I didn’t know fear then, but I would learn it.

Now I know I could never live without it, for it is that thing that becomes a part of you— like your shadow; I would go so far as to say it’s like a guardian angel—a gift. My fear of forgetting to be aware of my daughter’s location and surroundings has been with me so long, I don’t even think about it. It’s just the price I pay for living in the modern world.

Times were different then, and Poplar Bluff seemed like the kind of place where nothing bad would ever happen, but it did.

It was the last day of May in 1981, when my parents were robbed at gunpoint at the Mansion Mall Cinema where they worked as night managers. I was there, gestating, hovering between conception and birth. Even though I wasn’t cognizant of what was going on, that experience changed my mother, thus changing me. My mom became more aware, and thus taught me to be more aware.

I grew up as one of the most observant teenagers in America.

That night of the robbery, my mother had tried telling my father that something wasn’t right; throughout the day, a car kept changing places in the parking lot, containing Stackhouse and Patterson (both named James)—two men who had worked for them. These ex-employees had records, and one, my parents had even given rides home to. (“The one with the personality,” Mom told me.)

They were changing the marquee when “the nicer one” approached them with a gun, demanding money. (The other was parked in the alley, serving as the getaway.) He settled for my mom’s purse, containing less than twenty bucks (the story of my parents’ lives), and a Cross pen and pencil set that Mom’s parents had given her for graduation. The nice guy wanted to take them off somewhere, but Mom refused; her grandfather had taught her never to go off with anyone—that to do so would mean certain death—and so she taught that to me.

The robbers were caught at the local Broadway Cafe, eating off the money they had stolen. They’d worn masks, but my dad had been able to identify their voices.

Mom, always wanting to make a point, wore a tee shirt that said “Baby” with an arrow pointing down when she testified. (It’s interesting to note that every time my parents turned on the lights when I was a baby, I’d hold up my arms like I was part of a “stick up”).

My mother would tell me years later that she made sure Grandma Booker knew that the robbers had been white, what with her being an old-fashioned Southern Democrat. (She even had funny ideas about “The Italian” who sold tamales, of all things, from the back of his truck—tamales she’d insisted were made of cats.)

From that night on, my parents had the local sheriff escort them to the bank for the night drop, just as now, I call a security guard to escort me to my vehicle after a night class (unless I am surrounded by classmates).

Because of that robbery, I grew up, always aware of when a car followed me after more than two turns, after which I would take an abrupt or unusual turn. I’ve grown up, appreciating the beauty of the world on its surface but also being mindful of the dark net below—that if I’m not careful, I could be caught in it.

I rarely talk on the cell phone while walking, and I don’t own a pair of earbuds. I have unilateral hearing loss, so I never use anything that further cuts me off from the world. I do nothing to make myself more vulnerable to those who would do me harm. Because of my mother standing her ground, I am walking on it today.

When my mom taught me to be observant, I believe she helped me save my own life more than once—in ways I will never know.

Navy mom

Since this was written in October 2017, my mom, the lady you see here, passed away, but she left behind a legacy of love.  One thing she always told me (and showed me) is that no matter how old your children get, they always have a place to come home to if they need it.

Updated 1/17/2020

Fiction Friday: Micropoetry from the Book

mormoni

With any other youth group,
the idea of dating a lot of different people
seemed like cheating,
but in Mormonism,
until one felt ready to marry,
it was better not to get fixated on any one person,
for that might lead to falling in love
& that just might lead to sin.

Tony had been willing to give up his reputation for Kath
but not Elder Roberts.
Tony had sealed his fate with his beloved by impregnating her,
whereas Elder Roberts had denied himself
by denying me.

It was a jubilee of sorts—
the tinkling of our fluted stems
signaling the beginning of the New Year
& the best years of our lives to come.

A cool gust, a warm breeze,
stirred me from my slumber
like a ghostly lover beckoning me.
I just stood back and watched him,
enjoying him,
& when he spoke to the sky,
it was then that I realized that he was speaking to the God
I thought he didn’t believe in.

I would never know if David lied to himself,
so he could lie to Mother,
but they would have a year before the temple
for her to fall in love with him
without all the trappings of Mormonism,
before she would expect him to take her to the temple
& promise things that he would never do,
not even for her,
even if she were me.