Thursday, March 19, 2015

Doing the Mashed Potato

I hardly noticed when he came into the classroom, engrossed as I was in the writing exercise I was modeling with 4th grade students for 4th grade teachers in a language arts class. However, as I made my rounds of the students working in their small groups, I saw the latecomer again. He still fumbled through his backpack, unable to pull a pencil out of the overflow of crumpled papers, notebooks, and library books. His teacher patted his shoulder and asked, “You awake yet, J.C.?” The boy blinked a few times, as if trying to shake off sleep’s stupor. He wiped his mouth, failing to completely erase the remains of the white milk mustache from the cafeteria cereal.

He looked up at the teacher, smiled until deep dimples broke out on his sizeable cheeks, and shrugged. “Come on, son, let’s get moving,” the teacher encouraged gently. 

Later on a break, I asked the teacher about this nine year old. She explained he lived with an odd assortment of relatives, though none were his parents. He was left to his own devices for putting himself to bed and waking himself up. Multiple calls home as well as visits produced little improvement.  “He used to live with a grandmother, but she passed away during the summer. He’s with relatives in this house, but is pretty much on his own. Cooking, laundry…he does it himself, when it gets done,” she explained. “It’s frustrating. We’ve called the authorities, but he doesn’t meet their criteria for abuse or neglect. We have gotten together to get him clothes and help out as we can, but it’s never going to be enough. There’s an older student from the family at the high school, but he’s pretty much in the same boat.”

The next week when I visited this campus again, J.C. was in a group I had targeted for intensive work. He was largely silent, his mop of overgrown, uncombed curly hair bobbing wildly when he nodded and shook his head silently for answers. While other kids in the group laughed openly at a lame joke I threw in, J.C. carefully considered what I’d said, a slow flush of red beginning at the top of his forehead and spreading downward, his mouth widening out into a small smile, then growing until those dimples anchored giggles he couldn’t stifle.

The only time he spoke was when I asked them what their favorite food was. He was quick to answer at his turn: mashed potatoes. Shyly at first, and then with growing passion, he described them. “I love the cafeteria’s mashed potatoes. They are thick, hot, and they put a little butter on top that melts. I watch the cafeteria lady when she puts the gravy on them. I think she likes me because she puts extra gravy on mine.” Startled that he had revealed so much, he looked downward, cheeks flaming red.

“Those sound delicious,” I told him. “Maybe we can find out when the cafeteria is serving those mashed potatoes again and I can eat with you. Would that be OK?” He didn’t look up, but nodded his head.

The next day his group filed in. He held a brown paper bag that looked as if something had leaked on the inside, staining the bottom of the bag a dark brown. He beckoned me over to his table and whispered, “I brought some.”

I raised my eyebrows, trying to figure out what it might be. He cracked open the bag and I saw a bowl with aluminum foil over it, a white substance oozing out. “It’s mashed potatoes. I made them this morning. These are the instant kind I made in the microwave. I got up early so I could get them finished before school.” He frowned. “I don’t know how to make gravy.”

My voice caught in my throat. I was speechless as he continued. “The cafeteria didn’t have them on the menu and next week is spring break, so I made you some. Can you eat with me today at my table during lunch? I even brought two spoons.” I took a deep breath, struggling to maintain control. He whispered again, “Don’t worry, I washed the spoons.”

*********************************************************************************
Next week when I return to that campus, I’ll have more than just writing lessons with me. I’ll have my mom's mashed potato recipe, with measurements spelled out and instructions carefully elaborated.

I’ll have a large bag of Idaho potatoes, and real butter and whole milk and the other ingredients. There’s a new potato masher going, too. I’ll be making a stop at the high school first, to talk with the brother/uncle of my dimpled lunch companion. I’ll take an iTunes gift card as a small bribe for this high school fellow to help his smaller relative with the boiling of the potatoes and to sort through the steps of the recipe. And I’ll have a large container of finished mashed potatoes as well as the gravy I learned to make from my grandma. 

Doing the mashed potato never had better meaning.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Kingdom of the Locker Room

The locker room in my gym is a place of utilitarian necessity to me. I go there to change, to store my purse and other accessories, and sometimes catch a startled glance at myself in the vast array of mirrors placed at every possible vantage point. I have learned some things about the citizens of the locker room. Allow me to introduce them to you.

Queen Selfie: Her royal courts are the locker room. She is found, wearing impossibly cute workout gear, hair perfectly pulled back under a thick, multi-colored headbands, in full makeup, ready to workout. Her warm-ups begin in the locker room and include raising and lowering her arms, smart phone in hand and clicking away, for the first round of the pre-workout selfies she will publish to social media before stepping out of the locker room. 

She continues her warm ups by moving from mirror to mirror and taking more pictures, mooshing her mouth into duck lips in one, smiling brilliantly in another, then finishes with a sad faced little girl pout in the last.  Once in the gym, she sits on the recumbent bike, motionless except for the zealous movement of those fingers, tagging herself in her pictures and captioning them that she is a "gym beast". Her workout is over once she’s received the tribute of responses from her followers and she heads back to the locker room, wearied but with a sense of accomplishment, to add a few more post exercise selfies to her albums.

Houdini: She is so modest she prefers to change in one of the few restroom stalls or showers. If those are occupied, though, she accomplishes a feat of agility so extreme it is praiseworthy. It unfolds like this. She sits on a bench in her professional attire that includes skirt, blouse, and jacket. Then she swathes several towels around herself so that only her head and her legs below the knees are visible. After a few mysteriously furious movements under her towels, she throws them off and emerges completely clad in her gym wear, without having exposed one additional centimeter of skin.

 Eve: The polar opposite of Houdini, she dries herself in the shower and steps out, sans towel, sans everything, to style her hair and put on her makeup in the buff. She takes her time, so comfortable in her middle aged skin that surely everyone else must be comfortable with it, too. She eschews personal space boundaries and gregariously approaches people seated on the bench to share a joke or professional observation, her pendulous private bits in close proximity to the faces of those ensnared in her conversations.

Oversharer: She is always accompanied by a twin oversharer. They loudly recount their escapades of the night or weekend before with each other. The twins amplify their voices to such a level that no one has to resort to eavesdropping.  Their vivid descriptions are replete with names, details, and bodily embarrassments. Once outside the locker room, though, they mumble their names so unintelligibly to the workers at the desk they have to be asked to repeat themselves.

Regular, Everyday Sweaters: This would include myself and most of the other citizens of the gym. We're a motley crew, indeed, but anyone who is willing to inflict pain and discomfort upon themselves and drip sweat in the process has to have some good things going on.

Monday, March 2, 2015

An Eleven Word Story

Here’s an eleven word story. Why eleven words and not ten? You might need that one extra word for an appropriate denouement. And if you care to, I eagerly invite you, my talented friends, to include your own eleven word story here. It's not as easy as it appears, but it turns out to be more satisfying than it should be. 

Don't feel obligated, but don't be shy.

This is mine, in eleven words.



She finally learned to make the journey a lavish joy ride. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Wrinkles

The insistent ringing of the doorbell startled me. The only unannounced visitors at our rural home are people who are lost and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I set down the clothes I was folding and hustled to the front door, wondering if I’d forgotten someone who'd said they were coming.

A rapid knocking at the back door swung me around in my tracks. I headed through the kitchen to catch who this was. I cut a glance through the kitchen window on my way through and saw a lifted ¾ ton diesel truck in the driveway, outfitted with the off road tires popular with young guys. A couple of shotguns rested on a rack inside the back window of the truck.

I pursed my lips and frowned, something I try to avoid so as to prevent new wrinkles. I imagined a hot shot young dude wanting to go dove hunting on our land, something we don’t allow because of the proximity of our cattle. Even my husband, an avid hunter, doesn’t shoot in our pastures.

And now whoever-this-was couldn’t wait for me to even get to the front door? I grimaced, thinking of other encounters with guys like this who wanted to hunt for free, tear up pasture land with their big tires, and shoot irresponsibly near the cattle. I loaded up my verbal armory, determined to teach this fellow a lesson in manners. I ditched my caution of wrinkling and steeled my face into a scowl.

I pulled the door open and a twenty-something man  in a flannel shirt tucked neatly into a pair of jeans that were tucked neatly into a pair of snake boots pulled his cap off and held it in both hands.

“Ma’am, we’re sorry to bother you. I’m Rick, this is my brother Oscar.” His brows furrowed. “Last night we were muddin’ down at our cousin’s place over there.” He pointed vaguely to the southwest. “My two dogs got loose. Have you seen them?”  

I shielded my eyes from the sun’s glare with my hand and thought. Something in me softened and I stepped back and invited them into the kitchen. I motioned for them to have a seat at the table.

“Thank you, ma’am. We’re really anxious to find them, so we won’t keep you long.” I offered them some ice cold bottles of water. “They’re Catahoula/ Heeler mixes.” I smiled as I thought of the splash of spots and colors they must be. “One is named Chico and the other is Chula. Chico’s got on a handmade leather collar and Chula has on a pink camo vest.” Oscar nodded silently at his brother’s description.

“We haven’t even gone home to sleep. We’ve stopped at every house in a five mile range. Some people have kicked us off before they even heard what we were doing. We’re not going to stop, though, until we find them.”

I explained we hadn’t seen them yet, but that we’d surely keep an eye out for them. They stood with their bottles of water and carefully pushed the chairs back under the table. I walked them out the back door.

“Thank you so much, ma’am.” Rick’s raspy voice was testament of their long night. He turned back around. “And ma’am, if they do show up, they’re really friendly dogs. If you hold out your hand to Chula she’ll shake and give you a bow.”

I watched through the window as they headed out, but then they quickly stopped. Oscar climbed out with a shovel. He moved to a rut in the side yard the truck had cut when they backed up and carefully smoothed the damp earth back into place.

I smiled and patted my cheeks. The best wrinkle prevention is watching good folks in action.

And if they do find their dogs, I will be sure and update this. I'm praying they do.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Neruda, the Beach, and Line Dried Sheets

An apology, of sorts. I left my blog with a post in October, and without fully intending to quit, I did. Without a further word. And for that, I am sorry.

Anything not used is going to atrophy, but left unused too long, it will also leave an ache, a vague sense of grief for something lost. It took me a while to pin it down, but I realized writing meant more to me than I had ever admitted. I needed to get back to it, even though it felt like I was wrestling body, soul, and spirit to get something down on paper.

My wise and delightful blogging and Facebook friend, Pearl, came to Texas and we spent a weekend on the beach to write. To throw around pleasing words. To read and reread exquisite sentences from Neruda and Chabon. To laugh at talking grackles, muse about lutefisk, and enjoy the passing stream of humanity.

When I slipped out onto the balcony with notebook in hand just as the sun pushed its way above the horizon, with chilly air and a faint salt spray opening my nostrils and loosening those channels I had plastered over in October, I was ready.

I wrote longhand in two notebooks. I scratched through words, used arrows to insert new ones, and filled more than 26 pages in a rapid cursive/print hybrid.

I breathed in deeply at a pause and remembered. In our home, which had also been my grandparents’ home, my husband and I left intact a small cabinet filled with my grandma’s dishtowels, aprons, and other things. I rarely open it, but when I do, I bury my face deeply in those towels and aprons. I inhale until my lungs are full. It smells like them. I can still faintly detect my grandma’s perfume, the aromas of her Sunday dinners, their line dried sheets.

That is how it felt on this balcony in those early morning hours. I inhaled deeply and caught a whiff of something that is just as much a part of me as those Sunday dinners and my grandma's perfume, as my grandma and grandpa and those line dried sheets.

And so I’m back.  Good to see you, friends.

To read Pearl's account of how we got lost on the beach, go here: I Think I Recognize That Dune

Thursday, October 23, 2014

When Gabriel Blows His Horn

(As I've been cautioned to do, I'll neither confirm nor deny the truth of this. I will say I've heard this story, from different sources, for many years. I've put it all together into a story form, and although it's a departure from the stories I usually write, I felt it needed to be told.)

The burly man chewed the wad of tobacco in his mouth impassively and spat suddenly into the dust, splashing the dark brown liquid onto the worn boots of the teenaged boy nearest him.

The boy flinched but didn’t take his eyes off the large man on horseback, who was now talking, even though it was in English, a language none of the twenty teenaged boys standing before him could understand.  He turned to a shorter man, also on horseback, with a handlebar mustache that curled almost from ear to ear on his plump face, and said, “Gabe, tell ‘em.”

The stout man, Gabriel, began to speak, and the boys’ faces relaxed in relief as he repeated what the first man said, this time in the native Spanish the boys understood.

“He says for you to listen, because he’s not going to repeat himself. You come with us to work this roundup. It’s three months work to bring all the cattle in from the northern pastures, branding, dehorning, castrating, and anything else that needs to be done. You’ll work seven days a week. The ranch will give you use of a horse and your grub, but you supply your boots and clothes. You may carry a knife on you, but no weapons.”

“You come across any outlaws or wild animals- you either take care of them with the knife or hope that your horse can outrun them. You’ll get your pay, $15 a month, at the end of the three months, but only if you work hard. If you turn out to be lazy Mexicans, you’ll get what a lazy Mexican deserves.”

As Gabriel finished, the tobacco chewing man rode his horse silently in front the new ranch hands. He stopped in front of one, Rico, and spat a virulent stream with precision just short of the boy’s booted toes. He turned to Gabriel and said, “Ask him where he got those boots.”

Gabe looked at Rico’s boots even as he began translating. They were polished and hand tooled, things of beauty amidst the dusty, misshapen footwear pocked with holes sported by the others.

Rico kept his gaze fixed on the ground as he answered softly. “They were my grandfather’s. He was a master saddlemaker in Nuevo Leon.” What Rico didn’t say, but what filled his mind was the scene from the night before, his mother sobbing as she gave them to him. Since his father had been killed by bandits on the road to town the year before, 16 year old Rico struggled to help get enough food on the table for the younger sisters and brothers who sometimes cried in their sleep, they were so hungry. When this opportunity to work on a large ranch on the U.S. side of the Rio Bravo came up, he couldn’t pass it up for the sure money it would bring them, even though his mother was broken hearted by his decision.

“Son,” she’d said quietly, “take these with you. They were made by your grandfather and worn by him until he died. May they keep you safe with every step.” Rico nodded as he somberly accepted them. She stroked his cheek even as tears streamed down hers.

And now, questioned about the boots, the only sign Rico showed of the struggle within to steady his composure were small pink patches of color on his cheeks.

Although Gabriel had already turned away from Rico after translating his answer to the boss man, Rico added, “I will be a good worker for you. I’ll work hard every day. You’ll see.”

The ragtag group of boys set off on foot behind the mule drawn wagon that would lead them to the base camp, twelve miles distant.

And just as the boss man had predicted, the work was bone crushing hard. They slept with their head on a saddle each night, curled under a saddle blanket to leach some warmth on the frigid October nights. Their days began well before the sun rose and continued until the darkness staunched their vision. They ate quietly most evenings, too exhausted to even banter. Rico, though, would not go to sleep until he’d buffed his boots to a sheen.

One of the other boys finally asked him, “Why, why spend time on those?”

Rico answered, “Because when I get back home, I’m going to give my mother the money I’ve made and put these boots away for the son I’ll have someday. I want to keep them as nice as I can for him. I’ll tell him of how hard I’ve worked here and that I’ve also worked to keep these boots for him. That way he’ll know I was thinking about him, even before he was born.”

The other boys chuckled at that as they drifted off to sleep. They couldn’t even think of the next day, their thoughts devoured by exhaustion, much less of the sons and families they’d have in the future.

Finally, the end of the three months came. The cattle had been branded, dehorned, castrated, and safely moved to their winter pastures. The boss man came by that evening, Gabriel by his side. “Tomorrow will be your last day on the job. When you hear Gabe blow his bugle, you line up here and we’ll settle up.” As Gabe translated, he held up his bugle from his Confederate Army days.

The ranch hands once again laid their heads on their saddles that night, but now with lighthearted laughter punctuating the crisp air. Plans for their trips home to Mexico floated through the night. None of them had ever had so much money in their hands before as they would have tomorrow. Rico, though,  continued his nightly ritual, polishing his boots, adding a little saddle wax, until his moonlit reflection illuminated the burnished leather.

Early the next morning, Gabriel’s bugle pierced the morning. The eager boys scrambled up, pulling on their hats and boots. Rico gave his boots one last swipe with his shirt sleeve before he hurried off to from the lateral line the boss man expected from them.

Gabriel sat on his horse on one side, still panting from his bugle call, and the boss man flanked the other side of the boys. The boss man spat, and said, “Look straight ahead, right there into the sun, while we get what we owe you.” The boys squinted and stood as tall as their frames allowed, proud of their hard work and expectant of their reward. Both men on horseback moved back to a stand of brush about ten yards behind the boys and the boss man dropped his arm in a signal. Ten men stepped from the brush behind the boys squinting into the sun, pistols drawn.

A fusillade of gunshots tore into the boys, so fierce and unexpected that even the horses reared and snorted. As the dust floated in the sun’s early rays over the fallen boys, the boss man rode through the bloody quagmire. He stopped at one body where polished boots shone in the early day like a beacon. Over his shoulder, he called out to Gabriel, “Pull the boots off of that one. They’re too good to waste on a dead Mexican. And make sure you burn those bodies good this time. Don’t want no coyote problems like we had with the last batch.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Three Words...

What is your best advice to the world in three words or less? I'll include mine in the comments.