Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saturday Musings, 30 October 2010

Good morning,

The tinge of cold on my skin signals that I might soon have to abandon the porch for warmer writing digs. But the sun still shines its feeble fall rays over the tops of the trees, though soon it will shift to provide less comfort. The yard lies sleeping under its heavy cloak of fallen leaves, and the last wilted sage on the strip of ground at the south age of my property struggles to rise above the dankness of the winter earth.

I have not decorated the porch for All Hallowed Eve. Last year, my first year of empty-nesting, I allowed myself to opt for a plastic pumpkin. But I have not even bothered with artificial trappings this year; and I have a funeral followed by a family dinner to attend on Sunday, so I will not, for the first time in 19 years, be passing out candy tomorrow night. In any case, the number of small children knocking at my door has dwindled over the years, until finally, I had to extinguish the porch light so early that it hardly seemed to matter. If I left it illuminated after eight, all of the trick-or-treaters would be taller than I; and notwithstanding their protestations of entitlement, I decline to fuel the delayed childhood of high school seniors.

Halloweens of the past crowd my memory today -- some of my son's best costumes; sorting candy on the living room floor with my brothers; the year that a group of us managed to take our sons out in all three of our neighborhoods, to their eternal delight. Score! In my son's last year of elementary school, he and several friends, along with a handful of parental units, went round our block to Trick-or-Treat-For-UNICEF, while a smaller group gathered in my living room to hand out candy and drink hot cider -- some spiked, some not -- and gasp, or squeal, or coo over the costumes at the door, and the dimpled, smiling children who stretched out their arms and their paper bags to receive our bounty. We always gave chocolate, and little packages of Smartees, and orange-wrapped taffy.

My reveries trigger a recollection of an evening at my childhood home at the foot of Kinamore Drive, on McLaran Avenue in Jennings. The year must be 1968, or thereabouts. Two boys, eight or nine years old, stand at on end of a long dinner table spread with newspapers. Resting in front of them, a large sacrificial orb, orange and smooth, awaits further degradation, having already had a lid slashed from it by our mother. Each boy -- grinning, gleeful -- has rolled up his sleeves and donned an old man's shirt over his clothes. Each boy has been given a large spoon, but they have both cast such tools aside. At a signal from Mom, they dive in, and wrench the guts from the pumpkin's belly, pulling each glob and hurling it down onto the newspaper.

I stand, as my twelve-year old self, at the far end of the table, holding a camera. I am charged with the task of photographing the finished product, but as their wild grabs at the innards reach a crescendo, I am clicking the shutter. They raise their hands, swinging the globs of seeds and pulp, roaring like the monsters that they will resemble when garbed for Halloween, eager and threatening, and I snap, and snap, and they laugh, and laugh, until finally, our mother comes into the breakfast room with a tray full of freshly baked sugar cookies and says, Okay now, that's enough, let's draw the face and I'll cut it out for you.

Six months later, my mother sorted through a box full of photographs. She was looking for a picture to put on the front of a card that she intended to send out, to celebrate the approaching holiday. Another ritual involving candy -- but in baskets, with jelly beans, and plastic grass. My mother did not let any occasion pass without a mass mailing to her family and friends. She often made her own cards, getting multiple copies of whatever family picture caught her fancy. As the last girl at home, I got the task of addressing the envelopes and writing the messages. For this spring holiday, she held up a square from the picture pile and proclaimed that she had found the perfect shot. I took it from her hand, and agreed. To the photo shop at the drug store we went, and ordered a pack of duplicates. A week later, I pasted one on each folded rectangle of note paper, and wrote the caption beneath it: Happy Easter, Happy Spring, Happy Happy Everything.

I still smile at the thought of the looks on people's faces, when they opened the envelope and saw the picture of my little brothers, Frank and Steve, with their pumpkin-smeared shirts, and their raised hands, with pumpkin guts dripping from their fingers, and their sweet boy faces frozen in terrible monster growls.

From my front porch in Brookside, on this marvelous fall morning, I send you all Halloween greetings, with special love to a dear friend whose mother got her angel wings this week. Rest in peace, Louise.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Musings, 23 October 2010

Good morning,

I stand on the porch this morning, plastic-clad paper at my feet, white cat on the far end of the wheelchair ramp railing, and gaze above my head into the pitched roof of my porch. I draw in a long, cleansing breath of rain-washed air and listen to the faint stirring of some one's wind-chime, high and gentle.

Hearing confounds me. The gentlest note in an elevated range might reach me, but a murmured endearment at a low register will not. At times when ambient noise scrambles to claim my focus, I hear nothing and everything. A voice can carry down a corridor with crystal clarity; and a whisper beside my ear can be incomprehensible.

The man who built the porch on which I stand has a commanding voice, once familiar to local theatre audiences and radio listeners, resonant and sure. Remembering its timbre, I draw another gasp of air and find myself standing not on my familiar porch but in the large kitchen of our home in Jasper, Arkansas.

The Buffalo River ran behind that house, at the bottom of a sharp drop at the back edge of our property. We rented the place. It stood on the northwest side of the town square, next to City Hall. We selected it because of its large underground garage, where saws, and lumber, and the tools of a carpenter's trade could be stowed and used.

He and I had been married for six months when we came to live in that small town. We shared its few scraggly streets with five hundred sixty-four people by the most recent census count, though six-hundred eight tapped into the water line. Our house stood one spot beyond the city treatment plant, and on water purification days, the chlorine smell made me gag and I could not shower.

By the summer of 1988, I knew that country life held no charm for me. I struggled with the vagaries of small town practice. Though our house sported a separate entrance to the room which I used for an office, everybody came to the front door and sat in our living room to share their stories. I wrote their wills; and cobbled together the shambles of their finances after divorce, and when I could not stand the mundane though poignant demands on my talent, I volunteered to represent people in chancery court whose lives had come undone.

Chester, my husband, did freelance set design that year. It had not gone well. We left Little Rock when a change in administration at the theatre company which had lured him south resulted in the wholesale replacement of the entire staff, including their most recent hire, my husband. So to Jasper we came, where he owned mountain property and had always wanted to relocate, and we staunchly tried to settle into life so different from any we had known that our folly must have been apparent to everyone but us.

And so we made our way to that summer, when we could sleep with doors and windows wide, catching the wind that lifted the day's stale air and sent it on its way. The neighbor's rooster awakened us before we might otherwise have wanted to face the daylight, and we pulled ourselves through the silence of spoiling marital discord surrounded by the bold beauty of the Arkansas Ozarks.

I frequented the library in the basement of City Hall. Though I had read most of the novels on its shelves, I found a few that bore re-reading. I grew to know the mayor, a woman whose face I can still picture but whose name I cannot recall. She ran the city of Jasper with thoughtful delicacy, and that summer, her four-year-old granddaughter visited her at City Hall most afternoons, playing on the tile of the reception room, searching for pretty rocks on the edges of the small ravine, thoughtless and simple in the ways of the very young.

On one such day, I hovered in the kitchen, disturbed by silence, wishing I had friends to visit or pubs to frequent, music to hear, smoky air to inhale. As I shifted the pans around, waiting for inspiration regarding our dinner, I heard my husband's voice, calm, but urgent, with the pitched resonance of controlled projection: One word, Corinne.

I tilted my head, listening to the ever-present tinnitus in my bad ear, straining, wondering if my lonely imagination had created the call. Then his voice came to me again: Corinne, come now. Corinne. Corinne. I started towards the door when he spoke a third time, from within a hollow block of stagnant summer air: Come slowly. Bring the .22.

One learns, in the country, in the mountains, to keep the weapons loaded. The children are taught to clean, load, and carry a rifle, and to respect both the power and danger of guns. Though I had been raised in St. Louis, I had lived in Arkansas long enough to understand the foreboding portent of Chester's directive, and I got the Winchester and exited the house, catching the screen door behind me so that its closing made no sound.

He stood outside the perimeter of our yard, in the driveway of City Hall, his back to me. In front of him, four or five feet away, crouched the mayor's small, delicate granddaughter. I moved, with unaccustomed stealth, barely stirring the dry grass beneath my feet. As I drew close to him, I saw the creature that hovered between my husband and the little girl: A snake, born of the ancient lands around us, foreign to the cracked concrete, as lost and as frightened as the child whom it faced. Poised, considering, frozen in the silent moment that it had taken me to respond to my husband's urgent summons.

Chester raised his arm and reached behind his body at the same instant that I lifted the rifle and placed it into his hand. With swift, noiseless motion, he brought the rifle to his shoulder, squinted, took aim.

In that last, long second, with the girl's pale blondness rigid in the summer air and me stock-still behind my husband, the snake swiftly shook its rattle and raised its head, whether to strike or make a better target, I cannot say, for just then, my husband squeezed the trigger, and the snake fell dead.

Chester dropped the rifle and stepped across the endless span of time and space to the child, bringing her body into the span of his arms, over the fallen foe, whose only real crime had been to venture into a world in which it had no genuine chance of survival. I released the breath that I did not know I had been holding, and dropped my shoulders. Bending, I retrieved the gun, and went back into the house, leaving Chester to tell our mayor how close she had come to one of the most brutal lessons of country life.

Twenty-two years later, I stand on the porch that Chester built, whose design had been conceived and nurtured by my second husband, and approved by an architect friend. I glance down at the concrete surface of the floor beneath my bare feet, but nothing lies in front of me other than a trampled cricket. A passing car honks, and I hear the skitter of the small animal frightened into motion by the sudden sound. My reverie broken, I turn, and go into the house, where the coffee has finished brewing, and the computer awaits me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saturday Musings, 16 October 2010

Good morning,

The house around me attempts to cast off its autumn chill, stirring and shaking its old but sturdy bones. I feel less resilient than this squat bungalow, creaking down from my bedroom with slow and dogged steps. The dog whines in her bed and urges me to get the alarm de-activated and release her into the bright green haze of the backyard -- a double-edged sword for her, since she is allergic to grass. As the little brown beagle gallops down the stairs of my ragged back porch, the black cat slinks in behind her, sparing me a brief, enigmatic glance before strolling to the water dish that resides under the spigot of my spring water dispenser to await his morning drink.

I am awake. I grind the beans and pour tap water through my brewer, then lean against the counter, gazing at the flotsam and jetsam of my life on the counters of my kitchen and the shelves of the built-in cupboard in the adjacent breakfast nook. Hanging on the back of what we call the Keeping Shelf are two clay hand-prints, side by side. One is glazed, marked "Steve 1965" in carved letters. The other is unglazed, and has "Patrick, May 2, 1994" in sharpie on the back. My brother, Stephen Patrick; and my son. Below these, in a small red vase of hand-blown glass, are two roses -- one of paper, made by a lawyer at last year's conference, on the deck outside the hotel bar; and one made of metal, purchased for me by my son at a Renaissance Festival perhaps a decade ago. Stretching beyond these are a row of the various baby cups that I used for my son, and a rather motley collection of other items, including the Haviland cup,minus saucer, in which I keep my rings.

The coffee is finished, and I take a cup out onto the porch. The neighborhood lies still. The morning dog walkers have already passed, and the children who will ride their bicycles down the sidewalk still sleep, not yet dragged from dream by their parents, or the rumble of their tummies.

Yesterday, when I came home from the wars, I spied a long-haired man in his early 50's walking a strong, insistent mutt, followed by a child of about five wearing a helmet and carrying a branch that spanned about ten feet in front of him and perhaps five feet into the air with its auxiliary branches. I stopped, drawn to the sight of this incongruous pair. The man spoke, I like your house colors, I always have -- very cool. And I like 'It's a Beautiful Day', he told me, gesturing with his chin to the small sticker on the back of my car. "It's a Beautiful Day" is an old hippie store, where credit cards are verboten but they take checks without identification and sell band shirts, incense, and jewelry made in Thailand. I smiled.

Where do you live, I asked him. He identified his house by its paint scheme, one a tad more unusual even than mine. Ah, you must be Hannah's stepfather, I replied, referencing a girl from my son's 7th grade class. His face brightened and he acknowledged that status. We talked a bit about his eldest child with Hannah's mother, who is now 11; and about the little guy waiving his humongous branch around and impatiently jiggling on one foot. He mentioned an upcoming gig for his still-working rock band, and listed Hannah's current endeavors. The child, with a bit of prompting, spoke a smattering of French learned at Academy Lafayette in the kindergarten class, and I expressed suitable praise. Then I bade the man a good evening, sent greetings to Hannah from "Patrick's mother", and, shifting my clutch of jacket, pocketbook and groceries, made my way into the house as he, his dog, and his son continued on their journey home.

I have only to quiet my mind to a state of semi-rest to transport myself back to a time when I walked the same path with my son, our dog, and a succession of other companions, including one cat that followed us for the entire circuit of our walk every night. I know the cant of each tree; the likelihood of unshorn grass at various houses on the two-square-block route we always took; and the location of each deep crevice that tripped me or caught on the wheels of my son's riding toys.

A dozen years ago, or more, my son was invited to a birthday party at the home of a little classmate. When I saw the address, my middle-class values bristled. The child lived west of Wornall Road; west of Ward Parkway Blvd.; in that stretch of Missouri that yearns to be Johnson County, Kansas. Parallel with my modest stretch of Brookside but in a more fashionable zip code.

I pulled into the driveway, glancing at the instructions. Pull around to the back door, the mother had scrawled under the pre-printed verbiage. Oh, yeah, right, I thought, with no small measure of sullenness. I surveyed the grand edifice of the home, and every fibre of my being shuddered. What am I doing, I asked myself. I did not want to expose my son to the corruption of wealth.

I briefly considered backing away and making some excuse to the radiant, eager face in the back seat. Mommy's sick, I would say. Or the birthday boy threw up, from over-excitement or previously undetected influenza. But I resisted. I convinced myself to suppress the bias that I have always had against those whose lives carry more expensive trappings than mine. I think I figured that he could form his own dislike, at his own pace, in his own time.

As I recall, he enjoyed that party. I made polite goo-goo eyes at the hostess both coming and going; I declined her invitation to hover during the in-between, as other mothers seemed to have chosen to do, standing about with Dansk mugs of tea in the coolness of the October air on the rather over-blown back deck. I also demurred at the invitation to see the house -- how much could I be expected to withstand, I reasoned -- and dragged my son away, at party's end, his free hand clutching his large bag of goodies. I buckled him into the back seat with much less patience than usual, and backed my old Buick out of the driveway so rapidly that I think, to this day, that I ruined a peony bush.

For a few weeks after this birthday party, I slammed around my Brookside bungalow with petulant disgust. Shabby, shabby, shabby, I told myself. Not shabby chic, just shabby. I snapped at my support staff, grumbled over client billing, and spent no small number of hours perusing classified advertisements for entry-level associates in firms where I would not normally be caught dead, the requirements for which certainly fell short of my own experience. A secretary gets paid more than me!, I told myself, and, taking into consideration the size of the firms for which some of the positions were intended, I was probably not too far from right.

In time, the dusky days of autumn yielded to the clinging cold of winter. Snow piled around my grassless lawn, and drifted on the holly bushes that spanned the front of my house. The toboggan got dragged from the garage, and our daily walk around the block included a sled, on which my son sat while I pulled, or his Batman reclined while he did. My spirits improved, and I forgot, fairly completely, the dissatisfaction that had besieged me as a result of taking my son to that party.

Just before Christmas, I fetched my son from school a bit earlier than usual, and ran into the mother of the fall birthday celebrant. Thank you again for bringing Patrick to the party, she said; and, too late, I lamely thanked her for having invited him. As I bent down to retrieve a dropped mitten, she spoke, softly, almost too softly for me to hear. If you ever need anything, just call me. And then she was gone.

Need anything? I could not imagine what she thought. Did she speak out of pity? What did she think of me -- what did she know about me? Her husband and I share a profession, but we did not know one another -- he certainly did not matriculate in the riff-raff crowds that I frequent, solo practitioners and single mothers. What could the woman possibly mean?

I fretted about this for weeks. I concluded that she had obviously drawn some inference from the age of my car and the address of my home, respectable but certainly significantly less grand than hers. My puzzlement turned to anger with very little encouragement; anger at her cheek, anger at her apparent arrogance; anger at the implication of my ineptitude. I stewed in these fetid juices for some months, trying out various avenues of revenge.

That spring, I volunteered to chaperon the only field trip that I would ever attend in my son's elementary school years. As fate would have it, that mother also volunteered, and we stood side by side in the school's small office while the school's owner handed out insurance forms and child assignments to each parent. As I surveyed the rules, I glanced over at the woman's bright, eager face, and then back at the paperwork. With all of the innocence and plausible deniability that I could muster, I asked, in a loud voice -- So, let me just be sure. Is duct tape an approved method of discipline, should the kids get out of control in the car?

I heard a gasp. I did not have to look to know that it came from the little rich girl. I released a rueful laugh, playing off my snotty comment as though I had intended it to be a joke. I trooped down the stairs with my allotted children, watching her shepherd her own group into her Mercedes. My son sat in the back with two of his friends, and a little girl occupied the front position due to being tall enough to do so. I heard my son say, The good thing about my mom is that she's deaf, so we can play the radio LOUD. I turned it up for him, and pulled out of the parking space, just ahead of the shiny, silver vehicle in which my self-chosen nemesis drove.

I have grown only slightly less petty over the years. I have abandoned my belief that others judge me harshly because I dwell solidly in the middle of socio-economic classifications. I like my life. I like my neighborhood. I would, and do, stay here by choice. I shop at the same grocery store as those folks in that rather more desirable zip code, and occasionally, I even see that woman, whose hair is now grey, but who still smiles at me with a slightly knowing, somewhat sad facade.

As I watched my musician neighbor continue his walk with his son last night, I could not help but think about another parent, walking another son, down the same path. I went about my evening, doing what I had planned -- fixing dinner, visiting with my gentleman friend, shushing around the house in that way I have on Friday nights after a long and difficult work week. And this morning, gazing around me, at the kitchen floor in need of replacing, and the grime on the baseboards, and, after a fashion, at the tender trinkets on the Keeping Shelf, I find myself, once again, standing in stern judgment, wondering, in the final analysis, if what I have attained is worth the rejection of that which I have disdained.

And then, in the precise moment at which I decide that it is, I hear a tiny voice, ghost-like and faint, reminding me of those whom I have hurt along the way. I realize that my journey has not been as noble as it could have been. I get up to pour myself another cup of coffee and stand beside the counter, watching the faint stirring of the piece of stained glass hanging in the window. I listen to the whine of my dog, as she digs around at her tortured skin, unable to resist scratching herself. I glance down, at my Dansk mug, and close my eyes. I will never have a chance to tell that woman how badly I misjudged her, but I hope she knows.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Saturday Musings, 09 October 2010

Good morning,

Gingerly stepping through the accumulated grime, I navigate the driveway of my garage this morning, thinking about the dark stain of water on the baseboard of the wall adjoining the downstairs room. I feel the smooth, cold concrete under my bare feet as I drink dark, thick coffee. I'm using a heavy mug purloined from a bagel shop, which has slanted slopes and a wide, curved handle that perfectly fits my grip.

I pass through the connecting door from the garage area to the finished part of the basement, and think about uses for the former playroom room: it is large, cool, and the water problem is not as bad as it used to be. I suspect that it would disappear altogether if I added a trough drain at the base of the driveway, where rainwater enters under the old garage door.

I lean against the knotty pine wall for just a moment, and think about water. It's a powerful element. Like its opposite, water poses a difficult challenge for homeowners, and I am no exception. Since the basement of my home sits downhill from the rest of my neighborhood, it gathers more than its share of run-off, and I constantly struggle to beat back water's rotting, smelly effects.

Fire and water; water and fire. Both threaten; both hover at the perimeter of our security; both strike without warning.

In another house, another state, another age, water and fire impacted my daily life with elemental fury.

The house nestled at the base of the Boston Mountains in Arkansas, on the west side of old 71 after its long sweep out of Fayetteville and before its gradual climb above Winslow. I bought it from another lawyer in my office, who shook his head at my folly but helped me get my first mortgage. I moved before Christmas 1989, with the land still barren from cold, and the river bed on the western edge of the property still flat, its smooth flagstone gleaming in the crystal light of morning, awaiting the spring thaw.

When that thaw came, in March, it pounded down the mountain with a terrible vengeance while I slept in ignorance.

That house had mushroomed under the typical Arkansas building philosophy of blooming where one is planted. The original structure comprised1500 square feet, and boasted a 2200 square foot unfinished addition that clearly had been intended for commercial uses. At the apex of the two, in the back of the house, an ambitious but unrealistic carpenter had jammed a modern deck, and I had taken to sitting on this with my morning coffee resting on a small glass table.

The day after the sudden spring melt, I exited from the kitchen through the poorly installed French doors, as I had been doing for several weeks since the weather had begun to warm and the mountains took on the cheerful, hopeful pale green of early Ozark spring. Raising my cup to take my first sip, I turned to glance across my two-acre property with that fluttery smugness of the newly-vested landed gentry.

My gaze fell not on land but on water -- a long, dank expanse of it, reaching the half-acre from the banks that could not contain it, to the edge of my hapless decking.

In later weeks, the waters receded, and I waded in the clear water that coursed across the smooth stone surface of the riverbed. The fragile, first bloom of spring yielded to an intense verdancy, the heady scent of which wafted through my open windows. I moved into the farthest bedroom and left the door open into the new portion of the house, and slept with the caress of spring breezes surrounding me.

The flood had done its damage to the base of the back deck, and I found a carpenter to repair it. I negotiated for him to also build a front porch, a transaction that included lodging for the week it took him to build it and several six-packs along with a pitifully small amount of money. In exchange, I got a beautiful, Ozark-style wood porch which spanned the front of the old part of my house, its floorboards set at angles which I was told had their apex in the center of the highway.

By that time the water had completely receded, and summer gripped my haven. As relentlessly as the water had flowed through my property for its weeks of glory, so too did the heat descend upon me. I raised the double-hung windows and opened every door, installing box windows at strategic points in the desperate hope that I could inspire the heavy air to circulate.

Despite the heat, the grass grew, perhaps nurtured by the soggy soil beneath the outer crusts of hard, dry summer dirt. In my small front yard, the grass rose in June, and by July stood a foot high before the lack of rain overcame it. And then it turned a dull, pale brown, and I began to wonder what would happen if it caught fire.

I bought a lawnmower at the Winslow hardware store, and stood in front of my house, summoning the strength to pull the cord and start its engine. Resting my hand on the choke, I lifted my eyes to gaze the length of my property, stretching its two-acre span to the north, foot-high, brittle grass barely moving in the stagnant air. No way, I told myself. You cannot clear this entire property with a fifty-dollar mower.

As I stood, thinking, game to try, I heard the drone of a pick-up slowing to my right, out on the highway. I watched it pull onto my property, down the gravel driveway that ran alongside the house, just to the north of where I stood. A man whom I did not know, sun-wizened, dark and lanky, slid with ease from the driver's side. He nodded his head in the small, casual motion that I had come to learn meant many things. Mornin', he ventured. Yup, I replied. You fixin' to mow, ma'am? he asked. Thinking about it, I admitted.

He glanced across my yard, sparing just a brief, polite portion of his look for my small frame and spindly legs. Mighty big job, he noted. Yup, I conceded.

You reckon you'd let me help? he ventured. Just help,he clarified, which was meant to assure me that he wanted nothing more in return than a cold cup of water, or something stronger, but only if I had it.

I let him help. I fixed a pitcher of ice water, and fetched a tall metal cup from which he occasionally drank. He made surprisingly short work of the job, and then sat, for a few moments, on my new porch, and drank a bottle of beer.

When he had finished, he wheeled the mower into my mudroom, and secured it carefully alongside what remained of my last rick of winter wood. Giving me the briefest of nods, he hitched himself into the driver's seat of the battered truck, and backed out of the driveway as easily as he had pulled into it. Then, with a small flick of one finger above his steering wheel, he continued on his way, into town.

Six months later, summer forgotten as though it never happened, I huddled alongside my Earth stove and wished for the July heat. Pregnant, alone, freezing, I listened to the mountain wind howl around me. I had moved into the inner bedroom again, but usually slept, only three months gone but already big, in an old green recliner next to the wood-burning stove in the living room -- my only heat source.

I got up to add another log, wishing for the hundredth time that I had thought to have them double-split. I struggle to get the latch of the stove's glass-fronted door open, with clumsy hands made even less deft because of the chill that had settled in their joints.

I tugged on the door just as a sudden burst of flame shot out from the belly of the beast. The flame caught my face and for a terrible second, I burned, the long sweep of my waist-length hair instantly igniting, the hard plastic of my old glasses melting. I flailed, and grabbed the door, still clutching with one hand the piece of wood; and in my wild and sightless scramble, I slammed the log against the door and cracked the glass.

I staggered back, dropping the wood, jabbing at the flames on my face with one hand, cradling the unborn child inside me with the other. Still the fire soared into the room, majestic, free, victorious. I realized the danger just before the flame reached the little pile of kindling and tinder, and grabbed the box, blindly pulling it toward me. I groped for the handle of the door and when I found it, I pulled hard, and slammed the door back against the stove, securing its latch. Dumbly, stunned, I stood in front of the stove of which I had once been so proud, and wondered what on earth I would do about this latest mess.

The fire licked at the cracks in the glass, taunting me. I knew that I had to find a way to seal the door of the stove, and I knew that I had to keep the fire lit or I would freeze and with me, the child I carried. In vain, I made the only call that I would ever make for help to the father of the baby within me; and listened to the resonance of his beautiful singer's voice, as he gently reminded me that I had made this particular bed, and had chosen to lie in it, alone. I returned the receiver to the cradle.

Eventually, I went to the hardware store in the small town of which I had never really become a part. Just ten minutes before closing time, that Sunday night, in January, 1991, I bought a large roll of camper's aluminum foil, a long swatch of which I wound around the broken door. I crunched the silver mess against the frame of the firebox, and it held. I could keep a small fire through the night, though I am sure the room filled with smoke and soot.

Two decades later, far north of there, I close my eyes, and briefly sag against the hardness of the wall behind me. I draw in the musty air, listening for the hum of the dehumidifier. I cannot hear it; I assume that its well is full, and the automatic shut-off valve has been activated. Sighing, I raise my mug, and take the last, cold gulp of coffee, and then, without much thought, I go upstairs, and leave whatever there is to leave, behind me, in the darkness of my basement.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Saturday Musings, 02 October 2010

Good morning,

The pleasant chill of the room settles on my skin. Tingling slashes a line across my back, nudging, insistent. Winter claims you, it cackles: my first autumn shingles outbreak, a legacy from my son's childhood during which we contracted chicken pox together. I freely acknowledge that he made the better patient.

I heft my coffee cup, feeling the comfort of its weight, pulling a long draw of the dark liquid inside. The white cat, old, complaining, sneaks onto the dining room table, sensing that I will soon sink into some mysterious reverie and forget to scold her. My routines set the pace of the sentient beings in this household.

Last weekend I stood shoulder to shoulder with my sister, flanked by two of my brothers, in the parking lot of the church where my uncle's funeral Mass had just been said. My nephew captured the moment with my Blackberry, and I sent it around the world to every Corley sibling and uploaded it to Facebook. Ah, the rapidity with which we travel, a friend once remarked, upon learning that I had started my day in St. Louis, spent several hours testifying in Jefferson City, and ended with dinner on Kansas City's Country Club Plaza. That occurred in the 1970's, when a day trip such as I had taken still seemed onerous. Thirty years later, the picture transmitted from my phone reached one sister in Clinton, Missouri; another in Guatemala, and made it to the world at large before we left the church parking lot.

I leaned against the car window as my companion drove to the cemetery for the burial, wedged between my brother's Jeep and an old Impala, flashers and lights engaged, bright orange funeral sticker in the window. I drifted, sleepy, sad; and thought about my uncle: the quick flash of his smile; the deep, sweet crinkles next to his eyes; the cheerful tilt of his face. In the chaos of my childhood, Uncle Joe was a hero -- quiet, unassuming, steadfast.

My memories transport me to a simpler time -- a summer long ago, before I understood the ways of the world, both wondrous and wicked. One summer in between, when my brother Mark and I spent two weeks at Uncle Joe's home, safe in the simple section of the county where he had built a house for my mother's sister Joyce, with whom he ultimately raised nine children. In the long, cool expanse of their yard, we formed alliances and ran bases; we hoisted ourselves into the lower bows of trees and dangled in the night air; we threw ourselves into the passing wind, laughing, joyous, unbridled. No one screamed at us; no one shattered dishes against the walls of the kitchen; no one staggered, or collapsed, stinking of beer and too many cigarettes smoked in the stale confines of a small, crowded bar.

One oppressively hot afternoon, we languished, bored of pursuits that had initially thrilled us. My brother idly tossed a hard, unripe crab apple back and forth, from hand to hand. A flash crossed his face -- a look with which I was quite familiar. I know, he said. Let's have a contest! I shuddered, hung back, all too familiar with my brother's contests. But my cousins rose to the bait. A pitching contest! Let's see who can throw crab apples the farthest!

I admitted that it seemed harmless. We gathered the hard little nuggets of fruit that had fallen to the ground, making stockpiles. For an hour or so, we chucked them against trees and bushes, backing farther away each time we threw The person who could get the farthest back without missing the selected target claimed victory. Our ammunition thudded against trees and the side of outbuildings with a satisfying thwack, pulverized by the hardest throws, bouncing wildly when tossed by the likes of my lily-white, spastic hands.

Soon enough, Mark bored of throwing crab apples at inanimate, unmoving objects. He scouted for stray animals, but the heat had driven even the wild cats which lived along the roadside to seek the dark depths of uncut bushes. Glancing outward, to the street, Mark called softly, Passenger’s window, blue Buick, east bound.

The rest of us stood still behind him. He raised his arm and paused, before he let the crab apple fly, anticipating the quick crack of the dense fruit hitting the glass, the startled look of the occupant preceding the blur of blue as the car would move beyond our uncle's house and continue its travels.

I glanced at my brother, whose eyes were locked on his target, whose ears were tuned for the sharp sound, whose face held the eager thirst to be declared the winner at this game of pop-the-car. Without flinching, gauging his timing and aim, Mark threw with a snapping, sure motion, then grinned without taking his eyes from the car, waiting for the sound of his bullet hitting glass.

He had not anticipated that the passenger’s window would be open.

We heard the woman's yelp and saw the car jerk to a stop. Mark, with the quickest reflexes, turned and ran toward the back of the yard, followed by the other kids who fled after him with the speed of guilt. But with my crippled legs, I could not run, and even so, I froze. Thus was I caught, and thus was I pulled to the porch by the woman's angry husband and presented to my uncle, who had just gotten home from his job at the Fischer auto body plant. The man demanded an apology, which I whispered to him, head bowed, eyes on the stoop. My uncle also apologized, more loudly than I had, and with a resounding note in his voice that promised retribution. The man glanced at my face but I could not meet his eyes.

After the man left, pulling away from the curb with a backwards, disgusted glare, Uncle Joe summoned the other kids from the yard where they had hidden. We stood in a forlorn, repentant row on the kitchen floor. Considering, my uncle declared that we would forfeit dessert and spend the next day stripping the yard of its blanket of fallen crab apples and black walnuts.

We ate dinner in silence, broken only by soft requests for butter, or salt, or pepper, or more food. We listened to my aunt's gentle conversation about her day. Afterwards, we drifted to our respective sleeping quarters, finding unobtrusive pursuits with which we could occupy the last hours of evening without getting into further trouble. Uncle Joe relaxed on the couch, quietly playing his harmonica.

In the top bunk in my cousin Theresa's bedroom, I waited. It would happen soon enough, I knew. A heavy step in the hall. The door, banging open, rattling the pictures on the walls. The fierce look. The big hand, grabbing, pulling. The belt, slashing and relentless.

Music continued to drift from the living room. Lulled by soothing tones, I slept. When I awakened, hours later, sweaty and stiff, still in my jeans on the top of the covers, the house had been darkened for night. No sound broke its stillness.Then came my first moment of reckoning. At age thirteen, alone, in the quiet of my aunt and uncle's home, I realized with a cold tremor, followed by a long torrent of truth that poured over me like a river of lava, that nothing more had happened. Nothing more would happen. My uncle had not come into our room to slash and scar, and I suddenly realized that he would not. Here was a father that did not beat his children.

Years later, I stood on the uneven ground of a cemetery in North St. Louis County and listened to an Army honor guard play taps for my uncle. With the gentle press of my companion's hand in the small of my back, my own hand outstretched to soothe a weeping cousin, I closed my eyes. The haunting notes of Taps filled the air, but what I heard was the sound of my uncle, sitting in the darkened living room, playing his harmonica, while a bunch of silly kids quietly read, and whispered, and fell into a summer sleep, under his unflagging protection.

The black of late night has yielded to the pale, promising blue of an autumn morning. A half cup of coffee grows cold beside me. I hear the stead thump of the dog's tail, and from somewhere above me, the tinny sound of my radio alarm clock. I will rise, and stretch, and, after a few minutes, I will shake my hands with a sharp, sweet snap, and start my day.

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.