Saturday, February 23, 2013
The roar of the furnace sends a welcome gust of warmth to my bare feet. A thin squirrel with a meagre tail has darted from one long, slender branch to the other, backlit by the bright blue of the morning sky, framed by the square of the living room window. Winter; Brookside; as the twentieth anniversary of my purchase of this house looms.
My son and I moved here on Memorial Day weekend in 1993, but I had purchased this place in February of that year. My apartment lease ended in May, coincidental to the scheduled decampment of the sellers to a new phase of their lives together. I first saw the house banked in heaps of snow as it now lies, huddled against the chill of that heavy winter. The snow hid some of its flaws but accentuated its dazzling charm.
I stood with my real estate agent, who also happened to own the building in which I then lived, on the old screen porch, looking at the grey door set amidst the darker grey-painted cedar shingles. A plaque bore the name of the owners. Hey, I know somebody with that last name! I told my realtor. A minute later, I stood in the sparsely furnished living room, gazing at family portraits of the somebodies whom I knew, whose house this happened to be. The coincidence seemed like a lucky amulet slipped onto a leather cord and draped around my neck. I walked through the first floor, stood in the small front bedroom with its two toddler beds, gazed at the showerless tub, opened the orderly closet in the back bedroom. His suits on top; her skirts beneath; dresses to the left. I closed the door and tiptoed out of their tidy sanctuary.
One glance into the stairway leading to the upstairs sealed my resolve. Knotty pine, its stain darkened over the years, lined the walls, continuing into the bedroom with its cathedral ceiling and its small half-bath. I cracked open the walk-in cedar closet and leaned my head against the frame of its entry, closing my eyes, inhaling the sweet cedar scent. Could this house, with its 1542 square feet of 1920's coziness, really be mine?
For the sake of form, I traveled back down to the first floor, then into the basement. The stark concrete floor of the first room gave slight pause; but the furnace seemed new, and Jeff said that the owner actually parked a vehicle in the drive-in garage. It didn't occur to me to ask what kind of car they drove. Only later did I learn that nothing would fit into the narrow space except the smallest of cars. By then, I owned the place.
On that first day, I pulled the door shut behind me as Jeff, the real estate guy, walked down the front steps. I stood on the screen porch, imagining where I would place my Shaker rocker and my mother's small wooden table. I followed Jeff's steps down the salted driveway to look at the towering cedar tree and the old maple which rose above the place where Jeff said a flagstone patio, cracked but serviceable, lie under the piles of snow. I imagined a swing set in the fenced backyard, a grill on the little back deck, a dog, a pool, happy husband, happy wife. Never mind it was just Buddy and me and a trailer full of ragtag castoff furniture. Surely, if I bought this house, the rest would follow.
I trudged back out to my vehicle and offered my thanks to Jeff for his time. I told him that I felt sure that this house would suit me very well. He pulled his wool coat tighter around his chest and replied that since he knew both me and the sellers, he had agreed to take a very small commission. We shook hands, that awkward, hand-over-hand clenching of people who know each other too well for a mere handshake but not well enough for an embrace. He left.
I lingered for a few minutes, studying the house. Its wide brick chimney rose above the roof line. A cardinal flitted down from the umbrella maple that flanked the neatly shoveled concrete walk. I heard its brief song, and closed my eyes. I imagined, for a moment, that happy life, in the warm lazy days of summer, with the sound of children drifting through the neighborhood in the shimmering heat of the crystalline air.
Winter has taken hold of this home once again, twenty years almost to the day from my first visit here. My husband rattles dishes in the kitchen and our dog, curled on her raggedy bed under the dining room window, heaves a long sigh. A shower of snow falls from high in the maple, and I wonder if there is a cardinal on its tallest bare branches, singing his song of the cold, and the bright, clean sky, and his long, glorious flight.
Saturday, February 16, 2013
A chill seeps through the old floorboards. I shudder and huddle close into my velour sleeping shirt. Dusty snow settles on the shingles of the neighboring house. Small tracks pepper the sloped roof, ending in a long jittery slide. I imagine the bird that must have found a momentary perch, as cold as I am right now, frigid damp against her small fluttery breast.
I staggered giddily through this week, from day to jarring day, dealing with the twists and turns of my life and my clients' lives. The tender-hearted young woman who escaped a controlling bully in New Mexico; the mother who tore her brood from the grips of a tyrant in Kansas City; the man whose teenage daughter has grown weary of her unconcerned mother and wants to live with him. They sat before me in turns, anxious, eager, excited, grim.
I drive from court to office to court to home. One day, coasting through a curve on Inter-State 70, I see a sign for sponsoring charities and gasp. The Lions Club, it says, in the center of an emblem that I have not seen in forty years. And I am instantly transported back, back, to Lions' Park in Jennings, on a summer's day when I was twelve and a reluctant Camp Fire Girl attending day camp.
Day camp both horrified and fascinated me. That I could never excel at the activities did not occur to me but the other girls had long since determined that I should be shunned. One or two girls in my own troop spoke to me, but no one else did. I could not run; I could not dodge a ball; I fumbled crafts; I fell behind on hikes. But I persisted. I wore the crispest uniform, a fact only noticed by the leaders. I had ironed each blouse myself. I kept my kerchief between two books so that it did not wrinkle between meetings. I volunteered for everything. That only adults applauded my relentless pursuit of acceptance escaped me most of the time.
On one particular day, the milder forms of torture had been abandoned for rougher, wild play. Softball, volleyball, running games. We formed lines and chose sides, and I always stood alone, scuffing my saddle shoes and hoping to be chosen. One side or the other got me by the bad luck of the count. The chosen captain gestured and I would join them. They never started me; they benched me if they could. The bored college students working as camp counselors sat to one side and drank Pepsi from the machine, lounging on benches in the pavilion. I plastered a smile on my face and stood, scratching the back of one leg with the toe of my other foot. My long hair hung limply down my back, fallen out of the braids in which I customarily wore it.
The sudden smack of a ball against my chest startled me from a daydream. I staggered to one side and fell against the fence behind me, frantically grabbing at nothing, falling to the ground. A couple of the counselors who were supposed to be in charge ran over. One pulled me up, shouting at the other to get a wet rag for my skinned knees. I shook my head and pushed her away. And we stood, a silent gaggle of females, most of my peers with shocked looks on their faces. A few wore smug expressions. The captain of the team on whom I had been foisted briefly flashed a victorious grin before assuming an innocent air.
The game resumed. I sat on the bleachers, making no pretense of involvement. The afternoon ended and the chattering sound of departing campers drifted down to the wall on which I waited for my mother to come get me. The counselors left last, glancing my way, calling to me, asking if I had a ride. I assured them I did.
Night fell. The pierce of cicadas cut through the air around me. The first flash of lightening bugs twinkled in the long green expanse of the park. I waited. After a half hour or so, I saw the low lights of a car coming down the drive to the parking lot but it was not my mother's old vehicle. A car door closed, almost timidly. Through the gathering gloom, I glimpsed a figure, and felt a momentary pang of fear. But the figure came into the light and I saw that one of the college students had returned.
She sat beside me on the wall, stretching her slim legs, leaning back on her tanned arms. I'll just wait with you. I glanced sideways and shrugged, as though to invite her to do what pleased her. We did not speak again. Another half an hour past before my mother came, apologizing over and over for forgetting me, profusely thanking the counselor, hugging me, hustling me into the car with profuse promises of a delicious if reheated dinner.
We drove out of the park and home. I watched the counselor's tail lights ahead of us until she turned at a point where we went straight, and I couldn't see her any more. And I never saw her again. I never went back. I spent the rest of that summer at home with my brothers and quit Camp Fire Girls before the start of eighth grade.
A friend recently told me that her daughter is taking a class at college with the very kid who mercilessly teased her in high school. My heart cringed. Of all the classes she could take, she ends up in one with her tormentor! Her mother, my friend, shook her head. How cruel life can be at times; how mean we can be to each other, to people whom we perceive as odd, or different, or weird. I want to put my arms around my friend's daughter and around the shuddering shoulders of all the sons and daughters. I want to urge this beautiful girl, and all the halting, worried girls and the awkward, inept boys, to ignore the cretins who bully them; though I know she will not be able to block his taunts from her ears. I know that as surely as I still feel the sting of that ball on my chest, as surely as I still see the mocking glances of my own tormentors, so many years ago, when I was young, and the katydids were still plentiful in the parks where we used to play.
Saturday, February 9, 2013
I only need to close my eyes, and I am in the car with two weary young men who have been driving for twelve hours. Snow surrounds them, a wicked, whirling blanket shrouding their windshield. The wind raises great wafts of the stuff, a fierce wall which their headlights barely dent. The two inch along, not daring to stop, unable to discern the surface of the road, shivering in their seatbelts, speaking only when necessary and in clipped, brief sentences.
Ahead, two lights seem to guide them. The road must be to the right of those lights, they reason, and the driver turns his wheel. Too late: the dark figure looms so close. A sharp jerk, the figure leaps to one side, and the little car glides forward, carried by its own weight, compelled by this undeniable principle of physics: A body in motion stays in motion until it slams into a stalled car hidden in the depths of a blizzard. Eye meet horrified eyes seconds before the two vehicles collide.
The passenger in the crumpled car texted his mother late Wednesday night. "This is kinda funny, but I got in another accident. I wasn't driving and nobody got hurt." Exhausted, medicated, curled in her bed with the electronics switched to silent, his mother does not see the text until Thursday morning when she rises from a fretful sleep. On waking, she thinks first of her failure to buy coffee, of the empty silver canister with its few little shards of broken coffee beans. She paces around the bedroom, walking off the effect of a desperately ingested painkiller,listening for the sounds of her husband moving around on the first floor.
Only when she has come fully awake does she reach for the cell phone and hit the power key. By that time, she has been out of bed for ten or fifteen useless minutes, while far to the north, those young men have collapsed from exhaustion a handful of hours after their eventual rescue. "Even the dog in the other car is okay," says the text, which she reads while standing by her wobbly antique writing desk, her face frozen in its grimace of shock. The prior history of their virtual exchange mocks her: She scrolls back to re-read her son's account of a blown tire, his fruitless struggle to stay out of the ditch, his reassuring conversation with the tow truck driver, the ride in a police cruiser back to school. That was less than a week ago! she thinks, before raising her voice to call her husband. "Jim, my God, Patrick was in another car accident."
The Upper Peninsula shudders under the brutal weight of winter. Nearly as far north as it is possible to go without a passport, it takes the brunt of a February storm and huddles deeper down into the rough land surrounding the lakes. The two travelers find themselves stranded. The nearest rental car sits useless in a parking lot hours away. To the south, a mother helplessly watches the drama unfold in short bursts of half-formed script scrolling through the little window of her cell phone's screen. We're okay, comes the next line, while she sits at her office desk. I've got beautiful pictures of the ice-carving festival. . . I talked to the AmFam agent. Act III, Scene 1: 11:30 p.m. Friday night, two students, eager to leave the daunting beauty of the Upper Peninsula, throw their backpacks in ahead of them and board a Greyhound bus for the first leg of a twenty-one hour odyssey back to Indiana.
February 9th, marks the thirty-first anniversary of the evening that I was struck by a dubiously documented Iranian driving a silver VW. In the last eight days, two of my children have been in a total of three accidents. I am not sure if they have made it possible for me to feel safe on Sunday, my personal jinx broken; or if instead, they have completely dashed any hope that I will survive parenthood with my last shred of sanity intact. Astoundingly, of the seven or eight people (and one canine) involved in the three incidents, not one sentient being sustained so much as a scratch. Three cars totaled or nearly so; one small Kia in need of two new tires and a replacement bumper; one tow truck driver still shaking from his frantic dive out of the path of that body in motion. But nobody hurt. Nobody killed. Where do you stand now, on the question of divine intervention?
I open a weather widget and see that the eastern seaboard cowers under a relentless onslaught of winter. I pull up a web page with a map of Michigan, and stare for a few shivering moments at the town towards which my only son-by-birth had been riding when that car succumbed to inevitability in a long, slow terrifying slide. I shake my head a little, then close the web page. The heady fragrance of coffee fills the house. I shut the computer, and head downstairs.
Friday, February 1, 2013
Good morning -- or should I say, good evening, because it is late on Friday, not even midnight but dark, and quiet. A life flight has just passed over the house, leaving me thinking, That's what I need; a life flight.
As our number three child said via text a few minutes ago, it has not been a good week for our family. One son missed a treacherous curve on a country road in Tennessee and went airborne, he and his companion saved by the airbags in my husband's Ford. The other son ran over something on a dark highway in Indiana, and found himself in a shallow ditch with two flat tires. If our daughter had not broken an axle on her PT Cruiser a few weeks ago, we might be really nervous right now. But neither son suffered any injury other than the tremors which follow such incidents, and the trepidation with which each called home. I consoled one last night and one tonight; thank you, Verizon Wireless, for giving them each a mechanism with which to call AAA and Kansas City.
Everybody does this at least once, I assured each of them. And I remember my most famous car accident, years ago, on Grand in St. Louis, in an ice storm.
I had left work early, sliding my small frame behind the wheel of my MG midget. Sleet pummeled my windshield, defying the wipers, the sound of the cold grey against the glass sending shivers through me. I pulled into traffic, feeling the tenuousness with which my tires found purchase on the pavement. Moving slowly, hearing my brother's voice, Keep your foot off the brake; let your car do the work; keep your foot off the brake! I rolled through a yellow light, not even pausing, creeping slowly forward, clenching the steering wheel with stiff icy fingers inside inadequate gloves. I headed south, to my apartment building, on Russell, 2-1/2 blocks east of Grand.
I nearly made it. At the intersection, with a green arrow, I started into my left turn just as a woman stepped from the curb against the crossing light. A small figure in a long woolen coat, scarf tight around her chin, clutching her grocery bag in one hand, her pocketbook drawn against her narrow chest in the other. One foot forward, small, clumsy, in city shoes, her tights wrinkling around her ankles. My eyes shifted rapidly back, forth, assessing my options as the world kept turning and my car kept moving forward and the sound of my brother's voice echoed over and over and over: Keep your foot off the brake, let your car do the work, Goddammitnow, Keep your foot off the brake! But nothing about the clutch, or the ice, or the tumble of an old lady on the slick stretch of pavement in front of me.
I hit the brakes at the exact second that the woman saw me, her head turned, her eyes wide, the groceries spilling from the paper sack. I had no choice! And I started into my spin, going round, and round, hitting car after car, while the lady screamed, and a driver in the opposite lane of traffic laid on his horn, long, relentless and loud.
My little car stopped on top of a No Parking Sign. As I spun round and round, I had hit five vehicles. Towards the end of my wild whirl, the fallen woman struggled from the ground, the harsh sounds of her panic filling the air as she frantically gathered rolling apples and brushed the snow from her vinyl handbag. A young boy stood at her side, patting her arm with his red mittens, asking if he could help. I could have been killed! she screamed, grabbing her arm away from him. Did you see her? She almost hit me! I could have been killed!
I got out of my car, and stood next to the open driver's door. Someone ran to a nearby business and called the police; somebody else hurried the woman to the far side of the intersection. She fled north on Grand and no one thought to stop her. Several people parked. Somebody put a blanket on my shoulders. Somebody else brought me something to drink that felt like fire going down but startled me from my stupor. I leaned against the frame of my little green car as the sirens grew closer, and the light above me turned from red, to green, to yellow and back to red, an endless cycle of direction that no one heeded.
None of the people whose cars I hit would give me their names. The worst damage was to my own vehicle and the city sign. I got a ticket for destruction of city property. On the day of the court appearance, I stood below a high, dark bench and told the old judge my story. He looked down at me for a few minutes, then put the little bundle of papers aside. Go see the city clerk, he instructed. Ask her what it will cost to fix the sign, then come back.
When I got to the clerk's office, a lady came forward, her arm in a sling. She furrowed her brow, studying my ticket. You ran over a sign? It seemed as though nobody else had ever done such a bold thing to something owned by the City of St. Louis. I told her my story. She looked at me then, really looked at me, fixing her watery grey eyes on my face. See this cast, she said, gesturing. The day of that ice storm, I fell on a sidewalk and broke my arm. I waited. So you're telling me, it was basically the old lady or the sign. I shrugged. I'm gonna charge you twenty-five bucks for that sign, she decided. Between the lady and the sign, I think you made the right choice. She wrote something down, initialed it, and handed it back. She turned away before I could express any thanks.
I went back upstairs with the little chit and handed it to the judge. He scribbled something on it, and handed it to somebody at another table, a lower one, maybe a bailiff, and that person scribbled something of his own and gave me another little chit which I took to somebody in another room. A few weeks later, I got a bill for twenty-five dollars and I paid it.
I waited a month, but the sign never appeared. I called the lady in the clerk's office. She sent a supervisor out, and he stood on the corner with me, looking at the hole in the ground where the No Parking sign should have been. I looked too. Spring threatened all around us, with balmy breezes, and the first pale green buds on the forsythia bushes of the nearest house. I stood there with him for a few minutes, remembering my first sublet in that very building, one room of the first floor which had been cut into four living spaces. My little corner had been formed by blocking the arch of the dining room with a tall, wide bookcase. French doors opened to the former entry-way of what once had been a grand home. The lady who owned the house had the only bathroom. She would let you use it but she stood outside while you did, and when you had finished, she fussed with the towels like she thought you had contaminated them. I lived there for three months, between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I didn't have a car then. I rode the Grand bus to and from the University. At night, I sat by the window and wondered how anyone's life could be so sad.
The supervisor promised that the sign would be replaced, and it was. But by that time, I had moved to another apartment, further south, and had gotten rid of the MG in favor of an automatic, an old Chevy Nova that I bought from my cousin Angela. It handled much better on ice.
A text sounds on my cell phone. The little Kia has been towed to a garage in Greencastle and its driver is back on campus. I am sure both Patrick and his stepbrother Mac will remember this week for a long time to come. As for their maternal unit, well, though I concur it has been a bad week, I am very sure that it could have been worse.
The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.