Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Talking in a Winter Wonderland

Bill has been bugging me—I mean, asking me—to get my Christmas letter done. I’m getting to it. After all, wasn’t it just Valentine’s Day? As I’ve said in the past, time’s racing by so fast, if I still had a watch with hands on it I could use it for a fan.

But I don’t have a watch anymore; nobody does. We all have cell phones. Who of you imagined, even fifteen years ago, that most of us would be carrying around a ringing, dinging, buzzing umbilical, from which none of us can stand to be separated for more than a few milliseconds? Why, just today I got an important call from Bill.

“Where the heck have you been?”

“At the store. I’m about to start home. Did you need something?”

“Well, no! But you didn’t answer your phone!”

See what I mean? Cell phones are vitally important! Bill wouldn’t have been able to call to let me know he wondered where I was, without one.

Before I go anywhere, I am groping in my pockets, in my bra, in my purse, or wandering aimlessly through the house on a hunt for my phone. I can’t leave home unless I have it, you know. “Call it,” Bill says, “and you’ll hear the ring.”

“I can’t. It’s on vibrate.”

“Well, call it and I’ll mute the TV, and maybe we can hear it hum.”

It’s hard for me to fathom how we’ve become so dependant on these things. People (usually cell phone salesman-type people) say, “Oh, you need one if you’re in an accident.” What for? Every time a tire squeals, police switchboards are inundated with well-meaning cell callers, anxious to put their equipment to good use. After all, it’s somehow validating to have a cell phone, even more so to have a Blackberry (or a dingle berry, as Bill calls them).

“Well, what if you need to call someone?” these same people say. What if I do? Frankly, thus far I’ve been able to resist the overpowering urge to phone President Obama about the price of turnips at the Piggly Wiggly. I’m almost never lost in the wilderness, and anyway, it’s been my experience that the first thing that goes—in the wilderness—is your phone service. Besides, the number one thing the 911 operator is going to ask me is, “Where are you?” and I’m going to say, “Well, that’s why I’m calling.”

For the most part, my cell phone has been handy for playing solitaire while waiting in the doctor’s office, and for downloading ringtones. Oh, and there are those calls from Bill. When he calls, my phone plays the old Conway Twitty hit, ‘Hello, Darlin’’. Of course my cell is frequently buried in my coat pocket, or elsewhere, so I don’t hear it ring until Bill has called me three or four times. When I finally answer it, usually juggling knives on some dangerous, covert mission at Target, he screams, “Where the heck have you been?” And so it goes. It’s so good to know he worries about me. I don’t know how I ever got home safely without his calls.

Kc and I never talk; we text. She has what’s called a ‘Qwerty’ phone, which means it has a tiny keyboard, like a typewriter—each key representing a single letter in the alphabet. My phone, on the other hand, is old-fashioned (it must be a year old) and has a regular phone keyboard, which means I have to ‘type through’ the alphabet to form the correct words. That’s why Kc often receives messages from me that read, “Gi!, Hmw aqe xot?”

Doesn’t matter. She knows what I mean.

Here’s hoping you and your year have been blessed, and that the good Lord recognizes you when you show up in church. As for us, we’re just fine. Life is and has been very good, and we are ever grateful for our blessings—even our cell phones.

Call us sometime.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Near-Death Windmill

Here's another story I wrote a few years ago. Merry Christmas, one and all!

All I wanted last Christmas was a windmill. You know—the eight-foot-tall yard kind—silver with red tips on the fan blades and the pointer. A few days before the holiday I knew I had one because Bill, with the subtlety of Rush Limbaugh, told me to stay out of the garage.

But, Christmas morning there was no windmill under the tree. When we were done opening presents, though, Bill led me outside and there it was—a small, very heavy package.

“There’s going to be some assembly required,” he said as I looked over the briefcase-sized box, trying to imagine a windmill ever coming out of it.

“You know,” I suggested, “the store probably assembles these things for a small fee...”

Bill scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous—we’ll do it ourselves. Can’t take more than 30 minutes.”

I was not convinced.

The previous winter we had spent most of a January day lying on either side of our yard tractor on the freezing concrete in the driveway, trying to put together a snowblade. Deciphering the ‘translated-from-original-Chinese’ directions that came with it was as tough as cracking the Rosetta Stone, even though the salesman had guaranteed us that ‘any moron’ could figure it out. We two morons finally got it done—but not before frightening the livestock and alienating every neighbor in two miles. The combinations of vernacular we invented that day still hang in the air over Cheyenne. And the snowblade? Well, it works in no more than 3 inches of snow—and best serves as a lawn ornament.

Anyway, remembering the hours we spent screaming at each other through the rods, blades, and belts under the tractor—and the time it took us to thaw out, I thanked Bill profusely for my windmill, and suggested we put it together when the weather moderated. Say June.

Long about May, I was rummaging around in the garage and found the windmill box again. I pulled out the directions and took them in to Bill.

He glanced at the page. “I thought about this all winter,” he declared, “and I think we should put the windmill in concrete—that way it won’t blow over.” He set about, that very day, digging a four-foot square hole, about a foot deep, in the front yard. He carefully plumbed and leveled the hole and spread the dirt in the driveway. Finally, his energy depleted, he collapsed in the house, the actual erection of the windmill left for another day.

Toward the end of the month, I noticed that a poplar tree had sprouted in the hole out front, and was doing quite well.

In July, I came across the directions to the windmill again and put them by Bill’s chair. The following Saturday we dragged the container out of the garage and opened it flat. The only parts inside that were recognizable were the fan blade and the pointer. The rest looked like scraps from metal shop. Enthusiastically, Bill read the first direction on the sheet. “Assemble windmill legs and top support, using provided bolts and nuts.” He set his jaw and turned purple around the eyes.

“Which bolts?” he puzzled. “What legs? Is there as PICTURE for God’s sake?”

There wasn’t. His enthusiasm went south.

We began sorting the pile of silver metal to size—finding strips of angle iron in three lengths, and flat strips in two. There was nothing about what went where. Bill flew by the seat of his pants and made legs out of the angled strips, tightening the nuts as he worked. “What’s next?” he snarled, after bolting together all four legs.

“Number two,” I read, in my best Girl Scout Helper voice. “Attach connecting strips in crisscross pattern between legs, using bolts inserted to connect leg strips.”

Bill glared into space and slowly undid the nuts he had just put on. He attached the metal strips, ending up with all four legs hooked together in a tight, vertical bundle. “This isn’t right,” he bellowed, to no one, “it’s supposed to be a pyramid.” He tried to spread it out at the bottom, tugging frantically at the legs.

Perversely, I was struck that he looked just like Wiley Coyote, working against time to build the ‘ACME BIRD-KILLING MACHINE’ before the Roadrunner came around the bend. I snorted—barely controlled laughter escaping through my nose.

Bill fried me with a glance. “What’s next?”

“Number three,” I read. “Do not tighten bolts more than finger-tight, as adjustment of the legs will be necessary.”

Bill, coming from the Mr. Atlas School of Finger Tight, had put some torque on the nuts when he tightened them down the second time. He had trouble loosening them the third. Then he discovered that the lengths of metal were in the wrong order and the tower was upside down, fat on the top and pointy at the bottom. He took it apart for the fourth time.

I felt like a rabbit in the headlights.

In a move toward self-preservation, I strolled around the yard—fearful that he might hear me sniggering and kill me. I imagined the headlines—Rural Housewife Found Hanged On Upside-down Windmill—Devil Worship Suspected.

When I returned, the windmill was together, and it actually looked like a windmill. Bill, still gimlet-eyed and panting, went out in the yard and stared at the hole he had dug two months before. It had caved in around the edges and the poplar tree in it was about a foot high. He scratched his chin. “I don’t think we’ll need to plant this thing in concrete after all.” Glancing around, he located a new spot for the windmill a few feet away from the hole. “Let’s put it right here.”

Together we carried the windmill to its place in the yard. Bill anchored it with stakes that came in the box. I painted it white, with green trim, to match the house.

Bill rejected cold my suggestion of solder or Loctite™ for the dozens of nuts and bolts on the legs. “We don’t need that,” he spat, “the paint will keep the nuts on.”

Life, it seems, is full of these little trials. Perhaps ‘assembly-required’ purchases are relationship tests in disguise—formulated by some screw-loose think-tank to put as much strain on the participants as possible. Well, Bill got it together and we both survived. But the windmill—that’s another story.

Every couple of weeks or so, Bill goes out and greases the fan hub. Then he pounds the anchor stakes back into the ground—and tightens the leg bolts that constantly work loose in our often sub-zero Wyoming wind. Last weekend he came in, chattering and chapped, after about an hour in the front yard. “I need a new wrench for Christmas,” he remarked, tossing the old one in the trash. “And while you’re at the hardware store, pick up another grease gun and some Loctite™.”

Realizing that any 'I-told-you-so’ comment would instantly catapult me to death’s door, I nodded in enthusiastic agreement.

What do I want for Christmas this year? I don’t have a clue. Some hot cider and a good book sound pretty appealing, though. By the way, if you drop by to visit anytime soon, don’t cut through the yard. There’s a big hole out front—just east of my windmill. Bill offered to fill it in next spring, but I told him not to. I’d hate for him to kill that little tree.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cold Ode

Yesterday, I caught a cold.
Today, it's what's got me.
I'm puttin' scarves around my neck
And whiskey in my tea.

My ears ache with a vengeance.
My bones are sore, to boot.
If Mom were still alive today
She'd brew sarsaparilla root.

She'd rub my chest with Vapo-Rub
She would make me stay in bed.
She'd pour concoctions down my throat
And lay hot cloths on my head.

She'd pile on quilts and covers
Until I soaked the sheets with sweat.
She'd make me sleep the day away
And serve food, soft and wet.

She'd yell at me if I got up
And order me back down.
She'd feed me oatmeal with a spoon
And do it with a frown.

She'd mend me with her voodoo.
Cured in two weeks from her ways.
But with her gone I'll have this cold
Another fourteen days.
L G Vernon 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Escape

Here's a super-short story I wrote a few years ago~~Enjoy! LG

Mouse-ear sized leaves shimmered in the sunlight overhead. Green, so green. Mariah peered north. There was nothing, yet.

“I’ll be there. I’ll meet you by the elm at the corner of the pasture. Wait for me,” he’d said. Mariah smiled, recalling the flash of his grin.

She eyed her suitcase, then sauntered around the tree's trunk, fingering the bark. Please come. Please, please. She squinted north again to the rise in the dirt road. Her mind said she heard the sound of a car. Her breath caught; she lifted the suitcase, then dropped it. No, no car, yet.

The screen door banged against the empty house. The windows mocked her. He’s not coming, you know, they said. He never was. Mariah smoothed her pink dimity skirt, then her curls. He liked her curls. She moved to the other side of the tree so the house couldn’t see her. Tears throbbed in her throat, burning her eyelids.

“He’ll be here,” she declared. Breezes tickled the mouse-ear leaves, dappling her with shadows. His car crested the rise. “Told you so,” she whispered to the house.

“Hello, Mr. Bundy,” she said, climbing into the sedan.

“Hello, Mariah, dear—and please call me Ted.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Smashing the Atom~~One Boob at a Time

When I was a kid I loved tests. I remember the Iowa Tests with great fondness. I can still smell the sharpened  Number Two pencils and see them lined up on my desktop in all their yellow splendor. I always did well on tests~~one of those egghead-nerd-music-geek-can't-run-for-squat-kids. I couldn't catch a baseball, either. But I was really good at those tests.

Now I hate tests.

Because of my advanced decrepitude, I fall into that medical demographic called Tests-R-Us. And, since my birthday rolls around every September, it's Test Month. I do appreciate that these things are important and  I enjoy extraordinarily good health (other than being roughly the size of the Hindenburg), in no small part because of preventative screening, I'm sure. Except for requiring an emergency c-section during the birth of my daughter~~a baby so humongous I couldn't have popped her out with a shoehorn and an overhead crane~~I've never had surgery in my life.

Well, I take it back. There was the matter of the jigsaw puzzle I made out of my right leg during the Queen Mother of all rollerskating mishaps when I was twelve. I will be forever grateful to the orthopedic surgeon who happened to wander into the ER room that New Year's Day. I can still see the look of relief on my mother's face when he turned to her and said, "I can fix this."

Anyway, I saw my doctor for a routine visit back in August and I knew what was coming by the look on his face as he went over my records. "Hmm," he said, "I see it's time for your annual bloodwork, your pap smear, your colo/rectal exam, your pneumonia shot, and your mammogram."

"Oh, goody."

Becky, his nurse and co-conspirator took his notes away and told me to meet her at the nurse's station and she'd have my appointments all lined up. "What do you want to do first?"

'Heroin," I answered.

So, for my birthday month, I got shots, learned what it will be like when I am captured by aliens and am victim of the anal probe, had my blood sucked out by a woman with a barbed needle and absolutely no understanding of human anatomy, and~~last but not least~~I got a mammogram.

Two days after my birthday I hopped on down to the radiology lab, which now has new exterior packaging and is called the Women's Imaging Pavillion. It's even separate from the regular radiology lab.
I know all this because when I arrived for my mammogram, I went to the wrong building. I walked into the regular radiology lab to find myself in the presence of a county jail prisoner in jail yellows, accompanied by two deputy sheriffs. They were the only people there. They all watched curiously as I walked up to the counter. "I have an appointment at 11:15," I said, very quietly, to the receptionist.

The woman behind the counter asked for my name, which I provided, then looked at her computer screen. "I don't see your name. What are you here for?"

This poor guy behind me has probably been in jail for 6 months, I thought.  ". . . er . . . uh . . . my annual mammogram," I whispered, with great subtlety.

Unexpectedly, the woman behind the counter developed the vocal skills of a tobacco auctioneer working without a microphone. "A MAMM-O-GRAM? OH, MAMM-O-GRAMS AREN'T ADMINISTERED HERE. FOR A MAMM-O-GRAM, YOU HAVE TO GO DOWN TO THE NEXT BUILDING."

I really did not want to turn around at this point. But since the only exit door was across the waiting room behind me, and since I lack the ability to walk through walls, I pivoted to see the prisoner sitting, open-mouthed, his eyes rivited on my not inconsiderable chest.  In that moment I knew absolutely that Waldo, or whatever his name was, would be back at the jail giving the guys in his cell block an earful in an hour. For the purposes of his story, I would be transformed from an upper middle-aged matron into the hottest babe in shoe leather~~probably sporting several tattos and enough body piercings to set off airport metal detectors.

Resisting the urge to pull my jacket closed, I scampered off and drove around to the next parking lot where I parked and went into the proper building. I knew it was the right one because there was a sign out front with a ballerina-shaped line drawing of a woman on it, with Women's Imaging Pavillion in script so fancy I could barely make it out.

Considering that men are victims of breast cancer, too, I wondered where they go for their mammograms.

Upon entering, I couldn't help but notice that the waiting area was substantially different than the sterile metal and naugahyde one I had just left. The room was huge, high-ceilinged, with skylights offering indirect natural light that accented several floral arrangements, artistically scattered on tables here and there. The furniture was soft and low, in muted tones of mauve and grey. The dulcet-voiced woman behind the pink granite reception counter took my name and told me to have a seat.

I had sifted through several printed advertisements for local atheticians, dermatologists, and plastic surgeons, as well as a stack of magazines~~not a Popular Mechanics or American Rifleman among them~~and had just settled down to read an informative article entitled Sex After 50, when a perky woman in a scrub outfit with pink flowers on it came out and asked me to come with her. "Hi, I'm Ashley," she told me by way of introduction as she ushered me down a long hallway, "I'll be your mammographer, today."

She was so perky, in fact, that I expected to hear the 'keep your seatbacks and tray tables in an upright position and here is the oxygen mask' talk at any second. She opened a door into a tiny dressing room, with another door on the opposite wall. "Take everything off on top," she said. "You can leave your necklace on, just turn it around so it hangs down your back." She gestured to a small basket on top of the cabinet. In it were individually-packaged moist towlettes, an aerosol can of anti-perspirant, and some tri-fold brochures about the Women's Imaging Center. There were also several discount coupons for a local spa. "Use the towelettes to wipe off any deodorant you may have used," she said. "There's a gown in the cabinet. Put it on, open in front, and come out the other door when you're ready."

I thanked Ashley for her help. She left and I did as she'd instructed, reaching into the cabinet to extract the 'gown', which turned out to be a shawl kind of thing that just draped over my shoulders, hanging down in the front and back, and sized for someone with the dimensions of a rhinocerous. I had just put it on when Ashley tapped on the other door. "I'm ready when you are," she called.

I strolled out of my feminine little cubicle, covering my front with one half of the front of my bolero, cavalierly tossing the other around my neck. "I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille," I declared. Ashley laughed and I noticed she had a heating pad on the mammogram machine. She was holding what looked like some small bandaids~~with pink flowers on them, what else?~~and said, "Let's put these on, shall we?"

Before I knew it, she whipped the fronts of my bolero back over my shoulders and smacked the bandaids~~one for each side~~on my chest, like little blindfolds. "Do I get a cigarette, too?" I asked.

"Oh, there's no smoking in The Pavillion." My humor was clearly lost on her. She took the heating pad off the machine, and for a little woman,  proved surprisingly powerful as she dragged me into its clutches.

Now, for those of you who've never had the inestimable pleasure of a mammogram, let me tell you all about it. The machine itself is tower-shaped, with a set of clear plexiglass 'shelves' that protrude from one side. Controlled by foot pedals, these shelves are actually a set of large flat pincers, between which the anatomical parts in question are squeezed, one at a time.

"I hate this," I said, as Ashley used the foot pedals to raise the shelves up to the level of my chest. Then separated them so 'I' would fit in between.

"Well, to be honest, not a single woman has ever come in here and said, 'Whoo-hoo! I just looooovvee this!'" she remarked, as she plopped half my chest onto the bottom shelf and pushed and shoved, until it, with its pink, flowerdy festoon, was in the position she wanted. "Don't move," she said.

I heard the servo whir and the top shelf of the machine began to descend. In short order, my bazoom had taken on the dimensions of a large, white pizza. There was another noise, Ashley said, "All done," and the shelves came apart.

In a matter of seconds, Ashley shoved down that side of my bolero, pulled up the other side, whirled me in place and was taking the other picture. "I'd like a dozen wallets and an 8 X 10 for the family album," I told her as she wiped off the shelves.

Ashley led me back down the hall to my cubicle where I thanked her. "But, tell me," I said, "if I broke my leg or needed to have my knee x-rayed, would I come here, this being the Women's Imaging Pavillion, and all?"

"Oh, no," she answered. "You'd just go to regular radiology for that."

So, while I got dressed I wondered just who the Women's Imaging Pavillion was fooling. Are there really women who wouldn't go for mammography if they had to go to regular radiology for it? Is the minor embarrassment I felt when the purpose of my visit was announced so vociferously at the wrong building really enough to prevent women from availing themselves of life-saving prescreening? C'mon. Big girl panties are availble on aisle five.

As I walked out of the huge, luxurious building, I wondered how many free mammograms could be performed at the regular radiology building, if several million dollars hadn't been spent on The Pavillion.

Oh, and a couple of other things before I forget: Those little pink bandaids hurt like a bitch when you pull them off. And~~if men had testicular exams with machines like these, they'd invent ones that were much, much more comfortable.

For now, I'm just Linda.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gardening in the Rockies~~Losing the Battle, and the War, too

These little beauties on the right (yes, little is the operative word) are a squash and a tomato~~
perhaps the most expensive squash and tomato in the country. They serve as examples of what judicious gardening practices can produce during an interesting growing season in southeast Wyoming.

I love to garden; I really do. I love scrounging around in the garage in order to find my gardening tools, having haphazardly tossed them in there during a September blizzard the previous year. I love pulling on my gardening gloves for the first time in the spring, feeling the frenetic rustling and scrabbling of the spider families nestled there, apartment-style,  in the fingertips. I love watching those same gloves rocket across the garage to hit the windows on the opposite wall and slide down behind Bill's table saw. But I digress . . .

In case you didn't know, and most people don't, (considering that the Weather Channel weatherpersons are more apt to spout the 'F' word than they are  the 'W' word),  Wyoming has been in the throes of a serious drought for several years. Seven years, I think. But God forbid the weatherpersons should ever tell the rest of you what goes on in our neck of the woods . . ..  'Yes, folks, that winter storm is barreling out of Canada into the Dakotas. By tomorrow night it will be deep into Wyo----F*&k!----DID THAT MAKE MY HEART POUND, OR WHAT, BOB . . . heh heh heh, I almost mentioned that state where Yellowstone is!' . . ..

Anyway, back to the drought. Since we live on a well and electrically pump our own water, I haven't grow a garden at all during the drought.  Pumping water for irrigation is not cost-effective. That was my excuse, anyway. Truthfully, I haven't grown an in-the-ground garden for many years. For other reasons.

We have rabbits.

Not pet rabbits, although we had those, too. Kc wrangled them at the county fair, along with chickens, ducks, geese, guinea pigs, and turkeys, for several embarrassingly formative years that she avoids speaking of with great skill (maybe she'll be a weatherperson--she does like the 'F' word). But, I digress, again . . .

Back to the rabbits. Cottontails by the dozens inhabit our property. These are not Thumper-from-Bambi rabbits. These are John Rambo-from-Rambo rabbits. When we still had Buck the Wonder Dog, they were kept at bay, but with his passing some years ago, there has been no stopping them.

Get another dog,  you say.

Uh, no. Thank you for suggesting that, though.

See, it's cold here in the winter. In fact cold is insufficient as a descriptor for the bone-deep chill of 'W' in winter. As a weatherperson would say, if they EVER mentioned Wyoming, 'It's F^%&ing freezing out there!' So, that handy-dandy, outside-type, summertime dog would become a Nanook of the North Dogsicle, or, more likely at our advanced age and soft-heartedness, become an inside dog~~fast, quick, and in a hurry~~thus negating his effectiveness as a rabbit extermination system.

Back when there was Buck the Wonder Dog and no drought~~when conveniently-occurring thunderstorms full of water came over every day or so~~I grew a summer garden, 50 X 80 feet.  I ordered seed from Burpee and a host of other seed companies, their catalogues entertaining me through the cold winter months as I planned out the incredible harvest I'd enjoy, come fall.

We had a Troybilt rototiller with which Bill plowed the garden. Oh, how I looked forward to early spring, the kitchen windows thrown open to the sound of him cursing like a weatherperson as he was dragged from one end of the plot to the other by that huge machine. Once he was finished and had limped back inside, I used stakes and measured out my rows, following the diagram I drew when I ordered my seed. It usually took me two days to plant.

Buck (during this period nicknamed 'the bastard') stayed on the perimeter of the plot, cowed by my screaming, but if I went into the garage for something, I occasionally came outside to see him running in great arcing swaths through my carefully planted rows~~thus his nickname, and my purchase of a sturdy chain which attached him to his doghouse. I used the appellation so frequently that Kc, then very small, called Buck 'a bassett'. She'd climb up on the baseboard heater under the dining room window and yell through the glass, "Buck, you bassett, you be'er stay out'ta Mom's gar-nen." (see?? A born weatherperson).

Anyway, while Buck was around, I grew some amazing crops. We had corn, sugar snap peas, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, several kinds of squash, kohlrabi, turnips, beets, carrots, cabbage, brocolli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and pumpkins, along with a variety of herbs, including catnip, which now grows 'volunteer' everywhere the seed stops. But once Buck was gone, everything changed. Everything.

I'd plant, just like always, and as soon as the tender plants came up, they would come in the night. Rabbits. Dirty bassetts, as Kc would say.  I'd get up in the early morning, dawn my gardening ensemble (fodder for another blog, another time), grab a cup of coffee and walk out in the sunlight to enjoy the fruits of my labors. Half a row of corn would be gone---HALF A FIFTY-FOOT ROW! Sometimes a whole row~~or several rows. Muttering like a weatherperson, I replanted at first. But I soon saw the futility of that.

I soldiered on, though, often flying out the backdoor, grabbing a hoe or a rake on my way through the garage to scatter the gray army into the lilac bushes at the back of the garden. Herds of rabbits munched through my produce like popcorn-eaters at a dollar movie. Disdaining the weeds that sprouted between the rows, they hoovered up whatever I'd planted. My garden became a chewed, shriveled wasteland.

The last straw came when my well-meaning husband helped some friends clean out their barn. They brought truckloads of manure out to our place. I was thrilled! We lovingly spread it on the garden. The following spring, several noxious weeds, including bindweed, which the rabbits ignored, came up with a vengeance. They proved the end of my in-the-ground endeavors.

Since then, I've turned to container planting. I plant flowers and vegetables with some measure of success. Last fall, I was in town and cut behind a local feed store to beat some heavy road traffic (in Wyoming a tractor is usually involved) and found a bonanza. Store personnel had foolishly discarded a six-foot square, two-foot deep, metal bin. Why, it was perfectly good! I wheeled my 84 Chrysler with the big dent in the front passenger door (it's perfectly good, too) into a parking spot and marched right inside. Oddly, the manager looked relieved when I asked him if I could have the bin. I agreed to pick it up as soon as I could drive home and return with Bill and his truck.

"Boy, the neighbors are gonna love this," he mumbled as we hefted the bin into the back of Old Blue an hour later. It was pretty rusty and had a couple bullet holes in it. I didn't care.

"Yeah, it's gonna be great, isn't it!"

We hauled my bin home and pulled it out of the truck, dragging it over near the woodpile so I could take the winter to decide what I was going to do with it.

"F%^king fantastic," Bill the weatherperson murmured.

Come spring, we carried my bin up to the house and placed it between the front flowerbed and a huge spruce tree, on a spot I call no man's land, because grass won't grow there. I used two bricks in place of the bin's missing leg and positioned several of my pots around its perimeter on the ground, envisioning a veritable Oasis of Bliss once the plants grew in. Then Bill and I were off to the garden shop at Walmart. I needed soil for my new planter, and plants for everything.

Once at the garden shop, I asked the clerk if she could tell me about the various potting mixes they had in stock. She ambled over to the pallets of bags and stared into space for a few seconds. "Well, they're mostly dirt, I think." I agreed, deciding not to ask her about the fertilizer stacked nearby. Bill brought the truck up, and we loaded twenty bags. I also bought plants: three kinds of squash, a dozen tomato plants, several herbs, geraniums, dahlias, petunias, lobelia, snap dragons, pansies--you name it, I bought it.

I wrote a large check and presented it to the dirt expert. Bill drove us home, where he pulled right up to the Oasis of Bliss. I tossed some rocks in the bottom of the bin, for drainage, and he cut open and dumped the soil in. I carried the plants over onto the concrete in front of the garage, where they could 'harden up' for a few days before I planted them. Bill watered down the new earth in my bin. All was right with the world.

A few days later, I planted, watered, gave everybody a shot of Miracle Grow fertilizer, and waited for things to burgeon. But the weather remained cool, so it was slow going. Finally, in early June, it began to warm up a bit, and the drought was declared officially 'over'~~not by the TV weatherpersons, mind you, but by the National Weather Service. They apparently can utter the 'W' word without risk of instant flagellation by the Weather Gods.

It was raining everyday, and my baby plants were loving it. Then one day it hailed. Just a bit (I forgot to mention, it hails a lot, here). Everybody survived. Things were moving right along by then. My squash plants had secondary leaves and a couple of blossoms ready to open.

A couple of days later, I was packing to go to a writers' conference when I heard the emergency weather radio go off. Severe thunderstorms, it said. Right here, right now.

It hailed.

Huge hail.

Hard hail.

Lots of hail.

The ground was white with it, the gutters clogged with it. It hailed so hard I couldn't see my Oasis of Bliss. The roar of hail hitting the house was deafening.

As the storm passed, I could see large chips of asphalt roofing in the water pouring off the roof. Out the back windows, I could see paint chips all over the ground. I knew before I went outside that our roof and our siding were gone. I was right; they were.

The Oasis of Bliss, my Island of Joy, was flattened. All my plants were beaten to mush, photosynthesis a thing of the past. I sat in my recliner and cried. I called the writers' conference and told them I couldn't come. Then I called the insurance adjuster. For a while, in the after-storm quiet, I was a weatherperson in the privacy of my own living room.

The adjuster showed up two days later. He's a very nice man and estimated that the storm did about $12,000 damage to our house. A siding crew came and put on new siding. There were so many roofs damaged that I'm still on a list for that repair, which will be done in the spring.

The Oasis? I was going to replant, but a few days after the storm, wan leaves began popping up. In short order, I had four squash plants, two tomato plants and a host of flowers that magically reappeared amidst the wreckage. But our nights through the summer have remained cool~~too cool.  And it hailed more.

My Oasis of Bliss looks like a barfly. The plants are tattoed with brown fractures, their spindly limbs scarcely able to bear their own weight. In spite of vigourous fertilizing and occasional weatherperson-type peptalks,(C',mon you little motherF^%&ers, grow) they've remained measley--weak--pitiful. Like small, effete high school sophomores, cruelly forced into football by hopeful fathers.

It was snowing when I got up yesterday morning. I went out in Bill's slippers and my ratty bathrobe and pulled off all the green tomatoes and the single zucchini you see in the picture above. I told the plants goodbye and thanked them for their wasted effort.

It froze hard last night. I think they were  relieved.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

I looked in the mirror and fiddled with my hair, pulling the curls out a little more on the back of my head. I had a date--my first date in college--and I wanted to look extra special. I say I fiddled with my hair. That's true in the generic sense. It was my hair; I'd paid good money for it.

There were a couple of logistical problems that were looming large with me. To begin with, my date, an airman from the local airforce base whom I'd met in one of my classes, was exactly my height. My height if I were barefoot, hunkered over a bit, and had stuck my hair back with Butch Wax, which was pink, smelled like . . . well, I can't really describe what it smelled like, exactly . . . maybe a combination of bubble gum and cotton candy (besides, only boys used it). It predated hair gel and bore a strong resemblance to Silly Putty, only you couldn't transfer comics with it.

The fact was, Dave was shorter than me, and that was that.

This was the late 1960s.  Girls wore their hair two ways--either straight as a string, often ironed, with bangs that draped artistically over their eyes like those girls who hung out with The Beatles and The Stones--or ratted and sprayed. My hair fit into the latter category. It was nape-length in back, very short on the left side and chin length on the right side. I went to bed every night with it wrapped around brush rollers (little hollow mesh rods with a brush inside them that protruded through the mesh--holding the hair on it and making sleep next to impossible--I am sure they were invented by a bald mysogenist), and awoke with a headache and a stiff neck--but  day-uhm, my hair looked good!

Every morning, I took control of the bathroom where I pulled out the rollers and  ratted (back combed) my hair until it stood straight out all over my head. Then I used about half a can of Aqua Net Extra Firm Control hair spray, creating a crispy tumbleweed that I then 'picked out' with a rattail comb until it resembled a fat, brown helmet, the short side tucked behind my left ear, the long side nearly obscuring my right eye. The poufy top added about 4 inches to my already 5-10 frame. More hairspray completed my coiffure--and I was good to go. I'm fairly certain that had I experienced the misfortune of being run over by a tractor/mower, my hair would have survived intact.

Anyway, my usual hairdo, considering the height issue, and Dave's lack of it, was out of the question, so I decided to wear my 'fall'. I bought it with babysitting money when I was a senior in high school and kept it on my dresser on one of those white styrofoam heads. It matched my haircolor sort-of exactly, but was shiny in an electric way--like most acrylic hair of the period.

Sometimes I wore my fall 'down'--meaning it trailed down my back from its anchor of bobby pins on the back of my head--like moss on a tree in the Louisiana swamplands. Falls never tend to adhere to the whole back of your head. They erupt, instead, from beneath whatever part of your own hair you've used to cover up where you've pinned them on, and there is invariably a strange, often visible void underneath, where your short hair is hiding, kind of like you've suffered some disfiguring head accident and part of your scalp no longer grows hair.

On this particular evening, I opted for a more sophisticated 'do', and so spent some time ratting my fall and molding it into a succession of barrel curls, skinned my own hair straight back, and--using several dozen bobby pins--attached the hairpiece securely to my head so that the curls hung dramatically down the back  like a cluster of overripe concord grapes.

The other problem was on the opposite end of my considerable geography: shoes. Back then, which is evidenced today by my now lumpy and hurty feet, I wore high heels--the higher the better. I scrounged around in the back of my closet and finally came up with a pair of flat-heeled pumps. Looking myself over in the bathroom mirror, I could only hope Dave would find fascination in my blue eyeshadow, and oh-so-popular false eyelashes,  and thus not notice that those ugly flat shoes made my legs look like howitzers.

Dave picked me up in his little green sedan and took me out to dinner, then he took me dancing, shepherding me brazenly into a bar near the airbase where they didn't ask for my ID, and where he drank beer and I drank soda. I'd never been in a bar in my life, and was terrified that any minute the beer police would swoop down, cart me off, and I'd have to call my folks for bail money. But after a few minutes it became clear that the barmaids would only have cared about my age if I'd needed  a diaper change or a bottle warmed--and were occupied for the most part in fending off groping airmen while trying to be flirtatious enough to get a decent tip.

Dave turned out to be an excellent dancer, and since I'd spent all of my teenage years dancing alone in my living room, I took the opportunity to make it clear that I was a pretty good dancer, myself. I drew the attention of another airman who was much, much larger than Dave, who danced with me several times, too.

In high school, when I complained to my mother that I never had any dates, she consoled me by telling me that my time would come--that when I was older, and met men, instead of boys, I would have dates. Well, in my mind, my time had finally come, and I was having a ball. Dave wasn't particularly thrilled that I was having a good time with people other than himself, so after a few dances he glommed onto me again and wouldn't let me go.

We rocked out. There was a live band that made up with enthusiasm what they lacked in techical skill. Dave grabbed me, spun me, twirled me. We truly sweated to the oldies--which were newies, back then. I loped off to the ladies room several times where I got dirty looks from tough-looking women who smoked unfiltered cigarettes and pulled up their nylons while I wiped gallons of perspiration off my face, fiddled with my hair, and hoped I didn't smell too much like a construction worker.

We left at eleven-thirty or so and drove back to my house. Dave parked out front, conveniently concealing his car in front of some of Mom's big shrubs. We had a few spare minutes before my midnight curfew. He turned off the engine and the lights. It was cozy there in the dark quiet and he smelled like Jade East aftershave. I knew immediately how nice girls like me got from the front seat to the back seat. Dave put his arm around me and urged me over next to him for a goodnight kiss. I have to tell you, it was stunning, exhilarating, mesmerizing--and seemed to go on forever. My first, real-live, grown-up kiss.  When it ended, he gazed deeply into my eyes. I felt him lean over and I prepared for another one.

Instead he reached over the seat back. "Here," he murmured, placing something gently onto my lap. "Your hair fell off." In the vacuum that followed, I could hear the car's engine ticking as it cooled.

I looked down at my lap, and there crouched my fall. Thinking back, I can't decide now whether it looked like a wet cat or a small, sick possum. We sat there--me, Dave and my hair--in chummy silence for a minute or two, but somehow the romance was gone. With as much dignity as I could muster, I thanked Dave (who had the grace not to crack so much as a smile)  for the wonderful evening, casually picked up my hair, got out of the car and went in the house.

My folks were in bed, the house dark and still. In my bedroom, I kicked off my ugly shoes and pinned my damp, sticky hairpeice onto its styrofoam head. Glancing in the mirror, I was struck with the knowledge that with my real hair slicked back and my eyes made up, I looked a lot like Adolf Hitler in drag.

Without the moustache, of course.

Nice picture, huh? I'm the little girl out front. The woman against whom I am nestled is my maternal grandmother, Lucy. My big sis, big brother, and my little brother are all there, too, smiling out of the past and hurling memories at me with such force I am nearly overwhelmed. When Mom took this snapshot, I'm sure she never imagined it would be displayed as it is now.

It's the mid-1950s. Grandma was losing her sight to cataracts, and there was no surgery back then. My grandmother was my lodestone--and as she coped with her impending blindness, my esteem for her grew. With her Ozark Mountains, one-room schoolhouse education, she mesmerized me with poetry: Wordsworth, Longfellow, Shakespeare, Poe. She could recite, completely from memory, hundreds of pieces of poetry. She said that memorization was simple when one listened to a dozen children, in several different grades, reciting their lessons at the front of the class.

She wrote poetry herself, as well as desert history, and published numerous chapbooks of her works. Her love of language and her appreciation for knowledge, her need for it, guided everything she did. Blindness was an inconvenience. A bump in the road  she hated but endured.

I remember her hands. If a turtle had hands, they would look like my grandmother's. Wrinkled, scarred, the palms so soft they felt like chamois, even they looked wise. As Grandma's eyes went out, I was more and more convinced that her hands could see. I watched as she snapped beans, braided her hair, sewed on buttons--a myriad of tasks.

She lived out on the California desert, near Yermo. She'd carved paradise into the sand, her small acreage dotted with trees and shrubs. Her place became a haven for everything that walked, flew or crawled.  Grandma used a cane by then--sometimes, two canes. In addition to the cataracts, arthritis had come calling, too, and her knees were almost gone, her elbows and shoulders on fire. But she neither needed nor wanted help.

Seldom addressing the dim wold of shadows within which she lived, she went on as she always had. When we drove the 80 miles across the San Bernardino Mountains to visit, which we did often, one of my favorite things to do with her was water."Let's go outside," she'd say, making me a conspirator in her need to escape into nature.

She led the way through the cluttered house, her cane tapping on the hard floors. She'd admonish me to 'keep still' as we went out. "You never know what we might see." Jackrabbits drank from the waterers she'd scattered about and loped off at our arrival. Roadrunners, lizards, and coyotes visited, too.

Snakes worried her. Sidewinders often coiled in the cool shade of her trees, or came to drink in the wells she'd dug around them. Often, she traded her cane for a hoe, just in case. She had a grizzled crew of outside cats, who were not only mousers, but snakers, too.

She counted steps, knowing precisely the distances she needed to walk between trees, dragging the waterhose along with her. She'd stop, reach out and tap a tree trunk with her cane or her hoe and point the water dead into the well.

"But how do you know, Grandma?"

"Know what?"

"Where you are? You can't see."

Her smile was always just a little bit smug, a whole lot proud. "Well, I have 23 trees around this place. The first one is at the end of the house. I can feel the sun when I step out of the shade of the patio. I can feel the breeze coming off the dry lake and from that I can tell whether it'll be a scorcher, or not. I keep that breeze coming across me from the right and just walk on to the next tree. My body tells me when I've stepped into its shade."

And so it would go, Grandma telling me how she got on, and me learning so much from what she didn't say. My love for her was absolute, my pride of place at her side whenever the opportunity arose.

Eventually, cataract surgery became an option, and so we drove out to the desert and brought Grandma back with us to the hospital in San Bernardino, where a team of doctors operated on her eyes. Afterward, for many days, she lay inert in her hospital bed, even her busy hands stilled,  her head  held rigid with sandbags, her eyes covered. And, in the end, her ability to see was restored.

She handled this restoration with the same off-hand attitude as she did everything else. But I caught the softening of her features and the brightness of her eyes when she looked at her suddenly much older grandchildren. Her family and her beloved desert had been restored to her. It was a miracle that still leaves me breathless.

I have, however, always known that my grandmother saw more, blind, than most people do in a lifetime.

Lucy Burns McShan Coke was the last person buried in the cemetery at Calico, a ghost town in the Calico Mountains above Yermo, now operated as a tourist attaction by San Bernardino County. It's a wonderful little town, full of mystery and history. I strongly recommend it as an adventure if you're ever wandering around out that way.

If you do go, stop by the cemetery and tell Grandma I said hello. She'd like that.

Monday, September 28, 2009


"Youth is a blunder,
Manhood a struggle,
Old age a regret."
~~Benjamin Disraeli~~

I see them.

The dead come—came—with the territory, and have never left. They don’t tell you about that at the academy. Oh, they tell you about death, all right. They just don’t tell you about the dead. And even during the darkest, most drunken moments of those off-duty late-night choir practices, no one ever says, “Hey guys, I see the dead. Do you see the dead?”

But we all see them.

I haven’t worn a Sam Browne in years. Probably couldn’t buckle on the one that hangs in the back of my closet if I wanted to. It’s dusty with age, like me, and the leather’s dry-rotted. I used to keep it spit-shined—back in the days when I wore it. I used wadding polish on the brass of the keepers, and on my badge and on my nameplate. Now the kids I see in uniform—all of them look about nine to me—use Velcro keepers to hold their gear in place, and most times it’s not even leather. It’s that nylon stuff that’s become so popular.

They don’t wear real badges anymore, either. They’re sewn on. Embroidered. Seems kind of candy-assed to me. It’s hard to read them, sometimes, when I get close enough to a cop to look. But when I scan past the newfangled uniforms, the shorts, the bicycles, the fancy equipment, the sewn-on badge, and the tiny, tapered, politically correct baton, and look into their eyes—really look—I know they see them, too.

Resignation, not fear, is what stares back at me.

Once in a while I talk to a cop. He or she’ll size me up at first. Oh, I know what they’re thinking. Old, shriveled. Couldn’t know a thing about what I do. But then we mesh. We know the same neighborhoods, know that kick of adrenalin at the sound of a siren, speak the same lingo We’ve both felt the tingling intuition that tells us the nice mama with the two kids we just talked to would kill us if she could. Putting on the suit changed us both forever. We walk into a room the same way—looking at hands, waistbands, ankles, faces, and exits. We size people up, skeptical of every story, every excuse, every bulge, every twitch.

We laugh and joke, like cops often do. Then, soberly, we shake hands and we know. We’re closer sometimes than kin as we exhale regret.

The dead are always with us. Even when we’re wrinkly-assed and gray, and not cops anymore.

First in line—my line, anyway—are two ladies. Blue-hairs we called them then. You know what I mean: sixty-five, carefully curled hair, bulletproof stretch pants and striped tank tops. They were walking with their husbands; both men had retired the previous week from the same factory after forty-five years on the job. The two couples had been friends for life. It was just past dusk. They’d been down the highway to a coffee shop and were strolling back to an RV park and the brand-new, identical motor homes they’d just bought, when a couple of big Dobermans lunged at the junkyard fence they were passing. The ladies jumped away—into the street and into the path of a sedan—and were killed instantly.

I was twenty-one, and probably looked about nine to the husbands, if they even noticed. What got me most were the shoes. Both women had been knocked right out of their canvas low-cuts. Impotently, I picked up the pink sneakers and handed them to one of the men. He stood there, clutching them, then silently gave one pair to his buddy. At that moment, I felt about nine. What do you say? How do you make it all go away?

Those old ladies—probably younger in death than I am now—smile at me. It’s all right, officer. It wasn’t your fault.

Next is the young Northsider. They call them gang-bangers, now. He was sprawled on the floor of his apartment, leaning against the wall next to the sofa. He’d been stabbed twice in the chest. Tiny holes. Not a drop of blood. An ice pick lay on the threadbare carpet. I knelt next to him. He was breathing, talking, alert. I called for an ambulance and started taking notes.

“Who did this?”

“Fuckin’ Eastsiders, man, who else?”

“Did you know them?”


“How many of them were there?”

“Two of them. I’ll kill those pinche’—”

“—Who stabbed you?”

“Ramon . . . Ramon Cisneros.”

“From over on Third—that Ramon Cisneros?”


I scribbled, then talked on my radio, telling dispatch to put out the APB. “Was he in that old brown Pinto he drives?”

“I don’ know, man. I was here, asleep. I wa . . .”

And, just like that, he was gone. The ambulance arrived about then, and they started CPR on him, but there was no bringing him back. Later, at the post, I learned that the ice pick had torn the bottom of his heart, his aorta, actually—just a tiny tear, but big enough for him to die while I was getting what I needed to put his killer away for a very long time. Not that it did the dead guy any good. He ambles along in his gray corduroy pants and his wife-beater, right behind the ladies. He smiles at me, too. There’s a tattoo on his left chest—a bleeding heart, with the name Amelia underneath. Pretty ironic, if you ask me.

Anyway, those were my first three. Then comes the drunk who hanged himself when he arrived home and found his wife had had enough and split. His fourteen year-old son found him. The kid had come by after school to tell his dad that he wanted to stay with him, not his mother.

There are probably a dozen or more heroin addicts who tripped south from LA to get some 'good' stuff in our border community and died in their cars, in restaurants, one in a phone booth, and often, very often, in bathrooms—because the smack was just too good. It hadn’t been cut with baby powder or corn starch or any of a thousand other products it gets stepped on with as it makes its poisonous way to the City of Angels. And so they died, with belts around their upper arms and syringes still stuck in their flesh, gasping their last in the tiny spaces of gas station bathrooms—writhing in the urine and the toilet paper incumbent with such pristine surroundings.

There are children, wives, husbands, and parents—killed by the ones they loved. There are accident victims and croakers—elderly who die of natural causes in their homes, the police who find them their only mourners. There are drunk drivers and their passengers along with the others they took with them all in the name of a good time.

There are six teenagers, still in their tuxedos and poufy formals. They’d left the prom for some late night kanoodling and were speeding down a county road in a station wagon when the driver lost control and the car ended up on its top in an irrigation canal. Their parents reported them missing in the middle of the night but it was daylight before we spotted the car, its wheels sticking partially out of the water. The kids tried to get out. They really tried to get out. But the car was wedged, side-to-side. They couldn’t open the doors.

You don’t want to know the rest.

There’s a beautiful baby girl, two months-old, who has a place in line. It was an early Christmas morning when I got that call—a frantic mother couldn’t awaken her only child. The door to the apartment was ajar, but there was no crowd. No one. Just a young Mexican woman standing quietly in her nightgown in the middle of her low-income living room, waiting for someone to come. A secondhand crib dominated the space. “Ayudame’, por favor,” she whispered. Help me, please. She gestured toward the crib.

I was across the room in two steps, and knew immediately I was hours too late. The infant drowsed in death, a tiny knitted cap on her glossy black hair, her fat little fist still against her mouth, her eyes half open. But first rigor had already set in. There was nothing I, nothing anyone could do. I think telling that poor woman—whose husband was far away in the Central Valley, working in the fields—that her first child was dead, was the hardest thing I ever did. She had no one. No one. And was too devastated to do more than stroke that baby's hair. No tears. No wailing. Just the subtle movement of her fingers.

I called the Salvation Army, but there was no answer. It was Christmas Day. Babies weren’t supposed to die on Christmas; babies weren’t supposed to die, ever. I finally got hold of Father Curzon over at St. Mary’s. He came and I left, but the baby, a SIDS baby—well—I see her every day.

There were countless others over the years: a young father of two little girls, gunned down by his wife and her lover for the insurance; a gay man, shotgunned at point-blank range for making advances to the wrong hitchhiker; a wife bludgeoned to death by her eighty year-old husband because, as he put it, ‘I got tired of her mouth.”

And there are other cops. Friends. Guys who had my back more than once when the stuff got deep. I wonder sometimes how the fates picked them and not me. But they smile, and shake their heads, their badges glinting. Shit happens, they say. You know that.

I’m old now and I really thought all this would have left me over time. That the anger, that the impotence, that the sense of loss would have dissipated. That I would have been allowed to forget the dead. That, after years of service—after years of seeing them, day after day—I’d be granted a reprieve. But no. They’re all still here, walking somnolently through these rooms of mine. And along with this daily communion comes the knowledge that soon I’ll be in someone else’s head, myself—standing on someone else’s line. A specter, a memory, one of a million horrors about which no cop speaks.

So now I wait, here in my house with the big trees out front. Just me and the dead. My dead. I mow my lawn, barbecue on the weekends, watch football with other retired cops—and I wonder whose line I’ll be in when it’s over.

Will it be the officer I talked to down at the Stop and Rob on the corner who finds me dead in my bed? Or will I croak over in the yard and some poor rookie’ll get the call and have to help the ambulance guys drag my fat ass onto a gurney? Am I going to topple over in my dining room and lie there for a couple of weeks with the sun streaming in the south windows like it does, until the only things alive here, besides the cop who gets the call, will be the maggots doing the conga in and out of my eyes?

Who will I haunt?


Whoever it is, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

copyright 2008 L. G. Vernon All rights reserved