You Just Gotta Know What to Do

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You’re an artist?  I saw you painting there and I just had to stop and say “hi”.  I love art.  My name is Kara and I live just up the street with my husband Terry.  I’ve been here for twenty-five years, and way back when this neighborhood used to be nice.  Folks moved here ‘cause it’s so close to the highways, so if they worked at the Cape or at Martin Marietta they could drive a few blocks and hop onto an entrance ramp.

Do you have any family?  Two kids, that’s nice.  Two little baby children.  Enjoy them while they’re young.  My boy’s all grown up now.  He went to Colonial High School.  He’s a good boy, and he had to be.  That school was rough.  He could’ve got into all kinds of trouble if he’d had a mind to.  He did anyway without trying.  Someone slipped a tab of LSD into his cola when he was at this party, and he comes home and tells me all this crazy stuff and I realized right away what was wrong with him, so I sat him down on the sofa and made him drink ice water and held him tight until he calmed down and fell asleep.  He was right as rain by the next morning…Everything turns out all right if you know what to do.

What do I do?  I’m a housewife right now.  I used to work, but I hurt my joints at this package delivery company.  I packed boxes and got them ready for shipping, and I liked the job and my boss, but the doctor put me on this new steroid for my arthritis and it did the devil’s work on my shoulders and I had to quit.  I tried to file a lawsuit against the company.  I know that lifting all those boxes did me damage even if they can claim that I was sick before I started working there.  But my lawyer keeps dragging his feet while he takes my money, and meanwhile my disability claim is all up in the air.  But I know that lawyer is going to work things out.  I’ve put a little spell on him, a little white magic.  What you do is mix some herbs and put them into a cheesecloth sachet, and you say a few words right before you toss the sachet into a fire, and the smoke carries the spell away and puts it into the universe.  It’ll work (and if it doesn’t it makes me feel better).  That lawyer’s gonna earn his money, one way or another, and I’m gonna get my due.

Sometimes I think that I got sick because of my husband, Terry.  He’s a good man, a good man.  But his first wife is a sneaky bitch and kept nosing around playing up to him, and he was dumb enough to fall for her act.  I could tell he was thinking about leaving me, the dumb ass, but my arthritis flared up so bad I was nearly crippled and he had to wait on me hand and foot and felt so sorry for me that he forgot all about that whore.  But I have to remind him from time to time whenever he gets that look in his eye and I can tell that he’s thinking about her again that I need him so much .  He loves me.  I know he does.  I tell him that we were meant to be together, and there’s no escaping what nature and the universe has decreed.  And every morning I get up and make him breakfast even when my hands feel like claws and my knees freeze up, ‘cause it’s a wife’s duty.  You never know if your husband’s gonna get hurt or killed on the job, so you gotta get up and make him his breakfast and kiss him goodbye like it might be the last time.  That’s a secret to a happy marriage.  It’s what you gotta do.

Do you follow politics?  I don’t know about this Clinton, how he’ll work out.  But one president I sure did like was Richard Milhous Nixon.  He knew how to run a country, and when he said jump, everyone jumped.  Now I know they said all kinds of things about him, all kinds of bad stuff about Watergate and how he was a crook and all that.  But you gotta look past that.  He was a good man and he didn’t deserve all the grief they threw at him.  He threw some back, but he just didn’t know how to duck.

You might think that I’m some kinda witch from what I said before, but my spells are all for the good.  But being a spiritual person can get you into trouble.  The devil doesn’t want you to stay on the good side of things, and you have to be careful if he comes knockin’ at your door.  But everything turns out okay if you know what to do.  Like one day I was looking out my back window out toward the drainage field beyond my back fence.  You know, where the high-tension lines run through?  And I saw the devil rise up out of the swamp, and he was big and ugly and glowed dark like a charcoal briquette, and he called my name and I knew that he wanted me for his own.  But I just closed my blinds and sat on a chair and thought all about the good things I had all around me.  I knew that the devil wanted me to lift the blinds and take a good look at him and open my soul up to his poison, but I wasn’t that dumb.  I just sat there and waited, and pretty soon I felt him going away, the evil draining out of the day.  And when I opened my blinds again he was gone.  For good I hope.  But if he ever comes back I know just what to do, and everything will be fine.

You come down and visit some time.  We like to build a bonfire out back and shoot the breeze.  There’s nothing better than a cool night, a bonfire and some beer.  And visits from neighbors and small talk and listening to the frogs croak out on the drainage field.  Some nights I can’t hear myself think they get so loud and the noise fills up the inside of my head until I just want to scream.  But then I sit by Terry and hold his hand while he smokes his cigarettes and sips a Bud Lite, and I think that I’m a lucky girl to be living here with him on a sweet night with stars in the sky and embers glowing on the fire.  The frogs stop bothering me and I’m glad I left Ohio and came down here to Orlando way back in 1962, that I followed my heart and knew just what to do.

Sleepless in Orlando

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I woke up with a sore knee one morning in December.  A few months later I aggravated it while mowing the lawn.  Physical therapy helped build muscle to stabilize the joint, but overexertion can still annoy it.  At its worst it feels like a migraine has decided to forsake the cranium to torment the under side of my knee cap.

Last Sunday it throbbed enough to wake me up at 4 a.m.  I tried to adjust the position of my leg.  I bent it, straightened it.  I lay on my back and angled my foot from one side to the other, and finally rolled over on my stomach.  I knew that my neck and shoulders would tie themselves in knots by dawn, but my knee felt better in that posture.  I drifted off with face buried in pillow, but the sound of shredding metal woke me up again.  The screeches and scrapes came from the side yard near the air conditioning unit, and I wondered if a druggy punk was trying to strip out the copper.

I knelt on the bed to open the blinds, and the pressure on my knee sent a sharp jolt up the leg.  I gasped, shifted my weight onto my other knee, and then pulled the cord down to lift the slats.  A large raccoon stared me in the eye.

He straddled the chain link fence that meets the house at a 90 degree angle, and his nose was no more than three feet from mine.  He must have been making that racket with his claws as he climbed.  Now he seemed unable to move.  I rapped against the pane to send him on his way as I still had hopes of getting back to sleep.  But he just gave me a weary look as if to say, “Hey, buddy.  I’m doing my best.”

I saw his point and tried to drop the blinds, but they snagged on one side.  I fiddled with them, but couldn’t unsnarl the cord.  I gave up eventually and let the slats hang at a crooked angle.  I slumped down on my bed, and my knee hurt worse than it had before.

I closed my eyes, but my mind raced with plans to trap the raccoon, put spikes on the top of the fence, call animal control.  I thought about all the raccoon jokes on “Parks and Recreation”, including the one where Leslie Knope tells a state commission that Pawnee’s raccoon problem has been solved.  She says, “They have their side of town, and we have ours.”

A half hour later I snapped on my light and turned off my alarm.  No more sleep for me.  “Yippee,”  I thought.  “A new day.”

Little Bird

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I paused on my banana seat bike by a creek that meandered east into a narrow wood.  A dash of color flashed across in front of me.  I turned and saw a little bird gripping a front tire spoke.  He must have been a fledgling:  he stared at me with fearless curiosity and grew agitated only when I reached for him.  Then he pecked at my hand but missed.  Instead of flying away he held on tighter to his perch.  I moved my bike forward an inch to shoo him away, but he flitted to another spoke.  He wasn’t going anywhere.

I was six, old enough to worry about getting pecked, old enough to worry about catching the baby bird in the spokes and hurting it if I rode on, and old enough to envision being trapped at that spot indefinitely.  I had no idea what to do.

Five minutes dragged by.  A teenager lived in the house by the creek.  He came outside and asked me what I was doing.  I pointed to the bird and said, “I can’t move.”  He slowly knelt down beside my front tire, gently cupped his hands around the bird, and set him down in the grass.  The fledgling looked up at us for a second or two pleased that someone had finally discovered a satisfactory conclusion to our drama.  He flew away.  I said, “Thanks!” to the boy, and he smiled at me.

Whenever I saw the boy after that he greeted me as a friend.  Sometimes he asked if I’d trapped any more birds lately.  I laughed when he teased and felt flattered by his attention…I had always wanted an older brother.  Mine had died a few hours after birth, and I sometimes felt the absence of a protective guide.

One day I stood at the edge of the ditch that led down to the creek.  I wanted to wade for minnows and tadpoles, but the slope looked steep and treacherous.  I feared a misstep and a fall onto the rocks that poked up in the shallows.  My older friend crossed the street and stood behind me.  I smiled at him and expected a joke and some help.  Instead he grabbed my shoulders and said, “Want to go down there?”  He pushed hard, but held on so that I didn’t fall.  My head whip lashed, and I yelped in fear.  I looked over my shoulder as I teetered on the brink.  He smiled with his usual warmth and said, “You don’t think that I’d actually throw you in the creek, do you?”

I saw that he was only teasing and relaxed.  He let go of my shoulders and shoved.  I tumbled down the side of the ditch and landed on my knees in the gravel and mud bordering the stream.  The teenager pointed at me and laughed when I looked up.  The confused look on my face must have been hilarious.  I waited for him to stop jeering and leave, and then I crawled up the side of the ditch and squidged home in wet sneakers.

I saw the boy from time to time when I played outside with Lee, George and Robbie. I shied away from the teenager if he came close and didn’t answer if he said something to me.  He looked puzzled the first time I withdrew from him, but then he remembered his treachery and laughed at my caution.

I feared that I might become his source of constant amusement and avoided his house and the stream.  But he soon discovered cars and girls and no longer bothered with me.  He drove around the neighborhood with young women in his red convertible.  They looked bright and innocent.

I hope they knew when to fly away.

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Pitching Out Sales Pitches

Yesterday two men knocked at our door.  They represented an auto glass replacement company.  I pointed to the car in our driveway and said, “See the windshield.  There’s nothing wrong with it.”  One of the salesmen opened a binder and showed me pictures of chipped car windows.  He explained that my car might have micro fractures and chips that would gradually expand until the windshield collapsed.  I found the magic words to make him leave.  I said, “I just bought that car in November.  It’s new.”  My wife Judy asked me what I was doing as I stood by the door and watched the men cross our lawn and head down the street.  I turned away after they walked out of sight and told her, “They want to sell me a new windshield.  I watched them leave to make sure we won’t need one.”

Years ago a man surprised me as I swept leaves off the driveway.  He told me that he represented a pest control company and asked me if I had any problems.  I told him that carpenter ants invaded from time to time.  They congregated on the kitchen ceiling.  He offered to treat my house, but I told him that my wife didn’t want poisons sprayed inside.  We had small children.  The man paused for a moment to size me up, and then faked hysteria.  He cried, “But what are you going to do if you find ants in your house??!!”   “Squish ’em,”  I deadpanned.  He laughed, gave me his card and walked away.

Another man strode up to my porch–big gait, expansive gestures, everyone’s buddy.  I saw a pick up idling at the curb behind him.  A large cooler rested on the truck bed.  I knew this bit:  guys drove around town with steaks, lobsters, and shrimp on ice and sold them cheap door to door.  I never bought anything off a truck, so I tried to cut to the chase.  I met him before he could pound on my door and said, “We don’t want any.”  “But sir!” he cried.   “You don’t even know what I’m selling.  I’ve got the finest steaks, filet mignon and–”  “I don’t care what you’re selling.  I’m not buying.”  I  said.  “Hey, buddy.  That’s just rude,” he sputtered.  I could see him building up self-righteous rage–it was bad form to not let him deliver his spiel.  “Okay, I’m rude,” I conceded.  “But I’m not buying anything and it’s time for you to get off my property.”  “Mister, that’s just–that’s just—” he stammered.  “Go,” I said.  He balled up his fists and took a step toward me.  Then he thought better of it and stalked off across the yard.  He yelled to his friend in the truck, “Go to the next one.  This jerk ran me off!”

A teenage girl rang our doorbell one night right after we cleared the dinner table.  She belonged to an organization that helped disadvantaged youths better themselves.  She tried to sell us magazines and told us that the kid with the best sales record won a prize (cash, a scholarship?). When she saw that we had lost interest and sympathy she threw back her shoulders and declared, “Someday I’m going to be somebody.  I’m going to succeed!”  She studied us as she waited for a reaction.  She hoped, apparently, that we would feel pressured into helping her achieve her ambitions.  We didn’t.  I walked outside a few minutes after she left and saw teenage boys and girls canvassing homes along the street.  A school bus parked down the road had a sign on it that read, “American Dreamers”.  A man with a money bag and clip board stood by the front bumper.  He collected checks and cash from his crew, clipped order forms to the board, and directed out going kids to new targets.

I got a call several months after we moved into our home from a woman offering a free water quality test.  A middle aged salesman with a frizzy brown mustache came the next evening.  He set up a display case of powdered chemicals, beakers and test tubes in our living room.  He poured tap water and orange crystals into a test tube, and the mixture turned yellow.  A white precipitate fell to the bottom.  He held up the “test results” and said, “See?”  We didn’t.  My wife Judy and I had taken chemistry in college and could recognize a Mr. Wizard flim-flam routine.  The salesman saw that he hadn’t impressed us and said, “You know that there’s an EPA Superfund site just up the road on Forsyth.”  I knew that our water company pumped out of the Florida Aquifer, not out of a shallow well nearby.  The salesman shifted gears and told us that the expensive water filtration system his company sold would save us money because…BECAUSE his company threw in jugs of super efficient laundry detergent as a bonus.  We didn’t bite.  Then he held up the test tube with the white precipitate again and glared at my wife as she held our son in her lap.  “What about the kids?” he seethed.  “Don’t you care about your kids?”  Judy started to cry.  I squared up to him and told him to leave.  He packed his case in a hurry.  But before he left he said, “You’ve got a gift coming for letting me test your water.”  I said, “We don’t want anything from you, ” and shut the door behind him.  The next day we got a call from his company.  A manager asked, “Why didn’t you accept your gift?  Was there a problem with the salesman?”

Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and assorted evangelicals frequently make the rounds in our neighborhood.  They want to know if I am saved, believe in the Bible, know what will happen to me after I die, and whether I’d like to join their happy fellowship.  The brightly colored illustrations in their pamphlets show Jesus curing the sick, happy clusters of believers breaking into song, and throngs of ecstatic souls gathered on flowered meadows in heaven.  I sometimes tell missionaries that I have a faith of my own and am satisfied with it.  If they follow up and ask, “What faith is that?” I say, “Religion is a private matter.”

But sometimes I don’t answer the door and let them mill around on my front porch.  They peer into my picture window and spot me going about my business.  They knock again determined to save me regardless of my indifference.  (How far would they go if I did open the door?)  They eventually leave with defeated looks on their faces, but their visit has not been fruitless.  They’ve inspired me to reach out and communicate with the Beyond:  as I watch them retreat I offer a prayer of thanksgiving.  I pray, “Thank you Jesus for the steel bars on my front door.”

Come Up and See My Etchings

Rosemary, the printmaking instructor at the University of Delaware, insisted on taking as many students as possible to visit an artist in Philadelphia.   The grad students in her class knew they had no choice, but she even pressured a few undergrads to come along.  One offered the excuse that he had other classes on the day of the trip, but Rosemary dismissed it saying, “This trip is more important for your growth as an artist.”

The bus ride took us through grimy neighborhoods of trash strewn streets and boarded up buildings on the south side and dropped us off in Center City.  Fifteen would be artists dutifully trooped up the steps of a two story brick row house.  A quiet man in his late thirties opened the door slowly and greeted Rosemary in a monotone.  He waved his hand for us to pass inside, but left us milling around in the entryway.  He seemed reluctant to let us into his inner sanctum.  Rosemary said, “Can we see your studio?” He led us up a narrow, dark stairway to a room crowded with work tables, flat files of paper, and storage cabinets with wide, flat drawers.  Recently pulled prints hung by clothes pins on thin wires strung from one wall to another.

“So, am I right in assuming that you’ve all seen my work?” he asked us.  No one answered.  I barely remembered his name, and Rosemary had said nothing about the style and subject matter of his prints.  She simply told us that he was a etcher who showed his work at an important gallery in Philly.  He stared and waited, shoulders slumping lower.  He sighed:  another defeat.  “Then why are you here?” he asked.

Rosemary flattered him until he was sufficiently mollified.  He put on white gloves and laid out prints on a long, white table.  He combined imagery from several photographs to create interiors and landscapes that looked real but subtly wrong.  The perspective wasn’t completely consistent, but the individual details looked so accurate that the eye accepted the spaces as dry depictions of an uncanny world.  They reminded me of dreams I had of my Midwestern home town:  familiar streets and houses recombined with landmarks from other places.

I asked the print maker about his technique.  He told us that he achieved his photorealistic effects by pointillism.  He used a needle to meticulously prick tiny holes in the asphaltum covering his copper plates.  I asked him how long it took him to work on a plate.  I expected him to say months, but he replied, “Oh, about a day.  That’s the easy part.”  I followed up with, “But how many times do you etch the plate?  What about revisions?”  “I do it all in one layer, no revisions.  What takes the most time is designing them.”  He opened a drawer and took out a sheaf of preparatory sketches.  Each one looked like finished works of art.

Rosemary asked him to show us works in progress.  He laid out another pile of exquisitely rendered drawings and said, “These aren’t very good yet.  I hate showing you these things.”  We protested, and Rosemary said, “Really, these are wonderful.”  The man mumbled, “If you say so.”

He showed us a few more prints, an etched plate or two, and then escorted us down the stairs.  He stood on his porch and stared at his shoes as we walked away.  He retreated inside and firmly shut the door after he had said a quick goodbye to Rosemary.

On the ride home students chattered about classes at Delaware and argued about politics (Reagan’s Iran/Contra scandal dominated the news).  Some wore Walkman’s and listened to music.  I thought about the print maker and wondered if the effort he put into his images paid him back in the end.  How could a man with that much ability and accomplishment feel so discouraged? I had a tenth of his talent.  Was there any hope for me?

I was too young to realize that happiness often had little to do with success.

 

Scenes from Physical Therapy

I twisted my knee three months ago and finally went to my doctor when the pain suddenly got worse.  He diagnosed a minor tear in my meniscus and prescribed physical therapy.

My insurance approved a treatment center fifteen minutes from my home, and I went in for an evaluation.  Allison wrangled my knee from side to side, put pressure on the joint from various angles.  Then she asked me to lie down and lift my leg with my foot pointed outward at a 45 degree angle.  I could barely get my foot off the mat when she applied downward pressure.  She gave me an ultrasound treatment and a list of exercises to do at home.  And she signed me up for therapy sessions for the next week.

I had been rationing my walking for the last month.  The more I walked and stood the worse my leg felt, so I had become mostly sedentary.  My first session came as a rude shock, and even the warm up exercise, a 5 minute ride on the stationary bike, taxed my endurance.  Most of the exercises Charisse assigned seemed designed to make my leg feel worse:  deep knee bends, ankle twists, leg lifts with weights attached to my ankles.  I limped out after an hour of torture and wondered whether I’d made a mistake in coming there.

But my knee felt better the next day, and I got through teaching my class with a lot less pain.  I went to my second work out and had to sit for a few minutes before my appointment began.  Two thirds of the waiting area were taken up by a skyscraper man who weighed close to three hundred pounds.  He “manspreaded” as he slumped in his seat and listened to his headphones.  I squeezed into a seat beside him and stared at the magazine rack filled to overflowing with Vogue magazines.  I knew that there were no articles in there that could possibly interest me.  An older guy came in, took one look at the waiting area, and perched on a chair far away from the two of us.  Charisse called Skyscraper Man over for duty and asked him a few questions.  He told her that his back hurt after he played basketball the day before.  Charisse frowned and said, “I can’t fix you if you go playing basketball on me.”  Skyscraper whined, “I just shot around.”  Another patient told Robin, his therapist, about his crazy ex-wife.  The lady had tried to turn their daughter against him, and confiscated any gifts he gave to the child.  The ex had taken him to court several times to get the alimony raised, but still complained about money every time she spoke to him.  He told Robin, “Hey, I’m through with all that.”

The therapists began to relax around me during my third visit.  Anna told me about an upcoming trip to New York City with her boyfriend.  Robin blamed her father for giving her her 6’2″ stature, and laughed when I said that he hadn’t really meant to do that.  Charisse teased me about my “crazy double classes” and warned another client not to talk about his “lousy Gators” in her presence.  She added that her Seminoles weren’t about to face sanctions from the NCAA.

On the fourth day the therapists compared auto accident stories that their clients had reported.  One man had been struck in the jaw by a motorcyclist crashing through his windshield.  Robin said, “Here’s the best one I’ve heard.  This family was driving fifty, and they were hit from behind.  That car was going 90, and when that driver hit them he was drunk, high, and masturbating.”  “Multi-tasking,” I thought as I pumped the pedals on the stationary bike.  Charisse sighed and said, “It’s getting really weird out there.”

At the end of that session a white haired woman hobbled into the lobby.  She leaned on a cane as she stood at the reception counter, her face pinched tight with pain.  Charisse called out across the therapy room:  “Marie!  How you doin’ today?”  Marie muttered, “You don’t want to know.”  Charisse hollered, “But I do want to know!  I have to ask you that question so I know how to treat you.”  Marie considered for a few moments, and then hollered back, “Hooorrrible!”

All About After

I don’t care for the aftermath.  Taking action feels a lot more powerful, and living in the moment offers less time to consider one’s regrets.  After is an ugly guy who comes for a visit, sleeps on the couch, eats up all the food in the fridge, and won’t tell me when he’s leaving.  But After gives me an opportunity to arrange recent events in a framework that makes sense.  Then I can move on.  Then I can make peace with What Is.

My Daily After is the butt end of a day, and I’m the last two inches of a smoldering cigar.  While I’m in the middle of teaching a class I’m usually caught up in the process of communicating with students, evaluating their work, giving advice and planning ahead for the next exercise.  I sometimes teach Drawing I and II simultaneously and have little time for a breather.  When a class is over I answer follow up questions and tidy the studio before making my exit.  On the walk to the parking lot I download the emotions I’ve pushed aside in class.  (An instructor must create the illusion of self composure at all times.)  As I trudge to the car my adrenaline fades, and my books and equipment feel heavier the longer I carry them.  Then I discover how much effort I’ve expended.  My mood dips, and I relive each mistake just made in class.

My Rejection After varied during my dating years.  Sometimes a girlfriend dumped me long before I was ready to call it quits, and my feelings for her lingered painfully for a month or two.  Other break ups left nothing but a sense of relief and freedom.  Time and reflection sometimes gave the realization that I had been mercifully spared.  But in one case it took me three years to figure out that the object of my desire had treated me badly and always would.

The Grieving After:  My sister suffered a long decline as she died from ALS.  During a visit I presented an even tempered demeanor.  I reminded myself as I talked to my parents, brother and sister that my emotions were not the most important thing. Time spent with my family was not about me.  My true state of mind asserted itself on the plane ride home.  I took an upgrade to first class if the ticketing agent made an offer, and I ordered a complimentary whiskey before the plane took off.  I felt no shame as I gulped my drink even if the morning sun had just crossed the horizon.  As we flew south I stared out of the window at the passing clouds, and a heavy sensation filled my chest.  On the trip home from Orlando International my wife drove, and I sobbed.  I became functional after two or three days passed, but during the down time spoke little and kept to myself.  I found it difficult to adjust to the concrete realization, reinforced over and over during my visit, that dying is a process of losing everything.

My father in law died in 2008.  The kind and solicitous representatives from the funeral home drove us from the grave site to my mother in law’s house.  The man riding shotgun opened the door to let us out of the limo and quickly turned away without saying anything in farewell.  I realized that the funeral directors had finished their work, and any compassion shown at the viewing, service and interment had been part of a contract just ended.  We were on our own.  My mother in law drove us to her favorite local restaurant for lunch.  It had rained hard at the cemetery, but now the clouds scattered and weak sunlight brightened the wintry hills of eastern Pennsylvania.  The crowded dining room hummed with conversation, and the checkered table cloth and vase of artificial chrysanthemums made our table insistently cheerful.  Our group said little at first, but after the food arrived we chewed our salads, ate our bread, and told a few stories about the man we had buried an hour before.  We even laughed at a few jokes.