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Late night call, a mysterious voice says, “Miss Patton, please don’t tell your friends we’re on campus.” 1965, war protests, violence on campus, the CIA wasn’t popular. On a lark, I’d filled out the application, taken a typing test. “My colleagues in Washington are interested because of your degree in French, but 15 words a minute with 35 mistakes won’t suffice.” Ready to hang up, he continued. “Tonight after classes, go to the business school across from your campus. The woman there will teach you to type.” So began my 6-month career as a spy. I discovered I’m a liberal.
Sophomore algebra, sitting across the aisle from my friend Linda, the boy sitting in front turns around and invites her to the prom. No, she said without elaboration. He turned to me. I have less pride, wanted to go to the prom. Sure, I said. Mom and I shopped for days for a dress, I was too skinny for anything stylish. Newly permed hair kinked tight against my skull. He came to the door with corsage, dressed in a suit. We sat while others danced. Finally he said, "I suppose you want to dance." We did. Last date with Arlen.
I've never been homesick. First night at camp, lying in my bunk, I needed to pee badly. Afraid to venture through the forest alone, I started to cry. Sympathetic counselor knelt, stroked my hair, "Homesick?" Yes, I agreed. She soothed and stroked, then asked if I needed to go. I nodded. Hand in hand, flashlight revealing the path, we went to the outhouse.
My parents left me at college. As they drove away I felt chains drop away and a giddy freedom wash over me. At the student union I ordered a hamburger and on the jukebox Petula sang “Downtown.”
I miss the sounds that fill the air of the southern Appalachians: hundreds of birds, each singing its own song, the mockingbird going through the entire repertoire; the rising and falling hum of locusts on a hot afternoon; cicadas chirping “katydid katydid katydidn’t” on humid summer nights. I miss the fireflies and the black bear that cleaned out my birdfeeder. I miss the cardinals, titmice and praying mantis. The air in the Northwest is quiet, the birds so plain, the bugs so boring. In the south rain is an event: gullywashers flooding the streets in seconds. I miss the South.
Lucky lived across the street. We were pals until he joined the Navy and went to Las Vegas. He was the neighborhood ambassador, visiting each house regularly. Mrs. Anderson had tropical fish and taught him how to care for them. Mr. Nixon, the biology teacher, had a lush garden and taught him to deadhead roses. He walked the neighborhood deadheading every rose bush he saw. After he joined the Navy he sent me an ad clipped from the newspaper of wedding rings on sale, asked which ones I liked. He moved in with Art. Forty years later, they’re still together.
When Lucky joined the Navy, he went to Las Vegas and mailed me ads for wedding ring sets. He became my first boyfriend and sent me his class ring, which I wrapped tape around until it fit. I grew taller and preened with the pride of going steady, though we'd never touched as lovers. He was my excuse for having no dates. When he came home on leave, to his house across the street, my stomach knotted with anticipation. He didn't call or knock on my door. I returned his ring and the fringed satin pillow cover via his sister.
I’m waging a vendetta against a company that wronged me. I’m sweet, patient, easy. That’s what people think of me. Until they’ve crossed me. I will not suffer companies that scam me. OK, I didn’t research, didn’t compare. I trusted the young single mom who came to our house, charmed us and left at midnight with a signed contract for new windows. Installation went badly, with gouged windowsills, leaking window, bad caulking. “Customer service” was surly and rude. Management didn’t return calls. I’ve filed complaints (BBB, Contractors Board), written scathing reviews (CitySearch, Angie’s List). Don’t mess with me, Evans Glass.
For weeks after seeing the Merry Widow I waltzed, humming the beautiful theme. When my third-grade teacher announced a talent show, I volunteered to dance. Without a single lesson, I chose “Turkey in the Straw” from my mother’s 78s and practiced an improvised tap/clog/shuffle. The day arrived, it was my turn to perform, and the teacher lowered the needle to the vinyl. I danced to the music, lost in my world, unconscious of the audience, until the music suddenly stopped. “I think you’re tired, dear.” I learned an important lesson from my teacher that day: I learned to be embarrassed.
His body begins its slope at his shoulders and ends in a puddle at his feet. Black hair, black mustache and goatee, black-rimmed glasses frame intelligent dark eyes. Quick humored, often laughing, his anger is just as easy to trigger. He came as a savior, to rescue a sinking business. His personal agendas joined with arrogance and vindictiveness to create discontent, disillusion, fear and anger within the dying agency. Employees who should have been rewarded fled as from a sinking ship. An absent, oblivious director stood complacently by while her agency, so needed in the community, slipped out of existence.
Long-awaited, longed-for daughter, ten days she fought for life with all her strength. How did she know the sun would glow on autumn leaves, reflect like diamonds off a mountain lake? Would she have preferred the heartbreak of a teenage crush, fights with her brother, the pain of childbirth, the death of loved ones to the fate she was born to? Did she know she was fighting for math tests, peanut butter sandwiches and neighborhood bullies? Did she see snowmen, a prom dress and a look in her suitor’s eye? How did she know to fight so hard when she’d never opened her eyes?
When I was three, my father was in an accident at the warehouse where he worked. Four men in a freight elevator, a ton of coffee in cases, the elevator floor fell out. Two killed, Dad and another survived. A year off work, no workers compensation then. Mom brought children into the house to babysit, to keep food on the table. Our family was forever changed. Other people’s children populated my childhood, broke my toys, stole my mother’s attention. She did the best she could. She was strong and brave. I don’t hate her for it, but my sister does.
After Regina was pinned in the fire, she was no longer able to work, her hand too badly burned. Dallas was put in foster care. We visited and were broken hearted to find her dirty, unruly, dressed in secondhand clothes. We applied and became certified as a foster home so we could care for Dallas until Regina was able to take her. It was another sea change in our family. Now instead of babysitting kids, we had a long series of disturbed, sad and challenging children living in our home. Newborns through adolescents, they brought chaos, strife and occasional joy.
Overheard two men at our favorite breakfast spot this morning. One said, “Looks like you’ve sold your house.” My ears perk up. Buyers exist! Looks good for our open house this afternoon. We’ll return from the Street of Dreams to find our realtor sorting competing bids. We’ll make an offer on that house with a view, be moved by the end of summer. I’m optimistic, ignoring the gloomy newscasts. Our buyer’s profile: a dreamy-eyed young couple, first-time buyers with no house to sell, blown away by the open, hardwood entry, not tuned into the dysfunctional kitchen and no closet space.
Today begins our week at Beach Haven on Orcas Island. For my partner Bill this is his eighth year. His friends have come the same two weeks in July for 20 years. There’s a long waiting list for those who would come. Bill came alone for four years before he met me, dreaming of someone to share the serene beauty of this place with. For three years after we met my job prevented me from coming. This is our first time here together. I crave the time to write, walk and watch the waves from our cabana on the beach.
Returning from island vacation, I resolve to bring lessons to daily life: walk in the morning, spend more time in the garden than at the computer, write outside with the flowers and birds. I can’t emulate the sound of waves washing up the pebble beach, returning with a soft whishhhhh, or bald eagles soaring overhead, diving for fish. Even as I schedule appointments for Monday, I feel the island rhythm in my body. Insomnia was a distant memory when the day held writing in the cabana by the sea, walking beneath ancient firs and sipping coffee in town with friends.
Kelly is a small, wiry red-haired painter. Irish, a talker, motocross racer. Big of heart, full of promises well-intentioned, never delivered. Before your house is half painted you’ll know his life story—his fiancée, new baby, wealthy father and struggling, divorced mother. He’ll show you the scar where his brother sliced his gut and left him to die. Soon he’s greeting you when you come in the door, “hi, honey, how was work?” Before your eyes Kelly unravels. How much was real, how much delusion? The flame was always too hot. All you can do is sweep up the ashes.
Job lost, so sudden and final. One door slams… Frightened, alone, no income for the mortgage, I go to the sea to let the rhythm of the waves scrub the fear from my soul. I look across at the horizon, too distant, uncaring; at my feet, smooth grey pebbles. I search for one with a solid white band—a wishing stone. Found, I turn my back to the sea, press the stone to my lips. When the wish has whispered its name I’ll fling it into the ocean and the waiting universe. The waves break and hiss in their endless rhythm.
The summer of ’62, I was 14 and Regina had moved into our home the previous winter with her illegitimate newborn daughter Dallas. She’d moved to Oregon chasing Dallas’s father hoping he’d marry her. He didn’t. Instead he fell into a large vat, blades churning, making pulp at the Crown Zellerbach mill. Regina’s presence in our family caused my mother to turn angry and my father to be nervous. I prayed for her removal. It came with a late-night phone call: a campfire with friends, car rolling downhill, pinning her in the fire. Forgive me, God. I didn’t mean it.
Francie was a minus-three-pound preemie—never reached five feet. A stunning child with mahogany curls and melted-chocolate eyes, she was a doll bigger girls like to carry in their arms. But her beauty didn’t last and her size didn’t win her places on teams. Left behind, she grew sullen, her laughing liquid eyes became merely dark. A fiercely loyal friend to the few who chose her, she never recovered when they, naturally, moved on. Now she makes lists—every book she’s read, every movie she’s seen, every song she’s heard—proving to the world that she exists.
I packed my Italian wool slacks, knowing there would be a funeral. Chaos reigned at my parents’ house, where we all stayed: Mom, me, my sister, sons, wife, two daughters, Hershey the chocolate lab, cat. All except Dad, who was dying. Mom was off the rails, her checkbook indicating this was not recent: bills unpaid, including Dad’s health insurance, others overpaid. Getting dressed for the funeral, I couldn’t find my slacks. I flashed on the scene, Mom selecting clothes for Dad. I swear I heard him say as the preacher closed the Bible, “I’m outta here. Thanks for the pants.”
When my job ended I had no choice but to move back to Oregon. At fifty-seven, I moved in with Mom. Desperate, grieving for my home and friends in the South, I found temporary work, scratching to regain independence. A snow storm paralyzed the city. No way to get out, I sat at the window as I’d done as a teenager, watching the snow, wanting freedom, yearning for a deep white layer. Eight inches, then a solid coating of ice, we were trapped for a week in an 85-degree house. Gazing at the perfect white world, Mom’s secret emerged: Alzheimer’s.
I communicate with my granddaughter via MySpace. I don’t understand the culture, worry about sexual images, posting her age as 18 when she’s 14, the messages she gets from boys/men. People tell me they all do that, it doesn’t mean anything. Is someone protecting her? Will her mother teach her to protect herself, to know she has more than a body to attract worthy friends? I send her messages, remain neutral, try to win her trust. She responds with short, cryptic answers, but she does respond, and asks how I’m doing. I miss her, wish I were in her life.
In my ESL classes today we talked about stress. They all have stress at work, new managers who won’t talk or listen, only mouth orders. They work too hard, too many hours, have no down time. And are paid a criminally small amount. For some reason we believe these people don’t need as much money as Americans to live. Impatient with foreign accents, Americans demand English Only! Immigrants arrive, get jobs, work long hours—when would they study English? If only every American would sit for an hour of conversation with these hard-working, loving, grateful people maybe they would understand…
Chuck was a boat builder, an artist who designed interiors. He courted me ardently but didn't recognize it as love until about the time I left. He was a paradox, teaching me independence yet jealously keeping me close. He was smart, had a quick, original sense of humor, was supremely self-sufficient—a problem solver who could fix anything, anything except our marriage. When I left I moved 3,000 miles to keep myself from repeating the same mistake. We remained best friends; he occupied the space where another man might have discovered me. When he died I grieved, and grieve still.
I have a bi-polar friend, a supremely gifted poet, violinist, artist. Her illness makes friendship difficult. She disappears for months at a time. I moved away and inadvertently hurt her feelings. She swore she'd never speak to me again. Enough, I said, changed my address and lost her. Eight years later, back in the Northwest, I surprised her at a poetry reading. She hugged my face to her breasts, said she’d searched for me for years. Still, she doesn’t email. I know it’s the disease, she can’t help it. It’s almost enough to read her blog. How I miss her.
After being spoiled in the bidding-wars housing market of the recent past, there is now gridlock in a glutted market. Prospective buyers won’t make an offer because they haven’t sold their houses. Brave soldiers who buy before getting an offer lower their price, offer help towards closing, throw in Grandma’s homemade quilt and hyperventilate while paying two mortgages. Foreclosure looms, nervous banks make loans more difficult for buyers to get. And sellers itch in limbo, trying to keep the house clean enough to show, find amusement while their agent sits in the sparkling house that’s dressed in its Sunday best.
Dad was a man of few words. I can count our meaningful conversations like pearls on a string. One early foggy morning after my divorce, leaving for work, my car wouldn’t start. I called Dad, he came, got behind the wheel and said, “you’re out of gas.” Without another word, he went to the station, came back, filled the tank, and said, “You’re all set.” Sheepish, apologetic, I said, “don’t you just hate it when I’m single?” He looked me in the eye, “Are you happy?” “Yes,” I answered truthfully. “That’s all that matters.” It was a lifetime of words.
Two years of foot pain, podiatrist continually telling me there’s no reason for it not to go away. I’ve tried shoe inserts, night splints, stretching, icing, natural remedies, Motrin, a cast for 3 weeks. It takes away the pleasure of walking, cooking, shopping, strolling through art galleries. How little you appreciate these little things until you walk on nails to do them. At night you lie awake, feet burning and throbbing. People say, “Oh, plantar fasciitis! I had that for a few months. It goes away.” Today I spent $280 on custom arch supports. I haven’t added up the rest.
We went to the Street of Dreams with my son and his girlfriend today. I enjoyed the time with them, something we don't do often enough, but hated the Street of Excessive Consumerism. Walk-in closets you could convert to a spare bedroom. Over three million dollars and you don't even get a private backyard. You can watch your neighbor hit balls on his private putting green, yell greetings down the line from identical covered patios with gas grills and fireplaces. Sour grapes? Maybe, but if I had $3.5 million I'd have a wild lush garden I could get lost in.
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Today I astonished myself by responding to an ad for a personal assistant: organizing photos and papers, posting ads for items to sell, light housework and errands for $9 an hour. This is not what I do, I need more money than that, but the woman sounds interesting. I picture an eccentric old woman in black lace, Victorian house, dusty sepia photos, a friendship/helper role developing, edged with frank, sharp observations and personal criticism. A love/hate relationship that deepens understanding of life and the world in general. She is internationally oriented, speaks several languages. We’ll see if she speaks mine.
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