Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Musings, 26 July 2014

Good morning,

The little box at the top of my tablet says that it is eighty degrees, and the box has turned from its customary blue to red.  I assume that warns me of more degrees to come, but at present, I feel the movement of the air as I sit on the deck, a cup of coffee to one side and the morning paper to the other.  I'm not much of an outdoor woman, but I do love the morning air on the porch here in Brookside.

My mind drifts back to another summer, another early morning.  Newton County, Arkansas, in the mountains above Jasper.  We've come for early coffee, my then-husband and I, to a compound owned by friends he has known since their hippie days.  He's at the kitchen table pontificating along with the homeowner, his quiet wife, and a couple of others who still nurse hangovers from their Friday evening.

I walk the grounds.  A long stretch of chain link fence surrounds the place where they have their breeding dogs, who live in sturdy houses built of hack berry and tar paper.  I see a couple of them snuffling at the far side of the fence, perhaps catching the lingering scent of a nocturnal visitor -- a deer or a little mountain cat.  I stand and let the sun warm my face, my arms.  I shift my thin legs to balance myself when the breeze rises.

A noise behind me causes me to startle.  I turn.  The window of the little guest house has been raised.  I see a face peering at me through the space; the French exchange student.  I wonder how she fares, at this place where she sleeps in a structure built for lazing about smoking dope, back when the landowner was twenty and lying around in a wooden dollhouse high on homegrown marijuana appealed to him.  A couple of decades ago; a couple of light years ago.  I wave to Tiphaine and turn to walk towards her, across the gravel driveway, into the yard of the compound and up the rise on which the guesthouse sits.

The tiny structure has electricity but no running water.  There's an outhouse nearby; or she can go into the main house to use the chemical toilet.  She emerges from the charming little building and greets me, in her flawless, accented English.  "Just one moment, please excuse," she says, and moves beyond me, headed for the outhouse.  I sit down in one of the two lawn chairs on the little terrace beside the guesthouse and wait for her to return.

She's eighteen, this French exchange student, and from Versailles.  I don't know what she expected when she came to Newton County, Arkansas. Perhaps a working farm; perhaps a village. What she found was a dying town with five hundred sixty-three residents (six hundred three on the water line) and this place, a dozen or so acres where drop-outs came to live communally in the sixties, to grow pot and escape adult responsibilities.  They had children; they partnered; the marriages splintered.  Only T.J. and Jeanne remained, with Jeanne being his second wife, not much older than the children of his first.  His children and their mother lived in other houses, across Thomas Creek.  One spent his days building a house while living in a mud-insulated school bus.  The extremes through which they went to avoid being on T.J.'s land puzzled me.

Tiphaine returns from her morning visit to the rough facilities, wiping her hands on a wet-nap which she tucks into the pocket of her capris.  I try to put sympathy in my smile as she sits in the second chair.  She's tall, maybe five-nine, with dark hair and a smattering of  freckles sprinkled across her nose and the oval of her face.  Her answering smile tells me little except that her parents have raised her well; she hides any chagrin at the way she's forced to live during her week at Thomas Creek.

"Good morning, Corinne," she says, softly, perhaps out of respect for anyone who might still be sleeping in the mainhouse.  I return her greeting.  I think back fourteen years, to being age eighteen.  I almost went to France as an exchange student; I wouldn't have expected to use an outhouse had I done so.

"How are you getting on, here, Tiphaine?"  I relax my body against the back of my chair, hoping she will see that she can reply honestly.  But she shifts her gaze to the trees beyond the dog kennels and acknowledges, with an expressionless tone, that T.J. and Jeanne are being very good to her.  We both know it's not an answer to my question; we both also know that she won't give me one.

I ask her another question, an easier one, about her family.  A radiance breaks across her countenance and she talks about her parents, the apartment on rue Albert Joly in Versailles, and the school which she attends.  I can see she misses them, something else we won't mention.  Her words wash over me, rising and falling in an unfamiliar but intriguing cadence.  As she warms to her topic, her English becomes less clear, and peppered with a fragment of French here and there.  I miss some of the details but the essence is clear:  Versailles is nothing like Jasper; it is a city; it is old; it is beautiful; and she is homesick.

Her voice stops, finally.  The sun has risen above the ridge.  The long, low house, squat against the hillside, emits noises, signalling that everyone now stirs and gathers for the morning meal.  Tiphaine and I linger, on the porch of the quaint little guesthouse where she has slept a night in which she dreamed of home.  She lets a small sob escape from between her tightly closed lips and I place a hand on her arm.  I'm homesick, too; for Kansas City; for my job as a prosecutor which I have left a bit hastily; for late-night music in Westport and the throngs on the sidewalk after last call.  I am not as many miles from home, but my home seems just as unreachable as hers, and I do, really, understand how she feels.

After a few minutes, Tiphaine rolls her shoulders and rises from her chair.  "I want a coffee, don't you, my dear Corinne?"  She strides ahead of me, with her long, strong legs and her swinging arms.  I follow.  The ghosts stay behind, to haunt us, perhaps tomorrow, in the sweet air of another Ozark mountain morning.

Nearly forty years later, I sit beneath a hazy sky and wonder what has become of Tiphaine.  She visited Chester and me one year; and me and my child a few years later, that time just as an adult, not an exchange student.  I took her to Kansas City and we ate at a French cafe.  She crumbled the tender pastry of a brioche and rolled her eyes at the pleasure of dipping its flakiness into her strong cream-tinged coffee.  We walked the cobbled hills of Eureka Springs and listened to jazz in the little bandstand there, where I had seen my son's father play just  a year before her summer visit.  She held my infant son and sang to him in French, sitting on a park bench, in Eureka Springs, such a long time ago.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday Musings, 19 July 2014

Good morning,

Another week stumbles to a close with me clinging to the spinning merry-go-round and trying to resist the urge to jump.  The world looks strange in circular succession: tree, car, house, building, yard, tree, car, house, building, yard -- over and over in a blurry pool.  Faces of people in the path of the whirling machine meld into a stream of color as I whirl past.  I see them over and over and over, each time measuring how long I have to blurt out some message before I rocket past them.  The vehicle which propels me becomes the only constant.

As a child, I lived near a public school on the playground of which were two merry-go-rounds, one big, one little.  The smaller one required the rider to stand and grip metal piping while someone pulled and sent the merry-go-round in orbit.  The ride, though made on one's feet for the most part, usually stayed serene.  Only with a tremendous  push and a series of smaller pulls, could the little merry-go-round build  much speed.

The larger vehicle had some sort of pumping pedal beneath each seat.  Strong legs and a little side assist could get it flying, and only the fact that smaller children could sit and hold a long bar rendered it even tenable for the likes of me.

My older brothers insisted on trying to get these two merry-go-rounds to fly.  Working together, they could get the little one to dizzying acceleration, never mind what they could do on the larger merry-go-round.  They made me stand on either one, made me through guilt and goading, and I invariably complied because my nature didn't allow me to refuse either brother.  Mark would coax me and Kevin would assure me that it would be fine, this time, that this time, I would not fall or get hurt.  Invariably, I scraped something, or bumped my head; inevitably, I ended up crying.

One hot June afternoon, in the mid-1960's, the big boys -- as my mother called them -- decided that I should stand in the middle of the flat, low disk of the smaller of the two merry-go-rounds and not hold onto anything.  The middle had the upright to which the various hand-holds were attached and the gear that allowed the whole thing to turn.  Standing there took no small amount of skill.  I crawled between the bars and positioned my feet  "You can't hold on, though," said Kevin.  I didn't know what the rules of the game were; I'm not sure they did either.  

They stationed themselves on either end of a diameter of which I occupied the frightening middle.  "Ready," one of them said and I felt my stomach lurch.  They started running, chasing each other it seemed, holding opposite handles and propelling the entire structure into orbit.  At the center, I stood, terrified, motionless, rigid, and they ran, and ran, and ran and the merry-go-round went faster and faster and faster and at the eye of the storm, a terrible feeling began to rise in my body until it escaped in an endless scream.

The boys fell back onto the ground.  I grabbed the piping and waited for the disk to slow.  The world passed me: building, ball field, panting brother, driveway, parking lot, panting brother, building, ball field.  .barely discernible, white blurs.  The merry-go-round lost momentum and I could identify what I passed: Mark, the school, the fence, Kevin, the asphalt, the street beyond the schoolyard.  At last, the merry-go-round stopped.  My brothers still lay in the dirt, one on either side of me, watching me.

I crawled out from the center of the merry-go-round, sliding through the grease and grime, tearing my shorts.  Holding onto the nearest  piece of pipe, I set one foot onto the ground, feeling my legs shudder, feeling the slight sway of my body.  I eased myself off the wooden platform and stood, still holding on, still steadying myself.

My brothers dragged themselves off the ground.  One of them came forward and brushed some dirt off the back of my shirt.  The other used a smear of spit to take some grease from my cheek.  "You okay?"  I couldn't hear which one of them asked.  I nodded.

"Let's go home," one of them suggested. I didn't know which one; it didn't matter.  We walked the two blocks down the hill to our house without saying anything more.  When my mother got home from work, we all ate dinner, and the big boys took my turn at the sink, one washing, one drying.  I felt my mother's eyes on me but I didn't say anything.  I hid the torn shorts under my mattress, where they stayed for a long time.  I never said anything, even after I realized that the shorts had been removed, probably when my mother took the sheets off to wash.  No one said anything.  No one needed to say anything.

The air coming in my dining room window here feels sweet and cool.  A few friends will be here for dinner this evening, and I have a lot to do to get ready.  The radio plays in the background, and on the table, a disturbing headline blares from the local newspaper.  The world still spins outside  my door.  Inside, though, everything is calm, quiet, and still.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Saturday Musings, 12 July 2014

Good morning,

My hands hover over the keys and stray back to the coffee mug or the spoon in the cup of yogurt.   Something about summer saddens me and draws my mind to murkier pools.  My mother died in the summer, and my brother did as well.  People tend to leave me in the summer: lovers, and spouses, and children.  I glance in each mirror as I pass and wonder:  Maybe I'm not pretty enough in the summer?  Maybe the heat makes me cranky and forgetful, and I don't attend to the needs of those far and near whose lives I could enrich?  In cooler days I know that at least the summer deaths which I've experienced had nothing to do with any shortcomings of mine, but it's hard to keep hold of that when the heat index hits one hundred.

I place my glasses down on the table.  Once the room has blurred, it could be any room, any where.  It could be the library at St. Louis University, in the summer of 1974, and I could be 18 again and living in a summer sublet on Russell, just east of Grand.

It's just a room, and not big at that.  One side has French doors which lead into the hallway and don't securely lock.  Two sides flank the street and have windows.  The fourth wall consists of two large bookcases shoved against the archway which leads to the kitchen of this old house.  The owner, a lonely  widow with steel grey hair and a nervous air, has done her best to make something habitable out of what had been her dining room.  The student who normally lives here has gone home for the summer, and I've dragged my two suitcases full of clothing and my box of books down from the dorm room which I had inhabited for a semester to take her place.

The lady herself lives in what used to be the living room.  A handful of male students live in the upstairs, in the actual bedrooms.  They share the upstairs bathroom and the kitchen.  I use the bathroom on the first floor, and have to go through the landlady's space to get to it.  It's less than optimal and I use it only when absolutely necessary.  I take my shower there, then get out of the house as soon as possible, off to my summer job where the bathrooms have private stalls and no one listening.

At night, the landlady stands outside my bedroom door and hisses that she's going to lock the front, am I inside for the night?  I pretend I am asleep though I don't think I fool her.  This ritual repeats itself every night; every night she alerts me, in her cold, lonely voice; and every night I hold my breath and don't respond.  I never go anywhere.  She figures that out some time in June but still asks the question; and still gets my silent answer.

I have no summer friends.  My handful of college compatriots have all gone back to their East Coast homes.  The local kids live up north, in Jennings, near my mother's house where I won't go because we haven't yet resolved the anger which drove me to leave in September.  I know I could go home; I know she would welcome me.  But I need my misery; I pull it around me like an afghan in winter, and curl on my sublet bed, and re-read Henry James novels and weep.  I write bad poetry and wonder why nothing seems to be the way I imagined it.  There's no phone in my room, but if there were one, it would never ring.

One night, in early August, there is a sharp rap on one of the panes of my door.  I watch the curtains, which are on the outside, and think I see one of them twitch.  Whoever is there knows that I'm here, lying on my bed.  They probably know the precise depth of the pool of pity in which I have immersed myself.  There's no reason not to drag myself over to the door and respond to the knock but still I hesitate.  The rap repeats; the twitch follows.  "Can you come?" I hear, in the old lady's hoarse hiss.  I can't ignore that request; my breeding wins out and I rise.

She's standing in the hallway in a dark robe and delicate, embroidered slippers.  I think they must be Daniel Greens, and tell myself that I have a similar pair in my suitcase, never unpacked.  "I need your help," she says.  I look at her face, then.  It wears the mark of time, the erosion, the cleaving of its planes, the stamp of sorrow.  "Of course, of course," I tell her.  She turns and enters her own room, with its matching curtained doors, and stands in front of an open closet.  "Can you get that box down?"  She tightens her robe and closes her face.  The request pains her.

I look on the shelf.  It's a big box, and deep. It looks heavy from where I stand.  I glance down and see she has placed a black tapestry footstool in front of the closet.  I'm thin but the thing looks fragile and I'm a little hesitant to stand on it.  I glance back at the lady and she nods, tersely I think.  She trusts the stool.  So I set my right foot on it and hoist my weight behind that, settling my left foot and steadying myself on the door frame.

As I slide the box towards me I wonder -- just briefly -- why she didn't get one of the men upstairs to help her.  But there's not much time for speculation; the box is heavier than it looks and I need to concentrate to keep myself from staggering back against the old woman.  I get it down and set it where she tells me, on the bed, and draw a deep breath.  The lady moves me out of the way and opens the box.

It's full of pictures, letters, old receipts, and yellowed documents.  I'm forgotten as the lady scrambles in its depths, murmuring to herself.  I creep out, back to my room, back to my sad, pathetic state, and eventually, I fall asleep.

I'm awakened the next day by another sharp tap on the glass.  I'm groggy, but I pull on a robe and open the door.  It's my landlady.  "The tea is ready," she says.  She turns and shuffles into the kitchen.  As though I'm her daughter; or her sister; as though she's ever made tea for me.  As though she makes it for me every day and I just forgot, the once.  I follow her.

It's properly brewed tea; leaves in an earthen pot.  She stands with her back to me at the stove and she's cooking eggs by the smell of it.  She lays a plate for me and one for herself.  She places whole wheat toast on a little plate, beside a small bowl of preserves.  We eat in silence.  Afterwards, I wash the dishes while she sweeps the floor.  When we've finished, she stands in the doorway and says, "Will you put it back for me?"  And I do, carefully, standing on the old black footstool, with the lady watching me.

And then I go about my day.

My landlady never made breakfast for me again.  She continued hissing at me, every night, that she would be locking the front door.  "Good night," I would call.  She did not answer, but I could tell she heard.  The curtain would twitch, and I would see her fingers, with their arthritic knuckles, rise a little.  And then I'd hear the soft sound of her slippers on the hardwood floor, and the quiet click of her own French door.  I would smile, then I would sleep.  The summer passed this way, until its warm days waned, and the coolness of the fall began to creep into the city, and my summer sublet ended.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Saturday Musings, 05 July 2014

Good morning,

My bones ache this morning, a good feeling, the kind of feeling you get from climbing to the top of a football field to watch fireworks.  Surrounded by the growing family of my best friend Katrina, I surveyed the perimeter of the high school grounds, looking out high above the city.  First one display, then the other, for forty minutes.  By chance or unusual government foresight, three grand finales occurred not simultaneously but sequentially, spurred by the "oohs" and "aahs" of our little group.  When the last flare had died, we made the downward journey, the three little children trailed by their mother, Jennie, who had wrapped her slender body in a quilt to ward off the night air.

I hung back, in the soft darkness, and watched Jennie walk across the track, her head rising above the regal contours of the quilt, which fell like a train to her feet and trailed behind her as she stepped forward.  She wore a 4th of July sparkling tiara, for the amusement of the children, and from the few paces that I stayed behind her, she looked like a princess.

And without warning, I found myself transported back in time.  The football field fell away and I stood on Main Street Disney World, with sixteen-year-old Jennie dancing in front of me and five-year-old Patrick, my son, gripping my hand.  Ahead of us, the castle; to our right and left, a wide expanse of streets flanked with shops and signs decorated with the faces of Disney characters.  And Jennie's shining eyes, the light of a Disney childhood beaming from them, drew me forward.

On our first evening, we attended Mickey Mouse's luau, and someone should have told me the fruit drinks were spiked because I let Jennie have one of mine.  We both got giggly, two small females in charge of an innocent little boy, but the giggling of our slightly intoxicated psyches looked no different than the sheer joy we felt at being in the Magic Kingdom.  We watched the dancers, nibbled on the bountiful fare, and led Patrick through the crowds, to the bus, the three of us forming an impenetrable clutch.  We slept late, perhaps because of whatever had been in the drinks; perhaps because we dreamed of Disney princesses and Tinkerbell.

Our second day held no less pleasure.  We sang "It's a Small World After All" with lusty glee, as we rode through the ride featuring that theme.  We gasped at the pirates alongside our ship, and ate pancakes with Mickey's face while Minnie hovered nearby.  On the second evening, Jennie got scolded by Mom ostensibly for not eating her vegetables, at the 1950's themed restaurant, and cheerfully submitted to the wait staff's chastisement while Patrick and I watched, smiling, eating apple cobbler.

We spent a whole day at Epcot, incapable of letting even one feature of that glorious site go unexplored.  Back at the main park, Jennie took Patrick on the rides that I would have been incapable of tolerating, while I sat in the wheelchair that we co-opted, my legs having gotten too wobbly to make easy navigation an option.  That wheelchair, and a special pass, got us  through designated gates at every ride, and our visit became exponentially easier on account of my reluctant concession.

Our hotel room, on site, had a beach theme,  and we strolled down the edges of water in the coolness of the evenings.  On  the third night, Jennie met a boy, and Patrick and I walked back to the room alone.  She slipped through the patio French doors past midnight, beaming, happy; a normal teenager having had a little time away from prying parental eyes, to sit on the sand and talk about high school, and home, and music with an attentive male.

By the last day, Patrick had grown cranky, and I found myself wondering if I could see anything more.  At the same time, I loathed the loss of even a single memory.  Jennie gathered into her own arms, all those things we mothers carry with us: the bag of snacks, the extra jacket for our little one in case of rain, my pocketbook.  She took Patrick's hand and somehow managed to wrap her other arm around my shoulders.  She propelled our little gang forward, to a soda shop, to a candy shop, through every alley of the Magic Kingdom, as we drank in our last view of the park's wonder.

On the plane going home, Jennie and I talked about a return trip: with everyone in the family, for longer, at a closer-in hotel.  With sturdier shoes.  With starrier eyes.  I fell asleep halfway to Kansas City, my head tilting over Patrick, who sat in the middle seat, and landing softly on Jennie's slender shoulder.

Last night, as we all paused at the edge of the field to greet some friends of Katrina's husband, I slipped into a space between Jennie and her son Benton.  "You look like a princess," I told her.  "With your royal cloak, your fine tiara, and your adoring minions."  Her small, heart-shaped face, with its fine brows and its wide eyes, glowed in the darkness of the summer night.  Perhaps the aftermath of fireworks lingered there; perhaps my eyes played tricks on me in the unbroken darkness.  But as I gazed at Jennie, something inexplicable  danced across her face: a lively, radiant never-ending gleam like that from a guiding star.  For a moment, just for the briefest of breathless seconds, time fell away and I found myself back in the Magic Kingdom.  And suddenly, I could believe in fairies.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

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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.