A warm welcome

It’s not that he was bitter. Not like her. 

Not that she had good reason to be. She had the affair. She moved out. She married his best friend.

But, of course, word got around. He knew the things she was saying about him. The things she was saying to their children. The things she was saying to their friends. The things she was saying to anyone who would listen.

But gossip is a two-way street, he realized, and if he was hearing about her then it stood to reason she was hearing about him. He didn’t know what she was hearing, but he hoped it was that he had moved on and was doing well.

And so he decided to set the record straight. Anyone who came to his door would know he wasn’t clinging to the past.

“Come in, come in,” he would greet them.

And as they stepped forward to wipe their feet, they would look down and notice the new welcome mat.

The worn-out sisal announcing that this was the home of “The Johnsons” was gone. In its place was a handsome new expanse of coir bristle that proclaimed, “The Johnson.”

Sometimes it’s the small things.

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A Mother’s Day Post

My mother was not like the other mothers.

The others always appeared at school functions clad in jewel-tone wind suits or high-waisted, taper-legged jeans designed to broadcast their devotion to Diet Coke and rice cakes. The hair at the crowns of their heads was feathered into what I now understand to be mall bangs.

Then in would stride my mother — zaftig, purple-haired and wearing a pair of men’s coveralls on which she’d appliqued orange flames licking up the legs.

“Hello, Noodle!” she would crow when she saw me, erasing any doubt that we were a unit and that she was not, in fact, a random crazy who had wandered in.

I’d scan the earth, searching for a sign that it was preparing to open up and swallow me. Alas, Gaea kept her mouth shut.

My mother didn’t even need to be present to embarrass me. While my classmates opened their lunch boxes to reveal Oscar Mayer Lunchables and foil pouches of Capri Sun, I discovered hummus and alfalfa sprouts on whole-grain bread. For a while I coveted the other kids’ lunches but was happy enough with my own. Then one day I was unfortunate enough to draw the attention of an especially outspoken girl, who saw me chewing on my fiber-rich sandwich. “You look like a goat,” she said.

It was an especially biting observation. While the other mothers had respectable careers as RNs, teachers and, in some instances, trophies, my mother raised meat goats.

And while the other mothers slipped into floral-print dresses and sensible heels for church every Sunday, my mother chose to sleep in. Our family’s absence in the pews did not go unnoticed, and my sisters and I were the targets of relentless salvation efforts. For a time, I went with it. My best friend’s church employed a bus driver to pick up young heathens like me and ferry us to Sunday school.

But that isn’t to say my mother wasn’t engaging in some form of spiritual enlightenment. To beat down the depression that plagued her from time to time, my mother purchased a djembe and joined a pagan drumming circle.

“Why doesn’t your mother come to church?” members of the congregation would ask me.

“She’s … busy,” I would say.

“She shouldn’t be too busy for the Lord,” they would counter.

How I wished for my mother to don something from Laura Ashley and sit with me at church, not so much because I was concerned about the state of her soul but because I wanted her to be seen that way. I wanted people to know we were a normal family.

A year came and went, bringing with it Comet Hale-Bopp. Somewhere in California, a group of nutters changed into matching sweats and Nike sneakers before killing themselves in hopes of boarding the mothership they believed to be riding the comet.

I was struck by the images in Newsweek. My mother did not buy name-brand clothes for my sisters and me, and I was in awe of the fact that one could be suicidal while wearing anything so glorious as Nike sneakers. I read and re-read that magazine, poring over the sordid details.

Then one day at church, the pastor got going on the topic of the afterlife. The book of Revelations was one of his favorites, so I wasn’t surprised to hear it come up in the sermon. I started to zone out, studying the shoes and handbags of the women in my pew.

“You know, in a way we are aliens,” the pastor said.

This got my attention.

“The Bible talks at length about UFOs,” he continued.

There were murmurs of amen as the pastor recited examples of horrifying beings and stellar activity.

I did not like where this was going.

The next Sunday, I sat in our living room, my stomach a knot of dread. Shortly after 7, I heard the familiar rumble of the church van’s wheels on gravel. It pulled up behind my father’s truck and idled. I stayed planted on the sofa and closed my eyes, counting to 60 in hopes that the van would leave after a minute.

Like a bad boyfriend, the driver started to honk the horn.

I closed my eyes tighter and kept counting.

The honking drew the attention of my mother, who came into the room to see about the commotion.

“Church van’s here, Noodle,” she said.

“I don’t want to go,” I said.

“Then you need to go tell them that,” she said.

“Can’t you do it?”

“This is not my problem.”

“I can’t.”

The driver honked again.

“Mooom, I can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because they think there are aliens in UFOs coming to get us and I don’t want to die!”

The driver honked a quick series of honks.

“Oh, for Chrissake,” my mother said. She stomped to the door and opened it. Our pack of fierce terriers funneled out, snarling and barking like beasts of hell as they sprinted toward the van. My mom strode out onto the porch and waved her arms.

“Go on! Get!” she shouted.

The van reversed and sped away.

My mother turned and came back into the living room, cackling.

At the time I wasn’t literate enough to grasp the concept of metaphor. I realize now that the pastor probably didn’t really believe in little green men. Probably.

But what I came to understand that morning is that my mother is not like other mothers, and that’s a good thing.

I hope I can be just like her.

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The most important meal of the day

As a conductor for the Union Pacific Railroad, my father had a somewhat unpredictable schedule. Sometimes his work took him north to St. Louis or Chicago. Other times it took him south to Memphis or Little Rock. Sometimes he’d be gone for a week at a time, other times he was able to come home in the evenings to be with us.

When my father got to come home, my mother got to cooking. Because he had to be at the depot in Poplar Bluff early, he rose around 5 to shower, dress and play his keyboards for a while. My mother, meanwhile, set to cooking elaborate breakfasts.

Biscuits and gravy. Bacon and eggs. Potato hash. Omelets. The meals she made when my father was home were an exciting departure from the cold cereals my sisters and I ate most mornings.

As we sat around the kitchen table, my mother would stand behind my father, spatulaing sausage links onto his plate as quickly as he could eat him and refilling his cup with more coffee.

What a pretty picture we must have been: the perfect nuclear family enjoying a home-cooked breakfast together.

But trouble — or maybe something else — was brewing.

“Have you gotten enough to eat?” my mother would ask.

My father would nod his assent.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some more sausage?” she would say.

My father, whose appetite was the stuff of family legend, always said yes.

“How are you feeling?” my mother would ask.

“Oh, fine,” my father would say.

“How fine?”

“Fine.”

“Do you think you’re going to make a poop?”

My father would stop chewing. She’d gotten him again.

Knowing that the toilets on the train are especially nasty, my mother cooked hearty but greasy fare to ensure he would have to pay them a visit.

Some say that the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I suppose it’s also true that this route also is the quickest way to a man’s fart.

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The St. Louis Cousins’ last ride

It was always an exciting time for my sisters and me when our St. Louis Cousins came to visit. For though we were the country mice to their city mice, they were savage in a way we admired but could never emulate.

Like the kids we saw on television and in movies, the St. Louis Cousins were smartasses. They spoke any thought that entered their little minds, heedless of the authority held by lame parents. The St. Louis Cousins were disrespectful in a way we found fascinating and frightening.

But, as we would come to understand, self-professed smartasses seldom are anything more than a dumbasses.

I had spent a considerable amount of time getting ready the day of the St. Louis Cousins’ arrival. I stood before the mirror and studied my reflection. My long, dirty-blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail — not too high and not too low — and adorned with a scrunchie I’d made in home ec. It very obviously didn’t come from Claire’s, but I’d used a denim fabric that I hoped would pass as trendy. Perhaps this would make up for the fact that I’d been to a mall exactly four times in my life.

However, I did have on an Old Navy logo T-shirt. It had been a Christmas present from my St. Louis Aunt, who made a point to mention in her card that she knew we didn’t have an Old Navy anywhere near where we lived. At the time I’d been touched by her thoughtfulness and generosity. Only now do I realize it was a dig.

I’d been planning to play it cool, but I abandoned all pretense as soon as I caught sight of my St. Louis Aunt’s sporty SUV — of course she didn’t drive a boring old pickup pickup truck or a frumpy mini-van like our parents did.

Along with the Border Collies, my sisters and I sprinted toward the approaching vehicle and ran alongside it as it slowed and came to a stop in our driveway.

Our St. Louis Cousins oozed out of the car, the very picture of American Eagle-clad disdain. They looked scornfully at my sisters and me.

“Nice scrunchie,” St. Louis Girl Cousin said.

I beamed, proud that my DIY efforts passed inspection. Only now do I realize it was a dig.

After we’d exchanged pleasantries — or, I know now, got hit with missiles disguised as pleasantries — our mom suggested that the St. Louis Cousins might like to ride the horses.

This was too exciting an offer even for the St. Louis Cousins to turn down.

“Oh my god! Really? We can ride the horses?” St. Louis Girl Cousin shrieked.

“I want to ride a black stallion!” St. Louis Boy Cousin announced.

“Me too! Me too! A black stallion!” St. Louis Girl Cousin said.

We didn’t have a black stallion, but we did have Mist and Hank. Mist was a plodding old Morgan mare. Hank was a plotting old grudge mule.

Mist was such a well-behaved animal that anyone who rode her felt like Willie Shoemaker. Hank was well-behaved only so long as it suited him to be, after which all bets were off.

St. Louis Boy Cousin happened to be riding Hank when he decided he was done.

Mist and Hank had been walking laps around corral for about 20 minutes when, out of nowhere, Hank reared up on his short back legs, pivoted 180 degrees and took off.

St. Louis Boy Cousin bounced helplessly on his back, shouting in the cadence of Hank’s choppy gait.

On Hank trotted, making his way toward the barn. The barn was a weathered old building missing a few planks from one of the walls. There was just enough space for Hank to squeeze through. Alas, there was not enough space for Hank and St. Louis Boy Cousin to squeeze through. A low beam scraped St. Louis Boy Cousin off Hank’s back like mold from a cheese rind. St. Louis Boy Cousin somersaulted backward off Hank and into the grime and glop of the corral.

St. Louis Boy Cousin began to cry. St. Louis Girl Cousin, still astride Mist, began to cry, too. I don’t know if it was sympathy for her brother or the realization that she, too, might end up in the muck. What I do know, though, is that for once the St. Louis Cousins had nothing clever to say.

The smartasses had been outwitted by a jackass.

Dumbasses.

Posted in Animals, Country Grammar, Family, Fashion, Fighting, Horses, Humor, Mules, People, Regrets, Revenge, The South, Youth | 1 Comment

Flight of the grudge mule

Our mother had purchased the mule as a sort of fuck-you to our father.

She and our next-door neighbor, Cindy, liked to go to the sale barn every Monday night to get away from kids and husbands for a few hours. Our mother had been talking about getting a few calves, but the timing wasn’t right. The fences were in need of repair, and she wasn’t quite ready to commit to the extra chores.

And so when a rancher called one morning to tell her about some especially beautiful calves he planned to have for sale at the sale barn, she told him she wasn’t interested.

Even so, our father, who overheard our mother talking to the rancher, made the error of telling her, “I forbid you to buy any cattle.”

And so she bought Hank instead.

Our father was not pleased, but what could he do? He hadn’t forbidden the purchase of a mule, and my sisters and I were completely enamored with our new pet.

Still, while our mother had purchased Hank to make a point, she expected him to earn his keep. Nobody gets a free ride. The problem, though, was that nobody was going to get a ride — free or otherwise.

When she’d asked the man who’d sold him whether Hank was good with children, the man said yes. In fact, the man said, Hank had been part of a carnival pony-ride crew.

And so our mother and Cindy came up with a plan: They would do children’s birthday parties. Between the two of them, they had the makings of a petting zoo: puppies, kittens, rabbits, chickens, baby goats and bottle calves. And with the addition of Hank, they also could offer rides.

So our mother and Cindy got the word out, and before long they landed their first gig.

The mother who had booked our services was the wife of some Poplar Bluff muckity-muck. Her family’s beautiful home was nestled away with the homes of all the area doctors and lawyers and similar. My sisters and I lacked the social awareness necessary to discern that the kids we were about to entertain were not our peers, but Cindy’s son, Jaret, had a knack for caste classification. “These people are stinkin’ rich,” he informed us.

Things started out smoothly enough. Although the Poplar Bluff kids lived a mere 30 minutes from us, it was was if they had never seen a farm animal before. They clamored for turns holding the rabbit or feeding the calf. As my sisters and I picked and chose who could be the next to man the bottle or play with a kitten, our mother led Hank in laps around the birthday kid’s yard.

It was an especially hot day, and after about 30 minutes our mother said she needed to stop and take a breather.

“Here, chick, can you hang on to him for a minute?” our mother said, handing me his lead shank.

Feeling floaty from the Poplar Bluff kids’ awe in my animal-handling abilities, I gladly accepted the chore.

“Let’s go, boy,” I said in a voice I hoped conveyed authority.

And go he did.

In a cunning maneuver, Hank stepped onto the back of my sneaker. As I bent to slip it back over my heel, Hank took off — across the Poplar Bluff woman’s beautiful yard and into the distance.

“Hank! Come back!” I shouted.

But Hank wasn’t coming back. Though short-legged and fat, Hank was surprisingly fast. We watched as the dun-colored mule grew smaller and smaller as he tore through lawns and gardens.

“These people are going to sue us,” Jaret announced.

A foot chase was obviously out of the question, so our mother and Cindy jumped into the truck and took off.

“Would anyone like to pet a bunny?” my sister Annie offered helpfully.

Not wanting to cause any further damage, our mother and Cindy stuck to the roads, trying their best to keep an eye on Hank and hoping that he’d soon run out of steam.

Then a couple of teenage boys in a Jeep caught sight of them and figured out what was up and decided to help in the only way they knew how: to rip through the fields in hot pursuit.

And rip through the fields they did. Hank led them in a high-speed chase through someone’s malfunctioning septic drain field, down a power easement and into a county judge’s driveway.

As the boys slowed to a respectable speed, Hank veered left and sprinted into a barn. One of the boys gave a celebratory hoot and leaped out of the Jeep and ran after him.

Finally, they’d cornered Hank.

But Hank wasn’t done. When the boys got to him, they find him fighting through the fence with the judge’s high-dollar Tennessee walking horses.

We left the Poplar Bluff birthday party embarrassed and not a penny richer. Our mother’s fuck-you to our father had become a fuck-you to us all.

 

Posted in Animals, Country Grammar, Family, Humor, Mules, Regrets, WTF, Youth | Leave a comment

A conversation with my sister

“What did you get Mom for Mother’s Day?”

“Some wine glasses.”

“OK, good.”

“Why? What did you get her?”

“Well, I asked her what she wanted. She said she liked those $8 t-shirts from Target. That didn’t seem very special, so I asked her if there was anything else she wanted. She said, ‘Well, there is this website called Animal Shirts. They have this t-shirt with a frog giving a peace sign and I think that would really just suit me.’ I told her, ‘I always wondered where people get that shirt. I am going to make sure you never get it.'”

“But if that’s what she wants …”

“Do not cave!”

Posted in Family, Fashion, Humor, People | 3 Comments

Tell me how you really feel, Siri

My mom recently made the leap from dumbphone to iPhone. One of her favorite things about it is her dictation app because she can walk around her greenhouse and make verbal notes on which plants she needs to restock, which are then transcribed into a neat list she can email her business partner.

Of course, the app doesn’t recognize the names of all the flowers, and often my mom has to go back and translate some of the notes.

“Fuck Oprah,” apparently, is Siri-speak for “bacopa.”

Posted in Family, Humor, The South, Words, WTF | Leave a comment