(from a Katrina writing prompt, The Frost)
The frost is here, and I want to park in my garage. I have rarely, if ever parked in my garage. Let’s take a look at why.
When my then-husband and I bought the house in 1988, my father broke a sliding screen, and his father immediately broke the lock on the garage door. I’m not exactly sure how. He manhandled something. After that the bolt never worked right. Rather than throwing ourselves against the stubborn thing, or paying someone to repair it, we mostly kept it bolted. The door is an old one, made of wood, and very heavy.
I could have parked in the garage, but I was a young mother with young children. Imagine a young mother pulling up to that garage in her minivan. I wasn’t going to get out of my car, walk around to the back of the freestanding garage, make my way through it, use an enormous amount of strength to unbolt the door, then get back in, drive in, pull the door down, bolt it, get the kids out of their car seats and shepherd them through the garage and up some steps and over to the front door.
I didn’t use the garage.
This meant my car windows were often frosty on wintry mornings. But the nice thing about being a stay-at-home mother whose kids ride the school bus was that the sun took care of it for me. Frost melted away before I ever started up my minivan.
My ex did sometimes park in the garage, but once he moved out, that didn’t mean it was empty. It was stuffed full of his possessions for a good seven years after he left. Once I sold all of his remaining items at a garage sale, my sister sensed an opportunity. I wouldn’t call her a hoarder, but given a chance, she would completely fill up other people’s storage; my garage, her friend’s basement, wherever she lived, and of course, she also had two storage spaces. My sister had quite a longstanding love affair with my garage. I was always trying to get her stuff out of there.
So I could, you know, park my car in there.
During the ten or so years she monopolized the garage, I became an expert at scraping my windshield. I was working an office job, so I would go out and scrape, scrape, scrape my windows, and run the defroster, and curse my life and grumble about my sister at 6am on a cold Oregon morning.
I had good scrapers and bad scrapers. The best was a thin blue tool about the size of my palm and not much thicker than a business card. It was a freebie from my health insurance company during a benefits fair at the office. I almost didn’t take it because it looked flimsy. But during the three years I used it, it peeled off the frost with a scalpel’s precision and a blowtorch’s efficacy. Then it snapped in half.
After some rather dire threats, my sister finally removed her belongings from my garage. This was a difficult time in our relationship, but she rode the bus out and got to work, and she hauled and donated and finally, my garage was empty enough to park in. If I’d wanted to bother with that heavy, malfunctioning garage door, I could have started each day with clear car windows and saved myself all that bother. But I didn’t, so I still parked outside.
A helpful gift
While I was dating [Redacted], he found it upsetting that I didn’t park in my garage. I’d go so far as to say it was an affront to him. But once he’d lifted that heavy door a few times, he understood why I didn’t want to. So for my birthday, he helped me clear out my garage and then bought and installed a garage door opener for me.
This was truly a halcyon time in that relationship. Together, we enjoyed cleaning out that garage, getting rid of an old wooden bed frame I’ve written about (but not posted), clearing shelves of the many many things left by the man who built the house in 1984 ([redacted] took a lot of that, to squirrel away in his own stuffed-full garage), and rooting out the last of my sister’s belongings, because they haunted the corners.
The opener was a real gift. It made parking in the garage so easy. I loved it. I enjoyed frost-free car windows for five years. Five years of not having to scrape a windshield. It was heaven, I tell you. And then, my guy moved in. We began to commute together. In his car. Which was parked in the driveway. Where the windows frosted in the winter.
You see where this is going.
I spoke the words of self-sacrifice. “You should park in the garage. That way, your windows won’t be frosty.” That was mutually beneficial until 2020. We both worked from home that year. But in 2021, he began working somewhere else and I had to commute in my own car again. Which was parked in the driveway. With frosty windows, in the wintertime. But I still worked from home half the time the time. He had to go to the office every morning, so it only seemed fair to spare him the scraping.
Why didn’t we both park in the garage? Well, one daughter put a big ass desk in there. She just dumped it in my garage one day, and she left it. It was there for one year. And then it was there for two years. “Honey, will you get that desk out of there?” “Sure. But I don’t have anywhere to put it.” “Well can you come get it?” “No, you should sell it.” We finally hauled it to the curb and gave it away. This cleared a lot of space, but not quite enough. With a little compression, donation, and rearrangement, we were almost there.
I could practically taste those frost-free windows.
It was going to happen!
Three weeks later, my youngest daughter and her son moved in with us. Guess where her stuff landed? Yes. That’s right. In the garage, where my car would be parked.
I work in the office three days a week. Most of the time, I’m fine parking in the driveway. But on mornings when it’s dark and cold, I approach my car with trepidation. Will there be frost? I replaced my nimble blue ice scraper with an orange behemoth of a tool that looks like I could use it to strip paint off a submarine. It is almost useless on a curved surface.
Another winter of frosty windows. But it’s so fun to have my daughter and grandson here that I really don’t mind at all.
I’ve not seen The Whale, but here’s my review.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is on streaming, now. It is supposedly a moving look at one man’s extreme obesity, caused by self-loathing over the abandonment of his family for a male lover. He’s killing himself with food out of grief and guilt. Sounds like a real feel-good flick.
Since I’m fat, I should probably watch it, but I was angry at this movie before I ever read a review for it. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus was pun-heavy: “Held together by a killer Brendan Fraser, The Whale sings a song of empathy that will leave most viewers blubbering.” Really?
Based on my sole experience with his work (Mother!) I assumed Aronofsky would handle this plot with a deft mixture of bombast, grotesquerie, and mental decay. My psyche still hasn’t recovered from Mother!, but the story here was not about how much psychological torture the director could inflict on his lead female character. No, the big story here was Brendan Fraser’s comeback.
Brendan Fraser had a decent Hollywood career, but gained a lot of weight after being groped by a producer type at a Hollywood party. I read his account of this assault. It was invasive and traumatic. It’s also familiar. I could rattle off a string of events like this in my own life, both verbal and physical. So could any other woman reading this.
Trauma and Fat
It may or may not be true, but it’s a common observation that traumatized women hurt themselves, and traumatized men hurt others. Fraser hurt himself. I wish he’d sued the guy instead, like Taylor Swift when that old DJ went under her dress to fondle her butt. She filed suit, testified, and publicly refused to take any blame whatsoever for his ruin, insisting that everything that happened to him was his own fault for taking it upon himself to grope her.
Fraser hasn’t even named the man who assaulted him. Instead, he withdrew and got fat, but apparently not fat enough. Aronofsky outfitted him with a prosthetic suit to approximate weighing 600 pounds. The weight was set by the source material, a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay. Still, I wonder if this amount of obesity was really necessary. It doesn’t take 450 pounds of extra weight to crush a person’s self esteem.
The Celebrity Penalty
Sometimes it only takes ten pounds to convince a person that she must starve her body into submission. Just ask Britney Spears, who was publicly humiliated for showing off a five pound weight gain after her second child. I mean, how dare she. A modest weight gain is enough to sabotage self-esteem, and it’s also enough to end a career.
That’s a movie right there. A restrained but interesting story to tell about how a gentle softening of your chiseled edges can ruin your name in Hollywood.
However, Aronofsky is not known for cinematic restraint. Of course he was more drawn to a story that involved a quarter ton of fat caused by binge eating. And that’s another problem. Binge eating is far from the only cause of obesity, but of course it is the most cinematic. It ties in well with a general perception of fat people as moribund monsters, their stomachs distended by joyless stuffing.
I take this way too personally. I have never been a binge eater—I don’t see the allure—and resent this being assumed as a “why” for my weight. Will people see this movie and think I sit at home with the often cited “whole pizzas and gallons of ice cream”? Because I don’t. I haven’t. I physically couldn’t.
I also worried The Whale would kick off a wave of “fat people suffering” cinema. Would these movies resemble the “Black people suffering” movies made by White people for other White people? Well-meaning White people who always identify with the one decent White character, so they can walk out of the theater feeling reassured that they are not the problem? Would there be movies about thin saviors? Magical fatties who have no lives of their own but just exist to solve thin people problems?
How far would this thing go? Would there be marches and demonstrations? Would there be obesity reparations? Could I punch anyone who offered them to me?
As I have said before, this new appreciation for the fact that fat people are human beings is annoying to me. I don’t want a bunch of thin people offering me their heartfelt sympathy for how terrible my life has been. I will punch anyone who tells me I’m brave for lumbering along under the crushing weight of my despair (and my fat). Jesus Christ, it’s not ideal to be fat but I’ve certainly managed to have a decent life.
But now there’s a cure…
I shouldn’t have worried, because since that movie came out, Ozempic and Wegovy and all the other injectable semaglutides hit the public consciousness. These new drugs will apparently cure fat forever. Whew! No need for a wave of Fat Cinema.
I had kind of a moment about Wegovy with an online book group. No one else in the group is fat, I am the only fatty there. And someone started tsking and tutting about how famous people are all taking these injections to get thin, so vain, so shallow.
I pointed out that we live in a culture that turns a microscope on famous people and penalizes them for every physical flaw, every line, every pound. And we also denounce them for anything they do to remedy those physical flaws. We can’t have it both ways, can we? We can’t condemn them for being human and then condemn them for trying not to be.
Then I spoke up about my own experience; how years ago I had talked with my gastroenterologist about what to do about my weight, how calorie cutting doesn’t work for me because I don’t eat all that much so I have to eat under a thousand calories to budge the scale and I can’t sustain that. I have a messed-up heart for which I take a possibly lethal prescription drug twice a day, so heavy exercise is not an option. My older brother died from complications from weight-loss surgery, his organs failing one by one, so I have zero interest in that.
I asked my doctor, what should I do?
And he said, “Karen, don’t worry about it. There’s something coming, a shot or a pill, and it’s going to change everything about weight loss.” He told me to wait for it. He retired before it hit the market, but once it did, I went right to my PCP and requested a prescription. She wrote one, but insurance wouldn’t cover it and that stuff was wildly expensive, so I didn’t pick it up.
Well, now these drugs have been approved for weight loss, so insurance will cover them. Did you all know that Weight Watchers immediately bought a medical company that can prescribe these drugs? They are changing their model from portion and calorie control to injectables. WEIGHT WATCHERS. But of course, the drugs carry side effects for some people, mostly nausea. And now I’m reading that these drugs can paralyze your stomach. So you’re nauseous all the time, and then you can’t actually digest food anymore, so I suppose you get really thin.
On second thought, I probably shouldn’t watch The Whale.
Kiss a Squash Day
I’ve enjoyed finding Creepy Valentines and sharing them with you, because who doesn’t want a murderous or suicidal Valentine greeting, am I right? So recently, I came across a feature on antique Halloween postcards from the “Golden Age of Postcards.” I think this is the same era as the Christmas cards that feature dead bugs and homely suffragettes. Anyway, among the witches, I was surprised to see so many postcards featuring amorous pumpkins. I guess even way back when in the days of yore (just like now), nothing says loving like a squash (though wasn’t an eggplant in the olden days). So, here we go. Also, all these cards are in the public domain, so right click to your heart’s content.
Please note the handwritten note: “I send you a kiss-” And what a kiss it is. Two hirsute and swarthy orange globes, all puckered up. I can’t tell if this is a gendered osculation, but one squash has some mighty impressive sideburns. I mean, how romantic! Wouldn’t you be all a-flutter if you received this postcard? Romance galore! However, the cat doesn’t seem to agree. The cat actually looks a little freaked out. Shouldn’t we all be a little freaked out?
Jane Austen Pumpkins
A more genteel take on the kissing pumpkins. Here, the pumpkins are a bit less androgynous, what with the breeches and skirts and whatnot. And look, he presented her with a posy of carrots, so that’s romantic, yes? I mean, a little on the phallic side, but at least they’re not eggplants. Also, the apparently male pumpkin is green, which is a nice variation. I like how their little stems perch on their heads like tiny hats. But again, the cat is really freaked out. Perhaps the black cats are a kind of Greek chorus, providing the audience reaction when seeing pumpkins kiss?
Yee Haw Pumpkins
Okay, I’m a little more comfortable here because despite the clothes, these are actual Jack-o-Lanterns. I have to say, I like the carved pumpkins better than the smooching anthropomorphized pumpkins. These country pumpkins have a down home lovin’ kind of air about them, like scarecrows come to life. Even though the kiss isn’t shown, Jackie is pointing to the place where she wants Jack to plant a big ol’ pumpkin smackeroo. The cat appears a little wistful, instead of aghast. And it seems the moon approves…
Foot Fetish Pumpkins
Okay, now, hold up. What in the Sam Hain is going on here? There’s a pretty girl sitting on a huge Moon squash, and a serpentine parade of pumpkin creatures with zucchini limbs and vacant eyes coming to…do what exactly? Take turns looking at her foot? Or are they going to bow? Pay Halloween homage of some sort? Or is it something more interesting than that? What are the pumpkin zombies up to? “Strange things will happen” for sure! If only there were a black cat to provide reaction and commentary on the action.
When Pumpkin Love Gets Weird
Okay, speaking of strange things…
“On Halloween your slightest wish
is likely to come true,
so be careful, or the gobelins
will spoil your wish for you.”
I’d like to know who is wishing for what, here. It seems like the pumpkin person is the most likely to be making the wish, what with the googly eyes and goofy smile. But there’s a chance it’s this Diana Moon Goddess person whose wish is the subject. Is she supposed to be a witch? She has moons on her shoes. Perhaps she’s hoping to animate the pumpkin man (though he looks quite animated to me) (all he needs is an eggplant at this point). The “Gobelins” give me no clue. I would hope they’d interrupt this pairing, but they look delighted by the budding romance between Moon Goddess and Squash Man. The little weirdos. What’s going on? Again, without a black cat to react, I am lost.
And…A Cute One
Okay, even though this witch is making advances on a member of the vegetable kingdom, this still strikes me as relatively tame compared to the other cards. This Jack O’Lantern isn’t aggressively amorous. It’s just a nice Jack O’Lantern that seems completely amenable to being kissed. It probably helps that this pumpkin doesn’t have a body. Or sideburns. And the witch is pretty. There’s nothing overtly aggressive about her little closed-mouth peck, which almost seems innocent. Overall, there’s no foot worship, no weird leering going on. And we don’t have a black cat, but we do have an intense little bat speeding over like a traffic cop to break this up. Come on, little bat. This looks harmless.
Happy Halloween, and may all your pumpkins be normal.
Failing the Brakes
It was Bozeman, Montana, in 1975. I was driving my boyfriend’s Plymouth Duster, bright yellow with a sexy black racing stripe that followed the curve of its bodylines. He’d taught me to drive in that car, and I loved it. Not bad for a girl who had just finished ninth grade.
I stayed with my older brother at the time. My parents had moved to Missoula, leaving me behind with Brother Steve. I had no idea what the future held, but when does that matter to a ninth grader? The sun shone, my stoned friends laughed, and David Bowie sang from the 8track. I was living my best life.
I’ve never understood what happened next. Suddenly the car fishtailed, brakes screaming, tires smoking until my foot remembered how the brakes worked. The only evidence was a trail of four S-shaped black skids on the west end of Bozeman’s Main Street.
Driving ever-so-slowly, I crept down Main to the gas station where my boyfriend worked, and parked the Duster. My friends left the car, swearing it wasn’t my fault, it couldn’t have been my fault, no way was that my fault. I was shaking all over as I solemnly returned the Duster’s ignition key to my boyfriend, the key he’d presented with more flourish than the ring I wore to signify our togetherness.
I didn’t drive again for months. It was time to pump the brakes.
Learning the Brakes
I’ve taught three daughters how to drive. Each had her own set of challenges behind the wheel. One was too anxious, so she rode the brakes. Another wanted to be told what to do long past the point when she should have been making her own driving decisions. She ignored the brakes until I told her to apply them.
The other daughter was emotional behind the wheel, speeding up and weaving through lanes when she was happy, jerking the steering wheel and jamming her foot on the brake pedal when frustrated.
After a particularly dangerous display, I yelled at her to pull over. I delivered my judgment in a cold, harsh voice. “You are not allowed to have emotions behind the wheel. It’s dangerous.”
“What am I supposed to do with them?” she cried.
“Whatever you have to,” I said. “Just don’t drive with them.”
We paused driving lessons for a week. It was time to pump the brakes.
Pumping the Brakes
There was a heat wave in my city that week, and everything was overloaded, including me. I was out with friends after a writing class, in an actual bistro, in person. All this felt new, precious, as had all social events since the spring of 2020. After recent bout with Covid-19, I was recovered, out and about again, basking in my temporary immunities.
We ordered fancy cocktails and delicious small plates. My expensive cocktail was absolutely delicious, but it hit me hard and I felt a little embarrassed. I drink so little that my tolerance is always low. Covid had only made it worse. Was I going to talk too much?
Our food hadn’t yet arrived when the server came by and asked if we were ready for another round. My friend raised her hands, palms out, and gently gestured. “I think I’d better pump the brakes.”
It wasn’t just me who found the cocktail potent. This pleased me, reassured me. I was even more pleased with her gentle miming of the metaphor.
Not long after, the power went out on the entire block. We sat in the darkened bistro, suspended in waiting, but our food arrived. We ate and talked, soaking up the drinks and each other’s company. No more cocktails came to our table. Thankfully we all had enough cash to settle our bills, since the registers were down. Two of us had to drive home.
We were relieved to pump the brakes.
Servers at the Talkative Table
Back in the 1980s, my family had many intense conversations in restaurants. We were younger and more alive in both a metaphorical and literal sense. We were tall, smart people with the resonant voices of singers. If you put some or all of us around a table with cups of coffee, those voices rose up to discuss politics or history or music or real estate, loudly and at length.
At times, our conversations were spirited enough to invite participation from the wait staff. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” a server might say. “Excuse me, I heard you talking about…” a server would shyly offer. Of course, we listened politely, but I didn’t really care how the waiter voted, or what neighborhood the waitress grew up in. Backpacking in Italy was probably an adventure, but excuse me. I was talking to my mom.
Once, way back in the eighties at a Mexican restaurant, a young server stood at our table and recited a poem he’d written. It was a lengthy, worshipful ode to Oliver North. He may have been an actor, but he clearly did not know his audience. We never returned to that restaurant. Now it is long gone. Decades later, most of the places we used to go are gone.
The family has also suffered some attrition. Our most recent all-family restaurant gathering was after my father’s memorial service, when we filled a long table at his favorite restaurant–Bannings–for one last meal on Dad.
My Dad and Bannings
Bannings is one of those places we all hope to find in our neighborhoods–a family diner with good food and comfortable booths and the most attentive servers on Earth. All the servers at Bannings knew Dad. They vied to have him in their sections. They made him welcome, brought him sides of sausage gravy at no charge, and kept his coffee hot. He always tipped well.
At this post-service-last meal, with all the family and some friends ranged around a long table, meal, many of the servers came by to say they were sorry. They hadn’t seen him because Dad was housebound for months before he died, but they certainly remembered him. “I’d wondered when we didn’t see you.” “We’ll sure miss him.”
You forget, or at least I did, that his decline was pretty obvious from the outside. He changed rapidly from a relatively hale man who took smoking breaks after a meal, to a frail man wearing an oxygen tank. Of course they noticed when he stopped coming.
After that last meal, I couldn’t go to Bannings without Dad. It was just too sad to sit there and think about all the years we’d met there for breakfast, all our conversations about everything in the world. Dad knew so much about the mechanics of the world, and how our government actually worked. We met there nearly every week for fifteen years.
So I left Bannings alone. A year and two months after Dad died, Covid hit and everything shut down. It was 2021 before I started going there again. One August day, I was having lunch with my friend Sarah and realized it was my dad’s birthday. Our server, who I remembered, didn’t remember Dad when I asked her. It had been almost two years, after all. But she asked me what his favorite dessert and brought me a piece of strawberry shortcake as a gift.
This was so human of her. So kind. And yes, I cried.
Servers in Context
My husband and I were at a company Christmas party on the Portland Spirit years ago, and a young woman who looked so familiar came up to me on the dance floor and said, “Karen!” and hugged me. I knew her but I couldn’t place her, so I bluffed my way through the encounter, smiling and laughing and wondering where the hell I knew her from.
As I walked back to our table, it hit me. She was a server at Bannings. She was a doll. And I knew she was going to school, and she was bright and kind and funny, but I absolutely couldn’t place her out of context.
This made me feel like a real jerk.
In my home city, almost no one who waits tables does it for love. They do it while preparing for something better; a new job, an upcoming move, a leading role, or a paying gig. The people who wait on me are human beings with opinions and passions. I know that. I grant them privacy for that part of their lives. I think this is more dignified.
If you are a server or a waiter and you’re reading this, I probably owe you an apology for the fact that your dreams don’t concern me. I know you’re a real person who has tied on the apron. I appreciate you. But I only want your attention when I want it.
Swoop in with more coffee, more water. Bring me extra napkins. Don’t make me wait forever for my check, but reassure me there’s “no hurry” when you lay it on the table. I know some days it takes everything to show up, put on your apron, and tend to your tables. I admire the seemingly effortless ballet of your service, a dance that is actually a great deal of work. I like that you perform it with the invisible grace of a professional.
For what it’s worth, I always tip well, too.
Making a Living
(This post is from a Katrina prompt, the ladder).
When I was fifteen and my boyfriend was eighteen, we moved to Yakima, Washington, part of America’s Fruit Basket, where picking fruit is an almost year-round affair. This fertile stretch of Washington valleys produces much of the country’s apples, pears, and stone fruit. Back then, most of this fruit was harvested by migrant workers who followed the harvests. They made enough to live on. Certainly we could do the same.
He had enrolled in an auto mechanic certification program at Yakima Valley College, and I went to high school. That next June, I’d finished tenth grade and his two-year program had let out for the summer. We lived on very small monthly draws from a trust fund his wealthy grandparents had set up for him at birth and whatever else we could patch together; babysitting for me, pumping gas for him. We were young, alone, and very poor.
So we thought it was time to make some real money by picking fruit.
Reporting for Duty
I’m not sure how you signed up or were dispatched for fruit picking, but the boyfriend handled that part of it and we showed up at a farm at 6 AM, ready to pick cherries. We were met by the orchard owners, an older married couple. They were White, and so were we (well, the bf was actually mixed race, but that’s another blog post).
Everyone else was from somewhere south of the US border. The youngest pickers were maybe five years old. Everyone got buckets that hung by straps around our necks and rested against our stomachs. “Don’t fall on those,” we were warned. “You’ll break your back.” Okay, then. We each took a wooden orchard ladder and went to work.
Orchard ladders are wide at the bottom, narrowing at the top, and have one leg. They are also known as tripod ladders or apple ladders. I looked them up on the internet to find the correct terminology, and discovered they are all made of aluminum now. I found a weathered wood version for sale on 1st Dibs for over two thousand dollars. Those orchard owners could have really cleaned up, because their wooden ladders felt antique fifty years ago.
I’m really not much for ladders in general. We decided that I would pick from the ground and the boyfriend would handle the ladder work. He was a young creature of muscle and bone, and clambered up with no problem. When his rickety ladder swayed out from under him, he simply grabbed a tree limb and hung there until I could reposition that wobbly back ladder leg, poking into the soft earth below the tree.
Learning the Ropes
Picking fruit requires skill and stamina, and I basically had neither. We were a source of amusement to our fellow pickers, and they were a source of valuable help to us. After watching me trying and failing to do anything right, a kindly man showed me exactly how to snap the cherries off in bunches.
Later, a kindly woman came over and told me to make sure I was picking in in the shade. Sun made the stems pliant. They snapped better when they were cooler. The children just laughed at us, but I suppose even that was kindly. In its way.
You were supposed to let anything without a stem fall. If you put too many stemless cherries in your bucket, the grower could reject it. I picked thoroughly but slowly, because I didn’t want my bucket to be rejected. I really don’t handle rejection of any kind very well at all.
The boyfriend continued to maneuver the trees like he was born to it, but he didn’t pick much more than I did. Well, he might have, but in my memory, he didn’t. When the lunch break came, I checked my tally. I’d picked half as many buckets as the five year-olds.
Taking a Break, and Making a Break For It.
The bf went to our car to get our lunch, and I asked the wife where the bathroom was. She expressed great embarrassment that I would have to use the worker facilities. I reassured her that was fine. I was a worker, right? But I understood her embarrassment when I saw those facilities. It was all concrete and filth. Asking an animal to use that bathroom would have been an insult to the animal.
I was most insulted by a hand-lettered cardboard sign advising me to “BE CLENE.”
We picked for a week (maybe less) and made very little money compared to our fellow workers. They earned the big bucks, as well as my deep respect for their skill and stamina. Toward the end of that week, I got a letter (we never had a phone in Yakima) from my parents asking if we’d come to Missoula and help them with their business of making and selling miniature furniture. They were way behind with their orders.
The boyfriend could run a saw and I could sew. We could both pack boxes. Best of all, there were no ladders. So, we packed up the cats, drove through passes, and came to Missoula, where we stayed for an entire month (and I learned to ride a bike). I might have been hopeless at picking cherries, but I could stuff a tiny sofa like a pro. And there were absolutely no ladders.
Back to work
(from a Katrina prompt, The Path)
When I was 37, I started working at a business-to-business telemarketing office that has long since gone out of business. Because of that, and because I name no names, I feel I can write honestly about what went on there. Also, the owner got married, closed the business, and moved to a sunny retirement state twenty years ago. I’m out of her reach and she’s out of mine. Mostly.
Anyway, the office was located off Barbur Boulevard/Highway 99 on a sliver of land between 99 and I5 South, overlooking South Terwilliger. This is a hilly area. The building had a tall front entrance, but I would always walk around the building and scramble up a gravel path to the back entrance.
It’s hard to remember why I chose this route. I have a dim memory that this shortcut knocked off a set of stairs. I’m lazy about stairs and always have been, so this is possible. But it’s just as likely that I did this to avoid the smokers who congregated out front.
There was a man and two women who stood out there discussing “politics” and aggressively flirting with each other in ways that were downright graphic. The man liked to share details of his sex life, which was bad enough, but the women (one of them an ex-con, the other an ex-logger) both had unfortunate teeth and eating disorders. They were always angling to get their skinny limbs next to each other for size comparison.
You can see why I might bypass.
My preference for the back entrance prefigured my initial attitude towards working at this office. I quietly did my own thing, so it took some time for me to realize that the owner of this company yelled at her employees, especially one woman with a pronounced lisp. The owner would summon this employee into her office, close the door, and let that person have it over, I don’t know, like seven second pauses between calls, or too-frequent bathroom breaks, or two-minute conversations on company time. Once her bile was expelled, the door would open and disgorge a bile-covered, shuffling, often sniffling employee, who was then expected to go back to a desk and produce, produce, produce.
For some reason, she never yelled at me.
In addition to running her telemarketing business and berating her employees, the owner also offered business consulting services. I sat in on a few of her presentations to small business owners about how to improve their sales. Her answer was always the same: they needed to hire a business-to-business telemarketing agency. She just happened to own one of those.
Once she got the contract, skilled marketers like me (a single mother with a high school diploma who had not worked in an office since she was twenty) would deliver results. Leads. Sales. Signups. You name it, we’d give it the best effort that $8.00 an hour could buy.
It was grift at its finest.
Why I stayed
First on the list was ease. The office itself was close to my home. The hours aligned with my kids’ school schedules. I was paid more than I earned at the mall. I wasn’t on my feet all day.
Second on the list was that I learned how to use a computer here. I had no idea how to do that when I started, none. I started on an old DOS based program. Within months, I almost Windows-literate. I was also learning the intricacies of business-to-business telemarketing—meeting with clients, writing scripts, assigning campaigns, analyzing data and then writing reports that blame the databases for the abject failure of all campaigns to achieve promised results—that stuff. For this, I received trifling raises and unofficial promotions.
Third, and perhaps most important to me, there were good people in this office. We had fun. Sometimes, when the boss was out on a sales call, we frisked and gamboled like giddy lambs, throwing Kush balls at each other and comparing Solitaire scores. Once, I wrote the office manager a check for a million dollars so he would mow my overgrown lawn (he mowed the lawn but never cashed it). One of our seasonal employees was incredibly intelligent (she’s one of two people I know who have been on Jeopardy). I became friends with another woman, enough to have her to my home off and on for a year. You can find her in the Gentry books (hint: she’s an English major).
So I stayed.
I’d been there just over a year when the owner called me into her office, sat me down, and offered me an exciting opportunity. She wanted me to join her in the consulting part of her endeavor. I’d be out there at her side, doing consultations and drumming up business. According to her, I’d be a natural.
In the six weeks between when I left this office and when I started school, I wrote the screenplay that became my first novel, which quickly led to my second, and so on. At the end of the first book, Gentry has failed everyone and God, and he hates himself for it. He would need to be punishing himself in the second book.
I had an idea what that punishment might look like.
I remember jotting down a page of notes about the second book, back when I was still trying to hide the fact that I was writing from everyone. Most new writers do this. You don’t want anyone to know about your new secret addiction, so you hide it and lie about it because what if someone found out that you were writing???
Anyway, as I made notes, I was cackling. It was fun to imagine how terrible an office would be for Gentry. An assault and an affront and a perfect way to punish himself for his self-perceived transgressions in Oregon.
His purgatorial workplace held a sad woman who lisped, a creepy guy who said gross things, and Fanny, of course. Gentry was a beleaguered IT guy who committed small acts of secret rebellion. My characters were constantly berated by the owner of the company, who summoned them one after another for a good cleansing yelling session about how useless they were. My favorite bit was when Gentry summarized the PTO/health insurance benefits offered by his employer.
How can I explain my benefit package to Mike? It’s a complicated arrangement of smoke and mirrors, designed to give the illusion of benefits. I have health leave as long as I never get sick. I lose all accrued personal time off if I ever take any. I’m paid by the hour if I work less than forty hours a week, switching immediately to salary the moment I put in an hour over that. “Mike, I’m told that I have benefits, but I have no retirement, no life insurance, no dental, no vision, and my health insurance covers no prescriptions, no physicals and no illnesses.”
This was absolutely accurate.
Were there parallels? Clearly, yes. But my fictional office was in Oklahoma, not Oregon. I assumed I was safe, even though much of what I used would be familiar to anyone who had worked there. I couldn’t help myself. And this book has been my favorite of all the Gentry books, right up until I finished the fifth one.
I wrote a lot of first drafts while finishing my degree at Portland State. I mistook them for finished novels, but thankfully I graduated with honors and went to work in a different type of business. One that creates products, as opposed to grift. My company offers employee benefits, as opposed to that stuff I described earlier. I’ve worked there for over twenty years.
My office is downtown. When I take the freeway home, I pass the old building where I learned about B2B telemarketing. It’s right there, and perpetually hung with “FOR LEASE” banners. How could I miss it?
But sometimes, I drive right past without a glance. I’m thinking about my day, or singing too loudly, and I don’t even see it. Other times, I look over toward that back entrance and I swear, I can see myself as I was back then. A much younger me, dressed in the office attire of the day. A pastel striped top. A pale pink skirt. White pumps with one-inch heels, and pantyhose, by god, I used to wear pantyhose. I look like Easter Sunday, 1998.
But those one-inch heels dig into the gravel as I scramble up that path, on my way to wherever it is I’m going.
Another Roadside Attraction, and another, and another…
South Dakota is full of roadside attractions, advertised with tempting billboards that tout the wonders of the Prairie Dog Town, Wall Drug, The Dinosaur Park…it goes on. As children, the three of us were whisked past one after another, with a parent issuing the dismissive, “It’s a tourist trap,” whenever one of us begged to stop.
This did not stop us from begging.
Both my mother and my birth father were born in South Dakota in the 1930s. No doubt they were repeating the highway mantras of their own childhoods. I doubt it would ever have occurred to my grandparents to stop at some dusty place on the prairie. The Depression and wartime budgets of the Odlands and the Zwebers didn’t include spending good money to see tunnels full of crop-eating pests. They had neither time nor cash to waste in an old storefront full of cheaply made souvenirs that would fall apart on the way home.
Still, from the backseat of whatever large American car we were riding in, these places looked like meccas of wonder to my sister, my brother and me. Wall Drug, with its endless roadside couplet signs offering free ice water and nickel coffee, especially beckoned. But the parents would roar past, shaking their heads. No time, no patience, no way.
When things change…
Divorce is a strange thing. It might be a source of lifelong trauma in the long run, but in the short run, it can be an enormous liberation. When my mother left an unhappy marriage after nine years, she entered a personal renaissance. She stood prouder, got a little slimmer, raised her hair to beehive heights, and traded in her glasses for something more fashionable. She moved us from Claremont (population 50) to Aberdeen (population 20,000). This was a considerable change. She re-enrolled at Northern and finished her degree. And she decided to take us on a vacation.
She had the best idea.
Mom would rent a trailer large enough to accommodate her, our babysitter Maryanne, and us three kids. We would tow the trailer behind our current car, a tank of a ’57 Buick (sky blue, white top, and chrome trim).
We would stay in a different KOA campground each night, and we would would stop at every single roadside attraction, except one. By group vote, we skipped the Bible park–as good little Christian Scientists, that would have been an overload of graven images, which were verboten to us. Aside from that, we would leave no billboard ignored on our quest to visit every tourist trap in the Dakotas. And each one of us received five dollars spending money.
In 1968, that was a LOT of money.
My impressions of most places are fleeting. The Reptile Gardens? That place smelled terrible. We walked on wooden paths through a swampy enclosure. I found most of the animals repellant and yet…interesting. Snakes and gators have never been my thing, but there were plenty of them. The Prairie Dog Town? With my love of small furred critters, you’d have thought this would have made an impression, but I have none. I don’t even remember seeing the gigantic cement prairie dog that still stands there today.
The biggest let down was the Petrified Forest. In my eight year-old mind, I expected, you know, a forest. We didn’t have those in the part of South Dakota where I lived, so I leaned on children’s literature. I was expecting something like the talking trees in The Wizard of Oz, but turned to stone, with stone branches and stone leaves. I didn’t expect them to talk, but I did expect the to be standing. But the “forest” was nothing more than a large expanse of dirt and gravel, upon which were scattered fragments and chunks of petrified wood.
But some attractions were GREAT!
The dinosaur park in Rapid City was fun and free. We have a few photos of us kids there, and we’re smiling. The dinosaurs were smooth and green, like the Sinclair dinosaur, so of course we assumed they were scientifically accurate. I have pictures of us somewhere and might add them, but not today.
In 1968, there was a gravel parking lot, a gift shop with a panoramic view of the memorial, and that was about it. That was plenty for me. I looked out the window for a while, recognizing and admiring three of the four presidents. Then I found a little naked souvenir doll more suited to Hawaii than South Dakota, and took her right up to the cash register.
The big finale!
On the way home, we finally stopped at Wall Drug. Back then, it was just a short stretch of Old West-appearing storefronts. To get your free ice water, you went behind the store to a little pump and helped yourself. I’m not sure where the nickel coffee was dispensed, but it was somewhere. You could smell it. I don’t recall any actual drugstore merchandise, as in home remedies or a pharmacist’s counter, but apparently they have always been there, too.
What I do remember is touristy crap galore. The store was a wonder. I wish I had photos from back in the day, but I took a few in 2015 when I went back. Taxidermy dominated the walls, hung with every dead animal you could imagine and a few you couldn’t, like the jackalope.
It even had animatronic tableau. I stood for too long in front of some weird looking robot cowboys doing rope tricks while their eyes spun. When I went back in 2015, these were still there and operational. Sadly I don’t have a video, but here are some stills.
I also remember putting a nickel in a slot so a robotic cowboy would say “Draw, Pardner!” and fire his gun at me. I couldn’t find him, but here is General George Custer.
Thrilling stuff. But not as thrilling as what I bought with the money that remained to me. I wanted a beaded necklace with a tiny Native American on it, but that was rich, and I’d already spent part of the five so I had to be discriminating. I selected an onyx egg, an onyx “worry stone,” a vial of agate crumbs, and a pure white rabbit pelt. That was the end of my five dollars.
I kept that pelt long after I let the rocks go. I knew it was the skin of some poor rabbit. Somehow that didn’t bother me. I loved how soft it was, how white. And then, in the eighth grade, I made it into a purse that eventually disappeared. But for years, it was my comfort. I would take it out and stroke it, soothing as petting a cat, and remember that trip.
It was our first family vacation, and our last. And it was perfect.
No regrets? Of course I have regrets! Regrets in harmony.
I have a few regrets in this life, and not recording some songs in harmony with my siblings is absolutely one of them. I’m speaking of the original three siblings: myself (youngest), my sister (middle) and my Brother Steve (oldest). At my mother’s parties in Aberdeen, South Dakota, my sister and I used to bring down the house with our childish rendition of “Those Were the Days, My Friend.” The three of us together graduated from car-trip singalongs to rousing a crowd with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1971 at a political rally in Booneville, Arkansas. Despite the heights of our harmonic glory during the refrain, we remained staunchly liberal, like our parents, and we did not become the next Von Trapps, though my sister and brother were in a band together in the 80s (it wasn’t particularly harmonious).
Harmony came easier to my brother and me. We dueted constantly from about 1974 on, at home and at parties. It was our thing. Somehow, we never got a moment of it on tape. I regret that.
The way sibling voices blend moves me. Even when the voices are very different from each other, there’s alchemy in how they come together, constant infinitesimal adjustments to smooth the harmonies. I believe this is done by instinct rather than decision. Here are a few of my favorites, almost all of which fall into the country category. And please note, even though these are sister acts, I sang far more with my older brother than with anyone else. I miss you, Brother Steve.
I’m all for the rename. But in the Dixie days, the harmonies of sisters Martie and Emily provided a soft grounding for Natalie Maines’ forceful lead vocals. This band has been through the wringer both professionally and personally, andthey are still together. Gaslighter is a BRILLIANT record/song/video, but I like these earlier songs. Also, that fiddle, and the banjo. I mean…
Talk about country! I first learned about the Browns while reading Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass. I had no memory of the Browns, and thought I was reading a not-so-good novel with real characters like Elvis Presley dropped in. At some point I began to understand that, yes, this was a not-so-good novel, but the Browns were real. At one time, they were one of the most popular musical acts in the country world. Bass described how they twanged and arced and hung in the air, blending and bending together like the tones of a bandsaw. I wanted to hear their voices. I ordered a CD, which took months to reach me. When it finally arrived, I played it obsessively.
Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne
These sisters have intense, rich voices. Shelby’s is full of emotional punch and power, and Allison’s is low and heartfelt, as big as the sky. I couldn’t prefer one over the other. Each sister has a record that sits on my all-time favorites list (Shelby’s Temptation, Allison’s The Hardest Part). They join each other onstage now and then, and have one joint project, Not Dark Yet. Individually, they are powerhouses. Together, they are sublime. The video below gives me constant shivers from beginning to end.
That’s pretty much perfection, in my book. Lest you think these sisters do not rock, here you go:
I have one CD by SheDAISY, their debut “The Whole SheBang”, and that appears to be enough. I have never bought or even listened to another. I’ve been playing this record on car trips since the year 2000 and still love it. It’s straightforward commercial country done right. I have no idea if they’re still performing together, but the harmonies these three sisters create are grand, swooping, impossible to tease apart. I’m going to post two examples and I hope you listen more than watch.
The first one, “Little Goodbyes” is such a funny song, very country pop, but the video is of the “beautiful women make sultry faces while singing” variety. It distracts, then gets old.
“This Woman Needs” is a HEARTBREAKER ballad and has hair-raising shivery harmonies. It’s also an oddly crappy video with too many jump cuts. But it’s a gorgeous song.
Okay, finally, a sister act that is not country at all. My kids told me about these three sisters long before I actually heard them. “Mom, you’d love Haim.” “Mom, have you ever heard Haim?” “Mom, I think you’d like Haim.” I finally encountered them as actors in Licorice Pizza. This led to watching the video below and while watching it, I fell hard. Este, Danielle, and Alana (who starred in the movie) are so…talented, striking, odd, fascinating. They have quite different voices but listen to them blend into something special! And watch the whole thing because it builds in a wonderfully strange and subtle way. When did they film this, and how did they do it, and could they be any more cool?
I played this for my five year-old grandson and he was transfixed. He remarked, “They all have the same shoes.” He’s right. They sure do.
Did I miss anyone besides the Jacksons (can’t/won’t talk about them, it makes me too sad)? Because I’m sure I missed some people. Let me know in comments.
Our bedroom was an attic, probably 32 feet in length, and seven or eight feet wide. A chimney neatly bisected the space, so our dad installed a plywood panel next to it, just wide enough for the heads of our twin beds. There was no door between us. We each had our own room, but slept with heads only inches apart. I waited for my sister to ask, “Do you want to play?” I always said yes. We would lay in the dark and spin out our fantastical imaginary worlds for hours.
Sometimes I wondered. Would we ever stop our childhood play?
Kids always play.
When we were younger in Claremont and then Aberdeen, we mostly played with toys, but purely imaginative play was on the roster quite early. My brother and sister started by pretending to be the Beatles. I joined in as soon as I was allowed to. I couldn’t wait to be Ringo. My brother was John, my sister was George, and no one wanted to be Paul.
This game was straightforward. While the 45 played, so did we, lip-syncing along to the lyrics and pretending to play instruments. When the song was over, so was the play. This evolved into playing at being The Monkees. I immediately claimed Davy. My sister was Mickey, and my brother was Mike. No one wanted to be Peter.
Then, the summer I was nine, we discovered “Tommy.” When you hand three musical, imaginative, socially awkward kids a record like “Tommy,” it will eventually change everything. First, laying the groundwork I guess, we learned every note of this rock opera, every single note. We even sang all the instruments. The plot was weird as hell, and none of us saw character potential in the deaf, dumb, and blind boy. But we loved the work itself, and it went to work in us.
Getting older, and playing better.
We lived in Rapid City for less than a year. Mom had moved us there to start her teaching career, and to finish it, as it turned out. She met a young Air Force captain and married him six weeks after their first date. We all moved to Edina. There, in our first Edina house, my sister met a charismatic girl named Sue. And did Sue ever have an imagination.
Sue wanted us to play Star Trek. We divvied up the characters and played plots from the show itself, or made up our own. When Sue wasn’t around, we let my brother in on the game. Steve was Spock, my sister was Doctor McCoy, and I kept up my run of short brunette men with accents by playing Ensign Chekhov. No one wanted to be Kirk.
Doesn’t everyone play Dickens?
Then, Sue and my sister saw the movie Oliver! They dragged me to it, and that was that. We entered the seamy London underground of Dickensian London and barely came up for air. We all wanted to be Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger, but there were three of us and only one of him. I didn’t ever get to be him, but there was this other pickpocket kid with reddish hair and a green cap who seemed acceptable. I could handle being him when we played. No one wanted to be Oliver.
I hate to admit it, but a big part of this game was going to the Southdale Mall and shoplifting. We were Fagin’s crew, and we had to steal. Thankfully, before any of us were apprehended, Sue’s family moved to Bellevue and we moved to another neighborhood in Edina.
This was a posh neighborhood, especially for South Dakota kids. My sister made friends, I made frenemies. My brother suffered initially, but he joined a track-car racing club where he made friends with a boy named Dave and a British kid named Chris (who would go on to lead Prince’s Paisley Park studio). My brother had real friends, he didn’t want to play. So it was my sister and I, escaping to Dickensian London and stealing at the mall on the regular.
We were never going to make a go of it in Edina, so it was time to re-invent our lives. My stepdad joined the Forest Service and adopted us so we could all have the same last name, and health benefits. A newly united family, we moved to Arkansas.
Isolation = Creativity
As I’ve written about before, the only rental we could find was a wretched little house on an abandoned farm, miles outside Booneville on red dirt roads. That isolation drove all three of us kids back to “Tommy.” We couldn’t leave that record alone. Inspired by our deep love of music and the intensity of imaginative play we’d experienced with Sue, the three of us morphed our previous endeavors into a game called “Band.”
“Band” was the best. We could literally be any musicians. Cat and I were deeply into our teen idols, and our brother had more mature musical taste. This led to some strange musical bedfellows, like John Lennon and David Cassidy. Disparities of style didn’t matter, because we were always lip-syncing to either Jefferson Airplane or The Who.
I remember one night when my parents had gone out for coffee (quite a trek, in Arkansas), and we were engrossed in our play. My sister was rolling around on the coffee table, mouthing the words to “Somebody to Love” while Steve and I backed her up on our air instruments. My parents came in quietly—or maybe not so quietly, the stereo was loud—and watched us for a moment before I saw them. The looks on their faces. I let my sister continue her bit before I broke out laughing, and then we were all roaring.
I imagine my parents were proud.
Moving to Town
A move into Booneville proper lessened our isolation. In this tiny town, which probably had a sundown law, our young lives were full of friends, school, parties, and more. Our older brother (who had outgrown our play once we left the farm) excelled academically and musically. Despite the weight that had inspired so much mockery when he arrived, he was accepted, even celebrated at Booneville High. The year I started seventh grade, he left for art school in Minneapolis.
My younger brother was a few months old at this time. My sister and I were both in high school, which started in 7th grade in Booneville. I loved changing classes, flirting with senior boys in the hallways, having an actual study hall, and singing in the high school choir. My sister was kind enough to absorb me into her friend group. We were very happy.
Even with all we had going on, my sister and I found time to spin out our worlds.
Glam rock had entered the pop culture consciousness. We might have pinned up photos of David Bowie in drag and Mick Jagger in eyeliner, but we weren’t going to use those men as characters. They were far too combustible.
We stuck to the Partridge Family and (for me) teen Jack Wild, still short with a Cockney accent, but mature. I added a new character based on Rick Springfield—the “Speak to the Sky” Rick, young, brunette, with sky-high hair and (you guessed it) an Aussie accent.
Back to the boonies.
No matter how happy my sister and I were, my parents hated Booneville. I do not blame them. They only had two couples as friends; Anne and Tom, and this extremely cool couple, Wayne and Mag. My parents were liberals, and educated, and they were claustrophobic.
So it was time for the rest of us to move again, this time to Montana. This move, toward the end of my seventh grade year, was wrenching and harsh. I transformed from a happy, active star student to a social outcast on my first day at Gallatin Gateway Elementary, by the simple act of my teacher giving me a more advanced English workbook. It wasn’t just a higher level than the other seventh graders were using. It was a higher level than the eighth graders were using.
That bit of seventh grade was over swiftly. I turned thirteen, school let out, and summer started. We were living on a ranger station, which remains the most isolated place I have ever lived. Aside from Ranger Dick and his wife Jane (who was always after us to babysit), we had no neighbors, no friends, no way to get anywhere to do anything at all. What else was there to do but play?
Since we were older, the games became sneakier. There were times we played during the day on weekends or in the summer, but mostly, we saved our imaginary world for night. There, in the dark, hidden away from the realities of daily life, our peculiar recombinations made sense.
Get on the Peace Train
Rich material arrived in the early 1970s, just begging to be incorporated. Cat Stevens transported us with his tortured, gorgeous voice. We kept the orphan thieves from Oliver! and added Cat Stevens as a grown-up version of the Artful Dodger, valiantly trying to overcome his childhood as a pickpocket.
This play had two versions, because sometimes Dodger was young and still picking pockets, and sometimes, he was a stunning troubadour pouring out his tortured soul in music. We wrote down a lot of it with Susan’s help. She still lived in Bellevue, and she and my sister traded pages all the time in the mail. One summer, Sue came out to visit us, and that was incredible. Sue brought us a present.
She brought us Jesus.
You know, the musical.
Jesus Christ Superstar landed like manna from heaven. It was kind of mature for us, seeing as how it was based on works that were thousands of years old. We were not Jesus and Judas when we played, we were the actors working on the production.
We learned this soundtrack by heart, too, and saw the movie at least a dozen times so we could learn every twitch and scowl of the actors. Neither of us knew a thing about how a movie was made, but this didn’t stop us from imagining ourselves into the Israeli desert in our dusty cotton costumes, being temperamental and difficult while the director raged.
Sadly, no one had an accent in this movie. I was Ted Neely and my sister was Carl Anderson. No one wanted to be Yvonne Elliman.
The Grand Mishmash of PF on ST.
Trying to describe our play at this point starts to sound like trying to recount a dream. It all made perfect sense to us, but you’re going to have to bear with me.
Even with the bearded hippy boys of Superstar, and the rich vein of masculine suffering offered by Cat Stevens, our favored game was called “PF on ST.” This stood for Partridge Family on Star Trek (I cracked up typing that). But we loved Star Trek, and we loved The Partridge Family, so we came up with the idea of the “Teen Academy” boarding school on board the Starship Enterprise.
We spent hours going through magazines, choosing what our characters looked like and what they would wear. Well, my sister did. She was either Keith Partridge or a character named Ceci. Ceci had an amazing teen girl wardrobe culled from the pages of Seventeen. I preferred being a boy, so I was generally either Jack Wild or Rick Springfield.
We both played independently during the day. When I felt insecure or unsafe, I would slip into character in school, as would my sister when she felt alone. I suppose if we’d had cell phones back then, we’d have texted in character, but we were reduced to writing notes.
If we wanted to play together at the dinner table, we used verbal shorthand to suggest the idea to each other. Speaking in code words, we could pick our game, announce our characters, and assign roles to our family members. Our baby brother even had roles to play.
When he came home from art school, our older brother sat at the table and knew we were playing. It drove him nuts, and we risked discovery, or even worse, mockery. So we tried to keep our play in the dark, as in, we played at night.
We would lie there, inventing romances, assigning talents, changing appearances, having long conversations and arguments in the voices of our characters. These were the happiest hours of our troubled young lives.
Embellished to the point of unrecognizable.
I wish I could remember more of the plots we spun, but in truth, they were pretty standard high school plotlines. The students would have trouble with a teacher. The students would have trouble with a Star Fleet officer. The students would have trouble with each other. We liked drama.
We both despised Bobby Sherman (I have no idea why), so once in a while, he’d show up on deck and throw everyone into a dither. Occasionally, a new student would arrive at the academy via shuttlecraft. Then everyone would have trouble with everyone else. It didn’t matter if the new arrival was male or female, because anyone could be problematic to a group of teenagers trapped on the Enterprise.
A concert was often in the works, because of course Keith Partridge had to sing. For the record, Cat Stevens was far too mature to be a student at the Teen Academy of PF on ST, but he might have made a concert appearance now and then. I’m also remembering that the Enterprise transported a movie crew to a dusty planet for the filming of Jesus Christ Superstar more than once.
It’s been fifty years. The specifics are a little misty. But I do remember how absurdly chaste most of these imaginings were. Occasionally there was a romance, but rarely. That was too much for our young psyches to handle.
Why we continued.
Today, there is a vocabulary for activities similar to what we were doing. There is fan fiction, with all its shipping. Also, LARPing (though we never costumed ourselves, we were certainly out and about in character). The problem with naming something is that it creates parameters. We had no parameters. We had no name besides “play,” so our freedom was complete. It was our private world, created from anything and everything, and hidden because we knew how strange it was, and we were way too old for what we were doing.
But we needed to play. We were two girls in our early teens, living on a ranger station in the middle of a national forest. The entire family was jammed into a one-bedroom log cabin, from which we’d carved extra bedrooms from the attic and a storage pantry. There was never any money, and our parents’ marriage was always precarious. We had to babysit our baby brother all the time while they drove off to have coffee and work on it. Everyone in the family was miserable. None of that mattered while we played.
Yes, we lived in a verdant paradise, I recognize that. I climbed the mountain behind our house several times, and explored the riverbanks, and sat on a cold cement bridge over the icy foam of the Gallatin River, and sang my heart out. But when it was winter—and this was Montana, so it was often winter—there was nothing to do and nowhere to go.
So my sister and I made up a different paradise. We invented characters that were nothing like us, and brought them to life in an outer space world. We made up the teenaged lives we longed for, there on the ranger station in western Montana. No wonder we couldn’t leave our play behind.
Time, space, and basic logic were ours to manipulate. We sometimes played all night, only stopping when it was light out. When one of us (usually me) got too tired and began falling asleep, the other would ask, “Should we keep this?” Because that was a key part of playing. We could spin out an extreme plot, with someone getting lost on a planet or even dying, but we didn’t have to keep it. We reserved the right to discard the night’s play. It was a joint decision. We might keep part of the play, all of it, or none of it. It was all up to us.
The end of imagination.
I don’t know how long we would have kept it up, but at some point, our “real lives” began to take shape. We still didn’t have any money, we still lived in a remote and beautiful location, but we had some friends. My sister got her license, and my parents bought a second car (a tiny red slug bug) so we started having misadventures in Bozeman. It was terrifying and exhilarating.
She was sixteen and I was fourteen. We drank, smoked pot, gained boyfriends, lost virginities. Breakups. Pregnancy scares. Car accidents. We had plenty of drama. There was no need to lay there in the dark and imagine more.
Life was complicated when you weren’t allowed to decide whether or not to keep what had happened to you. But I remember one last night when I sheepishly asked my sister to play. We had one last session, one last trip to the galaxies. Then we gave it up forever. Real life had taken over.
Still at it.
When I was thirty-seven, I quit my job and decided to go back to school and finish my degree. A friend showed up at my house with an ancient Mac. “You’ll need this for papers,” she told me, as she and her husband set up the whole hateful thing. I’d never owned a computer, in fact I loathed computers, and had only used one when I worked in a B2B telemarketing agency. But hey, she was probably right. I was going back to school, and I probably needed to have a computer. So I sat down and opened up a document and entered a state of magical creative flow.
I wrote a screenplay first. It was based on a dream I had at age nineteen that had haunted me ever since about a woman with two daughters at the Oregon coast, and a teacher she rented to. It had been the most cinematic dream of my life, and I’d tried and failed to make something out of it all through my twenties and thirties.
At 37, that finally changed. It wasn’t hard to imagine all the conversations and settings and drama. But 115 pages? That wasn’t enough time to spend with these characters who had become so real to me. I wasn’t done with them. I started typing out notes in each character’s voice. And more and more came, and the plot changed, and deepened. It took hold and grew.
I sat up later and later each night, typing in my darkened home. This was my only time to write, because I was a single mother with three kids and two dogs and a house to keep and a divorce to recover from. The demands on my life were constant from before the sun rose to after it went down. During these late night hours of quiet and dark, I found the peace and solitude I needed to get it all out of me.
Before I knew it, I had the draft of a novel. I was so proud of this messy first draft, and absolutely sure it was perfect. Of course it wasn’t even close to finished. But I printed it out and sent it to my sister, who lived in South Dakota at the time. She loved it. How could she not? A tortured, beautiful man. An icy, withholding older woman. And teen drama galore.
She called me to rave. “I can’t believe you did this.” She kept questioning me as to where I’d gotten this idea, “This isn’t you is it? This isn’t me?” I explained to her that this was truly fiction. Everyone was made up. “Well I love it. I’m so proud of you.” And she hung up.
She called me back within the half hour. “I figured it out,” she said. “I figured out how you did it.” I waited. I could hear the smile in her voice. “You’re playing.”
I hope she could hear the smile in mine when I told her she was absolutely right.