On the road (for a bit), Week One

Posted in Prose on May 22, 2018 by 1writegirl

Monday May 15: We take 101 to Santa Margarita and pick up Hwy 58 East. Funny how the desert begins almost immediately once away from the coast. I see an antelope. We stop in the tiny town of McKittrick for a cup of coffee at the unimaginatively and unaptly named McKittrick Hotel (it has no rooms). It redeems itself with its friendly waitress, humorous signs on the walls, and creative decor, namely a bar tiled exclusively, floor to ceiling, in pennies. If the sign is to believed, one million of them. This is on the wall in the women’s bathroom:

wall

Further on we pass “something-something ginnery.” I don’t know if  this is a distillery, or a facility to do with cotton and/or cotton gins. We drive on through a green irrigated valley of fruit trees in stark contrast to the brown hills in the distance. Looking at them brings to mind the song by Kate Wolf, Here in California.

A few miles outside of Bakersfield I see the longest freight train I’ve ever seen. I will see many more today and tomorrow, as highways 58 and 40 parallel the railroad tracks.

We stop at Tehachapi for gas and wifi, then find a campsite in nearby Tehachapi Mountain Park. 

Tuesday May 16: I didn’t sleep last night. At all. This morning when Mark got up he threw his down sleeping bag over me and I finally drifted off for about half an hour while he made coffee, tea etc. I brought some melatonin with me and took 5mg before we went to bed, but either it wasn’t strong enough or nothing was going to let me sleep being so cold. 

On the way to Kingman AZ today. Several miles before we get to Barstow I see Joshua trees. To the unfamiliar, from a distance they resemble an evergreen, but closer up they look more like skinny palms gone berserk, with branches shooting out in all directions. Then as quickly as they appeared they are gone, replaced by sage, mesquite, and a big scraggly bush with yellow flowers I feel I should know the name of. Creosote maybe.

I’m dismayed to see continuous trash along the roadway. There’s the cast-offs and remains from vehicles, like shredded tires, broken glass, hubcaps, pieces of plastic and metal from accidents; even entire tires. Then you’ve got beer bottles, soda cans, water jugs, plastic cups, plastic bags, styrofoam containers, cardboard, newspapers, and all manner of trash, as if people just roll down their windows and eject whatever happens to be close at hand. In addition to general detritus I see: a pillow, a five gallon gas can, a plastic bucket, a broken chair, Mylar balloons, and even a shopping cart. I see no warnings of fines for littering like there are along the CA coast.

In Barstow there are no clear signs for directions to Highway 66, which Mark wants to take. We drive through town and at least 10 miles beyond before he realizes by the position of his shadow next to the bike that we’re going west rather than east. (Evidently I’m riding with a Boy Scout; I should pay attention.) Here we see a yellow road sign: “When flooded turn around don’t drown” and a white lizard by the side of the road.

Somewhere along the way I begin to see signs for washes, with names like Lava wash, Siberia wash, Orange Blossom wash, Old Dad wash, Van Winkle wash, and Holy Moses wash. None of these contain a drop of water.

A billboard outside Needles announces that in Lake Havasu Arizona we’ll find “Guns and ammo! Indoor machine gun shooting range!” 

We get a motel room tonight in Kingman. I sleep.

Wednesday May 17:

In the distance, the hills have become mountains, rocks with deep etchings and iron ore deposits tinting the vista. Gradually the west has turned into the southwest. We pass a dead coyote on the road, and more washes: Rattlesnake wash and Peacock wash among them. In the historic old town of Seligman we stop for coffee at the Roadkill Cafe. Sitting at the table next to us is a young man who owns the Suzuki parked out front. His name is Chris, he’s from the Bay Area, and he too is headed to Flagstaff for the Overland Expo where, like us, he’ll be a volunteer. On the wall of the women’s bathroom is this poem:

rte66poem

We get to the park in Flagstaff by around 4 or so, where we check in with the Volunteer Coordinator for Expo then ride downtown to the place where the vehicles in the “Cool Ride” contest are displayed so people can vote on them. The winner will receive a $500 gift certificate. Mark’s BMW motorcycle is one of 8 finalists.

May 18-21. Overland Expo, Flagstaff 

Thursday: It’s fucking freezing here when the sun goes down. After my first sleepless night, I mention to Tiffany (a friend of Mark’s, I met her at the HU event in Wales last summer. She has just rolled in from Los Angeles where she gave a travel presentation) that I don’t have a decent sleeping bag and she spreads the word. Before long a small woman with dark hair in braids named Nicole shows up at our tent with an emergency blanket, a sleeping bag, and an inflatable pad. She calls me Angel. Over the course of the weekend I overhear her talking to others and realize she calls everyone Angel. 

Throughout the day I see Chris, riding around the park on patrol, his 3 volunteer shifts of 4 hours apiece rolled into one. The Volunteer Coordinator, named Cyan, has died her blond hair to reflect her moniker. She is adorable.

Friday: I wake up a bit late and can’t find my badge, turn the tent upside down looking for it. When I show up for my shift I’m assigned traffic duty. In the afternoon I attend two presentations, one by Sam Manicom and the other by Elspeth Beard and three other women (including Tiffany) about their travels by motorcycle. Later I attend Ladies Night, where I’m offered free wine and chocolates and meet a woman named Jane who works for BMW. She is the 8th generation from the mother of Thomas Jefferson, and if that’s not enough, also related to Pocahontas. I speak briefly to Carla, who will be squeezing as many women into a Ural as possible tomorrow. I bow out, but offer to do my part to encourage Elspeth to join in.

Saturday: My shift today consists of helping out in the Authors and Exhibitors tent where, between fetching water and chairs and covering for bathroom or coffee breaks, I spend a good deal of time talking with Ted Simon, the legendary British journalist who rode around the world on his motorcycle twice, and wrote several books about his experiences. I am impressed with how easygoing and down to earth he is. He lives in France these days and I mention going to visit my friend Enza one day soon at her new B&B along the French Camino. I hope he will invite me to stop and see him on my way. He doesn’t.

Sunday: Today I have no volunteer shifts to perform so I go to presentations instead, talk to other travelers, and drink Pims at the drinks party Tiffany organizes in the afternoon. Tomorrow we will head south to Phoenix to spend a couple of days with my brother.

The people whom I met here and will remember:

Elspeth Beard, the first British woman to ride her motorcycle around the world (1982-84). Her book Lone Rider is now on sale in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is gracious, charming, and incredibly talented.

Sam Manicom, another world traveler and writer, who is warm and witty and a wealth of good information.

Jane, of lofty ancestry.

Tiffany, who is funny, generous and genuine. I like her more and better every time we meet.

Chris, fellow volunteer, a musician, setting off on his own overland adventure. 

Dave, a guy selling storage/organization cubes for travel who lives coincidentally a few miles down the road from me, possessed of a great smile and twinkling eyes.

Nigel, another British friend of Mark’s who was great company all weekend.

Nicole, to the rescue.

Maggie, a young woman who has taken to living in her Land Cruiser with her dog almost full time; we swapped stories of depression while traveling compared to depression “at home”, and the pull of the road.

Ted Simon, aforementioned, who said to Mark and me upon hearing that we hadn’t had a shower since Wednesday, “I’m leaving tonight so you’re welcome to take a shower in my caravan. Hell, you can sleep there if you want.” (We did.)

And this memorable guy,

dog at expo

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Today without slitting your wrists

Posted in Prose on May 13, 2018 by 1writegirl

It’s Mother’s Day. Again. Fuck. Last night I dreamt of Jackson, then of meeting people I used to know, telling them “the news”, fielding their expressions of sympathy. I wake up exhausted and hurting all over. 

Of the particularly difficult days of the year – Jackson’s birthday, his death day, Christmas, Valentine’s Day – I think Mother’s Day is the hardest. My mother is dead, my child is dead. I lie in between two sets of memories, bereft in both directions, the heavy publicity the day receives surrounding me, advertisements on billboards, store ads, across the internet reminding me to do what I cannot do. Reminding me of what I am not, and who I was.

Mark drops me off on the edge of town at the cemetery, then he returns to my place to finish packing his clothes. Tomorrow we leave for Flagstaff Arizona and the Overland Expo. We have done a dry-run pack, stuffing the panniers with balanced loads, filling a small backpack with water, food and toiletries to strap behind my seat, on top of the sleeping bags, pads and tent. His stove is so compact he can fit it into his pannier with his clothes, as well as the one pan he uses for everything.

We have looked at both paper and online maps, and come up with a vague route encompassing the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon, before returning to California: a small circle encapsulating approximately one-third of the vastness that is this country. We had hoped to go all the way east via the southern states then return through the northern, but I have not yet found a new renter for my condo, so the lack of funds as well as the need to be in California again has led to this abbreviated road trip.

I traverse the short distance to Jackson’s grave carrying a handful of sage, rosemary, and a plant I can’t identify but picked because of its delicate golden flowers. Usually the tears wait, but today I am crying from the moment Mark drives off. I pass a dead crow lying on the grass, his little feet straight and stiff in the air, and remember finding a wounded one in this very cemetery on Mother’s Day a couple of years ago, which I took, with Jenn’s help, to the wildlife sanctuary in Morro Bay. Weeks later they called me to say they had healed him and set him free. I marveled that they’d go to so much trouble for a crow with a broken, what? Wing? Foot? I took him there hopeful they’d help him but almost sure they would euthanize him.

When I get to Jackson’s grave I lie on top, as usual. Someday – in an instant, a cosmic blink – it will be mine as well. For the first time in almost four years I talk to him. I don’t mean mumble, or whisper “I’ll be back,” as I always do before I go, I mean really talk. I tell him how badly I miss him. How much I think he would like this or that, and about my upcoming road trip with Mark. It’s not that I think he can hear me, it just feels good to pretend for a few minutes that he can. Or maybe it is just a new release, I don’t know.

As I walk back home I see a dog, clearly lost and confused, making his way alone down the highway. He’s walking in the same direction I am, toward town, but on the other side of the road. I fear he is going to get hit by a car, though he seems to understand the danger himself, and keeps looking at the cars as they pass. It would only take a split second, one false move; the cars are flying by. My heart lurches. He looks hungry, and scared, hunkered down. I want to help him. I feel like I have to help him. How I might do this I don’t know. I don’t have a car to transport him to the local animal shelter, and Mark’s motorcycle certainly isn’t up to such a task, assuming I could even convince him to follow me home. Suddenly a vehicle pulls over on his side of the road and two women climb out. I call across the road to them, “Hey, are you going to help that dog?” They wave in response, and begin to run toward him. They call out to him and he turns. At first he is reluctant, but clearly he wants to trust them. He hovers on the edge of decision, and I know he could go either way. He isn’t feral, I’m sure, or he wouldn’t be considering them as a viable option. As they inch closer and closer, lower to the ground now, he makes up his mind, and wagging his tail a few times, meets them halfway. I think they have done this before. When they meet, the first woman gets on her knees and reaches out her hand for him to sniff it. He does, and she cautiously reaches out and pets him. The second woman approaches and the scenario is repeated. Soon he’s trotting along beside them back to the car, looking up at them as they go. I sigh with relief. We are set to leave tomorrow morning. What would I have done if they hadn’t come along? I know I could not have done nothing. Not today, of all days.

When they drive away I call Marian, feeling the need suddenly to talk to someone who shares my dread about this day. When she answers I burst into tears again, and for several moments I can’t speak. But her voice is soft and her tone is calm. “I know,” she says, again and again. When I’m coherent again I tell her about the dog. She tells me she’s been reading emails wishing her a Happy Mother’s Day. “But it’s not!” I shout into the phone. “It’s Sad Mother Day.” And I think there is a small army of us the world over who would concur, who would rather be wished “Hope you can get through today without slitting your wrists.” It would at least be realistic, and genuine. It might even make us laugh.

When I get home Mark has done the dishes, vacuumed the carpets, and finished the last load of laundry. I take his hand, and tell him how much I appreciate his support. I tell him I know it must be hard for him, being around me. That I realize he probably has never met someone in my situation before, and that I hope he never will again. But he has, he tells me. “Who?” I ask him. “My own mum,” he says. “Three years before I was born my sister died.” I remember the stories he’s told me of his difficult childhood, his remote, emotionally distant mother, and I wonder how much of what he experienced was a result of the death of this sibling he never knew. One might think his mother would have loved and cherished him more, not less. “I’m sorry,” I say, meaning it for both of them. She took the direct hit, but he suffered the collateral damage. 

Eventually the day is over. I lie in bed and think about Jackson, and of the many people who loved him. I think about Marian who is almost certainly in bed right now thinking of her daughter Maddie. I think about Jenn with her new baby, and the promise he holds for her. I think about a group of young women I read about yesterday, struggling to adapt to a new life after being rescued from the sex trafficking industry, and finding out that sometimes who you are is bigger than what you’ve done or what has been done to you. I think about the crow that got a second chance and the dog today, and wonder if I will get my second chance, knowing only that it starts with a seed, turns into giving to someone or something else, and probably looks a lot like redemption.

My Life of Crime

Posted in Prose on April 28, 2018 by 1writegirl

My friend Mark from Devon, England is here and we’re in the library. He has applied for a library card so he can check out books during his stay, but more importantly, so that he can download ebooks and audiobooks to his tablet when we take to the road.

Next to the checkout desk is a big bin full of non perishable food. It’s for the library’s annual food-for-fines event, where for every food item you donate they will reduce your fine by $1. I have several cans of food at home that my tenants left behind and I know I won’t eat, so this seems like the perfect place for them to land. I haven’t wanted to just throw them away.

“Excuse me,” I say to the librarian. “How long will you be collecting food?” 

She shrugs. “The drive is over,” she says, “but as you can see the food hasn’t been collected. You can donate as long as it’s still here, but you missed the deadline for reducing fines.” 

“I only owe 25 cents,” I reply, “so that’s okay. I just want to give you some food.”

She smiles. “If you get back here with it in the next couple of hours, I’m pretty sure you’ll be in time.” 

As Mark and I turn to leave, I spot a can of Trader Joe’s coconut cream. That’s just what I need for the recipe I want to try out in the new ice cream maker I found at a yard sale a few weeks ago. Every time I’ve gone to Joe’s to get some they are out of it and can’t tell me when they’ll have more. And I can’t find it anywhere else for less than $5 a can, which is way beyond my budget.

A few hours later we’re back at the library, with a small box of canned food in the pannier of Mark’s motorcycle. “Here’s the thing,” I say as we walk across the parking lot. “I’m going to put this food in the bin, and then I’m going to take the can of coconut milk out of the bin.” He raises an eyebrow, then grins and opens his mouth to say something, but I shush him. “I might need you to distract them,” I tell him. “You know, if they’re standing close by, and watching or whatever, just tell a joke or something.”

“Tell a joke?” he asks. 

“Yeah, you can think up a joke, right?”

“Uh, no,” he says. 

“Fine, just ask a question or something. Get them to walk with you away from the food bin.” By way of answer he rolls his eyes.

We walk inside and I see the food bin is full to bursting. Not one, not two, but three librarians are standing nearby. I discreetly walk over and kneel down on the floor, setting my helmet down and opening the box of food. I stand up with a can of food and lay it gently on top of the pile. Three pairs of eyes gaze at me. “I’m just donating some food,” I say. They all smile as one. I bend over and pick up another can, and another, until I have only one can left. They are all still standing there watching me. I look around for Mark, but he’s sitting at one of the computers with his back to me. So much for distracting the staff. Slowly, I move my hands over the food in the bin, as if I’m trying to find just the right place to put my item. I gently lift up and resettle a jar of spaghetti. Now one of the librarians is helping a patron at the counter, an elderly gentleman with a large pile of books. Another is on her computer. The third one, however, is still standing there, with nothing better to do it would seem than to watch me. “You’ve gotten a lot of food,” I say, as if this weren’t obvious. She nods. I place my can of beans next to the can of coconut cream, and spend a few seconds making like I’m pushing it securely into the pile. “Thank you,” a voice says, and I look up to see her nodding at me as she walks past, heading towards the children’s department. “Oh, you’re welcome,” I reply, and as soon as she turns away I quickly grab the can of coconut cream and duck back to the ground, dropping it into my small box and closing the lid. But not before I see that there is a second can of coconut cream buried under the first. 

How much coconut cream do I need for my recipe? I wonder. Surely two cans would be better than one, I can make twice as much ice cream. I stand back up but it’s too late, the first librarian has finished helping the old man and while she isn’t exactly staring at me, she is looking in my direction. I smile at her then pick up my box and my helmet and walk pointedly over to Mark. The single can of coconut milk is rattling around in the box. “You were supposed to distract them,” I whisper. “I’m busy,” he says. “Besides, you got it, right?” “Yeah,” I tell him. “But there’s another one.” He shrugs. “You’ve got time. I’m going to be another few minutes here.” I sit down and think about it. I don’t want to be greedy, maybe I should just let it go at the one can. A few minutes pass. I did leave at least six cans though. And two boxes of food coloring. If I took the second can of coconut cream, they’d still be up four cans. And really, how many people are going to want coconut cream? Isn’t that kind of a specialty item? It’s not like beans, or rice, or spaghetti-os. We’re talking about poor people here, people who are hungry. They’ll want cans of food they can open and eat outright, not cans of something they have to cook in some exotic recipe. I glance over to the checkout desk and see there is only one librarian there. Nonchalantly I walk over to the food bin. I spot the can of cream and edge close to it, pretending to be just hanging out there while Mark  finishes up. I wait for my moment. 

Finally there’s no one at the desk. Quickly I step toward the bin and reach my hand in. I don’t see the coconut milk right away though, I must have dislodged it earlier. Glancing furtively around me, I rummage around for it. In my haste I bump a can close to the edge, which falls to the floor with a loud thud. I freeze and close my eyes. Suddenly I know what’s going to happen. This gigantic tower of food is going to collapse, and I’m going to be arrested for shoplifting. “Look,” I’ll say. “It’s not how it looks. I put the cans of coconut cream into the bin by mistake. I didn’t mean to donate them, they got into my donation box by accident.” 

“Those cans of Trader Joe’s coconut cream were already in the food bin,” they’ll say, calling me out on my lie. “You didn’t donate them.” 

“Okay, you’re right,” I’ll admit. “But it’s not what you think. I need that coconut cream. I’ve been to Joe’s no less than five or six times to buy coconut cream, and they’re always out of it. It’s not like I’m stealing, I mean I gave you six cans of food and two boxes of food coloring. That’s eight for two! Some of them were even organic. And I’m poor too,” I’ll remind them. “I’m one of those people who could easily qualify for food from the food bank. I have no money!! I could go to the food bank and get the coconut cream from them, I’m just saving time, that’s all.” They won’t care though, they’ll handcuff me and set bail and I won’t even be able to pay it. 

When I open my eyes Mark is standing beside me. “Be quick,” he hisses. He is standing between me and the closest librarian. I look into the bin again and there is the can of coconut cream. I reach in, snatch it up, and drop it in to the box with the other. Tentatively I look around, ready to start protesting, apologizing, explaining. But nobody is paying us any attention. “Shall we go?” asks Mark, and with a sigh of relief I follow him out the door.

The next day I make butter pecan ice cream. It is fantastic.

At Last

Posted in Prose on March 24, 2018 by 1writegirl

For three and a half months I am homeless. Not by way of wandering, as I’ve been these past three or so years, but by the deliberate, willful denial to my own property by others, i.e., the unlawful occupation of my home by tenants who signed a month-to-month lease, then refused to vacate and/or pay rent. It is entirely different in every way, and I am overwhelmed with a sense of injustice combined with futility. I learn all I can about tenant/landlord laws in California, but I can neither change the bias against landlords nor circumvent the crawling pace of the eviction process. I’ve done nothing wrong, yet I’m being punished and I feel helpless to right this wrong. It is familiar, and it is very reductive. It would be so easy to slide backwards, into emotional chaos, disarray, oblivion. I wonder if I’m strong enough to resist.

Then somehow I get lucky, I am reminded that there is hope, there is good, by Neighbor Jim. He takes me in, says “Hey, I’ve got a couch, sleep here… stay here for as long as you like.” He is 85 years old. I arrive in early January, expecting to stay a week or two, at most. But by mid month he has reassured me again and again: I like your company; I don’t like living alone; you are welcome here. I realize he is not dotty, he is sincere. He tells me about his wife of 30 years, dead now since the early 2000’s. His eyes shine when he speaks of her, sometimes with happy memories, and sometimes because he still can’t quite believe she is gone. It’s as if he woke up and found her missing and can’t figure out where she’s off to. He’s baffled, discomfited, then quietly full of dismay. He knows about Jackson, and there are moments when our sorrows bounce off one another. Somewhere along the way I stop feeling like a burden, and start feeling like a friend.

We fall into a routine. He rises early and goes out to get the newspaper. He returns, quietly boils water for a cup of tea, and retreats to his downstairs studio, housing a piano and several stained glass projects in various stages of completion, to read the paper. After awhile I get up, moving slowly, make coffee, and read for a bit, after which he comes back upstairs and hands me today’s crossword puzzle and Sudoku. We occupy the small space of his living room, which is almost exactly like my own (the condos in this complex all identical in layout) in quiet companionship until one of us is hungry enough to mention breakfast. I make us eggs, with or without bacon, or a smoothie, or toast for Jim and a scoop of almond butter for me. I have recently read a book by a cardiologist who recommends the elimination of all grains and sugars from the diet, and because what he writes makes sense to me, his discussion of our evolutionary eating habits and history, I have decided to follow his advice for six weeks and see how I feel as a result.

In the afternoon we go to the local farmer’s market, or I take a walk, or he takes me to see my grief counselor, grocery shopping, or to a doctor’s appointment. We ride in his 1998 BMW Z4 convertible. It’s not airtight, far from it, so when he speaks to me I find myself yelling to be heard. Back at his place he plays the piano and I read, or write, or finish the morning’s puzzles. In the evening I cook us something for dinner, and we watch a DVD, something from the library, usually a mystery. We both like Agatha Christie, so more often than not it’s Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. He falls asleep midway through it, but I keep watching alone. He typically wakes up just as the show comes to an end, and announces, as if he’s been awake the entire time, “Well that was good, but I think I’m ready for bed now.” And off he goes.

When I’m not at the condo with Jim I’m walking. To the library, the nature preserve, the bay, around town. When she’s available I meet my friend Jenn, who has just had her first baby, a boy. At 41, she’s 10 years older than I was when Jackson was born. She is lithe and vibrant again, or maybe still – I can’t be sure, not having been around during her pregnancy. I try and remember how I felt then. I recall with clarity feeling tip-top during my pregnancy, but after? Was I this energetic and in shape, as if the challenge of birth now over, I had one hand on the starting line and the other behind my back, rocking back and forth as I listened for the whistle? She has a partner, whereas I was on my own. Did I pace myself? I know I tried.

Declan is just over ten weeks old now and every time I see him he looks the same size to me, an odd thing, because I saw him as a newborn and have seen him on a regular basis since. Meanwhile Jenn remarks frequently on how much weight he has gained, or how long he is now. I stare into his sweet blue eyes and remember the pull, the enormity of it, and I have to look away.

This is the first time I’ve been around a baby since Jackson died, and it’s simultaneously better and worse than being around the older children of other friends. Or maybe I should say simultaneously easier and harder. Easier because Jackson passed through that phase of his life intact, if not unscathed. It is less distressing to look at his baby pictures than his high school graduation photos. Harder because while older kids remind me of what I had and lost, Declan reminds me that I will never have the chance to fill that void. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that children are replaceable. They are not, by a long shot. But the being a mother part, that doesn’t have to end if you have other children, or if you are still capable of having more babies. My status now as mother is wrapped up entirely in sentiment rather than activity. I am a Mother Emeritus.

I meet Jenn whenever I can for a walk or a cup of coffee, and no matter when we last saw each other, she greets me with a hug and a kiss. I am only now getting used to this, and I revel in it. The only person before now from whom I could count on for a hug, at least on a regular basis, was my son. Almost every evening before bed we’d run into one another in the kitchen, the hallway, or the stairwell, and after a brief exchange about what was on the agenda for tomorrow he’d say “Goodnight Madre.” (It was always Madre except when he was emphatic about something, or angry, then it was Mother. When something was wrong, when he needed me, it was Mom.) Then he’d lean into me and throw his arms around me in a bear hug, sometimes lifting me off the ground, taking my breath away. Since his death, I crave affection even while I am afraid of it. Crave it in the way that an almost-alcoholic can live without his drink, but really doesn’t want to. Afraid of it in the way you don’t want to get used to something that you want, or possibly need, from someone else because you know it could disappear at any time, and then where will you be? Life lesson after life lesson has taught me to count mostly on myself. Trust, hope, disappointment are all feelings I seem to be ill equipped to handle these days. Yet they are inevitable if we are to truly live rather than merely exist.

Finally March 14th arrives. I meet the deputy sheriff at my condo at the prearranged time of 10:15am. I’m pretty sure my tenants are gone, as I saw a moving truck a week ago outside the garage. But I follow the rules: I wait for him to arrive; I arrange for a locksmith to meet us there in case I am locked out; I hand him the keys and wait for the all-clear. Finally it comes, and my home is my home again. Christ it’s a mess. There is junk scattered throughout the yard – pile after pile of clothes left out in the rain, now moldy and stuck together. Old wood, pieces of furniture, and trash, in a heap by the fence. A heavy couch, torn and bleeding, smack dab in the middle of the yard. A rusty grill, lawn chairs, car batteries, hand weights, discarded cosmetics, dog shit. No pets. Never mind. As I step inside I take a deep breath. I quickly look around, assess the situation: a gash in the stairwell wall; old, spoiled food in the kitchen; the skeletal remains of plants upstairs, death by thirst; boxes of yet more soiled and mildewed clothes in the garage. I take a quick inventory of my furniture and discover several pieces missing, but thankfully none are my mother’s antiques, pieces I will never again leave in the hands of strangers. Most importantly however, my son’s room remains intact. The deadbolt is still in place, and the door itself gives no sign of violent disturbance. Heart pounding, I turn the key and go inside. It is as I left it. I breathe in deeply, and when I smell him I fall to the floor in tears, so thankful, so happy, that I can still, again, have this.

This Too Shall Pass

Posted in Prose on January 8, 2018 by 1writegirl

I return to the US on the last day of November out of necessity. I rent out my condo in order to pay my bills so that I can travel, albeit on a shoestring. Until now this has worked out well, and I’ve had good, responsible tenants. But in early November my current tenants, a married couple in their forties, abruptly stopped paying rent and answering my emails and texts.

They both had good jobs, or so they had told me. Of course I should have done a background check and gotten a credit report for them, but at the time I had had good luck in selecting tenants based on that gut instinct you get when you first meet someone, coupled with the fact that she was grieving for her father who had recently died, and I could relate to her suffering. I was drawn to her in the way that two people recognize each other when they are both carrying what is to everyone else an invisible burden.

I worried something terrible had happened to one or both of them. After I asked a neighbor to check on them I received a series of rambling emails from the husband, telling me, among other things: his wife had moved out; he was a meth addict, though he claimed to no longer be using; that in spite of telling me where she worked when I interviewed them, she hadn’t worked in years; that she was addicted to prescription pain pills. After some back and forth over the next three weeks, it became obvious he/they were no longer going to pay rent.

Thus I approach my condo in early December with a fair degree of trepidation. I had texted, phoned and emailed him to say I’d be arriving and when, but got no reply. I don’t know who will be in my condo or what condition I will find it in. Horror stories fill my head, tales recounted to me by others with one or more bad rental experiences, entailing destruction of property, holes in walls, theft and the like. My worst nightmare is that they will have broken into my son’s room, dead-bolted before I left last spring, and touch something, anything, in a search for whatever; that it won’t be the way I left it.

I encounter him in the yard – littered with bikes, tools, and junk – when I walk up. When I ask why he didn’t return my emails and texts, he replies that he has no computer or phone, she confiscated them both, something to do with retaliating for thinking he had taken her wedding ring. “She’s inside,” he says, “Go talk to her.” Then he abruptly gets in his truck and drives away.

Inside, my tenant, myself, and a woman introduced to me as the sister sit upstairs on the couch. A kitten skitters around underfoot. Did I mention the lease they signed said “No pets”? She tells me her marriage is in disarray, she doesn’t know if her husband is coming or going, and she is terribly stressed out. I tell her I understand and I sympathize with her situation; I’m sorry things are so hard. I tell her if I were wealthy she could stay there until she is back on her feet, but I’m not. On the contrary, I’m broke; things are hard for me too. She says she’s sorry for the inconvenience. I give her/them 15 days written notice to leave, complying with the terms of the lease, and stand up. “Do you have some place to go?” I ask and she tells me yes, she can stay with family. Before I leave I go downstairs to the garage thinking I’ll sort through my clothes and find something warm to wear, but the garage is like the yard, full of their stuff from floor to rafters, and I can’t even get to my belongings. I go into Jackson’s room, where I find enough articles of clothing to make do and trade them for the tired old clothes I’ve been wearing for the past eight months. I leave my helmet, my motorcycle jacket, and my big backpack and put my stuff instead into a smaller backpack, expecting to be back in two weeks. I breathe deeply, smelling Jackson still after all this time, and realize that I am here because I need to be; to resolve this rental situation, but also to be close, once again, to what matters to me. I resolve that any future “tenants” in my condo will be “lodgers”, distinctly different in the eyes of the law, so that I can come and go to my own home freely. This is my home, full of my things and my memories, not just some rental property that I bought as an investment.

Over the next two weeks I go wherever I have people to take me in: my attorney, my father, my brother, my grief mentor. Along the way I receive an email from my tenants stating that they won’t be able to leave in two weeks, and giving me January 5th as their move-out date. They apologize again for the inconvenience. I confirm this date, only to receive another email in early January saying they have yet again changed their plans, that she is waiting for some money to come in, and they will leave when they “are ready.” By now they are almost two months behind with the rent. For the third time they apologize for “the inconvenience.”

Mike drives me up from LA to begin the eviction process, something I was hoping to avoid. We stay in a motel for a couple of days, and I begin the legal paperwork. To distract me from my worries he drives me up the coast on the second day to San Simeon, where we walk out onto the trails along the cliff and watch the sea lions and elephant seals swimming in the surf and sunning themselves on the sand. On the third day he drops me off in my condo complex at the home of a neighbor, an 85 year old man named Jim who has been staying with his son in Santa Maria for a few weeks and generously offered me the couch in his condo while he’s away. I walk Mike out to his car, say goodbye, and watch him drive away.

Over the next couple of days I keep an eye out for activity coming from my condo, a moving truck, anything to indicate they are taking the eviction order to heart. Nothing. On Sunday I walk to my friend Jenn’s house. She has recently moved here with her sweetheart after years of living in a tiny house out in the countryside. They have three dogs now and she was pregnant, so over the summer they opted to trade the ideal location for a bigger place. Their baby was born in early December, and when I enter the house and walk into the nursery where she is changing his diaper, I choke up. This is the first time I’ve seen her since April, and the first time I’ve seen a newborn since Jackson died. When I hold him in my arms, memories wash mercilessly over me, taking me back to that time in my life when I had that same hope that Jenn does now, that light, that energy and that bewildered sense of a miracle happening right under your nose every time you touch those grasping fingers, look into that open gaze, or draw that tiny body to your breast to feel the pull of your life flowing into his.

Since the day Jackson died I have been treating each day as if it were my last, fully expecting it to be. In the beginning I believed I would just die, that it would happen on its own, a natural and direct consequence of his death. After the first year or so, I started wondering if it would happen more indirectly, in the form of a disease brought on by my unwell emotional state, or even suicide when the inevitable day arrived that I would know, finally, I couldn’t live without him any longer. Even now, after three and a half years, I wake up each morning surprised at just that – that I have woken up, that I am still here.

On my way back to Jim’s condo I look over at my own, and think about how wrong it is that I am paying, with money I have to borrow, for squatters to be in my home. I think of how they keep referring to this as a mere inconvenience for me, when in actuality it is way beyond that. By refusing to pay rent and refusing to leave, they are rendering me literally homeless, with no place to live and no money to pay for temporary lodging. I feel betrayed, indignant, cheated, and manipulated.

Then I think about the goodness of Mike driving me up here and, knowing I can’t afford it, paying for our motel in spite of my feeble protests that he shouldn’t; Neighbor-Jim trusting me enough to let me stay in his condo while he’s away; and my father offering to help me with the legal costs that this eviction will incur. Of my friends Pippa (“What’s wrong with people?”) and Mark (“Of all the bloody cheek!”) and Johnny England (“The more I know of people, the more I prefer the company of snakes.”), emailing from across the ocean to check on me and let me know they are pissed off on my behalf. I think of Jenn, of that new life she is nurturing, and I am so happy for her in anticipation of the joy I know awaits her just as I am terrified to know that what happened to me could happen to her. I think of the marine mammals I saw the other day, and of how lucky I am, we all are, to live in a world where we can observe creatures like these in their natural habitats, just doing what they do. Lastly I think of the wisdom in my father’s words, “This too shall pass,” and remind myself that if I can survive the death of my child, this eviction business is peanuts. It can’t touch me by comparison, and in the big picture it is but a blip on the screen of my life.

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Sheep, Shit, Love

Posted in Prose on November 21, 2017 by 1writegirl

I spend the next eight days on a sheep farm in Galicia in a Workaway volunteer situation. The idea is you spend 4-5 hours a day, 5 days a week helping with chores around the place and in return you get room and board. My host, Steve, is a 68 year old English man. He has lived here for 15 years after retiring from a career as a helicopter pilot, then living aboard a sailboat with a girlfriend for three years in the Mediterranean. He bears a slight physical resemblance to John Cleese. He has approximately 60 sheep, including 6-8 new lambs. His companions in the yard and house include four cats, an old dog called Widget, and about 15 chickens.

The big old stone farmhouse is a mess. Not just old and falling apart, but dirty and  messy, with stuff strewn all over, clothes, books, trash, food. The floor is half torn-up linoleum, half wood boards, and every surface, high and low, is coated in grease, dust and animal hair. The kitchen in particular has so many layers of grime and filth on every surface that I can’t begin to guess when it was last cleaned. Possibly never. I wonder if he’s one of those people who thinks, “Why bother? It’s just going to get dirty again anyway.” There are two stories, the upper contains bedrooms, a small sitting room and a kitchen, while the downstairs is one large room with a wood stove, a television and a huge old fashioned sofa and chair, outside of which is the beginning of a new-old room undergoing renovation into what will be the new kitchen and dining room. The bathroom is upstairs, but outside on the porch.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so fucking cold at night, but it’s November now, there’s no central heating, and Steve leaves the front door wide open all the time, even at night, so the cats can “come and go.” In the evening – after the chores are done, the sheep put away for the night and the chickens have flown up into the branches of the huge walnut tree in the front yard to spend the night – he lights the wood stove downstairs, prepares something for dinner, and turns on the television. There he sits for the rest of the night, chain smoking Chesterfield cigarettes, drinking wine, and watching quiz shows and crime dramas. Funny he doesn’t smoke all day, then chain smokes at night. If I want to be warm, I can either join him downstairs or fill up the hot water bottle he gives me and retire to my bedroom where there is a warm down comforter on my bed. The first night I do the latter. The second night I do the former, and on the third day Steve offers me a space heater for my bedroom, which I gratefully accept. After that, I spend a couple of hours with him downstairs each evening, where we watch tv in companionable silence and chat amicably but sparsely, both of us being on the reticent side and there being no compelling thread between us, which is how it usually is with me and other humans. By ten or so I say good night and retreat to my room, where I turn on my heater and read in bed. Twice he tells me “don’t leave it on all night”.

Steve whistles when we put the sheep out in the morning and when we collect them in the evening. On my first day I recognize the tune “The bear went over the mountain,” and another one, though I can’t identify it, sounds vaguely Christmas-y. Each morning I shovel sheep shit on the floor of the building he calls the shed, but is actually a barn. I think my back will break, mostly because the shovel he gave me is so short that I have to work from a bent over position to separate the layers of hard dried shit from the metal floor. I use my legs as much as possible. I ask him afterwards if he has considered putting some hay down to absorb some of the moisture and perhaps keep it from sticking to the floor. He says that would require a lot of hay, which would be hard to come by, and besides “it warms you up, which is no bad thing.” Then I ask him if he has a longer shovel, but he doesn’t.

On the second day, after shoveling, I rake leaves in the front yard, then Steve comes to get me to steer his broken down car while he tows it with the smallest tractor I’ve ever seen to the mechanic. Something wrong with the transmission. Then I rake more leaves and wash dishes. Tonight he is taking us to dinner in a nearby town, and he’s paying. I decide I’m going to order anything I want from the menu, including a cocktail. It has taken me less than two days to realize that unless you are staying in a very posh house and fed gourmet meals, the Workaway volunteer gets the short end of the stick in these situations, assuming the host would have to pay someone at least €10 an hour to do what you’re doing.

We have dinner in a nearby town with three friends of Steve, a British couple (well, the man is English and his wife is from everywhere) in their early seventies I think, and a Spanish guy, probably in his 40’s. He is trying to improve his English, Steve says. He is very animated throughout dinner, especially when he learns I’m from California. He seems enamoured of California, though he’s never been there. He has been to the US once, and visited two places only: New York, and Baltimore. I asked “Why Baltimore?,” and he said because he was making a documentary about Edgar Allen Poe. He is the second Spaniard I’ve met who has made a documentary about a famous American (the other American being Spielberg).

Steve complains about previous volunteers boiling a whole kettle of water for just one cup of tea (“what a waste of electricity,” he says) or not knowing how to wash dishes properly. He likes to wait till there’s a bunch of dirty dishes before washing them, and says many volunteers use too much soap and hot water. I wonder if he is, in an indirect way, chastising me. The problem with washing dishes here is the sink is just big enough for the dishpan he uses to wash them, but there’s no room to rinse them and no place to set them to dry. So basically you just have to wash a few, rinse them in the same dishpan, then towel-dry them, one at a time, putting them away before washing some more. It’s really impractical, but he’s lived this way for 15 years, on his own and with others. I’d like to clean the bathroom but I’m afraid he’d say I’m using too much water. I mean really, how much electricity can it possibly take to heat a kettle of water? I am washing my underwear in the shower at night and drying it in front of my little space heater. Steam rises from it when it gets close to the fire.

Last night I got an email from Marian with the words from a speech given by a woman whose son had died. I find I prefer to say someone died, which is the plain truth, instead of the more often used euphemistic expression, someone “lost” someone. I did not misplace him, like a set of keys. He did not wander off, nor get left behind. He is not coming back. I read it during a quick break from farm chores, not realizing what it was, and thinking I could go right back to work. Instead, it brought me to my knees. If Steve noticed I’d been crying when I returned, he didn’t say anything.

Today, after shoveling, Steve takes me on a walk up in the hills. After we get back to the farm I go and sit in the fenced pasture where the mama and baby sheep graze, trying to pet the little ones. But they’re all afraid of me, all except for Orphan Annie, who Steve lets me bottle feed 3 times a day, and two older lambs called Zeba and Wonka who were also bottle fed until just recently. These three let me pet them, and Annie even sits on my lap foru awhile. She has a birth defect in the form of perpetually weak muscles in her neck, preventing her from lifting her head up all the way, which is likely the reason she couldn’t suckle properly, and her mother rejected her.

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The next morning Steve is whistling that Judy Garland song from The Wizard of Oz, then the Oscar Meyer bologna song, and the Xmas song again. Later in the barn while shoveling he whistles two or three more Christmas caroles. Finally I ask him, “Are you looking forward to Christmas?” to which he replies, “No, I’m not a Christmas sort of person.” This evening it is the theme from Popeye.

I sit in the pasture with the mothers and lambs again the next day and Annie falls asleep at my feet. I don’t pick her up and put her on my lap like yesterday because she has poo all down her back leg and I don’t want to get it all over me. Finally I can’t stand it anymore and scoop her up on to my lap. Clothes, like hands, are washable after all. At one point all the sheep stand straight up and look in the same direction so I follow their gaze and see a cat, not one of Steve’s. I guess because it is a stranger they are wary of it, even though it is just a cat.

After I feed Annie her second bottle this afternoon, I give some corn that I have in my pocket to the rest of the sheep. They all crowd around me trying to get to it and in the commotion with muzzles everywhere one of them eats through the headphones hanging down the front of my jacket. Now I have to listen to my audiobooks out loud till I can get another pair.

One day the sheep manure has so much urine mixed in with it that it is equivalent to diarrhea. This makes it a lot heavier thus harder to pick up. When we are closing up the shed I tell Steve that was probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done. He looks at me blankly. “What was?” “Shoveling diarrhea for 2 hours” I say. He doesn’t reply. The next day he leaves me to do all the shoveling on my own. I think it is revenge for my comment the day before though thankfully the manure is a bit drier today, making the task slightly less odious. Steve whistles “You are my Sunshine.”

One day after I’ve been here about a week, Steve decides to let all the sheep go out together in the morning rather than separate the new mothers and babies. Zeba and Annie stop in front of the gate to their former pasture and wait. Even after all the other sheep shuffle on past, following Steve, they stand there and wait, just the two of them, looking at me expectantly and bleating. The look on Zeba’s face… “What’s up? I’m confused, this is where we’re supposed to go.” Who ever said sheep are stupid? I feel a pang of love for her and Annie, and Wonka too. I also am quite fond of Franko who comes up to me whenever he sees me to have his cheeks and neck scratched. At first I thought it was just because we were in the barn so it was a matter of proximity but this afternoon I spend an hour or so with the flock while they are out grazing, just to keep an eye out for foxes and dogs as Steve is a tad worried about the new lambs being so exposed, and Franko comes up behind me while I’m sitting on a rock. I feel a hot breath on my ear and startled, turn to see him just standing there, his face about an inch from mine. He just gazes lazily into my eyes and when I reach up a hand to scratch him, he doesn’t even flinch. Later I ask Steve if he was a bottle fed lamb, but he wasn’t.

The day before I leave, Steve releases all the sheep together again except for Annie, Zeba and Wonka. When I’m giving Annie her bottle Zeba and Wonka keep getting under my feet as they try to butt in, like they always do. Even though they are considerably bigger and presumably older than Annie, they go for the milk like they’re babies. I’m pushing them away when I get all turned around and suddenly I lose my balance and fall. I topple onto Zeba, and she just lays there, not moving and staring off into space. She has that glassy eyed look like an antelope whose windpipe has just been crushed by a cheetah. For a moment I think I’ve killed her. Later, thinking about it, I start to cry. I spend the afternoon in the fenced pasture with Annie, Zeba and Wonka. I know it’s ridiculous but I’ve bonded with these little creatures in the space of a mere week.

Tonight the main flock of sheep don’t come home. Several times until well after dark we go looking for them, to no avail. It would seem Steve’s anxiety was well founded. Annie, Zeba and Wonka spend the night in the pen alone. I check on them a few times, worried they’ll be lonely at best, and freaked out at worst. They are definitely unsettled.

The next morning there is still no sign of the flock. We take the trio down to the small paddock and leave them, but later I come back down on my own to tell them goodbye. I kiss the three of them again and again and hold Annie, who licks my cheek the way a dog would, for a long time. I cry.

Steve drives me to the train station in Valenca, Portugal. We exchange very few words, typically. He kisses me goodbye, the European double-cheeked airkiss, as empty of substance as Annie’s kisses were full of it. All day I think about the missing flock of sheep, and from my hostel that night, I email Steve and ask if they returned. He writes back to say they did, and none the worse for wear. That night, I think about Annie, Zeba, Wonka and Franko. I miss them already. I don’t miss shoveling.

Recommended reading: Deep South, by Paul Theroux.

 

 

 

Mental Meandering in Seville, on Seville

Posted in Prose on November 17, 2017 by 1writegirl

Plaza de Espagne:
A magnificent square. If in Seville, must see. Built into the walls are tiles representing each region of Spain, portraying scenes of battle, peasant life, the clergy and monarchy. Some tiles represent wars with Moors.

One tile at Avila shows a female soldier.

Alicante tile has elephants and dark skinned half naked women bearing water pitchers on their heads (slaves?) And animal heads on stakes (horse, ox).

Overhead are white (marble?) busts of famous men and two women identified as Isabel la Catolica, and Santa Teresa. Continue reading