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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

FICTION: The Gift

Winter seemed reluctant to release its hold. The sidewalk outside of the clinic was peppered with old cigarette butts and the icy ghosts of boot-clad footprints, but in my mind, it was late July of 1985.

It’s funny how the things you think will change your life never really pan out to be that big of a deal. It’s the small stuff - stopping to pet the neighbor’s cat; exchanging a few words with a stranger at the grocery store; deciding to ride your bike instead of driving. The off-handed comments in the narrative of your life are what truly direct the plot.

Those small quirks of circumstance, along with the fact that I can be standing here, waiting for the number 44 bus next to a melting snowman, while in my mind, some younger version of myself sits on a beach in Canada eating hand cut French fries, as gulls circle over head, make me believe in God, or fate. . .or both.

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That summer, my friends and I rented a cottage on the shore of Lake Erie for a week. And under its sagging roof; we blared REO Speedwagon on a cheap boom box; shotgunned cans of Genesee Cream Ale until we barfed on the lawn; and engaged in covert sexual exploits on tiny bunk beds, while images of sad clowns stared disapprovingly from the nicotine-stained walls.

The kids I hung out with came from working class families - mostly second generation Irish, Polish or Italian, and everyone had a nick name - surnames tweaked to form lifelong monikers, with deep roots in neighborhood mythology. Names like, Smitty, Murph, Jonesy, and Dudes.  People used to call me Mills, which is short for Milligan, but that was a long time ago.  Everybody who knows me now, just calls me Colleen.

There was an amusement park a few blocks from our cottage. And when I sift through my memories of that place, it’s not the huge wooden roller coaster, or the loganberry drink, or the spicy cinnamon suckers coated with bits of sand from the evening breeze, that come to the forefront of my mind - it’s the crazy lady crouched on the hot asphalt of the parking lot, collecting forgotten coins, and chanting her word salad mantra. 

“My Asia. . .My Asia. . .My Asia . . .wire-biter, wire-biter . . .eat, eat, eat.” 

When my friends and I walked past her, she stopped chanting and stood abruptly, leaving a few pennies and an unlit Marlboro in her wake. She approached me, pointing and screeching: “You won’t live to see your daughter graduate from high school, but she won‘t get the sickness.” 

Then she reached into one of her filthy pockets, retrieved a piece of pale green beach glass, and placed it in the palm of my hand, gently folding my shaking fingers over its smooth surface. “This is the remembering stone. Carry it with you always.”

“My Asia. . .My Asia. . .My Asia . . .wire-biter, wire-biter . . .eat, eat, eat.” 

Later that day, my friends teased me as we dug our feet into the rough sand and ate French fries from the lakeside concession stand.  “Hey Mills, are you sad that you’re not going to see your imaginary daughter graduate from high school? Her imaginary world is probably going to be lonely without you.” 

"My Asia. . .My Asia. . .My Asia . . .wire-biter, wire-biter . . .eat, eat, eat. Hahahahahahaha!” 

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Three years ago, my husband’s life insurance company did a benefits review, and they required us to get physicals.  During that process, we found out that we are both infected with HIV. I was pregnant at the time, but our daughter was born without the virus. Sometimes, I get so angry about my illness that I forget to be thankful for her presence in my life.

I’ve been carrying that piece of beach glass with me for nearly a decade. I’m not even sure why I saved it in the first place.  But every now and then, when I reach into my change purse for a quarter, and my fingertips brush across the smooth surface of the glass, I think about those long ago friends, and that cottage by the lake, and the woman who gave me the gift of remembering.


This piece of fiction is dedicated to my friend, Michele Delery.  She died in2007, at the age of 43, due to complications related to AIDS.  Michele was a passionate HIV/AIDS activist, who touched many with her bravery and kindness. She left behind two children and a husband.



Image credit: Forgotten Buffalo.com

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How I Became A Hustler

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life.  Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking.  Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice.  And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  They somehow already know what you truly want to become.  Everything else is secondary." - Steve Jobs

I grew up in a working-class, Irish Catholic neighborhood, where everybody's dad was an auto worker, a cop, or a fire-fighter; and everybody's mom either stayed home with the kids, or worked as a nurse or a teacher.  Many of the families I knew also had their own business - usually a bar or a pizzeria. We all went to Catholic School, and Mass on Sunday. We prayed the rosary, and collected alms for "the poor". This petri dish of hard work and sanctimony, coupled with the acquisition of my first Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy backyard carnival kit, cultivated the entrepreneurial, freak-lovin' do-gooder that I am today.

If you weren't a child of the 1970's or 80's, then you probably missed out on the MD Carnival phenomenon, so I'm going to take a moment to fill you in. Every year in early June, MD Carnival *kits* became available through the mail.  I knew my parents would be reluctant to let me host such an event, so I begged my grandma for a stamp, and secretly sent away for a kit. I diligently checked the mailbox every day, and when that envelope emblazoned with Jerry Lewis' face finally arrived, I begged, and pleaded, and promised to perform a full decade of unsolicited vacuuming, until my parents finally said yes to my dreams of philanthropy and back yard circus high jinks.
Photo credit: duquesnehunky.com


On the morning of the Carnival, my best friend, Susie Schillaci and I festooned the yard with streamers; set up various game stations on my lawn; donned some pink leotards; grabbed Susie's two Schnauzers (Heidi and Gretchen); and began canvassing the neighborhood looking for “a midget.” When it was all said and done, about a dozen kids attended our event (including my two sisters). And we earned $9.76 to help fight Muscular Dystrophy, by selling them our tattered Archie comics, and subjecting them to terrifying Palm Readings and Dixie Cup Lawn Bowling.

Photo credit: youtube.com

I was only ten, but the seeds of my future self had already grown crepe paper wings and flown into my psyche to take root. I remember sitting with Susie on the hot pavement of my driveway, carefully counting the sticky coins we had collected from the neighborhood kids, and thinking, “This is what I want to do when I grow up!” 

Since then, I’ve worked for several non-profits, raised money for lots of great causes, and met interesting people by working a wide variety of jobs. When I get disgusted by office politics, or I start to feel constrained by a 9-5 job, I say "fuck this!" Then I throw caution to the wind, and design the next phase of my adult version of a back yard carnival.  

Over the past three years, I have created a Personal Chef Delivery Service; started a small antique business with my partner; opened an online Etsy shop; and sold countless items on Craiglist - including a set of 47 pound wind chimes, to a man who is using them to “communicate with extraterrestrials.” 

My daughter lovingly refers to me as “a hustler,” but I prefer the term entrepreneur. 




Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Secret

We are defined by secrets. They shape us with their jagged fingers, tether us to the past with wisps of memory.

I was a “good girl".  A gold cross glimmered at my throat. They never suspected I was guilty. I never told.




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I'm participating in the Yeah Write Gargleblaster Challenge.  It's 42 words of nonfiction, fiction, or poetry.  Click on the badge below to find out how to join us.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Legacies

Life had once been defined by linears and absolutes.
Rules unspoken.
Legacies forged in bone marrow.

The house where she was raised is
filled with clocks that chime on the quarter hour,
and portraits of Lincoln and JFK
made out of matchsticks.
Piles of memorabilia are tethered to every available surface, like forgotten puppies.

I don't want to think about family legacies,
or the fact that today, her father is
busy dying.

I want to listen to New Country,
and eat Cheetos until my fingers turn orange.
I want to sit quietly in the fading light,
and write poems that don't include the word hospice.

Her father is dying,
so I sift through all of the stories searching for something real and true.
And I say prayers.
But I long for something more transformative - like magic or time travel.

I wait for a sign.

A tiny lizard darts across the patio.
A silver teapot is warming on the stove.
Someone is humming a Bing Crosby song.







Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Stories Are in Our Blood

"Memory is all we are. Moments and feelings, captured in amber, strung on filaments of reason." - Mark Lawrence

As a Buddhist, I strive to "live in the present moment." But truth be told, I am a better storyteller than Buddhist, so most of my present moment strivings are weighed down by the cement boots of my past. Memory is a fickle bitch. I never know where she's going to take me next. I sat down to write today thinking that I would tell the story of my wedding. Not the first one, where I married a divorced man with two kids, on a boat, on a Sunday, and my parents didn't come, because even though I got the man part right, the divorced/Sunday maritime nuptials part wasn't congruent with my strict Catholic up-bringing. I was going to write about my second wedding. The one where I married a woman, on a Monday, at the Courthouse. The one my parents still don't know about.

I have a wife. For some reason, my tongue always trips over that word, and it gets stuck in my throat like too much cheese on an otherwise perfect slice of pizza. Whenever the social contract requires me to state that I am married (i.e. to the student loan people, to the receptionist at my new dentist's office, etc.), the automatic assumption is that I have a husband. And then I become a babbling word volcano of awkwardness. "Ummm, my husband isn't a husband. He's a wife. I mean, we're both females. There is no husband. We are both *wives*." 

As it turns out, the marriage story is more difficult to tell than I had imagined. I keep digging through the memories, unfurling the bits and pieces of this tale in my mind.  It's complicated, because the story isn't just mine. It belongs to Mo too. I keep trying to find the beginning - the place where she and I stopped trying to recreate someone else's dream, and came together to live our own.

Mo tried the traditional marriage path too.  She was pregnant and married at 19. By the age of 21, she was a divorced single mother, who identified as a lesbian.  Her Irish-Catholic parents never acknowledged her sexuality. I am the only *friend* who has been welcomed into their home (and trust me, Mo has had lots of *friends*). She just turned 50, and her wedding hat is still hanging on the post of her parents' bed. It's been there for thirty years - the wide straw brim is cracked with age, its once shiny ribbons coated in dust. Her parents were married for sixty years. The legacy of their love spans continents. It crosses oceans. It transcends time. As a tribute to his grandparents' love, Mo's son got a giant image of a Claddagh ring, and the words: Kevin and Brigette Forever, tattooed across his chest.  Unfortunately, he spelled his grandmother's name wrong. This is in keeping with Mo's family legacy of procuring bad tattoos.  She got one when she was young. It's a tiny heart, and it's on her ass.

I recently read about a study that traces our risk of heart and brain disease back to what our grandmothers ate when they were pregnant with our mothers. I believe memory can be traced the same way. We are all a jumbled crap shoot of the narratives that have been passed down in our families for generations. And these verbal birthrights are more powerful than any cedar chest stuffed with old pictures and needlepoint doilies.

I don't trust photographs. I don't trust objects. My faith lies in stories. I hope that when my daughter tells her version of this tale to her grandchildren, it includes reminders to laugh often, and to follow your heart - even when you're the only one who can feel it beating. And I hope it starts with the words: "Did I ever tell you the story about Great Grandma Mo's tattoo?"


The only photographic documentation of our wedding.

I'm linking up with the talented folks over at Yeah Write this week.  Please consider joining us.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Kneeling

"I can't go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then." - Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Don't blame the sinner
for the slow burn of memory.
Nobody asked you to excavate the past.
You, with your excuses,
and your mouth full of poems.
Your blame longs to curl its stained fingers
around something
that feels like truth.

When will you learn
that we are merely skin,
stretched tight
over a fragile tangle of arteries and veins?
We can bleed,
or we can breathe.
Every moment is a fleeting chance
for awareness.
It is nothing short of a miracle,
that we have learned how to cry over our bruised histories.

What will you worship,
when you finally allow your knees to touch the dirt?
An orange,
with its dimpled flesh, and bitter seeds
has a better chance
of knowing God.

Reality is always fiction.
Language is a trap.
The bones of this story
were whispered to the Black Queen
long before she hurled you into this extraordinary world.
But then she turned those jagged words
over and over in her palm,
until they became a fistful of stones,
smooth and round as plums.


Check out the Speakeasy at Yeah Write for some excellent fiction and poetry.  Click on the badge below, follow the prompts, and submit some of your own work. For some reason, the badge below links to last week's grid (probably because I am a complete moron when it comes to technology). If you want to submit, just go to the Yeah Write site, search for "Speakeasy 148", and get the current prompts.  

Friday, January 31, 2014

"S" is for Stalker

“I think the very word stalking implies that you're not supposed to like it. Otherwise, it would be called 'fluffy harmless observation time'.” - Molly Harper

Remember a few weeks back when I wrote about my resolution to walk more, and how I hate walking, but I forced myself to take a stroll through the neighborhood, and I met a nice old guy named Harold, and my world was transformed, and then everything was all friendship and rainbows? 

You do? Good, because the next time I write about befriending a lonely old man, or hopping into a stranger's vehicle, please email me one of the following photos:






It will be like a secret blog handshake acknowledging that I am a TOTAL DUMBASS! Or if you prefer a more direct approach, just type the words: "Karen, you are a total dumbass" into the comment box.

I'm going to spare you the whole sordid tale, but here are a few salient highlights in list form:
  1. A couple of days after I bonded with Harold in his truck, he followed me home.  Apparently, he figured out what kind of car I drive. During that three minute exchange, he got out of his vehicle; gave me a long and languid visual full body once-over; spent a little extra time checking out my ass (which isn't even very attractive); told me that he'd spent the past two days "waiting" for me; asked for a hug (in a creepy way); left reluctantly when I declined the hug and told him that I had work to do; and then drove past my house very slowly ten minutes later. I live on a dead end street, so there is no reason to come down here unless you live here.
  2. My desk is in front of a window, which has a view of my driveway and the street. In the past three-and-a-half weeks, Harold has driven past my house a minimum of three times per day (that I've noticed). He starts as early as 7:30 am.
  3. He has another car, and he has tried to trick me by using it.
  4. Three days ago, he upped the ante, and decided to make frequent *home visits* in addition to the drive-bys. During home visits, he parks in my driveway, directly behind my car, and knocks on my door loudly and angrily. Then he returns a couple more times throughout the afternoon.
  5. My house is a tiny fishbowl, and I was so freaked out the last time he approached my door dressed in his little mock turtleneck with his aggressive, persistent knock, and his leering and peering, that I kinda freaked out. That incident ended with me crouched in my kitchen, clutching a Doc Marten boot in one hand, and my phone in the other, screaming "Go away! Go away, now! Get away from my house!"  
  6. He does not appear to have dementia.
  7. I'm pretty sure I have the upper-hand on him physically. Seriously -  he is a semi-feeble octogenarian, who looks as if he has swallowed a volleyball (or a litter of kittens, or a small child), and I am a PUGILIST for Christ's sake!! But I'm actually kinda scared of the guy.
  8. The police are aware of the situation, and Harold has been told that he can't step foot on my property any more. However, when Mo told him that we would call the police if we saw him drive by our house again, he said: "The street is public property."
In short, I have learned some valuable lessons from this unfortunate turn of events. Chiefly, there is no age limit for stalkers. It's much like the Peace Corps in that regard.