From Adelaide Magazine – Those Lovely Family Moments

I was updating my bio to send a couple of new pieces out. I finished a book of poetry and an essay recently – the good thing about being stuck at home during a pandemic.  I always liked this story, which is true… 🙂

 

Those Lovely Family Moments

Once when I was a single parent, I took my daughter camping. At the time, I was determined to do all the fun things I did when I was married to her father. My very opinionated three-year-old, Jessica, and I went into a sporting goods store where I bought a domed six-man tent with easy flexible poles, a Coleman stove and lantern, a high intensity flashlight, a banana chair in my size and a miniature version in hers. We ran into a slight snag when I tried to buy my prima donna a pair of jeans to walk the nature trails. She had never worn any article of clothing that didn’t have ruffles and lace. In the store, she shrieked, “Only boys wear jeans!” This was obviously refuted by my own apparel, a battered pair of Levi’s. We finally compromised on rhinestone studded designer Calvin’s for Kids which cost more than the tent. The giggling clerks in the store were delighted with her purchase.

Jessica was unhappy about leaving the comfortable home of her grandparents, but she was thrilled when I told her she would get to meet the mysterious father she had never really known. Jessica was a child of luxury. Hanging out with adults all the time, she was also very precocious. She never knew the Cracker house with the unvarnished wooden floors where she was born. She didn’t remember my double shifts as a waitress or my crying over my paltry tips. She thought I had always worn suits and stockings to work, and she thought every house came equipped with reverse-cycle temperatures and wall-to-wall carpeting. Being the guilty parent I was, I pitied my poor baby growing up without a father. I wanted her to be used to luxury. That’s why I had moved in with my parents.

But I also wanted her to experience adventure, to love the great outdoors. I wanted her to know the thrill of seeing a giant blue heron fly across the marsh, and I wanted her to shine a flashlight around the edge of the swamp and pick out the lights of alligator eyes. Just because we didn’t have a man around was no reason for her to be denied these natural delights.

I took off from work for a week and we drove to the town my ex-husband lived in. I stopped to introduce her to him. He’d been sending her birthday cards regularly, so I figured we owed him a visit. George worked at a drive-through beverage Mart, where part of his pay was in beer. By the time we arrived, he’d already had more than his fair share. “Hey,” he said to Jessica as we sat in the car, and he chucked her under the chin. “You’re beautiful.”

“Thank you,” I said acidly, claiming full credit. I’d left George two years earlier, on Jessica’s first birthday. That was the day he invited friends over for her birthday party, went out to get some firewood for our wood stove, and never came back all night. The following morning, I packed toys, clothes, cloth diapers, and crib, and left. I wasn’t going to have Jessica live with the disappointment that I’d experienced with her father. If he couldn’t show up for her first birthday, he wouldn’t show up for anything in her life. That’s what happens when you marry an alcoholic.

But Jessica was fascinated by him. She had been demanding we go see him every time she got a card. Now she put on her best act for him, rolling her eyes and giggling. He gave her a package of gum and some barbecue potato chips. “We’re going camping,” she said.

“Going out to the springs?” George asked me. This was where we had always gone, a wilderness camp in the middle of the scrub in Ocala National Forest.

“Yes,” I said curtly.

“Well, be careful out there. It’s hunting season. Hey, you ought to stop by and see my niece. She’d love to see the baby. And my mother’s living with her.”

“I might do that,” I said. I remembered his niece, Nancy, fondly. She was a sweet, shy girl, half his age (just as I was when I met them) with twice his sense of responsibility. It didn’t surprise me to find that he had pawned off his 80-year-old mother on her. Privately I fumed about our short visit. Three years, and the kid gets a chuck under the chin, a package of gum, and some chips. Typical George.

He gave me instructions on how to get to the trailer park where Nancy lived. I was only going to stop for a minute, to let Jessica meet her cousin and her paternal grandmother. The trailer park was a run-down depressing place on the edge of town with trailers of all sizes and shapes, from battered rentals to tiny silver Airstreams parked on minuscule lots. Nancy came running out to hug me, and she picked Jessica up out of the car like a baby, holding her as if she would never let go. “I’m so glad to see you,” she said and led the way to her small blue-and-white trailer.

Inside, I got the claustrophobia I always get from trailers no matter how lush they are, and this one wasn’t what you would call lavishly appointed. I was shocked to find that Nancy was supporting a whole cadre of relatives. Not only was she keeping her elderly grandmother but  her alcoholic mother, who had abandoned her when she was a baby, plus her younger brother, who couldn’t hold a job, and her older sister who came with two children. The trailer was like an Agatha Christie dream sequence with people sidling in and out of thin sliding doors and everyone talking at once. There was no room for any of us to sit down. But they were comfortable with each other, and Jessica was in her element. She loves people. I was the only one who was uncomfortable.

“Look,” said Nancy after we talked for a couple of hours. “It’s getting late. Why don’t you set up your tent in the front yard and go down to the Springs tomorrow?”

The thought of setting up my tent in the tiny space they called the yard was not really appealing. But it was getting late, and I thought it might be a good idea to try it out before I got to the woods. With Nancy’s help we set up our domed abode, but flexible poles turned out to be a bit of a misnomer. No doubt they were flexible if you were Charles Atlas, but Nancy and I had to struggle and pull to get the aluminum tipped ends into their aluminum holes. The fiberglass rods threatened to whip up and belt us in the face if either of us let go. Finally, we had it all set up. I pulled the banana chairs out of the car and set them up in the tent. Then Jessica and I took everyone out to dinner.

When we got back to the trailer park, it was quite dark, and I told Jessica we had to go to bed. I read some stories to her by flashlight, but she was too keyed up to sleep. Finally, she went inside the trailer and watched television with her cousin while I fell asleep alone. I woke in the middle the night to the most awful sound I’d ever heard. It took me a moment to identify it, and during that moment, the thought of some wild creatures attacking passed through my mind. But the noise was only from cats, dozens of cats, running through the trailer park, clawing and snarling at each other, yelling as if they were dying. I was glad Jessica wasn’t in the tent. I went outside and looked in the window of the trailer. There was my little girl curled up on the couch with her cousin, snoring away, with the air-conditioner blowing and the television blaring. At least I didn’t have to worry about her listening to cats and neighbors fight. The cats jumped off the roof of Nancy’s trailer, sliding down the rounded walls of my tent as if it were a giant waterpark slide. I watched the walls shake, but somehow the tent stayed up. At dawn, the cats all quieted down, and I slept for a couple of hours.

Jessica came out about 9 a.m. and patted my cheek. “Wake up,” she said. “Nancy says come to breakfast.” She left as I groaned, but I managed to stagger into the trailer where Jessica now sat in front of the television watching Saturday morning cartoons. For some reason this enraged me, and I couldn’t eat. I had a cup of coffee, took down the tent, and packed our gear into the car.

“Come camping with us, Nancy,” I said.

“Are you kidding? It’s hot out there, and I hate the bugs,” Nancy answered with a shudder.

“We’ll swim, and I’ll bring insect repellent.”

“No, thanks. There are bears in those woods.”

Observing Jessica looking at me wide-eyed, I said, “Oh don’t be silly. We used to go camping out there all the time, and I never saw a bear.”

“Aren’t you scared to go by yourself?” Nancy asked. “There are snakes. You have to admit there are snakes. And crazy people in the woods. And all kinds of weird noises. I’d be terrified. Do you have a gun?”

“What? No, I don’t have a gun. Come on Jessica,” I said to my goggle-eyed daughter. “We’ve got to go.”

“I don’t want to go,” Jessica screamed.

“Why don’t you camp and Jessica can stay here with us?” said my ex-mother-in-law.

“No, Jessica and I are going to do this together. It’ll be fun.”

Just in case I didn’t get it the first time, my little girl screamed, “I don’t want to go!” I picked her up off the floor, and she began to kick and scream and cry. I tried to gather up her special blanket and the toys she’d brought inside but everything seemed to get away from me. The gang watched, but no one made any attempt to help. Jessica tried to push me away.

We finally got to the car and I promised to come back through town after the campout. Jessica kissed her relatives and cried as we drove away. I turned on the radio and sang a song she used to like.

“Stop that singing” she shrieked.

We drove in silence for a while until her sobs turned to sniffles. I tried to point out the countryside we passed through, the lakes and live oaks, interesting little yards with pink flamingo sculptures and limestone bordered gardens. She turned the full brunt of her scorn my way for the entire trip.

“You never let me talk to my daddy,” she commented as I drove. I bit my tongue. Literally.

When we got off the main road and turned onto the clay road that led to the springs, Jessica cheered up a little. The road was sandy and bumpy, like a roller coaster ride. I was afraid I’d get stuck. When we reached the edge of the lake she was almost cheerful. She even helped me unload some of her toys from the car. I put a bathing suit on her and let her wade into the lake while I dragged the tent and supplies out of the vehicle. This time the tent was even more of an ordeal. It was almost impossible for one person to set it up. The sun climbed into the sky and I was so hot that I left the tent in a forlorn circle on the ground. There were no other campers nearby. The bugs—homicidal horse flies, and murderous mosquitoes—swarmed around us.

I sat in the banana chair, trying to recuperate from the heat and the lack of sleep. Jessica came over and dropped a giant glob of mud onto my face. “What are you doing?” I sputtered and she danced away laughing.

“I’m hungry,” she said. I open the bottled spring water and cleaned the mud off both of us. I peeled her an orange while I tried to light the Coleman stove. The air filled with propane but nothing happened. By now, the sun should have gone down but it seemed to linger only because the horizon on the lake was long. I had to get that tent set up. I tried to get Jessica to hold a side but that was a joke. She was tired and hot. “I don’t like that tent anyway,” she said.

“If we don’t get it up we’ll have to sleep in the car,” I snapped.

“So? I like to sleep in the car.”

Huh? With clenched teeth, I said, “Mommy’s can’t sleep in the car.  Mommy’s too big.”

And my precious little toddler replied, “That’s Mommy’s problem.”

I weighed down one side of the tent with a log and managed to get the aluminum ends on the other side into their little holes. With a groan of satisfaction, I pulled the tent up right into its igloo shape, and as I did, I heard a ripping sound. I inspected the gaping hole in the tent. The sun was beginning to go down. “Why don’t you gather some sticks while mommy finishes the tent?”

“I’ll get dirty,” Jessica protested.

Okay, so I should be drummed out of the motherhood league because I said, “Jessica, if we don’t get a fire going, snakes and alligators will crawl around us. Is that what you want?”

I listened guiltily to her sniffles as we gathered wood. Thanks to her skinny sticks, we soon had a nice fire going and I felt better. This was good, because our flashlight died and the Coleman lantern was about as easy to light as the stove had been. An owl hooted and Jessica shivered. Some little animal screeched in its death throes and I shuddered. As darkness fell around us, the alligators began their chorus of grunts and groans and fish began to thrash in the water. The spring-fed lake, which only hours before had seemed like a peaceful paradise, began to assume the malevolent aspects of the swamp it really was.

Something rustled in the bushes nearby. “I’m scared, Mommy,” said Jessica plaintively.

“Don’t be scared. I’m right here,” I said.

“You can’t protect me,” she said.

I stared at her little white face in the firelight, and my resolve stiffened along with my voice. “Yes, I can, Jessica. I will never let anything happen to you,” I lied.

“You can’t help it,” Jessica said her voice rising. “I want my daddy.”

“You don’t even know your daddy,” I said testily.

“Well, I want him anyway,” she shouted in her furious little voice. “I hate you!”

I grabbed her up out of her little chair and sat her in my lap. “That’s just too damn bad, Jessica. You’re stuck with me.” Height of maturity.

After a while, she stopped crying, put her arms around my neck, and leaned her head against my chest. I thought she had fallen asleep. But all of a sudden, she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.

Oh guilt, what an emotion to bask in, an emotion to motivate. All night I stayed up listening to the tiny breaths of my baby in that tent. I stoked the fire and kept the ferocious animals at bay. I paced noisily around the tent in the dark, scaring away snakes and coons and armadillos that rustled in the bushes outside the circle of light. As morning broke, I rigged up a grill over the fire and cooked Jessica a huge breakfast of sausage, eggs, soggy toast, and tangerines. When she awoke, her exhausted, smoky, dirty mother was there to greet her with a picture-perfect meal fit for a princess.

As soon as she was content, I loaded everything into the car and drove to the fish camp on the edge of the woods where I called to make a reservation at a luxury hotel in Disney World. We’ll go camping again when she’s older, I thought to myself.

As we drove out of the woods, we saw a mother bear lead her cub across the road in front of our car. The bear looked at me as I slowed to let her waddling baby pass. I knew exactly how she felt.

http://adelaidemagazine.org/f_wendythornton.html

 

 

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Found an old Poem

I’m trying to put out two books of poetry to various writing contests. One has been submitted to a number of places and got some good feedback (and a lot of the poems in it have been published already).  That’s “Building a Fire.” The other is a book of poetry that has lots of new poems in it, “Physics as a Cure for Grief,” and yes, I used that title for an essay a couple of years ago.  It works for the poetry, too.

But I found this poem recently online, (on the Lake Literary Magazazine) that I forgot about.  Always liked this one.  It went to a lot of place before it got published 🙂

 

Measuring Light

Image by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay

The Inuit hide beneath shaggy deer

                             throw rocks at the ripples of fire in the sky

                   trying to disguise their restless fear

          savage discontent with the celestial light show,

                             which rents the dark like a streetwalker’s candle,

                   whose never measured sound reverberates

                             across the ground and shakes

                                                the frozen landscape.

          Lately, life has been tough. The animals

                             hide, resisting their duty to become food,

                   relinquishing their lives only under duress

                                      and it seems there are less and less of them

                   to go around.  They are always bound for someplace else.

                                      Colder.

                             Men of science suddenly appear

                   frightening away the skittish deer,

                             Set up their gear and begin to tune their dials,

                                      lonely boys on a Saturday night.

                             After a while, they shrug and say

                                                We heard no sound in the sky today.

                                      We’ll try again tomorrow.

          The Inuit don’t like the science boys.

                   They fear the wrath of the creator of lights.

                             Who knows what magic their fiddling will bring?

                   An end to the false lights of men.

                                      Those who are sick will get sicker still

                             and the streets will darken in Montreal

                   because these boys and their instruments

                                      never get the station right at all.

                   The Inuit rub thumb and forefinger high

                             imagine the lights rising in the sky

                                      away from all those prying eyes

                                                and ears

and in the dark they plainly hear

                                      the sound of the lights,

stockings rubbing

celestial legs.

 

http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/poetry-archive/feb19a/

 

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Where Does the Time Go?

I haven’t put anything out on this site in ages. I have been doing an incredible amount of new writing, though. Unfortunately, I keep remember what someone one said to me about not marketing my own work – “Emily Dickinson’s been done.” I’m not a good self-marketer. But it’s that time again – I just finished a new book, Bear Trapped: Blowback. So I guess it’s time to get back into it.

Never has it been so strange to try to figure out how to market a book. I couldn’t even hand out proof copies to my beta readers. I had to put them into plastic bags and let them sit for two weeks, Then I had to drive them all over town, drop them off in mailboxes, or mail them if people were practicing careful social distancing. And three people told me they couldn’t read right away because they had electronically checked out library books which they would lose if they didn’t read them within a certain time. Uh – okay, I totally understand.

My second book in the Bear mystery series was great fun to write, even though it was about bullying and right-wing conspirators. I got to read a lot of very entertaining stories about how people addressed these issues. And because the story was set in St. Augustine, Florida, I got to spend a lot of time driving back and forth to the beach – you know, to do research. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I also have a third book in the queue and I’m going to start working on it soon. This one will be set in Gainesville, so I guess I will have to drive to the beach regularly just to get some perspective on my home town, right?

I am also submitting two books of poetry to various contests, a book of short stories to various contests, two independent short stories to various contests and – oh, yeah – I’m trying to finish my semi-autobiographical novel so I can submit that to various contests. It’s so comforting that to have multiple books in the pipeline. That’s the great thing about being a writer – we can adapt to whatever our present circumstances are. Quarantined for months? Good time to start something new. Can’t visit with friends? Good time to get them to read your latest work. Pandemic taking over the news? Put that in your next novel! All of this is so much easier than marketing my new book. Onward, through the fog!

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The Beginning of a New Book, Sugar Free

I’ve been working on an idea for a book for a while now.  The book would be called, Sugar Free, and would be about a band that is created to protest current politics. Kind of an up-to-date CSNY.  But then Daisy Jones and the Six came out and I sort of put the book away. There was already a book out there about a band.

Well, I didn’t pay much attention to Daisy Jones and the Six and I should have. First of all, it’s not set in present day. Second, it’s written in multiple voices.  So, now I wish I had continued with my book, because it is nothing like the other book on a band that just came out. My book is current. My book is in first person. My book is told in one voice.

The point is, though, it’s so easy when you’re working on a book to get discouraged. You say to yourself, “Someone’s already done this,” or “That idea will never fly.” There’s always a reason for not working on your own work. It’s so easy to come up with reasons to stop. So hard to keep going.  I’m going to stop stalling now, and start working on my latest new book.

The thing is, I have two other books in progress and both are almost finished. One is the second book in a series, called Bear Trapped.  This one is Bear Trapped: Blowback and I will self-publish it.  It was fun to write and I hope the series will be entertaining.

Then, I am also finished with the first draft of a semi-autobiographical novel called “Triad” which I want to get an agent for.  That one needs a lot of work, but at least it is complete.

So why would I turn around and start working on a brand new book?  Because the new material is always the most important.  You can rewrite old stuff anytime. But the new books, the new poems, the new stories, in my humble opinion, come out of nowhere.  They appear like little bursts of sunlight through the trees, and if you don’t catch them while you can, they’ll be gone. You can spend your life editing material you’ve already captured, but don’t let those new sparkles escape!

 

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Publishing Poetry

Sometimes it seems like publishing poetry is one of the hardest things an author can try to do. Let’s face it – there are a million great poets out there. The competition is fierce.

But then, every once in a while, you hit the jackpot. I sent out four poems to Raven’s Perch literary magazine last year, and they ALL got published. (https://www.theravensperch.com/?s=thornton) . I was so excited about this.  Today I’ve been sending out multiple poems to multiple genres, an annual tradition.  It’s worth it – you never know when someone may decide they want ALL your poems at once, right?

And then, once you’ve published them, they become your babies again and you can repost ’em. So, here we go. (Courtesy of Raven’s Perch)

Grandfather the Mason

What did grandfather find in the freemasons?
A shaft of sunlight illuminating a manuscript,
direct line to God, hidden in the Scottish Lowlands,
the secrets of Rosslyn safe from some silly book.
Would Solomon’s temple rise in his mind?
He would have known the exact dimensions
of the secret society, the points of convergence
the wealth of allegory. He would have learned

Did this man, once the town drunk, rise to the realm
of the Knights Templar, wishing to obscure his past?
Did his wealthy Catholic family object, just as the old ones did?
And what did his Lutheran wife think
of this old knight challenging history?
Was she scornful of the challenge or grateful
for the result? Surely it freed him

He told me once he and a friend poured Sterno
through loaves of bread to strain it so they could drink
on cold nights, as they rode through the country
in an open roadster, repainting billboards.
Frustrated, traveling the empty roads of the Depression,
painting over the art of another. His depression
lasted for years, bound to the bonds of addiction

Freemasonry freed him from poverty,
distinguished him from the men of Sicily
who had come to build their own new world.
He believed in the tradition of revolution,
welcomed as an ambassador of the old and the new,
builder of his own blue temples, creator of fountains,
determined to be his own man with his own business,
in debt to no one, beholden to none, just free

He moved south. Took the legends with him,
established contact with his brothers
who came in the end, dropped petals on his grave.
Intoned, Oh woe dear brother. Grandmother scoffed
but she was comforted by their presence,
assisted by their connection to this new place.
Hard to dismiss their willing grace.

 

The Sound of my Soul

The fire/rescue unit calls me out of the surf.
Too dangerous, waves too high. Hurricanes pound
the coast from stern to aft, dissecting the sand,
intersecting each other with gale force winds,
and rip tides that make you gasp.
Even pelicans won’t land in this mess

But I confess, this is it, where I want to be,
in the midst of wild white foam, dangerous chemistry
Can’t go home – just one more wave
fly through the ages like fiberglass,
as if I could simultaneously touch the sky
and the grit beneath my fingers if I don’t break first

The thirst for the ride is nothing compared to the sound
of wind in my ears, waves thrashing the living daylights,
noise of surf and breeze blowing content from my brain.
If I had to die suddenly, this is how it should be,
floating out to sea on a rip current, no resistance.
I resist instructions to leave this whirling mass,
volunteer to be their practice drowning victim
but the fire/rescue guys don’t laugh.

 

I Won’t Miss You

I won’t miss you when you’re gone.
I’ll be way too busy. Lots of lots of things to do.
I’ll be too too busy to remember you, your soft smile, voice,
your choice. I’m busy drowning in the nearby river

Fish jump into my canoe, birds fly
across the horizon and I –
hands on their tails, eyes on glass eyes –
rarely have time to barely miss you

Everywhere I go, I am feted and fed
as if just returned from the Day of the Dead
cosseted as a fetus escaped from abortion.
I am adored. I have found the sword,
discovered the potion. Despite intention
I inspire devotion with a single word – come

But this separation has struck me dumb.
Tonight, I’ll search for a new art hangout.
For now, I’m just seeking new shoes
to float above feelings as if walking on air.
Not that this indicates I, in any way, care
as long as I don’t come down. While you’re gone.

 

Cognitive Flame-Out

“I’m terribly sorry,” he says in a voice so refined
you are surprised at politeness from this man
who has lately been known for his snarky humor,
his irate comments, his irrational needs,
“But I’ve forgotten who you are”

Who you are is a firefly in a jar flashing,
your face so familiar in the sudden light but extinguished
before his sad cells can really see the name
of the girl child, his first born,
the unspoken pain of lost memories
like reeds floating in darkness
on the edge of a pond where insects fly
unseen except for the edges of wings
flashing briefly in moonlight.

 

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Affairs of Dragons

I have been working on so many different things lately – two novels, a screenplay, a new book of poetry, two new short stories… and I haven’t had time to send anything out. I’m also teaching a class on Publishing at Santa Fe College.  So every once in a while, it’s nice to come across something that is published, just to remind me that they’re out there.  This was a story I wrote a few years ago after a run-in with a neighbor (which is something that hardly ever happens – we live in a very stable neighborhood and love our neighbors). I hope she and her children are doing well.

Hippocampus Magazine – Memorable Creative Nonfiction

Affairs of Dragons by Wendy Thornton

porch light bulb on, otherwise dark

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.” – Variation of a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Summer is winding down. This is the time of year when people move in and out of our neighborhoods in this college town. Overnight, we go from sleepy little community where everyone basically knows everyone else to crazy party town: football and fantasy and drunken young people. Mostly, I pay little attention. I’ve lived here forever—I’m used to the overnight change. (I was a student here. My children were born here. This is my home.)

There are a few rental houses on the street where I live. Sometimes they end up rented to students who attend the university, who cram unknown numbers into their three-bedroom homes and throw crazy parties on Friday and Saturday nights. (I married my ex-husband here. My ex-husband threw the best parties—our home was Party Central, the place people came after the bars closed.) So when the house across the street becomes available, I’m happy that an older couple moves in. No doubt, they will be quiet and respectful. I wave to the couple as they unpack, a plump blonde woman, and her dark-haired, dark-eyed partner. They do not wave back. They have two teenage girls. The girls are pretty and young and I worry that they might be a little wild. (I was a little wild—came here to go to college, and went a little crazy, away from home for the first time in my life, away from the responsibilities of being the eldest in a house full of kids.)

The older of the two girls comes to visit one day when I’m playing with my toddler grandson, Jackson. (My daughter, Jessica, Jackson’s mother, has begun to ask me about the father she never knew.) The new neighbor is very friendly, says her name is Starla. She picks up Jackson and talks to him, and he laughs. She is delighted. We talk for a while and I tell her I’m a writer and work from home. She asks if I’ll take a look at her poetry, and I say I’d be honored. As a published poet myself, I like to encourage young people to write. Most of them seem to consider poetry a dogged duty they must survive. (Wrote a million poems when I first came to this town. Wrote a million to/about my ex, the wild man. Burned them when we separated. I love fire.)

Starla’s poems are difficult and shocking but impressively written. She’s a kid, but it’s clear that she knows things a 14 year old should not know. She writes about cutting and being trapped in a mental health facility and loneliness so deep it seems like bone loss. She writes about the suicide of a cousin, but I’m concerned that maybe she is projecting feelings she herself has. I try to question her about whether she’s depressed, but she laughs off my concerns. Everything is fine. Except for her mom’s boyfriend. They fight a lot, she says.

When she leaves, she asks me if I’ll read her full notebook and tell her what I think. She’s an excellent writer, even though the poems are powerful and frightening. How can someone so cheerful write such deadly sad poems?

A few days later I meet her younger sister, Katy. She tells me that her mom and the boyfriend are fighting again. He broke the television with his fist. (My ex-husband once threw a brick in our living room at a male friend who was being too nice to me.) Like her sister, Katy has this amazing sunny demeanor, a blonde smiling happiness, even as she’s telling me how he punched the TV. In between her conversation with me, she texts her own boyfriend. Sometimes, she stops in the middle of what she’s saying to me to tap into the phone. When it buzzes in reply, she looks at it and laughs hysterically. “My boyfriend is so funny,” she says. (My ex could always make me laugh. For one so serious as I was back then, this was fearsome seduction)

“Did you say you were 12?” I ask, surprised. I didn’t have a real boyfriend till I was 17. But then, I was a slow starter. Katy nods, holds up a finger to silence me, types in something to the boyfriend.

“I’ve got to go,” she says suddenly. Her mother’s car has pulled into the driveway across the street. Katy rushes out to meet her. They appear to be arguing, their hands waving as they go into the house. I shouldn’t be watching. I turn away.

Later, the older sister, Starla, drops by and tells me she’s having a birthday party the following day and that she’d like me to come by and bring my grandson. “’Cause he’s so cute.”

The next day, I carry Jackson across the street to join the party. The house is nicely decorated, and everything is clean. But there are boys and girls who range in age from 12 to 16 and no adults are around. I see cars in the driveway, so I assume the mother is home. (On my daughter’s first birthday, my ex-husband went out to get firewood and didn’t come home for days). I present my gift, a small decorated journal where Starla can write her poems and keep them in her backpack. School is starting in two weeks, so I give both girls a big package of colored pens to split. I hang around a while, waiting to see if the mother will come out and introduce herself, but she doesn’t.

I don’t see the girls for a couple of days. Then late one night, they knock on the door in a panic. They claim heard someone is trying to break into their house. Their mother is working the night shift as a nurse at a local hospital and they are alone. (When you have children, you must develop protective instincts. If need be, you must transform from a squawky little bird to a dragon.) Mom’s boyfriend has moved out. They fear he may be trying to break in. “He cheated on my mom,” says Starla. “And she threw him out. But his stuff is all still there.” Frustrated that the girls have been left alone with so much drama in their lives, my anger rises. I’ll go check out the darkness that surrounds their house.

My husband is a big man. I enlist his aid, tell the girls to wait in our house, and we skulk across the street to look for the potential intruder. We both agree that the girls are probably imagining things. They probably don’t know how safe this neighborhood is. But there are fifty thousand new students in this town—who knows, someone might be trying to break in.

Behind their house, we thrash around in the bushes, check the storage shed, look along the fence, examine all the windows and check the porch. (I once spent the night alone with my newborn baby daughter, huddled in a bathroom, shaking as a tornado passed within a block of my home, knocking down trees and houses. Never did find out where my ex-husband was that night.) A neighbor’s cat rushes out of the yard and dashes away from us. We figure it must be the cat they heard.

We go back and tell the girls there is nothing to fear. “You’re welcome to stay here,” I say, but no, they have to go home. I tell them they can come over anytime, that we’re always available if they need help. I walk them over to their house, look around to be sure no one is inside. This time, the house is a mess, dirty dishes in the sink, clothes thrown everywhere. And they are alone, which is scary in a new town.

The next day, I tell the girls that even if I’m not home, they should feel comfortable about coming over. My husband was a high school teacher for 15 years and he is an eminently trustworthy person. I tell him that they may have reason to be afraid, that the boyfriend and the mother seemed to fight a lot, that there are uncomfortable secrets in that notebook, things a young girl shouldn’t be writing about. He reluctantly agrees to be their supporter if they need one. “I hope you’re not getting me into a big mess,” he says.

I laugh. “You can handle the boyfriend. You’re bigger than he is.”

He grins. “Not if he has a gun,” he answers. He’s a good sport. He’s used to my projects. If the girls need him, he’ll be there. He’s used to following me into the middle of swamps. He’s good in the murky waters of relationships, steady, calm.

A couple of days later, Katy comes over crying. Her boyfriend broke up with her. She tells me her mother is mad at her because she worked all night and Katy’s crying woke her up. Which made Katy cry all the more. I wonder what kind of person can’t take a few minutes to comfort a child who has just lost her first boyfriend?

I talk to Katy about the lost boy. (Lost boys. That’s what I called my ex and his careless, fun-loving friends—The Lost Boys. Like the ones in Peter Pan, who never grew up.) I tell her that she’s young and pretty, that there will be lots of boyfriends, that school is starting soon and she won’t know what to do with all the boyfriends she’ll meet. We talk about ways to forget the lowlife who dumped her. She has a new kitten that she loves very much. She’s going to go home and play with him and forget about the stupid boyfriend. She seems to be happy when she leaves. At least she’s no longer crying.

Both girls come over every once in a while to talk. They tell me about school shopping plans and last minute end-of-summer trips. I begin to hope these things will happen even as I begin to see that they probably won’t. School is getting closer and they are still talking about trips and clothes as if to reassure themselves that at any moment the plans might occur. (Our biggest fights were about what we would do for our child. “I will do anything for her,” I said. “I want to give her everything.” “Like what?” “Like what? You know, music lessons, gymnastics, bicycles, whatever she wants.” “Kids shouldn’t be given all that crap. If they want it, they should get it for themselves.”)

The mother’s boyfriend is back. I see him sitting shirtless, smoking a cigarette on their front porch. I glare at him. Can’t help myself. How could you, I think. Then I am embarrassed. What right have I to make such judgments? Who knows who is at fault in the relationship of others?

A few days later, Starla comes over late. She says she’s sick, that her stomach is so upset she can’t keep anything down and she’s having terrible pains. Do I have anything that could help her? No, I say, I don’t keep anything on hand that would help with stomach pains. I volunteer to take her to the emergency room.

She thinks about this for a moment, then says, “Okay.” I ask her to call her mother at work and tell her what’s going on. Where should I take her? Should I bring her to the hospital where her mother works? Does she have insurance? Starla starts talking to Mom, and then takes the call outside on the porch. I hear her shouting into the phone, “I didn’t tell her anything.”

Frustrated, I go out and pick up the phone. “Your daughter’s in a lot of pain,” I say. “I’ll take her to the emergency room if you’d like.”

The mother surprises me. She doesn’t want me to take Starla to the emergency room. She says, “I know my daughter.” She says this a number of times.

I say, “I’m sure you do. Your daughter says she’s in a lot of pain. Do you want me to take her to the emergency room or not?”

She snaps, “If I thought she needed to go, I’d come home and take her myself. I’ll have Sam do it when he gets off work.”

“Sam? Sam?” I say. The name of the boyfriend. The one who supposedly left, but who has now come back. I know my voice sounds shocked, but that’s because I am shocked. Is this woman seriously going to send her teenage daughter off with a man who has somehow managed to traumatize her?

Starla goes home to wait for Sam to get off work. When he’s sitting outside the next morning, smoking, my husband asks if she’s okay and he says “Fine.” She doesn’t come to my house anymore after that. I’m sure her mother told her not to visit me anymore. I interfere too much. (Before my daughter was born, I left my ex over and over but he always talked me into returning. After she was born, after he disappeared on her first birthday, I packed up and never came back.)

Two days after the stomach pain incident, I am awakened at 3 AM by hysterical screaming. My bedroom is at the back of the house and my windows are closed, but still I can hear the neighbors shrieking. From my living room, closer to the dramatic scene, I hear Katy begging her mother to come inside. Outside in the light of the street lamp, I see the mother sitting in the middle of her driveway, both legs extended at right angles to her body, shrieking and crying hysterically. Katy stands nearby, cell phone in hand. “Please mom,” she cries, “please come inside.”

Mom says, “Katy, get the fuck in the house right now.” She doesn’t stop screaming. She doesn’t stop crying. She thinks she is the dragon and that she will breathe fire and everyone will run away from her. But looking at that 12 year old’s tearful face, I’m the one breathing fire.

Nevertheless, I try to be polite. I walk up to where she sits and bend down. “What’s wrong?” I say. “Can I help you?” I don’t know this woman. I have never met her. I tried to meet her but she has gone out of her way to avoid me. Now she’s too drunk to get away.

“My boyfriend left me,” she wails. “He cheated on me, and now he’s left me.” (One day my ex left me alone with our baby and the daughter of a female friend. He didn’t come home all night and claimed he got stuck on a river in a boat. He claimed he was alone. I didn’t believe him.) “I’m all alone,” shrieks the mother of Katy and Starla.

“Mom,” Katy says, but she is looking at me as she speaks, “please, please come in the house.”

Mom stops crying long enough to shriek, “You heard me. Katy, do as I say, get the fuck in the house right now!”

“Listen,” I say, “you really should go inside. I’m afraid someone’s going to call the police.” I’m hoping that this will bring the woman to her senses, but she’s too far gone for this to matter. Drunks are like that. (My ex had three DWI’s in the last year we were together. For the third one, he spent six days in jail while I waited at home, eight months pregnant.)

She says, “He left me. He cheated on me. And I’m in my own driveway. I can do whatever the fuck I want.” She moans and rocks back and forth. She doesn’t look at me as she cries, “You don’t get it. You don’t understand anything. I’m a single parent. I’m all alone. You don’t know what I’m going through.”

“I get it,” I say. “I’m just afraid you’ll hurt yourself or hurt your daughter.”

“You don’t know me,” she shrieks. “I’d never hurt her.”

I don’t mean to say it, but it’s 3 AM and I’m tired and grouchy. “You already are,” I retort.

“You don’t know anything about this,” she shrieks at me. “Call the police if you want.”

Katy gives me a look of absolute pleading. (My ex used to come staggering home at 3 or 4 a.m., drunk out of his mind. If I was lucky, he would be alone and go to sleep soon. If I was unlucky, the Lost Boys would be with him and party all night, making it impossible for me to sleep.) “Let me help you inside,” I coax, walking towards her. I put out my hand.

She shrieks, “Just go away, you fucking bitch.”

I give Katy a sad glance and back off. I’m not afraid of crazy mom. I’ve been around more than my share of mean drunks and they do not intimidate me. And there’s no way I’m leaving until I know her daughters are safe. There’s nothing I can do here, though, so I cross the street to my own porch. But I don’t go away. I’m not going to allow her to do anything to her 12-year-old child, anything worse than she is doing already by lying in the middle of her yard screaming hysterically at 3 o’clock in the morning. (Once I got drunk and told my ex, “Now I see why you love this. I feel nothing—nothing!”) In the dark, I watch the mother argue with her young daughter. Katy knows I’m there. As she continues to try to get her mother in the house, she glances in my direction, where I sit in the dark cursing and breathing fire, waiting for this crazy woman to step out of line.

Eventually Katy gives up and goes inside and Mom sits there, legs wide, body slumped, still sobbing. Finally, she manages to get to her feet. She staggers to the house, opens the front door and starts to go in. As she does, Katy’s cat slips out and runs into the darkness. There are two old cars in the driveway and the cat disappears under one of them. The mother comes out staggering and cursing, looking for the cat.

I think about what I will say to her if we have another confrontation this evening. I want to tell her that her kids are already so messed up they desperately need help. I want to shriek back at her the way she was shrieking at me. But what’s the point?

The mother staggers from place to place. She can’t stand up straight. She’s close to passing out. She’s cursing the cat and cursing the dark and cursing the boyfriend by name. I know if she finds the cat, she will hurt it. I know that Katy has given up, and is crying in bed. She doesn’t know the cat is lost or she would be outside looking for it.

Sometimes connections seem so random. Who knows why people get involved in each other’s lives? Maybe it’s as simple as asking someone to read your poems. The mother keeps looking over at me, sitting in the dark on my front porch. I know why I am sitting here. I know why I’m interfering. I know why I want her to straighten up—I am looking at what I could have become if I hadn’t left my ex-husband.

Eventually, the mother gives up on the cat. Crying, she staggers back into the house, slams the door behind her. (I knew if I stayed, my child would live a horrible life, a life of drunken battles and useless dreams. The day after her first birthday, I packed our meager possessions and left my ex-husband forever. Dragons can be born at any time.)

I sit in the dark on my porch and listen to see if the mother is inside screaming at her kids, but there is only silence. (If I hadn’t left, my children would have been like these poor, damaged teens across the street, shining with their attempts to be bright and carefree and not get sucked into the morass of tragedy that surrounds their lives.)

I look towards the cars where the cat ran. There the cat sits, just under the bumper of the car, staring back at me in the darkness like a ghost. I can almost read the expression on his face. See, this is how you avoid conflict. Stay out of the way. He glows like the ghost of my past in the light from the streetlamp, reveling in the silence. I know I should go inside my own peaceful, quiet home. But instead, I turn on my front porch light and sit there waiting, just in case I’m needed later.

 

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Where Does the Time Go?

It’s hard to believe that my last post here was in February. It is now mid-August, and I’m stunned that it’s been so long between posts. But I’m not surprised. I edit dissertations, books, and academic papers for a living. And last year, I worked for a publishing company that kept me slammed with extra work. Unfortunately, it appears they have gone out of business, and I’m now limited in the work I have. I don’t necessarily want to look for more freelance work because as soon as I do, I’m afraid that all my students will come in with multiple jobs and I’ll be slammed with too much work again.

But it’s hard to imagine ignoring your own work for so long. I have two books that I have finished writing. One is the second book in a series, Bear-Trapped, about a semi-flawed detective who has decided to be a private eye. The second is a semi-autobiographical novel about a girl growing up in the sixties and seventies. I’d like to send that one out to an agent, but of course, it needs a lot of work. And it appears that I haven’t worked on either of those since February, either. How does time get away from me so easily?

On the other hand, I have put together two books of poetry in the last few months for the Alachua County Poet Laureate application. (It’s very competitive so I doubt I will get it, but was very happy about the wonderful letters of reference some local writers wrote for me.) Both books of poetry have been submitted to multiple contests and many of the poems have already been published so I was happy to finally see them put together as a little chapbook, even though I’d prefer the whole thing get published. And I have written two short stories, one about a college grad student who gets raped by a colleague, and another about a grandmother who kidnaps her grandkids from her son-in-law. Both of those will be submitted to contests soon. And the college student story is turning into a screenplay, slowly but surely. Even when writers don’t seem to be writing, somehow they are.

Once I decided I was going to quit writing forever. It didn’t get me anywhere. I made no money at it. It took away from time with family and friends. There was just no point to it. I vowed that I would just stop. For good. And I did.

Except that I couldn’t. I started writing little notes on napkins in restaurants. I wrote story ideas on my daugher’s disposable bibs when she was a baby. I wrote poetry on receipts from the grocery store. And finally I realized – I can’t stop. So I just kept going. What the heck – if you love what you do, you’ll never feel like it’s work.

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