Story Time

I was fortunate to be selected again for the August Story Slam at the Midtown Reader, our adorable independent bookstore. The theme was “heat,” and here is my interpretation of it:

Goddamn.” Jolene and her elderly car rolled into the parking spot beside her mobile home with a sigh. She pushed the car door open, listening to the metallic groaning that set some damn dog barking his damn head off.

Every. Damn. Night.

“SHUTTUP!” she yelled, slamming the door, then dropped her voice to a mutter. “I swear to God I’m gonna kill that dog.”

Jolene closed her eyes and inhaled the Friday night trailer park smell – cigarettes and beer and fried food and an electric smell that she believed was ozone from dozens of wide-screen TVs. “Why anyone needs a damn TV that big, I surely don’t know. Put a $2000 television in a $1500 trailer, I swear. Trash.”

Jolene worked the evening shift at the Waffle House – the one by the interstate, she was always quick to clarify, the nice one.  She got off around 8, counted her tip money, and drove home. Once in the safety of her driveway, she began her post-work routine. She removed her hair net and tossed it in a trash barrel by the rusty picnic table. Jolene ordered her hair nets by the case from Amazon. She thought this made her a savvy hair net consumer. The other girls at work bought their nets at the Wal-Mart a couple of towns over. Waste of damn money, she thought. I get 100 for eight dollars.

She pulled herself up the wooden stairs of her mobile home and locked the door behind her, then set the chain. At last, she could breathe.

Jolene lit a cigarette and removed her work uniform, which was eternally slightly greasy. She inhaled deeply, letting the smoke burn away the myriad petty annoyances that comprised a shift at the Waffle House. She considered showering, but instead her feet took her to the liquor cabinet.

They knew the routine.

Jolene used to drink a bourbon and coke when she came home from work, until she realized that the caffeine made her as jumpy as a damn flea. Now she drinks two fingers of bourbon with exactly five ice cubes. She thought this made her a savvy bourbon consumer. Skip the damn middle man, she thought.

The bourbon, like the cigarette, slowly melted the icy stone of discontent that formed in her chest during the day. It warmed her back, her shoulders, the heat releasing muscles tensed out of habit. Bourbon: the massage therapist of the lower classes, Jolene thought approvingly. I oughtta write that down.

The first drink was gone quicker than she realized, and she got up to pour another. Most Friday nights she didn’t feel like eating –she’d been around food all day, and besides, the bourbon worked better on an empty stomach. Skip the damn middle man, she thought. Didn’t I just say that?

Jolene leaned back into the plaid couch cushions and put her feet on the coffee table, which was dinged all to hell but suited her just fine. She’d bought it with her first paycheck from the Waffle House. I’ll be damned, that was ten years ago. Ten years of grease and hair nets and aggravation and this same damn routine, every damn night. Ten years of cigarettes and skipping dinner and muttering about the neighbor’s dog.

Ten years.

I could use a splash more. No ice this time.

The bourbon pulled her like a warm amber river, away from the trailer, away from the Waffle House. Its heat spread through her empty stomach, reaching for her fingertips. She was loose, made of honey, golden. Now, with the heat filling her ears, she could sleep.

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Reading Materials: July 2017

33. Bird Box, Josh Malerman. (Library) This was billed as a horror novel, but it was better than that label. It was chilling and creepy. It reminded me of The Walking Dead in that the main characters are facing a threat that is not actively malicious, but still very dangerous. I can’t even really explain the “monsters,” because the book never fully explains them. This is not a flaw – I think sketching them with a minimum of detail keeps the situation creepier. I enjoyed this read.

34. Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, H.P. Wood. (Library) A pretty decent read about carnival workers on Coney Island at the turn of the century, and a young English girl who gets separated from her family and has to use her wits (and her newfound carnie friends) to stay safe. Meanwhile, there’s an outbreak of plague. This book was aggressively fine, but also reduced many characters to two-dimensional cutouts.

35. News of the World, Paulette Jiles. (Library) Despite the author’s incredibly annoying lack of quotation marks around all dialogue in this book, I really enjoyed it. Don’t dismiss it because it’s “a Western.”  For the record, I resisted reading Lonesome Dove for many years, because it was “a Western.” Shame on me. The writing is beautiful – expansive like the swaths of country it describes. This is a lovely little book.

36. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans. (Borrowed for Book Club) This book describes one woman’s personal journey from an evangelical upbringing, through a time in the spiritual wilderness, and finally landing in the arms of the Episcopal church. It is divided into seven sections, each named for one of the sacraments of that church. I enjoyed the writing, and the honesty with which Evans wrestled with her faith. My only complaint is this: When one talks about sin, and confession, it is traditionally understood to mean examining oneself for deficiencies and naming them before God. Victimhood, on the other hand, is devoted to examining and naming the sins of others. Too often in this book, Evans substitutes victims for sinners, and the only sin she names in herself is a tendency to dislike Republicans. For example, in a gathering she calls one of the most spiritually profound experiences of her life, a group of gay Christians tells their personal stories of persecution. These are powerful stories, and deserve to be told – but they are not confession. They are testimony, or witness. Anyway, this is a minor quibble with the book, which I overall enjoyed.

37. Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman. (Library, Book Club) I have always wanted to love Neil Gaiman. He has a strong cult following of people whose opinions I value. I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and it was…fine. I started Stardust, but some asshat had removed the last page of each chapter, so I abandoned it after a few chapters and never sought out another copy. I watched Coraline. This collection, however, was very good. It shows an excellent range of storytelling ability. I could probably do without the poetry, but only because it looked like artfully-arranged prose. I think my problem with Gaiman is that so many authors have derived from him that the original material seems a little cliched. I felt the same way when I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy as an adult.

38. Sweet Bitter, Stephanie Danler. (Library) Critics of this book characterize it as “exactly what you’d expect from a new MFA graduate,” and they’re probably right. Nevertheless, I couldn’t put it down. It follows Tess through her heady first year in New York City, as a backwaiter at an upscale restaurant. Her life becomes a trainwreck – but one you can’t stop watching.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 32
Non-Fiction: 6

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Happy House-iversary!

One year ago today, we bought ourselves a sweet little fixer-upper.

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Snooort.

It feels like we’ve lived here forever, pouring our blood, sweat, and dollars into this home – but also our love, energy, and attention. Cosmic balance!

I asked Jason last night:  at what point we will have sunk more money into the house than we will ever recoup? For example, if the value of the house is X and the purchase price was Y, is X minus Y our renovation budget? We’re not interested in selling any time soon, but we also recognize that a big four bedroom house (with an upstairs master suite) may not meet our needs for the rest of our lives.

I don’t think there’s a good answer. We got an amazing deal on the house, and we’ve paid for all the renovations in cash. Even if we used the formula above, where list price minus asking price equals renovation budget, we’ve only spent half that amount. In that sense, I feel good about the choices we’ve made so far. And, with any luck, the value of the house will continue to increase over time, which means the reno budget is always usually expanding.

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How do I love thee, house? Let me count the ways:

  1. I love that this house was designed for this particular climate. It has deep porches and an airy crawlspace, which makes the house relatively easy to cool in the summer.
  2. I love, love, love the amount of natural light we get. I frequently forget to turn on the lights when I’m cooking in the kitchen because the windows provide so much illumination.
  3. I love that we were able to move my mom over here; that our guest house has been the perfect accommodation for her. It’s separate but close, and she feels safe there.
  4. I love that we will never, ever, ever run out of projects. Ever.

I don’t miss much about our previous house, but I do miss having alternate “living” spaces. Previously, we had a formal living room, a family room, AND a sun room. Here we have a living room. We use the porch as a second living space, but it would be nice to have an indoor, TV-free area.

We’d planned to take the first year to complete the big-ticket, necessary renovations, and by and large we’ve done that. I think we both hoped to be done painting by now, but no such luck. We just started painting Hollyn’s bedroom a couple of days ago, and the rest of the children’s rooms need addressing.

Next up, we’ll tackle projects that are not strictly necessary, but which will increase our happiness. Remodeling the kitchen is high on our list, as is adding a sound-dampening fence along the Thomasville Road side of the house. Jason would like to add a plunge pool, and as the summer drags on, I’m warming up to the idea.

We are not on a television show, so we’re not on any kind of deadline. I’m comfortable living in an unfinished house, as long as each improvement we make is thoughtful. If it takes us another year to get the house “done” (or rather, “done enough” – a house this old is never done!) I’ll be happy.

I am happy. I’ve loved our first year here.

 

 

 

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The Sweet Smell of…Success!

A couple of months ago, I entered the Midtown Reader’s monthly Story Slam, but ALAS my tale was not chosen. I entered again in June, and my story was selected! Along with three other writers, I read my story (out loud! to strangers!) last Thursday night, and then sat through a Q&A with the audience. It was a ton of fun and I hope to do it again.

Here’s the story I submitted:

I am sitting on the floor outside my mother’s bathroom, a place I have occupied every Sunday evening since I was seven years old, grinding my teeth. Shortly after my dad had just about enough of my mother, she instituted “Sunday Night Spa,” which mostly involved putting on face masks, or playing with her makeup, or French braiding each other’s hair. When I was seven, this was a huge treat. Now that I’m sixteen, not so much. My mother will not allow me to make plans that conflict with Sunday Night Spa, and since I do not share my mother’s overriding interest in her own face, I sit outside the bathroom door while she dyes her hair or plucks her eyebrows or whatever. This is her idea of a generous compromise. Some nights she spends hours watching makeup videos on YouTube while I pray for an asteroid to hit the house. She can tell you all about sheet masks, but can’t identify which political party the President belongs to. Did you know you can contour your toes?, she’ll ask. God, her brows look amazing. 

The soundtrack for these Sunday evenings – and every other evening, for that matter – is a running monologue detailing my mother’s misery and bitterness at finding herself divorced. But in the last few years, the target of her ire has shifted from my father to me. When I finally hit puberty, my head transformed. Suddenly, I looked like my dad in a wig. His nose sprouted from the middle of my face, and my hair became thick, wavy, and unruly. My mother saw this as a calculated affront, like I made my face look this way for the sole purpose of tormenting her.

That’s when my mom started knifing me verbally. “You poor thing,” she’d say, “you got your father’s ugly nose.” Or “Why don’t you let me straighten your hair? It could be pretty like mine.” She offered to get me a plastic surgery when I turn 18 in a couple of years, and got very upset when I declined. The more she insults my father, the prouder I am to look like a dude in a wig. This drives her insane. I mean, more insane. My dad is just a regular guy, and I’m pretty sure the amount of time he thinks about my mother or their marriage is zero. He’s moved on in the last ten years. This also drives her insane. She’s marooned in the past – for her, every day is the day he left. The anger is always that fresh.

Even now, through the bathroom door, she’s offering to get me the same color hair dye so we can match. Remember when we used to wear matching outfits?, she asks. Remember when you loved me best? Remember when Daddy ruined the life we had planned?

She knows that I hate Sunday nights.

She does not know that I have substituted her hair color base for Nair hair remover.

It turns out that I have also had enough of my mother. I’ve had enough of being her therapist, her substitute spouse, her best friend. Over the last few weeks, I have been squirreling away my most prized possessions in my car. I’m 16, so they fit nicely under the piles of clothes and water bottles and books.

I’m going to my dad’s, and I’m not coming back.

In the bathroom, the timer goes off, and my mother turns on the shower. My heart rate picks up speed, my palms slick.

I hear the sharp breath before a scream.

I walk out.

 

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A Tale of Two Closets, Part Deux

Way back in February, we re-arranged one of the closets upstairs so that it faced the master bedroom instead of Tyler’s room. During that process, we removed all the hardware from the inside of the closet, so for the last four months the space has been a large empty box. Super useful.

I asked the carpenter to give us an estimate on building out the inside of the closet. He quoted us a price of SEVENTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS, which horrified me. I was determined to save money by building out the closet ourselves.

I followed some good advice and started by looking at my actual closet needs. (Shocking, I know.) I have quite a few long garments – dresses and a winter coat and maxi skirts – so I knew I needed a few feet of full-length hanging space. I also wanted shelves – both a high shelf for storage and bookcase-type shelves for shoes. I measured how many linear feet of hanging space I’d need, as well as determined ideal shelf depth based on plastic shoe boxes.

Then I grabbed graph paper and a pencil. The closet is big – 39″ deep by 81″ wide – but it’s right on the line between a reach-in closet and a walk-in closet. I decided to use an L-shaped plan, with full-length hanging on the right, shelves in the middle, and a double rod on the left, perpendicular to the back of the closet. I also wanted an L-shaped shelf above all that – 12″ along the back of the closet and 18″ across the width, to accommodate Rubbermaid containers.

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We patched and painted the inside of the closet box (using leftover white paint), made a cut list, and headed to Home Depot. We saved money by using pine instead of cedar, and using thick dowels from the lumber aisle instead of the closet rods in the storage aisle. I wanted to dress up the shelves a little bit, so I picked up an antique white stain, which gives the boards a whitewashed look.

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The instructions tell you to apply the stain liberally, wait 3-5 minutes, then wipe off the excess, but I got better results when I applied the stain with a rag and wiped it off immediately.

For the adjustable shelves, we chose easy-to-install strips and clips.

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It was about this time that Jason made a terrible discovery. I wanted the upper shelf to be at 6’6″, and therefore the bookcase shelves would also need to be that tall. Jason accidentally cut them at 66 inches, which is (alas) not the same thing at all.

We quickly revised the plan to make the shelves float, leaving 12 inches of clear space underneath. Ultimately, I think I like this configuration better – it’s easier to keep clean and creates a more flexible storage space. We floated the shelves by attaching 1×2 boards to the studs in two locations, and screwing the shelves to the boards.

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(Two notes on the above photo: first, the bottom shelf is not stained, so you can see the difference the stain makes; second, we did choose cedar boards for the ends of the hanging rods, which makes the closet smell nice but doesn’t cost a bajillion dollars.)

And now, a word about caulk.

I’d never used it before, but I am a convert. CAULK ALL THE THINGS. It made the project look at least 76% more finished and professional.

Before: Amateurish Gaps

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After: Smooth Like Butter

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Finally, we added LED rope lights around the inside of the door, to provide light to every inch of the closet. During the re-wire, the electricians added a plug and switch just for this purpose. Bless them.

Here’s a panorama of the closet. Not pictured: me, jumping up and down for joy.

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Right side:

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Left side:

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And the best part? The total project cost under $250.

That’s a discount of 86%. And you KNOW how I feel about discounts.

I knew that having my own closet would be awesome, but I wasn’t prepared for how great this project turned out. Every time I flip on the light in there I get a little giggly.

Tee hee.

 

 

 

 

 

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Reading Materials: June 2017

28. Rabbit Cake, Annie Hartnett. (Library, Book Club Selection) I actually read this in May and forgot to include it in last month’s list. Ooooops. This book reminded me of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, in that it dealt with grief from the perspective of a younger girl with an older sister. This was a thoughtful book – it’s hard to write like a child, to capture the feeling of being young.

29. Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink. (Borrowed from Tyler) This is a weird book – I mean, WEIRD – yet also delightful and filled with unexpectedly beautiful moments. In what was a we-live-in-the-future first for me, Welcome to Night Vale started as a podcast and was later made into a book. It follows a fictional town in the desert where nothing is normal. It’s as though one of The X-Files‘ signature creepy small towns collided with an extraterrestrial location from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I found this book a challenging, but rewarding, read. I find myself thinking about it frequently.

30. Dark Places, Gillian Flynn. (Borrowed) I enjoyed Gone Girl, and needed a bit of a palate cleanser after being immersed in Night Vale, so this fit the bill nicely. I enjoyed this twisty mystery, even if I found it difficult to like a single character.

31. The Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly. (Borrowed) A sweeping WWII novel told from the perspective of three women – two of whom were real people. My only criticism is that one of the three narrators drops out of sight for most of the second half of the book, and I kept waiting for her name to appear on a chapter title. Overall, I thought this was well-written and engaging, and gets bonus points for some awesome French food descriptions.

32. Creating Your Dream Kitchen, Susan Breen. (Library) We’ve known since the day we bought our house that we wanted to completely remodel the kitchen. It was designed by a sadist who didn’t cook – there is zero counter space on either side of the slanty cook top, for example, and the cabinets are cavernous and un-shelved. Anyway, I want to design the new kitchen myself, so obviously the first thing I did was check out a book on the subject. (And pin a bunch of things in Pinterest, duh.) This was a very basic primer, but it did have some good inspiration photos. Alas, on a personally-aggravating note, it also had a bunch of typos. Grrrrrrrr.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 27
Non-Fiction: 5

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I got your letter.

Last weekend I opened a letter, 37 years after it was mailed to me. I found it in a box of my mom’s special treasures – her diplomas, her athletic awards, and this:

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January 22, 1980

Dear Winifred:

You will probably read this letter a long time after I’ve written and mailed it to you. I wanted you to know that your mother and father, your grandparents and your aunts shared with you and with the congregation of Riverside Presbyterian Church in the sacrament of baptism.

It was a very special time for all of us and we were very happy to be together with you as we thanked God for the gift of your life and for your presence with us. You were beautiful and your eyes opened as your father handed you to me. I will always remember seeing your two bright eyes open so wide.

As you will know by the time you read this, your name means “friend of peace.” I pray that God will always help us to know you as a true friend of peace and I pray that peace in Christ will always be yours.

Thank you for giving to me the privilege of sharing in your baptism, and God bless you.

This is an astonishingly beautiful gift to receive during this season of my life. It is almost certain that by the end of the year, all my parents and grandparents will be gone. This fills me with a panicky dread. I don’t think there’s a word for an adult orphan, yet I am gripped by the fears of an orphan – that my side of the holiday dinner table will be empty, all the men and women who shaped me, gone.

But this letter describes a moment when my parents and my grandparents and hundreds of members of  my home church celebrated my tiny new life and promised to be my family. This letter assures me that I belong somewhere, that my tribe extends beyond the walls of my childhood home, that there are men and women who have walked quietly with me my whole life.

I am never alone.

Roland Perdue, thank you so much for taking the time to write me that note all those years ago. Your letter is a treasure.

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